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.”

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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!

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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Don DeLillo

From Don DeLillo’s Paris Review interview:

INTERVIEWER

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

DeLILLO

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.

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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.

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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.

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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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The Writer Doesn’t Ask If It’s Worth It

Italo Calvino:

“However—and this is the point—it is worth it. Or rather: one does not ask if it’s worth it. We are people, there is no doubt, who exist solely insofar as we write, otherwise we don’t exist at all. Even if we did not have a single reader any more, we would have to write; and this not because ours can be a solitary job, on the contrary it is a dialog we take part in when we write, a common discourse, but this dialog can still always be supposed to be taking place with authors of the past, with authors we love and whose discourse we are forcing ourselves to develop, or else with those still to come, those we want through our writing to configure in one particular way rather than another.”

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Leaving a Record

Good advice from Charles Baxter:

The truth is that, in worldly terms, someone is always doing better than you are. Someone is always winning more of the prizes or making more of the money or getting more famous. When you open the newspaper, someone else’s picture is likely to be splashed across the book page. In the vanity fair, you are always going to lose out to somebody else. And when no one else seems to care what you do, you will have to find your own consolation. You will have to care for yourself. That takes time and energy. In this way, a literary problem converts itself into a spiritual one. Perhaps you will have to invite the demons into the house of the spirit and put them to work. Only in that way will you understand what it means to be human. You must make an arrangement with yourself for the sake of leaving a record of what happened, of what was thought and felt and noticed, what it was like to be human when you were alive. This is incredibly hard to do. It requires a slight contempt for the dumbshows of the world and a great respect for the inner life. You may become a bohemian, someone who looks like a bum. You may end up selling dogs with fake pedigrees to the suckers. But if you appear faithfully at your desk, pledging yourself to the work, eventually the spirit will descend on you and you will write without any sense that time is passing, and when that happens, no one on earth is doing better than you are.

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Pulling a Geographic

From the Electric Literature blog, Letters from a Young Novelist #3:

In recovery language, we have a phrase called “pulling a geographic,” which is an illogical belief that switching locations will solve all of one’s life problems, when in fact the problems are rooted in the person and their substance abuse. I have pulled a geographic in terms of my writing life, and surprise, it isn’t working. Location alone will not turn me into a daily writer.

But this is not new information to me, nor should it be. It has been clear to me for over a year now that I need to woman the fuck up and find a way to write, and to write no matter what. While I did think that moving across the country would make it easier to write this book, I wasn’t under any illusions that suddenly thousands of words would magically come streaming through my fingers. In fact, I saw moving back home as a sort of punishment for myself: You are not where you want to be because you are not doing what you should be doing.

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Barry Hannah on First Person vs Third Person POV

From the Barry Hannah interview in Paris Review:

“Third-person singular, past tense, is most natural and inevitable, I guess. But you’d best beware the monotone in it and the temptations toward false wisdom, cleverness. First person is where you can be more interesting as a fool, and I find this often leads to the more delightful expedition. You don’t have to be much but a stumbling fool. The wisdom there is more precious than in the sage overview, which in many writers makes me nearly puke. I’m also wary of the glibness that third person invites.”

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Roberto Bolano’s 2666

I’m rereading Roberto Bolano’s 2666, and I love this passage so much I’m going to share it with you:

“It was raining in the quadrangle, and the quadrangular sky looked like the grimace of a robot or a god made in our own likeness. The oblique drops of rain slid down the blades of grass in the park, but it would have made no difference if they had slid up. Then the oblique (drops) turned round (drops), swallowed up by the earth underpinning the grass, and the grass and the earth seemed to talk, no, not talk, argue, their incomprehensible words like crystallized spiderwebs or the briefest crystallized vomitings, a barely audible rustling, as if instead of drinking tea that afternoon, Norton had drunk a steaming cup of peyote.

But the truth is that she had only had tea to drink and she felt overwhelmed, as if a voice were repeating a terrible prayer in her ear, the words of which blurred as she walked away form the college, and the rain wetted her gray skirt and bony knees and pretty ankles and little else, because before Liz Norton went running through the park, she hadn’t forgotten to pick up her umbrella.”

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“Making a Literary Life”

This is from “Making a Literary Life,” by Carolyn See:

“Your ego is a big, messy, undisciplined, anxiety-ridden dog. It barks and whines and pees on the floor and sheds all over the furniture and takes nips at passing strangers and goes crazy when it see another dog that might be bigger or smarter or prettier. This dog — at least in my experience — is untrainable. The only thing you can do is try to keep it on a fairly short leash.”

“I’ve seen writers misbehave, and God knows I’ve misbehaved myself. I’ve watched distinguished authors show up at conferences only to storm off, saying: ‘I’m used to at least being the keynote speaker!’ Or, ‘I’m not used to being seated below the salt!’”

“And I’ve seen writers pitch hissy fits because their eight hundred words on county welfare have been edited down to seven hundred or some phrases have been changed or their piece appears ‘in the back of the magazine’ or ‘below the fold’ in a newspaper, when in actual fact they should be sobbing with joy that they managed to get into print at all. But big, shedding, slobbering dogs don’t possess humility or irony or any sense of what we are pleased to call ‘reality.’”

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How To Give Up A Novel

Spend four hours reading your novel.

Feel abjectly depressed about its suckitude.

Wrestle with 1) the feeling that you should give it up 2) the feeling that you have nothing else going for you.

Mope around the house. Frown at your twins.

Rethink your life and career. Consider being a house husband and nothing else. Consider being a carnie, or running away with a circus.

Confess to your wife, when she arrives home, the wife who has patiently supported you through the years, that you are throwing away the last five years of work.

Marvel at her ability not to freak out at this news. Go workout. Do a crazy intense treadmill exercise for 50 minutes, include lunges, running backwards uphill, and running at 10 mph. Get close to collapsing. Drench even your socks in sweat. Blow out all the synapses of the last five years. Wipe the slate clean.

Come back home. The twins are asleep. The wife goes to bed. Start your new novel. Write 4,000 words in the next 4 hours. CPR the dream.

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