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On Novels and Novelists

E. L. Doctorow, The Art of Fiction No. 94

Novelist E.L. Doctorow, who died recently, participated in this interview with George Plimpton that was published in the winter 1986 issue of The Paris Review.

Here’s a quotation from Doctorow that I particularly like:

One of the things I had to learn as a writer was to trust the act of writing. To put myself in the position of writing to find out what I was writing… . The inventions of the book come as discoveries. At a certain point, of course, you figure out what your premises are and what you’re doing. But certainly, with the beginnings of the work, you really don’t know what’s going to happen.

Read the interview to learn how the oral history movement influenced Doctorow’s presentation of the protagonist in World’s Fair, how staring at the wall of his study lead him to the topic of Ragtime, and how he feels about the sufferings of writers.

The interview was held in front of a live audience at the 92nd Street YMHA in New York City. This transcript ends with questions asked by members of the audience.

Portlander Ursula K. Le Guin is Breathing Fire to Save American Literature

For more than 50 years now, Le Guin has used incisive critical writing and visionary, psychologically rich fiction to challenge orthodox beliefs—about gender, politics, religion, art—and generally emerged victorious. Far from mellowing her, age has only deepened her willingness to angle after the biggest fish in the pond.

Taylor Clark piece for Portland Monthly magazine features Portland, OR, writer Ursula K. Le Guin, whom Taylor characterizes as “indisputably a Portland writer, perhaps the Portland writer.” Born in Berkeley, where she attended high school with Philip K. Dick, she moved to Portland with her husband in 1958 when he took a position at Portland State University. She wrote a lot while her children were small but without much success. But in the mid 1960s she began a career of publications that “radically broadened our conception of what science fiction could do.”

In works like her 1969 breakthrough novel The Left Hand of Darkness and the “great, transfixing masterpiece, 1974’s The Dispossessed,” Le Guin “relentlessly turned sci-fi’s trappings into innovative new avenues to plumb deeper human conflicts.” But she has written in many other genres as well: poetry, children’s books, mainstream fiction, criticism, translations, and essays.

Read the article to find out why, today, Le Guin’s main concern is the treatment of literature as a commodity rather than as a form of art.

The Strange, Unsettling Fiction of James Purdy

Unsparing, ambiguous, violent, and largely indifferent to the reader’s needs, Purdy’s fiction seems likely to remain an acquired taste. But it is a taste worth acquiring.

Writing in The New Yorker, Jon Michaud discusses the fiction of James Purdy (1914–2009). Here’s why Purdy’s fiction is an acquired taste:

In his novels and short fiction, possibility and potential are always compromised. There is neither transcendence nor transformation. His characters do not grow or develop; they dwindle and unravel. Purdy saw Hawthorne and Melville, “two other Calvinists,” as his literary antecedents, and it is not hard to interpret some of Purdy’s protagonists as latter-day incarnations of Billy Budd and Young Goodman Brown: guileless innocents abused by the world’s depraved sinners.

Nonetheless, publisher Liveright last year released a collection of Purdy’s short stories, and this year they are republishing three of his novels, including Eustace Chisholm [and the Works], which, according to Michaud, “is probably the peak of Purdy’s career, the book of his to read if you’re only going to read one.”

Jason Segel: Reading David Foster Wallace was ‘one of the best experiences of my life’

An interview with actor Jason Segel, who plays the late author David Foster Wallace in the movie “The End of the Tour.”

The film The End of the Tour is a dramatization of Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky’s five days spent with writer David Foster Wallace at the end of Wallace’s book tour promoting his novel Infinite Jest. Wallace, who struggled for many years with depression, took his own life at age 46.

When actor Jason Segel read the screenplay for the film, he thought he didn’t have a chance at getting the part. But director James Ponsoldt wanted an actor who could portray Wallace’s humor, and he found in Segel a “thoughtful actor who understood comedy.”

Segel then began his own tour of Wallace’s works. He watched the tapes of Lipsky’s interviews with Wallace and read Wallace’s essays. But for Wallace’s masterpiece, the tome Infinite Jest, Segel formed a book club:

“We did 100 pages a week,” Segel remembered, smiling. “It was one of the best experiences of my life.” The vast, experimental and thoroughly literary novel “is the most personal of [Wallace’s] works — he’s every one of the characters.” Segel described it as exploring themes of “pleasure, entertainment, achievement. It was David Foster Wallace trying to express a very fundamental crisis — we’ve been told that these things will satisfy us.”

“I hope the movie is an extension of the themes that he [Wallace] expressed,” Segel said. “It was approached with a lot of empathy and love.”

Lisbeth Salander is back: first plot details of The Girl in the Spider’s Web released

There’s good news for fans of Lisbeth Salander, the unstoppable hacker featured in the books known as Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. With the blessing of Larsson’s family, and despite criticism from his long-time partner Eva Gabrielsson, Swedish writer David Lagercrantz has finished the partial fourth novel in the series left on Larsson’s laptop at the time of his sudden death.

Scheduled to be released on August 27, the book’s title is The Girl in the Spider’s Web. Recently the book’s Swedish publisher, MacLehose Press, released what it called “key details” in the novel’s plot. It would be unfair of me to steal  The Guardian’s thunder, so I’ll only quote here that the book features a “criminal conspiracy [that] will very soon bring terror to the snowbound streets of Stockholm, to the Millennium team – and to Blomkvist and Salander themselves.”

Click that link and read the (little) further description of the book whose storyline has been a carefully guarded secret.

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On Novels and Novelists

How the Modern Detective Novel Was Born

Cover: The Golden Age of MurderHere Martin Edwards, author of the new book The Golden Age of Murder: The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story, gives a concise history of the development of the modern detective novel. Authors he discusses include the following: Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesterton, E.C. Bentley, Agatha Christie, Freeman Wills Crofts, G.D.H. Cole, Henry Wade, Ed McBain, Anthony Berkeley, Patricia Highsith, Margaret Millar, Ruth Rendell, Sophie Hannah, Dorothy L. Sayers, and J.K. Rowling (writing as Robert Galbraith).

Edwards places the detective novel within the changing social, historical, and cultural characteristics of its development and argues:

Golden Age novels reflected the times during which they were written. Inevitably, many of the attitudes on display are different from those of the twenty-first century. But for too long, even the best of these books have suffered unfairly from critical prejudice. Hugely enjoyable in their own right, they give a fascinating insight into a vanished world. What is more, they set the pattern for crime fiction for decades to come. The time is ripe to rediscover the Golden Age of Murder.

When Did Books Get So Freaking Enormous? The Year of the Very Long Novel

In an article from last month Boris Kachka admits “it’s tempting to proclaim this the era of the Very Long Novel (VLN).” The classic example of the recent VLN era is David Foster Wallace’s 1,079-page opus Infinite Jest, published in 1996. As more recent examples of such tomes he cites Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. Another illustration of this trend is the current emphasis on series works such as the Harry Potter collection and Game of Thrones.

Yet long books are really nothing new, Kachka points out (think Eliot’s Middlemarch and Tolstoy’s The Brothers Karamazov). Here’s one possible explanation for the current crop of VLNs:

“People seem to be seeking wholly immersive experiences,” says Knopf publicity director Paul Bogaards. “They’re binge-watching, they’re cooking from scratch, going on ecotours. And there’s no more immersive experience than reading a good long book.”

Another possible explanation is the concept of “_World-building_, a term once exclusive to physicists and game designers, [that] is now on the tip of every book publicist’s tongue.” Bigger books create bigger worlds. Both individual VLNs and series VLNs parallel the growing obsession with binge-watching multiple episodes of television series and online-created content.

This whole discussion reminds me of a scene from the film Amadeus, about the life of Mozart. When someone criticizes the composer for using too many notes, he asks, “Exactly which notes would you have me leave out?”

I don’t mind long books. In fact, I read eagerly through The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, enthralled until the very last word. What I don’t like is a long book that’s longer than it needs to be. I thought Moo, Jane Smiley’s satirical take on the small world of land-grant academia, should have been cut by about one-third.

What about you? Do you like to read long books? Are there any VLNs that you’ve particularly liked or hated? Let us know in the comments section.

Can Reading Make You Happier?

Novelist Ceridwen Dovey describes personal experience with bibliotherapy, or reading by prescription. Initially skeptical, Dovey discovered:

The insights themselves are still nebulous, as learning gained through reading fiction often is—but therein lies its power. In a secular age, I suspect that reading fiction is one of the few remaining paths to transcendence, that elusive state in which the distance between the self and the universe shrinks. Reading fiction makes me lose all sense of self, but at the same time makes me feel most uniquely myself.

Along the way Dovey provides a short history of bibliotherapy:

The practice came into its own at the end of the nineteenth century, when Sigmund Freud began using literature during psychoanalysis sessions. After the First World War, traumatized soldiers returning home from the front were often prescribed a course of reading… . Later in the century, bibliotherapy was used in varying ways in hospitals and libraries, and has more recently been taken up by psychologists, social and aged-care workers, and doctors as a viable mode of therapy.

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And here are a couple of lists of reading recommendations, if either of these topics grabs you.

10 Books to Read If You’re Not Traveling This Summer

Writer Emma Straub’s most recent novel, The Vacationers, is set in Mallorca. Because a “good book is the cheapest form of transportation there is,” Straub here recommends some books you can read if you’re not traveling this summer—or even if you are.

10. In the Woods by Tana French

9. The Fun of It, Stories from the Talk of the Town edited by Lillian Ross

8. Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link

7. Savage Beauty by Nancy Milford

6. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

5. The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

4. Going Clear by Lawrence Wright

3. Arcadia by Lauren Groff

2. The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst

1. Bad Marie by Marcy Dermansky

About Straub’s 10th pick, In the Woods by Tana French: This is the first book in what is known as French’s Dublin Murder Series. I did not particularly like it and almost didn’t read the subsequent novels. But a good review for the second book in the series made me give it a try, and I’ve read the rest and like them all. These books are related in that each one focuses on a different character of a Dublin murder squad, but each book is self-contained and can be read on its own.

10 Best Noir Novels

I like noir novels as much as the next reader, so I was surprised that I had never even heard of any of these books. Read why Ken Bruen, whose own most recent noir novel is _Green Hell-, singles out these titles:

10. Dark Passage by David Goodis

9. Sing a Song of Homicide by James R. Langham

8. Cold Caller by Jason Starr

7. The Lucky Stiff by Craig Rice

6. A Swollen Red Sun by Matthew McBride

5. The Shark-Infested Custard by Charles Willeford

4. He Died with His Eyes Open by Derek Raymond

3. The Fever Kill by Tom Piccirilli

2. The Whisperer by Donato Carrisi

1. Killing Suki Flood by Rob Leininger