Saturday, November 27, 2010

List Readers, List Makers

If you’ve read any of these blog entries you are already aware that I’m a big fan of lists, probably because, like writing on this blog, list-making is a form of writing that’s just another form of not-writing, procrastination, a thing I put between myself and the real work.

I’m writing now in praise of the New York Times list of notable books of the year. In a year in which half the internet articles I read are about the “end of publishing,” which is nearly the same argument as the death of the novel that we’ve been hearing about for about fifty years, which is nearly the same as Nietzche’s famous utterance about God, the point being: Hello? None of these things are dead. The other half of the internet stuff I read, by the way, is devoted to arguing that MFA programs are “ponzi schemes,” or some variation thereof. Tired stuff.

Okay, The Times list: it’s wonderful. Terrific books were published in 2010. The only two of the one hundred listed that I read were The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell and The Same River Twice by Ted Mooney. Both are writers whose work I have always loved and both were completely absorbing. The Mitchell was astonishingly good. Every page was a work of art.

I do plan to read the new Franzen and the list reminds me that I want to read Jennifer Egan’s, A Visit from the Goon Squad.

The list also exposes gaps in my review reading; I missed even knowing about Charles Yu’s How to Live in Science Fictional Universe and David Goodwillie’s American Subversive. And, Per Patterson is on the list with a new book, reminding me to read his earlier Out Stealing Horses first. Ditto: Nicole Krauss: read her first one, then this new one, Great House. Anthony Doerr has a new book, too. Antonya Nelson. It’s hard to keep up.

Only two of the books feature Nazis; three are set in the Viet Nam war.

It’s interesting that poetry and fiction are here linked together in the same list, when poetry is often (wrongly) presumed to be a form of nonfiction. I suppose it’s an aesthetic linking, but that’s not right either, is it? That presumes nonfiction is less artful than fiction and that’s not always the case. So, there are among the fifty fiction and poetry selections: three poetry titles. Three. And since two of them are Edward Hirsch and Derek Walcott, both of whom are already institutions unto themselves, I will keep a sharp eye out for the third, Lisa Robertson, of whom I’ve never heard whose book is engagingly titled Lisa Robertson's Magenta Soul Whip.

In the nonfiction list: lots to be interested in. I probably won’t read the Rebecca Skloot: it feels so slickly “packaged,” I have the impression, somehow, that “the fix is in.” My loss, probably. I’ve also decided to not read Keith Richards' book, even though I’m curious. I read a terrific review of it in Dan Nadel‘s culture blog in the Paris Review Daily Blog. In a couple sentence summary, he’s convinced me to instead read Jimmy McDonough’s book about Neil Young, Shakey.

Nadel, by the way, is completely engaging in these “reports.” And I had never even heard of him before.

It’s a curious omission that in the list of fifty nonfiction books, Patti Smith’s, Just Kids can’t make the cut, even though it won the National Book Award.

For a list of lists. Check out:

The largeheartedboy seems not to identify himself any more specifically on his blog.

Finally, I find the list very heartening, and yet another thing for which I am thankful, even though it omitted Solomon's Oak, by Jo-Ann Mapson, one of the best books I read in 2010.

Literature, books, publishing are all wildly alive. As ever.

(Bonus video for those who scrolled down this far!)

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Notes on: "Overnight Sensations and 'You Can’t Hurry Love'"

“Overnight Sensations and “You Can’t Hurry Love” was the slapdash title of a talk I gave to the Alaska Writers Guild last week. My original intention was to turn the whole talk into a posting here, and perhaps I will do that yet, only it would be about four postings. The title refers first to that feeling we sometimes have (if I may presume a collective we, thank-you) when some unknown person, often young, becomes famous, overnight (as it were). On closer look, I have noticed that almost none of them acquired their fame (fleeting anyway, right?) overnight, but were often extraordinary people , working quietly in the trenches. Sometimes, of course, luck is involved, but luck is usually earned, too. The second half of my title “You Can’t Hurry Love” has simply been a writing mantra of mine for years and it comes to me from my adolescence in Detroit, from Diana Ross and the Supremes. It means a piece of writing is going to take you as long as you need to take to get it right. It will unfold in its own time, if you work steadily at it. Those were the two touchstones of the talk, which was then peppered liberally with historical literary examples in support, such as this line from Jim Harrison's introduction to the paintings of his friend, Russell Chatham: "To be an artist is to be a member of a ten-thousand-year old guild, not a competitor in a horse race." I've always taken that line to heart, notwithstanding that Harrison seems now to be writing a book almost yearly.

I suppose, if the talk had a subtitle it would have been something like, “A rationalization (confession) for why I work so damned slowly.” I’m a little over it now, the talk.

What I wanted to say here was something about the way I was introduced at the talk. Dave Brown, who did the introduction, asked, very reasonably, who are my favorite writers. Why is it that I am always surprised by that most logical of questions? And that I never want to commit an answer to it? I told him I would be likely to answer that question differently every time I was asked.

But when I thought more about it, I decided that the criteria ought to be the same for the answer to this question: “Which writers do I own very book they’ve written? Which ones do I go out and buy immediately? To how many am I thusly devoted?”

And so I answered him: Jim Harrison, David Mitchell, and Kem Nunn. And, without elaboration, now, I can stand by those three. Some time later I realized that, by that criteria, there are at least twenty more writers on the list. Some of the books I have not read, but intend to do so. When W. G. Sebald died, for example, I stopped reading him. I wanted to parcel out his unread works to myself over time, knowing that their number is fixed. I have all of Richard Powers books, and have been “collecting” them from the very beginning of his career. But I confess that I have only read the two most recent, The Echo Maker and Generosity. I loved them as I somehow knew I would. Now, I have only to decide in what order to read the remaining volumes.

What unread book would I most regret not having read, were that to be my last thought as I die? I have to figure that out now and read that book next. Ars longa, vita brevis.