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Los Angeles
Writer and Professor
Interests: Short Stories, Novels
Recent Activity
Gunter Grass' anti-Israel poem has caused such an outcry that Benjamin Netanyahu has already condemned it, along with hundreds of other intellectuals. The poem has only been published in German but The Guardian has translated and excerpted a few lines. The most thorough dismantling of Grass came from Anshel Pfeffer, writing in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz: "Logic and reason are useless when a highly intelligent man, a Nobel laureate no less, does not understand that his membership in an organization that planned and carried out the wholesale genocide of millions of Jews disqualified him from criticizing the descendants of those Jews for developing a weapon of last resort that is the insurance policy against someone finishing the job his organization began." Continue reading
Posted Apr 7, 2012 at BookFox
This is going to be the biggest children's book since "Go the F*uck to Sleep": Continue reading
Posted Apr 6, 2012 at BookFox
Matt Kish of "Moby Dick in Pictures" designed this incredible book cover for Robert Kloss' "The Alligators of Abraham." Below you can see his first attempt at the cover. But how much better is that second version, right? Continue reading
Posted Mar 31, 2012 at BookFox
I got 872 words a minute, but most other tests clock me at 700 or slower. Still, a nice little test. Source: Staples eReader Department Continue reading
Posted Mar 16, 2012 at BookFox
It's been a week since AWP ended. If you're like me, you still haven't thrown out the things you collected from the main floor that were cool at the moment but quickly transformed into tchotchkes in the light of the real world. Say, for instance, pins. Yeah, every lit journal gave away pins with tiny logos on front and the type of needles in back that just beg the TSA to give you grief. If you haven't thrown your pins out already, they're likely languishing in a drawer. But not for me! I put on my arts and crafts hat and made ... magnets! Behold, the process of creation: Grab some pliers and rip out the hook and pin in the back: Buy some magnets. This pack of eight from Michael's ran a whopping $1.50: Apply glue to the backing. I used Aleene's Tacky Glue. Any super glue will work, really: Apply the magnets and let them sit. They really need a good six hours before the glue hardens and turns from white to clear. Behold! I give you the fridge which is so much more literary than your fridge! Thanks to (starting at the left and going clockwise) Willow Springs, The Journal, Five Points, Oxford Magazine, Rain Taxi Review of Books, Pank and The Southern Review for providing the art supplies for this little artistic jaunt. Continue reading
Posted Mar 11, 2012 at BookFox
Excited for the AWP conference, only a few short weeks away. Authors! Readings! Schmoozing! Dancing! (Yes, there is the legendary dance party, happening ... nightly). A whole host of literary heavyweights will be there, but as I've discovered from years past, the most exciting part of AWP is not the famous writers but the rank and file. Normal, everyday folk slaving away at their writing just like you. A smattering of things I learned from last time: Even "small" literary journals are hard to break into. And they lavish so much love on their writers. Go to panels based upon the people, not based on the titles. Titles deceive. Journals are ecstatic about publishing an author's very first story. So claim your virgin status. It's a badge, not a drawback. "30% of people who submit stuff are insane" AGNI editor Everyone works harder than you do. People at the conference were writing 2 or 3 hours a day despite doing all the conference activities. If you're going let me know! Always eager to connect with other writers. Continue reading
Posted Feb 10, 2012 at BookFox
The most painful situation the writers of this Velveeta commercial could come up with was ... a male book club. That's right: talking about books with other men is equivalent to torture. Of course, the sidekicks are willing to suffer through such torture to win the Velveeta prize. But who knows, perhaps this advertisement is particularly effective among Velveeta's target demographic. After all, only illiterate people would be stupid enough to eat radioactive-colored orange goo. Continue reading
Posted Jan 23, 2012 at BookFox
Here are the first two sentences of Aimee Bender's "Bad Return" in One Story #158: "I met Arlene in college, in the freshman dorm. We were not roommates but suite-mates in the corner section of a squat brick house in the center of a small college campus in the middle of Ohio." Pay attention to the prepositions. Even in that first sentence, we have the double repetition of the preposition, "in." That repetition prepares you for the long string of prepositions in the second sentence, a total of six. The traditional advice about prepositional clauses is not to string too many together in a row. This is on the whole good advice, the type of advice that beginning writers should obey. Nouns and verbs are the planetary cores of sentences and prepositions are but satellites. Prepositions belong with adverbs, in the category of allowable but only for judicious use. But Bender doesn't obey this rule. She doesn't ignore the rule as much as transcend it, showing the power of a series of prepositions. By playing with a series of alternating prepositional clauses (in, of, in, of, in, of), she nails you down to a certain location. What's more, the sequence of the locations expands from macro to bird's eye, starting with the corner of the room and taking you all the way out to the view of the state. It's not the most pyrotechnic sentence but it bears the mark of being well crafted, and its cascading rhythms tumble the reader into the short story. Also, the duality of its clauses prepares us for the duality of the story, which alternates between two main characters, the narrator and Arlene. Continue reading
Posted Jan 18, 2012 at BookFox
In a writing workshop, a friend of mine once criticized Kazuo Ishiguro for his novel "Never Let Me Go," which my friend claimed was a science fiction novel that refused to embrace its science fiction roots. It's true that the science fiction conceits in "Never Let Me Go" are largely glossed over. Most of the book focuses on the characters and their love for each other, not the details of cloning and organ transplants. But I think that my friend was mistaken in his criticism. Shouldn't we celebrate books that don't fit neatly into genre categories? Why isn't it possible to write a good novel that draws from genre conceits without fully embodying the genre's conventions? And what's wrong with a bit of subtlety when employing genre ideas? Ishiguro's novel "When We Were Orphans," a lesser-known predecessor to the famous "Never Let Me Go," hits genre notes in a similar fashion. Instead of science fiction, Orphans plays on detective tropes. The protagonist is a detective, although hardly a Sherlock Holmes archetype. He's delusional, inflating his bumbling missteps into successes. The narrative doesn't progress with the cause and effect sequence associated with most detective novels, though; it has the digressionary structure of a literary novel, floating through the narrator's childhood memories in Proustian fashion. "When We Were Orphans" has the genre connection to "Never Let Me Go," but its far closer connection in Ishiguro's oeuvre is "Remains of the Day." Both have polite, formal, unreliable narrators who love a woman but find themselves unable to demonstrate that love, and WWII political overtones of a good person unwittingly in cahoots with evil. It's those unreliable narrators which every writer should admire. After reading Ishiguro's first person POVs, it seems impossible that any first person narrator is telling the truth. Ishiguro exposes how the "I" of any story necessarily skews the world, which not only provides layers of mystique for the reader to interpret, it only creates a complex character. Who is this person and is he lying to me, to others, or only to himself? Ishiguro is a master of liars who do not know they are lying. Continue reading
Posted Jan 14, 2012 at BookFox
Quiz Time: In this J.M. Coetzee novel, a professor interacts with a disadvantaged member of another race during the apartheid in South Africa. If you guessed Disgrace, you can be forgiven. After all, the plot line is identical to this novel written nearly a decade before: Age of Iron. The eerie similarities between the novels gave me pause during the initial pages, but Age of Iron soon veered into its own idiosyncracies that distinguished it from its more famous counterpart. The most salient distinguishing feature is the way it graffitis its message in blunt and tumescent scrawl across the whole novel. While Disgrace manages to fold the critique of the apartheid inside the metaphor of a sexual predator, Age of Iron trumpets its attack through page-long diatribes from an academic. It feels as though Age of Iron was a kind of warm-up for the triumph of Disgrace, as though Coetzee needed to whet his writing on a coarse block to get to a finely honed edge. This progression from blatant to subtle is usually the order of art, although in some cases it works the opposite way. Case in point: Jose Saramago, who went from the mysterious parable-like world of Blindness to the I-don't-want-you-to-miss-it-so-I'll-scream Seeing. It was a mistake to write that sequel (many sequels are a mistake, especially in Hollywood). If you're not a hardcore Coetzee fan, this is likely a novel you should skip. Disgrace levitates above most modern novels but Age of Iron muddles about on ground level. But despite Iron's flaws, which in addition to the moralistic bludgeoning include the hackneyed premise of a professor writing about a professor, alms for the good-hearted homeless person, and an elderly woman dying of cancer, the novel is well executed. Coetzee has an ear for dialogue and all the right knacks for crafting a story. That's it. A brief thought on the first novel I've read in 2012. I'm going to keep all these brief. My teaching load doesn't allow me much time to write, and what time I have left over I'm mostly marking for fiction writing. But a Happy New Year to everyone. May your 2012 reading be an axe for the frozen sea inside you. Continue reading
Posted Jan 1, 2012 at BookFox
The new issue of Confrontation is out, issue #110, with cover art by Claudio Bravo ("Red, Rose and Orange Paper"). It's a timely homage to the recently deceased Chilean painter. Inside the journal are a number of glossy full-color pages showcasing Bravo's other work. Paul Zimerman's "Full Remittance," a kind of anti-Rakolnikovian story, is excellent, as well as a shortish story by Theodore Wheeler with the titillating title of "The First Night of My Down-and-Out Sex Life," which ends up being more somber than you'd expect. Peter Levine's "Often Remembered" shows a man stumbling into three women he's had relationships with in the past, and the messiness of the intersections of memory and desire. I've also got a story in this issue -- "Drive-by Horoscope" -- which began as a rumination on the strange messages on church sign boards (they are quite strange, are they not?). And what if -- what if! -- a man started using them as horoscopes? Continue reading
Posted Dec 10, 2011 at BookFox
Over the last decade the Nobel Prize for Literature has alternated between a proscriptive award and a descriptive one. A proscriptive award takes little known but worthy authors and presents them in a bow and wrapping to the world, telling everyone to read. A descriptive award honors the authors that have, to a large extent, already won the accolades and critical honor, and the Nobel is mere icing on an otherwise heavily iced career. Look at the last ten winners. Six had already received international notoriety: Mario Vargas Llosa (2010) Doris Lessing (2007) Orhan Pamuk (2006) Harold Pinter (2005) J.M. Coetzee (2003) V.S. Naipaul (2001) Anointing these writers meant that readers/critics had been right all along. But the remaining four were relative unknowns: Herta Müller (2009 -- a huge dark horse) J.M.G. Le Clézio (2008 -- collective response from U.S. -- "who"?) Elfriede Jelinek (2004 -- a head scratcher) Imre Kertész (2002) Anointing these writers meant that readers/critics still didn't have the lowdown on the truly valuable writers, and that the Nobel committee retained enough power to steer tastes. I admire the variety of selection, even if I wish some perennially favorites would be crowned (Murakami especially). Most prizes use a singular mode of logic to determine who should receive the prize -- a judgment of quality -- but the Nobel committee seems to vary among a whole host of considerations, none of which ever remain predominant for any number of years. Supposed considerations of the Nobel Committee? They want to get a writer from a particular geographical region, usually Africa. There are never enough women laureates. There are too many fiction writers and not enough poets. It won't be an American because Americans are too "provincial, too isolated, too insular." They won't pick a European because Europeans have dominated the prize (now who's acting provincially, my Swedish friends?). They don't want someone who is spread too widely (I'm looking at you, Haruki Murakami). They want to capitalize on current events. (Arab Spring has been bandied about with enough frequency to make it seem as though an Arabic writer was guaranteed to win.) All of these are nonsense. Or at least all of them are changed so frequently it does you no good to use them to narrow down your selection. There is only one common factor in the Nobel Prize for literature, and that is political engagement. If a writer hasn't been involved in political action, both personally and in their writing, they don't stand a chance. Which is why Thomas Pynchon always seems a far-fetched selection. Why would the committee ever choose a recluse? Continue reading
Posted Oct 3, 2011 at BookFox
Is a writer merely defined as someone who writes or are there additional qualities required? The way that creative writers use the term Writer, I've noticed, is limited to people who write creatively. They say "Writers" and exclude all those people whose expertise is in another field, the people who dip into writing only to communicate their ideas. Public figures, technical writers, and most academics don't qualify, even if they've written extensively. At first that seems unfair. A writer should be anyone with the courage to put words on the page. But I think the creative folks are getting at an important division between different types of writers. A Writer in the loftiest sense is someone who would write even if language was emptied of meaning. That type of Writer is someone who writes primarily because they love spleunking through the cavities and caverns of language, the soar and dip of sentences, and the tonal friction of words as they rub up against each other. If written language was emptied of meaning, most non-creative writers would never write again. Hey, even most creative Writers would never write again. Or at least they'd be put off for some time. But I think many Writers would come back, drawn by the allure of letters mashed up against one another and the sounds created. The need for language, written language, is deeply embedded. And I think that because of that attention to language, Writers believe that fiction, poetry, creative non-fiction, and playwriting are all the most difficult terrains to traverse in the writing world. It's not that it's easy to write anything else -- on the contrary. It's just that in those other forms of writing the difficulty is in thought and organization and presentation and clarity, not in the wild badlands of beautiful sentences, ambiguous language choice, and tropes of all shapes and sizes. For those who devote their entire life to writing, the uppercase Writer, the main difficulty is wrestling with language itself. Continue reading
Posted Oct 3, 2011 at BookFox
In Slate, Scott Kenemore argues that the latest Poets and Writers' Rankings are a travesty, but his reasoning is self-centered and misleading. Let's look at why Kenemore thinks that Columbia deserves to be ranked highly (in 2nd place behind Iowa): Because the last rankings had them high. As he says, "A few years ago, U.S. News and World Report ranked MFA writing programs, and put Columbia at No. 4.)" Except that was fourteen years ago, in 1997. That's not just a few years. Dozens of new MFA programs have sprung up since then. Huge swathes of faculty have changed university allegiances. And these meteoric rises and falls are not unheard of. Consider USC, ranked 44th in 1996 and ranked 23rd in 2011. So it's not inconceivable that Columbia's position has changed so radically. Because funding doesn't matter to someone who will make big bucks upon graduating. But I ask him: what percentage of students will make big bucks upon graduating? Starry-eyed prospective MFA students might believe that they will be the exception among their peers and actually land a book deal after graduating, but statistically, even in the very best programs, less than 50 percent will ever publish a book. In most programs that number is more like 5 or 10 percent. So that leaves a huge number of students who should, if they are realistic and pay attention to the numbers, choose an MFA that does not mire them in student loan debt. Plus, many of those who do end up publishing a book do so four or seven or ten years after. That means they have to shoulder those loans for years before they finally land that first book deal (which might only be enough to pay back loan interest) and then for years more before they're able to land a faculty appointment. His logic leaves out all the students who don't experience instant success. Kenemore, with six books published, is such a ridiculous exception to the MFA graduate he should not hold himself up for comparison. If the prospective MFA student is wise, funding should matter a great deal. Aside from the student, funding is a sign of the relationship between the university and the program. It's a sign that the university is not treating the MFA program like a cash register but is actually concerned about its students and wants to aid the program. All in all, Kenemore's advice that Columbia is "for people whose genitals still work," implying some kind of failure of masculinity or courage if you don't take on student loans that reach six figures, is the worst kind of bravura and absolutely foolhardy. Columbia has great faculty. And how many of the schools ranked above Columbia don't have great faculty? What's more, why should one all-star faculty member trump a number of good hardworking writers who care for students? In my experience, the all-star faculty members are there for marketing, and teach heavily reduced course loads and might or might not be available for thesis advisement. It's the grunt and file of faculty who are quietly toiling away making students into better writers. As Edward Delaney said in the Atlantic: A single faculty-member writer who’s having a notable success often seems to trump a legion of others quietly publishing work that is respected but not widely celebrated. Columbia University’s Web site features its Nobel Prize–winning faculty member Orhan Pamuk, who began teaching last fall. Orhan Pamuk is wonderful. I loved "Snow" and "My Name is Red." But star power alone should not be a reason why a student would go to a university. I will admit that Kenemore's suggestion at the end of the article is an excellent one that Poets & Writers should adopt: Poets & Writers should add a "manuscript placement" column to its yearly rankings spreadsheet, alongside fellowship placement and job placement. What percentage of fiction graduates secure a publishing contract worth at least four figures within 10 years of graduation? What percentage of poets win a prize that results in the publication of a book within 10 years of graduation? That would be a helpful metric to judge the success of students exiting the program. It would take an enormous amount of research to track down all that information, but it also would be invaluable for prospective students. It would also be a way to judge the quality of the program in addition to the metrics we already possess to judge the financials of the institution. UPDATE: Roxane Gay at HTML Giant takes Kenemore down a couple of notches with her snarky wit. UPDATE: Twitter's been going crazy with rather derogatory remarks about the, um, literary quality of Kenemore's work. Continue reading
Posted Sep 16, 2011 at BookFox
Maud Newton's essay on David Foster Wallace in the New York Times, suitably categorized under "riff," situates Wallace's idiosyncratic use of language inside a generational context while critiquing its extravagances. But I found it notable that she only dealt with his older texts. Many of the stylistic distinctions that she brings up were abandoned (or at least tempered) in Wallace's "The Pale King." He certainly keeps the specialized language of a esoteric clan (in this case, IRS lingo), but has limited so much of the vast leaps between "high diction, childlike speech, [and] slacker lingo." Maybe it's true that Wallace will be remembered for his youthful extravagances rather than his more mature work -- it's certainly more fun to critique the wild language and ideas of his earlier essays and fiction -- but it's useful to note that the master of irony/sincerity and qualifiers and rhetorical posturing did strive, later in his life, to write in a more straightforward manner. Also, I think Newton might afford too much credit to Wallace in this paragraph: In the Internet era, Wallace’s moves have been adopted and further slackerized by a legion of opinion-mongers who not only lack his quick mind but seem not to have mastered the idea that to make an argument, you must, amid all the tap-dancing and hedging, actually lodge an argument. It's not as though Wallace started a movement (although he certainly has had a sizable influence), but that he embodied a zeitgeist. So he didn't cause the slackerized syntax and diction as much as was the effect of it: he existed in a cultural moment fascinated with such linguistic mannerisms and he happened to codify them by presenting them with such erudition. Plus, perhaps this is just the lack of rhetorical skill among youth, and not symptomatic of a widespread imitation. Continue reading
Posted Aug 28, 2011 at BookFox
John Hodgman on The Daily Show parses out the future of brick and mortar bookstores, recommending they go the way of curiosity shops, like Colonial Williamsburg. The Daily Show - Borders Goes Out of Business Get More: Daily Show Full Episodes,Political Humor & Satire Blog,The Daily Show on Facebook Continue reading
Posted Aug 21, 2011 at BookFox
Sixty years into Shenandoah's august literary life, the literary journal has just launched its first online issue. My short story "To Will One Thing" is one of the fiction selections. Please read it and tell me your thoughts. The online version also features: Local artwork by William Dunlap (full gallery of artwork) R.T. Smith writes an elegaic editor's note about the supposedly extinct ivory-billed woodpecker, implying that literary journals aren't dead yet. He also explains the new online features. Tracy Richardson interviews Rebecca Makkai, famous for her four-year-streak of placing fiction in the Best American Short Stories series. Other fiction selections include a short-short by Alyson Hagy, who's been praised on BookFox for her collection "Ghosts of Wyoming," and whose prose here displays the same fantastical flights: "Where do they find these animals? The halt and the lame, the half-blind, the parboiled, the skeptical showered in the alkaloid mud of a corral hammered slant behind T. Murphy’s Snowmobile Shop." Also, Devin Murphy writes about children witnessing a gruesome dead horse in "On the Mountain" and Katherine Conner's "Neshoba" deals with truth-fudging memoirs, corporeality, and missing family members. Continue reading
Posted Jul 24, 2011 at BookFox
I'm going to the Squaw Valley Writers conference in early August, and looking forward to the wonderful cast of aspirants and teachers. If you're going as well, drop me a line and we'll make sure to talk while we're there. I'll try to remember to give a run down on the blog once I return, since internet access will likely be spotty. Continue reading
Posted Jul 23, 2011 at BookFox
Hello Everyone, Currently I'm in Xi'an, China, researching a short story. It's a story that I wrote four years ago but which never quite worked (likely because I wasn't good enough to accomplish the ambitious structure). Back then I read more than twenty books on the Cultural Revolution, and acheived a degree of versimilitude, but it wasn't quite enough. So now I'm in the country. I hope the proximity to the smell of fish oil tofu and fried scorpions on sticks and having my internet access censored and the tiny police sheds on the corners of buildings with red and blue lights and the ridged corridors near steps for bikes and people burning trash and the elderly doing Tai Chi and the beds so hard they feel like boards with sheets over them will fertilize my imagination. I feel more fertile already. Cormac McCarthy dismissed short stories, claiming that anything that doesn't take years of your life and drive you to the brink of suicide isn't worth doing, but as short story writers know, a lot of short stories take years and drive you to suicide. So: What's the craziest research you've ever done for a short story? Sure, any length of research is acceptable for a novel, but I don't often hear about the extreme lengths people go for a single short story. Give me your wild extravagances. Continue reading
Posted Jun 25, 2011 at BookFox
The Bakeless Prize has rockstar taste. Last year they published Belle Boggs' "Mattaponi Queen," which went on to garner a bouquet of accolades, and this year they're publishing the astonishing "American Masculine" by Shann Ray, a frontrunner for my favorite book of the year. "American Masculine" is the perfect title. The stories are rough and raw, though not without a strong dose of heart. There are Native American characters coming and going off the rez, with names like Elias Pretty Horse and and Benjamin Killsnight, and rodeo riders so tough they break the back of bulls, and violent fathers locking horns with stubborn sons, and suicides, many suicides. Yet despite this depressing subject material, or maybe because of it, the stories end on hopeful notes: the eagles in "How We Fall" serve as a metaphor for the characters that it is time to stop falling and start rising, father and son find forgiveness in "In the Half Light," and an alcoholic makes the right choice in "The Way Home." Those endings, the way the stories arc up from the valleys of life into highlands of reconciliation, forgiveness, and peace, are one sign of a religious theme leavening these stories, but not the only one. Several bear epigraphs of Bible verses, and it seems that a half dozen characters are 33 years old. Boys are torn between fathers who want them to fight and scripture-quoting mothers encouraging them toward holiness. There are encounters with the holy as well, even in unexpected places like a snowy basketball court: "A sweet jumper finds the mark, he thought, a feeling of completion and the chance to be face-to-face not with the mundane but with the holy." Many writers make me aware of their attention to the warp and weft of sentences, but Ray makes me pay attention to the shape of his paragraphs. He treats paragraphs with the same consistency and unity of purpose as a sentence, powering through with a single strong aim, making them cumulate in a fireball or orbit around a core feeling. His paragraphs feel whole, immutable, knapped into ideal shapes. But his sentences are excellent as well. The cover blurb belongs to Dave Eggers, who likens Shann Ray's prose to Cormac McCarthy. The comparison actually covers the span of voices in the book. The first half of "American Masculine" leans toward the McCarthy of "Blood Meridian," while the second half leans more toward the plain-spoken "No Country for Old Men." In the first half of the book, polysyndetonic clauses cascade over each other, accumulating in strings until they become something larger than themselves. For instance, this excerpt: "Weston, alone and in their father's car, sped from the edge of that highway in darkness and blew out the metal guardrail and warped the steel so it reached after the car like a strange hand through which the known world passes, the heavy dark Chevelle like a shot star, headlights that put beams in the night until the chassis turned and the car became an untethered creature that fell and broke itself on the valley floor. The moment sticks in Shale's mind, always has, no one having seen anything but the aftermath and silence, and down inside the wreckage a pale arm from the window, almost translucent, like a thread leading back to what was forsaken." Just as McCarthy teeters on the edge of grandiloquence (as Michiko Kakutani notes), Ray uses grandiose language which that could be overdone, but I think this is a high-wire act without a misstep, as demonstrated by "The Great Divide": "He works the train and travels to places he has not yet known, where day is buoyant and darkness gone, and when death comes seeking like the hand of an enemy he gives himself over, for it is death he desires, and death he welcomes, and the spirit of his good body is a vessel borne to the eternal." Compare those examples to the terse, taciturn prose of "The Miracles of Vincent Van Gogh," the last story in the collection which won the Ruminate Short Story Prize: "He woke, stumbled back to bed. Night sifting the sediment of dreams. Dark animal, solitary, full of speed. Light. Morning. Glass of water. Toast. No TV, no radio. No sound." Despite the varieties of prose in these stories, they all adhere together. The sentence pacing is kinetic, whether stacattoed by periods or propelled by commas. The voice drums inside your head. Given the sheer heft of his talent, Ray is underpublished. Yes, he's got belt notches from McSweeney's and Narrative, but most of these stories come from the byways and backways of the literary fiefdom, journals like Montana Quarterly, Big Sky Journal, Aethlon, Talking River Review, and South Dakota Review. Bet on seeing him in heavyweight journals in the... Continue reading
Posted Jun 19, 2011 at BookFox
I read David Foster Wallace’s “The Pale King ” in late April, soon after its release date, but our introduction felt secondhand. It was like meeting a friend whose reputation had preceded him. Every page seemed filtered through the viewpoints of pundits of every stripe and pedigree, whom I’d consumed in the media frenzy anticipating the novel. Boredom! IRS! Taxes! Consciousness! It gave me the sensation of operating in reverse, just like grad school, where we read theorists like Derrida and Zizek and Foucault and only later, on our own, did we read the original texts they referred to. This order of consumption -- reviews followed by novel -- isn’t my normal order. Normally I avoid information pre-book. I shun book flaps. I steer clear of Publishers Weekly. I throw away the cheat sheets from publishers and skip tell-all blog posts. Even reviews, which implicitly promise to limit spoilers, I avoid (even though I plan to return to them after reading the book). My ideal situation for reading is to arrive at a book without any preliminary knowledge and let the actual writing do the heavy lifting. But Wallace’s posthumous book upstaged my ideals. Interviews from his widow Karen Green, overviews of the oeuvre, connections between “The Pale King” and his previous work, online excerpts in a variety of publications -- it was all too irresistible. I succumbed to literary gluttony, spending far too much time trolling Twitter for new links and my favorite sites -- thank you, The Millions -- for articles gushing about the genius of the bandannaed fictioneer. “The Pale King” was compared to Kafka’s unfinished masterpiece “The Castle.” It was praised in measured but certainly laudatory terms. Most importantly, it was described and summarized and analyzed: It’s about boredom, as opposed to the entertainment of Infinite Jest. It deals with a number of IRS agents, including a character named David Foster Wallace. It’s about taxes. It’s those “abouts” which skewed my reading. All those “abouts” didn’t let me come to a realization of what it was about. The meaning was forced on me. While the first hundred pages only obliquely deal with taxes and boredom, I had been conditioned by the onslaught of coverage to see taxes and boredom everywhere. Those two ideas (among others) were a lens for the book. I couldn’t read cleanly, and for a book like this, I really wanted to read cleanly, without any kind of pre-arranged insights. I try to read without presuppositions not because I dislike the role of reviewers but because I value the role of authors. The author deserves first chance to woo. After all, the author has carefully arranged the sequence of information -- place, identity, events, relationships. The order isn’t meaningless. If a certain character doesn’t enter the scene until the second chapter, that’s because the narrative structure required that timing. If the reader doesn’t discover the location until the end of the first scene, it’s because that scene is meant to be read without knowing the place. It’s not just sequence, though. Reviewers often state unambiguously what is revealed ambiguously in the story. Or the dawning of information comes gradually, through a number of subtle clues, and the reader is meant to come to that knowledge almost intuitively, rather than having it dumped a priori. Reviewers often assume that it’s only about giving away the ending, as though the ending were more important than the premise. I don’t think this is true. Ask any author how much time they spend on the first chapter, and you’ll wind up with a value quite high compared to the ratio of the other parts. The premise can be spoiled just as much as the ending. It’s ironic that that I’m using “The Pale King” as an example of how readers can have their introduction to a book spoiled, because David Foster Wallace didn’t choose the order of his posthumous title, his editor Michael Pietsch did. But I think the principle still holds. I love reading a book for the general dawn of information over my consciousness, as I discover information for myself. In a way, every book is a detective story, and we are thrilled by the discovery of every new clue. And with the complex web of character and details and genre that Wallace creates, the chapters could have been shuffled into any order and I still would have wanted to approach the book without any foreknowledge. For me, at least, the proper time to read book reviews is not before the book, but after. It’s more like a conversation and less like a lecture. Instead of blindly relying upon the reviewer’s judgment, I can weigh their assertions against my own experience of the book, and confirm my insights, shift my vision of the work, or... Continue reading
Posted Jun 15, 2011 at BookFox
Despite the firestorm (1, 2) over the WSJ article about YA fiction, I did agree with this paragraph by Meghan Cox Gurdon, which she talks about the process of guiding what young people read: "In the book trade, this is known as 'banning.' In the parenting trade, however, we call this 'judgment' or 'taste.' It is a dereliction of duty not to make distinctions in every other aspect of a young person's life between more and less desirable options. Yet let a gatekeeper object to a book and the industry pulls up its petticoats and shrieks 'censorship!'" Censorship is a word that has sprawled over its boundaries in Kudzu-like fashion to places it doesn't belong. Examples: "Self-Censorship." This is a terrible mashup. There is no such thing. Instead of bastardizing the idea of the censor, you might adapt language like "prudence" or "selectivity." "Parental Censorship." There is no such thing. That's just called parenting. Parents have a responsibility to try to guide their child's development, which includes limiting access to some content in books. The word censorship should be reserved for places it truly belongs, such as acts by the government or by government intermediaries (public schools) to forbid all access to a certain work. It's not censorship, however, if the government knocks a controversial book off the required reading list for a school and yet keeps that book in the school's library. That's curating. That's using literary judgment (even though it's occasionally a skewed judgment). Anyone from a repressive country would recognize the loose way we fling around "censorship" and laugh. As if losing the ability to discuss a work in English class truly qualifies as censorship. As if students couldn't go to the library or read it on a Kindle or find it online. By using the word censorship so broadly, its power is neutered. End note: To see me reacting against censors, read my apologia against censorship back in 2009. Continue reading
Posted Jun 9, 2011 at BookFox
BookFox turns the venerable age of five today. Five years, thousands of books, infinite fun. Thanks to all my faithful readers. I hope that the news and books covered here inspire your journey. Year Four Year Three Year Two (most prolific reflection year!) Year One (thoughtful account of writing energy) Continue reading
Posted May 23, 2011 at BookFox
In this quirky tribute to the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, Harper's Magazine offers a forum called "King James, Revised," which includes three poems (Paul Guest's on Acts 26:28 is my favorite), one dramatic retelling (John Banville re-imagines 2 Samuel 18), two essays (Marilynne Robinson weighs in on 1 Corinthians 15:51-52) and a diatribe by Benjamin Hale on why the Bible is "enraging" and "poison." The Benjamin Hale contribution is most at odds with the spirit of the forum. Is the anniversary of the most notable translation of the Bible the proper time for ideological hip-checking? Yet Hale decides to pick a fight with Psalm 8:4-8, which lays the groundwork for human exceptionalism, and point out how it's at odds with a Darwinian ordering of the species. Unfortunately, his claims exceed his scientific range. It's a category error to assume that biology has everything to tell us about the relationships and hierarchies between species. It's a hubristic problem to assume that when biology differs from the fields of philosophy and religion, that biology, a child of the sciences, necessarily trumps the soft thought of humanities. If he truly wants to follow Darwinian thought into the alleyways beyond science, he has to confront that the survival of the fittest does not segue well into ideas about human rights or altruism. Or if the branching tree of biological life represents all that we need to know about the equivalency of animals, the implication would be that a snail rivals the value of a human being. If you'd prefer a rich, thoughtful exploration of a Biblical passage, read Marilynne Robinson's essay, "What We May Be," which begins like this: "The whole of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians is beautiful. But just here there is a rise in the language, a pent joy, a vision under profound restraint, that is like nothing else. "Lo! I tell you a mystery," as the Revised Standard Version has it, "We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye." Paul is telling his new converts that, at the end of things, we will be changed from human beings into human beings, from the first Adam to the second Adam . . . It is the voice of life, disheartened with itself and yearning for more life, for the other self or selves we know most intimately in their elusiveness." Continue reading
Posted May 19, 2011 at BookFox