The superbowl is over. Baseball season hasn’t started yet. A lull of noncompetitive peace would fall over the land… No. There are some book competitions to pay attention to.
Interviews with Writers
In recent weeks, two interviews with writers have been making the rounds on the literary Internet.
Tin house has an interview with Brian Evenson on the occasion of his newly published collection of stories, A Collapse of Horses.
Most of the time when I’m putting together a collection, I think of it as a book more than a bunch of individual stories, and there’s a lot of work done putting stories in and taking them out again. What I’m hoping for in the end are stories that talk to one another, and stories that may take something you think you picked up in one story and rearrange it a bit, skew it. That’s all part of a general unsettling of the work as a whole, and if there are stories that trouble you, that makes me very happy. Usually, they trouble me too. As a reader I’ve always been fascinated by those stories that initially don’t seem to have much effect on me but which worm under my skin somehow and then stay there itching.
The Millions has a candid and honest interview about the professional difficulties involved with the business of writing, among other things, with Alexander Chee, author of the new novel, The Queen of the Night.
I had worked several jobs in order to write the first novel — teaching writing, writing freelance, waiting tables, cater-waitering, working as a yoga instructor. I had hoped to earn a break from that, but instead, during the entire paperback re-launch of Edinburgh by Picador, I had to deal with how my hardcover publisher, an indie publisher who sold the paperback rights to Picador, went bankrupt owing me the equivalent of a year’s salary at the time.
Better Living Through Criticism
Another interview, in Electric Literature, brings up an interesting question: what is the role of criticism in American culture? A.O. Scott, co-chief film critic of The New York Times and author of the new book, Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth, discusses criticism and anti-intellectualism.
There is, in the United States, a tradition of suspicion and mistrust of experts. Some of it is a healthy, democratic, anti-authoritarian impulse. But the defense of a consumer’s right to do whatever they want and have a good time, and to not reflect about experience, is a kind of fake populism.
On a lighter, somewhat-related note, prominent film critic Leonard Malton finally encountered a movie that he had to walk out on, after years of watching movies for a living. Which new movie did he hate so much?
Publishing the Unprintable
There’s an obvious topic of choice for conversations on the literary internet. A recent post on Rumpus names it well: “the never-ending conversation on the role of technology in our writing”.
Here’s a round-up of some recent developments in that conversation.
Now say a certain Impatient Writer wanted to write a book. By merely providing a set of input parameters—genre, length, tenses, points of view, number of characters (major and minor), language and dialect, tone, mean chapter length, historical era, authorial gender and nationality, literary influences, and so on—the Impatient Writer would, after much diligent clicking, be able to produce not only a felicitous phrase but a whole book.
As vast a leap as that seems, the conceptual basis and practice of generating books by formula is already widespread. Tabloids, porn, and mass-market pulp are already strictly parameterized. The Harlequin romance novel guidelines—depending on which of thirty subgenres it belongs to (“Spice,” “Medical Romance,” “Nocturne”)—stipulate length, secondary characters, character motivation, the love interest’s marital status, etc. This seems to confirm our anxieties about the machine-produced, formulaic writing we’ve seen satirized in literature, like the padograph in Bend Sinister that replicates human handwriting “with repellent perfection,” or the Oceanic literature of Orwell’s 1984…
“People like to talk about how physical books have qualities that don’t transfer well to digital,” says Iversen. “We want to show that digital books can have narrative and visual qualities that champion writing but can’t be transferred to print. You wouldn’t really sit and read a novel while at your desktop would you? You’re more likely to curl up on your sofa or armchair and read a book – and you can do that on your phone just as easily as you can with a paperback.” With Editions at Play, Iversen, Gerber and Google are trying to create books that draw people in, so that they might spend an hour with a book on their phone “in the way they might on Facebook – only to feel better about themselves once they have.”
If you imagine millennials are just young people entranced by their cellphones or tablet computers, you might want to think again. According to a new study, 92% of college students would rather do their reading the old-fashioned way, with pages and not pixels.
Infinite Jest is 20 Years Old
The New York Times book review offers several theories about the longevity of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.
We are now at least half a decade beyond the years Wallace intended his novel’s subsidized time schema — Year of the Whopper, Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment — to represent. Read today, the book’s intellectually slapstick vision of corporatism run amok embeds it within the early to mid-1990s as firmly and emblematically as “The Simpsons” and grunge music. It is very much a novel of its time.
How is it, then, that “Infinite Jest” still feels so transcendentally, electrically alive?
Tom Bissel has some interesting theories but you don’t have to take his word for it. Josh Spilker has compiled some quotes from the author himself about the book. They’re broken into categories, like style, with quotes like this one.
“It’s really designed more like a piece of music than like a book, so a lot of it consists of leitmotifs and things that curve back. And there’s all this stuff about movement within limits and whether you can puncture the limits or not.”