Thursday, October 22, 2009

Nabokov prognosticates Sarah Palin!

Sarah Palin is already in the literary news this month for the announcement that she is going to "write" a "book" (by which I mean "hire someone to ghostwrite" a "pop cultural artifact"), but check out these two passages that I just came across in Vladimir Nabokov's hilarious 1962 novel Pale Fire. In the first, deposed king and loquacious protagonist Charles Kinbote is describing the mountains of his native land of Zembla:

...a few peaks rise some two thousand feet higher and retain their snow in midsummer; and from one of them, the highest and hardest, Mt. Glitterntin, one can distinguish on clear days, far out to the east, beyond the Gulf of Surprise, a dim iridescence which some say is Russia.

If this isn't enough to justify a vice-presidential candidacy for Kinbote, check this out, from the very next page...Kinbote here is referring to himself in the third person:

His mother was an American, from New Wye in New England. She is said to have been the first woman in the world to shoot wolves, and, I believe, other animals, from an airplane.

Two years before the former Alaska governor's birth, no less! The man was even more talented than I thought.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Are Writers Taking Enough Risks?

The New York Times Magazine published a very nice profile of Padgett Powell today, which is great for him and for his publisher and editor, who, in the interest of full disclosure, is a friend of JR's and sent us a copy of the book. Which I haven't read yet, though John has, and he will no doubt write about it sooner or later. I like Powell's writing because, as Dan Halpern points out in the article, "What Powell does with language and sound, with timing, rhythm and cadence, is a thing of strange precision." Powell's one of those writers I read just for his paragraphs.

But what I really wanted to talk about was a comment by Barry Hannah which is highlighted in the profile: "'At the moment, American fiction is kind of dull, frankly,' Barry Hannah says. 'I don't know who else is adding to it besides Padgett. Very few people are bringing something new. He is.'" And then, later on, Halpern says, "What Powell does that most writers don't dare anymore is to risk that failure" -- "that failure" meaning, of course, failing to connect with a reader.

Okay, hold it right there. If American fiction is in fact dull right now, it is not because writers have lost their nerve. Every writer risks failure every single time he puts his hands on the keyboard. Writing isn't easy, and, as far as I can tell, most writers don't have much of choice about what they write on any given day. They write what they can write, and if it's a 500 page Bildungsroman packed with social commentary, well, that's what it is. But if what they can write is a novel made entirely of random questions without answers, as Powell's book is, that, too, is what they write. Writing at all is risky. I mean, we could be planting garlic or coaching our kid's soccer team, for the love of god, doing something useful and good and admirable, instead of probably wasting our time in a small room somewhere.

The real risk taker, here, is the publishing house. Right now there are thousands of writers out there, I promise, who are writing the strangest, "riskiest" stuff imaginable... but no one's publishing it. Ecco Press took a chance on this book, and that is great.

However... it's probably not as much of a risk as it was a few years ago, now that all the 80's writers seem to be making a comeback: Lorrie Moore on the bestseller list, Jayne Anne Phillips nominated for a National Book Award. Knopf is rereleasing two of the late Laurie Colwin's books next spring. I've been going through next season's catalogs at the bookstore, and there's a notable lack of youth in them. Lots and lots of books by old -- and even dead -- people are being published. Also, books by white people, especially non-American white people: tons of Brits, Scandinavians, and Australians. For the time being, anyway, the fad for Asian and Middle Eastern writing appears to have waned a tiny bit. (Oh, and if you are a young new writer, and there are a few of them in the catalogs, it helps to have long flowing hair (women) or very short beard and tousled hair (men).)

It's the economy, of course, making everyone want to go with the tried and true. So maybe it's not even the publishers we should be blaming for any perceived lack of riskiness in American fiction. It's freaking readers! But wait, don't blame readers! Readers are great, they're keeping this whole thing afloat! (Inasmuch as it is afloat!) And who can blame us for not wanting to spend $26.95 on a book by some young punk we've never heard of? I only spend that kinda dough on books I'm sure about.

Anyway, yeah. It's easy to blame writers for whatever failure might be sinking the industry -- after all, they're a suspicious, unsavory bunch of people who don't have real jobs, drink too much, probably don't exercise enough, and rarely give us exactly what we want. It would be so much easier if they did, wouldn't it? If writers' abilities conformed exactly to public taste? If you could always find exactly what we wanted to read, if books were never rejected by publishers, if bookstores didn't have put huge boxes of stripped paperbacks into the dumpster. This guessing what will sell, what we should write, what we should buy -- what a pain in the butt.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The FTC Blogging Guidelines, clickthroughs, and AdSense

There's been a fair amount of talk these past couple of weeks about the FTC's new blogging guidelines, which recommend, among other things, that bloggers reveal their relationships with the products and companies they write about. For instance, if you're, say, a gadget blogger, do you buy the products yourself? Or do you get freebies from tech companies? Or just review copies which you then have to return? Bloggers, the guidelines suggest, ought to be revealing this information, in the interest of transparency.

The reaction has been complicated. Most bloggers initially seemed more or less on board, at least in principle. But some controversy has resulted from the gradual realization that the new rules don't apply to traditional news media. In other words, they're regulating the little guy first, and hardest.

You'd think most of this wouldn't apply to us, but you'd be wrong. In this interview with Ed Champion, FTC rep Richard Cleland says that review copies of books ought to be returned.

Seriously? Yes. From Ed's interview:

In the case of books, Cleland saw no problem with a blogger receiving a book, provided there wasn’t a linked advertisement to buy the book and that the blogger did not keep the book after he had finished reviewing it. Keeping the book would, from Cleland’s standpoint, count as “compensation” and require a disclosure.

But couldn’t the same thing be said of a newspaper critic?

Cleland insisted that when a publisher sends a book to a blogger, there is the expectation of a good review. I informed him that this was not always the case and observed that some bloggers often receive 20 to 50 books a week. In such cases, the publisher hopes for a review, good or bad. Cleland didn’t see it that way.

“If a blogger received enough books,” said Cleland, “he could open up a used bookstore.”

Cleland said that a disclosure was necessary when it came to an individual blogger, particularly one who is laboring for free. A paid reviewer was in the clear because money was transferred from an institution to the reviewer, and the reviewer was obligated to dispense with the product. I wondered if Cleland was aware of how many paid reviewers held onto their swag.

“I expect that when I read my local newspaper, I may expect that the reviewer got paid,” said Cleland. “His job is to be paid to do reviews. Your economic model is the advertising on the side.”

In other words, if you review books for free, and get nothing in return, then you still have to return the book. But if you're getting paid to review books, not only can you keep the money, you're not responsible for returning the book. The assumption that good reviews are expected from bloggers is, in my view, insane; I could lecture you for hours about all the crap books that get praised by crap reviewers in the nation's major newspapers (if there even is such a thing anymore), and much of what we say here consists of rigorous criticism. Hell, in the last post, I was even critical of one of my favorite writers in the world.

FWIW, I do not accept galleys from publicists. Rhian does, occasionally. 95% of the books we write about here, we buy ourselves, at an independent bookstore, no less. (Most fiction I buy, or nonfiction used as research for something I'm writing, is paid for by my Cornell research account, but other kinds of books are out-of-pocket.)

Other stuff falls between the cracks, though. We sometimes post about our friends here, and if we do, we do so in the form of praise. Friends we're likely to criticize we don't post about. lies, but not necessarily the full truth. Also, we have friends in publishing, who sometimes send us stuff they think we'll like. Some of these people may expect us to post on the blog about what they send, but often we do not. In the next week or so, I will be posting about just such a book--Padgett Powell's The Interrogative Mood. I like it--but I also like Matt, the editor who sent it to me. I'm here to tell you I'm not doing him a favor, but ultimately you'll have to take my word for it.

The real pisser here is, the only way for bloggers to actually earn money from their blogs is to run ads, and many of those ads would be in the form of clickthroughs to bookstores, or AdSense. But this apparently doesn't give us the same rights as, say, the Times Book Review, which is in fact no less insulated from cronyism, insider baseball, and mutual backscratching than we are. Indeed, apparently it makes us even more suspect. Even if the Times Book Review's editors are careful to avoid such unethical behavior, they are dependent upon their writers' voluntary disclosure of any conflicts of interest, and believe me, not everyone reports everything.

The FTC's guidelines arrive at a time when I have just recently been noticing how much traffic we get (more than I thought), and considering, after two years, partnering with Powell's for clickthroughs, or sticking some AdSense in the left column. (Rhian, FYI, is leery of this, even without the FTC's rules, and I admit that I am, too.) We have run this blog for nearly three years now without attempting to make a penny off of it, and we'll continue whether we end up running ads or not. But it irks me to think that we would be suspected of unethical behavior if we link readers to Powell's (regardless of whether we like the book in question or not), while there's nothing wrong with Knopf taking out a full-page, blurb-littered ad in the same freaking issue of the NYTBR that their latest literary blockbuster is being praised in.

So: damned if we do, damned if we don't. For the record, the last two books we reviewed, the Lorrie Moore and the Ishiguro, we bought at a store, and are keeping. When we review books here, we will tell you where they came from. And for my part, I still don't want to hear from publicists. No offense--I have one of my own, and she is great. But we write this blog because we like it, not for the swag. Which, nine times out of ten, if it actually existed, would end up propping up the dining room table or on in a box for the library sale.

EDIT: Markos has just posted a very similar diatribe, with more swears, over at

Friday, October 9, 2009

Kazuo Ishiguro's Nocturnes

Kazuo Ishiguro is the author of one of my favorite novels of all time, The Unconsoled, the story of a concert pianist on tour. Of course that's not really what it's about, and its modus operandi--bizarre narrative complexity rendered in deceptively simple prose--is what makes it remarkable. The novel has a dreamlike logic, a rarefied and audacious version of the strange narrative technique of Ishiguro's other works; it's like a crazy machine that digs itself deeper and deeper as it goes, until it reaches some kind of blazing, highly pressurized core.

His new book is also dreamlike, and is also about music, and so I opened it with great excitement the other night. I was half finished by bedtime and done by the following afternoon (after teaching a couple of classes in between!), and I'm not sure what to think about it. Like the Lorrie Moore novel I just read, this book may be suffering at the hands of my excessively high expectations, or it might simply not quite be working.

Nocturnes consists of five long stories. I'd like to say "linked stories," and they are, sort of. In one, a guitarist accompanies one of his musical heroes in a serenade for the hero's dissatisfied lover; in another, that same lover encounters a saxophonist while recovering from plastic surgery. A songwriter meets a mysteriously tense couple at a mountain retreat, an unwitting visitor plays a strange (and only distantly musical) part in a lovers' quarrel, and a cellist falls under the spell of an unlikely teacher. They're all, to some extent, about sexual or quasi-sexual relationships, though there is no sex. They all are rather mysterious, but no mysteries are solved. And though they're all about music, the music seems almost incidental to the story--characters discuss it in abstract, almost dismissive terms, as though it's not worth going into.

Ishiguro's best books achieve by sleight-of-hand, and there is some of it on display here. First-person narrators in Ishiguro are always unreliable, and perhaps a little clueless; people react in bizarre, unpredictable ways to seemingly uncomplicated social stimuli; endings arrive unexpectedly and leave the reader scratching his head.

But in the novels, the head-scratching starts around page 50, and by the time you get to the end, you've scratched so long and hard you're almost all the way down to your id. Here, Ishiguro never lets us get very deep. His simple narrators stay simple, his waking dreams never fully take hold. Moments of comic awkwardness (a man with a bandaged face caught on a theater stage with a turkey stuck to the end of his arm) never have time to ripen into enigma, and seem more like slapstick. And the non-ending endings, which in the novels echo richly with the complexity of what came before, here tend to disappoint.

Still, none of it is bad. It just all feels underdeveloped. I think Ishiguro's genius remains with the novel, where he continues to expand and revise a curious subgenre that consists only of him; these stories, though, are for superfans only (like me).

Monday, October 5, 2009

Lorrie Moore redux

I stayed up late last night finishing A Gate At The Stairs, and figured I ought to address my thoughts on it before they slip away. I'm not sure why I haven't seen this in any review of the book, but it's one of the strangest novels I've read in a long time--kind of a train wreck, in fact, albeit one that is consistently gripping and beautiful.

Like Rhian, I love Lorrie Moore, and consider her one of my strongest contemporary influences--indeed, she's a hero of mine. I even kind of love the new book, after a fashion. But A Gate At The Stairs makes no sense. Can we be the only people who have noticed this? There is an ostensible plot--a twenty-year-old woman becomes the babysitter for an adopted mixed-race toddler--which in and of itself is perfectly good. (I particularly appreciated the character of the mother, a guilt-wracked restauranteur.)

But Moore seems to have taken a strong, fairly short narrative--one that was not quite finished--and, instead of developing and shaping it further, garlanded it with all manner of bizarre subplots. A long section gives Tassie, the narrator, a Brazilian boyfriend. Then he turns out not to be Brazilian, and in fact is clearly planning a terrorist bombing--but there is no terrorist bombing, and in fact Tassie never mentions him again. There is a story line about Tassie's family, which is purely descriptive for hundreds of pages, then suddenly sprouts a plot--will Tassie's brother join the military?--and this plot then terminates in a scene so revolting, implausible, and gratuitous that I couldn't believe I was reading it. The adoption line is filled with intrigue--strange people outside the house, wordless heavy-breathing phone calls--but it's all red herrings. In fact, the baby plot, which we're to have understood was the main story, just kind of fizzles out a hundred pages from the end and never returns. There is an email Tassie inexplicably doesn't bother to read, which later proves to have been The Key To Everything. There are three separate but almost identical scenes of just people talking about racism, overheard from the next room, and whole sections that are just lists of wildflowers or types of food. It all feels...random. It is never uninteresting, not even for a minute, because Moore is a genius of the sentence. But the big picture is utterly incoherent.

The oddest thing of all, though, is the narrative voice--though the book is supposed to be told, in the first person, by a 28-year-old Tassie of the future, the eloquent, discursive narrator bears no resemblance at all to the demure rock bassist that has been presented to us. It is nearly impossible to imagine Tassie talking this way--the narrator of course is Moore herself, and the gulf between them is enormous. Moore's voice also infects all the dialogue, making everybody (all the educated people, anyway) sound identically blessed with mordant wit. (The book is very, very funny.)

I don't presume to know what happened here--I've never seen anything like it. The prose is some of the best I have read in an American novel in twenty years, while the story feels like a first draft, or worse, a desk drawer full of notes. And I said...I kind of love it. Moore constantly surprises me, which (to quote her) is more than I can say about some people.

The National Book Award nominees will be announced in a couple of weeks, and Moore is going to win, mostly out of collective embarrassment that she didn't win it for Birds of America. (Was that brillant, brutal story collection even nominated? Insanely enough, I don't think it was.) Well--my money's on her, anyway, in spite of everything. Read A Gate At The Stairs, but know that it is one batshit crazy novel, a mad scientist of a book, and the most unlikely bestseller I've ever read.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

How much of your life should writing take up?

I was going to talk about this in the comments of the last post, where reader Mark was talking about the consistent quality and prolificity of Philip Roth's work, but thought it was worth a post of its own. I believe the reason Roth can be so good, and produce good work so often, is simple. It's the same reason Toni Morrison gave this past week at Cornell, when an audience member at her talk asked how she could be so productive, even while being an editor and teacher, as she has often been.

I don't really consider Morrison especially prolific, but I certainly do think she produces work of great worth. And her answer was, "Because I don't do anything else. I read books, I teach books, and I write books. That's it." She said that she doesn't go on vacations, really, or "go skiing." She just lives the work. As far as I know, so does Roth--he lives in a small town in, I believe, Connecticut, doesn't indulge in many extraliterary pursuits, and just goes at it like a madman.

I'm not like that. I'm too easily distracted. Some of my distractions, particularly the creative ones, I find useful to my writing, but others of them (posting on internet forums, re-watching the entire "Mr. Show" DVD set, drinking bourbon) are of no particular value other than pleasure. I do think I need to cut down on these things--most of us do, really. (Though it's OK to watch "Druggachusetts" one more time, you have my permission.)

The other night, as I was trying to digest her quite excellent comments on my novel manuscript, Rhian told me that I don't take myself, and my work, seriously enough. If it isn't good enough, that's probably why. I'll never be the artists Roth and Morrison are, but if I want to be more like them, perhaps I should listen to her.

But what do you think? How much seriousness can a writer take? Is the kind of singleness of purpose necessary to create Nobel-worthy work (and where, might I ask, is Roth's Nobel?) even achievable by any but a handful of people? For the rest of us, I'd imagine there is a point beyond which we begin to get diminishing returns--the work will be fully realized, but the joy will have gone out of it.

I think I have a ways to go before I'm there, though, and I really ought to do as the Mrs. says. Meanwhile, enjoy that photo there--it's Toni Morrison talking with my colleagues Ken McClane and Margo Crawford. Morrison turns out to be an incredibly cool lady, as well as an artist of the first rank, and it was a major, major pleasure to get to meet her. (Rhian can tell you about nearly knocking her flat in the cloak room after the reading.)