Tuesday, December 14, 2004

'Tis the season

Hey, selling James Joyce as a holiday tie-in, what a great idea! (Just do the Salon day pass thing. It's a pain in the ass, but it's worth it. My motto is to never pay for anything on the web.)

A few years ago, I put together a small, informal seminar on the short story with a few of my fellow grads, and we started with Dubliners. I always felt that I missed something in never having the opportunity to cover Joyce in a class setting. (Full disclosure: I love James Joyce. I've read Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses all on my own, and, even worse, I liked them. In my defense, I'm not really interested in Finnegan's Wake.)

It's tough to find new things to say about Joyce. In fact, there's a particularly nice edition of just "The Dead" packaged together with enough critical writing to make a nice little volume, if you're interested in that sort of a thing. (I own it. I also own five copies of Ulysses. It's a sickness.) I've written about some of the more annoying aspects (and redeeming qualities) of the inescapable Stephen Dedalus in the past, but Dubliners can be a tonic for those put off by Joyce's (often well-deserved) reputation for overblown, overinvolved, impenetrable writing. No tricks, no games, just amazing cameos and miniatures.

Treat yourself. (And maybe a friend, over a pint of Guinness.)

Sunday, December 05, 2004

A whole new world. . .

(Thanks to Short Schrift for making me aware of this article.)

I'm not usually one for this "we have to be united, especially after such a divisive election" line of crap. First of all, as Sunni/Shiite tensions in Iraq, and the electoral shenanigans in the Ukraine show, we're plenty united already in that no matter how much we liberals may talk about our positions not being of any consequence, no one is taking up arms, and U. S. emigration, I strongly believe, will continue to be negligible. No matter what you think about the next likely Supreme Court nominees, my prediction is that the Republic will survive. That said, I feel no need to pretend to be any more conservative, or any happier with the current administration than I really am, just for some ideal of "unity."

There are however, a few ideas that have the potential to really become a national project, something that can draw contributions from brilliant minds, left and right, and lead to real and concrete benefits for the U. S., and, just maybe the rest of the world.

Thomas Friedman argues in today's New York Times that energy independence should be that project. Friedman argues that funding for the National Science Foundation should be doubled, with twinned goals of training a new generation to replace the "generation of scientists, engineers and mathematicians who were spurred to get advanced degrees by the 1957 Soviet launch of Sputnik and the challenge by President John Kennedy to put a man on the moon," and to support "crash science initiative for alternative energy and conservation to make America energy-independent in 10 years." Friedman argues that an energy independent America will not only have local economic benefits, but a global political impact as well.

Friedman's words:

When did the Soviet Union collapse? When did reform take off in Iran? When did the Oslo peace process begin? When did economic reform become a hot topic in the Arab world? In the late 1980's and early 1990's. And what was also happening then? Oil prices were collapsing. . . . It's no accident that the 1990's was the decade of falling oil prices and falling walls.

If President Bush made energy independence his moon shot, he would dry up revenue for terrorism; force Iran, Russia, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia to take the path of reform - which they will never do with $45-a-barrel oil - strengthen the dollar; and improve his own standing in Europe, by doing something huge to reduce global warming. He would also create a magnet to inspire young people to contribute to the war on terrorism and America's future by becoming scientists, engineers and mathematicians. "This is not just a win-win," said the Johns Hopkins foreign policy expert Michael Mandelbaum. "This is a win-win-win-win-win."

I don't care if the President is a Republican or a Democrat: put that initiative forward, and I'm on board.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

A bad essay, but a good point

The text that follows is the "professional essay" that I sent off as part of my application for an internship with the Detroit Free Press. I don't know that it really does what they asked me to do--describe my journalistic experience, my journalistic influences, my journalistic plans and goals, and I don't, in all truth, really have any of those--but I did get to talk a little about books, and public book writing. So it wasn't entirely a waste of time. Thus, here it is:

Literature and journalism were once inseparable. Alexandre Dumas and Charles Dickens published their novels as serials, with readers following from cliffhanger to cliffhanger in the Paris and London papers of their day. Decades before he won the Nobel Prize, Ernest Hemingway served an apprenticeship at the Kansas City Star. Before the Second World War, news writing was considered an essential part of a novelist’s training. Today, the presence of journalists such as Bob Woodward and Seymour Hersh on the nonfiction besteller lists belies the deep divisions that have emerged between those who write to inform and those who write for art.

As with all estrangements, there is blame enough to go around. The universities play their part. English and journalism are taught in separate departments, often in different colleges altogether. (At my alma mater, Michigan State, English was in the College of Arts & Letters, while journalism was in the College of Communication Arts and Sciences.) Literary writers bemoan the grade school reading level of the average newspaper. Journalists scoff at contemporary novels that are not only overblown, but often intentionally obscure.

There is a third, often-neglected party in this estrangement: the reader. After a few highly publicized incidents of journalists giving in to their worst fictional impulses (Jayson Blair, New York Times, we’re looking at you), readers are deeply skeptical of the agendas and reliability of major news organizations. After decades of plotless, confusing, "postmodern" novels, readers have too often lost patience and given up entirely. Movies and video games compete with novels as entertainment. Television and radio compete with newspapers as sources of information. When readers stop reading, everyone loses.

Of course, it is important to remember that as deep as the divisions between literature and journalism may be, the situation may far better be described as an estrangement than a divorce. At their best, books and newspapers still serve as complements, and the success of writers such as Bob Woodward should serve as an example of how much the two great print formats still have to offer each other, and more importantly, to readers.

One of the great qualities of journalism is its constant examination of its role and duty to the public. The New York Times responded to the Jayson Blair fiasco, in part, by appointing a public editor, whose sole job is to report to the public on the Times’ biases, real and imagined, and its successes and failures in fulfilling the public trust. Newspapers would provide a great benefit for readers if they performed the same function for literature. Journalists need not attempt to replace or supplant literary critics, who are usually best left to their own obscure corner of academia, but most readers would welcome a frank and knowledgeable companion on their expeditions into the bookstore. And expeditions they are! Too many people are intimidated by the glut of new titles arriving daily, and readers are rightly jealous of their limited reading time. Better to spend $7.50 and two hours on a mediocre movie than $30 and twenty hours on a disappointing book.

Much has been made among literary writers about the decline in newspaper space devoted to book reviews, but more reviews are not the answer. In a sense, there are simply too many titles published now for reviews alone to serve the reader effectively. When appropriate, books need to be treated as public figures, and subjected to similar scrutiny. Newsworthy books should be covered, and their claims should be fact-checked. Too often, books exist in their own isolated universes. Newspapers are uniquely suited to stand as sentinels, and the reader would benefit if journalists considered the world of literature as part of their public trust.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Speaking of the Review. . .

Photograph by Fred R. Conrad, New York Times

You know, for all that I don't like about the revamped NYT Book Review, every once in a while, they get something right. (Say, didn't I write about this last week?) Case in point (#2, if you're counting), this past Sunday's issue. I'm not too excited about more extended reviews of major genre fiction authors, and more emphasis on nonfiction over fiction, but a poetry issue? With reviews of new Rita Dove, Gary Snyder, and Czeslaw Milosz? A Featured "Poetry Symposium" with contributions from Yusef Komunyakaa, Jim Harrison, Deborah Garrison, Paul Muldoon, John Ashbery and Jorie Graham? Sign me up! Get me knocking on doors! Are you a registered voter? Let me tell you about my candidate, the poetry issue!

I spend a lot of time complaining about contemporary poetry, mostly in essence, that there's too much of it, and that it's impossible to find the good stuff in the sea of crap, but thank you, Review, for reminding me where the good stuff is. I'll even forgive you for letting Harold Bloom sit in on your symposium.

Rock on, Review! Thank you for being my boat in the sea of crap!

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Signs of life in the Review at last

I'm actually not the biggest fan of most of the changes made of late over at the New York Times Book Review by its new editor, Sam Tanenhaus. To be fair, I must admit that many of the changes are superficial, or the logical extension of a trend already in evidence. For example, I dislike the new "chronicle" feature, where four to six title, and sometimes more, are treated in less than 1200 words, but it's really just a repackaging of the "In Brief" feature of the old Review.

Every once in a while, though, even the new Review gets something right. Case in point: Jonathan Franzen's lengthy (and wonderful) review of Alice Monroe's new collection, Runaway. The printed version runs four pages, including the cover, and is both enlightening, and a pleasure to read. (I am a big fan of Franzen's essays and commentary, and would highly recommend his collection How To Be Alone to anyone who doesn't own it. As a critic, Franzen has steered me to Paula Fox's Desperate Characters and Adam Haslett's You Are Not a Stranger Here, both challenging, engrossing masterworks.)

Long live the lengthy, in-depth, well-considered, joy-to-read fiction review!

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Tickled green

My alma mater, Michigan State University, defeated the #3 Wisconsin Badgers, 49-14 at Spartan Stadium this evening. I can't think of a win this big since we defeated #1 Ohio State in 1998 to ruin their national title hopes.

Of course, it would have been an even bigger win if we had defeated the University of Michigan two weeks ago, or even The Ohio State University last week. It's frustrating to cheer for a team that always seems to have greatness within its reach, but seems unwilling or unable to grab and hold on to it.

But I'm an unemployed liberal Democrat, so I'll take any excuse to celebrate that I can get.

Go green!

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Post-election despair

It's not so much that the exit polls were wrong (I didn't watch any of the election night TV coverage, so I didn't even hear about that until this morning), or the false hope of an eventual Kerry win in Ohio tipping the balance (it's not going to happen, people), or even the prospect of at 269-269 electoral vote tie (see: Ohio tipping the balance). . .

It's much more that

1.) Bush won the popular vote, and

2.) Not only did the Republicans extend their House and Senate leads, but Tom Daschle, the Senate Minority leader, lost his bid for re-election in South Dakota.

(On top of that, constitutional gay-marriage bans passed in every state that they were being considered, including here in Michigan.)

This forces us (or me, anyway) toward an unpleasant electoral truth. I don't think that we are a nation divided 50-50. With a Republican House, Senate, Presidency, and with the prospect of at least one and maybe as many as three new Supreme Court justices in the next four years, a deeply conservative Supremem Court, I believe that the nation has firmly expressed its preferences, and demonstrated which side holds the majority.

For those of us concerned with the direction of our country, there is little to console us in the next four years, and, if I must be honest with myself, indeed, the forseeable future.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

Musing on Hitchens (and Miller, apparently)

This was prompted by Johann Hari's own musings on Mr. Hitchens (which are first-hand, as opposed to my own much further removed opinions), as posted on Mr. Hari's blog. (Thanks again, as is almost always the case, to Arts and Letters Daily.)

I am, personally, not so fond of Mr. Hitchens, much in the same way that I am not so fond of Dennis Miller of late. Mr. Miller was once a hilarious and thought-provoking man, that rare combination, who was not easily pigeonholed politically. I don't think it was an accident that his preferred method of delivery was what he called a "rant," a multi-paragraph consideration of a behavior, topic, or event. He was one of the few funnymen who embraced complexity instead of simplification, and I respected and loved him for it.

Whether or not September 11, 2001 changed the world, it certainly changed both Mr. Miller and Mr. Hitchens. Mr. Miller embraced the political right candidly and with enthusiasm, and Mr. Hitchens became a supporter of President Bush. This endorsement seemed out of character for both these men, who were more fond of challenges and criticisms than lining up with any particular camp, and while Mr. Hitchens' reasons have been expounded upon by himself and others at length, I think Mr. Miller's case speaks volumes about them both.

To watch Mr. Miller today is to watch a man entirely changed, and sadly, not just politically. In truth, I don't give a rat's ass about a comedian's politics. But Mr. Miller no longer rants, and seems happiest laughing at the antics of a chimpanzee which appears on his show so often that it should be given a co-host credit. Mr. Miller makes no bones of the fact that the 2001 attacks frightened him, as they frightened all of us, but it appears that Mr. Miller was frightened away from the complexity he so loved towards a comforting simplicity.

While Mr. Hitchens is not so easy to dismiss, I think a parallel can be drawn. Mr. Hari points out in his posting that Mr. Hitchens has long been critical of Islamic Fundamentalist despotism, and has (rightly, in my mind), criticized apologists for al-Qaeda and the Taliban both before and after September of 2001. It is difficult to reconcile, however, Mr. Hitchens' political and ethical views with his support for the Bush administration, particularly concerning domestic policy and their determination to tear down the wall separating church and state.

One of Mr. Hitchens' most controversial critiques was of Mother Theresa, and while I do not agree with him in whole, I must respect his stance, particularly because it requires great moral courage to declare someone wrong not just in their actions but in the beliefs that motivate those actions. Mother Theresa failed, Hitchens claims, because she failed to provide or even denied material comfort to the people around her in place of spiritual comfort. While she could have helped people improve their lives, she was far more concerned with their deaths. Hitchens decries this position as medieval, and I must admit I wish at times that I agreed with him more strongly.

Mr. Hitchens has the courage to illuminate the hypocrisy of those who dismiss the fact that the war in Iraq involved a battle for human rights comparable to the overthrow of Slobidan Milosevic. Let him also have the courage to decry the Bush administration's claim that human rights were what they had in mind all along.

Monday, September 20, 2004

The sound and the fury

Never one to court controversy, let me make a deeply iconoclastic declaration: for a group of people who are supposed to be hip, with-it, and up on all the latest stuff, McSweeney's web site really kind of sucks.

As my one major piece of evidence, let me cite the Future McSweeney's Books page. 'Nuff said. You wouldn't even know that Eggers has a book of short stories due out, unless you found it here on Amazon. (Or read McSweeney's print catalog, which is as beautifully produced as McSweeney's books.)

Although, if you think about it, McSweeney's books kind of suck, too. I have a shiny new nickel for you if you can name anyone besides me who owns any books by McSweeney's that aren't written by Dave Eggers. (A shiny Michigan quarter for you if you can name the two McSweeney's books not written by Dave Eggers that I own. And yes, I will mail said quarter or nickel to you. This offer expires Oct. 1 or after five successful claims, whichever comes first. Here's a hint. Neither of them were all that good.)

Of course, as soon as I decide to make this claim, I start digging through the McSweeney's website and find the McSweeney's Recommends page, which is both cool and very entertaining. Although they are behind the curve on contemporary jazz. I was digging on Brad Mehldau and The Bad Plus a year and a half ago.

Saturday, September 11, 2004

Czeslaw Milosz: 1911-2004

I am not an avid reader of poetry (although that, to an extent, is changing), but Milosz's passing on August 14 was the loss of a great man.

Leon Wieseltier's elegy in this week's Book Review is deeply moving. Read it, and then pick up Milosz's New and Collected Poems.

Or, better yet, buy a copy for my broke-ass self. :-)

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Looking for a subject. . .

I've struggled to figure out exactly what it is, but I'm feeling an acute information withdrawl. Perhaps it's the lack of the newstand qualities of the bookstore's periodicals section. You can get a lot just from browsing, and it was quite a luxury to read whatever magazine or paper I wanted on my lunchbreak.

Perhaps it's the dearth of interesting stories in the Times and ALDaily. Other than hurricanes in Florida and the school bombing by Chechen terrorists, we've had some slow news cycles in the past few weeks.

Perhaps that's worth an aside. I don't wish to appear to dismiss hundreds of deaths and the hardship of thousands so lightly, but I have no real insight to offer. David Brooks wrote Tuesday criticizing a certain avoidance of "the cult of death" by the media and Western intellectuals.

I have no desire to defend the monsters who slaughtered a school full of innocents. The past century, however, should remind us of the dangers of viewing the Russian government as either an unambiguous ally or enemy.

The evil of our enemy does not make us righteous. Neither do our own flaws require that we submit. This is, however, why it is important to choose one's battles, and dangerous to attempt to use one's own moral standing as a tool of persuasion.

But back to more trvial matters! I finally received The New Yorker's Food Issue, about which Short Schrift has been raving on about for the past week. To add insult to injury, the issue following was already available on the newsstand.

Perhaps it's simply the malaise of the unemployed.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

XX marks the spot

Ah, now that I'm no longer working at a bookstore, I can once again share the joy of browsing the shelves and the new fiction tables.

And if I only had an income, I'd have a pair of books by the McSweeney's women under my arm--And Now You Can Go by Vendela Vida and The Effect of Living Backwards by Heidi Julavits, each just out in paperback. Julavits and Vida co-edit the McSweeney's monthly The Believer (Vida is married to Dave Eggers), and their novels received mostly strong reviews when they came out in hardcover a year ago. (Although, admittedly, I waited for the paperbacks.)

Vida's novel shared some publicity with her friend Julie Orringer's debut collection of stories, How To Breathe Underwater, and if Vida's novel is half as good as Orringer's stories, it'll be well worth picking up the paperback. (I haven't seen any information on a paperback release for How To Breathe Underwater, but it's fabulous, and more than justifies the cost of a hardcover.)

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Hmm. . . sounds vaguely familiar.

The Boston Globe recently reported on a new website, foetry.com, dedicated to shedding the light on the dark and supposedly corrupt word of poetry contests at small presses. (Thanks to Tim for the heads-up.)

What's the big deal? Well, many small presses run poetry contests where they charge $25 or so for the opportunity to have one's manuscript read and potentially selected for publication at the sponsoring press by a celebrity judge. The presses claim that the entry fees offset the judge's honorarium, as well as the costs of publishing the winner. The most common objections are raised when a judge picks a former student's work or declines to pick a winner at all. Foetry seeks to "name names," and even seems to encourage legal action against what they consider to be consumer fraud.

I think that Kevin Walzer makes a more cogent point as quoted in the Boston Globe article. "There seem to be more people willing to pay for a chance to have their own book published (i.e., contest reading fee) than there are people willing to buy a book of poetry by someone else."

Scott Kaukonen put his grievance into words in an editorial on the Missouri Review's website. "I did not spend nearly $40 so that I could purchase two books of backlist poetry books [sic]. I spent $40 to enter a contest with the expectation that it would be adjudicated fairly and commitments honored."

In all truth, in light of Walzer's comment, I think that's exactly the problem.

Friday, July 23, 2004

Those colored-picture books

Salon has an interview with Alan Moore up, and the New York Times ran an article in their magazine a few weeks ago on graphic novels (you have to pay to read it now, but it's still here), and I'm in love with comic books all over again.

Of course, I never really fell out of love with comic books. I was a big X-Men reader in the early 90s (I came in right when Chris Claremont left), and I still love what Peter David and Larry Stroman did with X-Factor, even if it didn't last. (Is Larry Stoman still working in comics? I haven seen anything from him since Image Comics took a shit on his Tribe project.)

But everyone needs a place to start, right? And as much as I love Marvel and DC, there are some really great artists and writers out there using the comics medium to produce some really great, thought-provoking, and beautiful work. Some, like Adrian Tomine and Chris Ware, I'd put up next to any "literary" writer working today. So here's my list for those looking to dive in somwhere other than their local newsstand. (Check the "graphic novel" section of your local bookstore. You'll be surprised at how big it is.)

(All titles are available at Amazon.com)

In no particular order:

Summer Blonde by Adrian Tomine

Ghost World by Daniel Clowes (Yes, the movie was based on the comic.)

David Boring by Daniel Clowes

Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware

Maus I & II by Art Spiegelman (Nonfiction, may be in the Holocaust or Jewish History section)

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (Particularly good as a companion to Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi.)

From Hell by Alan Moore (Jack the Ripper plus a whole lot more.)

Watchmen by Alan Moore (A brilliant alternative take on the idea of the superhero.)

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen vols. 1 & 2 (Argues, in a roundabout sort of way, that the literature of the 19th century had its own superheroes.)

Batman: Year One by Frank Miller

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller (Almost a regression to my newstand/comic book store days, but Batman is a character with a lot of storytelling potential, and Frank Miller does a lot with him.)

Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore (Not my favorite work by Alan Moore, but since I'm listing the Frank Miller.)

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud

Reinventing Comics by Scott McCloud (Companion volumes, in comic form, of an almost academic, but completely acessible argument for the history and potential of storytelling in comics.)

Friday, July 16, 2004

Hot Topix

There seem to be two major dicussions going on in the literary world right now: The National Endowment for the Arts' report on the decline in reading among U.S. adults and whether Dale Peck is a total jackass. (Actually, discussion may not be the right word. There seems to be a general consensus that the NEA report is sobering, if not unexpected, and that Mr. Peck is indeed a jackass.)

In lieu of much in the way of additional insights, here are a slew of links. (Thanks mostly to Arts & Letters Daily)

No More Reading?

Harold Bloom in the LA Times

Charles Taylor wonders what the big deal is in Salon

Dale Peck

Laura Miller's quite good essay on Dale Peck and James Wood in Salon.

Daniel Mendelsohn on Dale Peck in the New York Review of Books.

John Leonard on Dale Peck's Hatchet Jobs in the New York Times Book Review.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Good Old Bill

This past Tuesday, Bill Clinton's memoirs were released. (I'm on vacation, so I'm a bit behind.)

Apparently, the Times' senior books writer, Michiko Kakutani, decided to pull rank and review the book herself.

Normally, I'm a fan of Ms. Kakutani's somewhat cranky reviews. I think books should be held to a high standard, and when she writes that she has actually enjoyed a book, it often gets bumped up pretty high on my "priority reading" list.

This time, however, I think Ms. Kakutani may have overreached.

"In many ways," Ms. Kakutani writes, "the book is a mirror of Mr. Clinton's presidency: lack of discipline leading to squandered opportunities; high expectations, undermined by self-indulgence and scattered concentration. This memoir underscores many strengths of Mr. Clinton's eight years in the White House and his understanding that he was governing during a transitional and highly polarized period. But the very lack of focus and order that mars these pages also prevented him from summoning his energies in a sustained manner to bring his insights about the growing terror threat and an Israeli-Palestinian settlement to fruition."

While I'm not surprised that Mr. Clinton's writing fails to live up to Ms. Kakutani's high literary standards, and she rightly calls him on it, I think that few people will pick up My Life based on their high expectations for the quality of its prose. At the same time, if I may be pardoned for my frankness, Ms. Kakutani's assessments of Mr. Clinton's poltical career strike me as a bit trite. And, as much as I admire Mr. Clinton, to have assassinated Osama Bin Laden, closed an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, AND to have produced a slim, diamond focused memoir would have been a godlike set of accomplishments indeed.

We literary types often need to remind ourselves that we don't really have equal insight into all aspects of existence.

(Ed. note: the Times ran Larry McMurtry's more positive review of My Life on 6/23.)

Friday, June 18, 2004

1904, It was a very good year. . .

In addition to Bloomsday, a celebration very close to my heart, this year marks the centennial of the birth of Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Yiddish-American Nobel Prize laureate.

While Singer's centennial has prompted a surprising amount of controversy (see: The New York Times), but I, unsurprisingly, would like to focus on a more pedestrian controversy.

I've long admired the Library of America, co-founded by one of my literary heroes, Jason Epstein. Epstein himself, however, complains in his book Book Business about some of the editorial decisions of the Library of America's board:

"The editorial selection [of the Library of America] has followed [Edmund] Wilson's original prospectus but with troubling deviations. These include a volume of sermons most of which are without literary merit or historical interest in themselves; collections of first-hand descriptions by journalists of American battles, interesting in themselves but of little interest as literature; the novels in translation of Vladimir Nabakov who is no more an American writer than Joseph Brodsky is an American poet; and a four-volume anthology of American poetry, separately financed by the National Endowment for the Humanites, which includes, inexplicably, much that is second rate or worse. . . . A hint of similar trouble ahead is the announcement of a [now published] anthology of writing by Americans about oceans, separately financed by a generous donor. Since the aim of the Library of America is to make permanently available the complete or subtantially complete works of important American writers, this topical anthology represents not only a dilution of purpose but a waste of scarce resources. . . . The Library of America has now published substantially all the work for which it was created and for which the rights are available. Its obligation hereafter is to husband its resources so that this work remains in print and accessible to readers, and to ensure that funds are on hand for the publication of twentieth-century writers as rights permit."

In fact, the LOA has followed the anthology on the sea with anthologies on New York, Los Angeles, Paris, and baseball. Additionally, in celebration of I. B. Singer's centennial, the LOA is not only publishing three volumes of Singer's short stories, but also a volume of reflections on Singer by contemporary writers. I'm not interested in arguing whether Singer belongs in the Library of America or not (the question of what is "American" is inherently troublesome); I'm more disappointed that the LOA seems so interested in producing books that are basically sentimental souvenirs.

I don't care what Jonathan Safran Foer thinks about I. B. Singer. Give me a volume of Lionel Trilling instead.

(My apologies to Mr. Epstein for the long quote. Buy Book Business here.)

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

June 16, 1904

Bloomsday in Lansing is pretty quiet. The good old reliable Times came through, though. This article ran in today's paper, and John Banville's reflections ran in last Sunday's Book Review.

Arts & Letters Daily also has their usual wealth of links, including Michael Dirda's excellent essay, and Edmund Wilson's orginal 1922 review.

I put together a piece myself, but the local free weekly didn't run it.

Really, I'll be happy if you just pick up a copy of the book. It's worth reading. Really.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

What should we think of Reagan, really?

As an antidote to all the one-sided eulogizing and demonizing (as exemplified by Snarkmarket.com's competing links), here's a refreshingly debunked take on our 40th president, courtesy of Slate.com.

On the other hand, Slate's discussion between Dinesh D'Souza and E.J. Dionne on whether Reagan or Clinton is responsible for economic boom of the 90s is pretty entertaining too.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

The Only Book Club That Matters

Business mogul, feel-good guru, and literary critic Oprah Winfrey has posted the latest selection to her new, revamped book club--Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.

I don't know whether that in itself is particularly newsworthy, except for Oprah's admission (pointed out by The New York Times on Monday) that she has never read the book herself.

Can Oprah really expect her army of suburban houswives to read an 862 page 19th Century Russian novel? Will they identify with characters whose names they can't even pronounce? Will they flock back to my store in droves, demanding their money back?

By the way, not that anyone asked, but my theory is that Oprah is picking dead authors for her book club now because when she picks a dead writer she only has to deal with the publisher, and she knows that any publisher will kiss her ass. (None of that Jonathan Franzen "I have reservations about the selection of my novel" crap.)

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

A sinister conspiracy?

The New York Times today published a remarkably content-free story on a Princeton undergrad who, as her senior thesis, produced an analytical survey of fiction published in The New Yorker from 1992-2001. One of the study’s primary conclusions? That “male editors generally publish male authors who write about male characters who are supported by female characters.”

No shit.

Of course, Katherine Milkman (the undergrad who produced the survey) may have missed the real scoop by cutting off her data in 2001, which meant that her efforts compared the tenures of two male fiction editors, Charles McGrath and Bill Buford. The New Yorker's current fiction editor, Deborah Triesman, took over the position from Mr. Buford at the beginning of 2003.

Has a female editor made a difference? Not as much as one might think. My own informal survey of fiction published in The New Yorker since my subscription began on August 4, 2003 revealed that Ms. Triesman had published 27 stories by male writers to 15 stories by female writers. 64% may be a bit of a drop from the peak of 70% male authorship under Mr. Buford, but it's certainly nowhere near parity. (And it's substantially higher than the 57% male authorship under Mr. McGrath.)

Has Ms. Milkman’s work opened any eyes? Ms. Triesman had this to say:

"Do I walk away [after having read Ms. Milkman’s study] thinking 'Now I have to think about gender and race and location in selecting stories?' No."

Kind of makes all the work worthwhile.

Monday, May 24, 2004

The Responsible Reader, part 1

I'll admit, when I first conceived of a series of meditations on "The Responsible Reader"--motivated as much by the alliteration as by any cogent thesis, which may be a sign of trouble--the reader that I was considering was in fact the writer-reader. The point I had in mind to make was that anyone who takes it upon him/herself to write, and, just as importantly, expects anyone else to read that writing, has an obligation to be a reader him/herself.

Nowhere can the effects of the failure to live up to this obligation be seen better than in contemporary poetry. While there are a number of outstanding poets working today (Charles Simic jumps immediately to mind), for the most part, the poetry section in my bookstore is unbrowsed. Poetry, the grand old dame of the small poetry magazines, celebrated its 90th birthday in 2002 with a $100 million endowment, and thus a relatively secure future, but it seems nearly certain that the volume of submissions to the magazine will far outstrip its circulation for a long time to come.

What does this mean? Am I alone in considering this a grand imbalance? What happens when there are more writers than readers?

While the case of the small magazine seems relatively straightforward, it prompts a larger question. I feel quite confident in asserting that every writer who would seek publication has an obligation to financially support the means by which that goal can be achieved. If one is going to send work to small literary magazines, then I believe that one has an absolute obligation to subscribe to at least one small literary magazine, and to read others. One must be a reader before one can be a writer, but does it follow that any other reader has any sort of obligation to anyone at all?

I’m going to posit the answer to that question as a tentative yes, and support that with two clear specific examples before jumping off the deep end and trying to extend that position to more general cases. (It's a pretty broad question, so I do have some wiggle room.)

But until then, here are a few fine small literary magazines for those of you not yet meeting your obligations. :-)

The Paris Review (hell, if you have to subscribe to one, it may as well be the best)
Zoetrope (almost a mass-market magazine, but not quite)
Tin House (New, hip, sometimes very good, sometimes very dull)
Granta (British. Damn good. Occasionally dry.)
The Kenyon Review
Michigan Quarterly Review
The Chicago Review (often good on avant-garde content)
The Missouri Review
The Iowa Review (home of the best writing program in the U.S., although it doesn’t always show in the magazine quite as much as one might expect)
Red Cedar Review (hey, I have to plug the local guys)
The Offbeat (see above)

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Where are all the good stories?

As the former editor of a small literary journal, I've read a lot of lousy short stories. Far too often, the stuff I come across in the bookstore isn't much better. It would be easy to wash my hands of the whole thing, declare that there just aren't and good short stories anymore, and go bury my head in The First Forty-nine.

But a recent trip through the blogosphere turned up Snarkmarket.com's list of this year's National Magazine Award finalists (complete with links to all available online content!), and I had myself a bit of an epiphany.

I've read about half of the stories cited in the nominations, and they were good. Damn good.

The material from Zoetrope and The Paris Review really stood out in my mind, but even that old stalwart, The New Yorker, deserved its nod. Sure, The New Yorker may seem a bit too much a part of the establishment to deserve accolades as the guardian of new and innovative short fiction, and they may publish T. C. Boyle just a little too often for my taste, but what other magazine publishes so much new fiction on so frequent a basis? I wouldn't be able to justify a subscription to Esquire or The Atlantic Monthly just for the fiction--and I'll admit that I'm not always interested in much else--but The New Yorker prints 50-60 new stories a year. Even The Paris Review, for all its stature and quality, is doing well if it reaches 20.

So, interestingly enough, I'm optimistic. Adam Haslett's You Are Not a Stranger Here and Julie Orringer's How To Breathe Underwater have earned places of honor on my bookshelf, and I'm looking forward to starting Lucky Girls by Nell Freudenberger.

And I may just have to get a couple of subscriptions in the mail.

Monday, May 17, 2004

Who doesn't love mix tapes?

Check out this quote from Luc Sante's article "Disco Dreams" in the May 13 New York Review of Books:

"Any canon of popular music will apply strictly to the person who drew it up, on the day that it was drawn. There is simply too much music in the world, whizzing along at every angle, for anyone to be content with anything less than constant replenishment. A canon, therefore, can be no more than a snapshot of a single moment within the flux--it is a mix tape."

This Sante's summation after discussing books on music by Nick Hornby and Geoffrey O'Brien, the former of which can be summed up as the playlist for something of a mix CD--in fact, the original version of Hornby's book, from McSweeney's, did include a CD with most of the songs he discusses--and the latter of which appears to be much more of a boxed set.

I'll be honest and admit that I was pleased to read that Sante was less than impressed with Hornby's selections. While I've read worse novels than High Fidelity, it has always seemed to me that someone should have asked Hornby for better credentials before declaring him the common man's expert on pop music. (In fact, Hornby has served, until recently, as popular music writer for The New Yorker, and five of the essays in Songbook first appeared in that magazine.)

Juding another man's mix tape is always a dangerous task, but, perhaps, in preparing Songbook, Hornby forgot his own best advice; by the end of High Fidelity, Rob has learned that a mix tape should be made first for its intended audience, not to prove the coolness of the person making it.

I always liked albums better anyway.

How this will work

I'm new to this vast world of blogging, and while I think of myself as a quick learner, I'm also poor and a new father with a full-time job who attempts to freelance every now and then. Time and resources, thus, are a bit limited.

That being said, it would probably be best to think of this blog as the headlines, with constant linking to deeper content at my storage site, http://www.msu.edu/~craiggav.

For now, head over that direction for baby pictures. Archived book reviews soon to come.