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So It Doesn’t Whistle! An Interview with Sabrina Orah Mark

Q: Why does a Jew always answer a question with another question?
A: Why shouldn’t they?

—Anonymous
Reading Wild Milk (Dorothy, a publishing project, Oct. 2018), Sabrina Orah Mark’s new collection of short stories, I couldn’t get that joke above out of my mind. It’s not only because the stories themselves are infused with the Yiddish sensibility and domestic humor of the Borscht Belt comics, but also because all of these small tales are not so much told as they are posed. Beyond their narrative snap and ingenious conceits, Orah Mark’s stories—rich in language, synaptic leaps, and, yes, humor—resonate into the larger questions of our lives and, indeed, become an interrogation of our specific cultural moment. The questions in Wild Milk beget further questions, which in turn beget … well, you understand.

I was glad to speak to Orah Mark over the last few months about her new book, jokes, puzzling presidents, and how writing fiction is like eating a complicated sandwich.

The Millions: I read a blog post from 2017 in which you write about the frustration of attempting to sell a short story collection without “a commercially viable novel” alongside it. Can you talk about what happened between then and now, and specifically your experience with Dorothy a publishing project?

Sabrina Orah Mark: About two hours and 37 minutes after posting my “Notes on Rejection,” I received an email from Dorothy accepting Wild Milk. It was eerie and wonderful. At the end of my post, I wrote: “Maybe in one thousand years, a small boy who has the face of my sons will find my manuscript which by then has turned into a pebble. And he will swallow this pebble. And the boy with the face of my sons will realize swallowing this pebble has given him the power to fly. And so he flies and sees lands he would’ve otherwise never seen had he not swallowed my manuscript that is now a pebble that is now in his belly. That would make me happy. Even if I never know.” And as much as I believe Wild Milk still has the chance to one day turn into a magic pebble, I am so grateful Dorothy is giving it the opportunity to first be a book.

Arriving from the Land of Poets, the phrase “commercially viable” was a strange-sounding cough I’d hear and cringe and back away from. I mean, I get it. We need to eat. But it’s boring and depressing to imagine my stories wandering around with price tags around their necks. I heard over and over again: “We love it, but we don’t know what to do with it.” As if Wild Milk was an odd child, growing older and older in the living room, eating snacks and studying a dying language. “This one,” I imagine a mother might say, “is a miracle going nowhere.”

But Dorothy knocked. Dorothy said, “Come with us.”

TM: In the same post from 2017, you talk about a story from Wild Milk called “For the Safety of Our Country,” relating it to a question you got from your son’s school principal about how the current state of our country has affected your surrealism. Has it?

SOM: The current state of our country has pierced a hole through my surrealism, and when I look through the hole I can now see my own face staring back at me. Problem is, the face staring back at me now has a hole through its forehead. Whether this hole is for planting or just an abyss I’m not at liberty to say. What I can say is that these days I’m writing from less of a distance. My first collection of poems, The Babies, was haunted by the Shoah. By something that seemed to be over, and far away. Wild Milk knows the present is thick with the past, and has seen what’s Impossible suddenly holding Possible’s soft hand. Sharing its water. Reflecting its face. Speaking its language. Sleeping in its bed.

TM: In that story, a whole new batch of presidents enters the White House. There are thirsty presidents, humming presidents, beautiful presidents, see-through presidents, presidents with faces as blank as almonds. It’s a riot of a story, but I feel like one can’t even say the word “president” anymore without invoking anxiety, heartache, anger, etc. Inherent in the principal’s question is the assumption that the state of things will change the stories we write, but I’m interested in the flip side of that question: how you think the stories we tell might change the state of things, specifically thinking about a story like “For the Safety of Our Country,” which, while it’s a comic gem, I also see as a creature with a defiant sword thrust into the air, a little hero. What might it do?

SOM: Oh, thank you. I love thinking of stories as these little heroes, gathering slowly to make a beautiful army. A glowing resistance. As the news grows woolier, crueler, I do believe stories and poems in all their shapes and sizes, colors, and accents can change the atmospheric pressure, complicate the human party, and nibble at the rope. It’s hard, of course, to know how or when or why a story might take hold and change the air, but if we don’t (at the very least) sharpen visions and use their points to puncture the status quo, we risk everything that is worth being human about.

TM: I’ve heard your stories described as fiction with the hearts of poems, and there’s certainly a sneaky subversive quality to these, an interruption and maybe even a corruption of narrative. But another form I can’t help thinking of is the joke, a form you also seem to be subverting throughout this collection. Jokes often set disparate elements (Mr. Horowitz and his bag of dried apricots in “The Very Nervous Family”; a maid and a collection of snails in “The Maid, The Mother, the Snail & I”) on a course for collision, which becomes the punchline. You often begin along those lines, laying out the elements and establishing trajectories, but most of these stories don’t “wind up” in the way we might expect from a joke or even from micro-narratives. Of course, this, too, is a sort of tension, the way we’ll follow two parallel lines to where they seem to meet on the horizon, but it isn’t what we generally expect from a joke. Were you thinking a lot about jokes as you wrote these stories?

SOM: No one in my family laughs out loud. When my mother and I, for example, are laughing, it’s this gigantic, breathless silence punctuated by sucking gasps. My son Noah says I laugh like Marge Simpson. To an onlooker, I imagine it’s an ugly scene. But inside, it’s the closest I’ve ever gotten to something I can only describe as a beautiful truth. A good joke should take the breath away. I’ve always believed if you’re not trembling, and a little afraid—as one is when trying to survive—the joke’s not funny.

TM: I also kept thinking of Jewish jokes, the kind my Uncle Larry used to tell at every gathering, where the punchlines are often less of a relief of tension than an acknowledgement that the state of suffering will continue, is endless; and also an acknowledgement of the fact that Judaism is built around questions, not answers. I’m wondering where you see the stories in Wild Milk fitting into this comedic tradition?

SOM: As a child, I studied Talmud and one thing I was taught to understand is that there is no answer, or if there is an answer the answer is marked with an answerless-ness so vast it’s reminiscent of that place in laughter where you can hardly breathe. A good punchline leaves you off at a stop you never imagined existed. The end, in other words, is just the beginning. And whether you’ll be able to find your way home is anybody’s guess. And maybe that’s one essential key to Jewish humor: It gives us this breathlessness—this ha ha holocaust—of a wanderer, of a woman laughing and laughing, doubled over, and crying stop I can’t breathe.

TM: Do you have a favorite joke?

SOM: Here’s one of my favorite jokes. It’s in the last story of my collection. So one old man says to another, what’s red, hangs from a wall, and whistles? I don’t know, what? A herring. But a herring isn’t red. OK, so you paint it red! But a herring doesn’t hang from a wall. OK, so you get a nail and a hammer and you nail it to the wall! But a herring doesn’t whistle. OK! So it doesn’t whistle!

I love this joke because it’s a joke that seems to wonder mid-self what it is, what it is even doing here. Is it a joke, or has it veered off in the direction of another form, like the herring which is and isn’t the punchline to a joke it too has found itself lost inside? This is my relationship to story and to poem, too. I like my stories to discover halfway through they have the heart of poem, or maybe even the lungs of a prayer, or maybe even the eyes of a very, very old animal, or the hat of a missing boy.

Here’s a joke my son told me this morning: Why was the broom late for school? Because it overswept. What’s even better than a great joke is a simple joke told by a little kid because inside the telling is the realization that language can get slippery, dislodge a whole world, turn a broom human-like and late for school. It is like in Waiting for Godot when Vladimir and Estragon find a hat (“now our troubles are over!”) and swap it with their own like jugglers. The hat they find looks as similar to their own hats as overslept looks to overswept. I love that Beckett scene with all my heart because you can feel Vladimir and Estragon trying to know (through the hat) the unknowable parts of themselves, as if wearing a hat that could so easily be mistaken for your own but is not your own hat could shift your perspective ever so slightly so that what keeps not appearing (inside and outside yourself) might suddenly appear.

TM: I want to halt the proceedings, just for a moment. Inspired by the stories in Wild Milk, I’d like to present an interview-inside-an-interview in the form of interrogatives. Answer these however you see fit.

Why?

SOM: They had come into our home and rearranged all the furniture. What other choice did we have?

TM: Who?

SOM: Edith, Edith, and Edith.

TM: When?

SOM: The year August never turned into September, and just stayed August for 30 extra days.

TM: Where?

SOM: Father’s house. On the corner of Orange and Old.

TM: How?

SOM: We waited three months until it began to snow and then we used the snow.

TM: Thank you! OK, back to the previously scheduled programming. Two-pronged question: Are there other writers primarily identified as poets who have written or are writing fiction that you’re following these days? And are there writers of micro-narratives/flash who you’re interested in?

SOM: When I first read Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing with Feathers I thought holy God, because it’s a novel but also it’s a poem but also it’s a wail but also it’s a prayer but also it’s a transcription of two boys’ hearts missing their dead mother, but also it’s the impossible translation of Crow who is grief.

I love poets who trap themselves in unpoetic spaces, like Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s, like let’s see what the poet looks like under florescent lighting opening a packet of ketchup. I love contrast and unlikely spaces. At the heart of the Surrealists is this simile: “as beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table” (Comte de Lautréamont), and I guess it’s a simile at the center of me, too.

James Allen Hall and Rachel Zucker and Jenny Boully and Maggie Nelson and Anne Boyer and Carmen Gimenez Smith are some of my favorite poets writing not fiction exactly but really gorgeous, poem-marked prose.

I’m waiting for Heather Christle’s The Crying Book (forthcoming from Catapult), which sounds like a magnificent collision of tears/forms.

TM: A teacher of mine once described micro or flash fiction as stories which contained something that burns really brightly but, by their nature, burns quickly. Your stories are full of what I’d call “image germs” (the lice in “Spells”; the drawing of a mouse in “The Stepmother”) that align with this idea, but there’s also something “slow” contained in them. I don’t always see these “burning” as much as I see them rippling or refracting the way that longer stories or even novels do. I’m wondering, now that you’ve begun writing fiction, if you’re thinking about writing a novel, and if so what that might resemble?

SOM: When I write fiction, I feel like I’m slowly sneaking up on myself in the middle of a cafeteria, and there I am (a poet) quietly eating a terrible and complicated sandwich, and I am like hello, and she (who is me) is like hello, and eventually The Napkin Lady will come by and ask, “Would you like a napkin,” and we will both say yes. We will both say thank you (we’re both polite). I will watch her (poet) eat her terrible and complicated sandwich for a long time. I’ll watch her for practically a whole month to tell you the truth. If I’m patient enough and lucky she’ll give me a bite. Sometimes even an idea or two. Neither one of us will ever use the napkin.

When I write poems I feel like I’m bursting into flames. As a mother of small children, it has become harder and harder to burst into flames. And so right now I’m sticking to the “slow” (as you so beautifully put it) “refraction.”

I will say this, though—there is for me something much, much more dangerous writing fiction. Maybe because for me it’s a radical departure from a form that once kept me very safe (the prose poem). I often think of my stories as what happens after the bottom of a prose poem drops out. It’s like I think I’m standing on solid ground, but no, it’s a gigantic, gaping hole, and in the hole is my whole family and everybody is hungry. And all I have is one bite of the terrible and complicated sandwich. And I’ve already swallowed it. So I better start making something out of nothing and fast. Something to feed everyone I’ve ever loved. Chances are, when it’s over, everyone will be mad at me.

If I ever write a novel it will probably be called The Grandmothers. Some of it is already written.

TM: When I first read the story “My Brother Gary Made a Movie and This Is What Happened” in Kate Bernheimer’s anthology of modern fairy tales, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, I started laughing at the title and didn’t really stop except to gulp, here and there, at how poignantly you get at sibling and family dynamics. I’m hoping you’ll take me through the writing of this story, talk a little about its genesis and how you wrote your way to its end.

SOM: Oh wow, you’re asking me for the only secret I have left. What I will give away, though, is that you really can get pregnant by eating leaves stuck to a tin can.

A Passion for Immortality: On the Missing Pulitzer and the Problem with Prizes

A literary controversy (or what passes for controversy in our fairly tame circle) erupted last month when the Pulitzer Prize Board elected not to award a Pulitzer Prize for a work of fiction.  It was the first time they had done so since 1977.  The reason why this can happen has to do with the way the Pulitzer Prize Board’s selection process works: three initial readers — this year they were novelist Michael Cunningham and critics Susan Larson and Maureen Corrigan — pore over several hundred books published in the previous year and settle on three finalists. Then they turn this list over to the twenty members of the Board, eighteen of whom have voting power (who knows why the board includes two members who can’t vote) to pick one. A majority vote among the Board is required to select a winner. This year, a majority could not come to agree on one book.

The three books nominated were: Swamplandia!, the second book by my friend Karen Russell, a garrulous oddball romp that forays into satire and surrealism; Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson, a decorated luminary on his way to becoming an old guard figure as our village elders like Vonnegut and Updike are vacating their positions; and The Pale King, the unfinished last novel of David Foster Wallace, the most energizing, polarizing, and influential literary voice of our generation, his reputation as a genius now safely beatified by his suicide.

Apparently not one of these three books was liked enough unanimously by ten people on the Board, and so none was awarded the most prestigious literary prize in America this year. “There’s always going to be dissatisfaction, frustration,” said Sig Gissler, the administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, regarding the indecision. “But [this year] the board deliberated in good faith to reach a decision — just no book got the majority vote.”

When the unusual and disappointing decision was announced, the reaction among the literati—writers, I suppose, and critics, and a vast rearguard of booksellers, bloggers, and book geeks on Twitter who have greatly expanded and diversified the circle of conversation in recent years — was like the moment in the courtroom drama when the unassuming girl on the witness stand calmly says something that suddenly changes everything, and the room bursts all at once into a frenzy of barely contained whispers. What’s more, the Pulitzer Prize Board was pissing on a parade that already felt drenched. Just a few days before, the hobbits of the publishing industry had been dismayed when the Justice Department sued three major publishers over e-book pricing, siding with Amazon like Saruman sided with Sauron, whose ominous red eye sweeps across the land from his Dark Tower in that northwestern Mordor, Seattle.

Ann Patchett, a novelist who last year published a book eligible for the prize (State of Wonder, a novel as magnificent as her other masterpiece, Bel Canto), and now also a bookseller, as she recently opened an independent bookstore in Nashville (so she’s got two horses in this race) maligned the Pulitzer Board’s non-decision in a widely read op-ed piece in The New York Times. “If I feel disappointment as a writer and indignation as a reader, I manage to get all the way to rage as a bookseller,” she writes. She argues that the bestowal of a Pulitzer Prize has the power to get people excited about a book in particular and books in general, and under the shadow of our current zeitgeist, it’s a bad time to put down literature. “What I am sure of,” she writes, “is this: Most readers hearing the news will not assume it was a deadlock. They’ll just figure it was a bum year for fiction.”

Patchett’s piece is heartfelt and impassioned, and in some respects I agree with her — but what this controversy mostly did was remind me of how fundamentally I dislike the whole idea of literary prizes at all. I believe with all my soul that the concept of a board of twenty journalists — or people of any profession for that matter, it doesn’t really make a difference who they are — awarding a prize to a work of art, putting an official stamp of approval on one book and thus by implication saying the other books published that year aren’t as good, should strike us as misguided, shortsighted, and dumb.

I’m not saying this in a sour-grapes way, as a novelist who also wrote an eligible book that was published last year. If I were awarded the Pulitzer, it’s not like I’d fling it in their faces. Obviously I would kiss their feet with gratitude. I have benefited greatly from a literary prize, the Bard Fiction Prize, for which I am hugely grateful, and was nominated for a couple of others, the Dylan Thomas Prize in the UK and the Young Lions Fiction Prize here (which Karen Russell did win, by the way). These prizes can help writers out tremendously, especially early in their careers, giving them prestige, publicity, and money, and for that, they’re a good thing. But this isn’t about me — I’m making this argument not as a writer, but from a more abstract standpoint, from a big-picture view.

There was a shrewdly observant piece in n+1 that was rerun in Slate last year by Chad Harbach (whose roaringly hyped novel, The Art of Fielding, also came out last year) titled “MFA vs. NYC,” and given the headline, which pretty much spells it out, “America now has two distinct literary cultures.  Which one will last?” I found the piece spot-on about its observation that our literary culture is sharply bifurcated into two contingents, one concentrated in the publishing mecca of New York City, and the other scattered far and wide across the land at various colleges and universities. Harbach is sharply critical of MFA programs, essentially making all the usual arguments against them and coming down on the side of NYC. After I got an MFA at the ur-program, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I moved to New York City, because I figured that’s where writers go, and I’ve lived there for the last few years. So I feel I’m in a commodious place from which to observe these two literary cultures, and I must say, though both the insular little MFA world and the New York City world of literary culture come with their own and different forms of attendant bullshit, there is far, far — and I mean far — more bullshit in NYC.

The difference between the two cultures becomes most profoundly evident contrasting the books that get talked about at the bar over after-class or after-work drinks, respectively. There are many books I came to fall in love with that altered the course of my writing and changed what I thought could be done with literature that were recommendations from some of my friends in the MFA program. We would excitedly talk about what we had been reading lately, or great books we had read before — it was a conversation that was happening constantly and everywhere. A quick list of things I discovered in grad school from my friends’ recommendations that hugely affected me would include the philosophy of Antonin Artaud, the poetry of Paul Celan, Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s, the stories of Mavis Gallant, Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser. And I dashed out that list in part to illustrate that we were not exactly shrieking and hyperventilating about the brand-new hot young rising stars of American fiction. (Well, some of us were, but I wasn’t one of them. And indeed in retrospect I notice how most of what I just listed were the recommendations of my poet friends, by necessity bound for academia, if they were lucky, and not for the networky New York literary scene.) Of course, we wanted lustily to be those hot young rising stars of American fiction soon. But when we talked about books, we would pull out the interesting and unusual jewels of our collections the way a music geek will pull out a rare LP in a plastic sleeve. We didn’t really give a shit about what book won what prize and did such-and-such really “deserve” to win the Pulitzer? Those are the kinds of gossipy, facile book conversations you have in New York, where everything is in some way tainted with commerce. Ours were the conversations of collectors, enthusiasts, purists, of people genuinely interested in the art itself, and I miss them.

All that is by way of suggesting that literary prizes are mainly manifestations and obsessions of that buzzy New York literati hive, which can become less of a hive and more of an echo-chamber. It’s an observable phenomenon: a book comes out, which for whatever reason gathers a tsunami of critical praise that perpetuates itself — for by the time the great wave makes landfall, some critics may either be hesitant to disagree with their peers, timorously fearing that they’re missing something everyone else can see (Naked Emperor syndrome), or what’s more probable, their perception has been primped by the power of suggestion, in the same way we are more likely to declare a fine wine magnifique if we know before tasting it that the bottle cost a hundred dollars than if it cost ten. This is why sometimes quite mediocre books wind up vaunted with widespread and lavish praise, and are sometimes even buoyed all the way up to the Pulitzer. But mediocre books getting overpraised does not bother me seriously, as I would rather let ten guilty men go free than hang one innocent — it irritates me far more when truly great books are ignored, which happens all the time.

A book has a vertical life and a horizontal one. The vertical life is what happens to it up to, during, and very soon after its publication; the horizontal life is what happens as the years and decades and even centuries slide by. As the Pulitzer is awarded to a work of fiction published in the previous year, all it can take stock of is a book’s vertical life, which sometimes can be deceiving. I’m sure this helps explain some of the more embarrassing retrospective head-slaps in the Pulitzer’s history, such as when, in 1930, it awarded the prize to Oliver La Farge’s Laughing Boy — a second-rate and now utterly forgotten book by an utterly forgotten writer — for the year in which both Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury were published. It’s perfectly natural they would make that mistake; back then, Faulkner and Hemingway were not yet Faulkner and Hemingway, they were just a couple of young writers who happened to be named Faulkner and Hemingway. The Pulitzer Board would try to atone for their sin years later by awarding them both (Faulkner twice) prizes for far lesser works after their reputations were already secure. The hype of the moment does not necessarily translate into lasting luminance. Just scroll down the list of all the past winners of the prize, and count how many you’ve ever heard of. Start at the bottom and move upward chronologically, and you’ll find the occurrence of familiar names increases as we move closer to the present. This is not because the Pulitzer Board has gradually been growing wiser — it’s because we’re living now, not a hundred years in the future. Then we’ll see. We can’t help it — we’re blinded by our own times; all prizes are like that, and that is why, as a measure of what is good and what is not in art, they are not exactly the trustworthiest oracles.

Also, a twenty-member prize board may be seducible by groupthink. I trust groupthink more when we’re talking about the long and justice-bending arc of history, not twenty journalists (eighteen of whom have voting power) talking about fiction, which is not even their forte. Come to think of it, why have we been letting a roomful of people who don’t necessarily know anything about literature tell us what the best book of fiction was last year, year after year? Why didn’t they just let Michael Cunningham, Maureen Corrigan and Susan Larson pick it? I would be more interested to hear their opinions on the matter, anyway. (The 2012 board did include one — exactly one — fiction writer, past winner Junot Díaz. The only other person on the board I’d heard of was New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, who I’m sure is a wonderful man but the dude writes like a clown honks a bicycle horn.)

Let me tell you a story about the problem with a group of people of about that number locked in a room trying to come to a decision about a work of art, fiction specifically. The stakes here are much smaller, but the phenomenon I believe is similar. For a short time I was a submissions reader for a fairly well-known, medium-cachet literary review. There were usually about ten to fifteen of us around the editorial meeting table.  Each of us would read through the slush pile and select a few stories we liked, and then the boss would Xerox the top stories for everyone, we’d all go home and read them, pick out our favorites among those, and at the next meeting discuss which stories to put in the issue. After all our arguing and deliberation, usually the pieces that wound up being selected for publication were not the most interesting, or what I thought were the best of what we had to choose from. They were the pretty good pieces that we could all compromise on. Because a truly great and interesting work of art will have both its loving defenders and its outraged detractors, such a work is intrinsically less likely to be selected for honor by a large committee. That is the nature of good art: it provokes. I agree with Churchill that democracy is the worst form of government except all those others that have been tried from time to time, but not when it comes to lionizing certain novels over others. That I prefer to do on my own, thank you very much.

Historically, this obsession with prizes — and its grandchild, the micro-hysteria over those “best-of” lists that seasonally return to stipple the hills like dandelions — seems to be an impulse particularly characteristic of the twentieth century and beyond: the first Nobel Prize in Literature went in 1901 to the great Sully Prudhomme (what, you’ve never heard of him?), the first Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1918 to Ernest Poole for His Family, the first National Book Award in 1950 to Nelson Algren for The Man with the Golden Arm, the first National Book Critics Circle Award in 1975 to E.L. Doctorow for Ragtime, and the first PEN/Faulkner in 1981 to Walter Abish for his How German Is It. I’d say the only one of those that’s still well remembered today is E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime (although I happen to have read Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm — it’s pretty good).

However, there’s also an argument that this misguided impulse is not necessarily so much a modern one as an inherently human one (and we have plenty of those), when one considers that in ancient Greek festivals, prizes were given out, as they were for the more objectively measurable outcomes of athletic contests, to the best plays. But this phenomenon was in evidence even back then — that of the critics of the time failing to recognize what history would discover greatness in: angered and confused by the way he broke the conventions of Greek drama, the judges snubbed Euripides.

The next-to-next-to-last time the Pulitzer Board chose not to award a prize at all was in 1974, when all three of the readers recommended Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, and every member of the Board categorically denied it. Considering what a rambunctious, rebellious book it is, and considering the long life it has since enjoyed as both a cult classic and a classic, a necessary item on the bookshelf of every druggy collegiate pseudo-intellectual on his way or not to becoming an intellectual, fiercely hated by many and by many fiercely loved (and both parties have their points), it is so fitting that that, of all books, would be bestowed this negative honor; if anything, it’s an enduring badge of coffee-shop cool, and it well deserves it  Of course Gravity’s Rainbow can’t win a Pulitzer. It would be like a punk band winning a Grammy.

Here’s a question. Imagine Satan were to appear in a sulfurous cloud as the host of some Faustian game show, on which the contestants, who are artists at inchoate and uncertain stages of their careers, are forced to confront interesting spiritual dilemmas. Old Scratch says to the Young Writer, I offer you a choice between two fates. In the first, he says — and this seductive vision appears in an orb of smoky light hovering above his outstretched claw — your books are met with blazing success. Every critic fawningly gushes over your work. You’re heralded as a genius. You’re interviewed on TV and on widely-syndicated NPR programs, your phone won’t stop ringing with interview requests. Packed houses at every reading you give. The New York Times Best-Seller List. The money rolls in, you easily clear your outrageous advances. You win the National Book Award, you win the National Book Critics Circle Award, you win the PEN/Faulkner, you win the Orange Prize if you’re a woman, you win the Pulitzer. The movies based on your books hit the screens with famous actors and actresses playing your characters, and everyone says the books were so much better. This is your life. But! — and the vision vanishes — know this: after you die, after your life of literary celebrity, interest in your work will fade. None of the shadows you made will stick to the cave walls because, in the end, none of the cave-dwellers was moved to chalk its outline when it was there. Over time, the world will forget you. Or, behind door number two… The world, if it ever knew you, will forget you in your own lifetime, and you will die in obscurity, uncelebrated, unfulfilled, destitute, and bitter. But! —in the years following your death, your work will be rediscovered, and one of your books in particular will even become a classic that lives on for many generations and forever changes the landscape of our collective imagination. In other words, you’ll be Herman Melville.

Now, both of these are rare and lucky fates. If the variables were at all uncertain — if in the first case there was a chance your work would be remembered, and in the second there was a chance you’d remain forgotten — it would be a much harder decision. But I’d like to think that any artist who is truly interested in art would choose the second option in a heartbeat. I know I would, and I’m not too humble to say so. It’s the first option, not the second, that’s the Faustian bargain: heaven on earth, hell for dessert.

The reason a real artist would choose the second option over the first has nothing to do with any inner nobility — far from it; in fact each fantasy springs from the same megalomaniacal, insatiable hunger. (It’s no coincidence that Hitler was a failed painter and Franco a failed poet. The heart of an artist beats wild and greedy in the chest of every despot. It’s the very same source of energy that produces both.) It is because, while worldly recognition may be an object of lust, immortality is an object of love. As I once read in Plato’s Symposium, and was so amazed by their truth that I’ve never forgotten these sentences, “the soul has its offspring as well as the body. Laws, inventions and noble deeds, which spring from love of fame, have for their motive the same passion for immortality. The lover seeks a beautiful soul in order to generate therein offspring which shall live for ever.”

This is why, for any artist, dying in obscurity is among the worst nightmares. If I had a time machine, I would visit Herman Melville at his deathbed and tell him the good news from the future, so he might go into that good night with some sense of satisfaction. But on second thought, why wait until the very end? I’d go further back and tell him sooner, give him something to help him through those nineteen years he spent growing old as a customs inspector, his public literary career long dead in the water after the critics of his day shouted him out of town as a crackpot, though he was still returning home every night to quietly scribble out poetry and a novella that would be published many years posthumously as Billy Budd. On third thought, seeing as he was in fact working on Billy Budd, and wasn’t so frustrated he’d completely given up writing, maybe somebody already told him. On fourth thought, maybe he didn’t need anyone to tell him, because he knew he was a genius and held out hope the world might one day see it.

All in all, I would urge readers to not pay too much attention to big prestigious literary prizes. In a perfect world, I would wish for every writer a magical bag of money that is never empty (to level the financial question) and simply do away with them all: no Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, no National Book Award, no PEN/Faulkner, no Man Booker, no Nobel Prize in Literature. Let writers write, let critics have their say, let readers read, let time decide.

It doesn’t really matter, though. Even without the magic moneybags, and even with the swells of cacophonic hype surrounding all the literary prizes and all the literary darlings of any given moment, history will plod on, and the Ozymandias of now will be the half-sunk and shattered visage of later. F. Scott Fitzgerald, who never won a Pulitzer, will remain F. Scott Fitzgerald, and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Booth Tarkington will remain Booth Tarkington. And anyway, I am absolutely certain there have been many writers the equal of Fitzgerald who, through their own bad luck or other people’s bad taste, were never published and never read, let alone given prizes, and it’s especially to these unknown soldiers of literature that I raise my glass. John Kennedy Toole killed himself believing he was doomed to be one of them, and he most certainly would have been, had his mother not accosted Walker Percy years later with his manuscript of A Confederacy of Dunces, which went on to win a twelve-years-posthumous Pulitzer Prize. It was a nice gesture.

Brooklyn Book Festival Dispatch

An old friend sent in this report from the inaugural Brooklyn Book FestivalLeaving to the New York Times, for the moment, the question of whether Brooklyn circa 2006 can fairly be compared to Paris circa 1930, it would have been apparent to anyone attending Saturday’s 1st Annual Brooklyn Book Festival that the borough has become at the very least a vital center in the republic of letters – a worthy rival to its sister across the river.After a week of rain, the weather was perfect. For our delectation, Borough President Marty Markowitz – almost single-handedly, if the font size on the flyer was any indication – had filled Borough Hall plaza in downtown Brooklyn with five reading stages and over sixty vendor tents from bookstores, literary nonprofits, and small presses. We’re all accustomed, of course, to our beloved BP’s inimitable brand of self-promotion… and this was not the only echt-Brooklyn aspect of the festival. Both the crowd and the participants were almost as laudably diverse as the borough, and that wonderful Brooklyn admixture of charm, originality, and public-mindedness tempered by self-satisfaction were palpable all around.The indoor readings and panels, featuring the likes of Jhumpa Lahiri and Jonathan Lethem, were so packed that I couldn’t get in – —which is good, I think. The Book Festival, if it is to take off as a viable successor to New York is Book Country, needs to generate this kind of excitement. For me, though (slathering, slobbering, fetishizing book-hound that I am), the vendor’s booths were where the action was. Literary magazines were well-represented. Out-of-towners like Jubilat and Gulf Coast mingled with New York’s own one-story and Open City. A Public Space proved particularly popular – the scintillating first issue of this Paris Review offshoot is now sold-out, and issue two was flying off the tables. I like that A Public Space is trying to bridge the divide between the traditional literary magazine – which these days appeals to a small, self-selecting audience – and that endangered species, the general interest magazine.Small presses, meanwhile, were showcasing their fall catalogues. Seven Stories, Soft Skull, and Akashic are bringing out a number of titles with mainstream appeal, and it’s hard to compete with Joe Wenderoth’s Letters To Wendy’s (Verse Press). But for my money the most interesting house in Brooklyn is Archipelago. These guys, like Dalkey and NYRB are putting out translations of serious works of fiction from around the world, in beautiful editions. Elias Khoury’s magisterial Gates of the Sun, a surprise success, has introduced readers across the country to Palestinian literature; this fall’s offerings include works in Russian and Korean.And what would a Brooklyn Book Festival be without the McSweeney’s table? Many of the authors represented in the festival – Jonathan Ames, Jonathan Lethem, Rick Moody, Colson Whitehead, Jennifer Egan – are less than a degree of separation away from Dave Eggers’ merry band, aesthetically and/or professionally. Members of said band had flown in from San Francisco for the event, and were chatting with visitors about upcoming projects. Writers and readers have sometimes seemed divided on the question of a McSweeney’s style – that kind of playful, knowing, “in-joke” humor and deep interest in childhood and adolescence. And we on the web love a backlash, don’t we. But it is indisputable that McSweeney’s has contributed greatly to the literary renaissance underway here. The 826 NYC learning center is a noble effort to extend the bounty of the literary boom to kids often ill-served by rapid gentrification. And the publishing operation is growing. Eggers’ novel about Sudanese war refugees – due out in October, I think – sounds like a work of great reach and ambition. But if you’re into that sort of thing, there’s no need to wait – McSweeney’s has also just put out Chris Adrian’s monumental (600+ pages) novel, The Children’s Hospital. This book strikes me as a bid to compete seriously with the big literary houses, albeit under a different financial model. At the book fair, the editors seemed to be waiting to see whether a book with a modest promotional budget and independent distribution can succeed in the way White Teeth and Motherless Brooklyn and Middlesex have. But if it is a just world, they don’t need to worry. I started reading the book last week, and am pleased to report that it’s everything I look for in a novel – richly imagined, wonderfully written, ample in scope, formally daring. In a word, serious. On the log-line alone – The Stand meets Cuckoo’s Nest meets the Book of Revelations – it should take off.Or anyway, I’m hoping. Because if there’s a flaw in the Brooklyn literary model, as opposed to the Parisian one, it may be that we’re too damn comfortable here. Walking around on a gorgeous fall day, eating a burrito, reading about Wendy’s, seeing kids listen to Dr. Seuss, it was hard to want anything more. And this, too, is so very Brooklyn (nouveau Brooklyn, that is), this feeling of, we’ve got it so good here, this is so great. Look at us, us smart and engaged and right-minded people! Look at how many wonderful writers live and work among us! It can be hard to stay hungry. But hunger, yearning, desire, insane and ravenous need, are the fuel for great and life-changing books. And with luck, the thing that’s happening here, in Brooklyn, will produce (or continue to produce) those books. God knows we need them.

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