“Your house will burn”

T.C. Boyle writes about the Southern California fires:

This is the season of apocalypse, the season Raymond Chandler and Joan Didion came to dwell on, when the sea pulls the desert air down over the mountains and your eyes dry up in their sockets and all the pyromaniacs go to heaven. Southern California is at war with nature and the fires are burning from San Diego to Los Angeles to Ventura.

(Via Moorish Girl.)

More Brooklyn

Jonathan Lethem’s brother, Blake, an artist, talks about growing up in Gowanus (an area of Brooklyn) and joining a crew of graffiti artists. (Via BookWatch.)

Of the fact that editors of two local alternative publications are taking it to the ring, Gawker says:

Okay. Fine. I’ll mention it.

As everyone and his mother knows, tonight the editors of two local free rags, the New York Press [Jeff Koyen] and The L [Scott Stedman], will settle an alleged feud by beating each other off in a boxing ring in Brooklyn. I’m sorry: up. Beating each other up.

Less than polymathic

A reader named Dunstan from Lafayette, Louisiana, takes me to task for saying that a boy named Dunstan in the U.S. would be subject to rock-throwing at recess. “My parents moved here from Montreal when I was seven,” he says. “People made fun of my accent but not my name.” Dunstan was named for a character in Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business, which he urges me to read.

I’ve been a fan of that novel since college, when a friend (eventual boyfriend) and I — I can’t believe I’m going to admit this — declared ourselves (in honor of the novel’s protagonist) “polymaths.” A true polymath is a walking encyclopedia, always in search of greater knowledge.

In our case, the thirst for knowledge focused primarily on making mix tapes that, the setting being Florida, inevitably included at least one Jimmy Buffett song. We took classes like “Asian Arts & Concepts” (which we retitled “Asian Farts and Contraceptives”), “French Literature, 1850-Present” (in translation) and “The Russian Cultural Heritage.” And we each purchased a hardcover thesaurus, so that we could comb through it and make lists of synonyms for each other. Nights he parked in the Duckpond area of Gainesville, Florida, and we talked about books, pretending that we did not want to kiss each other.

You know how this story ends: the eventual relationship was a failure; the polymath thing at last played itself out; we are still friends.

Not quite Delphi

An “oracle” appeared in Brooklyn recently, at the corner of Bergen St. and Flatbush Ave.

Here’s how it works: Dean Olsher, host of WNYC’s The Next Big Thing, transmits your questions to the oracle and reads the answers that appear on the oracle’s electronic billbard. But Olsher is cagey about the identity of the Brooklyn author who answers for it.

According to The New Yorker, all signs point to Jonathan Safran Foer:

Olsher is cagey about the oracle’s identity. “The Oracle is a writer who lives in Brooklyn,” he said. Is it Colson Whitehead? It is not. Is it Paul Auster? It is not. Is it Jonathan Lethem? It is not. “I thought you were going to ask if it was Jonathan Ames.” Is it Jonathan Ames? No.

Questioning the Oracle directly about his identity was more fruitful. First, the Oracle was asked for a hint.

Oracle: I’m equally comfortable referencing Nachman of Bratslav and Seka the Swedish Bombshell.

Then the tactics got trickier. The Oracle was told, “O.K. I’m going to ask you a question and if I don’t get a response in five seconds I’m going to take it as a yes: Are you Jonathan Safran Foer?” For once, there was no answer.

Sander Hicks responds to Soft Skull Press article

A few weeks ago, I mentioned a NY Press article about the history of Soft Skull Press, a small publishing company founded and formerly run by Sander Hicks. The article contends that many writers weren’t paid for their work while Hicks was publisher at Soft Skull, but says current publisher Richard Nash rectified the troubled finances of the company and ensured that writers were paid for their work.

Late last night I received email from Mr. Hicks, saying, “I can understand sympathizing with writers you think are being ripped off, that’s noble, but that piece you praise on your site is actually libellous and hurtful.” Here’s his full response to the claims made in the NY Press article:

With the publication of Henry Flesh’s, “Boning Up: The Resurrection of Soft Skull Press” I have been maligned. Not only by the writer, but by his subject, my ex-best friend, Richard Nash, current Publisher of Soft Skull Press. Their loose allegations have blown up into exaggerated talk elsewhere, online and on the street. It’s getting out of hand. I’d rather not resort to lawyers immediately. I just want to give my side of the story.

Continue reading…

Pronoun trouble, NaNoWriMo, bylines, more

In the Village Voice, Angela Starita considers two new collections from writers who have developed a “phobia of the pronoun I” and aren’t comfortable writing first-person narratives. A steady diet of Lit Crit in college will do that to you.

I’ve said it before, but the start of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) draws nigh. If you’ve got the moxie to churn out a novel in a month, sign up now. Those who are participating: please keep me posted on your progress. Funny anecdotes about procrastination and failure are especially welcome, as they’ll make me feel better about my decision not to sign up. Send your success stories, too.

A Canadian tribunal has ruled that journalists have the right to withhold their names from bylines.

In case you didn’t catch the news, many authors are expressing concern that Amazon’s new, full-text search feature could allow consumers to read their books without paying for a copy.

According to Reporters Without Borders, Finland’s press is the most free in the world. The U.S. is at 32nd place, behind Germany (8th), France (26th) and the U.K. (27th). North Korea and Cuba are at the bottom. The ranking “distinguishes behaviour at home and abroad in the cases of the United States and Israel. They are ranked in 31st and 44th positions respectively as regards respect for freedom of expression on their own territory, but they fall to the 135th and 146th [of 166] positions as regards behaviour beyond their borders.” (Via Prints the Chaff.)

More of a Loaded girl

All the rage in the U.K.: professional women taking male hormones. Victoria Coren is giving the testosterone patch a try, but hasn’t noticed any effects. She’s too preoccupied with her good looks and successful writing and–wait a minute–gazing at out the window at women struggling to hold down their skirts in the wind:

Speaking of eating, quite hungry now. Fancy a pork pie. A big old pork pie with loads of mustard. Looks kind of windy out there though. Look at those poor women trying to hold their skirts down in the gale. Ha ha! Might just spend an hour or two at the window. Had been sad about the end of summer – tits away for another year – but forgot about the whole wind/skirt thing. That’s it, sweetheart, you’ve got shopping to carry, just let it blow up.

(Via The Fold Drop.)

The date has passed, and still there is bubbling around here

According to Weissblog, yesterday was “the designated bubble-up day for Please Don’t Kill the Freshman, by seventeen-year-old author ‘Zoe Trope.'”

Unimpressed with the articles out there (including the Willamette Week piece I mentioned on Sunday morning, in which Taylor Clark begins by attacking the novel and its author but ends up concluding, grudgingly, that the book works in its way and “resonates with anyone who ever went through the protracted humiliation of high school”), Weisblott says:

…the story I want to read is one delineating how Dave Eggers and Jonathan Safran Foer feel about the book beyond their mealy-mouthed blurbs. Does every male literary type in the 25-to-34 demo just want to get all tingly over the text messaging prose of teenage girls?

If you’ve read the book, drop me a line. And anyone who saw Ms. Trope read at the 215: full reports, please.

Please enjoy these selections

If you haven’t caught up with Dana and the Old Hag lately, peruse their recent archives. Dana’s posts on Bennington, the L train fire, and the precautions taken at the NYU library to prevent more students from leaping to their death, have precipitated an increase in adult diaper purchases, and have been Gawker-approved. At the Old Hag, see especially yesterday’s Publishers Lunch roundup.

TMFTML continues to outdo himself:

In his review of Robert Hughes’ Goya, John Updike quotes the author to the effect that “It was through the accident that I came to know extreme pain, fear, and despair; and it may be that the writer who does not know fear, despair, and pain cannot fully know Goya.” It’s an interesting assertion for a biographer to make, but we look forward to similar tomes written by authors whose experiences better help them to comprehend their subjects:

“It was through the kiddie-fiddling that I came to know the extreme joy of cavorting with underripe pudenda; and it may be that the writer who does not know the extreme joy of cavorting with underripe pudenda cannot fully know Allen.”
Roman Polanski, Woody Allen….


Yesterday TMFMTL linked to an interview with David Foster Wallace about his new book on higher math. In it, Wallace shares his hopes:

that even a reader who hasn’t had a semester of college math will be able to follow enough to get why this stuff is a big deal and why it was beautiful, in a more substantive way than “A madman in an institution created this heavy-duty concept.” My justification for the parts that are hard is that at least it’s not just giving the reader pablum and abetting certain romantic but flabby ideas about madness and genius and certain mathematical concepts being so forbidden that they drive people crazy.

Jim Holt reviews the book in this week’s New Yorker, saying that unlike other books in the same vein, Wallace’s:

can’t quite be described as popularization. Wallace assures us that it is “a piece of pop technical writing,” and that his own math background doesn’t go much beyond high school. And yet he has refused to make the usual compromises. “Everything and More” is sometimes as dense as a math textbook, though rather more chaotic. I have never come across a popular book about infinity that packs so much technical detail—especially one that purports to be “compact.” …. Still, Wallace’s enthusiasm for the theory of infinity is evident on every page (not least in his conviction that Cantor is “the most important mathematician of the nineteenth century,” a view that few mathematicians or intellectual historians would agree with). And if he is sometimes over his head it is because he has chosen to wade through the deepest waters.

(Via Scott.)

Baywatch to Sunday school

Having concluded that her breasts are “so 1999, you know,” Pamela Anderson has become a columnist for Marie Claire and signed a $2 million, two-novel deal with Simon & Schuster. According to the Telegraph:

She’s uncharacteristically coy about her first novel, saying only that it’s almost finished and she really enjoyed writing it.

‘The book is about me. You know – sunny and silly. I don’t think that you will be disappointed.’

(Via Sarah. )

Meaning of the Booker, more

Christopher Shea, for The Boston Globe, summarizes the argument of a Brussels professor that winning the Booker doesn’t mean much, in practical terms, for a writer:

Perhaps the Booker wars would end if the participants realized that, according to a recent study by one economist, very little is at stake: Judges in aesthetic competitions, according to Victor Ginsburgh, a professor at the University of Brussels, are simply not very good at identifying art works that future generations will acknowledge as great.

The professor appears to rely primarily on the fact that sales figures are no higher for Booker winners. He comes to the same conclusion about film and music awards, but uses different criteria. The analysis is too broad to be convincing. (Via Arts Journal.)

You might remember the news floating around a few months ago about a logarithm that allegedly can determine the gender of an author. A few of my friends tried it out and found that it was nearly always wrong; others said it was accurate. A recent article in the Melbourne Age considers whether any authors can write authentically from the point of view of the opposite sex.

Recently I picked up a copy of Literary Landmarks of New York: The Book Lover’s Guide to the Homes and Haunts of World Famous Writers. It was heralded during the WNYC spring fundraiser as the ultimate reference for places frequented and resided in by New York City literary figures. I guess the slim, pocket-sized volume should have alerted me to the fact that the information contained in it is, um, limited. It was sealed in plastic wrap at the bookstore, though (bastards!), so I held out hope that it would mention every bodega where my favorite authors bought cigarettes, every bar they boozed it up in, every place they lived. Not so much.

If you, like me, are a sap who wants to know where Walker Percy ate while recovering from tuberculosis or lived while teaching at Columbia, and where Grace Paley has lived and been arrested, this is not the book for you. On the bright side, you can find out where on Cornelia Street W.H. Auden once lived. Take a look at a copy of Literary Landmarks before you buy it.

“Dan Okrent has just been appointed to the worst job in journalism: public editor (that’s the pronouncable, spellable, PC synonym for ombudsman) at the NY Times. But I think I know how to turn it into the best job,” says BuzzMachine. The proposal:

So Dan should make himself into the Times’ own blogger. I don’t mean he should start a blog. I mean he should take on blog attitude: skeptical, wry, pestering.

What would happen if he wrote a column making fun of a Maureen Dowd column? You’d hear cheers! What if he made fun of dog-demograpic stories on page one of the great paper? What if he fisked an editorial?

Spanish writer Manuel Vazquez Montalban died recently. Michael Kessler did one of the most recent interviews with Montalban.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette notes that The New York Review of Books celebrated its 40th anniversary this year and discusses the history of the publication. In an effort to explain the longevity of the review, cofounder Robert Silvers said, “‘We kept control of the review to ourselves — no benefactors, no companies…. So, we’ve been free to publish any writer who interested us. The same freedom means we have no excuses, either'”

Salon has published an excerpt from the Zoe Trope memoir.

Humor and law enforcement, more

From An Interview with an Anonymous Former Humor Writer and Current Employee of a Metropolitan Police Department:

Tell us a little bit about making the transition from humor writer to police officer.

It was actually pretty easy, since writing humor and enforcing the law have a common goal: exposing lies. Humorists feed off the hypocrisy of institutions, while cops receive a steady diet of b.s. from the general population. It’s astonishing what people will lie about when face-to-face with a cop. I once had someone tell me they were in another state at the moment I was speaking with them.

I linked to one last month, but Fitzcarraldo’s posts at Trueboy are funny and frank and sometimes disturbing:

Tonight I picked up a trashy piece of ass and took him out for steak and single malt. It was my way of toasting the autumn.

The Season of the Witch.

I felt happier than I had in days, despite the fact that the restaurant was filled to the rafters with small-time, small-dick suits and their stupid boobjob miami bitches. The fact was that it felt good to go out and spend some money. The place I spent it in hardly mattered. Well, maybe not “hardly”, but it certainly didn’t matter very much. I was fine as long as there was expensive whiskey. Everything, absolutely EVERYTHING is made better by expensive whiskey. That, and a leather backed chair for my soon-to-be boytoy to sprawl improperly in. The steakhouse was tacky, but it certainly wasn’t cheap. I got a secret thrill when I thought of the size of the check and how by paying for it I was going to effectively purchase my boytoy, several times over. Every so often, I reached into my jacket and gently caressed the fat roll in my breast pocket—the perfect tip of my manicured nail just barely brushing the billfold.

(Scroll down to posts labelled “by fitzcarraldo.”)

Desperation is a tender trap

The Segway first appeared in front of the B-61 bus stop on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg about a month and a half ago.

Riding it was a short, thin lad sporting an uneven bowl cut. He looked about 15, as though he might have torn himself away from a Dungeons & Dragons game, swung by the barber shop, picked up a windbreaker and parachute pants at Beacon’s Closet, and resolved to cruise up and down the street in search of some would-be model who would throw her panties to the wind for an opportunity to ride on his Segway.

It made a slight whirring sound as he drew to a stop. He stepped off and pushed at the bridge of his glasses. He looked determined, like a cowboy stepping off his horse. Seriously. He lifted his leg much higher than necessary as he disembarked.

A guy from the ITASP* (Impossibly Tall and Skinny Planet) moved toward him. “Hey, man, can I try it out?” he said.

D&D boy’s eyes looked big and owlish behind his glasses. He hesitated, as though he might hop back on the Segway and continue his quest elsewhere.

“Just for a minute,” ITASP said, “C’mon, guy.”

D&D pushed up his glasses again. “Just around here,” he said. He moved aside. Then, as ITASP sped down the street, he called, “Not too fast, man. Stay around here.” He crossed his arms and tried to look casual, but his jaw was clenched. I could practically hear his heart racing.

ITASP rode several blocks, almost down to the park. D&D watched, shielding his eyes as if from the sun. (It was after dark.) ITASP turned around and came back. “Relax,” he said. “And thanks.”

As he stepped aside, a thin, dark-haired girl with a puff-sleeved jacket and a pretty face materialized. “Hey, can I ride it now?” She moved in close to D&D, who backed away as though she were an apparition. He tried to say something but his voice creaked.

“Sure,” he said, finally.

The girl sped down the street, and he called softly after her, “Careful, not too fast.” She raced down toward the park, picking up speed. D&D wrung his hands.

When she passed the park border and turned down toward the Orthodox church, he yelled, “Hey, can you turn around now?”

She kept on. He waited. One, two, three minutes. He looked at his watch and yelled again, “hey, come back. Please.”

We’d been pretending to read our books, watch for the bus, but we watched him openly now. We were all losers waiting to take the bus to Greenpoint. We were filled with pity for those with no transportation. Also, we were bored and had no shame.

He looked around at all of us, at the sea of concerned faces, and broke into a run.

The bus came before he reached the park. We boarded and the bus lurched forward. We passed D&D, who kept running as we drove toward Greenpoint.

Today I saw D&D at the bus stop with the Segway again. Same windbreaker, same parachute pants, and some checkerboard vans with no socks.

A girl with short, blonde hair asked to ride. He let her.

* ITASP, (C) Mr. Maud, 2001.

I continue to regurgitate everything you’ve already read today

In an IM interview at Gawker, Dale Peck reacts to the New York Times Magazine profile and responds to various bloggers’ assessments (e.g., The Old Hag: “Peck’s victims can get a little, “Listen to her“; Jessa Crispin: “…I don’t know if you know this, but [Peck’s] books suck”; and TMFTML: “[The NYT Magazine] was all pretty ‘meh,’ especially the shockingly bloodless Dale Peck profile, the only interesting parts of which were direct quotes from Peck’s own reviews.”)

Vernon God Little, Zadie Smith, Roth adaptation, Freudenberger

Here’s a passage from DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little:

…I’m led up the stairs into the mostly empty courtroom, where the guard maneuvers me into a small wooden corral, with a fence around it. It’s almost possible to be brave in here, if you add up your Nikes, your Calvin Kleins, your youth, and your actual innocence. What shunts you over the edge is the smell. Court smells like your first-grade classroom; you automatically look around for finger-paintings. I don’t know if it’s on purpose, like to regress you and freak you out. Truth be told, there’s probably an air-freshener for courtrooms and first-grade classrooms, just to keep you in line. ‘Guilt-O-Sol’ or something, so in school you feel like you’re already in court, and when you wind up in court you feel like you’re back in school. You’re primed for finger-paintings, but what you get is a lady behind one of those sawn-off typewriters. Court, boy. Fuck.

Zadie Smith considers the relationship of contemporary writers to Kafka’s legacy:

Kafka makes novelists nervous. He doesn’t seem to write like the rest of us. Either he is too good for the novel or the novel is not quite good enough for him–whichever it is, his imitators are very few.


Our Girl in Chicago is a permanent fixture now at About Last Night. She quotes from and discusses a Wall Street Journal article in which John Lippmann reports on “the disappointing reception the adaptation of Philip Roth’s The Human Stain met with at the Toronto Film Festival last month, and the attendant nervous scurrying of its marketers at Miramax.”

OGIC also links to Jennifer Howard’s lukewarm but mostly negative review of Freudenberger’s Lucky Girls, saying Howard persuasively “pegs the stories as New Yorker Lite.”

The Literary Saloon rounds up some articles critical of J.M. Coetzee’s work.

Peck, Wood, Canadian publishing, Zoe Trope, more

James Atlas profiles Dale Peck, a controversial reviewer, novelist and protégé of critic James Wood, in The Magazine this week. The piece retreads the well-worn ground of The Believer anti-snark manifesto and recent controversies over bad reviews (including the oft-quoted Tibor Fischer attack on Amis’ Yellow Dog). It also delves into Peck’s background, his writing, and his career as a reviewer:

James Wood, the brilliant but intimidating house critic of The New Republic, noticed Peck’s reviews and suggested he write for the magazine. Egged on by Leon Wieseltier, the magazine’s literary editor, Peck produced a spate of diatribes — beginning with one against “Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome,” a sprawling, eloquent novel by Stanley Crouch. “No,” Peck responded to the title, “it doesn’t.”

Although Peck has a new novel coming out, he believes it’s impervious to negative reviews:

“Are you aware of the damage a negative review can do?” I asked, not for the first time. Over the course of several conversations, I had been trying to get an answer out of him.

“It goes with the territory,” Peck replied with a shrug. Given his track record, how did he think his own new book, “What We Lost,” would fare? I offered him a quote I’d remembered from somewhere: “Literature is the only profession where you start out as a prosecutor and end up in the dock.” Peck didn’t seem worried. “I’m going to sound like a jerk,” he warned me. “Maybe I am a jerk, but the books I’ve published are among the best books published in the last 10 years.” As for “What We Lost,” “it’s impossible to review badly.”

Whatever happens, he says, he’s hanging up his gloves. “I’m not going to write any more bad reviews. I’m publishing this book” — “Hatchet Jobs” — “and that’s it.”

Speaking of James Wood, The Literary Saloon links to a profile of the critic. He’s teaching at Harvard this term.

Most writers in Canada can’t support themselves on their share of book sales, Caroline Adderson argues (in an article that takes the form of imaginary letters). The numbers are disheartening:

For each book sold, the writer gets the kitten’s share: 10 per cent. In other words, a $32 hardcover novel nets the writer $3.20. Of that $3.20, the writer’s agent (if she is lucky enough to have one) gets 15 per cent. The agent also charges the writer for expenses such as photocopying, postage, stationary and phone calls, none of which the writer begrudges, because, without an agent, she has virtually no hope of selling her book outside Canada.

A writer will need another job if she has to depend on Canadian sales alone. She will have to teach creative writing. In Canada, a country of more than 30 million people, a novel is considered to have sold respectably if three thousand copies leave the shelf. You do the math: 3,000 x $3.20, minus 15 per cent, minus hundreds of dollars in expenses, minus your advance on these royalties, divided by four or five (depending on how many years the book took to write), equals, on a bad day, a fairly deep sense of futility.

(Via Arts Journal.)

After seeing Zoe Trope read, Taylor Clark attempts to puzzle out the appeal of the young author to the public and to major publishers, who were “clawing at one another’s eyes for the right to pay 100 grand for a teenager’s diary.” (Thanks to Ed Page for the link.)

Emma links to Scarlett Thomas’ revealing and funny post about her occasional contributions to the Independent:

Every time they ask me to write about something, it’s something stupid, and then when I try to make it interesting/political it gets edited. But what was the last straw? Hmmm… Well, there was the time they actually let me ‘help’ come up with the subject I should write about. I scanned the papers and sent a long e-mail with about 7 different ideas. ‘Thanks,’ they said. ‘But can you make it a bit more frivolous?’

Chicha explains why the bibliotherapeutic (or whatever) practice of prescribing books to help depressed readers through “inspiration” or “cheer[ing] them up” doesn’t work for many of us with depressive tendencies who seek out books that reveal something about our state of mind. “When I’m depressed, what comforts me most is the sense of not being alone with my thoughts and experiences,” she says.

In a somewhat related article, from the Guardian, Polly Vernon writes about the reaction of the British public to self-help books:

the self-help publishing phenomenon divides the nation. Either you do, in which case, you really, really do (statistics suggest that even the most standard issue self-help disciple owns an average of 12 help books); or you don’t, in which case you are perpetually backing away from friends who offer up dog-eared copies of Deepak Chopra or M Scott Peck, with feverish glints in their eyes, promising ‘It’ll change your life, like it did mine.’

Borges’ books are up for auction. Darice points me to Neil Gaiman, who says the auction “seems more like a Borgesian metafiction than it has any right to be in real life. I keep wondering whether there are any non-existent books listed.”