Flannery O’Connor: The novel is way to have experience

People without hope not only don’t write novels, but what is more to the point, they don’t read them. They don’t take long looks at anything, because they lack the courage. The way to despair is to refuse to have any kind of experience, and the novel, of course, is a way to have experience.

Flannery O’Connor (via)

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Quote of the Day

If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.

Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood

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Why the novel will survive the disappearance of the book

Media evolution, of course, does claim casualties. But most often, these are means of distribution or storage, especially physical ones that can be transformed into digital bits. Photographic film is supplanted, but people take more pictures than ever. CD’s no longer dominate, as music is more and more distributed online. “Books, magazines and newspapers are next,” predicts Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the M.I.T. Media Lab. “Text is not going away, nor is reading. Paper is going away.”

New York Times, 8.22.10

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Book lust


Penguin Classics will publish new editions of six major works by F. Scott Fitzgerald in gorgeous new designs by Coralie Bickford-Smith. Want. More information here.


DeLillo: “The writer leads”

“The novel is whatever novelists are doing at a given time. If we’re not doing the big social novel fifteen years from now, it’ll probably mean our sensibilities have changed in ways that make such work less compelling to us — we won’t stop because the market dried up. The writer leads, he doesn’t follow. The dynamic lives in the writer’s mind, not in the size of the audience. And if the social novel lives, but only barely, surviving in the cracks and ruts of the culture, maybe it will be taken more seriously, as an endangered spectacle. A reduced context but a more intense one.… Writing is a form of personal freedom. It frees us from the mass identity we see in the making all around us. In the end, writers will write not to be outlaw heroes of some underculture but mainly to save themselves, to survive as individuals.”

— Don DeLillo, in a letter to Jonathan Franzen, around 1997

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A note from Barack Obama

Canadian author Yann Martel received this note from President Obama, out of the blue, about his novel Life of Pi. (Full story here. Larger image here. Via.) Canada’s own prime minister, on the other hand, “sounds and governs like one who cares little for the arts,” Martel writes, speculating that the prime minister may feel he is too busy.

To read a book, one must be still. To watch a concert, a play, a movie, to look at a painting, one must be still. Religion, too, makes use of stillness, notably with prayer and meditation. Just gazing upon a still lake, upon a quiet winter scene — doesn’t that lull us into contemplation? Life, it seems, favours moments of stillness to appear on the edges of our perception and whisper to us, “Here I am. What do you think?” Then we become busy and the stillness vanishes, yet we hardly notice because we fall so easily for the delusion of busyness, whereby what keeps us busy must be important, and the busier we are with it, the more important it must be. And so we work, work, work, rush, rush, rush. On occasion we say to ourselves, panting, “Gosh, life is racing by.” But that’s not it at all, it’s the contrary: life is still. It is we who are racing by.

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Gorgeous Borges

Borges cover

From the latest round of Penguin’s Great Ideas series, a sumptuous cover for a collection of essays by Jorge Luis Borges. It’s enough to make a writer green with envy. Design by We Made This, a graphic design studio in London (with a lovely blog, too). More about the Borges cover is here. Still, my favorite of the Great Ideas covers remains this one.

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How James Bond Got His Name

Ian Fleming explains.

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Circadian Novels

Novels that take place in a single day, of which Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925) are the Adam and Eve, are apparently called “circadian novels.” I have never heard the term before, but I’m happy to learn it today via novelist James Hynes’s wonderful blog. Hynes links to a very smart article about “circadian novels” by Jim Higgins. The Guardian also has a list of the ten best. Hynes’s own new novel, Next, follows the day-in-the-life formula. I can’t wait to read it — as soon as I get my own damn novel wrapped up and emailed off to my editor.

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R.I.P. Inkwell Bookstore

Another one bites the dust: the wonderful Inkwell Bookstore, an indie in Falmouth, Massachusetts, the Cape Cod town I have been visiting in summer for 35 years or so, has closed. I will miss it.

If you have a favorite independent bookstore, support it!

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A Face Behind the Page

“When one reads any strongly individual piece of writing, one has the impression of seeing a face somewhere behind the page.”

— George Orwell, “Charles Dickens”

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The MFA Generation

It is hard to imagine a living American novelist writing a passage like the last four paragraphs of The Great Gatsby, summoning up the “fresh, green breast of the new world.” American novelists by and large do not identify with ordinary Americans any longer, nor with the American dream (“the last and greatest of all human dreams”), but with their intellectual class — the people with whom they went to school, whose minds are furnished with the same authorities and assumptions, who share a similar understanding of the world.… And thus the American novel, once a lively voice in the national debate to specify the American idea, has devolved into the voice of a homogeneous intellectual class.

D. G. Myers on what he has elsewhere called “the emergence of a literary generation whose experience is limited to creative writing.”

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The Pleasures of Imagination

Our main leisure activity is, by a long shot, participating in experiences that we know are not real. When we are free to do whatever we want, we retreat to the imagination — to worlds created by others, as with books, movies, video games, and television (over four hours a day for the average American), or to worlds we ourselves create, as when daydreaming and fantasizing. While citizens of other countries might watch less television, studies in England and the rest of Europe find a similar obsession with the unreal.…

Why do we get pleasure from the imagination? Isn’t it odd that toddlers enjoy pretense, and that children and adults are moved by stories, that we have feelings about characters and events that we know do not exist? As the title of a classic philosophy article put it, how can we be moved by the fate of Anna Karenina?

— Paul Bloom, “The Pleasures of Imagination”

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The Mystery Writer’s Dilemma

“Hugger-mugger takes a lot of explaining, a lot of diagramming. An additional trouble with it, which keeps the suspense thriller, however skillful and polished, a subgenre, is that the novelist, manipulating his human counters on the board, must keep them somewhat blank, with selective disclosure of their inner lives, lest the killer or mole or whatever be prematurely unmasked.”

— John Updike, “Hugger-Mugger”, The New Yorker, 9.18.06, reviewing le Carré’s novel The Mission Song.

The more you know about a character, the less mystery remains. The less you know about a character, the less believably human he seems. In technical terms, literature requires “round” characters, mystery requires “flat” ones. The trick is to square that circle somehow.

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Sven Birkerts: “the Internet and the novel are opposites”

Sven Birkerts on reading in a digital age in which “the novel is the vital antidote to the mentality that the Internet promotes”:

We always hear arguments about how the original time-passing function of the triple-decker novel has been rendered obsolete by competing media. What we hear less is the idea that the novel serves and embodies a certain interior pace, and that this has been shouted down (but not eliminated) by the transformations of modern life.

The essay takes a while to find its feet, in part because Birkerts seems to be thinking through the problem as he writes, but also because the subject is so damn complicated — how do we read novels now, and why bother?

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Novels like letters

“A novel, like a letter, should be loose, cover much ground, run swiftly, take risk of mortality and decay.”

— Saul Bellow, letter to Bernard Malamud (1953)

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Is an ebook still a book?

When a printed book is transferred to an electronic device connected to the Internet, it turns into something very like a Web site.

— Nicholas Carr, “The Post-Book Book,” quoting his own upcoming book The Shallows

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Can a writer quit?


… our tendency to view writing as a sort of an existential vocation, rather than a job, gets in the way of our ability to grasp that a person who writes one or two (or even five) books at one stage of his life ought not to be constantly asked when their next is coming out — because maybe they’ve turned to a new focus for their life’s work and the real answer is that they’re no longer a writer. Publishing pundits seem convinced that Salinger was sitting on a treasure trove of new work in his run-down New Hampshire home … But the evidence seems limited, in light of Salinger’s noted reluctance to share his work with anyone. Yet we continued to live and hope that something would turn up — because it’s easier to pursue false hopes and prolong fandom, than to avoid entertaining the possibility that he simply wasn’t especially interested in writing — or publishing — any more.

— Jean Hannah Edelstein, Guardian Books Blog, “Once a Writer, Always a Writer?”

Image: Salinger in 1951.

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Will e-novels be shorter?

Ephraim Rubenstein - Still Life With Burned Books

A few weeks ago, over on Crooked Timber, Henry Farrell wrote a post that I’ve been thinking about ever since.

I would estimate that about 80% of the non-academic non-fiction books that I do not find a complete waste of time (i.e. good books in politics, economics etc — I can’t speak to genres that I don’t know) are at least twice as long as they should be. They make an interesting point, and then they make it again, and again, padding it out with some quasi-relevant examples, and tacking on a conclusion about What It All Means which the author clearly doesn’t believe herself. The length of the average book reflects the economics of the print trade and educated guesses as to what book-buyers will actually pay for, much more than it does the actual intellectual content of the book itself. Length may also, of course, reflect some practical judgments concerning the book as a display object.

He went on to predict “an explosion in the number of very short books/essays” as we move to a world of electronic publishing, because buyers will not be put off by shorter books when they can’t actually see (or display) them as physical objects.

I hope he is right, of course. The extinction of padded-out nonfiction books would be good news for everyone, except maybe Malcolm Gladwell.

But what struck me most about the post was how rare it is to see a discussion of how this new medium will affect books themselves. The conversation about ebooks is obsessed with the business of publishing. Which traditional publishers will survive, which won’t? Which reader will dominate, iPad or Kindle or something else? How will authors get by when publishers’ margins approach zero, as resellers like Amazon drive down prices and tent-pole authors find they don’t need traditional publishing houses at all? In all this, relatively little is said about the books.

What about fiction? In a world of ebooks, will fiction shrink, too?

I think it will, but not for the same reason. Unlike nonfiction, which begins to feel overstretched when there are more pages than ideas, there is no “natural” length for a story. Moby Dick and The Great Gatsby are equally masterpieces, of unequal length. I just finished Wolf Hall, a cinderblock of a book, but it did not feel overlong at all. If anything, it ended too soon. (I raved about it here.) The test is whether a story works dramatically. Even a very short story can feel too long.

And that is what will force novels to shrink: as we increasingly move to reading on screens, everything begins to feel too long. The reading public is losing its ability to stay focused on a longer text. Online, readers are conditioned to graze, to nibble and move on. Even the verbs we use for reading on the internet, browse, surf, suggest how superficial the experience feels. These increasingly are our readers, of fiction and nonfiction alike: harried, restless, impatient.

Worse, ebooks will increasingly share the same screens as the rest of the digital tsunami. No longer will you turn off your computer and open a book in peace. The iPad and whatever is likely to follow will be fully web-enabled, so the whole Times Square of the internet will always be one click away. For the moment, dedicated ebook-reading devices like the Kindle offer a quieter reading environment, but that is likely to change as more versatile devices like the iPad enter the market.

I have seen my own patience for long books begin to shrivel. So many novels now seem to drag, particularly in the second act. To be fair, part of it may be other pressures: between two young kids and working, I am squeezed for time. But part of it is the distracted feeling we all share today. It is the way we read now.

I have begun to tune my own writing accordingly. I made a conscious decision to make my third novel shorter than my first two by about 20%. Most of the tightening is in that critical second act, where the pace tends to slow down and the plot often wanders, to no real purpose. I am keenly aware that this novel will be competing with an array of new media and that my hold on the reader’s attention is precarious, and it scares the hell out of me. My competition  is not other novelists; it is all the other media crowding onto my readers’ screens and into their minds, try as they might to shut them out. I simply can’t afford to shuffle my feet for a hundred pages and expect the reader to still be there for act three.

Of course, there is nothing new about novelists shaping their work to the tastes of contemporary audiences. Dickens’ novels are long and intricately plotted because that was what his audience demanded. He generally wrote for serial publication in periodicals, so his stories had to extend and ramify over very long periods, like modern TV series. (HBO’s “The Wire” was often compared to Dickens’ stories, and rightly so.) Serial publication also allowed Dickens to monitor how his books were being received and tweak them as he went along to give readers what they wanted.

It is hard to give readers what they want, of course, because it is impossible to know what they want. But I suspect that shorter novels will increasingly become the norm, just as shorter nonfiction will. This, it should be noted, is a hopeful prediction. Better that novels go on a diet than die out altogether.

Image: “Still Life With Burned Books” by Ephraim Rubenstein (oil on linen, 38″ x 50″).

Dr. Johnson: Libraries and “the vanity of human hopes”

“No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes than a public library; for who can see the wall crowded on every side by mighty volumes, the works of laborious meditations and accurate inquiry, now scarcely known but by the catalogue…”

— Samuel Johnson, Rambler #106 (March 23, 1751) (source) (click that link at your peril — a fella could get lost in a place like that)

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