Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Just two more weeks

I'm in the home stretch as far as teaching goes. In the drama course, our last sequence includes a number of different treatments of the theater of empire: Aphra Behn's Oroonoko, Thomas Southerne's theatrical adaptation of Behn's novella, a great recent stage adaptation of both by the British-Nigerian writer Biyi Bandele, some of Edmund Burke's speeches impeaching the governor-general of the East India Company, Warren Hastings, and finally Richard Brinsley Sheridan's play Pizarro, about the conquest of Mexico. Plus a little Artaud for good measure. In the graduate class, three more novels to go (Frances Burney's Evelina, Jane Austen's Emma and Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, plus miscellaneous criticism by Adorno and Bourdieu. I've got several other books to read for 'school' (namely, Seth Koven's recent book Slumming and eighteenth-century novelist Sarah Scott's Millenium Hall). Plus the usual run of talks and meetings and such. I am desperate to read a trashy novel or two but I can see it's going to have to wait...

Friday, November 26, 2004

Ken Bruen interviewed by Ray Banks

This interview is great! (Link via Sarah Weinman.)

A strange feeling

I read an excellent novel, Pernille Rygg's The Butterfly Effect, but it gave me the extremely strange feeling that I was reading a novel by my separated-at-birth Norwegian twin! This is a great book--looking forward to the next one too--it's reminiscent of Peter Hoeg's Smilla's Sense of Snow and also of my own novel Heredity. I have a minor obsession with this Scandinavian thing--I liked The Butterfly Effect especially because of the Oslo setting and the smart, emotionally damaged female narrator.

I also read Karen Joy Fowler's The Jane Austen Book Club. It was OK. I didn't hate it, but I certainly didn't love it. It's minor. I am curious as to whether her other novels are more substantial--probably worth a look, anyway. But I definitely won't be adding it to the syllabus for my Jane Austen seminar this spring (that syllabus is already packed full, anyway).

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Dame Edna

I was skeptical, but it turns out that Dame Edna: Back With a Vengeance is good clean family fun! Seriously, if you're looking for something edgy, obviously this isn't it, but it's genuinely funny and engaging and just what you'd want if you had a bunch of people who wanted something satisfying and Broadway-ish and sort of middlebrow in a good way. We had dinner afterwards in the enclosed garden at Le Madeleine; the whole dinner was excellent, but I had a lemon custard for dessert that was the most delicious sweet I have had for ages.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

"It's not so much accent as rhythm that gives us away. Where stresses fall, the momentum towards sentence's end, pauses on nouns or verbs"

Just finished James Sallis's Cypress Grove. This is an amazing book. (I was tipped off to it by Ken Bruen, who as far as I am concerned is a genius with impeccable literary taste.) Excellent, excellent noir. Wonderful first-person narration. Elegant weaving-together of past and present narratives to sum up a life. Imagine a more lyrical version of Pete Dexter. This is a fantastic novel! Must get all of his others from the library ASAP. This is ridiculously better, too, than much of what's out there in the detective fiction aisles--why isn't this guy more famous?!? (Or maybe I've just been oblivious to it. But seriously, get this book and read it, you won't regret it.)


Finished the rest of The Line of Beauty. It won't be to everyone's taste--and no, I'm not talking about the coke-and-gay-sex aspect of it, just the verging-on-overblown aestheticism. I know a lot of people who are just unwilling to read books written in this kind of a backward-harking style. (For instance, I don't know that I'd recommend it to Kevin Wignall, who "detested . . . 'GB84' by David Peace, 'Cloud Atlas' by David Mitchell, 'Notes on a Scandal' by Zoƫ Heller, 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time' by Mark Haddon - all of them simply awful"--link from
Jennifer Jordan via Sarah Weinman. My brothers wouldn't have the patience to bother with it. My mom would most likely find the Jamesian style offputting. My dad might read it, because he's interested in British politics in the 1980s, but in the grand scheme of things there are a lot of books I'd be far more likely to recommend to him, for instance, Richard Fortey's Earth: An Intimate History. You get the idea. In fact, I imagine most people I know are relatively unlikely to read this book.)

But it's brilliant. It's really, really good. The description of Thatcher at the party is amazing. The last section of the novel is tragic. The unflattering precision with which Hollinghurst anatomizes each thought and feeling of Nicholas Guest--I don't even know where to begin. Anyway, the Booker judges did well this year. This is a major novel by a fascinating writer. Well worth the time. And yet I am very unlikely to reread it, just because the characters are so relentlessly offputting. Interesting experience.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Winter House

It was an amazing thing--I stopped by the department this afternoon and in my mailbox found Carol O'Connell's Winter House, the latest Mallory novel (a loan from my friend MM). This was about the only thing that would stop me from going home and unwisely going to sleep mid-afternoon, thereby disrupting another night of sleep. It was very good--better, I think, than the last couple--and there is something lovely and retro about having an ice-pick killer. I'm always on the fence about O'Connell--by far her best book was the stand-alone Judas Child--but the Mallory books never quite live up to my expectations. There's something too surreal and stylized about them, and also O'Connell's too taken with her characters and their little non-family closeness. (They're really so much better than Martha Grimes's books that it's unfair to O'Connell to compare them, but I have a similar sense of writers over-invested in their relationship with a set of characters that don't necessarily manage to evoke the same warmth and interest from the reader.) However, this one's well worth reading.

I must read a few more novels this weekend to regain my novel-reading equilibrium, I've been rather starved this last few weeks through working too hard.

This complicated and controversial question

I was just struck by Randa's post at MoorishGirl, quoting an Identity Theory interview with Don Lee that I read earlier in the week and found most engaging and interesting. Randa responds to a comment of Lee's below:

In Robert Birnbaum's interview with Don Lee, they discuss how Lee found time to write, away from his full-time Ploughshares editing gig:

DL:...[T]he way I was able to write the novel is because I don't have children.
RB: [laughs]
DL: I don't know how writers who have children are able to do it, to produce anything.
RB: There's an idea for an anthology. I just saw one today, a collection of stories by writers who live with other writers. So the next one will be Writing With Children.

I write and I have a child.

Today is my son's 8th birthday. About this time 8 years ago, I was an 18 year old college sophomore stretched out on a Connecticut hospital bed, in labor. I would have never imagined that I'd be in Texas, finishing up a novel, now. I just wanted to give birth and finish up my semester.
Writers who have children write, produce, the same way writers without children do. They find a spot, a closet, a room, and a writing tool, and they string words together on essentially borrowed time.

Back to my closet and my son's b-day cupcakes now. Have a good weekend!

Randa's point is a sensible one, and in many ways I completely agree with her. But I feel some need to speak up for Don Lee, who surely was making a modest point about his own accomplishments rather than, really, a generalization about what's possible! (He's really talking in context about how he has balanced his fiction-writing against his rather all-consuming job as editor of Ploughshares; for the whole interview, which is well worth reading, see Identity Theory.)

I don't have children, but a number of my friends at similar stages in their academic careers now have a child or two, usually under the age of five but in several cases rather older. And what I say is that I simply couldn't have my academic career as it is and my academic writing and my fiction writing and a child. If I had the child, one of the other things would have to go, and because the academic career and the academic writing are necessary to me in every sense (i.e. that's how I make a living as well as satisfying various inner needs), the fiction writing is what would have to go for some years. (And probably also a serious scaling-down of my immediate ambitions as a literary scholar--I think it adds up to much the same thing in the end, but the academic career--like so many others--is heavily front-loaded, meaning that you are expected to do a great deal of work in your twenties and thirties, and if you're on a slower clock due to a mix of different responsibilities, it can be very tricky to recoup afterwards.) And that's something I don't think I can handle.

It's just a matter of choices, I guess--we all need certain things and it's a different combination for different people. Margaret Atwood has a great quotation--I wish I had the exact line, it was better phrased than I can do here. I think she was responding to an interviewer's question about why she stopped teaching creative writing at some point in her career. And she says something to the effect of this: "Well, you can have a job and write, and you can write and have a child, and you can have a job and have a child. But you can't write and have a job and have a child." (Rita Dove says something elsewhere that's very similar about choices she made after she had a child.) In a literal sense, of course lots of people can and do write and have a job and have a child. But a very demanding job (assistant professors notoriously don't HAVE such a thing as "spare time"--in fact, it's sort of similar to being a parent in its huge and all-encompassing notion of 24-7 responsibility and hard work...), and a demanding vocation as a writer--well, it's an awful lot on your plate already. And that's what I think Don Lee meant to say.

It's done! (Well, sort of, for now, provisionally)

Just printed out the final version of Dynamite No. 1 and after wrestling with the wretched Cubmail e-mail program also managed to send the file electronically to my agent's lovely assistant. So even though I will still need to take the packet to FedEx tomorrow morning, I am hoping I might get an OK night's sleep with a sense of accomplishment. (Probably not. One of the more peculiar things I noticed as I revised the novel is that I didn't even notice how much I gave my own insane sleeping problems to my main character. Anyone who reads this book and my last one is going to see points of commonalty and make their own deductions about the psyche of its author.... I mean, there's lots that's not me at all, in both books, but this thing of young women who are extremely bad sleepers and wish they didn't have any feelings is pretty clear across the two.)

I initially started this blog as I was finishing an earlier draft and thought I would use this to chronicle the path towards publication. Obviously that was quite premature! I am not going to post anything about the official status of this project until I actually have a publisher. But as soon as I do, this is the first place you'll see it.... I will just have to try and be patient.

My grandmother is a plainspoken north-of-England kind of a lady; I think she was always very blunt in her observations but as she progressed through her 80s she got ridiculously more blunt in a very attractive and hilarious way. (Let's just say she doesn't like my current hairstyle!) One thing she said this summer that struck me was a sort of rumination on her own temperament. She's a good listener, and has always listened quite attentively even to speakers that most people find quite maddening. "People always tell me what a patient person I am," she said. "But I'm not patient at all!" And I'll say the same myself--I think I am widely taken to be an extremely patient person, but really I'm not, I just hide my impatience better than the next person and have excessive levels of self-control.

Wish me luck...

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Just in case you thought my previous post was dogmatic

I'm following the hint at Caleb Crain's blog: "'It would be nice if more blogs would link to my Alice Munro profile,' said Peter, wistfully. While I am obliging, here's a more permanent link to Peter's Alan Hollinghurst interview, too."

And since it didn't copy, here's the Hollinghurst

It's a very good piece. I must confess I have done the terrible thing and read the final section of The Line of Beauty without having finished the middle section! (I always terribly have the temptation to look at the end.) So I should finish the whole thing before I post. But... Alan Hollinghurst is very brilliant, but to me there's some failure of imagination about his books. My idiot way of expressing it is that I want him to write about more likeable protagonists, which is hardly a very fair or intelligent suggestion. But there is some broader question about character in the novel that I can't quite articulate. This guy is so, so smart, as smart as you can imagine someone being (as smart as Henry James!) and yet there is some quite near limit to what he can imagine in terms of a character to focus the narrative around. I think he's a sort of genius. But I want him to keep pushing and see if he can't write something that will not have this sort of emotional cautiousness about it.

It's a really good novel. Read it. I don't think I could possibly write one as good, not in this vein, not at all really. And yet it doesn't have the appeal to me of, oh, The Time of Our Singing, by Richard Powers.


I am a New York-dweller who's extremely skeptical about readings (I hate being read aloud to, it's much faster and more effective to consume writing on the page; plus you usually have to trek down to the Lower East Side or Brooklyn, a good hour away on the subway from the almost-suburban-in-its-distance-from-stuff Morningside Heights neighborhood I live in), but I went to the n+1 reading at Labyrinth this evening. I'm admittedly biased, but I thought my friend Marco's reading about his relationship with Derrida was much the best thing on the menu.

A question of taste

I'm sort of mesmerized as well as horrified by Jonathan Franzen's claims about Alice Munro in this weekend's NYTBR. Reading it made me feel like an alien from another planet. There is something resolutely and horribly normalizing about this piece! (And I say this as someone who liked The Corrections very much despite sort of wanting not to. It's a very good book. Not my kind of book, but a really excellent book that everybody should read, on the short list of top 20 American novels of last 10 years, say. And I don't mean that to sound insulting, that's my honest assessment! It's a compliment!) Here's what Franzen says about Munro:

Alice Munro has a strong claim to being the best fiction writer now working in North America, but outside of Canada, where her books are No. 1 best sellers, she has never had a large readership. At the risk of sounding like a pleader on behalf of yet another underappreciated writer -- and maybe you've learned to recognize and evade these pleas? The same way you've learned not to open bulk mail from certain charities? Please give generously to Dawn Powell? Your contribution of just 15 minutes a week can help assure Joseph Roth of his rightful place in the modern canon? -- I want to circle around Munro's latest marvel of a book, ''Runaway,'' by taking some guesses at why her excellence so dismayingly exceeds her fame.

I basically disagree with everything he says. Alice Munro is an excellent writer. But I can't see by what criteria she's "the best fiction writer now writing in North America." (How can you say this, anyway? There are LOTS of 'best' fiction writers. It's very much a matter of taste, surely?) And how is Munro underappreciated? Uh, I had to read a book of hers in high school. It was fine. She's a good writer. It's not my cup of tea. (It was Lives of Girls and Women. It's republished in Vintage Contemporaries. Yeah, obscure and underappreciated.) Alice Munro's stories are regularly published in the New Yorker. A million people see them! Again, by what standard underappreciated? In what sense does her excellence exceed her fame? She's excellent, yeah. But Franzen admits it in his piece--she cycles around a relatively narrow set of topics, and her style is relatively fixed. She and William Trevor are both wonderful writers. If you gave me the choice of the complete works of Alice Munro versus those of Joyce Carol Oates, I'd take the latter any day. Style can only take you so far. Sensibility, intellectual range, ambition: all those are good things too. Maybe the JCO comparison isn't the clearest. But I feel that there's something in this Franzen-lauding-Munro that is really anathema to all my sensibilities. Anyway, what about the possibility that you can't HAVE a best at all when it comes to fiction? That you've always got to have a lot of crazy different voices?

Saturday, November 13, 2004

What I'm teaching this week

In the drama course, Sheridan's plays "The Rivals" and "The School for Scandal" (both quite excellent as far as I'm concerned); in the graduate seminar, Smollett's "Expedition of Humphry Clinker," a novel that deserves a much wider readership than it seems to get.

Not much good

It's that point in the semester when I can hardly get my head above water to breathe. School's super-busy and I'm desperately trying to finish my novel revisions in the cracks between. (I've just worked for ten hours without stopping but realize I will explode if I keep on working tonight! So I'm going to go out and get the paper & come home to read & fume over the NYTBR.)

It's a pity that the two things I've found time to sneak in over the last few days were both disappointing. I was terribly looking forward to P. B. Kerr's The Akhenaten Adventure, the first volume in a young-adult fantasy trilogy called Children of the Lamp. I think quite well of his novels for adults (Esau and The Grid were pretty absurd & over-the-top, but I liked A Philosophical Investigation and the novels in the Berlin Noir trilogy are good). And I love young-adult fantasy trilogies (Philip Pullman and Garth Nix are my heroes). But this is pretty lame. Well, to be fair, it's for younger kids, and it's very "read-aloud"-y, neither of which things do I particularly like. Call me a humorless American, but I'm not particularly taken with the jokes about the Egyptians, the French and so on. But the main thing is that the characters never really come to life, and there's also no sense of real danger here even at the most supposedly thrilling points of the plot. Compare this to any of Diana Wynne Jones's Chrestomanci books, for instance, and it's easy to see what's missing.

The other thing was less of a disappointment because I had such low expectations to begin with. And indeed Eve Ensler's "The Good Body" is not at all my cup of tea. It's really a sort of a cult, as far as I can tell, like Est or Scientology. (I believe Est=Landmark Forum in this day and age.) Yeah, sure, she's doing a critique, but there is something wretchedly self-defeating about performing this kind of obsessiveness with the flaws of her own body! It manages at one and the same time to be sort of bland and middlebrow and also obnoxiously doctrinaire about feminism. It reminded me of Naomi Wolf's "The Beauty Myth." And no, this is not a compliment.

Work's been much more rewarding than pleasure, in other words. It's not the point of this blog to say much about what I read/hear in work-related contexts, but I will say that Luke Gibbons is a very interesting man and his book about Edmund Burke quite brilliant; and my colleague Joey Slaughter has a powerful argument about human rights and narratives of development but I can't find anything good to link to.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

I feel that I am channeling the ladies of Cupcake!

Just idly checked the Amazon editors' picks for top ten books in Literature & Fiction. Nine of the ten are by white men! (The other is Marilynne Robinson's.) I've read two out of the ten only (Philip Roth and Jonathan Ames), and they're certainly both very good. But it's the pattern of taste that emerges--it's the list you pick if you're a certain kind of guy in your late twenties to mid thirties--what about all the great books by women published this year? What about major books by various writers who might be defined as people of color? I'm not saying it has to be equal representation. I'm saying that this list shows a terribly restricted kind of literary taste. (It's pretty "literary," too, in a way I don't much like.) Cupcake has its work cut out for it....

What I'm teaching this week

In the drama course, David Garrick's "The Jubilee," a bizarre and wonderful musical entertainment in which Garrick transformed the humiliating debacle of the Shakespeare Jubilee at Stratford (the Millennium Dome of the 1760s, so to speak) into a huge success at Drury Lane, plus miscellaneous stuff on acting styles in the 18th century by Joseph Roach and others; in the culture seminar, Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman and criticism by Donna Haraway and some provocative (read nightmarish?) pieces on gender and evolutionary psychology by Steven Pinker and Robert Wright.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Booker judging

Interesting interview with one of the Booker judges, Robert Macfarlane. I agree with lots of what he says, including low quality of Vernon God Little and preference for The Folding Star over The Line of Beauty when it comes to Hollinghurst (though I also agree that surely the right book won this year). This guy comes across as smart, interesting and sympathetic. (God, I'd love to be a Booker judge.... not likely to happen....) However, his favorites do show one troubling pattern. He doesn't think Sarah Hall should have made the short list, and he doesn't mention a single book by a woman on his list of favorites at the end. I really think people are blind to their biases this way, which is why it's so dangerous: women tend to be far more receptive readers of books by men than the other way round.

(Link via The Literary Saloon at the Complete Review, one of my favorite lit blogs.)

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Idle reading

Despite my disparaging remarks earlier, I couldn't help myself from reading two more books by KJ Erickson: The Last Witness and Alone At Night. The last is definitely the best of the four; you can see her skills improving, and the writing is really good in lots of ways. But this is a writer who's willfully ignoring various facts about what makes a good detective novel! Her fatal weakness is for overelaborate plotting. The first of these features an OJ-Nicole-type story (and while the social-justice-detective-novel may not be your favorite, I do find it bizarre that this novel completely ignores any questions either about domestic violence or about racism in America--there's something perverse about sidelining race in a book like this--quite implausible, I think), but the plot twist at the end is literally incredible. The second is better but again somehow invokes an absurd "jungles-of-Vietnam-sniper-hooks-up-with-US-senator" type thing, plus connections made between killings in various places are completely farfetched. The reason this is frustrating is that the books are much better than average in many respects. But the same thing that makes Erickson create a reasonably plausible detective but then give him the name "Marshall Bahr," aka "Mars Bar," nickname "Candyman" (is this even faintly plausible? I don't t hink so) kicks in to unfortunate effect with these plots.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

I prefer happy endings

It's my temperament--and I am also well-acquainted with escapism. The first time I taught this drama lecture course was in fall 2001 and the bawdy comedies of Restoration England really did become an extraordinary way of escaping the terrible sadness of life in New York in September and October 2001. It was like a little oasis twice a week. I had the same thing again this morning--I vanished into a fantasy of Shakspeare in the 18th century. It was particularly apropos because I was lecturing on the Nahum Tate adaptation of King Lear, notorious for (among other things) the happy ending in which Cordelia marries Edgar, Lear happily abdicates his throne to them and so on. But I thought about it and I realize I really do have great sympathy for happy endings. My favorite Richardson novel isn't Clarissa but Sir Charles Grandison (I do love Pamela as well though I can see it is technically inferior in some ways). This is what Samuel Johnson said, in a note to his edition of Lear, about Tate's ending (Tate's version was what you would have seen for over a hundred and fifty years, pretty much, if you went to see Lear in England): "In the present case the publick has decided. Cordelia, from the time of Tate, has always retired with victory and felicity. And, if mys ensations could add any thing to the general suffrage, I might relate, that I was many years ago so shocked by Cordelia's death, that I know not whether I ever endured to read again the last scenes of the play till I undertook to revise them as an editor."

This is also the appeal of the alternate-history genre, at least if you exclude its most dystopian incarnations. Even The Plot Against America ends with everything going somehow back to normal--a fantasy of restoration. Write a disaster, and then write your world back out of it.

Monday, November 01, 2004

I don't know why

I waste my time with this kind of stuff. OK, it wasn't truly atrocious (I'm talking about KJ Erickson's The Dead Survivors) but it's pretty poorly constructed, quite meandering, and vexed with a ridiculously overelaborate plot. Farfetched serial-killer premise. I've got two more of her books on loan, but think I will skip the next one and just go for the most recent, which I was told is quite good. Of course the truth is that I always need some pretty undemanding books to read on the side. I've got Alan Hollinghurst's Booker-winning latest from the library, but don't have the attention to spare for it; a few other volumes of light reading await; but mostly I just need to read for this week's classes.

In the drama course, we're doing Nahum Tate's adaptation of King Lear (many interesting things about this, but it's notorious chiefly for giving the play a happy ending--Cordelia lives to marry Edgar, etc. etc.), plus miscellaneous critics on Shakespeare in the eighteenth century, including Michael Dobson. In the graduate course, we're reading most of Rousseau's Emile, plus various thought-provoking extracts by Eve Sedgwick, Kate Soper and Thomas Laqueur.

I am currently enjoying Columbia's weird election day holiday--in compensation for not getting Columbus Day or any extra time at Thanksgiving, we get Monday and Tuesday off this week--working fiendishly hard to revise my novel. I'm on chapter 7 of 13 which is pretty reasonable. Must finish before Thanksgiving, preferably by Nov. 15 if humanly possible.

Tomorrow I'm going to vote for the first time. Isn't that awful? But I only got my citizenship in 2000, and moved to NY in August 2000 and didn't get it together to register in time for the last presidential election. I have an 8:30am voting date with my friend Nico. I am deeply pessimistic about the likely outcome but will be delighted if my predictions prove wrong.