Poets, editors, songwriters, teachers, journalists, novelists—some great writers and some under-sung ones left us this year. Here, in chronological order of their deaths, is a selective compendium of literary obituaries from 2017.
Bharati Mukherjee was born in Calcutta, educated in England, Switzerland, and India; she earned advanced writing degrees in the United States, and lived more than a decade in Canada—a peripatetic life she mined to write fiction about the aspirations and dislocations of immigrant life. Mukherjee, who died Jan. 28 at 76, grew up in a rich Hindu family, “bubble-wrapped in innocence,” as she would say later. Shortly after arriving at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she studied under Philip Roth, Mukherjee informed her parents that she was not going through with the marriage they had arranged for her and that, in fact, she had recently married a white American writer, Clark Blaise. Her first-hand knowledge of the immigrant’s yearnings was captured in the title character of her breakthrough novel, Jasmine, a poor girl from Punjab who arrives in America “greedy with wants and reckless with hope.” Mukherjee’s collection The Middleman and Other Stories, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1988, explored the immigrant experience through the stories of new arrivals from the Caribbean, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and the Middle East. As she was writing those stories, she was developing a credo: “Make the familiar exotic (Americans won’t recognize their country when I get finished with it) and make the exotic—the India of elephants and arranged marriages—familiar.” Given that we now live in a world with 60 million refugees, driven from their homes for reasons ranging from terror to desire, it’s hard to argue with Mukherjee’s claim that “the narrative of immigration is the epic narrative of this millennium.”
Some writers are lucky to have a singular place that forever nourishes their art. William Faulkner had Yoknapatawpha County. Elmore Leonard had Detroit. Patrick Modiano has Paris. And Derek Walcott, the Nobel Prize-winning poet, had his native Caribbean island of St. Lucia. It provided Walcott with ample raw materials for his vivid, musical poems—the sea, the pulsing sun, the land and its fecund vegetation, and the people who live there in the wake of slavery, colonialism, and forced exile, snagged in the mesh of commingled cultures.
Walcott, who died March 17 at 87, published his first poem when he was 14 while operating under the influence of Christopher Marlowe and John Milton. Over the next seven decades he became an accomplished poet, playwright, and watercolorist, fluent in English, French, and Spanish, producing a body of poems that ranged from compact to epic, always spun from the weather, the history, and the people of the Caribbean. Walcott was also a wanderer, and, like all exiles, he knew the twinned aches of leaving home and returning. These lines are from In a Green Night, the 1962 book that announced him as a major writer:
The hospital is quiet in the rain.
A naked boy drives pigs into the bush.
The coast shudders with every surge. The beach
Admits a beaten heron. Filth and foam.
There is a belt of emerald light, a sail
Plunges and lifts between the crests of reef,
The hills are smoking in the vaporous light,
The rain seeps slowly to the core of grief.
It could not change its sorrows and be home.
Though he’ll be remembered as a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper columnist of the New York City persuasion, Jimmy Breslin, who died on March 19 at 88, was also a gifted novelist, memoirist, biographer, and writer of nonfiction books about subjects both light and dark, from the ineptitude of the early New York Mets baseball teams to the sins of sexual predators in the Catholic priesthood. His biography of Damon Runyon reads like Damon Runyon on acid. Breslin produced more than 20,000 newspaper columns in his long and fluorescent career—a staggering number, I can attest, having produced about 600 of the things myself. Many of Breslin’s were written on behalf of the powerless, the ignored, the forgotten. When someone asked him why he kept going back to the well, he replied: “Rage is the only quality which has kept me, or anybody I have ever studied, writing columns for newspapers.”
Breslin’s was an only-in-New-York life. Born in Queens, he knew the streets and the saloons, the mobsters and the cops like nobody else, and he was among the vanguard of writers who birthed what has come to be known as the New Journalism, though he scoffed at the term. Too high-minded for this burly son of the outer boroughs. He ran (unsuccessfully) for New York city council the same year Norman Mailer ran (unsuccessfully) for mayor. His fame reached its peak in 1977, when the serial killer David Berkowitz, known as the Son of Sam, began sending letters to Breslin, which he published in the New York Daily News. For all the warmth he felt for the little people, Breslin could be as cold and hard as iron. His father abandoned the family when Jimmy was young, and when his father died, the son paid for the cremation. “Good,” he said afterward. “That’s over.”
Jean Stein died on April 30 at 83, an apparent suicide. She grew up amid Hollywood luxury—her father founded Music Corporation of America—and she returned to that milieu in her later work. But it was her 1982 book, Edie: An American Biography, that upended my understanding of what a book can be. It tells the story of Edie Sedgwick, who also grew up wealthy, became a Andy Warhol superstar, then spiraled into drug addiction and death by overdose at 28. Her story is told by dozens of people whose lives crossed hers (and her patrician family’s). Stein does not elicit conventional answers to conventional questions, as in Studs Terkel or Oriana Fallaci; instead she acts like a camera, unflinching, mutely watching and listening as people talk. There is no authorial intervention, seemingly no point of view. In time, the lack of affect becomes the affect. The book is a flat yet sneakily rich portrait of squandered American privilege and the cult of celebrity. It’s an act of dissection. An X-ray. A masterpiece.
Stein was not a one-hit wonder. She worked at The Paris Review (where she interviewed William Faulkner), Esquire, and the literary quarterly Grand Street. She produced another oral history, American Journey: The Times of Robert F. Kennedy, and West of Eden, a study of the influences of Hollywood, oil exploration, and real estate on the city of Los Angeles. Stein was shy by nature but she threw glittering parties, including one at which Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal got into a fistfight. She was an unobtrusive but brilliant interviewer. Of the technique behind Edie, she once said, “Each person is speaking directly to you…Nobody is ever telling you, the reader, what to think.”
The news that Denis Johnson had died on May 24 at 67 sent me back to two pieces of writing. The first was Johnson’s masterly short story, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” from his 1992 collection about drug-addled drifters and losers, Jesus’ Son. Like all great fiction, “Car Crash” conjures a world that’s unlike any other and yet instantly, even shockingly, familiar. Words pop out of nowhere and ambush the reader. It’s the story of a lone hitchhiker stuck in a downpour who gets a lift from a young couple. As the hitchhiker dozes in the back seat with the couple’s baby, the car is involved in a ghastly crash on a rain-slicked bridge. Clutching the baby, the hitchhiker staggers from the wreckage and is taken to a hospital, where this unforgettable scene unfolds:
Down the hall came the wife. She was glorious, burning. She didn’t know yet that her husband was dead. We knew. That’s what gave her such power over us. The doctor took her into a room with a desk at the end of the hall, and from under the closed door a slab of brilliance radiated, as if by some stupendous process, diamonds were being incinerated in there. What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.
The second piece of writing was Geoff Dyer’s review of Johnson’s National Book Award-winning novel, Tree of Smoke. Dyer makes the point that nothing in Johnson’s earlier output, not even Jesus’ Son, had prepared readers for this teeming, meandering mind-fuck of a novel about America’s misadventures in Southeast Asia. Dyer compares Johnson to Don DeLillo, Robert Stone, Joseph Conrad and, of course, Graham Greene. Far more astutely, he calls Johnson “a junkyard angel,” a writer who, “at some level, did not know how to write at all—and yet knew exactly what he was doing.” I can’t imagine more apt, or higher, praise.
Three days after Johnson’s death, Gregg Allman died at 69. If Bob Dylan is worthy of a Nobel Prize in literature, then Allman, the keyboardist and lead songwriter for The Allman Brothers Band, surely merits inclusion in a list of noteworthy literary obituaries. He wrote many of the band’s signature songs, including “Whipping Post,” “Midnight Rider,” and “Melissa.” Some of his song lyrics rise to the level of art, including these from “Ain’t Wastin’ No More Time,” written shortly after his beloved big brother, Duane, the band’s lead guitarist, died in a motorcycle crash in Macon, Georgia:
Last Sunday morning, the sunshine felt like rain.
Week before, they all seemed the same.
With the help of God and true friends, I come to realize
I still had two strong legs, and even wings to fly.
And oh, I ain’t wastin’ time no more
‘Cause time goes by like hurricanes, and faster things.
The news of Gregg Allman’s death, like the news of Johnson’s, sent me back to a piece of writing—in this case, “Hitting the Note with the Allman Brothers Band,” Grover Lewis’s Rolling Stone chronicle of being embedded on tour with the band in 1971, shortly before Duane’s death. It was a deep-pore examination of life on the road with a big-name rock band, a string of identical days and nights full of “pure listless boredom” and plane flights and concerts and groupies and TV and piles of comic books and cocaine.
Despite the grind of the road, Gregg Allman’s life did not lack for color. He avoided fighting in Vietnam by getting drunk and shooting himself in the foot. He had a long solo career. He married, recorded with, and divorced Cher. (She was the third of his six wives.) He contracted hepatitis and arthritis. He got a liver transplant. Late in life he wrote a memoir, My Cross to Bear, with Alan Light. As a writer, Allman may not be in a league with Patti Smith, but the book has its moments, including a line that would have made an unbeatable epitaph: “If I fell over dead right now, I have led some kind of life.”
If you favor writers who live long colorful implausible lives, Clancy Sigal, who died on July 16 at 90, is your man. Sigal’s resume reads like overcooked fiction: he plotted to assassinate Hermann Göring at the Nuremberg war crimes trials; he was Humphrey Bogart’s Hollywood agent; he was noteworthy enough to make the anti-Communist blacklist; he had to dodge FBI agents; he worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; he was Doris Lessing’s lover (and the model for Saul Green in her 1962 novel, The Golden Notebook); he underwent therapy and dropped acid with the anti-psychiatrist R.D. Laing; he organized Detroit autoworkers; he was a popular commentator on the BBC. Somehow, Sigal also found time to write, producing essays, novels, memoirs, and the screenplay for the 1992 Salma Hayek movie, Frida. His best known book was 1961’s Going Away: A Report, A Memoir, an autobiographical account of a blacklisted Hollywood agent’s picaresque cross-country trip aboard a DeSoto convertible, during which the hero discovers a fractured nation and his own fractured self. It was seen as a rebuttal to Jack Kerouac’s effervescence, and it became a finalist for the National Book Award. The critic John Leonard offered this praise: “It was as if On the Road had been written by somebody with brains.” Sigal never stopped working. He was busy blogging a couple of days before he died.
Dick Gregory didn’t hector or lecture about America’s racial divide but went at it sideways, with a dagger instead of a sledgehammer. Classic early Dick Gregory has him going into a restaurant in the segregated South, where the waitress informs him: “I’m sorry, we don’t serve colored people here.” To which he replies: “That’s all right. I don’t eat colored people nowhere. Just bring me a whole fried chicken.”
Gregory, who died on Aug. 19 at 84, wrote a dozen books, and his 1964 autobiography, nigger, was built on this strategy for neutering an epithet through frank exposure and overuse: “I said, let’s pull it out of the closet, let’s lay it out there, let’s deal with it, let’s dissect it. It should never be called ‘the N-word.’ You see, how do you talk about a swastika by using another term?”
Gregory was soon on the front lines of the civil rights movement, which led to beatings and a dozen arrests, a gunshot wound. Other issues that inspired his activism included the Vietnam War, police brutality, the Equal Rights Amendment, South African apartheid, and the rights of Native Americans. Sometimes he flirted with the bizarre, speculating that “whoever the people are who control the system” were behind the killings of President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Lennon, as well as the crack cocaine epidemic and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Then again, there are more than a few people don’t find anything bizarre about such suspicions. Gregory famously embraced various diet fads, and he ran (unsuccessfully) for mayor of Chicago and president of the United States. At the end, he was still able to laugh. “Here’s how you can tell when you’re getting old,” he said late in life. “When someone compliment you on those beautiful alligator shoes you’re wearing—and you’re barefoot.”
Kate Millett’s polemical bombshell, Sexual Politics, burst on the scene in 1970. A portrait of Millett by Alice Neel soon graced the cover of Time magazine, which was then the gold standard of a writer’s anointment as Truly Important. Sexual Politics began as a doctoral thesis, and it used literary criticism and historical analysis to dismantle such supposed avatars of sexual liberation as Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, Jean Genet, and Norman Mailer. Millett, who died on Sept. 6 at 82, portrayed such men as cogs in a masculine machine designed to establish and perpetuate the inferior status of women. Patriarchy, Sigmund Freud’s theory of penis envy, the nuclear family—all, in Millett’s view, led to the “interior colonization” of women.
The book, out of print for many years, was reissued in a new edition last year—just in time for the avalanche of revelations of sexual misconduct that have borne out Millett’s original premise. The machine, as we seem to learn anew every day, was indeed set up to ensure the inferior status of women. It ran—until now—on women’s enforced silence. Nearly half a century after the original publication of Sexual Politics, the silence is finally being broken.
Lillian Ross, who died on Sept. 20 at 99, was the fly who came off the wall—with disastrous consequences. In a celebrated six-decade career as a staff writer at The New Yorker, Ross followed this reporter’s dictum: “Do not call attention to yourself.” Her unobtrusive interviewing techniques resulted in a tall stack of superb journalism, on subjects ranging from Ernest Hemingway to a group of rural Indiana high schoolers’ first trip to New York City. Some believe that the best book ever written about Hollywood was Ross’s Picture, from her New Yorker articles about John Huston’s tortured effort to bring Stephen Crane’s Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage, to the screen.
But in 1998, the fly on the wall did something out of character: she called attention to herself by publishing a memoir, Here but Not Here, which revealed her 50-year love affair with the late William Shawn, the married editor of The New Yorker, whose widow and children were still alive. Many in the New York literary tribe were incensed. Charles McGrath, then editor of The New York Times Book Review, dissed the book as “a tactless example of the current avidity for tell-all confessions.” Jeremy Bernstein, a 31-year veteran of The New Yorker, called it “a deeply hurtful, self-indulgent, tasteless book that never should have been written at all.” Ross claimed to be mystified by the uproar. As she told the gossip columnist Liz Smith: “The controversy doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Jim Clark may not be a household name, but for more than four decades, as a student, teacher, editor, then director of the MFA program in creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Clark was an outsize influence on generations of writers. He carried a torch passed down by the school’s earlier writing teachers—Allen Tate and his wife Caroline Gordon, Randall Jarrell, Peter Taylor, Fred Chappell, Bob Watson and, now, Michael Parker and Terry Kennedy, among many others. The word “generous” keeps popping up when people remember Clark, who died on Oct. 30 at 72. I experienced that generosity firsthand when Clark, who was also an ordained minister, helped me put together an essay about Greensboro’s peculiar allure for writers. Clark pointed me to a quote by Jarrell, who called the town “Sleeping Beauty,” adding that “Greensboro leaves one alone just wonderfully.” I join hundreds of writers in saying, “Thank you, Jim. Rest in peace.”
William H. Gass
William H. Gass, who died on Dec. 6 at 93, is regarded by many as a father of postmodern writing (unless you think the title belongs to Miguel de Cervantes for that house of mirrors called Don Quixote). Gass, after all, coined the word “metafiction” for his favored ploy of inserting a character known as William H. Gass into fiction written by William H. Gass. But I think Gass should be remembered for four very different reasons. First, he believed sentences were sacred objects and every one should be as perfect as the writer can possibly make it. Second, while he will be remembered for his novels, especially The Tunnel, and his short stories, I’m partial to his essays, on everything from suicide to Malcolm Lowry’s epic (and suicidal) drinking, which are the work of a brilliant mind that wears its erudition lightly. Third, Gass was a metaphor machine; he said the things came at him in “squadrons.” Of the insane he wrote that “their thoughts are open razors, their eyes go off like guns.” Metal threads, he wrote, were “glinting like those gay gold loops which close the coat of a grenadier.” And fourth, in our careerist, prize-drunk age, Gass had a refreshing disdain for literary awards, even as many were bestowed on him. “The Pulitzer Prize in fiction,” he wrote, “takes dead aim at mediocrity and almost never misses.”
My father was working as a reporter at The Washington Post in 1952 when the paper hired its first black reporter, a Baltimore native named Simeon Booker. But Booker lasted just two years at The Post, becoming frustrated by the limited assignments from his white editors in the nation’s rigidly segregated capital. He yearned to write about the black experience in America, and so he started contributing to the weekly Jet and the monthly Ebony, both aimed at black readers. Booker’s timing was superb. Over the next six decades, he covered many of the defining stories of the 20th century, including the brutal murder of the black teenager Emmett Till and the acquittal of his white killers, the Montgomery bus boycott, the Freedom Rides, the Bloody Sunday melee on the Pettus Bridge. He also wrote about politicians, celebrities, and ordinary people.
Booker, who died on Dec. 10 at 99, found time to produce books in his long and decorated life, including Black Man’s America (1964) and Shocking the Conscience: A Reporter’s Account of the Civil Rights Movement. While there were many courageous and talented reporters, black and white, covering the civil rights movement (see Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff’s fine book, The Race Beat, or the memoir Beware of Limbo Dancers by Roy Reed, a New York Times reporter who also died on Dec. 10, at 87), Booker seemed to get there first, and he had access, guts, and drive that few rivals could match. And his words carried major weight. One long-time reader said she and others eagerly awaited Booker’s dispatches in Jet and Ebony, which they regarded as nothing less than “the gospel according to Simeon.”
Other notables who left us this year, in alphabetical order:
John Ashbery, 90, was a giant of American letters, an inimitable poet who was often imitated but never equaled. He was also an insightful art critic, and in 1976 he became the only writer to win the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle award in the same year for his collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.
William Peter Blatty, 89, author of the 1971 horror novel, The Exorcist, which sold 13 million copies. Blatty won the Academy Award for adapted screenplay two years later for the movie version of the book, which shattered box office records thanks to its ingenious use of projectile pea-soup vomiting and a girl with a spinning head.
J.P. Donleavy, 91, whose bawdy 1955 novel The Ginger Man was banned and burned before it became a contemporary classic, with 45 million copies in print. Donleavy, who lived for many years in Ireland and was an accomplished painter, had this to say about old age: “It’s not nice, but take comfort that you won’t stay that way forever.”
Paula Fox, 93, was dubbed one of America’s “least appreciated” novelists by The Nation, but she received some overdue recognition in 1999, when Jonathan Franzen wrote an introduction to a popular reissue Fox’s signature novel, Desperate Characters.
Nancy Friday, 84, author of the bestsellers My Secret Garden and Forbidden Flowers, built her writing career on the earth-shattering premise that women have sexual fantasies. To the dismay of many feminists, Friday argued that it was by ridding themselves of shame that women can achieve professional, political, and economic equality with men. Some of Friday’s ideas have held up better than others. In 1996, appearing on Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, she dismissed the importance of on-the-job sexual harassment. “The workplace,” she said, “is the meeting and mating place.” Try telling that to Salma Hayek.
Sue Grafton, 77, didn’t quite make it to Z. Her so-called alphabet novels, featuring the private eye Kinsey Millhone, began with 1982’s A Is for Alibi and reached Y Is for Yesterday last summer. Grafton, whose influences ranged from Nancy Drew to Mickey Spillane, was at work on Z Is for Zero at the time of her death.
Clifford Irving, 87, who became a millionaire, briefly, but then went to prison when his early 1970s book, The Autobiography of Howard Hughes, was blocked from publication after it was proven to be one of the most sublime literary hoaxes of the 20thcentury.
Robert M. Pirsig, 88, who captured the schizoid zeitgeist of the 1970s with his novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which sold millions of copies and remained on bestseller lists for a decade.
Sam Shepard was that rarest thing: a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright—and an accomplished memoirist, musician, screenwriter, and songwriter—who became an Oscar-nominated, heart-throb movie star. His posthumous final work, Spy of the First Person, is narrated by a man suffering from a degenerative disorder much like the Lou Gehrig’s disease that killed Shepard at age 73.
Robert Silvers, 87, was a founding editor of The New York Review of Books in 1963, and he spent the rest of his life shaping it into one of America’s most influential literary publications. The self-effacing Silver had this to say about the editor’s role: “The one thing he should avoid is taking credit. It’s the writer that counts.”
Richard Wilbur, 96, was a poet, translator, and opera lyricist who won two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award for his meticulous, unshowy poetry. In 1988 he succeeded Robert Penn Warren as the nation’s poet laureate.
Yevgeny Yevtushenko, 83, was the un-Richard Wilbur, a Russian whose showy, defiant poems and theatrical delivery turned him into poetry’s version of an international rock star. Stalinism and other forms of totalitarianism were early targets, though some grumbled that the Soviet government tolerated him while sending other dissidents to Siberia. Some went so far as to call Yevtushenko a sellout. The exiled poet Joseph Brodsky said of him, “He throws stones only in directions that are officially sanctioned and approved.” Millions of fans worldwide disagreed.
Reviewing John Irving’s Avenue of Mysteries (2015) for an Irish newspaper a couple of years ago, I found myself wondering: why are the titles of novels by fictional novelists always so mysteriously unconvincing? The protagonist of Avenue of Mysteries is Juan Diego, a globetrotting writer of Irvingesque stature; his most famous book is called A Story Set in Motion by the Virgin Mary. Encountering this, I thought: No commercial publisher would ever append so clunky a title to a popular book. My suspension of disbelief was shaken. Why, I wondered, couldn’t Irving—the man responsible for titles as instantly memorable as The World According to Garp (1978) and The Hotel New Hampshire (1981)—come up with something better?
It was a feeling I’d had before. Novels by fictional novelists (and there is, as we know, no shortage of fictional novelists) always seem to be saddled with ersatz, implausible titles—so much so that I find myself doubting whether such unhappily-titled books could ever actually exist. Frequently—to compound matters—we are supposed to accept that these books have been bestsellers, or that they have become cultural touchstones, despite their awful titles. Take the case of Nathan Zuckerman: in Philip Roth’s great trilogy (The Ghost Writer , Zuckerman Unbound , and The Anatomy Lesson ), we are asked to believe that Zuckerman has published successful books entitled Mixed Emotions and Reversed Intentions. Reversed Intentions! What a terrible title!
You find similar clunkers popping up all over the literary map. In Martin Amis’s The Information (1995), the narcissistic litterateur Gwyn Barry has achieved bestsellerdom with a book unconvincingly entitled Amelior (and his rival, Richard Tull, has published novels with equally shaky titles: Aforethought and Dreams Don’t Mean Anything). In Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair (1951), the fictional novelist Maurice Bendrix is supposed to have published novels called The Ambitious Host, The Crowned Image, and The Grave on the Water-Front: all of which sound like the titles of Graham Greene novels that didn’t quite make it out of a notebook. In Claire Kilroy’s All Names Have Been Changed (2009), the legendary Irish writer P.J. Glynn has published a novel with the discouraging appellation of Apophthegm. In Stephen King’s The Dark Half (1989), the haunted writer Thad Beaumont is the author of The Sudden Dancers, a title so prissily literary that you can imagine finding it on the contents page of an anthology of work by earnest high-school students (but not, surely, on the cover of a book from a major publisher).
King, in fact, is a repeat offender: Ben Mears, in ‘Salem’s Lot (1975), is allegedly the author of a novel called Billy Said Keep Going; Mike Noonan, in Bag of Bones (1998), has given the world The Red-Shirt Man and Threatening Behaviour; and Bobbi Anderson, in The Tommyknockers (1987), has produced a Western entitled Rimfire Christmas, which is my personal nomination for worst fictional title of all time—although another close contender must surely be Daisy Perowne’s imaginary collection of poetry in Ian McEwan’s Saturday (2005), which is called (oh dear!) My Saucy Bark.
Even the imaginary writers created by Vladimir Nabokov are not immune to the terrible-title virus. Sebastian Knight, the elusive protagonist of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941), is responsible for books entitled The Prismatic Bezel and The Doubtful Asphodel (although Success, the title of another of Knight’s fictional books, is so good that Martin Amis stole it for one of his own actual books). The bibliography of Clare Quilty, in Lolita (1955), boasts, beside The Enchanted Hunters, an unappetizingly-titled play called The Strange Mushroom. And in Look at the Harlequins! (1974), the Nabokov-avatar narrator counts among his backlist Esmerelda and her Parandrus and Plenilune—titles that a real-life publisher would surely blue-pencil the instant the manuscripts landed on her desk.
There are, of course, honourable exceptions: fictional writers whose fictional books are so convincingly titled that you can imagine chancing upon tattered mass-market paperback copies of them in the dusty corner of a used bookstore. Take Henry Bech, the self-tormented writer-protagonist of John Updike’s wonderful Bech stories. Bech’s first novel, a ’50s motorcycle epic, is called Travel Light. His second is called Brother Pig (“which is,” Bech tells a Bulgarian poet in “The Bulgarian Poetess,” “St. Bernard’s expression for the body”). And Bech’s blockbuster bestseller (Updike’s alliterative Bs are contagious) is called Think Big—a title so punchy it’s practically Presidential. In the Bech books, Updike, characteristically, pays scrupulous attention to recreating the textures of the real. The appendix to Bech: A Book (1970) supplies a complete bibliography of Bech’s published work, including such echt-realistic entries as “”Lay off, Norman,” New Republic, CXL.3 (19 January 1959), 22-3.”
In general, though, it seems as if the titles of imaginary novels will inevitably tend towards the offputtingly cheesy (Billy Said Keep Going), the ludicrously recherche (The Prismatic Bezel), or the embarrassingly portentous (like the novel embarked upon, and abandoned, by Anna Wulf in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook , which bears the dubious moniker The Shadow of the Third). It sometimes feels as if all of these novelists are writing stories set in the same alternate universe, the distinguishing feature of which is that all novels have terrible titles. What is it with this world of imaginary writers and publishers? Why can’t its inhabitants come up with better titles for their books?
Perhaps it’s simply the case that novelists greedily reserve their most inspired titles for their own actual, real-life books—which are, after all, far more important than any works ascribable to fictional characters within them. Why go for The Grave on the Water-Front when you can have The Heart of the Matter, or, indeed, The End of the Affair? Why call your book Dreams Don’t Mean Anything when you can muster a title as good as The Information? Why settle for The Shadow of the Third when you’ve got The Golden Notebook? A successful title—and all novelists know this instinctively—does much more than simply name the finished product. A successful title seduces. It creates a mood. It stakes a claim. A great title (Pride and Prejudice; A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; A Clockwork Orange) will seem to have been around forever. No novelist, I suspect, would happily waste a great title on a book by an imaginary writer—even if they’ve dreamed that writer up themselves, along with all the ghostly volumes on her nonexistent shelf.
Or perhaps a certain ironic distancing is at work, when it comes to imaginary novels. In many cases, I think, we are given to understand that a fictional novelist may be perceptive, responsive, and strong-willed–but not quite as lavishly gifted as his or her creator. Clare Quilty, for instance, is hardly meant to be a genius on the Nabokovian scale (although he does collaborate with his creator’s anagrammatic alter ego, Vivian Darkbloom, on a play called The Lady Who Loved Lightning—and look at that! Another lamentable title!). Poor old Maurice Bendrix, in The End of the Affair, is certainly meant to be a second-rate novelist, and his dud titles confirm it (you can easily envision finding a copy of The Crowned Image, falling out of its old-fashioned binding, in a charity shop or hospital library: unreprinted, unread, invisible to posterity). And Thad Beaumont, in The Dark Half, doesn’t begin to tap the wellspring of his talent until he forsakes the bland lit-fic of The Sudden Dancers and gets his hands dirty writing the Stephen-King-like Machine’s Way (now that’s a title). There is also, of course, the limitation adduced by Norman Mailer, in his marvelous book on writing, The Spooky Art (2003): “Jean Malaquais [Mailer’s mentor] once remarked that you can write about any character but one. ‘Who is that?’ ‘A novelist more talented than yourself.'”
But none of these theories really offers a satisfactory explanation for the badness of so many imaginary titles. Looking more closely at some of these spectral designations, I think we can often discern a profoundly literary reason for their terribleness. The titles of Nathan Zuckerman’s early novels—Mixed Emotions and Reversed Intentions—not only camouflage Philip Roth’s own early books (respectively, Letting Go  and When She Was Good ); they also summarize a recurring theme of the Zuckerman novels themselves. Writing out of mixed emotions, Zuckerman frequently reverses his intentions—although by the time he does, of course, it’s generally too late to undo the damage his fiction has caused. Similarly, in Look at the Harlequins!, each appalling title parodies an actually existing Nabokov novel: Plenilune (i.e. a full moon) conceals The Defense (1930), and Esmerelda and her Parandrus (a parandrus being, in medieval bestiaries, a shapeshifting beast with cloven hooves) surely encodes Lolita. (Perhaps the wittiest of these parody-titles is The Red Top-Hat, which mocks Invitation to a Beheading ). These titles, in all their awfulness, alert us to fictional strategies. They invite us to examine more attentively the texts in which they appear.
Comparably, in The Golden Notebook, the title of Anna’s novel, The Shadow of the Third, points us towards one of Lessing’s central thematic concerns—the hidden ethical quandaries that bedevil any monogamous sexual relationship between a man and a woman. The titles of Richard Tull’s novels, in The Information, offer clues to his revenger’s nature, and to his eventual fate: Richard plots the destruction of Gwyn Barry with aforethought, and by the end of the novel, he has come to believe that dreams, in the sense of hopes, don’t mean anything. And the phrase “a story set in motion by the Virgin Mary” exactly describes the plot of Irving’s Avenue of Mysteries: in the form of Juan Diego’s imaginary title, this phrase lurks inside the primary text, as if to remind us, periodically, of precisely what sort of novel we are reading.
Titles of imaginary novels, then, aren’t called upon to perform the same tasks as titles of real novels. They aren’t intended to seduce, or to stake a claim. Nor are they designed, generally speaking, to be “realistic” (in the sense that Henry Bech’s book titles, in Updike’s stories, are designed to be realistic). Imaginary titles, more often than not, are items of fictional furniture, like characters or leitmotivs or symbols. They do double-duty: they name the works of a fictional writer, and they illuminate the narrative in which that fictional writer appears. For a novelist, the chance to create an imaginary title is another chance to be witty, or inventive, or amusing; more importantly, it’s another chance to enrich the texture of the work at hand.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take a moment, every now and then, to be grateful that we don’t live in a world—the world of Thad Beaumont, the world of Nathan Zuckerman—in which everyone seems to think that The Sudden Dancers, or Reversed Intentions, is a perfectly acceptable title for a novel. Now—has anyone seen my copy of Rimfire Christmas?
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
Nell Zink has been a writer for most of her life, in venues ranging from a DIY zine about punk musicians and their pets to German newspapers. You might not have heard of the 52-year-old writer prior to 2014, but there’s a good chance that you recognize her name now. She released two of the best books in 2014 and 2015: The Wallcreeper and Mislaid, respectively.
The Germany-based writer’s third novel, Nicotine, out this week, is easily the author’s best work. If that weren’t enough she also published two early novellas — Sailing Toward the Sunset by Avner Shats and European Story for Avner Shats — in the collection Private Novelist on the same day as Nicotine. Zink is a wordsmith’s wordsmith. She’s sharp, wry, and might be a genius. I spoke with her over the phone after she arrived in America for a book tour and discussed how Nicotine came to be, her relationship with Israeli writer Avner Shats, and so much more.
The Millions: First, before we get into your new novel, I’m fascinated by and wanted to ask about the DIY zine you had about musicians and their pets.
Nell Zink: It was about five years long. At the time I had moved to Washington, D.C. and I met somebody and we got married and moved to Richmond, Virginia, and then he got a job in New York. So, in the spring of 1990 we moved to Hoboken. I was very interested in music, but never had the money for records. He was a real suburbanite who had an allowance as a child and worked stringing rackets when he was older, so he had records like you wouldn’t believe. He introduced me to all of this music. I always played guitar and started playing electric.
He was into this improvised music and it drew me in because it related to the aesthetic of how I was writing then. Like writing entire novels and then throwing them away. Similar to Yuri Khanon — the Russian composer — currently destroying all of his work at the rate of one piece per week. Anyway, we were playing this improvised music and that’s enough detail about the background of what was happening.
I really enjoyed zines then and it was clear to me that my favorite ones weren’t just about music, but also about something else. I thought, I like animals. To me, as a serious writer, I thought there is no way greater to reach human beings other than to talk to them about something other than human beings. There’s a reason people look at kittens on the internet. And that’s how it came to be.
TM: You mentioned the composer who burns his work. Was that you? Did you have a considerable amount of material that you just purged?
NZ: Occasionally I would search an old computer and realize that is what I was doing. I wasn’t doing it consciously because I legitimately forgot that stuff. I’m not entirely demented, but I certainly don’t have a photographic memory. I would write a story about an obsessive shut-in who falls in love with a box of Tide because of the colors on the labeling. I remember I wrote this story, I forgot about it, I found it again and then I lost it again. It was just called “Box of Tide” and it was about this guy’s passionate — and not sexual because I didn’t write anything sexual until I started writing for publication, because you have to give the people what they want — love for his box of Tide.
TM: So you have published three novels in back to back to back years, plus a collection of two novellas. Does that mean you’re going to keep churning out novel after novel each year?
NZ: No. If I release another one, no one will believe it’s great. So I need to take a break. At least my editor thinks so. She told me to take my time. I asked her what the optimal time was because I will write it to order. I asked her what the absolute ideal time would be: three years, three and a half? She kept naming people who took seven or ten years to write their next novel. I joked that she needed more time in between because she didn’t want to pay me another advance for another decade.
I really don’t know. It’s going to be big and more of a brick. You know when people are spending $27 for a new hardcover they expect a brick. I think they’re justified. And I know now how to write longer and in the more ambitious style. If you read The Wallcreeper, it’s written like how people write short stories. It just goes on for 200 pages. It’s very elusive and dense with very tiny scenes instead of chapters. But I can write a long novel. It could happen.
TM: All three novels have been short, but with such beautiful language and story. I need a longer novel to immerse myself in.
NZ: Well, thank you. I feel now that I know how it’s done. I figured out the secret of going long.
TM: I won’t ask for the secret. I only want you to have it.
NZ: Most people have no problem. Especially men that I know. They all have 1,000 page novels.
TM: It does seem that everyone is obsessed about these sweeping sagas now. Whether it be a generational familial saga or a long coming-of-age about a group of friends leaving college and navigating adulthood. With you, however, you find these offbeat stories that are completely unique?
NZ: I just try to come up with figures in a situation that irritates me in a way. Something I can’t quite get my head around; just almost but not quite. Something about it needs to trouble me. There are sort of difficult and unresolved positions taken and abandoned with gender and racial material in Mislaid and even in Nicotine there are things people do that I couldn’t tell you myself whether it was right or wrong, or if people should be allowed to do what they do.
To come up with those situations, I have to be a little bit creative because it’s not like life hands them to you on a plate. When it does come up you don’t want to think about. My own life is not one I want to wallow in; maybe that’s why I get creative. I can imagine having a happy adolescence where I can write about my travails of life at an Ivy League school and how I suffered being a wallflower on Facebook or whatever. But that’s not the case.
TM: When did the creative force for Nicotine come into your life? There was an interview around when Mislaid came out where you said you already sold this book. Was this an old idea just waiting to be published? Or did you churn it out recently?
NZ: Don’t say churn!
TM: Sorry, I don’t think I’ve ever used that word to describe writing a book and I think earlier today I read an interview where either you said it or the interviewer said it.
NZ: Well, you know what? What happens is that if I say, “I don’t churn them out. It took me a year to write Nicotine,” then the headline will include “churns them out.” For instance I had an interview with The Guardian yesterday and I talked endlessly about Keith Gessen and then I was asked about Johnathan Franzen. Now the headline has Jonathan Franzen’s name in it. I cannot win. Apparently Keith Gessen is not clickbait. He’s not the teen idol I think he is. We’re going to have to work on that.
TM: We can talk about him as long as you want.
NZ: No, no. I got that out of my system the other day. Nicotine was first conceived in about December 2014. I remember when I first got the idea. I was at lunch with my German publisher. Well, he’s not my publisher, but he had to keep jumping up to go outside to smoke and he was missing everything. He was really addicted to cigarettes. I had this image of cigarettes and the interesting way they change people.
Right around March 2015, when Kathryn Schulz interviewed me for The New Yorker, my agent dared me to write something fast enough for her to sell it before Mislaid came out because she said I would have market value spike before The New Yorker profile and the book publication.
So, that’s what I did. I drafted it in a few weeks. I beg you to appreciate the fact that is how most writers write. If you ask them how long it took to write a book they just look at the simple arithmetic of when they released their last book and they tell you they have been working on the new book since the day their last book came out. If you actually met them you’ll know they spend eight years doing nothing, two months outlining, then they sell a partial, and then they go to the MacDowell Colony and write the book in three weeks. That’s what everybody does. They all have kids and jobs that they can’t work the way that I do.
TM: I love your prose so much. You chose to write Nicotine in present tense, which your last novels weren’t in. Why that decision?
NZ: My reason to make it present tense was this long standing cynical-sounding idea. It’s very clear what people go for when reading a book and the ways you can draw them in. You really can legitimately call me a post-modernist. I’m not very often playing games with the medium itself in a way that has to do with form and words like a language poet. That’s not what I’m up to.
In this post-modernist sense, it’s clear for me and Avner [Shats, an Israeli writer and close friend to Zink] that people go for this young adult fiction even when it’s passing for something else. Jane Austen has been read all of this time because she reads like a popular genre. Do people read Stern? He’s like Melville; nobody cracks those novels. But Austen has been huge. She was huge the moment she started publishing novels.
In any case, I wanted to emulate this popular genre, young adult fiction, which is almost always in the present tense. I wanted to get the breathless quality of the sort of run-on-sentenceness of an entire book. It’s similar to a TV series: you can’t figure out when to turn it off so you binge-watch. I just wanted to emulate young adult fiction and TV because TV is in the present tense even if it’s set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. You’re seeing it unfold as it happens. It is in realtime You’re observing the events. I’m simultaneously smart enough to be interested by that and dumb enough to be challenged by that; so, I was able to take the idea and run with it.
TM: You seem to like to be challenged whether it be meeting a deadline set forth by your agent or writing in a young adult-esque present tense…
NZ: Once when I was organizing a classical piano concert, this wise old secretary asked me, “You always take the path of maximum resistance, don’t you?” And I thought, “Hmmm, she has a point.”
TM: The reason I bring that up was because you are also releasing Private Novelist which contains to early novellas that were both sort of a challenge in a way from Avner Shats. Unless I’m mistaken?
NZ: When I wrote Sailing Towards the Sunset by Avner Shats it was after I had gotten back from a prize ceremony that Avner won and my husband Zohar, the poet who is also in the book, also won a prize. In my jokey, mental life I told them that I am not going to get a job and that I would just write a novel and get a $5,000 prize. That’s all I was doing and people indulged in me. So that’s why the story goes immediately into these writing prizes and how worthless they are.
That’s how Sunset came to be. I liked Avner a lot, I didn’t know him all too well, but I knew he was a post-modern writer and I couldn’t read his novel [the yet-to-be-translated Hebrew Sailing Towards the Sunset] and I heard Zohar complain about it, “Avner is not a literary genius, he’s a shallow smartass.” And he’s such a nice guy, but I felt I could relate to being a shallow smartass. But he’s not shallow at all.
TM: So, you mentioned Franzen and how everyone mentions him when talking to you. But I’m more interested in your relationship with Shats. Does he read your works early before most people?
NZ: He reads everything first. Especially because he reads it overnight. We’re truly friends and if I send him a novel it takes about three days for feedback. Which is considerably different than other people.
TM: Does he provide edits and notes or just broad generalizations?
NZ: His feedback is always that I’m a beautiful genius and that he loves me. That’s one of the The Wallcreeper. He said, “I hate this character, where did you get her? Is she in your mind because I worry about you now.” It was just funny because he was used to reading the things I wrote for him. The Wallcreeper, I wrote for someone else — “He Who Shall Not Be Named” — and it was written in a very different style.
TM: So after it goes to Avner does it go to anyone else?
NZ: I let everyone read everything. If they want to. If I know that a novel will offend a certain person, I won’t send it to him or her. If people are interested I hand them out like candy; especially if I have galleys.
TM: And what about your editing process? I know Nicotine was challenged to you to write in a certain time. Was editing fairly quick?
NZ: The editors made suggestions, but at this point they kind of figured out that I know what I’m doing. They mostly just pointed out continuity errors. It was actually Franzen, when he read it, who had very good suggestions. Nothing specific, he just saw problems. He just told me what was wrong and it was actually very productive.
TM: What was one big thing that Franzen felt needed to be changed in Nicotine?
NZ: Well there was one character — and this isn’t a spoiler, you can print this verbatim without spoiling anything. In the original draft, the character of Matt drowns in a pool of toxic waste. It was a really cheap way of getting rid of somebody. It felt like South Park.
TM: It could have worked.
NZ: It had no need to work. It allowed Matt to go to an entirely different place. He’s a lovable character. He’s so damaged and so pitiful and there is hope for him. There just is. He had to get a chance, and it was enjoyable writing those moments where I gave him a chance.
TM: I’m glad Nicotine turned out the way it did. I was blown away by it.
NZ: I love Nicotine. I’m optimistic.
TM: I also can’t wait to read Private Novelist.
NZ: The story why it got published isn’t because they wanted to publish it. It took major arm twisting by me. It was very important to me because of my friendship with Avner. Because our lives are an elaborate literary hoax. he was described as a hoax in the pages of The Jerusalem Post. People were claiming he didn’t really exist. He joked about that’s when you know you’re really obscure. So it’s been this longstanding joke that I would publish Sailing Towards the Sunset by Avner Shats so that it would inspire someone to translate his novel so that I can finally read it. I realized we had to do it when I was young enough or else I would have to delete those files. So I made someone publish them.
TM: I hope that does happen so that we all can read his novel. One final question: I know it’s been jokingly suggested that you take seven years off, but I hope not. Do you have your next creative idea?
NZ: I have a vague plan that will take a bunch of research. Something I’m interested in right now for reasons I can’t justify right now involves soil erosion. To my horror I know Franzen is interested in that as well. It might be a battle of the novels, but he’s like, “No, yours will come out first no matter how many years you think you’re going to take. Yours will come out first.”
Ask me another question so I don’t close with Franzen.
TM: Oh, well, what are some novels or writers that fascinate you right now?
NZ: I very recently The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing. Have you read it?
NZ: No one has read it! It really blew me away. I think it’s beautiful, it’s brilliant, it’s magnificent! It had never been recommended to me except once thirty years ago by this sort of confused young theatre person.
It’s the most rigorously brilliant novel that I have ever read. The idea behind it is that there is this women writer living in London, very on the left and very involved in politics, living her life, raising a kid and trying to reconcile these things. She keeps these diaries in notebooks, but she can’t keep just one because these ideas are incompatible. It’s the idea that these topics can’t fit into one head at once, or can they? It’s a profound novel like none I have ever encountered before.
I finished All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost by Lan Samantha Chang on a Sunday afternoon at my local coffee shop. The sun bathed the high-ceilinged room in gorgeous light, and my cappuccino had me nicely buzzed. I was not going to cry for the beauty of the small book I held in my hand, nor for the sadness of time passing and friendships lost or changed, but I wanted to. I’d started Chang’s novel with the expectation that it would be a book about three poets in writing school and their magnetic teacher. It was about that–but only at first. The story spans many years, and many concerns, including what it means and takes to make art, and to love someone. It basically slew me, and I read it a second time a few days later, to get that feeling again.
Chang’s first year as the Director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop was my last year there as a student. I was lucky to have her as my thesis adviser.
The Millions: I decided to read this book a second time soon after I had finished it, something I rarely–if ever–do. On my second read I saw so many more connections, echoes and motifs in the novel than I did on my first. The subjects and ideas that the novel is soaked in, poetry and love, yes, but also mortality and aging, marriage, and success, can be traced through all three parts. What’s introduced thematically in part one, when Roman, Bernard and Lucy are students at The School (and when Roman has his affair with Miranda), ripples through the entire book. These ideas deepen and complicate and change with each part, as the characters get older, and that development is stunning. How did you come upon this structure, and how did you conceive of each part, both on its own and in relationship to the other two?
Lan Samantha Chang: The structure came instinctively. After finishing my first novel, Inheritance, I was unproductive for a few years. I’d reached the end of a creative period. There was almost no desire to write, and when I wrote, the work did not feel vital. Then in summer, 2006, a 50-page sketch of this novel tumbled out in the space of two weeks. My husband Rob, a landscape painter, and I were living at a painting school on a small farm in France. I opened my laptop one morning and began a classroom scene, not knowing who the characters would be. The writing felt unusually urgent and went at a feverish pace. By the end of our two weeks in France, the sketch contained the dance and graduation scenes from Part One, the final scene between Roman and Lucy in Part Two, and the final scene between Roman and Bernard in Part Three. I had a strong sense of what I’d need to fill the white space, but wasn’t entirely sure. I put the work aside.
Then two years went by when I didn’t touch the sketch. I felt the subject matter was esoteric and controversial. Although the story isn’t about writing programs, it begins in a program setting. I assumed many readers would not see beyond their own opinions about the setting in Part One. Moreover, the work felt very private, and I had started two other projects that seemed more socially acceptable. I’d also fallen, suddenly, into mid-life, with its responsibilities: my new job as director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop was demanding and, to complicate things, Rob and I had a daughter in 2007. After she was born, I realized I would not be able to get creative work done without taking a leave from work. The next year, I was fortunate to be given a Guggenheim Fellowship, enabling me to do so.
There’s something about having a family and full-time job, about always being aware of the needs of others, that can give the act of writing an illicit, desperate feeling. Every hour is bought by denying other people. During the Fellowship period, I tried for weeks, then months, to work on the two “more acceptable” projects, feeling more and more frantic. I got nowhere. Finally, my husband suggested I spend just one month of this precious time on the poets’ manuscript. During the month, I set up Bernard’s visit in Part Two; I wrote the long flashback between Roman and Miranda. Then I gave myself “just one more month” and wrote the long scene, set in the parking garage, between Roman and Bernard. The project had taken on, for me, the feel of a guilty secret. The hours of work were intense and concentrated, with very little time to doubt what I was doing. I was spending precious fellowship time on a story that gave me enormous pleasure, but one I assumed no one would ever want to read. When I had finished a draft, in fall 2008, I showed it to a good friend and then to a former teacher. They told me to keep going.
I see I haven’t answered your question, which is about the form of the novel. The form grew organically from the story. I wrote the story for my own pleasure, and I put it together entirely on instinct. I hardly tinkered with it and I never doubted it.
TM: In the past year or so, I’ve also interviewed Michelle Huneven and Jennifer Egan, whose recent novels, like yours, depict the passage of time in ways that have startled and moved me. What went into covering this much time passing. How thrilling was it compress whole years into a single sentence? Did you realize this would be necessary before you began writing?
LSC: I wanted to write about characters whose adult lives’ defining moments took place in relatively concentrated sequences. To portray those defining moments required skipping a lot. I did take great pleasure in the leaps through time, as I was writing; there was a thrill in the ruthlessness of it.
TM: The language of this book is beautiful in its simplicity and there’s an elegance that comes with the slightly elevated third person perspective that’s able to distill consciousness in crisp, perfectly-articulated phrases. What was your approach to the sentence-making in this book? Since you were writing about poets, did the poetry of the language seem more important than usual?
LSC: I’m personally convinced that the authority of the “slightly elevated” third person comes from my having learned to write in the voice of “Workshop Director.” In the last five years, the University of Iowa has gone through a budget crunch, and I had to write a lot of documents in order to protect our program’s funding. It was imperative that I learn to write in a third-person voice with a weight of authority behind it.
It was not a goal to write poetically; the poets I know are so far beyond me in that arena that I tried to capture only their desire to write beautifully. But I do think there was a special pressure on the language in this project, a pressure related to its brevity.
TM: Bernard is such a compelling character to me. In Part Two, Roland observes in his friend’s gaze: “that startling blue clarity, veering toward judgment, which Roman, feeling weary, now recognized as the extremity of innocence.” Throughout the novel, Bernard is a figure of purity, an artist who labors in the pursuit of truth until he reaches what Roland calls “a piercing clarity of feeling” in his poetry. Bernard contrasts with Roland, who is so ambitious, and doubtful about his own work, and often quite selfish. How did Bernard’s character emerge for you?
LSC: During the composition of the first classroom “bludgeoning,” Bernard appeared in his red tie, quoting Emily Dickinson. I was happy, even relieved, to find him. (I’d been writing from Roman’s point of view, sitting inside Roman’s malcontent.) Bernard’s “purity” felt familiar to me. In graduate school, we used to sit around asking ourselves, “If you had the choice between writing several decent books, and writing one great work, which would you choose?” Bernard would choose the one great work. Implicit in our discussion was another question: What would have to have sacrificed one’s life in order to make that work?
TM: Roman is also compelling to me: unlikeable, incredibly vulnerable, and often utterly devoid of self-knowledge. I was most interested in his relationship to women in this novel. Was that a big part of creating his character? What do you make of Roman, both as a man and a poet?
LSC: Roman is Roman. I can’t critique him or his relationships to women.
I wanted to write about a powerful feeling I’ve had as an adult: the sense of becoming aware of a truth long after it was too late to do anything about it. This feeling, akin to waking up after a dream, is central to my experience, and it seems to come after periods of great blindness, or lack of attention—periods that can last for decades. If anything, Roman’s defining quality—his awareness of his own desires, his needs, and the consequences of his actions far too late—requires that he be self-involved, also inattentive.
TM: Early on, Miranda tells her class that “few outside our world read the poetry that is written.” Nowadays, this could be said not only of poetry, but short stories, maybe even literary fiction in general. I certainly felt a connection to these poets, even though I myself am a fiction writer. Why did you decide to write about poets and poetry? Was it a big leap from your own process and struggles as a prose writer?
LSC: At the risk of making gross generalizations: The lives of poets seem to distill and illuminate many of the questions all writers face. Because poets never write for money, the art-vs.-life choices they make are brought into sharp relief. Most of the poets I know are keenly aware of mortality and survival, they know we are all living on the edge of an abyss. This awareness brings them joy, and anger, and the ability to see clearly. Poets are the canaries in the coal-mine of our collective consciousness.
TM: Much of this novel is concerned with the question of whether poetry can be taught, and what makes a good teacher of poetry. It also considers the ways we become poets beyond instruction in the classroom—be it through romantic relationships, friendships, suffering, loneliness. You studied writing at Iowa and have been the director of the Workshop for a few years now. Do you have a particular philosophy of teaching or a way of considering writing in the classroom?
LSC: Every workshop is different, and what works well in one classroom conversation fails utterly in another. I don’t have a set philosophy about teaching, but more of an awareness that things are always shifting in the world and in the classroom, and that over the years it is the instructor who must adjust. At Iowa, I’m also highly aware of the limitations of teaching. The students are so gifted that the sources of their creative leaps, and of their periods of productivity, are internally discovered as much as they are externally provided. Why does one strong writer fail to grow, and how does another find discipline? It’s certainly not something over which I, as the instructor, have much control. Sometimes I feel I might achieve the same results as I do now if I were simply to gather my students and feed them chicken soup. I do see things very differently as an instructor than I ever did as a student. I’m aware now of the instructor’s vulnerability in a way I never was as a student. I’m fascinated by the academy’s current discourse about power dynamics that assumes the instructor holds all the power. It’s been my experience, as a teacher and director, that the students hold much more power than this discourse allows.
I know it’s inauspicious to say this at the advent of our new site design, but I’m on a losing streak. Sometimes I’m on a winning streak, and everything I read is delightful and I stay up late to finish one novel after another, and at the end of the month I feel sublime and like I am infinitesimally closer to my goal of reading everything. But sometimes I read a novel that drags, and then another that drags, and then another, and before long I have spurned books in favor of internet television, Calvin and Hobbes, and puerile blogs. It’s not that the novels are bad, necessarily; a bad novel is easy to shake. It’s that they aren’t enjoyable. They don’t make me feel happy, or pleasantly sad, or smarter. Perhaps I ask too much. And perhaps it’s unfair to blame the novels for what is in fact the ebb and flow of human enthusiasm and serotonin levels, but outside of the reading problem I feel quite chipper (or rather, no more curmudgeonly than usual).
I think it’s the books. Here are the culprits, feel free to judge:
A Bend in the River: Technically this should get its own Modern Library Revue, but I’m not sure that I have enough to say. After A House for Mr. Biswas, a picaresque delight which I read in my previous web-carnation as Widmerpool, I was unprepared for the more subtle charms of A Bend in the River. It made me feel like I had taken a painkiller, laid down for a malarial nap in an unpleasant climate, and watched a revolution on TV. Maybe I am just an unsubtle person, better suited to the theatrics of Mr. Biswas, because this novel seemed a touch slow to me. It did impart a dull sense of dread, but dull only; the implications of what Naipaul was saying, the realities of the situation he described, did not feel real to me. Maybe that was Naipaul’s intention. More probably, I have a very limited frame of reference. I did really like the last page. So much, in fact, that it made me reconsider my feelings about all of the preceding pages. Maybe I’ll read it again, when I’m feeling more charitable.
London Fields: As I have said before on this site, I really like the books by Martin Amis that I have read. Nonetheless, I felt like he could have done with the aforementioned painkiller and nap, instead of whatever it was that he did when he was writing this novel. (Uppers, maybe.) To be fair (unfair?), I haven’t finished the book, but part of the reason that I haven’t finished it is that it’s kind of a chore. It’s like going on an elaborate and fast-paced scavenger hunt arranged by someone whom you suspect dislikes you. You don’t know what’s at the end, but you can’t be sure that it will be something nice, and it’s an awful lot of effort in the meantime. When I wrote about The Rachel Papers, I mentioned Grass and Nabokov. I feel them rattling around this novel too, except here they seem to have had a lovechild with Don Delillo’s Americana (another book I didn’t care for). It’s exhausting, and I just want it to be over.
The Golden Notebook: When I saw this in the book shop, I flung myself upon it, feeling like I had identified a massive, hitherto nameless gap in my education, a gap shaped like Doris Lessing. I thought I was going to be enthralled and entertained. Instead, I was depressed for rather a lot of days. The experience is not one I would describe as entertaining in the way that lying down in a basket of kittens or reading The Stand is entertaining. I found it powerful, but unpleasant.
I really admired what Lessing did in this novel. Among other things, she did an uncanny job of creating a malaise that was actually infectious. It oozed right off the page and into my own spirit. I started dragging around, inventing emotional maladies, worrying about my life, and contemplating my uterus. When I finished the novel the malaise lifted, and I felt I had been through a mild illness. That’s impressive, but it wasn’t fun. What is fun is to think that Doris Lessing, by writing this novel that I found tedious and sad-making, about a lady who I found tedious and sad-making, is actually one of many reasons that I am able to feel happy, as a lady! How about that?
Additionally, The Golden Notebook did serve as a nice, I guess, illustration of something I have been mulling over lately. Last month I noticed that there were a lot of articles about marriage on various news and “culture” websites. First there were articles and books and annoying blog posts saying that marriage is boring and against nature, which lead to even more annoying personal pieces about allegedly successful marriages and how superb they are for everyone (either that, or Our Problems and How We Solved Them). When I read things like this, I think, probably unkindly, “Hmm, love to hear from your spouse about all this” and “Shut up.” But my point, other than that people should stop talking about their significant others on the internet, is that advocates of “romance” and drama (cf Christina Nehring, A Vindication of Love) should read The Golden Notebook, and get back to me on the advantages of hot passion. As a matter of fact, advocates of marriage (their own marriages, mostly, and specifically I mean that smug fellow on Salon), could give it a read too. Nowhere have hot passion and marriage alike (human relationships in general, actually, and the Communist Party) seemed so utterly defeating and sad as they do in The Golden Notebook.
The Skating Rink: Sigh. I was so looking forward to this. I even pre-ordered, and I never pre-order. But it was lacklustre. It lacked lustre, and heart, like a last-minute writing exercise from a promising MFA student. Compared to the shocking experience of The Savage Detectives and 2666, this was very flat. If I had read it in a magazine I would have liked it more, I think. Being bound in boards makes everything so weighty. So does pre-ordering.
Those are my companions in the rut, friends. I had a couple things lined up for the rest of the month, but given the length of this losing streak, I’m not sure they are suitable. First, The Black Book. I like Pamuk, but I’m not sure he is the one to end a losing streak. The man is married to melancholy. Then a William Vollmann novel (my first), Europe Central. But it looks heavy (like, heavy). I’m going to the beach next week. Will my location be incompatible with my reading material? I’m sort of considering acquiring (preferably through theft) a copy of Twilight. I read the first few chapters at a party, and it raised some thrilling questions. What of the crude nationalistic symbolism of Bella’s pick-up truck? Why is Edward, like, so mad at Bella when he doesn’t even know her? Will my own accursed pallor be trendy this season, thanks to these sexy underaged people from Forks, Washington? How much will I hate myself if I spend money on this book?
I’ll do anything to get out of this goddamned rut.
This guest post comes to us Sana Krasikov. Sana is the author of the short story collection One More Year.Recently, in response to the launch of Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Outliers, the literary critic Germaine Greer posed the question of why women don’t write more books about “Big Ideas.” Reaching back in time to examine Big Idea books by women, Greer wondered if women had the “necessary audacity” required to sell a hypothesis. To be fair, Greer was referring mostly to non-fiction books, but her question could just as easily be asked of fiction. Could it be true that women authors were “more interested in understanding than explaining, in describing rather than accounting for?” And does this keep them from garnering the kind of attention given to their more declarative and “audacious” male counterparts?Considering these questions, I thought about a book I had read recently – Sigrid Nunez’s novel The Last of Her Kind – a book that, in addition to being beautifully written, was as much about ideas as it was about characters. Set at the tail end of the sixties, it follows the lives of two Barnard roommates – Georgette, who is from a small town in upstate New York where people drink “to keep their bodies warm, their brains numb… a world of everyday brutality,” and Ann, an earnest overachiever from Connecticut, whose family is so wealthy that her mother doesn’t carry a wallet when she goes shopping, having expense accounts at the major department stores.Years after a bitter falling out, Georgette sees Ann’s name in the newspaper under the headline “Cop Killer.” She can hardly believe how a woman as idealistic and intelligent as Ann is capable of such violence. Though the press paints Ann as another Patty Hearst, a spoiled girl playing at Revolution, Georgette is convinced her ex-roommate’s story has a more complicated side.Delivered in a warmly sardonic but unaffected voice, the prose doesn’t draw attention to its own genius in the way of a Mailer, or to its vigor in the way of a Thomas Wolfe. For long stretches of the book, turning the pages feels less like reading and more like listening to the sane voice of an old friend. And yet as much as it’s a story of two women, The Last of Her Kind is really an extended essay – a sober examination of the darker rhetoric of the sixties.Here is a scene: Many years after she is raped, Georgette is invited by a professor who is a friend to discuss the experience with a group of college girls in the professor’s Women’s Studies class. Too uncomfortable to turn down her friend’s request, Georgette tells the young women that, looking back on life, she could point to many things that happened later which were worse than the rape, and which even made it seem like a minor event in her life. The students respond by telling her that she is “in denial” and “intellectualizing,” and in need of “emotional work” to understand the extent of her repression. The present-day framework of “trauma and recovery” makes it impossible for girls who came of age in the nineties to comprehend how, in the highly-politicized sixties, rape might have been viewed as an “insurrectionary act,” or how in some fringes of the sexual revolution, women might have thought it rude to sleep with only one man if there were two men in the room.Rather than recalling the late-sixties and early-seventies as a progressive or enlightened moment, Nunez paints an age that left many casualties in its wake: a time when someone like Charles Manson could be hailed as a hero, a time when college professors received death-threats from radical students, a time when sex could be “not just a casual, but a meaningless act.” Describing her sister’s boyfriend, Georgette observes, “Roach looked like what he was, a survivor of an era that had tipped over into madness.”The Last of Her Kind has been compared to Roth’s American Pastoral But a more apt comparison might be to Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. Georgette’s disappointment with the mythic sixties reminds one of Lessing’s narrator’s disillusionment with the “glorious adventure” of socialism and the British Communist Party in the 1950s. Both novels are nods to George Elliot’s Middlemarch, which concerns itself not only with the souls of its characters but also with a larger, and more sweeping project of recording social history. All these books, written by women who explored politics and morality as two sides of one phenomenon, gain their effect not from proclamations, but from a kind of layering affect where ideas about class, altruism, and gender-relations are asserted, knocked down and revised at different stages of their character’s lives.In the last pages of the book, a grown-up Georgette rants against that sacrosanct American novel, The Great Gatsby, which her teenage children are studying in school.I think it is significant that The Great Gatsby’s reputation as the greatest masterpiece of the twentieth-century American literature did not blossom until the fifties, and that those most responsible for that reputation have been schoolteachers. It is such an easy book to teach. Short, clear, safe. What makes Gatsby “great”? How does Gatsby represent the American dream? What does the green light symbolize? What does the valley of ashes symbolize? What do the eyes of Dr. Eckleburg symbolize? Compare and contrast: East Egg/West Egg. Jay Gatsby/Tom Buchanan. New York/The Middle West.In many ways, The Last of Her Kind attempts to be precisely the kind of novel that is not Gatsby – a book with ideas that resists being summarized into one Big Idea – in other words a book for adults.