Thursday, August 13, 2009
What makes a postmodern novel
Courtesy The Rumpus, I found a link to an entry on the LA Times books blog listing 61 "essential" postmodern novels. I was more amused by the alleged common attributes of a postmodern novel, as defined by the author -- LA Times books columnist and reviewer Carolyn Kellogg -- than by the list itself (of which I have read 12 of the 61 books). The list of common attributes:
- author is a character
- self-contradicting plot
- disrupts/plays with form
- comments on its own bookishness
- plays with language
- includes fictional artifacts, such as letters
- blurs reality and fiction
- includes historical falsehoods
- overtly references other fictional works
- more than 1000 pages
- less than 200 pages
- postmodern progenitor
To that list of attributes, I would add "refers to pop culture ironically, i.e. in such a way as to both embrace it and distance itself from it."
technorati: books, postmodernism
Labels: art, books, irony, novelists, postmodernism
Tuesday, July 07, 2009
NYRB reprints Handke classic 'Short Letter, Long Farewell'
Browsing on the New York Review website, I was pleased to see that they have reprinted Peter Handke's classic road novel Short Letter, Long Farewell.
This 1972 book -- which became widely available to American readers in the 1985 Avon release (seen at left) of three Handke novels in one paperback volume entitled Three by Peter Handke -- is about the aftermath of a breakup, as the male narrator flees what seems to be a quest for revenge by his erstwhile lover (or wife, it's unclear). This was one of my favorite books when I was in my late 20s; it combines the outlines of a chase thriller with slow conversations about books and films, including a conversation with the director John Ford. I gave a hardback edition of the novel to a friend, who then wrote about it.
Handke became a pariah in the 1990s when he wrote a book defending the claims of Serbia in the former Yugoslavia, and in 2006 outraged people when he spoke at the funeral of Slobodan Milošević. He remains a figure of great controversy. But there was no hint of this moral defection -- which I blame on his simply being an Austrian, because it seems all Austrians are perverse and nihilistic -- in the 70s, when he worked closely with German director Wim Wenders, who filmed his novels "Wrong Movement" and "The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick" and several Handke screenplays, most famously "Wings of Desire."
technorati: books, NYRB
Labels: Austria, books, Handke, novelists
Wednesday, July 01, 2009
New book by a friend
Several years ago I was a technical publications manager at a different software company than the one I work for now. One of the brightest writers there was a young guy everyone called Andy, whose work experience included working in a toy factory. Since then he's gone on to a creative writing MFA and now, known officially as Andrew Zornoza, is the proud author of a first novel, Where I Stay. The book's unusual design reflects the novel's unusual structure, a succession of prose snapshots of various locales, mostly around the American west. It's an intriguing book and worth picking up.
See the review on HTML Giant.
Labels: books, books by friends, novelists
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
$2 million for celebrity memoir, as male novelists grow limp
Glum observers of the publishing scene who want to reinforce their view that the industry is as broken as an over-extended mortgage lender need look no farther than the $2 million deal for Kathy Griffin's memoir. How many copies of a doorstop like that will Ballantine have to sell just to break even? And for what? (And no, the deal wasn't done by Molly Jong-Fast.)
At Salon, Laura Miller suggests that women are ready to dethrone men as the primary writers of American novels, saying "in my (admittedly limited and anecdotal) experience, literary men under 45 are as likely to idolize Joan Didion or Flannery O'Connor as Norman Mailer or John Updike." (I'm not under 45, but for the record, I do idolize Flannery O'Connor [but not Joan Didion].)
A related clue might be found in my interview with YiYun Li last month. When she wanted to think of an American novelist critical of American society, the first name that came to her mind was Toni Morrison.
Whatever the achievements of women novelists, it's definitely true that women buy more books than men, especially novels. This 2007 NPR story quotes British novelist Ian McEwan as saying "When women stop reading, the novel will be dead."
technorati: Kathy Griffin, publishing, novelists
Labels: novelists, publishing
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
'Lost' Kerouac novel to be published
Publishers Marketplace reports that Harpers has agreed to publish "The Sea is My Brother," a "lost" novel by Jack Kerouac, written in 1942 and based on his experiences in the Merchant Marine. According to the book "Desolate Angel" by Dennis McNally, Kerouac wrote the work while on the Dorchester, where he served in the galley.
A review in Jack Magazine of "Atop an Underwood," the 1999 compendium of Kerouac's early and unpublished writings says that "Underwood" contains "a substantial chunk of the third version of 'The Sea is My Brother'." The biography "Jack Kerouac" by Michael Dittman quotes Kerouac as describing "The Sea is My Brother" as being about "man's simple revolt from society as it is, with the inequalities, frustration, and self-inflicted agonies. Weley Martin loved the sea with a strange, lonely love; the sea is his brother and sentences. He goes down. The story also of another man, in contrast, who escapes society for the sea, but finds the sea a place of terrible loneliness."
Sounds like Kerouac was pretty horny and miserable aboard the Dorchester.
technorati: Jack Kerouac, publishing, book deals
Labels: book deals, Kerouac, novelists, publishing
Friday, January 23, 2009
Interview with Yiyun Li -- the personal and political
Yesterday I interviewed author Yiyun Li, whose new novel The Vagrants is the best literary novel I've read in a long time. Get used to me mentioning it, because it's one of those books you feel everyone who appreciates great writing should read.
One of the questions I addressed in the interview has to do with her intention in depicting the lives of people living in a provincial Chinese town in 1979, a few years after the close of the Cultural Revolution. She depicts those lives as very grim, filled with brutality and violence. Some of the details on the smaller scale strike one as particularly heartless, as when she talks about a family where the parents, disappointed after having six female children, don't even bother to give names to the youngest three, who are referred to as Little Fourth, Fifth and Sixth. Other details, about the way the government treats political prisoners, are violent in a more physical way -- for example, they stage a "denunciation ceremony" for a political prisoner, and cut her vocal cords before the rally so she can't shout any counter-revolutionary slogans in front of a crowd.
Given this cruel picture, I asked the author if she intended the book to be an indictment of Chinese society, and she answered very forcefully:
I don't have any intention for the novel to be an indictment of anything. That is a big NO. NO. NO. The situation may seem Chinese and specific to this era, but if you look at history, horrible things happen all the time. Brutality and violence happen all the time. On all scales. I can't shy away from that if I am writing a book.... My story happens to be set in China, and the characters happen to be Chinese. But if you read, say, Toni Morrison's novels, would you say she is depicting an unfairly negative picture of America? I replied, "Certainly negative, but I would not say unfairly so." But there's more to say. Most Americans are secure enough in their views of their country that they don't object to negative, yet fair, criticism. I don't think China is yet secure enough in its reputation to feel the same way. You'll remember how sensitive they were last year to criticism of their human rights record, and how they took pains to ensure that the picture of China -- during the Olympics, at least -- was a positive one.
Regardless of her intention, I wouldn't be surprised if some people see Li's book as an indictment of Chinese society. But she went on to say:
I think that is a very narrow way of looking at literature... a very soviet, socialist view of how literature should represent certain things. I feel that as a writer the only people I feel responsible to are my characters. And I would need to treat them very fairly. Of course, that's the right approach for any artist to take. But what strikes me is that, as far as the content of her book is concerned, she feels her first allegiance is not to either the country of her birth or her adopted one -- one she had to struggle to stay in, as I mentioned yesterday -- but to her book's characters.
I admire that very much, and I found much else to admire in the book itself, as I state in the interview.
technorati: writers, Yiyun Li, China
Labels: books, narrative, novel writing, novelists, writers
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
Immature content only
On Friday I mentioned the CNet editor who self-published his novel and then wrote a long column about doing so. Now it seems (courtesy Galleycat) Apple won't allow his book to be sold as an e-book for the iPhone because of a single line in which "a teenage girl telling a detective that she overheard her friend asking a gentleman caller to '(love) me like you mean it,' just with a slightly more emphatic verb." The story goes on to speculate just how this phrase came to the attention of Apple, quoting a developer: "What would happen if I (a Romanian) would publish an e-book filled with Romanian obscenities? -- would Apple's staff need to learn Romanian... and read the entire ebook ... to make sure this doesn't happen?"
But the part of the story that caught my attention was lower down, in a section recounting Apple's struggle to keep iPhone apps SFW:
Apple's definition of "objectionable" has been questioned before. After initially balking, Apple finally relented to the extremely influential fart joke lobby last week and permitted applications such as Pull My Finger and iFart Mobile (ranked 3rd and 10th, respectively, among paid App Store applications at the moment) under what was described as a "Mature" section. Really? Sounds like apps with names like that should be in an "Immature" section.
technorati: books, Apple, censorship
Labels: books, novelists, pornography, publishing
Thursday, March 06, 2008
Last month's passing of French avant-garde novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet has occasioned little comment, but today Salon threw dirt on the grave with a piece entitled The Man Who Ruined the Novel. I found the article extremely unconvincing. I don't claim to know much about Robbe-Grillet's work, though I have read a few of his novels, and I found them sort of inspiring, not discouraging. Like Kathy Acker, he mixed explicit sex with a disdain for narrative and a sense of weird freedom. "Project for a Revolution in New York" gave me permission to break rules.
You know whose work I found really discouraging? Toni Morrison. After reading "Song of Solomon" I almost despaired of ever being a writer, thinking "Christ, I could never do anything like this."
Not that my stuff is anything like Robbe-Grillet. But I sure responded to it better than that Salon writer.
technorati: novelists, novels, books, Robbe-Grillet
Labels: novel writing, novelists
Monday, February 18, 2008
Alain Robbe-Grillet dies
Alain Robbe-Grillet, one of the bomb-throwers of modern literature whose last book, Un Roman Sentimental, garnered almost nothing but contempt, has died at age 85. In keeping with the rest of his career, his last book mixed themes of sadistic sex, philosophy, and politics.
Un Roman Sentimental is not out in English, so if you want an introduction to Robbe-Grillet, try Project for a Revolution in New York, which is out of print but widely available from used booksellers. Here's an evocative blog entry on the author; it points to a long, fairly recent interview here.
technorati: books, Robbe-Grillet
Saturday, January 26, 2008
Two new novels set in Las Vegas
Two new novels are set in, and largely about, Las Vegas: The Delivery Man by Joe McGinniss Jr., and Beautiful Children by Charles Bock. Both are first novels.
The story of how the first one was published has some interesting and -- for writers -- comic bits:
When McGinniss was looking for people to give his manuscript a read, among the first people he contacted was (Bret Easton) Ellis. "I groaned," says Ellis of receiving McGinniss' first e-mail asking for help. "Of course, you have to understand, I feel completely indebted to his father. There was no way I was going to say no to his request."The confusing thing for novelists at the beginning of their careers is that you're aware some people do get manuscripts published without extensive, multiple revisions; while they may not "crank it out," they basically lay it down, do some polishing, and they really are done. T. Coraghessan Boyle is one of these; I heard him interviewed on a local radio station while I was writing my own first novel, Make Nice (which also happens to be set partly in Las Vegas). I phoned up the show and asked the author about his revision process. He said:
Ellis sent McGinniss back to the drawing board. "It needed to be tightened up," he says. "I felt there were a lot of missed opportunities... There was a lot of editorializing. He had the same setting [of the published novel], the same cast of characters, the same complicated relationships, but the story needed to be more precise."
"I was very naive," McGinniss says. "I'd just assumed you crank it out and if it reads well, it's a novel -- it's done, you're set. At the time I sent it to him, inside I thought, I think I'm pretty close." For the next two years he made multiple revisions and did some more Vegas research...
This is going to drive a lot of people crazy, but I don't do any subsequent drafts. I do substantial rewriting as I go along in the first draft, and when I get to the end of the book, it's essentially done. Of course there's editing and so on, but what's in my computer is basically it. Many more writers do the multiple-revisions thing. My friend Katia went through seven or eight drafts of her first novel Crashing America and she's into the fourth or fifth draft of her next book. Soon I'll be commencing the fourth draft of Bangalored, my second book -- though like McGinniss Jr. when I sent it to my agent last year I thought, It's pretty close.
technorati: Las Vegas, books, novels
Labels: book deals, books, Las Vegas, novel writing, novelists
Saturday, December 22, 2007
The purpose of literature
From the "unofficial" website of French author Frédéric Beigbeder:
Dans les années 1980, une nouvelle drogue fit son apparition dans les milieux noctambules : le MDMA dit "ecstasy". Cette "pilule de l'amour" provoquait d'étranges effets : bouffées de chaleur, envie de danser toute la nuit sur de la techno, besoin de caresser les gens, grincements de dents, déshydratation accélérée, angoisse existentielle, tentatives de suicide, demandes en mariage. ... Et puis, avons-nous besoin d'une pilule pour raconter notre vie à des inconnus? Alors qu'il y a la littérature pour ça?My translation of the italicized portion: And do we really need a pill just to tell strangers about our lives? Isn't that what we have literature for?
technorati: Frédéric Beigbeder, ecstasy, literature
Labels: ecstasy, literary theory, novelists
'The modern world is absolutely fascist'
From the point of view of mass propaganda and advertising, I think there's been nothing new since the time of Goebbels. Women must look like this, this and this. All who are not within these bounds must strive for them, or be losers. That's a completely fascist doctrine. I'm surprised there aren't people standing with rulers outside nightclubs and measuring the distance between people's ears. Probably they will be soon, and that will be right in this situation.That's Russian novelist Sergei Minaev, profiled in the NYT today. The article is good, and there's also a Q and A sidebar, from which I drew the extended quote above.
All of modern consumer society, without a doubt, is profoundly fascist. You can see this by Africa. People have problems finding drinking water. But you can always find Coca-Cola. How is this possible?
I studied the history of the Third Reich. I found incredible facts. It's clear that the Soviet Union of those years and Fascist Germany were twins. It's no secret for anyone. But the fact that in the contemporary situation, all of these speeches, all of these propaganda approaches, in one way or another serve as the template for the speeches of many politicians. The direct speech of Goebbels is incredibly modern, just change radio to television and no problem.
In addition, I was struck by this quote:
I had a period when I was 24-28 years old. I was part of a heavy scene that began Friday evening and as a rule ended on Monday morning. This was about age 24-27. Now, I don't go out except for exceptional cases... Now, we get together at home and talk, the same format as in kitchens in the 1980s. That's much more pleasant because you're surrounded only by those people whom you like. There's none of that showing off. It's completely peaceful.I was struck by the similarity of this depiction of life with the description of the life of a member of the Chinese intelligentsia of the 17th century in the latest New York Review of Books. From the article (not yet online) 'Ravished by Oranges' by Simon Leys, a review of "Return to Dragon Mountain: Memories of a Late Ming Man":
A great number of scholars gave up the idea of entering public life and opted instead for an existence devoted to the exclusive cultivation of art and letters in the privacy of their homes... Zhang Dai... designed exquisite pavilions and gardens; he gathered a huge library, collected antiques, and was a connoisseur of calligraphy and painting...Here you have two men, separated by 450 years, who respond to the bankruptcy of public and political life in the same way -- by retreating to the domain of the home and forming a world built around friends, art and talk. I'm not saying it's the best solution, but an understandable one in the face of a morally and politically bankrupt society, one becoming increasingly fascist -- which is to compare Ming Dynasty China and modern Russia.
technorati: writers, novelists, Russian, advertising, marketing
Labels: advertising, marketing, novelists, writers
Saturday, November 17, 2007
Random links to Henry Miller
In writing my current book, I'm engrossing myself in the work of Henry Miller, digging through the Tropics and the Rosy Crucifixion trilogy (I'm now almost finished with Plexus.) At the same time I'm reading a biography, The Happiest Man Alive. Miller is clearly of a piece with Jack Kerouac in that his novels consists mostly of fictionalized autobiography, and I was looking on the internet for something that would be the equivalent of this chart of Kerouac's characters in On the Road and their real-life equivalents.
I found this blog entry by another Miller aficionado with a small graphic of such a chart that Miller himself kept, but not even the original graphic, much less a chart than anyone else compiled. Maybe I'll do it myself -- but not at the moment.
Meanwhile, here are a few interesting things I ran into on the way, thanks to Google and others' links:
- April 2007 SF Chronicle: Novelist Herbert Gold on his acquaintance with Miller. I was particularly amused by Gold's saying that in his later writing Miller "declared loudly and hotly, with dash, brio, careless grammar, repetitiveness and bawdy self-centeredness, that idleness, drunkenness and sexual complications were essential to a life of proper dignity." And also that "He was a Jack Kerouac who really liked sex."
- October 2007 Guardian: a short appreciation, but I liked the author's statement that without Miller leading the way "authors such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, Kathy Acker, and Michel Houellebecq" would never have found the audiences they did.
- Style, June 1997: a scholarly article on "Henry Miller's bourgeois family Christmas in 'Nexus'"
- And finally, a big fan page of links to more Henry Miller-related stuff.
technorati: Henry Miller, writers
Labels: novelists, writers
Tuesday, November 06, 2007
The only people that interest me are the mad ones
"... I certainly do envy you... The thing I'll always remember about this fellow" -- he looked from one to the other with a melting glow -- "is his inextinguishable gaiety. I don't think I've seen him depressed more than once or twice in all the time I've known him. As long as there's food and a place to flop... isn't that it?" He turned his gaze on me with unmingled affection. "Some of my friends -- you know the ones I mean -- ask me occasionally if you aren't just a bit touched. I always say, 'Certainly he is ... too bad we're not all touched in the same way.' And then they ask me how you support yourself--and your family. There I have to give up..."
We all began to laugh rather hysterically. Ulric laughed even more heartily than the rest of us. He laughed at himself -- for raising such silly issues. Mona, of course, had a different reason for laughing.*
"Sometimes I think I'm living with a madman," she blurted out, tears in her eyes.
"Yes?" said Ulric, drawing the word out.
"Sometimes he wakes up in the middle of the night and begins laughing. He's laughing about something that happened eight years ago. Something tragic usually."
"I'll be damned," said Ulric.
"Sometimes he laughs that way because things are so hopeless he doesn't know what to do. It worries me when he laughs that way."
"Shucks," I said, "it's only another way of weeping."
-- Henry Miller, Plexus
* Miller's wife June -- "Mona" in the book -- supported them by gold-digging.
technorati: Henry Miller,artists,iconoclasm
Labels: art, depression, novelists, working, writers
Friday, September 07, 2007
Live the life of a writer!
Via Publisher's Lunch:
I was speaking to a friend recently and telling him I was going to Italy this summer with my family to work on a book there and he said, "Tell me, sometime, how one gets a lifestyle like that." I wanted to tell him that what you have to do is write for ten or twelve years not knowing if anyone else in the world will ever want to read it, and then be fortunate enough to get a book published, and have a good wife who understands your need to do that, and then be able to deal with the fact that you have about five thousand dollars' worth of bills in the in-basket, and about three thousand dollars in the bank, and you have no idea when the next dollar is coming, or where it's coming from, and you go upstairs with that worry swirling in your mind, and you sit down at a desk that has pictures of your kids on it, and you make up stories that you think will move other people ... but it didn't sound right somehow, so I just shrugged and made a joke.
For other people it's not going to a party on Saturday night and staying home and writing. For others it's looking your mom or dad in the eyes and saying you know they put you through college, and you appreciate it, but instead of going on to pharmacy school, which was their dream for you, you've decided to live in a crappy apartment someplace with your girlfriend and write a book. For others it's facing all the little madhouses inside themselves and writing about that, all the self-doubt and negative voices, all your other failures and half-successes, all the comments of the practical-minded folks you love. Or all of the above.
technorati: writing, writers, lifestyle
Labels: novel writing, novelists, writers
Thursday, July 05, 2007
How On the Road was created, edited and sold
"All Things Considered" today has a story about the genesis (and exodus) of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, probably one of the ten most famous and influential novels of the 20th century. A nice long print (i.e. not audio) story is here, and that page contains a link to an even more "in-depth feature," as well as video of the famous 120-foot-long scroll typescript.
The piece includes usually not-discussed information about how Kerouac got an agent for the manuscript and how the agent and the eventual editors at Viking dealt with the unweildy book.
Labels: agents, novelists
Remember your manners
[The writers] Caroline [Gordon Tate] and Katherine Anne Porter spent the weekend here... and one night, we had the lot of them to supper. Katherine Anne remembered to inquire about a chicken of mine that she had met here two years before. I call that really having a talent for winning friends and influencing people when you remember to inquire for a chicken that you met two years before. She was so sorry that it was night and she wouldn't get to see him again as she had particularly wanted to. I call that social grace.
-- from a letter of Flannery O'Connor
to the novelist Cecil Dawkins, 8 November 1960,
in The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor"
technorati: Flannery O'Connor, Katherine Anne Porter
Labels: novelists, writers
Thursday, June 07, 2007
How Simenon wrote over 200 novels
In the Summer issue of Bookforum, Luc Sante discusses several novels of Georges Simenon that have been re-released. Of the "phenomenally prolific" Simenon, who wrote over 200 novels, he writes:
Famously, two days before starting a novel, he would consult a map of the place where the book was to be set, search through his collections of telephone books for names of characters, and establish the cast -- ages, backgrounds, family ties -- on the back of a manila envelope. Then he was ready, as he told a Paris Review interviewer in 1955: In this 1997 obituary, Simenon is further quoted:
On the eve of the first day I know what will happen in the first chapter. Then, day after day, chapter after chapter, I find what comes later. After I have started a novel I write a chapter each day, without ever missing a day. Because it is a strain, I have to keep pace with the novel... All the day I am one of my characters. I feel what he feels.... And it's almost unbearable after five or six days. That is one of the reasons my novels are so short; after eleven days I can't -- it's impossible. I have to -- it's physical. I am too tired.
I write a chapter a day. It's the character who commands, not me. I know the end only when I finish. But during the time I'm writing I concentrate, concentrate on my characters. Only the characters matter.
Labels: fiction writing, novelists, writers
Saturday, March 17, 2007
Novelists need large stoves
I was struck by this post by Alex Chee listing his various projects and ideas for novels. In passing he remarks that one of his ideas "has been on a slow simmer for 17 years." As someone with many possible projects for novels in various stages of cooking, I know just what he's talking about. While the project I'm working on now, a novel about an American office girl who gets sent to Bangalore to open up a customer call center, was started on the spur of the moment (and was intended to be finished within a year, though I've been working for almost two and a half years on it now), I have many other ideas and intentions for projects which are also "on a slow simmer."
Some of them I fully intend to do, like a novel about working in the software industry called Knock Yourself Out. Others are ideas which seem really attractive but which I doubt I have the means to do well, like a psychological mystery set in Japan or a series of novellas about a baseball pitcher (I have all the titles for the novellas, and even an epigram, but that's all).
Sometimes I think about all the projects I have in queue and the number of years I have left to live. I'm almost 51 years old, so if I manage to write a novel every four years or so that means I only have time to do four or five more in my life. Therefore I ought to choose my projects wisely, because I can't get time back.
technorati: Alex Chee, writing novels, novelists
Labels: fiction writing, novel writing, novelists
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