Monday, April 30, 2007

More book reviews!

Mystery novelist Michael Connelly argues in the LA Times that newspapers are hurting themselves but cutting their book review sections. (via A&L Daily)

The ten-cent soundbyte:
The truth is that the book and newspaper businesses share the same dreadful fear: that people will stop reading. And the fear may be well-founded. Across the country, newspaper circulations are down — and this is clearly part of the reason for the cuts to book sections. At the same time, the book business increasingly relies on an aging customer base that may not be refueling itself with enough new readers.

In the past, newspaper executives understood the symbiotic relationship between their product and books. People who read books also read newspapers. From that basic tenet came a philosophy: If you foster books, you foster reading. If you foster reading, you foster newspapers. That loss-leader ends up helping you build and keep your base.

What I fear is that this philosophy is disappearing from the boardrooms of our newspapers; that efforts to cut costs now will damage both books and newspapers in the future. Short-term gains will become long-term losses.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

On the popular archive of American drama

As many of you know, I'm a big fan of the Library of America, and look forward to the day when I'll be able to afford a subscription.

On a trip through their most recent catalog, it struck me that they seem to be making an effort of late to incorporate American theatre into the series. For quite a while, Eugene O'Neill was the only dramatist included in the LOA, and, if you ask me, only because he won himself a Nobel. In the late 90s, the LOA produced a two-volume Tennessee Williams set (which is gorgeous, but leaves out a great deal), and in the past year, an initial volume of Arthur Miller has been released, as well as a collected Thornton Wilder. (We will, for the moment, ignore the volume of "Broadway Comedies.")

I imagine that a number of contemporary writers will be considered for inclusion as their copyrights expire or as time makes their publishers more willing to share the rights for a reasonable fee. I am, however, left with a pair of questions. Since the LOA is so heavy on prose, is there a comparable project in drama of which I am unaware? (Or poetry?) And which dramatists should be included in the LOA, either right now, or as they become available? Edward Albee and August Wilson seem obvious choices. Anyone else? Clifford Odets? David Mamet?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The best part is also the biggest problem

Lee Siegel dissects Dave Eggers' What is the What in The New Republic. (via

I've long had an issue with Eggers' inexplicable decision to write his subject's "autobiography" as a novel. When the facts are so important and so powerful, why invent? There's precedent for the "nonfiction novel," why not head more in that direction? Siegel seems to share many of my concerns, and gives them a framework:
And Eggers's book is also another unsettling thing. I never thought I would reach for this vocabulary, but What Is the What's innocent expropriation of another man's identity is a post-colonial arrogance—the most socially acceptable instance of Orientalism you are likely to encounter. Perhaps this is the next stage of American memoir. Perhaps, having run out of marketable stories to tell about ourselves, we will now travel the world in search of desperate people willing to rent out their lives, the way indigent people in some desolate places give up their children. Perhaps we have picked our psyches clean, and now we need other people's stories the way we need other people's oil.

One of the best parts of the writing in the McSweeney's circle is their dissatisfaction with everyday American experience, and their drive to expand that experience to include those whose lives aren't so safe and pampered. Often this is done through travel, and has led to writing that I view as spiritual heir to the early 20th century American expatriates. I find expatriate writing fascinating, but both the writer and the reader are obligated to realize that the experience of the expatriate is only a half-step removed from that of the tourist. The expatriate has a unique and worthwhile perspective, but isn't really a participant in the events and history that surrounds him, and so will always have a view slightly skewed and slightly removed. (Hemingway is an outstanding example of both sides of this argument.) They can be reporters and witnesses, but there is real danger if they start to believe that they can speak for those who surround them.

An excellent, sensitive and yet incisive review. A good read with a good point. Check it out.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

In much more pleasantly frivolous news

MSU women's basketball coach Joanne P. McCallie, less than a month after silencing rumors that she was considering the vacant coaching position at the University of Florida by singing a 5-year, $2.5 million contract with MSU, will announce tomorrow morning that she will become the new head coach of Duke's women's basketball team.

You know, that sucks. I mean, good for her, but it's hard not to feel betrayed, even if that's really, upon reflection, an entirely irrational reaction. She doesn't owe me anything, and who am I to keep her from her dream job?

Still, I hope we cream Duke the next time we play them. I mean really cream.

Resisting the easy conclusions

As you can imagine, since I work at a university, I've spent a great deal of time thinking about the shootings at Virginia Tech. There have been at least three of four different links that I've finally decided not to post because they don't really add anything to the discussion.

In fact, I'm not terribly inclined to dive into deep discussion of the Virginia Tech shooting right now. Obviously, many people feel the need to make sense of this, to find something that went wrong, as is evidenced by the NYT's letters page, but I don't think that there are easy lessons. Is this an argument in favor of or against gun control? I think it's important that Cho Seung-Hui purchased his weapons legally, since that argues that current gun control laws aren't sufficient to prevent dangerous people from getting weapons, but it's nearly as valid to argue that VT's gun-free campus policies kept everyone from having weapons except Seung-Hui, who disregarded the regulations. Likewise, I don't find persuasive any of the arguments that cell phone text message warning systems, destigmatizing the pursuit of psychiatric counseling, or making character instruction part of school curricula would have made any difference on April 16. All reports are that Cho Seung-Hui was an individual that resisted all attempts at intervention, and, indeed, as much personal interaction as he possibly could. The only thing that could have prevented him from doing something like this would have been long term physical restraint, and as disturbing as his habits and writings appear to have been, I haven't seen anything that could justify institutionalizing or imprisoning him.

His plays for example. It's easy to read them and say that this was obviously a disturbed person and that it was irresponsible that nothing was done. The thing is, I've read worse. In fact, I shared a college playwriting course with an individual with a habit to writing disturbing and violent scenes and wearing a long black trenchcoat. He was quiet, and it could be difficult to interact with him. He was also one of the most creative people I had the chance to work with, and like many solitary, trench coat-wearing people I've known, he would never hurt a fly. I'm still not fond of the plays he wrote for that class, but I can state with certainty that he was no Cho Seung-Hui, and it would have been wrong to remove him from MSU for his writing.

There are no easy answers, and the frightening truth is that if someone is determined enough to hurt people, they'll find a way to do it. We should ask hard questions about what happened at Virgina Tech. What could have been done differently and what should be done differently in the future? We should, however, be prepared for there to be no easy answers.

I wish, with every fiber of my being, that it had never happened.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

I have a 20 quid note I should totally go cash in

The pound sterling rises above $2. (via NYT)

(I'm really trying to write about anything but Virgina Tech, because there's nothing to say about that but that it's devastating. How could someone do something like that?)

Monday, April 16, 2007

Did I call it?

The Road by Cormac McCarthy has won the Pulitzer. I'd like to say that I called it, but really, I didn't quite.

In translation

The NYT Book Review has started to put out occasional "theme" issues—issues where are the reviews are devoted to new books with a common subject: books on war, books on food, etc.

This week's Book Review focuses on fiction in translation, with a lead review by James Wood of Roberto BolaƱo. Read it. Cover to cover. (Except the reviews of children's books, which are not translations. You can skip those.)

Only 3.5% of adult fiction published in the U.S. is originally written in a laguage other than English. (This table, published as the Review's back page, provides some other interesting data.) I'm sure that I don't need to tell any of you that there's great writing being done outside of the U.S. It's really good to see a venue as public as the Book Review taking steps to point people to it.

Friday, April 13, 2007

When is a lie not a lie?

Jack Shafer takes David Sedaris to task for not sticking to the facts in his "nonfiction." (via Slate)

For all the noise that I've made about my old friend Mr. Frey, I'm actually a bit surprised that criticism of David Sedaris has been so strong in some places. (Although there does not, at the moment, seem to be a career-threatening critical mass coming together.) In my mind, there's a huge difference between Frey and Sedaris, and only the smallest part is the Sedaris is a better writer.

Frey and Sedaris both, at least loosely, market their writing as memoir. (I think that Sedaris is actually more attached to the word "nonfiction," which in my mind, makes his case more problematic, but more on that in a minute.) Frey, however, did not just claim that he was telling the story of his life. He claimed, in effect at first and then more explicitly once Oprah picked him up, to be articulating an alternative to traditional addiction recovery methods. If this claim is based on a lie, this is hugely important, because this is a lie that can hurt people. Sedaris, on the other hand, has never made any claim other than that his family history and his day-to-day life are each quirky and interesting.

Personally, I have no trouble believing that Sedaris not only exaggerates, but fabricates entire conversations and events. I've never given much credence to his claim to write nonfiction, and so, perhaps, that's why I don't give much weight to people who try to check his facts. I can't speak for anyone but myself, but I don't exactly expect humorists to be journalists.

It is of course, entirely possible that my opinions are weighted by the fact that the bookstore in which I used to work shelved Sedaris's books in the fiction section.

So I think that Sedaris should really let his own insistence on the nonfiction label go. But ultimately, I don't think that the revelation that Sedaris's home life may not be as constantly amusing as he makes out is really all that damning.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The British are my heroes

Maria Kalman's inexplicable but beautiful series in the NYT wraps up today. I pass along the image above, which is probably Kalman's single best piece of second-hand advice, and an excellent reminder that the British are the world's leaders in crisis management. (Need I remind anyone of "Don't Panic"?)

Oh, and Maria Kalman and Sarah Mensinga are now my official art-girl crushes.