It is rare that we get to meet our literary heroes, but in 2010, a young German-Swiss writer, Benedict Wells, approached John Irving at a reading in Zurich. More than a decade prior the 15-year-old Wells, feeling adrift at boarding school, picked up a copy of Irving’s enchanting coming-of-age novel The Hotel New Hampshire. Swept up in the great wit and charm of Irving’s writing, and deeply drawn to characters he couldn’t help but relate to, Wells found a direction for his own life and, after graduation, moved to Berlin to write. He landed at Irving’s same publisher and, eleven years and two published books later, took the night train to Zurich to hear Irving read. When the two met for the first time, Wells could barely speak with excitement, and as the years have passed, the writers have kept in contact.
On the eve of the U.S. publication of Wells’s internationally bestselling The End of Loneliness, he and Irving connected again, on the page, to discuss the merits of longhand versus typing, how fear plays into fiction, and why authors have to be outsiders.
John Irving: Lieber Benedict, I remember when we first met—it was at a reading in Zurich. You had just published your second novel. You told me how much you liked reading American novels. I see there is a suitably melancholic epigraph from Fitzgerald at the beginning of The End of Loneliness. Now your fourth novel is the first to come out in English. Tell me what this means to you. Is a little bit of the melancholy in The End of Loneliness coming from your reading of American novels?
Benedict Wells: Dear John, F. Scott Fitzgerald was indeed very important for me while writing The End of Loneliness. However, I would almost say it the other way around: the melancholy, that you find in the book, does not come from the American novels I have read. But rather I read and searched for such American novels because I carried this melancholia inside myself. And I found it in works by Fitzgerald and McCullers, but also in books like The Cider House Rules. English-speaking literature has influenced my writing from the very beginning, and I felt drawn to it, unlike for instance to German literature. That is why it has been a dream of mine that one day one of my books would be translated into English. And it is even more surreal and amazing that this story has now found its way to America.
JI: Halfway through the book, Jules—the main character and narrator—thinks: “A difficult childhood is like an invisible enemy: you never know when it will come for you.” The plight of children—in particular, of orphaned children—has often been my subject as a novelist. The importance of a formative childhood friendship—especially, for such children—has often been my subject, too. Where do these themes come from, in your case?
BW: They come from my own childhood and youth. When I was six, I was moved to a home and spent the next 13 years in boarding schools, not least because one of my parents was ill and the other one was self-employed and because of financial hardships had to work around the clock. This childhood far from home, in dorms and later on in single rooms, this loneliness, surrounded by other people, but also the solidarity among one another, has shaped me. From the very beginning it made me look for a language for all of it—a first step towards writing. And I never regretted anything because, besides all the problems, there were always moments of love and feelings of security. So, in my youth I found everything I needed to tell stories. Even today everything I write comes from the feeling I learned back then, that it is important to see other people and put yourself in their shoes.
JI: In my case, these themes are more in the nature of obsessions than themes—maybe in your case, too?
BW: That changes from book to book. However, after five books I cannot deny that loneliness is my major topic, that melancholic melody accompanies every story…Where did these themes come from for you? What would have happened with your writing if you had grown up differently or hadn’t had wrestling for instance?
J.I: I’m not sure that loneliness is a theme—a theme sounds like a subject you choose, intellectually. I think loneliness is a perception, an awareness—the loneliness might be someone else’s or your own. With writers, we’re observing as much as we’re experiencing. You ask, “if you had grown up differently or hadn’t had wrestling…” Well, there would still have been my mother, a nurse’s aide. I got my sexual politics, my social conscience, from her. She taught me to see and sympathize with sexual minorities, beginning with the understanding that women were treated as if they were sexual minorities. From seeing—through my mom’s eyes—how women were treated, I could see for myself that more vulnerable groups—gay men, lesbian women, transgender men and women—were treated worse. And if it hadn’t been wrestling, it would have been another combat sport. I was small, I got picked on, I fought back. My mom knew the wrestling coach; she introduced me to him.
BW: I often have to think of a quote by Erich Kästner: “Someone without fear has no fantasy.” It rings true to me. Fear can paralyze me, but it also fires up my imagination, opens doors, and creates images I have at my disposal when I tell stories. At the same time writing is the opposite of fear, because unlike reality I can control everything … Do you feel the same? I remember at the reading in Zurich you said that as a father you mainly wrote about your fears.
JI: There’s an element of fear in all my fiction. I’m always imagining a situation that I wouldn’t want to be in; I’m trying to create circumstances that I wouldn’t want anyone I loved to be in, certainly not my child. I’m a worst-case scenario writer. I’m not always writing a political novel—maybe only half the time. But even when the subject isn’t political or social, something will go terribly wrong. I didn’t make up this idea. I read it. Greek drama, Shakespeare, the 19th-century novel—not many happy endings.
JI: These so-called formative childhood friendships have a way of compensating fictional characters for the loss or absence of parents—at least, in my case. Perhaps this is another related theme (or obsession) we seem to have in common?
BW: Yes, definitely. As an author and as a reader I love that kind of lifelong friendship that can run deeper than many family ties. In the book you find that especially with Alva. For Jules she fills the gap that his parents and at times also his siblings have left behind more and more. Similar to how important Melony became to Homer Wells. Or Owen Meany to John Wheelwright after the death of his mother…
Speaking of them: You have created a multitude of great literary characters, many of whom as a reader you care about more than some acquaintances. Has the opposite ever happened to you? That you had a character that you secretly didn’t like but couldn’t change anymore and now had to “work with” reluctantly until you handed in the novel?
JI: I like creating characters I don’t like. But if you simply hate a character, you can’t expect your readers to care. The Steerforth character in David Copperfield taught me a lot. He’s such a cruel guy; you think you hate him. He torments young Copperfield; he seduces and abandons Copperfield’s dear friend, Emily. When Steerforth’s body washes ashore, you would think we wouldn’t care. But the way Dickens describes the body—it’s a first-person novel, in Copperfield’s voice—makes us realize that Copperfield also loved Steerforth or might even have been in love with him. Which makes Steerforth’s cruelty crueler, but it adds a dimension to Steerforth—one this reader never saw coming. Dickens writes, “I saw him lying with his head upon on his arm, as I had seen him lie at school.” You have to love your villains, at least a little.
JI: I grew up as a faculty child on the campus of a boarding school. Before I attended the school, I lived in dormitories with all these older boys who’d been sent away to school. I felt like a foreigner among them; they must have felt like foreigners among themselves. But maybe writers grow up feeling that we are foreigners, wherever we are?
BW: I like that image very much. I always had the feeling that constant observing—which is essential for writing—relegates you to the fringes. You don’t participate completely and are always creating a second level, that already reflects and categorizes events. But the true dilemma for me with writing is that I escape to parallel worlds that are invisible to other people until publication. And while friends and family finally see where you have spent the last few years when a book is published, you are already living in the next lonely parallel world, your next novel … Do you know that feeling? Do you sometimes fear that by writing for decades you are missing out on real life, or do you think that it has in fact helped you understand life?
JI: I absolutely feel that we writers are outsiders—we are detached. Loneliness is what we do. I’m speaking to you as an American who lives in Canada. More than three years ago, I went through the immigration process in Toronto. In various waiting rooms, I was occasionally the only adult applicant for Permanent Residence who spoke English. I helped other applicants fill out their immigration forms. Just a few times, I saw families who’d been granted Protected Persons Status by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. I worked with the children; they understood English better than their parents. I remember a girl—she was 12. She was worried about my immigration story. “What about you, Mister?” she asked me. “What are you running away from?” Only last fall, as the number of refugees from war (and other human rights violations) continued to rise, the Trump Administration capped refugee admissions in the U.S. at the lowest level since 1980—not to mention, President Trump’s idea of a wall. And this girl—I’m guessing she and her family had been running for their lives—was worried about me. Well, this is our job as fiction writers—not attending to our real lives, but imagining the lives of characters who’ve had a harder time than we’ve had. Good fiction is imagining (truthfully) what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes.
BW: For me the key to telling a story is empathy. It is even more important in these worrying times when right-wing parties are winning elections around the globe. Good literature is the opposite of building walls, rather it tears them down by showing individual humans, in whom we recognize ourselves. If you read the story of the 12-year-old girl that had to flee to Canada with her family, you would automatically put yourself in her shoes. You would understand the girl and feel with her. Also strong, touching films like Roma can achieve this; they give me hope.
JI: Perhaps, in my case, the atmosphere of the boarding school—all these boys away from home—gave me that feeling (of being a foreigner) before I was one of them. I was 20 when I went to Vienna. I’d been writing since I was 15, but it was in Vienna where I began to feel that I actually was a writer. And of course I was an actual foreigner there—a genuine Ausländer. Was going away a kind of trigger for you to start writing?
BW: What you recount about Vienna, I felt about Berlin, where I moved after school to become a “real writer.” I had written before that, but only then did it really count for me as I consciously decided not to study and instead put all my energy and attention into books. I was 19 at the time, the rents in Berlin in 2003 were ridiculously low and the city was like the wide-open entryway to a slightly run-down flat. Here everyone who wanted to get something of the ground and had an idea was welcome. Back then I lived in a one-room flat that had no heating and electricity only on occasion. The shower was in the kitchen and in winter my breath would turn into clouds. But for the first time I felt freedom. In the daytime, I would do odd jobs and at night I would write. Of course, things didn’t work out for years and I received one rejection after another. But I never became desperate, because at least I was failing with something I loved.
JI: You weren’t only away in boarding schools; for several years, you lived in Barcelona, where you were also a foreigner.
BW: That time abroad was something I didn’t look for as an author but as a person. Because I only worked and wrote in the years after school there was something crucial I was missing: A kind of student life and living with others. But there was another reason I thought that living abroad was great, it meant that in my mid-20s I could start from scratch once again. I didn’t speak Spanish, nobody there knew me and for the first time I was a dark horse to everyone else. An exciting feeling, I enjoyed being a real foreigner. The years in Barcelona, living in a shared flat with a lot of people from around the world, was maybe the best decision I ever made.
What brought you to Vienna back then? You said that you lived in Canada for three years. Where did the wish come from to live abroad again, and why Toronto?
JI: I felt right at home, as a foreigner in Vienna. There was a gloominess there; the city was so much older than I was. And the suspicious looks you got as an Ausländer—perfect! My wife is Canadian. She was the Canadian publisher of The Cider House Rules when we met. I’ve lived as many as four or five months of the year in Canada, since the 1980s. But, in 2015, I became a full-time resident of Toronto. Sometime this year, in 2019, I’ll become a Canadian citizen—a dual citizen, actually, because I intend to keep my U.S. citizenship. (I pay U.S. taxes, I vote.) But I love living in Canada. I love Canada, but I’m also at home with the foreignness I feel living here.
BW: You have always had strong female characters in your novels and you have always been a very liberal, political, and progressive author. In In One Person an important figure is transsexual, but already in 1978 in The World According to Garp with Roberta you have a man who becomes a woman. In A Prayer for Owen Meany you write about the Vietnam War and in The Cider House Rules about abortion. Do you have the feeling that the American society has become more tolerant and open over time or do you think it has regressed again, at least partially?
JI: The World According to Garp is a feminist novel. It’s about sexual hatred, and sexual violence. A woman will be killed by a man who hates women; her son will be murdered by a woman who hates men. The novel begins with a sexual assault. Garp’s mother is assaulted in a movie theater. No one believes she was sexually assaulted. The Trump Administration recently put a judge on the U.S. Supreme Court, someone who’s been accused of more than one sexual assault. And Trump has publicly mocked and ridiculed the women who’ve accused this judge. In the U.S., abortion rights are in danger; LGBTQ rights are being compromised, even scorned. Trump’s narcissism may be somewhat new, but his xenophobia, his homophobia, his fascism are familiar. My mother taught me: If you’re going to be intolerant of something, try being intolerant of intolerance. My old teacher and mentor, Kurt Vonnegut, always said that the U.S. should give socialism a try. The U.S. is looking more and more like a plutocracy—government by and for the wealthy. Right now, it looks like the plutocrats are in charge.
BW: Do current political events influence what you write?
JI: There’s a chapter I’m writing now. If the chapter title stays the same, it’ll be: “Sexual Politics, a Fire, Jealousy.” That sounds familiar. Near the beginning of the chapter, there’s this passage. “In America, we don’t appear to notice when or where the politics start—we just wake up one morning, and everything is political. In America, we’re not paying attention when those things that will divide us are just beginning.” That sounds familiar, too, unfortunately.
JI: I believe writing is rewriting. I think you know what I mean. I’ve heard that you worked on this novel for seven years; that you first wrote it in the first-person voice; then you changed it to the third person, and back again to the first person; and that, during this process, you also cut the novel by half. How much of your writing is rewriting?
BW: In my case it is also a lot. The finished book is just the visible tip of the iceberg, and the giant invisible rest is revision. But it is also what I enjoy the most, while writing itself—filling hundreds of white pages with half-finished thoughts and scenes—often causes me a lot of anguish. Improving an existing text however, rewriting scenes, tweaking dialogue and the language, putting yourself in the characters shoes and get closer to them over the years—that I love. With The End of Loneliness it was important to me to narrate as densely and as thrillingly as possible. I often thought about where I should make cuts in a 35-year-long story. What should I specify for the reader and where can I leave gaps, often many years long, that they can fill themselves? Ideally, I wanted there to be a book beside the book that only existed in the readers mind.
JI: Does the rewriting necessarily (or always) make the novels lighter? (In my case, the rewriting usually shortens an earlier draft, but occasionally I discover that I’ve made more inserts than cuts.) To many people, seven years seems like a long time to spend on a novel—especially on rewriting a novel—but I also take a long time. My novels are all about what happens in the rewriting.
BW: Usually my first two drafts are particularly long. I try to write like a child, boundless and intuitively. Quasi with the “id.” Later on, the intellect, the “I” revises it. During revision a lot of new scenes get added because often it takes years for me to understand what is missing and as I get to know the characters better. At the same time, I try to get rid of scenes that might no longer be needed or I condense what I’ve already written. Then again, I would also love to write a long novel of a thousand pages that you can get lost in for weeks.
BW: I’ve heard that you write your first draft by hand. That has always fascinated me. I only write on the computer and I like that I can type about as fast as my subconscious can formulate something. This can lead to me finding sentences in the manuscript after hours of working that surprise me at first. They sometimes seem foreign or too hard. And then I realize that while I’ve never consciously thought like that, I must have always felt like that inside. A kind of dialogue with an invisible self. Do you have moments like that? And what is the reason for you consciously writing the first draft by hand?
JI: I used to write only first drafts in longhand. Now I write every draft in longhand. My mom taught me to type when I was 13 or 14. I’m too fast on a keyboard. Writing by hand makes me slow down. I go at the right pace if I’m writing by hand. Of course I write emails to my friends and family, but I write novels, screenplays, and teleplays in longhand.
JI: Do you know the end of the novel—I mean, when you start writing? I need to hear the final tone, the sound of the voice in the last sentence, in order to write toward it. What about you? What matters, of course, is not if you know the ending before you begin, but that your readers are given this impression when they get to the end. (You give me that impression.)
BW: Thank you! Funnily enough with every book I write I have to think about what you once said, that you need to write the ending first in order to know what kind of tone your story needs. I can understand that completely and I could never start writing a book without knowing how it ends. For me everything is about the ending, the last, final tone and my whole story is determined by it.
JI: The passage of time, as I’ve said—“the trajectory of a long life, from childhood, through the adult disappointments, through parenthood: this is what novels do best.” Do you agree?
BW: Yes, that is also something I love, whether it is in Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, Stoner by John Williams or The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon—or of course again and again in your novels. To span a whole life in your head and tell it has always fascinated me. In the same way I appreciate the opposite, for instance just a summer in Summer Crossing by Steve Tesich or a year in Looking for Alaska by John Green.
JI: I know you’ve had some experience as a screenwriter for movies based on your novels, as I have had. (I’ve also written some original screenplays, which have turned into novels.) I love what films can do, but I believe that novels do the passage of time best. What are your thoughts about the passage of time in storytelling, in novels, and in movies?
BW: There are some great cinematic exceptions like Moonlight and Citizen Kane, but the possibilities of a novel are of course different and it is almost the privilege of the novel to be able to master this genre so well. East of Eden by John Steinbeck tells the fortunes of several people over hundreds of pages and at the same time the history of California. However, in the film with James Dean they focus only on the last third of the book, the last generation, because there is just no room for everything else. Something similar was done with the wonderful movie version of The Cider House Rules, which you adapted yourself and shortened by around 15 years…What I find fascinating in this regard is the TV-series boom. I’ve heard that you are working on an adaptation of The World According to Garp. Would you say that this is the perfect format that was missing for a long time? While reading your book My Movie Business one often secretly wishes that some of the projects had been made into a series instead.
JI: The screen work is a good companion to the fiction. I often start a story as a screenplay, which will become a novel. Surely a miniseries is a better format for a novel than a feature-length film. You lose less, overall, and you get to compose a miniseries in episodes—not unlike chapters, or acts in a play. Both the overall length of a teleplay and the episodic structure of a TV series are better suited to an adaptation from a novel than a feature-length film.
BW: With Trying to Find Piggy Sneed you released a book of short stories. Besides screenplays, have you had ideas for short novels? Are you perhaps working on one now?
JI: I am trying to write shorter novels—not short ones, but they are getting a shorter. The one I’m writing now—a ghost story, called Darkness as a Bride—is one of the shorter ones. And the next couple of novels I’m thinking of will be significantly shorter than this one—an influence, perhaps, of writing screenplays and teleplays. (I still like writing fiction better, but I like what I’ve learned from the screen work.) Yes, my novels will get shorter—after this one.
BW: As much as I love films, I found writing screenplays rather difficult in the beginning. Compared to the more intuitive writing of a novel you are bound by a lot more rules. Sometimes I found the limitations of a screen play, the implacable 100 pages, to be a mathematical riddle. But I have to admit, that I learned a lot from writing them as well.
JI: I don’t know if I accept fate, or a sense of predetermination, as entirely realistic—that is, if I see fate or predetermination at work in what we call “real life” or the “actual world.” But I know that I believe in Fate or Destiny as a fictional truth—as more than a literary device. What happens to the characters in my novels feels fated or predetermined, I hope! I sense the hand of Fate at work in The End of Loneliness, too. (As a reader, I think I was first aware of fate—and influenced by fate in literature—from reading Hardy and Melville.) In your case, the cards that you deal to Jules seem to work as a challenge to him—Jules’s fate seems to motivate him to find his place in the world.
BW: As a human being I don’t believe in fate, more in being responsible for your life. But as a writer I of course employ fate greatly, while the characters, which are at its mercy, think like humans and wrestle with their fate. Through sometimes-dramatic events they have lost their place or their home and will be looking for a new one all their life. And yet they do not accept their fate. In The End of Loneliness for instance Jules says at one point: Life is not a zero-sum game. It owes us nothing, and things just happen the way they do. Sometimes they’re fair and everything makes sense; sometimes they’re so unfair we question everything. I pulled the mask off the face of Fate, and all I found beneath it was chance.
So I guess: as a human being I sympathize with the characters and feel for them, if something happens to them—something I deliberately do to them as an author. A rather schizophrenic matter … Dear John, would you agree?
Copyright (c) by John Irving and Benedict Wells
On Feb. 5, William Morrow will release Snowden Wright’s second novel, American Pop. Early reviewers have called it “supremely entertaining,” “not only excellent Southern Gothic fun but a panoramic tour of the American Century.” Snowden and I were college roommates, where we dreamed of one day becoming novelists and then manufacturing a public feud to help drum up book sales. We talk pretty much every day, about nothing and everything, but we have never been as formal as we are in this interview:
The Millions: So, what’s the book about?
Snowden Wright: I’ve always enjoyed describing American Pop with a hypothetical question: What would a novel about the Kennedys be like if they’d made their fortune by inventing Coca-Cola? Of course, the imprecision of that question often leads people to ask, “So it’s about the Kennedys?” and I have to say, “Well, uh, no.” Then they ask, “But it’s about Coca-Cola, though?” and, breaking out in a sweat and wrenching an imaginary necktie, I say, “Not exactly.”
More precisely, then: American Pop is a multi-generational saga about a family that owns a soft-drink company named PanCola. The novel follows the Forster family through more than 1000 years of American cultural history. It uses techniques of historical reportage to depict the Forsters’ personal lives, showing how, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s words, “families are always rising and falling in America.”
In an article on Coca-Cola for a trade publication, a journalist once wrote, “Why read fiction? Why go to movies? The soft drink industry has enough roller coaster plot-dips to make novelists drool.” My immediate thought after reading that was, “Challenge accepted.” American Pop is the result.
TM: Where did the original idea for the novel come from?
SW: My first novel, Play Pretty Blues, is primarily set in the 1920s, focused primarily on one central character, and takes place primarily in Mississippi. With American Pop I wanted to do more. I wanted it to span a longer period of time. I wanted it to explore more characters. I wanted it to have a broader setting and scope. Why not, I thought, take on the incredibly easy task of writing a novel that encapsulates a century of culture, popular and personal, in America?
I honestly can’t remember whether that ambition came before or after the peg on which to hang it. Soda has always seemed to me such an American drink. It is to this country what wine is to France, tea to England, beer to Germany, or toilet water to misbehaving dogs. Soda is especially pervasive in the South, where I’m from and the region I love exploring, scrutinizing, praising, and criticizing in my work. As Nancy Lemann wrote in the sublime Lives of the Saints, “Southerners need carbonation.” Soda, I figured, would enable me to wed the national and the regional, America and the South, and examine the relationship between them.
TM: Can you elaborate a little on that? What makes a Southern story Southern, both in fiction and on a porch in the middle of a day? Is it a genre, with certain characteristics?
SW: Southern stories require at least one dog, but it does not have to have four legs. Southern stories know how to whistle but not necessarily “Dixie.” Southern stories are never served without a cocktail napkin, must own at least two pairs of duck boots, and always remember to return the casserole dish.
Honestly, though, what makes a story Southern, in my experience, is that it’s a story. That’s the only criterion. I grew up in a family of regalers, the type of people who love when a new girlfriend or boyfriend visits over the holidays because it allows us to repeat the same nuggets, buffed to a high shine, of family lore. And they are, in fact, typically told on a porch.
If I had to give a response that’s a bit less of a tautology, I’d say that Southern stories tend to involve a reckoning with the past, give a strong sense of place, feature colorful characters, and try, first and foremost, to entertain the reader. There are many Southern writers out there, myself included, who appreciate tightly constructed sentences and beautiful language, but I’d argue there are many more Southern writers, myself also included, who appreciate an engaging narrative most of all. The art of storytelling, I always try to remember, is just that: an art. Writers should give it as much of their attention as they do the more seemingly highbrow aspects of their craft.
TM: I want to force you to get a little more specific on this, so I’m going to follow up with a two-part question. Part one: What’s your Mount Rushmore of Southern fiction?
SW: George Washington, respected, somber, and not, in fact, wood-toothed, would be Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! Thomas Jefferson, renaissance man about town, would be O’Connor’s Complete Stories. Teddy Roosevelt, that quotable rapscallion, would be Hannah’s Ray. And Abraham Lincoln, emancipator and proclaimer, would be Morrison’s Beloved.
TM: And part two: Do you see those books having anything in common?
SW: The past’s persistent intrusion into the present. From Ray Forrest confusing memories of his time in Vietnam with those of Jeb Stuart’s Civil War campaigns, to the spiteful haunting of 124 by what won’t stay buried, to Quentin Compson yelling, “I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it!” after recounting the story of Thomas Sutpen, the past, in all four of those books, refuses to stay put.
Think of Faulkner’s most frequently quoted line, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” I’ve seen that used as an epigraph for probably a dozen books—Ace Atkins’s White Shadow, Willie Morris’s North Toward Home, and Tiffany Quay Tyson’s The Past Is Never come to mind—and most of them, from what I recall, are by Southern writers. Why? The line is universally applicable. It’s the O negative of epigraphs.
TM: I suppose, yes, the line is universally applicable, but it seems particularly so in Southern fiction. Can you talk about why? And perhaps how American Pop wrestles with that?
SW: Freshman year of college, I had two roommates, one from New Jersey and one from Maine. They used to joke about how nervous they’d gotten when they found out they would be living with some guy from Mississippi who lived on Confederate Drive. That really was the name of the street I lived on.
I don’t blame them for having been nervous. The South has, to put it lightly, a fraught past, with slavery and the Civil War and, more recently, racism, misogyny, homophobia, and anti-intellectualism. We have a perpetual BOGO sale on social issues. In American Pop, I tried to grapple with those issues, not only as they relate to the South, but also as they relate to the country as a whole. There’s a reason I didn’t title the novel Southern Pop. The South’s problems are also America’s problems, and that’s never been clearer than it is in our current political situation.
TM: I’m glad we’ve finally gotten around to the issue of race. As a Northerner myself, as an outsider, when I think of the South I automatically think of the legacy of slavery, and the way it seems to permeate every aspect of Southern culture, from the food to the music to the laws. You’re publishing a novel in 2019 about a rich white family in Mississippi. How does this book grapple with the legacy of slavery?
SW: With empathy and honesty, I hope. Although the main family in the novel is white, I made a point of including many characters of color, characters who are also not defined solely by their race. Sometimes I tried to address racism overtly, such as a chapter in which wealthy Mississippi farmers brazenly discuss how to disenfranchise black voters, and sometimes I tried to address racism more subtly, such as a chapter that involves Josephine Baker, a black woman who enjoyed immense success after she left America for the more racially tolerant France. The key, I think, to addressing any social issue, be it race or sexism, homophobia or nationalism, is to keep it character-based. Make the issue universal by making it personal. Don’t stand on a soapbox. Stand in someone else’s shoes. Stand in the characters’ shoes. Let the reader feel what they feel.
TM: Empathy’s such a tricky concept. A friend of mine, James Dawes, recently published a brilliant book, The Novel of Human Rights, in which he argues that exercising so-called empathy is not only performative but potentially destructive, but then Obama says we need to cultivate more of it. I don’t know. When people ask me questions like the ones I’m asking you, I feel ill-equipped to answer them. That’s why I write fiction. For the most part, I think novels are probably more articulate than novelists—and yet here we are, in an author interview, a genre I legitimately love. The first thing I bought after selling my first novel was a collection of out-of-print Paris Review interviews. Do you read a lot of these things? What do you get out of them?
SW: The first thing I bought after selling my first book was The Clapper, which ever since I was a kid I considered the peak of luxury. Fancy people don’t even have to get up to turn out the light! I could not get it to work. Maybe I clap weird.
Which is to say, yes, absolutely, I love author interviews. Even though I agree that novels are more articulate than novelists—lovely way of putting it, by the way—interviews not only humanize authors (“Her French bulldog has the same name as mine!” “He can’t afford anything nicer than Bustillo either!”), making a writing career feel attainable, but they also, oftentimes, provide a unique, insider perspective on craft. You get a sense of writing as a job. To hear an author recount how agonizing a copyedit was makes you realize writing takes work. It also makes you realize writing is work.
I’m especially fond of hearing bits of trivia. Alternate titles. Hidden allusions. Want to hear one from me? Every novel I’ve written, published or drawer-filler, has included an indirect reference to the movie Die Hard.
TM: I recently found out that a friend of mine used to work in the actual Nakatomi Plaza, and it blew my mind. While we’re here, talking about craft and being meta about author interviews in general, can you talk about your decision regarding the metatextual elements of American Pop, the ways in which the book seems narrated by a real-life scholar of this fictional cola company?
SW: My first conception of the book was for it to be the opposite of Capote’s “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood. I wanted American Pop to be fictional nonfiction. To achieve that effect, I used certain techniques of nonfiction, such as source citations, quotes from interviews, and the use of specific dates and times, similar to what Michael Chabon did in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay and Susanna Clarke in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.
Aside from the playfulness that allowed me—I get an absurd thrill out of making readers wonder if a metatextual source is real or made-up—it also allowed me, I hope, to create a greater sense of verisimilitude, to heighten the readers’ suspension of disbelief, to make them feel that this really happened.
Why did America put Franz Kafka in such a good mood? As his friend Max Brod remembered, Kafka worked on his ultimately unfinished novel about the U.S. with “unending delight,” a noteworthy state for someone much more likely to be brooding about the big three (guilt, your father, corporeality) or writing pained letters to a distant love. In Amerika’s most upbeat passages, Kafka seems to take pleasure in romanticizing about the “New World,” imagining the U.S. as a beacon of equality and a decent hard day’s work. In this sense, the novel echoes plenty of earlier literature on America.
But more surprisingly, Amerika anticipates a newer form of Romanticism, one that is worth considering closely, because it has since become a major presence in fiction about the U.S. Briefly put, the New World got Kafka excited about the potential benefits—really, the transformational power—of being stupid: the magic of being out of touch.
This was something more than anti-intellectualism. This was pro-ignorance. Consider Amerika’s final chapter, in which the protagonist, a young immigrant named Karl, has reunited with friends and found a job with the “Nature Theatre of Oklahoma” after a long series of frustrating losses and wrong turns. According to Brod, this was Kafka’s favorite part of the book, a section he loved to read aloud. And although he never finished writing the chapter, he apparently would hint (with a big smile on his face) that “within this ‘almost limitless’ theatre his young hero was going to find again a profession, a stand-by, his freedom, even his old home and his parents, as if by some celestial witchery.” This was new territory for Kafka: magical thinking and happy endings.
But here’s what the happiness actually looks like: Karl and his friend Giacomo find themselves crammed into a train car on a long cross-country route. They become so giddy about the trip and the beautiful scenery they pass that they are completely oblivious to their immediate surroundings. The seats are so crowded they can barely move, and thick cigarette smoke makes it hard to breathe. Their cabinmates, who make fun of Karl’s and Giacomo’s naive excitement, pass the time by playing cards and grabbing and pinching their less-seasoned fellow travelers. Karl is stuck, in other words, in a low-paying and unpredictable job, in rough conditions, surrounded by people who get a kick out of harassing him. This trip is pretty clearly not going to be great. And the scene is able to suggest that Karl is rushing off to a blessed future only because he seems so dimly aware of what is actually taking place.
We’re familiar with the idea that ignorance is bliss, but, in the spirit of Amerika, the last century of fiction about the U.S. has flirted with the stronger notion that ignorance can heal. We will never learn exactly how Kafka’s dense traveler was going to reunite with family, friends, and home. But we now have a long list of novels that connect similar dots, turning states of density into moments of reunion and reparation.
My favorite example is Alberto Fuguet’s Las Peliculas de mi Vida, in which the 1992 Pauly Shore movie Encino Man becomes a symbol for finding love in America. The novel relates the life story of a disillusioned Chilean-American seismologist who is torn about returning to America after many years in Chile. When he finally decides to move to California to pursue a love interest he met at the beginning of the book—she’s an American immigration attorney, as if to hammer home the idea that the journey is national as well as personal—he writes her one last note: “I’d like and am afraid and hope” that we will meet again, he says, “P.S. I did see Encino Man … I thought it was pretty bad and—nevertheless—enjoyed it.” His hopes and fears speak to the possibility that love in the U.S. could change his life. His appreciation of what is arguably the most ridiculous movie of the ’90s shows that he’s ready.
Or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, in which the Nigerian protagonist, Ifemelu, falls in love for a while with Curt, a “relentlessly upbeat” American who “believed in good omens and positive thoughts and happy endings to films.” As Ifemelu explains, Curt is “admirable and repulsive in a way that only an American of his kind could be.” She eventually moves on. But her temporary attraction to Curt and the dense Americanism he represents helps the story eventually land where it does: “The best thing about America,” she claims near the end of the novel, “is that it gives you space. I like that you buy into the dream, it’s a lie but you buy into it and that’s all that matters.” Who knows what would have happened if Ifemelu had not found, albeit temporarily, this “space” of obliviousness?
This embracing of the forcefully unintellectual appears again in the conclusion of Michael Chabon’s The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, another novel about an immigrant’s journey to America. After a twisting and traumatic plot, Holocaust survivor Joe Kavalier has ended up living for several years as a recluse in Manhattan, unable to connect with his friends and family. And he returns to the fold by making a scene. In a stunt announced anonymously in the newspaper, he swings from the Empire State Building in an iridescent gold suit and mask.
The stunt, channeling the comic books Joe loves (and creates), makes no sense. But it works. When Joe’s estranged wife and cousin later ask why, he responds, “I guess this was the point … for me to come back. To end up sitting here with you, on Long Island, in this house, eating some noodles.” Somehow, the act of thrilling onlookers in a golden bathing suit and boots has enabled the refugee to rejoin the family he might not otherwise have seen again. It seems we can’t stop imagining stupid entryways into American life.
More recently, the second-generation Turkish-American Elif Batuman has styled herself as an idiot in The Idiot, an autobiographical narrative of her college years. In an interview, she refers to “moments of what felt like, in retrospect, stupidity” as distinguishing her path through Harvard to a successful career as a journalist and novelist.
We could go on: In Don Delillo’s White Noise, the goofy experiences of familial love that only seem possible in grocery stores; or the concluding image in Delillo’s Underworld, a novel steeped in issues of immigration and race in America: a billboard for orange juice that might or might not radiate divine forgiveness and plenitude after a tragic death (“they stared stupidly at the juice …’Did it look like her?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Are you sure?’ ‘I think so’”). Salman Rushdie’s American novels are more concerned with violent emotions that can’t be escaped (see: Fury), but he alludes to the healing powers of American unknowing when, in The Golden House, he has the narrator dream that he could be reunited with his son “and jump into Doc Brown’s DeLorean and fly back to the future and be free.”
I think this might be one of the last frontiers of Romanticism, informed by a stubborn unwillingness to give up on the idea that America is a place of new beginnings. Returns to childhood, the national volk, hedonism, intelligence: These have pretty clearly lost their punch. But ignorance, ironically enough, is a harder Romantic object to dismiss, because it’s the only mental state that can’t be accused of bad faith: It so obviously isn’t setting out to get anything done, so obviously isn’t part of a plan, how could it have an ulterior motive? Still, for perhaps obvious reasons, few literary or academic voices would admit to taking ignorance seriously. A notable exception is Avital Ronell, whose wide-ranging philosophical study, Stupidity, makes a case for its revolutionary potential. Ronell does not have much to say directly about American contexts, but at one point, referring to the blockbuster movie Forest Gump, she writes that “moral purity, American style, can be ensured only by radical ignorance.” This is, I think, the basic underlying hope that helps imagery of ignorance feel optimistic in fiction about the U.S. There’s something that feels desperate about all this fascination with American ignorance, especially at a time in which assaults against knowledge so powerfully shape our public culture—but Kafka’s brilliance was a form of desperation, too. And it will be interesting to see where the desperate Romanticism he foresaw ends up.
Image: Flickr/Rakkhi Samarasekera
Here’s the problem I usually run into when I’m asked for a list of the year’s best books: most places want books that were published that year. And I don’t read all that many new books, because I do a lot of rereading. This feels slightly embarrassing to admit — my bedside table is jammed with new books that look amazing, and I’m putting them off to read stuff that I’ve already read half a dozen times? But there are some books that are either so intricate or so satisfying that I keep coming back to them over and over — because I know I’ll find something new every time, or just because I know it’ll be pure pleasure. I think this is a big part of the joy of discovering a really great book: you know that, even when you finish the last page, you’re not done. There’s more in there, waiting for you to come back and find it.
Maybe my best example of what I’m talking about is Watership Down, which I reread this year for maybe the eighth time. It’s about a group of rabbits who strike out from their warren when one of them has a vision of its destruction. The first time I read it I was a little kid, six or seven. Probably I only got about a 10th of it; all I remember is being enthralled by the idea of the rabbits’ world existing parallel to ours, equally real and vital, but utterly separate. We went on a beach holiday while I was reading it, and seeing wild rabbits in the garden early one morning was one of the most thrilling things that had ever happened to me — because all of a sudden they weren’t just rabbits, they were a whole other world made flesh. When I went back to the book a few years later, I was swept away by the sheer beauty of the writing, the lucid intensity of the images, the perfection of the rhythms. A few years after that, I was hit by the psychological horror of the warren of the snares, all the rabbits desperately blocking out the fact that they’re buying their comfortable lives by offering up themselves and their friends and families as potential sacrifices. A few years after that, I caught the incredibly sinister political undercurrent of the totalitarian warren of Efrafa, ruled by the ferocious leader who’s seized absolute power by putting everyone else in terror of outside dangers. And I know next time I’ll find something else.
This year I reread Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Enid Bagnold’s National Velvet, C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, all for that same reason: I know I’m going to find something new in there, even if it’s just a beautiful sentence or a nuance I missed before.
And then there are the books that I go back to because they have some element that I know will give me the same shot of pure satisfaction every time. This year I reread Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar for the deceptively economical characterization, just a few simple strokes and the character leaps off the page; George MacDonald Fraser’s Black Ajax for the rich exuberance of the multiple voices; Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl for the meticulous complexity of the structure, the way elements are reflected and refracted back and forth between the two narratives, transforming every time.
I did manage to discover a few new treasures (new to me, anyway) along the way. Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart, a beautifully written, moving, darkly funny gut-punch of a book about small-town Ireland in the aftermath of the Celtic Tiger; Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, about two young Jewish cousins who, in 1940s New York, create comic book superheroes from their own fears and dreams; Karen Perry’s Girl Unknown, about a university lecturer whose life and mind and family are turned upside down when a student claims she’s his daughter. I haven’t reread them yet, but I know I will, more than once. While the pile on my bedside table gets higher.
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Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon gets stuck. Sometimes plans don’t go according to the outline, if he even writes one. Sometimes an idea just pops into his brain and a book comes out.
Both are the case with Chabon’s latest release, Moonglow. Presented as a memoir about a grandfather, the novel weaves together the history of a man and his family during the 20th century. Like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay or Telegraph Avenue, this new novel features an interesting cast of characters, linked physically and thematically.
The author spoke to us at length, after a day of errands that took him around Berkeley, about his new novel, outlines, why memoirs are bullshit, and screenwriting.
The Millions: When Telegraph Avenue came out, you stated in an interview that with every book you wrote there was this collapse where you either didn’t think you would finish a book or that it wouldn’t turn out the way you wanted it to. Did that happen with Moonglow?
Michael Chabon: Yeah, that usually happens as soon as I start writing the first sentence. It’s already begun to diminish from what I envisioned in that glorious split second of imagination. Telegraph Avenue was much harder to write. It took over a decade, really, during its gestational period. From a pilot to a television series and then laying completely dormant for years before I revived it. I thought because I had written the pilot that it would be easy to novelize it, but that turned out to not be the case at all. I really struggled with Telegraph Avenue. I really struggled with The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. I really struggled with Kavalier & Clay. All in ways that I did not really struggle with this book at all.
In fact, this book — I’m not saying it was easy to write — but it had the same kind of magical birth as Wonder Boys, which is the only other book of mine that had this magical birth where I had no idea that I was going to be writing it until the day I sat down and the first sentence emerged. In both cases, I thought I was going to be working on a different book. With Wonder Boys, I thought I was beginning the fifth or so draft of what was supposed to be my second novel; a book called Fountain City. I thought okay, I had the outline for this new draft to be doing. I sat down and all of a sudden I was writing about Grady Tripp, growing up in this small town in Pennsylvania, and a pulp writer before I had any idea where any of that came from. It wrote itself fairly quickly, whereas this one took longer to write. It started off very much the same, though.
I thought I was going to be starting the first draft of another novel that was meant to be the follow-up to Telegraph Avenue and I didn’t have an outline, but I had definite thoughts of what it was going to be. I had been doing reading and research, but I found myself beginning to re-envision this moment of history from my family. A family story I had heard over the years about one of my grandfather’s brothers who was a salesman selling commercial office supplies and was fired one day from his job to make room on the payroll for Alger Hiss, who was just released from prison.
I had not been thinking about that story until the day I started actually working on the book. It just popped into my mind. I started following it. I didn’t get into any other weird nightmarish corners I had got into with other books.
TM: You briefly mentioned an outline for stories. Was there an outlining process or a plotting process for this book then?
MC: Typically, I’m not a big outliner. When I’m doing screenwriting work — like right now my wife and I are working on a script for this proposed series for Netflix that is a miniseries — when you’re doing that kind of work you have to outline. Of course, outlining makes your job easier, but you actually have to outline because the people who are writing your checks insist on seeing outlines. They want to see a full outline for the first episode and partial outlines for all of the remaining episodes. You have to generate your story ahead of time.
So, I know how to outline, I’ve done it, I completely see the value in doing it, and I’m completely grateful for one when I actually do an outline; however, when it comes to doing novels, I find the more detailed I try to get in my outline, the less interest I have in the story.
For me, part of the process of writing the novel — a big part — is finding out what happens. I like to find out what my story is about. There are two kinds of aboutness, too. One kind is on the plot level: what happens. I find out along the way and suddenly I think, Okay this will happen and that will happen and now I have to go back and throw away 200 pages doing that because now I know this is going to happen. Sometimes I have to completely add a new character because it appeared to me after two years of work. I have to proceed by groping and finding my way without really knowing what is going to happen. It’s a process of discovery and as much as it is torturous and incredibly inefficient when compared to working with an outline, it is part of the mystery that keeps me going. If I don’t have it, I sort of lose interest in the project.
Then there is the other kind of aboutness. There’s this question of what is the story About with a capital A. Thematically, that is. And I don’t even know the answer to that until I am almost done with the book. So many times, and it really happened with Moonglow, I didn’t fully understand what the biggest, most important things about Moonglow were. Especially the story about the grandmother. Not what happened to the grandmother, but what it meant to her, what did it mean to the grandfather, what did it mean to the family? What does that say about memory and history and madness and insanity?
A lot of the things about the nuts and bolts about the structure changed right in the last four to six weeks of me working on the book before I turned it into the publisher. It was like, “Oh my god, I see what my book is about now.”…In this magical period right at the end of writing, which was one of the most magical experiences I have ever had, I just started focusing on the grandmother and realized there was this constant motif throughout the book of dualities. People concealing other people within them. All of the imagery just started to click into place, including the moon imagery: with the dark side of the moon, the lunar eclipses. It was this idea of being half something and half something else. It was all there. I had the wiring, but it wasn’t hooked up to any battery until I hooked it up to the grandmother and the entire book just lit up.
I couldn’t have outlined that. If I had tried to outline something like that I think I would have lost interest in the book long before or, and this happens when I write outlines, I begin to hate the outline and the person who wrote the outline. Like, four years ago there was this smug asshole who wrote out this dumb-ass outline and he thought he knew so much but he didn’t know shit. Why would I even listen to him? He had no idea how wide ranging this book was going to be. I get into this place of resentment with the things I thought I knew.
If the story about the grandmother and duality was there from the beginning, I would have told myself “fuck you” and I wouldn’t have done it.
Outlines are wonderful tools, but they only do what they do in the proper context. Which is similar in the book with the rocket. In one context rockets take you to the moon, and, in other, they rain down terror on innocent people.
TM: Even though you didn’t outline this one, was it always meant to be a faux-memoir that was closely tied to your life?
MC: No, it was… As soon as I started to tell the story of the assault… Well, all I actually know is that one of my grandfather’s brothers was fired from his job to make room for Alger Hiss. I should add that the uncle I thought it was, I asked his daughter and his granddaughter, and neither had heard this story. I was so sure it was that uncle and not the other whom I can’t really ask about, so even that is a little dubious.
Whenever I hear “Alger Hiss,” I think of this story. At some point, I did hear this story. That uncle did sell office supplies. Ah! It had to be him. But that’s all I know. As soon as I made it my grandfather and not my great-uncle, I am in the territory of fiction.
There was no deliberate decision on this point for me, but almost immediately as soon as I had those words, “my grandfather,” I was writing in a reminiscent first person narrator who wasn’t giving his reminiscences but was giving his grandfather’s reminiscences. As soon as I had that structure it clicked immediately with this actual experience I had sitting with my actual grandfather when he was dying in my actual mother’s house. He did tell me a lot of stories. Maybe he did tell me the story about his brother getting fired; maybe that’s where I heard it for the first time. As soon as I had that in place, it was immediate that it was going to be the framework of the novel.
It was very quickly and wasn’t a conscious strategy in mind that this was going to be a memoir. It’s going to be my memoir of the week I spent with my grandfather and the story he told me that is going to end up being the story the reader ends up reading. At that point, I thought that’s going to be fun. That’s going to be a fun structure. Part of the thing that I have to do when I’m starting a book — I mean, everything has been done before — so all I can do is try to find a new approach to it. To find a different avenue for it.
With Moonglow, it was that I wanted to tell the story of this man’s life. It was a very 20th-century, East Coast, Jewish family story, but what’s my angle? What was my way to make it fresh to readers and fresh to me? This memoir angle immediately presented itself.
Then I actually had this more conscious, higher level of thinking of potential pleasure about the book being something I wanted to do. It derived from my feelings about the literary memoir.
TM: How do you feel about them in particular?
MC: [Some people have claimed] that memoirs are more appropriate to the time we live in, but also superior to fiction. Listening to that kind of talk and seeing situations like the James Frey incident…The thing that made everyone upset was the fact that he had lied, you know? That he passed this thing off as true when it was a work of fiction was wrong. What pissed me off as a novelist was that he wrote it as a novel and nobody wanted to publish it. Then he relabeled it as a memoir and suddenly everybody wants to publish it and everyone wants to read it.
That offends me because I’m a novelist and writing novels is what I do. I take that personally on some levels. It also offends me because it’s bullshit. Memoirs are bullshit to some degree. I don’t mean memoirists are liars; some might be, most are not. I know memoirists try to be scrupulous and try not to deviate from what they remember. It’s the last few words of my sentence where the bullshit comes in. Of course what you remember is a lie or a distortion. It’s inaccurate, there’s conflation, there’s elision. There are gaps, there maybe things that you’ve deliberately forgotten and then forgotten that you’ve forgotten so that you sincerely think they didn’t happen.
Some of my favorite books, some of the most beautiful books that have been written in the past quarter century have been memoirs, like Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time or Tobias Wolfe’s This Boy’s Life. There are people who have written beautiful works of literature that are memoirs. I’m not trying to impugn individual writers at all. I’m not even necessarily impugning the form of the genre. It’s just the claims that are made. The esteem that is given. The memoir seems to have a higher value because it claims to be the truth. Obviously it just simply can’t be on some level the truth.
As a novelist, I much prefer, and am much more comfortable with a self-declared lie that is invited by the person being lied to.
TM: Building off of that, did you feel there needed to be a lot of research or were those lies something you could live with?
MC: You can’t tell a good lie without research. Not a really good one.
TM: I want to shift from Moonglow to all of your works. You have these reoccurring topics of family, of history, of Judaism, and many more. Why do you keep coming back to these ideas and feelings that you write about?
MC: I can’t help it. That’s the honest answer. I have no choice in the matter. That’s how it works with compulsive behavior. It’s a kind of compulsion. I wrote a piece about this in my book Manhood for Amateurs about a family heritage of OCD. The piece is called “X09” because it’s about a boy, who at the time his brother was struggling with OCD, called it X09.
I do have it in my family. My paternal grandmother was clearly compulsive, especially about germs. My dad had these strange obsessive compulsive, ritualistic behaviors. I don’t see it in my own behavior or my thought processes, but I do think it is expressed in this return to certain subjects or themes or motifs that are beyond my control. It doesn’t seem to be hurting me, and I think it’s true in a lot of writers, though I wouldn’t be qualified to talk about it.
TM: Are you writing habits compulsive? I once read you always wrote at night. Is that still the case?
MC: I still do, yes. More than ever. I work very late. I still report for duty between 10 and 11pm. Sometimes as late until six in the morning. I get a lot more done in the last few hours than I did the entire time before.
TM: Are you already onto the next idea?
MC: I’m writing a children’s book for middle readers. It’s essentially a follow-up to Summerland, although it’s not a sequel in any way.
TM: What about that Netflix series that you’re kind of working on with your wife —
MC: More than kind of.
TM: More than kind of then, that’s great. Did you take a lot of time off from screenwriting, or did nothing just come to fruition?
MC: [laughs] It might seem like I took time off, but in fact, it’s just a series of failures to launch.
TM: What about screenwriting appeals to you so much on top of writing novels?
MC: I used to automatically just say the money, but when it comes to screenwriting for movies in Hollywood that would be better if [just the money] was the case. It’s so heartbreaking and so hard to get things made. While I was writing Moonglow, I took time off to work on a screenplay for a proposed Frank Sinatra biopic that Martin Scorsese was going to direct. Working on something that could have been directed by him and working with Frank Sinatra’s work was just so great. I just got into it and loved working on it. I think I wrote a pretty good script, and it just seems to be completely done.
I got paid and it would be easy to say, “Oh, I got paid well and that’s showbiz,” but unfortunately I became pretty invested in that project. It hurts to think it all was a waste of time.
With TV it’s a little different. On one end, the money up front just isn’t that good, so you can’t just be all about the money. Also, it seems more gets made and there is more opportunity to do a lot more work with a lot less interference. Though I don’t have any shows on the air, I seem more successful there because I actually had a couple of scripts make it to the screen. It doesn’t quite feel as well… I don’t know. It’s hard to say.
I actually worked on this earlier proposal for a show for HBO that was supposed to be called Hobgoblin that was really good; it would have been amazing. We actually wrote three scripts for that. So now I take it all back: it’s all equally heartbreaking and soul crushing.
Anyway, I’m doing it. I’m still writing scripts. The thing we’re doing for Netflix could be really good. I hope it happens, but you never know.
In a land where most magazines have the lifespan of a fruit fly, how is it possible for one magazine to survive — and thrive — for 75 years? Janet Hutchings has a theory: “The great power that Frederic Dannay gave this magazine was its variety and its reach.”
Hutchings was referring to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and she was invoking the name of its founding editor, Frederic Dannay, who, along with his cousin Manfred B. Lee, collaborated to produce the short stories and novels of the pseudonymous mystery writer Ellery Queen, selling somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 million books. Hutchings is now the magazine’s editor, and she offered her theory about its longevity at a symposium that launched a delightful new show, “Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine 75th Anniversary Exhibition,” which is now at the Butler Library at Columbia University in New York.
The exhibition is a little gold mine for mystery fans in particular and book lovers in general. There are typed manuscript pages by Patricia Highsmith, P.D. James, Isaac Asimov, and others. Sitting there behind glass, they have the look of Scripture. There are letters, photographs, and book and magazine covers, including the inaugural issue of EQMM from the fall of 1941, which featured stories by Dashiell Hammett, Cornell Woolrich, and, of course, Ellery Queen. The cover illustration of the 75th anniversary issue is by venerable Milton Glaser, whose very first published illustration was a cover for EQMM in 1954. Among its many delights, the anniversary issue features a new story by Joyce Carol Oates, a frequent contributor, and a classic from 1948 by Stanley Ellin, “The Specialty of the House.”
Dannay made no secret during his lifetime that he and his collaborating cousin had their disagreements — “We fight like hell,” was how he put it — and this show offers an amusing glimpse into their creative differences. As a rule, Dannay cooked up the plots, Lee did the storytelling, then Dannay did the editing. When Lee complained about Dannay’s heavy use of the blue pencil, a letter in the exhibition at Columbia reveals Dannay’s indignant reaction: “Do you know that I am considered one of the most perceptive and astute detective-story editors in the business? By everyone but you.” In another letter, Dannay added, “Manny, you are emotionally, physically and mentally incapable of taking criticism.”
For all the friction, the magazine was a smooth-running machine from day one. The inaugural issue sold more than 90,000 copies, and it contained a note from Dannay that expanded on Janet Hutchings’s “variety and reach” recipe for its success: “We propose to give you stories by big-name writers, by lesser known writers, and by unknown writers. But no matter what their source, they will be superior stories.”
True to Dannay’s word, the magazine has published the work of more than 40 Nobel- and Pulitzer Prize-winning authors, countless mid-listers, and more than 800 writers who broke into print in the magazine’s Department of First Stories. The Passport to Crime series has showcased the work of international writers. Jorge Luis Borges was first published in English in the pages of the magazine.
“One of the things about EQMM is that it made a major change in publishing,” Hutchings told me. “The only criterion for inclusion in the magazine was quality. Dannay was determined that the magazine be general — with hard-boiled stories, classic English mysteries, noirs, suspense, cozy mysteries, the work of literary writers. That really hadn’t been done before, and it had the effect of mainstreaming the mystery. Now academics are starting to write articles about this.”
Indeed, EQMM can be seen as a pioneering force in what is now a fact of life in American fiction — the blending of supposedly “high” and “low” literary forms, the blurring of genre boundaries, the growing sense among writers and readers that the old strictures and snobberies hampered free and fruitful cross-pollination. Now, writers of every stripe gleefully plunder one or more genres, stitching together scraps or horror, pulp, crime, fantasy, ghost stories, mysteries, westerns.
In 2011, the literary novelist Colson Whitehead published Zone One, in which a plague has turned most of the world’s population into zombies. A decade earlier, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon’s exuberant mash-up of comic books and high lit, won the Pulitzer Prize. Loren D. Estleman, primarily a writer of crime and western fiction, just published a short story collection called Desperate Detroit that features a western with vampire cowboys. In a related vein, the movie Cowboys & Aliens sets extraterrestrials loose in the Wild West. Elmore Leonard and Stephen King, unapologetic genre writers, both penned well-regarded advice on how to write well. “Nowadays,” Kurt Anderson recently wrote in The New York Times, “esteem isn’t much withheld from people who write thoughtful, first-rate novels that also happen to be page-turners, like [Jonathan Lethem’s] A Gambler’s Anatomy. The boundaries between high and low — or between serious fiction and ‘entertainments,’ in Graham Greene’s binary classification of his work — are no longer prissily enforced. That’s progress.” I agree. All the while, such literary writers as Joyce Carol Oates, William Faulkner, and P.G. Wodehouse have made rich contributions to EQMM. The magazine’s 75th anniversary edition features a story by Charlaine Harris, who, in Hutchings’s estimation, “has done more than any other recent writer to break down the boundaries between mystery and fantasy.” On and on it goes, to the delight of every reader who hates the formulaic and loves unfettered, unpredictable writing.
“There’s still some snobbery left in certain areas,” Hutchings said, “but there’s much more openness, and I do think EQMM played a role in that. And still does.”
Don’t take her word for it. Go see “Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine’s 75th Anniversary Exhibition” at Columbia. It will be open through Dec. 23.
Loren D. Estleman is a crazy prolific writer, in a league with Anthony Trollope and Joyce Carol Oates. In his 63 years, Estleman has produced more than 70 books — novels, collections of short stories, and writing manuals, as well as book reviews and assorted journalism. The words don’t just pour out of Estleman’s typewriters — he owns dozens of them, including some century-old museum pieces — no, they roar out, a relentless typhoon of words — words that are even more remarkable for their consistently high quality than their staggering quantity. In this sense he’s closer to rock-solid Trollope than to hit-or-miss Oates.
Newly published is Desperate Detroit: And Stories of Other Dire Places, a collection that will solidify Estleman’s stature with his hardcore fans while serving as an ideal introduction for uninitiated readers. The book is a sumptuous smorgasbord featuring hit men, riffs on John Dillinger and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a homicidal newspaper reporter, a grifter, an insurance scammer, a coffin-maker, a crime-solving bookseller, a truck-driving contract killer, and a cop who gets seduced into murder. Estleman’s universe is not a just or tidy place. Some people get away with murder, repeatedly, while others get framed for murders they didn’t commit. Everyone’s working an angle, and there are double-crosses and surprise twists, humor and ample darkness. There’s even a vampire western! One of the few things missing from this collection is a hard-boiled story featuring Estleman’s irrepressible Detroit P.I., Amos Walker.
For 40 years and counting, Estleman’s bread and butter have been the western and the crime story, though his fiction ranges so widely, from the 19th century to today, from prairies to ghettos, that it would be impossible and unfair to peg him as any single kind of genre writer. If anything ties Estleman’s work together, it is the eternal presence of crime in human affairs. “Crime,” as he writes in the new book’s introduction, “is the most durable small business we have.”
As I read these stories, I kept flipping to the front of the book, where their original publication venues and dates are printed. I was surprised to notice that, with a few exceptions, they first appeared in one of two places: Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine or Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. The first short story Estleman published, “The Tree on Execution Hill,” appeared in the August 1977 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. “The Used” was his first sale to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, in the June 1982 issue. These stories, which both appear in Desperate Detroit, were the beginnings of long and fruitful partnerships that endure to this day.
So this book was turning out to be more than a sampling of stories by a writer with a vast range, an iron work ethic, and a time-tested ability to please readers. The book is also a window into the way the publishing of short fiction has changed in America since World War II — a time of brutal contraction both in the audience for short stories and in the venues where they get published.
The first issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, featuring stories by Dashiell Hammett and Cornell Woolrich, was published in the fall of 1941, which means the magazine has now reached the venerable age of 75. The first thing you need to know about Ellery Queen is that he didn’t exist. It was the pen name of two cousins, Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, who developed an unusual division of labor. Dannay edited the magazine until his death in 1982, while the two collaborated, sometimes contentiously, on the short stories and novels that appeared under the byline of Ellery Queen and sold some 100 million books. “We fight like hell,” Dannay said of his collaborating cousin. He added, a bit more loftily, “Our books are as much a canvas of their time as the books of Proust were of his time.”
In 1956, a sister publication, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, began publishing, also edited by Dannay. Its only affiliation with the great filmmaker was the use of his name and image on the cover for branding purposes, sort of like Donald Trump spring water. The magazine was born at what would seem an unpropitious moment — as the slick magazines (Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post, Story, Good Housekeeping) were either going out of business or dropping fiction, while the pulps (Black Mask, Two-Fisted Detective, Weird Tales) were succumbing to television, paperback novels, comics, and changing post-war tastes. And yet, both EQMM and AHMM managed to survive the shakeout, and they continue to thrive.
Dannay’s likening of Ellery Queen to Proust may be a stretch, but it was revealing. “One of Dannay’s aspirations for EQMM was to demonstrate that the mystery was a ‘genuine literary form,’” the magazine’s current editor, Janet Hutchings, told me in an email. “This led to the publication of work by more than 40 Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners, including William Faulkner.” Other names to grace the table of contents include Agatha Christie, P.G. Wodehouse, Ed McBain, Isaac Asimov, Ruth Rendell, and Ian Rankin. EQMM was the first magazine to publish Jorge Luis Borges in English. Stephen King, a frequent contributor, calls it “the best mystery magazine in the world, bar none.”
Maybe one reason the magazine and its sister continue to thrive is that our age has finally caught up with Dannay’s 75-year-old vision. In 1941, as the Christian Science Monitor put it, the detective story was “frowned upon by the fusty gatekeepers of the literary establishment.” Recently, after years of being segregated by those gatekeepers, writers began to allow “high” and “low” literary genres to cross-pollinate freely and fruitfully. The result was mash-ups, crossbreeds, delirious hybrids. Along with Estleman’s vampire western, we got movies like Cowboys and Aliens. Novelists, including Mark Binelli (Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die!) and Matthew Sharpe (Jamestown), fused seemingly incompatible genres into novels that are called “ashistorical fantasias.” Michael Chabon’s romp about comic book artists, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize. Elmore Leonard — primarily a writer of crime and western fiction like Loren D. Estleman — won high praise from such “literary” authors as Walker Percy and Martin Amis. Meanwhile, there have been successful efforts to resuscitate the impulses that once drove pulp fiction, most notably the Hard Case Crime series, which has published more than 100 titles in the past dozen years, including a lost novel by James M. Cain, an original by Stephen King, and, later this year, a lost novel by Erle Stanley Gardner, the creator of Perry Mason. “We’re trying to keep that style of publishing alive,” the series’s co-creator, Charles Ardai, told me. “Short books with a lot of velocity, compelling plots, beautiful cover art — and not too much ‘literary’ artifice.”
Ardai, not surprisingly, is an ardent fan of EQMM and AHMM. (He has worked at the former and contributed stories to both.) He’s also a fan of Loren D. Estleman. “He’s a bit of a genre blender,” Ardai says. “He’s of that pulp tradition where a writer would write westerns and horror and crime. I think he’d be proud of being described as a throwback to an earlier era, when writers wrote prolifically and never failed to entertain. It’s not haute cuisine — it’s red meat, the stuff you can’t put down until your plate is clean.”
When I’d finished reading Desperate Detroit, I called Estleman at his home in Michigan. (Full disclosure to fend off charges of log-rolling: Estleman wrote an enthusiastic review of my first novel in The Washington Post Book World in 1992, I sent him a thank-you note, he responded — and we’ve been pen pals ever since.) When Estleman came on the line, I asked him about the recent cross-pollination between genres, and between genre and literary fiction.
“I’ve made the point for years now that no genre ever dies,” he said. “Mainstream literary writers — people like Anne Tyler, who I like very much — are fighting over a smaller and smaller patch of ground. And genre writers are writing with more maturity. What genre writers understand now is that when someone dies, someone is out there to mourn them. Every death has a repercussion. So there’s a maturity that wasn’t always there before. These are novels about social conscience, reflecting what’s going on in our world.”
We’re getting back to Proust here. When I asked him about the importance of EQMM and AHMM to writers of short fiction, Estleman said, “They’re great magazines. They support unknown writers and they’ve launched a lot of people. They pay quite well, too, and sometimes the stories get included in anthologies. I’m still getting royalty checks for stories I wrote 30 years ago.”
But Estleman doesn’t deny that the shrinking of the market for short fiction has put a pinch on him and every other writer working today. “I would have loved to work during the golden age of pulp magazines,” he said. “There were at least 100 of them, and a writer could just go down the list submitting a story until it sold. Elmer Kelton, the great western writer, once told me that back in the day a writer could become a millionaire at half a cent a word.”
It’s something Anthony Trollope understood more than a century ago. And while Loren D. Estleman may not be a millionaire, he’s a writer who has made a solid living by working every day, one word at a time. Writer’s block is not in his vocabulary.
Naturally he has a new novel out, a western, featuring one of his most durable characters, U.S. Deputy Page Murdock. It’s called Cape Hell, a title that would have been right at home on the cover of a pulp novel.
Once again in 2015 some of the literary firmament’s brightest stars were extinguished. We lost a pair of Nobel laureates, a pair of former U.S. poets laureate, beloved novelists, prize-winning poets, a tireless human rights activist, a wily agent, a revered teacher, a champion of black writers, a writer of shameless sexcapades, and memoirists who refused to flinch when dissecting their first-hand experiences with addiction, persecution, disease, and the horrors of Jim Crow. Here is a selective compendium of literary obituaries from 2015.
The Robert Stone novel that sticks in my mind is Dog Soldiers, winner of the 1975 National Book Award, the story of a Vietnam-to-California heroin smuggling scheme gone horribly wrong. It’s also a singular portrait of how the blissed-out ’60s, which Stone experienced first-hand with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, turned into one very bad trip. Stone, who died on Jan. 10 at 77, produced eight big novels, a pair of story collections, and a memoir, books in which danger is everywhere, Americans behave badly either at home or in some far-flung hot spot, and neither God nor any hope of salvation is to be found. Stone was an American rarity: a writer who dared to walk in the footsteps of Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene, and never stumbled.
Anne Moody produced just two books in her lifetime, but her debut, the wrenching memoir Coming of Age in Mississippi, is as timely today as it was when it appeared in 1968. Moody, who died on Feb. 5 at 74, told in spare unflinching prose what it was like for the daughter of black sharecroppers to grow up in the Jim Crow deep South, and then to dare to join the civil rights struggle. She worked with various organizations — the Congress for Racial Equality, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — once getting dragged by her hair from a Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in, while watching a fellow protester get bloodied by a brass-knuckle punch. After leaving the movement, she moved to New York City, where she wrote her memoir, then lived quietly for decades working non-writing jobs. Late in life, she acknowledged to an interviewer that writing her memoir had taught her a painful lesson: “I came to see through my writing that no matter how hard we in the movement worked, nothing seemed to change. We were like an angry dog on a leash that had turned on its master. It could bark and howl and snap, and sometimes even bite, but the master was always in control.”
Moody’s only other book was a slim collection of short stories for young people called Mr. Death.
In 1976 I came upon a book of poems that proved that art can be made from absolutely anything, including a night-shift job at the Chevy Gear & Axle factory in Detroit. The book was peopled with autoworkers, fading boxers, and working stiffs, people who stubbornly refuse to admit defeat in the face of the monstrous forces that belittle them. The book was called Not This Pig, the second volume of poems by a Detroit native named Philip Levine, who died on Feb. 14 at 87. On the back cover, Levine explained that the book is filled with “the people, places, and animals I am not, the ones who live at all costs and come back for more, and who if they bore tattoos — a gesture they don’t need — would have them say, ‘Don’t tread on me’ or ‘Once more with feeling’ or ‘No pasarán’ or ‘Not this pig.’” Reading that book was the birth of a passion for Levine’s poetry that endures to this day and shows no signs of flagging.
Levine was born in Detroit in 1928 and went to work in a soap factory at 14 — the first in a long string of factory jobs that could have crushed his body and spirit but instead gave him the raw material for a body of work that would win him high honors, a devoted readership, and a stint as U.S. poet laureate. His great subject was the people who do the brutal manual labor that usually gets ignored, by poets and everyone else. When I wrote an appreciation of Levine four years ago (here), I quoted a 1999 interview in which Levine realized, looking back, that Not This Pig was the book that gave him his voice.
“Those were my first good Detroit work poems — the poems in Not This Pig…,” Levine said. “It’s ironic that while I was a worker in Detroit, which I left when I was 26, my sense was that the thing that’s going to stop me from being a poet is the fact that I’m doing this crummy work…I’m going to fuck up because what am I doing? I’m going to work every day. The irony is, going to work every day became the subject of probably my best poetry. But I couldn’t see that at the time. And it took me another ten years to wake up to it — that I had a body of experience that nobody else had.”
Günther Grass’s life turned out to be an illustration of just how treacherous and slippery the high moral ground can be. After blazing onto the world literary stage with his 1959 masterpiece, The Tin Drum, Grass spent his long and productive career as Germany’s self-anointed conscience, pushing his countrymen to face up to the dark strains of their history, especially the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust. Grass, who died on April 13 at 87, railed against militarism and nuclear proliferation, opposed German unification, denounced the Catholic and Lutheran churches, supported Fidel Castro’s Cuba and Nicaragua’s Sandinista government, and spoke of the “unchecked lust for profit” that drove German companies to sell weaponry to Saddam Hussein. He also found time to be a novelist, playwright, essayist, short story writer, poet, sculptor, and printmaker. In 1999 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
But it was not until 2006, on the eve of the publication of a memoir, Peeling the Onion, that a dark truth emerged. For years Grass had claimed he was a flakhelfer during the war, one of many youths charged with guarding antiaircraft gunneries. But finally he admitted that he had been a member of the elite Waffen-SS, notorious for committing many atrocities. Though Grass was not implicated in any war crimes, the belated revelation caused a furor.
“My silence over all these years is one of the reasons I wrote the book,” he explained. “It had to come out in the end.” In the memoir he added, “The brief inscription meant for me reads: ‘I kept silent.’”
James Salter is often pinned with that grimmest of labels, “a writer’s writer.” Even worse, James Wolcott called Salter America’s “most under-rated under-rated writer.” I prefer to remember Salter, who died on June 19 at 90, as a writer of gem-like sentences that added up to a handful of highly accomplished novels and short stories, a man who lived a long and fruitful life and, in the bargain, had no peer when it came to writing about flight.
In 1952 Salter flew more than 100 combat missions in an F-86 jet, hunting and fighting MiG-15s in the skies over Korea. His writing about flying — most notably in his first novel, The Hunters, and in his memoir, Burning the Days — has won high praise, including this accolade from a fellow military pilot, Will Mackin: “Salter’s writing about flying made me miss flying even while I was still flying.” Salter took a dim view of such praise: “I have said many times I don’t want to be considered one who once flew fighters. That’s not who I am.”
So who was James Salter? A writer who put the exact right words in the exact right order to produce books full of beauty and insight and pain — six novels, two collections of short stories, a book of poetry, essays on food and travel, and a memoir. (Salter also wrote screenplays, including the 1969 Robert Redford movie Downhill Racer. It wasn’t art, Salter acknowledged, but the Hollywood money was wonderful.) Salter was also a writer who craved the broad popularity that never came his way. He explained the craving this way: “You can’t be admitted to the ranks of writers of importance unless you have sales.”
Like Philip Levine before him, Theodore Weesner, who died on June 25 at 79, turned his indifferent early years into indelible writing. Instead of soul-crushing factory jobs, Weesner had to contend with an alcoholic father and a teenage mother who abandoned him and his older brother when they were toddlers. After living in a foster home and dropping out of high school to join the Army at 17, Weesner went on to attend Michigan State University and earn an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Worskhop.
His first novel, The Car Thief, was published in 1972 to critical acclaim, and it has become a cult classic. The novel, which was reissued in 1987 as part of the Vintage Contemporaries series, reads as neither a screed nor a cry for help, but rather as a tender and clear-eyed portrait of a troubled boy, 16-year-old Alex Housman, whose only available means of self-expression is to steal cars. Weesner went on to produce half a dozen other works of fiction, which, like his debut, won critical praise but a modest readership. Late in life, Weesner seemed to come to terms with his fate. In 2007 he told an interviewer, “I get this ‘neglected writer’ a lot…The Car Thief got a lot of awards and praise and was widely reviewed. And (since) then no one has given me a whole lot of credit.”
I would not presume to single out the best book by E.L. Doctorow, who died on July 21 at 84. But I’m convinced Ragtime was both his best loved and his most influential book. Published in 1975, it did something unheard-of at the time: it mingled fictional characters with historical figures — Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, Booker T. Washington, Henry Ford, and many others — to create a vivid portrait of America on the eve of the First World War, the dying moments of the nation’s heedless exuberance and innocence. The novel was not universally loved. John Updike famously dissed it, and William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker, refused to run a review of it. “I had transgressed in making up words and thoughts that people never said,” Doctorow said years later. “Now it happens almost every day. I think that opened the gates.”
Ragtime opened the gates for writers of wildly different temperaments to start inserting historical figures into their novels, either at center stage or in the background. These writers included Joyce Carol Oates (who channeled Marilyn Monroe), Colum McCann (Rudolf Nureyev, Philippe Petit, and Frederick Douglass, among others), James McBride and Russell Banks (John Brown), and Don DeLillo (Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby). For Michael Chabon, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Doctorow’s fiction — including Loon Lake and World’s Fair, but especially Ragtime — offered novelists a “magic way out” of the confining box made by the reigning ’70s vogues of “dirty realism” and post-modernism. In The Guardian two days after Doctorow’s death, Chabon wrote, “In opening that particular door, Doctorow made a startling discovery: done properly, the incorporation of historical figures into a fictional context did not come off as some kind of smart-ass critique of subjectivity and the fictive nature of history. Done properly it just made the lies you were telling your reader — with his or her full and willing consent, of course — sound that much more true. And that small-t truth then became a powerful tool for getting across whatever Truth, subjective or fragmentary though it might be, that you felt you had it in you to express.”
By the time she died on Sept. 19 at 77, Jackie Collins had produced some 30 steamy novels that tended to carry a Hollywood zip code and sold more than half a billion copies. Collins, who was born in London, was refreshingly candid about the shameless commercialism of her fiction. “I never pretended to be a literary writer,” she once said. “I am a school dropout.”
Her writing style brought to mind the USA Today columns of Al Neuharth — short sentences, liberal use of fragments, no words that would send readers to the dictionary. Her books were also loaded with sex, beginning with her debut, The World Is Full of Married Men, from 1968, when, as Collins put it, “no one was writing about sex except Philip Roth.” Perhaps Collins’s keenest insight was to understand that literature, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and so she set about filling it to the brim. And she did her research. While still a teenager, she visited her actress sister Joan in Hollywood, where she met and bedded a hot young actor named Marlon Brando. When an interviewer suggested in 2007 that America had become a great big titillating Jackie Collins novel, she replied, “That’s true. When Clinton had his affair and the Starr report came out, reviewers actually said, ‘This is like a Jackie Collins novel.’ But in my books, the sex is better.”
Grace Lee Boggs
The indefatigable social activist and prolific author Grace Lee Boggs died in Detroit on Oct. 5 at the age of 100. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, she was born above her father’s Chinese restaurant in Providence, R.I., and raised in Jackson Heights, Queens. While earning degrees from Barnard and Bryn Mawr, she steeped herself in the writings of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Immanuel Kant, and Karl Marx, then moved to Chicago and started organizing protests against slum housing.
Her life changed in 1953, when she relocated to Detroit and married James Boggs, a black autoworker and activist. Together they plunged into the city’s radical politics, protesting racism, sexism, and police brutality. Malcolm X was a frequent visitor in their home. When fires and shootings swept Detroit in the summer of 1967 — a justified rebellion, not a senseless riot, in the eyes of Boggs and her fellow radicals — she reached what she described as “a turning point in my life.” She began shunning confrontation in favor of nonviolent strategies, a path she followed for the rest of her days. She founded food cooperatives and community groups to fight crime and to stand up for the elderly, the unemployed, and people fighting utility shutoffs. She planted community gardens. Always, she kept writing. She published her autobiography, Living for Change, in 1998. In her final book, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century, published in 2011, the former radical aligned herself with Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King. “We are not subversives,” she wrote. “We are struggling to change this country because we love it.”
The above list doesn’t pretend to be comprehensive. Here are some other noteworthy literary deaths from 2015, in alphabetical order:
John Bayley, 89, was an Oxford don and literary critic whose moving memoir, Elegy for Iris, recounted his life with his wife, the Booker Prize-winning novelist Iris Murdoch, both before and after she was stricken with Alzheimer’s disease. Elegy was published in 1999, shortly before Murdoch died, and two years later it was made into a movie starring Jim Broadbent as Bayley and Judi Dench as the ailing Murdoch.
David Carr, 58, was a celebrated New York Times columnist who weathered cancer, alcoholism, and crack cocaine addiction, then wrote about his battles with verve and black humor in his 2008 memoir, The Night of the Gun.
Assia Djebar, 78, was an Algerian-born novelist, poet, playwright, and filmmaker who was often mentioned as a Nobel Prize candidate for her unflinching explorations of the plight of women in the male-dominated Arab world. Djebar was also adept at kicking down doors. She was the first Algerian student and the first Muslim woman admitted to France’s elite École Normale Supérieure, and the first writer from North Africa to be elected to the Académie Française. Despite these achievements, she insisted, “I am not a symbol. My only activity consists of writing.”
Ivan Doig, 75, produced 16 works of fiction and non-fiction that celebrated his native western Montana, where the Rocky Mountains begin their rise “like a running leap of the land.” Doig, whose affecting final novel, Last Bus to Wisdom, was published posthumously, liked to say he came from “the lariat proletariat, the working-class point of view.” The critic Sven Birkerts called him “a presiding figure in the literature of the American West.”
When Charles F. Harris, who died on Dec. 16 at 81, went to work as an editor at Doubleday in the mid-1950s, the work of black writers was a niche market that was treated more like a ghetto by New York publishing houses. Harris helped change that, most notably as chief executive of the nation’s first black university press, Howard University Press, where he published Margaret Walker, Nikki Giovanni, Jean Toomer, Walter Rodney, and many other black writers. Harris also founded Amistad Press, which published critical volumes on Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, and Alice Walker, among others.
Jack Leggett, 97, was a novelist, biographer, editor, and teacher who was the director of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop from 1970 to 1987. He stocked the nation’s oldest creative writing program with big-name teaching talent, including John Cheever, Gail Godwin, Raymond Carver, Frederick Exley, and Leggett’s eventual successor, Frank Conroy. Students included Jane Smiley, Sandra Cisneros, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Michael Cunningham, and Denis Johnson. During Leggett’s tenure there was a fundamental shift in students’ approach to writing, which he summarized this way after a decade on the job: “In 1970 there were a lot of kids out of the armed forces and the Peace Corps. They were an undisciplined lot. They would say, ‘Don’t tell me about form.’ Now they are very interested in technique. They want to know what novelists have done in the past. And it shows in their work.”
When Leggett arrived in Iowa City there were about a dozen creative writing programs in the country. Today, for better or worse, there are more than 200.
Colleen McCullough, 77, was a neurophysiological researcher who decided to write novels in her spare time and wound up striking gold with her second book, the international bestseller The Thorn Birds, in 1977. A panoramic tale of McCullough’s native land, it was made into a popular TV mini-series and was often called “the Australian Gone With the Wind.”
The Scottish writer William McIlvanney, 79, became known as “the father or Tartan noir” for his novels featuring the Glasgow cop Jack Laidlaw. McIlvanney was also a poet, essayist, teacher, short story writer, TV narrator, and, in the eyes of The Telegraph, “the finest Scottish novelist of his generation.”
Sir Terry Pratchett, 66, the knighted British novelist, produced more than 70 immensely popular works of fantasy, including the series known as Discworld. It was a Frisbee-shaped place balanced on the backs of four elephants who stood on the shell of a giant turtle, a place populated by witches and trolls and a ravenous character known as Death. While frequently ignored by serious critics, Pratchett had fans in high places. A.S. Byatt applauded his abundant gifts, not least his ability to write “amazing sentences.”
Ruth Rendell, 85, was the British author of more than 60 mystery novels that hit the trifecta: they were intricately plotted, psychologically acute, and immensely popular with readers and critics, selling some 60 million copies worldwide and winning numerous awards on both sides of the Atlantic. Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford was her most durable character and a sort of alter-ego. “I’m not creating a character,” Rendell said, “so much as putting myself as a man on the page.” Along with her friend P.D. James, who died in 2014, Rendell is credited with exploding the confines of the mystery genre. In a 2013 interview, Rendell vowed she would never stop writing. “I’ll do it until I die,” she said. Her final novel, Dark Corners, was published in October, five months after her death.
Oliver Sacks, 82, was a neurologist who used his patients’ conditions, from amnesia to Tourette’s syndrome, as starting points for his bestselling books about the human brain and the human condition. He called his books “neurological novels.” More than a million copies are in print.
Timothy Seldes, 88, was one of the last of a vanishing breed — an old-school literary agent and editor who believed that literature should be seen as a vital source of oxygen for the nation’s culture, not as product that needs to be moved. How quaint. He was, in a word, a gentleman, whose devoted clients included Anne Tyler, Jim Lehrer, Annie Dillard, and Nadine Gordimer.
William Jay Smith, 97, was a poet, critic, memoirist, translator, and teacher who served as U.S. poet laureate from 1968 to 1970. His poems, both tactile and empirical, embraced rhyme, meter, and other conventions deemed passé by many of his contemporaries. To his credit, Smith ignored them. In “Structure of a Song,” he offered this lovely anatomy of the making of a poem:
Its syllables should come
As natural and thorough
As sunlight over plum
Or melon in the furrow,
Rise smoother than the hawk
Or gray gull ever could;
As proud and freely walk
As deer in any wood.
So lightly should it flow
From stone so deep in earth
That none could ever know
What torment gave it birth.
James Tate, 71, was a Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning poet who believed “the challenge is always to find the ultimate in the ordinary.” His 17th book, Dome of the Hidden Pavilion, has come out posthumously, and it’s marked by his trademark surrealism and wordplay, deployed in narrative-driven prose poems that Tate turned to in his later years. He never lost his child’s sense of wonder at the plastic magic of language, its ability to startle. These lines come from his final book:
I was sitting on the porch when I watched my neighbor’s kids walk by on their way to school. One of them turned and waved to me. I waved back. That’s when I realized they were zombies.
Tomas Tranströmer, 83, was an accomplished pianist, an amateur entomologist, and a trained psychologist who worked with juvenile offenders. He was also a popular and beloved poet, sometimes called “Sweden’s Robert Frost,” whose crystalline, sometimes chilly poems won a Nobel Prize in 2011.
C.K. Williams, 78, was a Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning poet who, unlike James Tate, wrote morally charged, politically impassioned poems about such weighty topics as poverty, love, death, war, climate change, and the shootings at Kent State University. Like Tate, Williams moved toward longer ribbony lines that freed him to “talk about things.” Shortly before he died, from multiple myeloma, Williams completed a collection of poems about death and dying. He called it Falling Ill.
Rest in peace. Through your words you will all live on.
My generation of comics fans had a reading list. In grade school, we dug Chris Claremont’s S&M take on the X-Men and reprints of Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four. When we were 12, we picked up Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and Maus, which dealt with the things 12 year olds think of as adult, like fascism, the military industrial complex, and the Holocaust. In either our senior year of high school or freshman year of college, a friend turned us on to Neil Gaiman, Adrian Tomine’s short stories, and, because it’s fun to see Betty Boop actually have sex, reprints of the Tijuana Bibles. A teaching assistant in a public policy class assigned Joe Sacco’s Palestine, which came with a foreword from Edward Said. There were a few other milestones that brought our interests into the literary mainstream, like Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, Art Spiegelman’s September 11 New Yorker cover, Fun Home, as well as two novels, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. We had always kept copies of Eightball next to our issues of Granta. Now the rest of the world does the same.
The roster of Drawn and Quarterly — Lynda Barry, Kate Beaton, Chester Brown, Daniel Clowes, Julie Doucet, Jason Lutes, Joe Matt, Joe Sacco, Seth, James Sturm, Jillian Tamaki, Adrian Tomine, and Chris Ware — represents at least a quarter of this high-art, high-literary comics renaissance in the Anglophone world. This summer, the Montreal-based independent comics publisher released a 776-page anthology in celebration of its silver anniversary, Drawn and Quarterly: Twenty-Five Years of Contemporary Cartooning, Comics, and Graphic Novels. It’s a fun book, filled with old and new work by the house’s artists and appreciation essays from scholars, fellow travelers, and novelists.Credit: Daniel Clowes/Drawn and Quarterly
A publisher’s anthology of its own work will be a hagiography. That’s okay. There are other places for brutal criticism of comics. The mainstream press is learning to develop a more discerning eye towards the form, to not declare every new graphic novel by a semi-famous artist a groundbreaking innovation. The Internet has many take-down podcasts. D&Q’s anthology reads like a high school yearbook, complete with scrapbook-level photographs. The personal essays describe career changes that are more interesting to their authors than to their readers. With that said, the book also provides an important service. The initial phase of the comics renaissance is over, and the publication of this anthology offers an opportunity for understanding what defined D&Q, what we readers were looking for in comics throughout the past 25 years, and what we are looking for now.Credit: James Sturm/Drawn and Quarterly
Chris Oliveros, the founding editor of D&Q, was smart, industrious, and he had an excellent eye for talent, but there were others before him. Fantagraphics had been around for awhile when Oliveros started his project and it published The Comics Journal, an exuberant and angry forum for comics journalism and criticism. Fantagraphics’s premiere artists, Los Bros. Hernandez, were Latino children of the punk scene. Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly edited RAW. Robert Crumb, Peter Bagge, and Aline Kominsky-Crumb edited Weirdo. Alison Bechdel and Howard Cruse had homes in the niche gay press. There were places for ferocious comics creators who told stories other people weren’t telling, but those spaces were limited. D&Q was a welcome addition to the comics world.
D&Q began in April 1990 as a black-and-white comics anthology. It fit the standard newsstand magazine size at 8.5″ x 11″. It was 32 pages long. It had a glossy cover. In its first issue, Oliveros, who was then in his early-20s, called for higher standards for the comics medium and lamented the “private boys’ club” that characterized the comics industry. The manifesto set a tone for what the company eventually became.
The magazine’s sales were based on the “direct market,” comic-book specialty stores which would buy the magazine on a non-returnable basis. It was the most economically viable option at the time, but it also limited the magazine’s reach. Soon after the first issue of the anthology, Oliveros started publishing single-artist comic books. In a few years, the original anthology magazine went to color and D&Q found inroads into Virgin Megastores (which have disappeared from North America), Tower Records (which are all now gone), and pre-monopoly Amazon. Oliveros started compiling serialized stories in quality paperbacks and hardcovers and published stand-alone graphic novels. Storeowners didn’t quite know what to do with these comics, how to sell them to the people who read literary novels. Peggy Burns, a publicist at DC Comics, came to D&Q in 2003 and in 2005 she negotiated a distribution deal with FSG. The people who published Jonathan Franzen also worked with Adrian Tomine, which was as it should be.
The essays here claim D&Q treats its creators well. D&Q allows its artists to do what they want to do, letting some of them design their books in meticulous detail, determining paper type, size, and printer quality. They are book-makers at heart. D&Q’s artists are good to their fans. They get to know them at conventions and spend a long time inscribing their books with cartoons during signings. The audience who reads this anthology has probably also read the major popular comics histories of the last few years and it knows that a comics publisher that allows creators space for their genius, doesn’t force them to hire a lawyer, and doesn’t populate its staff with misogynists is a special publisher.
No one agrees why D&Q was so good. The testimonials contradict each other.
Jason Lutes, the author of Berlin and Jar of Fools: “They were the kind of comics I was hungry for — taking a cue from the precedent set by Art Spiegelman’s RAW magazine, but stepping out from under the influence of the American underground, which had overshadowed so much of ‘alternative comics’ up to that point.”
TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe on his introduction to D&Q: “From then on I only wanted to read and make ‘underground’ comics, watch and make ‘underground’ films, listen to ‘underground’ music, and basically soak up anything that seemed even a little bit subversive.”
Anders Nilsen describes the publisher’s “quiet, understated commitment to quality work.”
It’s not always clear who is on the inside and who is on the outside, what is dangerous and what is just new. Those contradictions define D&Q.
Let’s start with Kate Beaton, who uses the comic-strip format and her naïve style to take down the myths of Western high culture. In her appreciation essay, Margaret Atwood writes, “Let she who has never drawn arms and a moustache on a picture of the Venus de Milo in her Latin book cast the first rubber eraser.” In one of Beaton’s parodies of The Great Gatsby, our hero complains that the green light gives him seizures. Beaton’s work isn’t that subversive. A hip teacher would hand that strip to her students. She would smile when her students told her the strip is better than the corresponding passage in the book. Atwood goes on, “Of course, in order to burlesque a work of literature or an historic event, you have to know it and, in some sense, love it — or at least understand its inner workings.”Credit: Kate Beaton/Drawn and Quarterly
In the early ’90s, Adrian Tomine was a prodigy scribbling away at his grim mini-comics and taking notes from Oliveros by mail. His work has grown more somber and mature through the years and now he is a master of narrative in different permutations of the comics form. Françoise Mouly describes the “handsome, stripped-down aesthetics” of his New Yorker covers, which “form a paean to the poignancy of daily life in the big city.” The moments he captures in these covers are pregnant with ambiguity, and he “finds the humanity of a small town within the big one.” His stories depict human beings who struggle with their own mediocrity. Tomine’s work is even-keeled. The lines are careful. The page layouts and panel organization don’t invite any confusion. He has a gentle, classical style and he can bring you just to the edge of tears.Credit: Adrian Tomine/Drawn and Quarterly
Jonathan Lethem describes Chester Brown as a “citizen of the timeless nation of the dissident soul, as much as Dostoevsky’s underground man. At the same time, he’s also a citizen of a nation of one: Chesterbrownton, or Chesterbrownsylvania, a desolate but charged region he seems to have no choice but to inhabit.” Brown’s subjects veer between the respectable and the borderline subversive. His best-known book Louis Riel is now a staple of Canadian public schools. Paying for It is a memoir of his life as a john. The anthology includes “The Zombie Who Liked the Arts,” a tale from 2007 about a zombie’s infatuation with a human female. These are stories about lonely men, a would-be revolutionary who fights madness, and lovers who dislike their own bodies. Brown’s connection to the underground may be less tenuous, but unlike the folks at RAW and Weirdo, unlike Fyodor Dostoevsky for that matter, he doesn’t hide his polish.Credit: Chester Brown/Drawn and Quarterly
Are these books threatening? In his 2005 book Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature, Charles Hatfield noted that the appeal of the comix underground in the 1970s required the medium of the traditional comic book itself, and the ironies that involved using a medium associated with the “jejune” to discuss illicit, “adult” topics. “[T]he package was inherently at odds with the sort of material the artists wanted to handle, and this gave the comix books their unique edge.” I don’t know if the packaging still matters in the same way, if the placement of Tomine’s mature, sad stories within the firm pages of a graphic novel causes such a disjuncture.Credit: Julie Doucet/Drawn and Quarterly
My special edition of Julie Doucet’s exploration of sexual insanity Lève Ta Jambe Mon, Poisson Est Mort! comes complete with a lithograph of a nude belly dancer on the frontispiece and a rave review from ArtForum on the jacket cover. Sean Rogers describes Doucet’s “beguiling forays into an untrammeled imagination, rich with fantastic displays of menstrual flow, severed unmentionable body parts, and inanimate objects forced into service for pleasure.” Doucet is one of D&Q’s more anarchic writers and it may be true that this finely crafted hardbound edition cannot contain her sexuality. But I don’t know if it’s any more scandalous to read Leaves of Grass or Portnoy’s Complaint in a Library of America edition.
The packaging of these books matters for other reasons. Eleanor Davis, the author of How to Be Happy, explains why:
Loving a book containing prose is like loving a cup filled with a wonderful drink: the cup and drink are only connected by circumstance. Loving a comic book is different. The content and the form of a comic are connected inextricably. The little autonomous drawings are held tightly in the pages of the book the comic is printed in, and they cannot get away. When you hold the comic book, you hold those worlds. They are yours.
Drawn and Quarterly publishes extraordinary comics. And because they are an extraordinary company they know to make extraordinary books for these comics to live in.
It’s not irony that makes the fine hardcover editions of Beaton, Tomine, Brown and Doucet so good, it’s the craftsmanship that marries the content comfortably with the medium, a craftsmanship that understands that a small, standard, novel-size hardcover is appropriate for the spare intimate melancholy of Brown’s I Never Liked You, and that a large, flat, Tintin-like edition is appropriate for the grim fantasy of Daniel Clowes’s The Death-Ray. The various forms of packaging in D&Q’s catalogue simply offers an added texture to each of their creators’ distinct voices.
After 25 years, the D&Q artists’ formalist methods, their wry sense of humor, their careful delineation of human emotions, their firm grasp of the comic book/graphic novel as a medium have become not just familiar to comics readers but also the standard for quality comics. Their content, for the most part, is not shocking, and even the subversive voices are much less threatening now than they were before. Brown’s discussion of prostitution is no more provocative than Dan Savage’s. Doucet’s frank discussion of female sexuality was more shocking in the early ’90s than it will ever be again. These artists were never revolutionaries. They were never reactionaries either. They are Burkean liberals of the comics form.
For all its self-congratulation, the anthology does have a sense of humor about itself, the comics industry, and comics celebrity. The book contains a new story from Jillian Tamaki about a D&Q intern who finds fame and fortune after Oliveros fires her for writing a blog post critical of the company. It includes a handwritten note from Spiegelman to Oliveros declining the editor’s request. “I’m a big fan of Julie’s work and I can probably be bullied into giving a quote but would appreciate being left off the hook only because I’ve had to write so many damn blurbs recently. I dunno.” The book begins with a short strip by Chester Brown, “A History of Drawn & Quarterly in Six Panels,” which depicts Oliveros’s advance from youth to middle-age. In the final panel, Oliveros stands alone on a cold, quiet Montreal street.
Oliveros is retiring this year. Peggy Burns, the publicist who moved to D&Q from DC Comics, will now head the company. This anthology stands as a monument to Oliveros and what he accomplished. He discovered extraordinary talent, he widened the audience for non-superhero comics, he created a minor Canadian institution, and he published forgotten comics that would otherwise have been left to the archives. (D&Q has a secondary role as an NYRB Classics of comics, publishing reprints of vintage American comics creators like John Stanley and translations of classic foreign artists and writers like the Finnish author Tove Jansson.) With those accomplishments behind him, the message of Brown’s strip is ambiguous, but I take it to be this: The comics industry doesn’t really change anything. Most of the world is indifferent to your work just as most of the world is indifferent to poetry. This art form of comics will not bring you any closer to enlightenment and it will not bring you any great happiness. It won’t bring you any misery either. Comics makers and comics readers will grow older and come a little bit closer to death, the same way they would if they followed another vocation or indulged in another pastime.
Some of D&Q’s comics may have educated a few minds, but most of the publisher’s craftsmen embrace their own irrelevance. When I was young, I read Maus, Watchmen, and The Dark Knight Returns because they were about mass death, because they were strange, because they treated violence in a way that I thought was real. I still have them on my shelf and thumb through them now and again, but their appeal has changed. Watchmen, I realize now, is a comedy. The Dark Knight Returns is pretty funny too. Maus is as much about the horrors of the present as it is about the horrors of the past. I read Beaton, Brown, Tomine, and the rest because, in every well-placed line, in every well-told joke, they remind me that monotony has its own pleasures and comics don’t have to be important.
When Gabriel Garcia Marquez died in April, the general flow of eulogy settled on two interpretations of his legacy: in the first, as a titanic but essentially regional author (The Times obituary called One Hundred Years of Solitude “the defining saga of Latin America’s social and political history”); in the second, as a model for the diminishing novelties of subsequent magical realists, like Salman Rushdie and Isabel Allende.
Fair enough. Garcia Marquez himself saw his style as fundamentally linked to the politics of his continent in his lifetime. (Correctly — for example, nothing has ever better captured how important the theft of time must feel in a totalitarian state than the dictator who lives on and on for centuries in The Autumn of the Patriarch.) It’s also true that he gave license to a new kind of fabulism, unique in that it didn’t descend from Swift or Cervantes, and therefore didn’t depend on either satire or comedy to atone for the recklessness of its inventions.
Those are narrow channels of influence, however, and there’s a third, untracked, more expansive reading of his work to make. It might go like this: he solved an essential problem of the novel; he arrived at a moment of crisis for the form and offered the warring parties a graceful way out of it; and if there’s a single novel that can claim paternity for the last 20 years of American fiction, it’s probably One Hundred Years of Solitude.
That book was published in America in 1972, and it was a sensation, critically and commercially, William Kennedy famously calling it, with un-Albanyish zeal, “the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race.” (If you somehow haven’t heard of it, One Hundred Years of Solitude is the multi-generational chronicle of a Colombian family called the Buendias.) At the time, there was a battle afoot between two kinds of fiction. Writers like Jean Stafford and Michael Shaara, traditional realists, were winning the Pulitzer Prize, while the National Book Award, inclined toward a more radical approach, went to John Barth and William Gaddis, campus experimentalists grinding out the logical final steps of the project inaugurated by Borges, by Ulysses, Hopscotch, Albert Angelo. Each side loathed the other. Updike’s declaration about Thomas Pynchon — “I don’t like the funny names” — might as well stand in for the whole cultural apparatus that was committed to realism; on the other hand Barth’s foundational postmodernist essay “The Literature of Exhaustion” called realism “used up,” and Gaddis said that such writing “never takes your breath away…it’s for people who read with the surface of their minds, people with reading habits that make the smallest demands on them.”
The great formal achievement of One Hundred Years of Solitude was that it treated the two positions not as antipodal but as dialectical. It satisfied the modernist commitment to narrative innovation in two ways, first in its compression and dilation of time — what would become the hallmark of magical realism — and second in its use of the fantastic, the twins who die at the same instant, the visitation of the ghosts, the glass city, Remedios being sublimated into heaven as she does the laundry.
But Garcia Marquez made the ingenious decision to embed those moments of originality within the stubbornly enduring structure of the traditional realist novel, turning his book into a family saga by way of a dream — Trollope by way of Barthelme. By doing so, he managed to defuse a central tension, one that had divided novelists since Hemingway and Joyce pitched their opposing camps. Of course, there were writers before Garcia Marquez who had blended the magical and the prosaic (Kafka, most famously) but none of them were perhaps as fully committed to narrative as Garcia Marquez seemed — to story. Meanwhile, other writers across the world had the same impulse, many of them, interestingly, in totalitarian states, including Milan Kundera and Danilo Kis, but their books were being passed around in samizdat, not, as Garcia Marquez’s was, in suburban book clubs and city libraries. What makes One Hundred Years of Solitude a watershed moment of cultural history is that mix of plot, experimentation, acclaim, and popularity.
That’s also why its influence has been so subtly pervasive. Many of our heaviest hitters — Franzen, Wallace, Eisenberg, Tartt, Saunders, Chabon — were born around 1960, and therefore came of age during the book’s ascendancy. Considered in that light, their debt to it seems plain, whether or not they would acknowledge it, whether or not they found the book stimulating, indeed whether or not they’ve even read it.
The reason is that all of them play the same trick, filigreeing traditional realism with enough carefully selective post-modernism to claim its gloss of coolness — but without the unfortunate consequence of making their work difficult to read. In The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay there’s the Golem of Prague; in The Art of Fielding there’s the self-consciously literary exhumation of the corpse; in The Corrections, there’s the magical device of Correctall, the pill that allows Chip Lambert to forget his anxiety and enter a state of dreamlike euphoria. (It’s a sign of our age how often American magical realism is pharmaceutical, after Franzen’s example — the decision-making drug in Indecision by Benjamin Kunkel; the test subjects in George Saunders’s magnificent “Escape from Spiderhead.”) Fiction is an essentially conventional art form, most at home in the bourgeoisie, but its practitioners have — quite rightly! — never been at ease with that fact. The compromise at which we’ve arrived is that every book now has the credibility of the avant-garde within a Victorian structure. It’s more fun to claim the influence of John Hawkes than John Galsworthy; it’s more fun to read a book whose plot is patterned after Jane Austen than B.S. Johnson.
Unsurprisingly, the first American novelist to take the full implications of Garcia Marquez on board may have been our smartest one, Philip Roth. (It’s not a coincidence that he spent the 1970s publishing Eastern European novelists, and, as Roth Unbound described, sneaking money to them via illicit networks — a fact that ought to shame the Nobel committee members who have claimed that American writers are unworthy of the prize because they’re too inward-looking, too insular.) His books The Counterlife and Operation Shylock were precursors of the great florescence of faux-mo novels in the 2000’s, using false flags and mirrored characters without their pace or urgency. The logical culmination of the trend is probably The Marriage Plot, which states the tension outright, dropping a college student who just wants to read 19th-century novels into the semiotics craze of the 1980s.
At their weakest, these post-Garcia Marquez books have been kinetic without moving, emotional without evoking any real sensation, readable without deserving to be read. The novel of this type that comes to mind for me is Absurdistan by the sometimes terrific Gary Shteyngart, a disagreeable blend of absurdism and soft sentimentality. Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Junot Diaz, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Colson Whitehead can feel similarly limited by their very limitlessness — their work at times too ironized for readers to treat its narrative seriously, but too committed to narrative to offer the sense of alienation, dread, and obliqueness we feel in, for example, Don DeLillo and William Gibson. The writer for whom cultural critics were so eager to give Garcia Marquez credit, Salman Rushdie, might be the least exciting of the bunch. The Pale King offers a glimpse of what David Foster Wallace’s pushback against his own trend might have looked like — his reconnection with difficulty as a means of higher artistic consciousness.
Recent Pulitzer Prize committees have waded into this fray again; books of high seriousness, eschewing the jokey gloss of the comic book generation, have won the prize, including three lovely but deeply conservative novels, Tinkers by Paul Harding, March by Geraldine Brooks, and Olive Kitteredge by Elizabeth Strout. How much does that matter? The painter Gerhard Richter has spent the last 50 years dissolving what previously seemed like a crucial distinction between figurative and abstract painting; is it possible that novelists, too, no longer need to declare a single allegiance? If so, the books that Garcia Marquez gave a generation permission to write, produced during the truce between fabulism and realism, may begin to look odd: artifacts of the historical moment they thought they were creating. One of the pieces of shallow wisdom people like to repeat is that every great book either creates or dissolves a genre, and sometimes it’s true. One Hundred Years of Solitude, though it hasn’t quite received credit for this, established the school of fiction we currently consider great. It’s up to some other genius to dissolve it.