Quote of the Week

“The book was in her lap; she had read no further. The power to change one’s life comes from a paragraph, a lone remark. The lines that penetrate us are slender, like the flukes that live in river water and enter the bodies of swimmers. She was excited, filled with strength. The polished sentences had arrived, it seemed, like so many other things, at just the right time. How can we imagine what our lives should be without the illumination of the lives of others?”

—James Salter, from Light Years


Photo credit, Corrina Arranz

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Literary Shock and Awe

by Tom Piazza

A lot of people have been offering their ripostes, pro and con, to last Sunday’s William Giraldi NYTBR review of two books – a novel and a story collection – by Alix Ohlin. In addition to agitation in the tweetosphere, there has been bloggage, facebookage, and plenty of strong wind coursing through the other traditional conduits.

Giraldi is, on the evidence of his novel Busy Monsters and the reviews and essays of his that I have read, a smart guy who really does love literature. And he has real talent, even if he strains to advertise his writerly abilities at every possible turn of every phrase. Not necessarily his human sympathies, or his wit, or his grasp of social situations – his writerly abilities. That quality of strain is the dominant urgency on display in his Ohlin review, and it sinks the piece, and it’s too bad, because a more measured and thoughtful review might have been useful.

Giraldi’s essential complaint about Ohlin is that she is a lazy writer. I have no idea whether this is true. I have not yet read her, and I have never met her. Let us assume, for the sake of argument and the purposes of this essay, that Ohlin’s work is every bit as weak as Giraldi claims. Maybe she deserves a harsh comeuppance. He certainly parades plenty of banal phrases, clichés, and bad choices from her work. Of course, they are delivered out of whatever context Ohlin has devised for them; the immediate context in which we encounter the examples is the stalled storm system of Giraldi’s contempt not just for everything Ohlin does on the page, but for everything she represents to his mind – tired language, cliché, lack of rigor. We are with a Guardian of the Faith.

The rock of that faith is revealed in the final sentence of the review. “Every mind lives or dies by its ideas,” Giraldi writes; “every book lives or dies by its language.” Again – not by human insight, even if delivered clumsily, or by a view of a world we might not otherwise see, even if rendered crudely. Dreiser, Dostoevsky, and Steinbeck, please step out of the room. Books don’t live by embodying the author’s unique balance among the competing claims of language, ideas, emotional truth, factual observation… no, it must be one thing, a God we can follow.

Okiedokie! Language it is! Let’s look at the language in Giraldi’s review.

Giraldi’s first paragraph barrels onto the page like an armored car coming around a streetcorner; a voice immediately begins barking out proclamations through a loudspeaker. “There are two species of novelist,” the voice announces; “one writes as if the world is a known locale that requires dutiful reporting, the other as if the world has yet to be made.” We are thrown immediately into an Either/Or world; things – including an organism as complex as a novelist – are either this way, or they are that way.

Before the reader has time to ask whether this first pronouncement makes any sense, she or he is smothered by an amplification of the first pronouncement, a full forty-nine words in one sentence worthy of Polonius in full cry: “The former enjoys the complacency of the au courant and the lassitude of at-hand language, while the latter believes with Thoreau that ‘this world is but canvas to our imaginations,’ that the only worthy assertion of imagination occurs by way of linguistic originality wed to intellect and emotional verity.” And prolixity, too, apparently.

This doozy of a sentence lets down the ramp and looses a commando squad of support personnel who nearly trip over one another scrambling onto the page. The reviewer introduces his bodyguards, who will stand behind him with arms crossed for the remainder of the piece. Cervantes, Laurence Sterne, George Eliot, Saul Bellow, and Ezra Pound are all invoked or quoted. Our reviewer writes that when you finish a book by one of the above-mentioned bodyguards “the cosmos takes on a coruscated import it rather lacked before.” That “rather” is an affectation, but then that whole sentence is kind of insufferable – “coruscated import?” Step back! Give the man room! (Giraldi is addicted to these kinds of labored constructions. At the review’s end, we are told that writing should “raise words above the enervated ruck and make the world anew.” “Enervated ruck,” huh? And how about a phrase such as “make the world anew,” coming from a cliché policeman?)

The review’s first paragraph lasts for one hundred and thirty-five words. Having secured the town square with this armed display, the reviewer goes house to house, chapter to chapter, cliché to cliché, without mercy, stringing up banalities and applying a prodigious critical bastinado to a prisoner who, by the end of the show trial, seems at worst to have committed the crime of just not being a very good writer.

And this is definitely a show trial. The purpose of a show trial is to make an example of someone, to humiliate the prisoner in order to scare potential future offenders into preemptive submission. The second paragraph and those that follow are a parade of sarcasm and outright insult, a military march of loaded descriptives and valuatives – “cliché-strangled,” “precious,” “lazy,” “abysmal,” “appalling,” “saccharine,” “dessicated,” “shopworn,” “forgettable,” and assorted other slaps and stabs – “schlock,” “yawningly,” “bland earnestness,” “intellectually inert, emotionally untrue and lyrically asleep.”

Well, we all dislike bad writing, or we hope we do. Who among us is not guilty of it from time to time? If Ohlin’s work is as unrelentingly bad as the reviewer says it is, it will sink. To use it as the occasion for an armored show of your own authority, to hold up the work of Alix Ohlin as being representative of a literary pathology that can only be countered by this kind of mobilization of force, is a little unhinged. No wonder a blogger at the neocon Commentary has rushed to Giraldi’s defense. They love a good war over there, and they get aroused by the sound of a whip coming down.

Giraldi’s review isn’t bad because it is mean. It is bad because it is overkill – so unbalanced and venomous that we are forced to ask just what it is that is sending this smart and talented reviewer off the rails. Let’s say a writer uses a bad, clichéd phrase such as “her eyes sparkled” three times in as many pages. Terrible, right? Deserves to be called out, no question. But to this extent? Has Alix Ohlin been advanced as such a genius, are we in such danger from runaway Ohlinolatry, that we need this public burning? This self-congratulatory rush to the barricades? Is this review really serving the reading public, or what’s left of it, or is it instead a Dale Peckaresque exercise in self-promotion?

Maybe neither. Giraldi is clearly not stupid, and he is painfully earnest about showing his command of the language, even to the extent of torturing it from time to time. There is no way of knowing Giraldi’s private reasons for shaving Ohlin’s head and parading her through the streets. But anyone at such pains to assert his authority by setting up camp with that “there are two kinds of novelists” opening (where are the cliché police when you need them?), dragging in Ezra Pound (twice!), Cervantes, Thoreau and company, and then unleashing such a blitzkrieg of sweeping assertions, is aching to broadcast something more than just his literary standards.

If you can claim the culture of Virginia Woolf, or Edmund Wilson, or Ralph Ellison, you don’t need to make muscles in the mirror or surround yourself with that many Expert Witnesses. It takes a special kind of grandiosity to imagine that you are holding aloft the chalice of literature by using up a full page in the NYTBR to say no more than that a not particularly skilled writer is not particularly skilled.

Defending himself in a Boston Globe interview, Mr. Giraldi implies that anyone who doesn’t like his approach is “just another feckless component of capitulation” to the lowering of standards – a nice Spiro Agnewish phrase. At the risk of being yet another feckless component of capitulation, I say this review may gain him some attention and maybe some admirers, but it will turn many more people against him – he may tell himself he doesn’t care – and it will hamper the development of his talent. Not because it is harsh but fair, but because he shows himself to be so desperate to make a splash and to claim the mantle of authority that he loses control, and writes badly himself. There’s a line between tough love and sadism. Most of us probably take some degree of guilty pleasure in a well-delivered barb in a review. But I don’t think one has to defend laziness or sentimentality or low standards to say that some degree of generosity of spirit and a little humility are not bad things, even in the literary world.


Tom Piazza is the author of ten books, including the novel City Of Refuge, which won the Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction, and the post-Katrina classic Why New Orleans Matters. His most recent book is Devil Sent The Rain: Music and Writing in Desperate America, a collection of his essays and journalism. Other books include the Faulkner Society Award-winning novel My Cold War, and the short-story collection Blues and Trouble, which won the James Michener Award for Fiction. He lives in New Orleans and is a writer for the innovative HBO drama series Treme.

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Writers Tell Us What They Plan to Read in 2012

To start the new year, we asked some of our favorite writers about their reading plans for 2012.  Here’s what they had to say:

LOUIS BEGLEY: I always play catch up in my reading – unless I reread! – so that so far there isn’t a single work of fiction published in 2011 or 2012 that I plan to read in the near future. Here is my current list for 2012:

Daniel Kehlmann’s Measuring the World. I read Kehlmann’s short novel Fame a month or so ago and was enchanted by its wit and the quick brush strokes with which he paints his characters. When I came to the end, I wished there had been more. Fortunately, Measuring the World, the intertwined stories of the discoveries of Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Friedrich Gauss, is somewhat longer.

Colm Tóibín, The Master.  I was stunned by intelligence and psychological insights Tóibín displayed in his Brooklyn, which my daughter gave me for my birthday, and quickly bought the most recent volume of his short stories, The Empty Family, which I find brilliant. The Master is next on the list. I can’t resist its attraction.

Witold Gombrowicz, Ferdydurke. This is the masterpiece of the Polish novelist Gombrowicz, and it is one of the great novels of the first half of the twentieth century. I reread it regularly for its savage humor and the pungency of its language. The time has come to plunge into that invigorating bath again!

Begley’s newest novel, Schmidt Steps Back, will be published by Knopf in March.  He is appearing at The Center on March 22.

DAVID EBERSHOFF:  I want to read The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus.  He’s an original writer, devoted to the possibilities of language.  26 letters–that’s all we work with.  The title of this book makes me curious to see what he’s achieved with our 26 little tools.

David Ebershoff is the author of four books of fiction, including The Danish Girl, The Rose City, and Pasadena. His most recent novel is the international bestseller, The 19th Wife.

JONATHAN FRANZEN:  I don’t know what I’ll be reading in 2012, but having found my way, in recent years, to many happy surprises by young American writers– among them Joshua Cody’s [sic], Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, Teddy Wayne’s Kapitoil, and Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum’s Ms. Hempel Chronicles– I’m confident of encountering more.

Jonathan Franzen’s most recent novel is Freedom. His new collection of essays, Farther Away, is due out in April.

DAVID LEAVITT:  One book I’m very much looking forward to reading in 2012 is Peter Cameron‘s Coral Glynn, which FSG will be publishing.

David Leavitt is the author of four short story collections and seven novels, including his latest, The Indian Clerk, which was short-listed for the IMPAC/Dublin Award.

URSULA K. LE GUIN:  So far, I only know one novel I am determined to read in 2012. It won’t be published here for a while yet–I don’t even know the title– I’ve asked to review it in England, so they’ll send me a copy. The author is Johan Theorin. Two of his books are available here–Echoes from the Dead and The Darkest Room. All are set on Öland, an island in the Baltic Sea just off the south coast of Sweden. They’re published as mysteries, so of course the blurb compares him to Stieg Larsson, bah humbug. If it has to be another Swede, Ingmar Bergman, the Bergman of Wild Strawberries, would be more like it.   Theorin uses the mystery form subtly and skillfully to structure quiet, vivid, understated, complex, sometimes tense, always fascinating novels of place, mood, and character.  The first book gives a particularly unforgettable picture of the island itself, its strange treeless limestone region, its weather, its gnarly people, its loneliness.  I’ve found many good books in the “Death in the North” section of our local store, Murder by the Book, but Theorin is in a class by himself.  His English publisher is Black Swan, which belongs to Random House, who ought to get wise and put out all his books in America.

Ursula K. Le Guin has published seven books of poetry, 22 novels, over 100 short stories, four collections of essays, twelve books for children, and four volumes of translation. She is the winner of too many awards to list here.

BONNIE NADZAM:  I have a long-term project of reading three to five works of excellent fiction for each letter of the alphabet—great books that I’ve not yet read. Now, in January 2012, I’m on the letter “M.” There will be many books that I’ll pick up or feel compelled to read or that colleagues and favorite writers will publish. It took to the end of 2011 to read the Center for Fiction’s shortlist for debut novels, and I’m looking forward to reading everything on the 2012 list, whichever works those may be. Stephan Clarks Vladimir’s Mustache comes out in 2012, and comes close to starting with “m,” at least insofar as the importance of mustaches, and I know I’ll pause in this project to read it. I also can’t wait to see what fiction in the lit magazine, The Coffin Factory, looks like this year. Otherwise, I’m really looking forward to reading Le Morte d’Arthur (Malory, and I’ve already started), Much Ado about Nothing (which somehow in all those lit classes I missed), Madame Bovary (Flaubert), Middlemarch (Eliot), Magic Mountain (Thomas Mann), The Moviegoer (Walker Percy), and Money: A Suicide Note (Martin Amis). I don’t expect ever to finish this project. I did not begin with the letter “A.”

Bonnie Nadzam’s most recent book, Lamb, won the Center’s 2011 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. You can read an interview with her here.

JOYCE CAROL OATES:  Since I am immersing myself in the literature of 1905-6, & decades preceding, I will want to reread Edith Wharton, particularly The House Of Mirth; & Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie; work by Willa Cather, Henry James, Jack London, & Upton Sinclair (The Jungle); plus romances & verse of the era, as well as looking at Walt Whitman & Emily Dickinson with a “new”–(that is, a 1905-vision)–perspective.  (I am working on a gothic-historical novel set in Princeton, NJ.) Of upcoming novels, I am looking forward to Richard Ford’s Canada and Edmund White’s Jack Holmes And His Friend.

Joyce Carol Oates has published over 50 novels, as well as many volumes of short stories, poetry, and nonfiction. She will lead a master Class on Crime Fiction at here at The Center on May 16.

ED PARK:  I’m bracing myself for Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet, which I plan to allow to rearrange my head, the way each of his previous books has. I read part of an ARC of Antoine Wilson’s Panorama City and dug the Beckettian comma splices, then lost the book for a few months. (I’ve been turning my office upside down looking for it but I’ll just wait for the real thing.) Nobody writes novels like Heidi Julavits, and The Vanishers might be her supreme achievement. There’s a description early on of a wall “varicosed” with ivy, which I think of whenever I see ivy now (or my legs, for that matter). And Sergio de la Pava’s self-published A Naked Singularity in 2007; Scott Bryan Wilson at the online literary magazine The Quarterly Conversation caught wind of it three years later, delivering an unqualified rave; his review begins with an editor’s note that states, “There is a growing body of evidence that it is a remarkable work of fiction that has been unjustly ignored.” Now the University of Chicago Press is bringing it out, in no small part due to the labors of my friend Levi Stahl, a littérateur whose recommendations have never steered me wrong.

Ed Park is the author of the novel Personal Days and a founding editor of The Believer. He is Fiction Editor at Amazon Publishing.

TOM PIAZZA:  Lydia Davis’s translation of Madame Bovary. The Steegmuller translation has always been my favorite, and I have a feeling Davis may be a little bit like listening to Pierre Boulez conduct Beethoven. But her brain is so interesting that the translation is guaranteed to be worth reading.

Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, in the good ol’ Constance Garnett translation. I have so far disliked the newly hegemonic Pevear/Volkhonsky translations of just about every Russian text I have read. Some people say they are more faithful to the original, whatever that means, but to me their translations are flavorless. You can really see it if you read the first hundred pages or so of their Brothers Karamazov and compare it with Garnett’s. Old Karamazov never quite makes it to the page in Pevear/Volkhonsky. Right now I’m also reading the new “condensation” of Joseph Frank’s biography of Dostoevsky.

I hope that by the end of the year there will be bound galleys of Norman Rush’s upcoming novel Subtle Bodies. Everything he writes is great.

Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. I thought The Corrections was a masterpiece. For such an ambitious writer, he has a blind spot for a few large tracts of American reality, but I’m trying to think of an American writer of whom that might not be said. People I respect have told me that Freedom is better than The Corrections, and I plan to see for myself this year.

Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. A couple of years ago Christopher Ricks gave me a copy of Volume One and said he’d give me the second volume when I finished the first. I’m getting that copy of Volume Two this year, I swear it.

Tom Piazza is a writer for HBO’s Treme, author of the novel City of Refuge and, most recently, the essay collection Devil Sent The Rain. See Tom on video here.

ROXANA ROBINSON:  I’m looking forward to reading The Death of Ivan Ilich by Leo Tolstoy.  Tolstoy is by far my favorite writer (as long as I’m writing about him, though if I were writing about Virginia Woolf I might say the same about her) but I haven’t gotten much further than reading and re-reading War and Peace and Anna Karenina. I’ve also read Resurrection, which is not nearly as great as the two giants–solemn and polemical, more politics than human nature. It’s a disappointment to read a bad book by someone you love, so I might just go on re-reading the big novels, but I’ve become tempted by Ivan Ilich.

It’s amazing to realize that after writing War and Peace, which for most writers would be quite enough, Tolstoy went on to write Anna Karenina, a work so rich and so beautiful and so moving that it’s hard to characterize. It, too, contained a political message (it began as a criticism of the restrictive divorce laws), but any agenda is deeply submerged in its mysterious depths. As in War and Peace, in Anna Karenina the mesmerizing narrative includes the whole reach of human experience. Love and marriage, adultery and betrayal, the driving force of passion and the agonizing impositions of reality, are played out through the consciousness of the characters.

After those two giants, how could Tolstoy go on? What more was there to say? But nearly twenty years after War and Peace he wrote The Death of Ivan Ilich. It’s described as one of his late masterpieces.  I’m looking forward to reading it.

Roxana Robinson is the author of the four novels, including most recently Cost, as well as three short story collections. She has organized a marathon reading of House of Mirth at the Center for January 26 and will appear here on April 12 with Jane Smiley to discuss Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

JONATHAN SANTLOFER:  As Program Director for the new Crime Fiction Academy at The Center for Fiction I can’t help but look forward to books coming out in the genre, though I tend to see crime fiction in a wider spectrum. Of course there are more books than I can possibly list, but here are a few…

With his beautiful prose and unhurried sense of urgency I always think of Thomas H. Cook as a poet of the genre and I’m guessing The Crime of Julian Wells (Grove/Atlantic) will not disappoint.

With several neo-noir books under her belt and last year’s stunning The End of Everything, Megan Abbott is no longer a writer to watch, but one to wait for, and though July seems far away I’m waiting for Dare Me (Little/Brown).

Susan Isaacs had me with Compromising Positions and has kept me laughing at murder for years, as I’m certain she will with Goldberg Variations (Scribner).

I’ve been hooked on Karin Slaughter since her first novel, Blindsighted, and will surely be reading her latest, Criminal (Delacorte).

Joyce Carol Oates never disappoints. A fearless writer, who has tackled just about every subject and genre and kept readers turning pages for decades, she will no doubt do so again with Mudwoman (Ecco), and Evil Eye: Four Novellas of Love Gone Wrong (Grove/Atlantic).

I’m going over my five-book limit because I’ve just read the ARC for Sheila Kohler’s The Bay of Foxes and it’s a knockout, a literary novel with all the suspense of the best crime fiction.

And, as a bonus, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Linda Fairstein will finish her 14th Alex Cooper novel in time for a 2012 publication. I know she’s trying, and I’m rooting for her (and for Alex).

Jonathan Santlofer is the author of five novels, including Anatomy of Fear, which won the Nero Wolfe Award for best crime novel of 2009. He is Director of The Crime Fiction Academy at The Center for Fiction.

JANE SMILEY:  There are books I wish might be published: William Kristol I was Wrong About Everything, Grover Norquist, Why I am Leaving Public Life and Joining a Monastery, or from the editors of the New York Times: Just Discovered–The Last Twelve Years Never Actually Happened!

Jane Smiley is the author of numerous novels, including A Thousand Acres, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Her most recent novel is Private Life. She will be at the Center on April 12 with Roxana Robinson.

LILY TUCK:  Presently, I am reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time in both English and French and, I imagine, this will keep me occupied for some time.  In addition, for inspiration, I want to reread three of my favorite writers:

Christa Wolf, the East German writer who died recently, and who I have always admired, Nathalie Sarraute, who I don’t always understand but who interests me, and Penelope Fitzgerald whose writing I have always loved.

I am also looking forward to reading new books by friends:  Benjamin Taylor‘s Naples Declared, Margot Livesey‘s The Flight of Gemma Hardy, and Tom Mallon‘s Watergate.

And, finally, piled high on my night table for bed time reading and dreaming — in my next life, I want to be a physicist — The First Three Minutes by Steven WeinbergJust Six Numbers by Martin Rees, In Search of Time by Dan Falk and Knocking on Heaven’s Door by Lisa Randall.

Lily Tuck is the author of the just published I Married You for Happiness, as well as five previous novels including the NBA winner The News from Paraguay. She was a judge for the Center’s 2011 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize.


Riceyman Steps (Penguin Books, 1991) by Arnold Bennett. I never read Arnold Bennett, although I came across his titles numerous times when I was in graduate school. Especially his Old Wives’ Tales and Anna of the Five Towns. I always imagined him as a dusty old thing, buried under the soil of Modernism. Very recently, the Auden scholar and Professor of literature at Columbia University, Edward Mendelson gave me a copy of Bennett’s Riceyman Steps. I expected I would have to blow off a lot of dust to get beyond the first page. Mendelson’s introduction intrigued me because he claims that Bennett’s novel is really a crypto-Modernist work and vastly misunderstood by the likes of Virginia Woolf, who saw him as I had, a dusty old thing, out of touch with the new and the fresh. Indeed, the dust is everywhere in the novel because it takes place in a bookshop that hasn’t been cleaned for ages. But I’ve been caught within the first five pages in the unfolding of lives tightly bound. This is my first book of the New Year.

Children of Clay (Sun and Moon Press, 1998) by Raymond Queneau. I’ve read almost all of the novels by Raymond Queneau. If you’re not acquainted with him, I implore you to read The Bark Tree or Last Days. There are others I love as well. Apart from Proust, he is the French writer of the 20th Century that I love the most because he has wit and humor and depth. All effortlessly and seemingly casually addressed. I’ve tried to read his Children of Clay more than three times. It is a stubborn book made up of tales that from what I understand he gleaned from records of patients in an insane asylum. I intend to be stubborn myself and go back to reading it with the pleasure I know that is waiting for me.

Sister Stop Breathing (Calamari Press, 2012) by Chiara Barzini. Some years ago, I was the guest editor for The New Review of Literature and had chosen three very short stories by Chiara Barzini. Now those pieces, along with others that I have not read, are included in her new book Sister Stop Breathing. I’m enchanted by her fictions: they are brief enough to be taken whole at a few moment’s sitting and yet and have a wonderful staying power and resonance. They are filled with a kind of mischief and bite, a subversion of the decencies we hold dear or say that we do.

Frederic Tuten has published five novels. His most recent book is the story collection, Self-Portraits: Fictions. His highly regarded art and film criticism has appeared in magazines around the world.

EDMUND WHITE:  I’m excited about Martin Amis’s Lionel Asbo, partly because he is one of our greatest writers (yes, “our” since he lives in America now) and partly because it’s about model and politician Kate Price.

I’m also eager to see Joyce Carol Oates’s Mudwoman, which I read in mss.  It’s a very dark, transgressive novel about a university president.

Sheila Kohler is lavishing lots of time and effort on her novel about Freud (her husband is a psychiatrist) and it’s bound to be fascinating.

Edmund White has published several books, including novels, memoirs, and biographies. His newest novel, just out, is Jack Holmes and His Friend. (Everyone at The Center loves Ed madly and we can’t wait to see him here again soon.)

JOHN WRAY:  I’m not someone who plans his reading list far in advance—most of the books that have really upended me were things I came across by chance—but three books do stand out for me in the coming year. First, in order of pub date, is Nathan Englander’s story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. I can still remember scenes (and even sentences) from Englander’s first collection of ten years past, and the title story of the new book, which I read in the New Yorker a few months ago, was excruciatingly funny. Then there’s The Vanishers, the fourth novel by my longstanding (literary!) crush, Heidi Julavits. The protagonist of the novel is a psychic, which seems appropriate, since I’ve long suspected Ms. Julavits of being a psychic herself. And, lastly but not leastly, there’s Your Name Here, the new ‘novel’ (or novel-equivalent) by Helen DeWitt. I don’t know anything else about it, but that doesn’t matter. Anyone who’s read The Last Samurai, DeWitt’s 2001 novel, will understand.

John Wray is the author of three critically acclaimed novels, including his most recent, Low Boy. He has served as a judge for The Center’s Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize.

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Literary Prizes: Theirs, Ours, and Everybody Else’s

The twitterverse is all atweet with reactions to the announcement of the National Book Award 2011 Short List, and once again it’s the fiction list that is causing the stir. The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obrecht aside, where are all the books that publishers, marketing people, critics, and the rest of the lit world expected to be on the list? Has the NBA finally and irrevocably become irrelevant, as Laura Miller suggests in Salon? Even the normally judicious Ron Charles, whose literary tastes I share to the extent that it’s very possible we were separated at birth, is betraying some low-level concern. Where are all the books I loved reading this year, he tweeted.

And the situation doesn’t seem to be much better on the other side of the Atlantic, though while the complaint about the NBA judges seems to be that they are too elitist and obscure, the Brits have the opposite problem.  A group of English literati have created a new and simply titled “Literature Prize”  (a name just begging for a sponsor; maybe the Murdoch Literature Prize? Oh, wait, no.  The Branson?  The Tesco?) Seems it didn’t sit too well with them that one of the Man Booker judges cited “readability” as a criterion in the committee’s decisions this year and, so, they’re giving up on the Booker entirely. The Guardian reports that the new prize has the support of a group of distinguished writers, including Booker laureates John Banville and Pat Barker, Costa Prize winner Mark Haddon, and Jackie Kay and David Mitchell. In the announcement, the organizers take a pointed swipe at the Man Booker, saying, “We believe that the public deserves a prize whose sole aim is to celebrate the very best novels published in our time.” Clearly, they feel the Booker has sunk too low, though one assumes the writers involved thought it was run well enough when they received the prize. The Guardian notes that the widespread upset when Allan Hollinghurst’s new book didn’t make the short list was also a possible factor in the decision to create the new prize. With that, I sympathize. I loved Line of Beauty, am eager to get my hands on The Stranger’s Child, and find his work in general smart and moving and—dare I say it?—immensely readable.

Finally, though, the question on both sides of the Atlantic doesn’t seem to be whether books should be “readable”—I’m guessing everyone thinks that’s a pretty good idea–but rather, whether a prize becomes irrelevant when it fails to recognize the books that the literary establishment—including publishers, critics, marketing people, and blogging tastemakers—have deemed best.

When favored books don’t make the lists, the judges are accused of being too esoteric or too populist (choose one) or too sexist or not sexist enough (Too many women this year!) or too counter-culture (Too many independent presses!) or just obstinate and out of touch with the reading public.

But it’s not really the reading public that’s the issue, is it?  I know it mustn’t be, because up to the time I took this job nearly six years ago, I was simply (only?) a member of the reading public. Like most readers in the country, I had no interest at all in who published the books I was reading, never even thought to learn how to properly pronounce Knopf, had no idea who Jonathan Galassi or Sony Mehta (I would have guessed conductor) were, and had never even seen a copy of Kirkus or Publisher’s Weekly.

Despite my woeful ignorance of all things literary (except books, of course—those I bought and read at a ridiculous clip), I loved the Booker and the National Book Award and a few other prizes because, along with the New York Times Book Review and a handful of magazines, I looked to them to lead me to good books.  I trusted them.  And when the books short-listed for the NBA weren’t the books I already knew about from ecstatic reviews in the Times or the The New Yorker, I remember being especially happy.  But was I remembering this correctly? Could it really have been the case?  To test it, I called an old college friend who is now a librarian in North Carolina.  Have you seen the National Book Award fiction short list, I asked.  Of course she had. What do you think? I asked. Oh, excellent, she said, I’ve only read one of the books.  She plans to order all of them, as most of the librarians in the country no doubt will. Are these books, as Laura Miller writes, “overlooked gems with a specialized appeal?”  Maybe, but maybe that’s OK or beyond OK, good or great even. (Though having read most of the short-listed books I can’t for the life of me figure out what Miller means by “specialized appeal.”)

Perhaps what bothers me most in the current debate, aside from general confusion about what the reading public needs or wants, is the idea that judges aren’t doing their jobs properly.  For the past thirty years, I’ve been a part of countless selection committee meetings including those that have selected the U.S. artists for the Venice Biennale and other major shows, ones that have given early career support to choreographers and composers, ones that have rewarded innovative theater companies, and ones that have selected artists for residencies around the world. I’ve also moderated our own First Novel Prize judges’ meetings. I serve as a judge for the annual Willie Morris Prize and I’m a nominator for a couple other awards. I know, and let me underscore that, I absolutely know, that the vast majority of judges I’ve encountered in all these processes take their jobs very seriously and proceed with honesty and rigor.  They routinely recuse themselves when there is even the hint of a conflict of interest, and they work very hard to judge each work on its own merits without prejudice. I’ve seen the few who don’t get booed and hissed into submission time and time again.  Do tastes differ? Sure.  Do arguments occur?  Of course. Is it sometimes impossible to recognize all the good work?  Yes, sometimes a short list would have to be far longer to recognize all the excellent books in a given year. But I’ve never seen a book ignored because it had already won a prize or had great reviews (The Tiger’s Wife is on the NBA Short List, in case you hadn’t noticed) and I’ve never seen a book rewarded for being obscure. (“Let’s pick this, nobody will understand it and they’ll think we’re so much smarter than everyone if we choose it.”)  This sort of stuff really doesn’t happen. Books simply speak to different people differently.  My son devours every word David Foster Wallace wrote.  I don’t. I’m crazy for Dana Spiotta novels. Not everyone is. (What is wrong with you people?) Not every debut novel I loved even made our own Flaherty-Dunnan Short List this year, though I loved every novel that did.

I’m sorry Allen Hollinghurst didn’t make the Man Booker Short List.  I would have loved to see Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder and Donald Ray Pollock’s Devil All the Time on the NBA Fiction Short List.  Please read them, they’re really fine books, extraordinary books.  But so are all the books that did make it.  Read them, too.  If you’re only reading one or two books a year, it’s probably going to be the  Steve Jobs bio and whatever the latest incarnation of The Help is, and none of these lists matters much to you. But if you read more than that, the National Book Award and the Man Booker Prize short lists—and our own Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize Short List—are terrific places to start.

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The Storm at the Door

Stefan Merrill Block’s new book, The Storm at the Door, explores the territory between fiction and non-fiction as Block recounts the story of his grandfather’s involuntary commitment to McLean Hospital, the renowned New England facility for the treatment of mental disorders.  McLean’s more famous patients have included Ray Charles, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, James Taylor, Sylvia Plath, David Foster Wallace, and Zelda Fitzgerald. The writer’s grandfather, Frederick Merrill, was interred at McLean in the 1960s at the same time as Lowell.

Neither the exploration of family history through fiction nor the fascination with maladies of the mind are new to Block.  His first novel, The Story of Forgetting, began with an attempt to understand his grandmother’s slow descent into Alzheimer’s, and this book begins with a scene in which that same grandmother, at the very beginning of her illness, burns the letters her husband wrote to her while a patient at McLean.  Either story could have provided material for a riveting memoir, but Block chose instead to write them as novels—as complex ambitious works that do much more than simply fictionalize these family histories.

I first sat down to talk with Stefan in the fall of 2008 when The Story of Forgetting was short-listed for The Center’s First Novel Prize. At that time, we spoke about his path to becoming a published writer and his interests and influences. More recently, he answered questions about The Storm at the Door by email and at an event here on June 23, 2011. This interview includes material from all three sources.

Noreen Tomassi: You didn’t follow the traditional path for writers of fiction today. You didn’t attend am MFA program and you don’t write short stories. You’ve said that the first thing you wrote was The Story of Forgetting. Can that be true, that you just sat down and the first thing you decided to write seriously was this novel?

Stefan Merrill Block: I didn’t “decide” in any real sense. I needed to write because writing was—and is—the only thing that doesn’t feel like a waste of time to me. I wrote, I wrote, and I wrote—something like 1,500 pages–and then it started to assemble itself as a novel, so I trimmed. Still, it was a mess, even at 500 pages, I was ready to say, “You know what?  This is what I needed to do. This is the purging I need to do to become a writer.” I was ready to throw away what I had written, but the woman in my life at the time convinced me to send it out to an agent. I went online and googled the name of authors I loved, and the name of the William Morris agent Bill Clegg came up again and again in relation to them.  So I sent some messy version of what eventually became The Story of Forgetting to him, and he accepted it. And we worked hard on it together, which was thrilling and so heartening. He’s a brilliant reader and a brilliant editor. I probably wrote 100 new pages during that time. Then he took it to publishers and it went to auction.

But the basic shape of the book was there when you sent it to Bill?

Yes, the shape and the characters of Seth and Abel, and the relationship with Mae. And the idea of Isidora. But I had been writing a very different kind of story.  It was more escapist and more fanciful until I wrote the chapter about Abel in love with Mae.  I wrote that in two hours, and the serious novel evolved out of that chapter.

But the land called Isidora is the oldest thing in the book. It was based on stories that my mother and my grandmother told me. My grandmother is the major inspiration for the book. We lived with her, and she died of Alzheimer’s. I was thinking about stories that she told and that my mother then told me, about how these passed-down stories create and maintain some sort of family identity.

One of the most interesting things about the novel is that underlying sense that the way we are able to describe what we know, especially what we know about the mind and how it forms–and loses—memories, is so partial.

In a way, there is no better window into the nature of selfhood than Alzheimer’s disease as we watch what we consider the self, which is so tied up with memory, being stripped away. In The Story of Forgetting, I think I was looking for that transcendent thing that makes us something more than our science, and Alzheimer’s disease, almost more than any other disease, can allow for that kind of insight–like a reverse track of the ways we neurologically turn into fully functioning humans.

The question is: What remains? I think in the case of my grandmother, who often wouldn’t know who I was or who my mother was or who she was or where she was or what year it was, what she exhibited and felt, I believe, was love for us. That remained. And that happens in the book, too.

And Isidora, the imagined country outside memory is not a frightening place; it’s a beautiful place.

Yes, though Isidora is a complicated idea for me. I’m not suggesting that Alzheimer’s disease is positive, but I think the book is for me, as the family’s Isidora stories are for me, and, in fact, as all fiction is for me, an attempt to transform unmanageable chaos, to take the elements of what we observe, but can never really know and to construct some mythological other place that makes sense to us. I had a professor once who was probably given to overstatement, it’s true, but who said, “All Western literature is about the fall.” That’s an interesting idea and in some ways it does underlie The Story of Forgetting.  At some level, I do feel there was at one point a state of innocence and of direct connection to the living moment that has been lost to us as we gain knowledge and consciousness. That’s really the fall—that we once lived in closer correspondence to the now and to nature, but as we gained language, we separated ourselves from that direct connection to the living moment.  And so Isidora is about the possibility of returning to that beautiful place of the now.

As writers, we take the elements of experience that we can’t understand and transform them.  And what it is transformed into for me is often, especially with this first book, elevated a bit.  It’s not quite reality. When I’m writing, I’m trying to get at some sort of truth, but no one form of narration, no one form of storytelling ever leads me there, and so I seem always to write in multiple genres. I’m not trying to do pastiche or anything.  I’m just trying to get at something that can’t be gotten in a single way. And so each form or genre, fairy tale or myth or realism that is woven into The Story of Forgetting represents one system of understanding, and interwoven they contribute an to overall understanding, or at least I hope they do, of the thing that exists in the spaces between all those forms of storytelling.

And I wonder how much of this is a generational thing. Sometimes I think about that, that I’ve grown up knowing only the Internet and knowing that I can take information from ten different places and that everything is hyperlinked. I’ve always had the Internet as a tool, and I write with an Internet machine, this Internet machine that produces the book, so perhaps I write the way I do because of the tools I use.

So that affects how the story unfolds?

Right, it’s not even in a single genre. It’s in four genres and from four different perspectives. But I hope there’s still something that connects everything. I hope there’s an underlying subtle voice that is stronger than each of the genres and ties them in an emotional way.

You said when we talked earlier that you were very aware after completing your first novel of it as analogy to your childhood.

Yes, it’s full of all the things I thought about and feared and loved as a kid, and in some ways was an attempt to put all that stuff away, you know? I was so young when I started it—22 when I began and 25 when it was published. I’m still young, but I was a kid, you know? Of course, there’s a lot in the book that I would do differently now but I’m glad I put to paper all those things that I was thinking about at a very young age.

The new book, The Storm at the Door, is a very different work, though you again deal with family history. And in both your books, you explore maladies of the mind–Alzheimer’s in the first book and your grandfather’s mental illness in the new novel.

Truly, with both books, I just wanted to write something that felt true on the page, and my writing veered down those dark alleys.  I know that my tendency to write about madness is partly a product of my personal history: My father is a psychologist, and for a while I thought I would also have a career in psychology—I worked in a number of experimental psych labs. Also, as a child, one of my most important relationships was with my grandmother. It was a very upsetting, even traumatizing, experience to be so close to her as her mind and memories faltered. So my education and experience make these topics natural for me, but (and maybe I’m just rationalizing here!) I do think that my interest in mental illness is equally an artistic one. These diseases, by heightening or paring away the ordinary elements of human perception, have the potential to offer important insight into ordinary human experience. For example, in writing The Storm at the Door, my exploration of manic depression allowed me a new perspective on the processes of artistic creation. After all my reading and writing about madness, I’m now of the opinion that the artistic process is inherently bipolar; to see the truth of things clearly (or so experimental psychologists would tell you) requires a bit of depression, and to create anything of artistic value requires a kind of mania, with its attendant energy and hubris.

Exploring Alzheimer’s disease, for The Story of Forgetting, was a similarly challenging and revelatory experience. Alzheimer’s disease progresses with a trajectory scientists call “retrogenesis”—a rewinding of sufferers’ brains back to their infantile states.  By deconstructing the self in the opposite direction of how it is first constructed, Alzheimer’s offers a unique window onto what makes us who we are, and what, if anything, is ultimately unique about each of us.

One of the reasons I quit my scientific pursuits—impatience and poor math skills aside!—was that I was bothered by the ways that psychologists talked about the self. Since Skinner, there has been a trend in psychology to reduce a person’s selfhood to a set of behaviors, and with the advances in neuroscience, this has found its fullest expression yet. Looking through our skulls with their digital imaging, scientists can now see us as nothing but a matrix of neurological activity. At our base, neuroscientists show us, we’re all math. Maybe this is true, and maybe my intolerance for this perspective is just a kind of cowardice, but I still feel this reductionist position misses something vital, the endless and irreducible complexity of being human. That, I think, is one of the questions that underlies almost everything I write: In an age where selfhood has been reduced to a constellation of neurological impulses, is there anything transcendently human and singular about each of us? Mental illness, which displays what part of our selves is merely biological, offers me a way to work out that anxiety.

Can you talk a little about the character of Katherine? In some ways, she’s the most enigmatic figure in the book. Her motivation both for burning the letters and for her decision to commit her husband is never neatly explained. That’s one of the parts I love about the book, but can you explain why you made that choice, and how much of the choice related to character and how much to your relationship or understanding of the actual woman—your grandmother?

I’m lucky that I got to know my grandmother at all.  We had a close and loving relationship, even as she began to descend into Alzheimer’s disease when I was around nine or ten. I loved her and felt that I knew her, and yet I see now, as an adult, that I really never got to know her in her true fullness and complexity.  Her burning of those letters, more than any other single act, was the beginning of my awareness of her true complicated history that had existed long before me.  So there are two great mysteries contained in that act of incineration: the mystery of what those pages held, and also the mystery of why she decided to burn them. And those two mysteries are really the same as the unsolvable mystery that compelled my writing of this book, the mystery of who my grandparents really were.

It was that burning of those letters that first gave definite shape to my curiosity and wonder, and so it seemed right that the scene should open my novel. After years of reading, writing, and research, I see that I’ll probably never have a simple answer to explain that act; the answer, I think, is not a single explanation but an entire complex history of hope and loss and frustration and persistence.

When we talked before, you were worrying about whether to include photos, and we talked about how Sebald used photos in Austerlitz. What sealed that decision for you and are you happy with the result? What do you mean the pictures to do for the reader?

Yes, the decision to include the photographs came very late in the process.  While I wrote, I had those two pictures on a shelf near my writing table. I often looked at them while working, and the facts of my grandparents’ actual faces kept refreshing my original vision of them, kept reminding me of the actual people around whom I was spinning these fictions. In many ways, the book is about the insufficiencies of language against the unknowable chaos of lived experience. So I think that the decision to include those pictures, at least for me, points to both of these feelings: the pictures as inspiration for the words I wrote, but also my words grasping and failing to reach the real living people. In Sebald, I think, the photos are there as part of the text, as a kind of visual grammar, modifying the reading experience. In my book, the pictures are a place outside of the text, both challenging and inspiring the stories between them. I’m glad they’re there.

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Quote of the Week

Every reader finds himself. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument that makes it possible for the reader to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have seen in himself. – Marcel Proust

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