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.

On Novels and Novelists

The ghostwriter, the secret plot and a ‘grave-robbing’ Stieg Larsson sequel

You may remember that Swedish author Stieg Larsson dropped dead shortly after delivering the manuscript of the third novel in what has come to be called his Millennium trilogy. His long-time live-in companion, Eva Gabrielsson, said that his laptop contained a nearly completed manuscript of a fourth book in the series. She and Larsson’s family fought in the courts over possession of the laptop and its contents, but because Gabrielsson and Larsson were never married, his family got the prize.

Now comes word that the official launch of the fourth book, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, will take place on August 27. (The Swedish title of the novel translates as That Which Doesn’t Kill Us.) The book has been written by Swedish author David Lagercrantz. Gabrielsson isn’t happy about the takeover of Larsson’s work:

“This is just business, because you know the publisher has been in financial crisis for a couple of years,” she says. “It’s all a question of money.”

Swedish publisher Norstedts is going to great lengths to keep the contents of the book a secret. Lagercrantz and the many translators all worked on laptop computers not connected to the internet, and the publisher is not issuing any advance copies. Critics and ordinary readers alike will have to wait until the official release date to find our what’s new in the life of Lisbeth Salander.

Every Grateful Dead Song Annotated in Hypertext: Web Project Reveals the Deep Literary Foundations of the Dead’s Lyrics

The online annotated Grateful Dead also includes “Thematic Essays,” a bibliography and “bibliography of songbooks,” films and videos, and discographies for the band and each core member. There may be no more exhaustive a reference for the band’s output contained all in one place, though readers of this post may know of comparable guides in the vast sea of Grateful Dead commentary and compendiums online, in print, and on tape… . the proliferating, serious study of their songcraft and lyrical genius shows us that they will, indeed, survive.

11 Science Fiction Books That Are Regularly Taught in College Classes

“College professors often reach for classic science fiction when they’re planning classes on literature, society or philosophy.”

The texts students are likely to find listed on their course syllabi include the following:

  1. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  2. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  3. Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler
  4. Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
  5. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  6. A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
  7. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
  8. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  9. Dhalgren by Samuel Delany
  10. 1984 by George Orwell
  11. Neuromancer by William Gibson

I read Brave New World and 1984 in college and Frankenstein in graduate school. A few others I’ve read on my own: Slaughterhouse Five, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Neuromancer.

How many of these books have you read, either for a course or on your own?

Children’s classic ‘Watership Down’ is based on real science

Richard Adams’s famous novel Watership Down came along well after I was an adult, and I have yet to read it, although it’s on my Classics Club reading list. But I found it interesting that Richard Adams did not make everything up.

Rather, Adams based his novel on research done in Wales by Ronald Lockley in the 1950s. Concerned about the spread of a rabbit disease called myxomatosis, the British Nature Conservancy sponsored research into the life of rabbits. Lockley watched and recorded the behavior of rabbits living in a warren behind a glass window. Lockley published his findings first in a scientific journal, the Journal of Animal Ecology, in 1961. He then expanded the work into a book, The Private Life of the Rabbit, published in 1964.

Adams based much of his rabbit society on Lockley’s book, although the novel includes some anthropomorphization not supported by Lockley’s study. But Adams consulted Lockley, and the two became friends.

Doyenne or Jezebel, Ireland’s Edna O’Brien Is a Master

Lucy Scholes describes Irish author Edna O’Brien as “an astute chronicler of female interiority.” O’Brien’s first novel, The Country Girls, was first published in 1960. But the focus of this article is O’Brien’s recently published The Love Object, a collection of 31 short stories that span her career.

According to Scholes, many of the female characters in these stories “are alienated due to a deep sense of unfulfillment, sacrificed to marriage or motherhood.” And “Many of the stories hinge on similar moments of realization that silently shake the very foundations of their subjects’ worlds.” Overall:

One of the wonderful things about The Love Object is how one can trace the developments in O’Brien’s career through its pages, watching the subtle shift between these earlier narratives of female experience and her later work that addresses the broader issues of Irish history and politics.

I keep discovering new authors whose works I’d like to read. So many books, so little time…

On Novels and Novelists

7 Book Franchises We Really Need To Say Goodbye To

Claire Fallon writes in the Huffington Post:

Let’s be honest: Too many series and franchises are reworked and rebooted until there’s simply no life left in them. As much as fans may clamor to spend more money on another Dune book, for example, they’re more likely than not going to be disappointed by the lackluster result, which only serves to taint the otherwise acclaimed series. We need to learn to say goodbye before we’re entirely ready, instead of waiting until a brand has fully worn out its welcome.

Here are the seven series she lists:

  1. The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
  2. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
  3. The James Bond series by Ian Fleming
  4. The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner
  5. The Millennium trilogy by Stieg Larsson
  6. Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
  7. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

A quick reading of the comments suggests that many people misunderstood the point of this article. Several commenters list books and series that they say are awful. Some of the authors mentioned are Tom Clancy, Robert B. Parker, and Lee Child.

But I don’t think Fallon is writing about books that shouldn’t have been written in the first place. I think she’s concerned about books and series that have become so beloved by readers that it’s painful to watch someone else—some lesser writer—keep on writing inferior additions to the set. At least that’s how I feel about franchises such as Harry Potter, the Millennium trilogy, Little House, and Hitchhiker’s Guide.

How about you?

The Wachowskis’ Sense8 Is the Philip K. Dick Adaptation We Always Wanted

Here’s another long read, and I have to admit that much of it is way over my head for now. Bram E. Gieben looks at the Netflix Original series Sense8 in relation to the work of author Philip K. Dick and series creators the Wachowskis and J. Michael Straczynski:

The ‘mind-melds’ (lets just call them that) which the characters experience begin to fracture their reality. This is in itself a Phildickian trope, but this ‘reality breakdown’—often the principle focus of a PKD novel—is not a key focus here. Rather, the series is full of scenes where characters listen to each other, and share their stories. This is the way in which the show deals with empathy—and yet, this is where Sense8 is at its most Phildickian. This also accounts for the erratic pacing. The Wachowskis have chosen to show empathy at work, rather than just divesting the story of these ‘emotional’ tropes, and focusing on the game of cat-and-mouse the protagonists are forced to play with a shadowy, quasi-governmental agency (as they would in most flawed Dick movie adaptations, from Total Recall to Minority Report).

I include this piece because it prompted me to add Sense8 to my Netflix list. The next long weekend that comes up I hope to spend watching several episodes of the series to see if I can make sense of them.

Care to join me?

13 Children’s Book Authors Who Would Have Written Beautiful Fiction For Adults Too

Riffing on Judy Blume’s new novel for adults, In the Unlikely Event, Katherine Brooks lists 13 authors she thinks would have written good fiction for adults:

After all, according to a 2012 study conducted by Bowker Market Research, 55 percent of the people buying fiction geared toward young adults are, actually, just adults. And they’re, actually, reading the books for themselves.

See why Brooks wishes these 13 authors had written fiction for adults:

  1. Beverly Cleary
  2. Walter Dean Myers
  3. Zilpha Keatley Snyder
  4. Katherine Paterson
  5. Mary Pope Osborne
  6. Gail Carson Levine
  7. Maurice Sendak
  8. Madeleine L’Engle
  9. Ellen Raskin
  10. Chris Van Allsburg
  11. and 12. Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire
  12. Lois Lowry

Brooks also lists as runners-up S. E. Hinton and E. L. Konigsburg.

How To Read A Bad Book By A Great Author

“What do we make of a bad book, written late-career, by an acclaimed author?” asks Colton Valentine, who moves on to discuss Milan Kundera’s recent novel, The Festival of Insignificance. According to Valentine, critics almost universally have described this novel as “out-of-touch, sexist, and, worst of all, banal.”

But, Valentine argues, late-career novels such as this must be approached not in isolation, but in the context of everything the author has written before. In particular, Valentine makes sense of Festival of Insignificance by comparing it with what Kundera had to say in his best known novel, 1984’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

And this is the approach we should take to the upcoming publication of Harper Lee’s second novel:

In a few weeks, Harper Lee will release Go Set a Watchman, a book that will inevitably fail to live up to its predecessor but that need not be written off. Broadening our mindset – fitting the novel into a larger textual legacy – may not redeem it. But that mindset can, at least, provide a stimulating exercise, a more productive and respectful way to think about the late works of the greats.

Monday Miscellany

Yes, there were stories in the news this past week other than the U. S. election.

Author Philip Roth says he is done with writing

Philip Roth
(ERIC THAYER, REUTERS / October 5, 2010)

An icon—or iconoclast, depending on your point of view—of American literature casually announced that he won’t be writing any more books. He admitted to a French magazine that he hasn’t written for 3 years.

Philip Roth won a Pulitzer Prize for the novel American Pastoral. He won the National Book Award in 1960 for the novella”Goodbye, Columbus,” which was published along with several other novellas, and again in 1995 for Sabbath’s Theater.

James Bond: Four writers carry forward Ian Fleming’s spy legacy

“You Only Live Twice” isn’t just the name of one of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels (and the movie it spawned). It’s also turned out to be a fitting description of Fleming’s legacy. Not only does Fleming’s most famous creation live on nearly 50 years after his death — the latest Bond flick, “Skyfall,” hit theaters Friday — but Fleming’s unique brand of international intrigue continues to influence today’s thriller writers.

In Hero Complex the Los Angeles Times describes 4 writers who “acknowledge their debt to Fleming and his sexy, high-stakes take on the thriller”:

  • Jeremy Duns
  • Barry Eisler
  • Gayle Lynds
  • Brett Battles

Everything Comes to an End

On November 9th of 2004, Stieg Larsson — journalist and author of the posthumously published Millennium series of novels, the first of which was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — passed away after suffering a heart attack. He was 50-years-old. The next month, Stieg’s long-term partner, Eva Gabrielsson, found the following letter amongst his belongings, marked “To be opened only after my death,” and written prior to a trip to Africa in 1977 when he was just 22.

Letters of Note reproduces the letter from Gabrielsson’s book “There Are Things I Want You to Know” About Stieg Larsson and Me.

Five Winter Reads

Summer reading lists get all the attention, but with the days getting shorter and the nights getting colder you’ll need something to crack open fireside, that cozy Afghan wrapped around your legs, the warmth of your hot toddy working your bloodstream like a magician working a Vegas showroom.

Read why Brandon Bye recommends these 5 books:

  • “The Overcoat” by Nikolai Gogol
  • “To Build a Fire” by Jack London
  • “Snow” by Ann Beattie
  • Canada by Richard Ford
  • Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen

The United States of YA

Read your way across the United States with this list of young adults novels, one for each of the 50 states.

Over It: Bookish Conversations We Never Want to Have Again

 We usually keep things pretty positive here at the Riot, but after many years of life in the bookish interweb, we’ve identified some conversations that just keep coming back up. And we’re ready to put an end to them. So pull on your crankypants, kids, and join editors Rebecca and Jeff for a good old-fashioned Airing of Grievances.

If you follow the literary world at all (and I assume you do if you’re here right now), you’ll probably find some of your own pet peeves here on Book Riot’s list.