Benjamin Percy on How Genre Can Help Literary Writers

percy_si-303x335Benjamin Percy on writing in Poets & Writers:

“Consider this. Picasso trained in realism before he shattered our way of seeing. Patricia Smith can rock a sonnet or villanelle as well as experiment with free verse. Can you say the same? Can you write something that is scene-driven and as tightly fitted as a Lego castle and then turn around and write something masterfully nonlinear that artfully employs summary? Or are you exclusively “artful” because it’s easier to excuse your sloppiness as purposeful? Oh, the fact that nothing happened in my story? That’s because I was trying to capture the nothingness of the modern condition. Uh-huh. Good luck with that, smart aleck.”

Slideshow of “In Search of Lost Time” Graphic Novel

French artist Stephane Heuet has visualized a book long thought to be beyond visualization. Over fifteen years he offered six installments of Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” in French, and now this graphic novel has been collected and will be released in English.

Faithful Proustians will surely make an uproar about how much has been lost, but at least for all of us who struggled to get through the seven-volume book, the graphic novel will be a great reading aid.

Stylistically, the clean faces of the younger characters remind me of The Adventures of Tin-Tin, plus the way the visuals are presented in a relatively simple manner.

Norton will release the book on July 15.

The translator is Arthur Goldhammer, who has translated a list of books as long as your arm. He’s based at Harvard, and is an American who usually translates from the French.

The Boston Globe actually recommended the graphic novel “In Search of Lost Time” as one of their top summer reads (alongside “Go Set A Watchman” and Nell Zink’s “Mislaid.”)

It’s also interesting to note that Marcel Proust required 14 years to write “In Search of Lost Time” (also known as Swann’s Way), while Shephane Heuet took fifteen years. So there you have it: authoritative evidence that it was more difficult to draw than to write.

One great caveat: I feel like the reading experience must be fundamentally different because of how slowly one must wade through the dense and serpentine prose, yet it’s possible to read the graphic novel with incredible speed. Just the pacing alone must make for a completely different experience.

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A Punctuation Video Game: All Praise to the Adventurous Colon

I love this right-scrolling video game with punctuation. So reminiscent of the early 90s Nintendo games.

Flannery O’Connor Honored with U.S. Postage Stamp

Flannery O'Connor Stamp Small

Anne Enright

Anne EnrightEnright_Anne_credit_Domnick_Walsh_libguide in conversation with Diane Prokop at The Millions:

“Well, I wrote out beyond the end of this book, and then I brought it back in again. I wanted the characters to be on the brink of something new, without actually going into that territory. You get out early in your ending. I sometimes write for an editor who takes out my very carefully crafted first paragraph and my very wonderfully rendered last paragraph, and runs the piece without any other alterations. You realize you often don’t need that explaining bit of getting up to speed at the beginning or you don’t need to over finish the end. You don’t need to make many big bows as you walk out the door.”

J.M. Ledgard: Submergence

Screen-Shot-2015-02-25-at-10.41.34-AM-2 copyIf you haven’t yet read J.M. Ledgard’s novel “Submergence,” you should. Ledgard is wonderfully worldly, veering between microscopic jellies of the ocean to intricate knowledge of Somalian culture and the psychology of al-Qaeda jihadists. It’s hard to come up with a comparable author who demonstrates such widespread and intricate knowledge of the world. Although it’s a disservice to the book to write a summary, because it falls far short of what Ledgard accomplishes in this book, a plot summary goes like this: a deep-sea science who repeatedly plunges thousands of meters in a submersible falls in love with a secret service agent who ends up captured by Somalian terrorists. Ledgard has wonderful metaphors comparing cityscapes to “scans of a damaged brain” and says that in a moment of tension between potential lovers time is “folded tightly … wadded like origami.”

The erudition on display in this novel is incredible. Bruegel the Elder’s and Hugo Simberg’s paintings are dissected, religious habits predating Islam are discussed, and microorganisms that preceded humanity by billions of years are invoked, ostensibly to induce humility in the flash-in-the-pan uppity human species. He describes the color of magma burning in seawater. How finger length marks Islamists the way mustaches identified Nazis.

One of the things I like best about this book is the way Ledgard moves from small scale to large scale. He’s always contextualizing the story of these two people with distances — the distance of space, of time. He sets this story inside a context of geological time, evolutionary time, and historical time; he also sets the story on multiple continents, and moves freely between them, sometimes inside the same paragraph. For instance, when the oceanographer Danielle Flinders buys a cabin, she buys one high on a mountain overlooking the Ligurian Sea, and thinks “if she were immortal, she could sit on the mountain under the moon and stars — the snow globe — and not get her feet wet in a million years.” When she bikes along valley floors, she “visualized the day they would be at the bottom of a new sea.” Ledgard doesn’t miss the chance to use historical time, either. When James More, the secret service agent, visits Kismayo, we learn this:

“Kismayo is famous for its magicians and for the refreshing breeze blowing in off the Indian Ocean at night. The great Muslim travelers visited the town, so did Zheng He and his Chinese fleet. The Portuguese built a fort there, which the Omanis captured. The Somalis drove out the Omanis, then yielded to the Italians.”

All of this has the effect of endowing these small careers and tiny love story with cosmic significance. This is a novel that wears its ambition on its sleeve, never missing the chance to remind us of the transience of our species, our minuscule size in the universe, and how human consciousness might be a curse.


Tournament of Books Longlist — And the Shortlist They Should Pick

The Tournament of Books released its longlist — 62 books (!). They will narrow it down to 16 in January. In case you can’t wait until January, here are the 16 I would love to see compete come March. You can view this either as a prediction or as a recommendation — take your pick.

  • All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  • The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
  • Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante
  • Friendship by Emily Gould
  • My Struggle: Book Three by Karl Ove Knausgård
  • Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
  • Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
  • Redeployment by Phil Klay
  • 10:04 by Ben Lerner
  • Lila by Marilynne Robinson
  • The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink
  • An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
  • The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
  • The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson
  • Euphoria by Lily King
  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Christopher Beha in Harper’s

Christopher Beha in Harper’s:

“The publishing industry in this city tends to view the introduction of religion into contemporary realist novels as a willful act that must have some strong rhetorical justification. From where I stand, the exclusion of religion is the willful act. Novelists never get asked why they don’t include religion in their books, or why the religion they do include — often just a species of madness — bears so little resemblance to religion as it is practiced by the majority of Americans. If they were asked, I suspect, most of these writers would not have a very good answer. It simply doesn’t occur to them. Whatever one’s beliefs, this seems like a basic failure of verisimilitude. Reality includes religion; realism should, too.”

March Reading

So I made it a public goal to read twenty books during the month of March, and I did it! I facetiously riffed off National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) by calling it NaNoReMo. Here’s a list for those curious about what I read. It’s mostly stuff I picked up this year at AWP. It’s rather eclectic, honestly. I think my goal for future reading is to choose an author and read seven or eight works by them (frontrunners: Don DeLillo or Michael Ondaatje or Ngugi wa Thiong’o). This list has 11 fiction titles, 6 nonfiction titles and 3 literary journals.

  1. MFA vs NYC by Chad Harbach
  2. The Blue Fox by Sjon
  3. Fight for your Long Day by Alex Kudera
  4. Send Me Work by Katherine Karlin
  5. Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory by Randall Balmer
  6. Tin House Writers on Writing
  7. Three Scenarios Where Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail by Kelly Luce
  8. Woes of the True Policeman by Roberto Bolano
  9. Speedboat by Renata Adler
  10. Nazareth, North Dakota by Tommy Zurhellen
  11. The Odditorium by Melissa Pritchard
  12. Vox by Nicholson Baker
  13. The Fun Stuff by James Wood
  14. Cimarron Review
  15. Image Journal
  16. How to Read a Novel by John Freeman
  17. Out Loud by Anthony Varallo
  18. Coyotes by Ted Conover
  19. Arts & Letters Journal
  20. Din in the Head by Cynthia Ozick

Of all of those, I would especially recommend The Blue FoxThree Scenarios Where Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail, and The Odditorium. But many others were excellent. Happy reading!

Karl Ove Knausgaard

Karl Ove Knausgaard in The Guardian:

“The critical reading of the texts always resulted in parts being deleted. So that was what I did. My writing became more and more minimalist. In the end, I couldn’t write at all. For seven or eight years, I hardly wrote. But then I had a revelation. What if I did the opposite? What if, when a sentence or a scene was bad, I expanded it, and poured in more and more? After I started to do that, I became free in my writing.”

Ann Beattie on Interruptions

Ann Beattie on interruptions in fiction:

“Often I use a non sequitur or a stranger saying something out of the blue as a way to change the emotional register. My students make fun of me for saying, I’ve read this carefully now, and you’ve written it carefully — too carefully. The phone never rings, people get to talk for four pages without interruption. We’re used to daily life being the fire truck coming by with its deafening siren. To put that siren in fiction — and not at the convenient moment, but maybe a minute before the convenient moment, or way after the convenient moment — is a kind of acknowledgment to the reader that you’re aware there’s another life out there that’s out of control. As a writer, it’s an advantage to work within open-ended, messy moments.”

Jason Porter Narrates a Kiss in “We Were Down”

Jason Porter has a story in Electric Literature called “We Were Down.” I love his narrator’s description of a kiss:

She says, “Would you like to kiss me?”

I say, “That is not fair.”

She pulls on my pockets, forcing me to lean into her. I am close enough to smell that she has never sweat. Never in all of her life.

I let her let me kiss her.

It is a spangled microscopic world. Entire villages are dancing and roasting pigs on spits. Families gather around old clanky pianos and sing songs that bring tears to the elders. All of the children playing games in all the streets are scoring goals in a flickering continuum of identical moments. Galaxies gladly collide. There are no tongues. Just four shy curious lips. It lasts about four seconds.

A Year in Reading

Did I read less this year? Well, yes, unfortunately. But did I write an entire novel this year? Absolutely yes!

According to my end-of-the-year accounting, I’m going to believe that my novel success counterbalances my reading shortcoming.

Some favorite books of the year: I continued my Orhan Pamuk streak with Istanbul, The Black Book and The Museum of Innocence. He impresses me with his range — each book traverses vastly new territory in terms of genre, structure, and concept.

Both George Saunder’s Tenth of December and Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove deserve your attention. I also read Russell’s Swamplandia, which perplexed me. It’s  an enjoyable, masterfully written book, but for a magical realism writer this is an anti-magical realism book. All of the strands of the story which verge on magic end up being pulled back into strictly realistic storylines, as if to tease the reader with the potential of magic just before reaffirming the world as non-magical.

After being disappointed by some of Paul Auster‘s current work, I finally read his New York Trilogy, and it more than lived up to expectations. I loved the playfulness, the genius of his moves.

Some nonfiction suggestions: If you’re interested in the way your city constructs public space, I would recommend Walkable City by Jeff Speck, a wonderful exploration into how tiny elements like lane width, sidewalk construction, and parking availability can either estrange us from our neighbors or shape strong communities. The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver about the science of predictions will make you reexamine the predictions you hear on daily basis as well as make you reconsider your personal predictions. The Outsourced Self by Arlie Russell Hochschild looks at the drawbacks of  outsourcing so many private parts of our life. It’s the type of book that you know is right but is hard to live by.

This year I also read all 1800-or-so pages of the four collected Paris Review Interviews. The overlap between what authors say is just as instructive as the differences. When you read all of them at once, themes emerge, such as the near universal agreement that professional critics are not helpful to their artistic journey.

I read Roberto Bolano’s Nazi Literature in the Americas and re-read 2666. I’m glad New Directions pumped out another dozen or so of his titles, because it means I can read a few a year and have more to look forward to.

Mating by Norman Rush is the book that has lingered the most in my memory. Such a powerful depiction of desire and the lack of desire in Botswana. But I resisted reading Subtle Bodies, his novel which came out this year, because of Michiko Kakutani’s review in the NYTBR. In that review she nails exactly what irritated me in Mating — his characters fight about such trivial things. It makes me wonder if  Rush’s famously good marriage has sabotaged his ability to write about truly fractured relationships.

Lastly, the most talked about book of the year: The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner. Is it as good as everyone claims? Well, the simple answer is yes. It is impressive. You should read it.

Don DeLillo

From Don DeLillo’s Paris Review interview:


How do you begin? What are the raw materials of a story?


I think the scene comes first, an idea of a character in a place. It’s visual, it’s Technicolor—something I see in a vague way. Then sentence by sentence into the breach. No outlines— maybe a short list of items, chronological, that may represent the next twenty pages. But the basic work is built around the sentence. This is what I mean when I call myself a writer. I construct sentences. There’s a rhythm I hear that drives me through a sentence. And the words typed on the white page have a sculptural quality. They form odd correspondences. They match up not just through meaning but through sound and look. The rhythm of a sentence will accommodate a certain number of syllables. One syllable too many, I look for another word. There’s always another word that means nearly the same thing, and if it doesn’t then I’ll consider altering the meaning of a sentence to keep the rhythm, the syllable beat. I’m completely willing to let language press meaning upon me. Watching the way in which words match up, keeping the balance in a sentence—these are sensuous pleasures. I might want very and only in the same sentence, spaced a particular way, exactly so far apart. I might want rapture matched with danger—I like to match word endings. I type rather than write longhand because I like the way the words and letters look when they come off the hammers onto the page—finished, printed, beautifully formed.

Santa Monica Review

The latest issue of the Santa Monica Review (Fall 2013) showcases a number of short shorts. This isn’t the standard modus operandi—last issue, Spring 2013, contained only a few longer stories and a novella. This is something I appreciate about SMR—they feature a wide variety of tastes, styles and lengths, never narrowing the field of contemporary fiction down to a tiny sphere. In the current issue, SMR has collated the experimental and the surreal with the realistic and the minimalist. The danger, of course, of having such a wide range is that the journal becomes a hodgepodge. That is not the case here. Themes repeat throughout the journal, tying the parts into a whole. Some themes I’ve noticed over the last five or six issues: there are often stories about teachers or professors, there are many coming-of-age stories, with protagonists of high school age or in their early twenties, and there are often Catholics.

At the experimental end of the spectrum comes Rich Ives. His story, “Alternative Systems of Understanding Offering Heartwarming Potential” is as complex as the title suggests. It is fragmented into numbered chunks, with a repeated motif of sleeping with silverware (knife, fork and spoon are all bedmates), and piles up hallucinatory images in a madcap storm. One Socratic-minded section features only questions like “What is the purpose of a fairy tale?” and Why does God cry for his children?” The language pummels you, upending every expectation: “We’ve learned to value the lid of the bed, awakened, and its finger moons chambered with tensile eye-knuckles and naked feet running from the ceiling, night’s eye so big we don’t realize we’re inside.”

Also notable is Ryan Ridge and Mel Bosworth’s piece “A Dirty Dozen,” which feels like reading a prose version of Salvador Dali. It includes a baby forced to play drums seconds after its birth, a man who takes himself hostage, and a father who builds an engine that runs on seaweed. Sample passage: “Then birds flying upside down like jokes. Luchadors fighting at the fish taco truck. Women in sexy pioneer costumes crossing their fingers. Men in Black Sabbath tees. A man yelling: ‘Aspirin, Disneyland!’ Another man dousing himself in kerosene as his wife bursts into laughter from the flames.”

David Kranes story “The Burning Lake,” which launches the issue, is one of my favorites. It features a high school teacher fighting his administration about a student’s grade while managing a teetering relationship with a lover. Then the local lake catches on fire, inexplicably. The final scene is unpredictable and surreal and spot-on. It’s a fast story, with collisions from all angles, and it’s the type of story that gives you that giddy, flummoxed feeling attendant to all great fiction, reminding you of why you do this thing called reading.

Geoff Wyss’s story “Journal,” is also excellent, in which sex-seeking high school boys in New Orleans sneak into a convention for daughters of soldiers in Afghanistan. One of the girls, dressed up as a Goth, admits her reason for dressing that way, and her reasoning is surprisingly mature: she will do so until “the city is restored.” In a city ravaged by Katrina, this kind of idealism is a wonderful counterpoint to the horndog sex-trolling of the boys. The title doesn’t make sense until the last paragraph, when a journal plunging into a crowded auditorium serves as a scary metaphor for the impending disaster still looming over the city: “Not yet. Not yet. Not yet. Now.”

Although Santa Monica Review focuses on fiction, most issues roll out a few nonfiction pieces. The Fall issue has four. Christopher Buckley, a frequent contributor, offers an essay on his problems with math, Alex R. Jones serves up a memory from his childhood on the ritualized process of movie-going with his estranged father, and Marilyn Abildskov remembers the light and sounds and smells from the many countries she’s visited. Tom Lutz’s reporting on Iran is especially piquant. He travels to Tehran in 2010, ostensibly for a multiculturalism conference, but departs from the prescribed activities and gumshoes about the country talking to taxi drivers, families, subway riders, and anyone else who would speak with an American. His story of talking to Kurds in person (and failing to get anyone at the supposedly multicultural conference to speak about them) speaks volumes about the official guises of the country. What I liked best is that Lutz captures the exact feeling of travel—the language difficulties, the struggle with navigation, the random yet fortuitous encounters, and the experience of being in a land so foreign it makes you yourself and not yourself.

There are many more excellent stories that I don’t have time to describe in full—Michelle Latiolais’ “Promotion,” J.P. Gritton’s “Curly,” g c cunningham’s “My First Marine Corps Essay” (a fictionalized essay)—but in lieu of an exhaustive review, I would recommend buying the issue and reading it for yourself.

Alice Munro Wins Nobel Prize for Literature

After the wildly stupid and controversial pick of Mo Yan last year for the Nobel Prize for Literature, this year the academy wised up and picked the safest choice possible: Alice Munro.

Everyone loves Alice Munro. She’s delightful and she writes world-class literature. What’s more, she is only the 13th woman in history to win the Nobel prize for Literature, and she writes a genre of literature which often gets short shrift, the short story.

Although this could be seen as merely a pendulum swing from the controversial pick of last year, I don’t care. I don’t care because Alice Munro deserves the Nobel, and I couldn’t be happier that she received it.

Louise Erdrich

Paris Review interview with Louise Erdrich:

At last, I had this epiphany. I wanted to write prose, and I understood that my real problem with writing was not that I couldn’t do it mentally. I couldn’t do it physically. I could not sit still. Literally, could not sit still. So I had to solve that. I used some long scarves to tie myself into my chair. I tied myself in with a pack of cigarettes on one side and coffee on the other, and when I instinctively bolted upright after a few minutes, I’d say, Oh, shit. I’m tied down. I’ve got to keep writing.

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