Three Recommendations

Three recommendations today:

First is short fiction from the latest issue of Harpers magazine, Sans Farine by Jim Shepard, about an executioner during the French Revolution. In telling the story of a man whose very profession is hijacked by the revolution's proclivity towards beheading the innocent, Shepard manages to humanize the Terror without ever being melodramatic or emotionally manipulative. It's quite something.

Second is Tom Bissell's essay on Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises in the most recent issue of the Believer, which is shorter than most of Bissell's pieces for that magazine, but no less great. Read an excerpt at the link above.

Third, an interview with Alan Moore by the "Fanboy Radio Network." As to be expected by a radio show with that title, the hosts and the callers are all falling all over themselves to lick Alan Moore's buttcrack; nevertheless, they get some wonderful information out of him about his work and the history of comics, and the whole thing is worth listening to. Besides, if you're going to lick anyone's butt crack, it might as well be that guy.

Review: The Areas of My Expertise by John Hodgman

Hodgman's fake almanac, The Areas of My Expertise, is a prime example of a relatively new and increasingly popular genre. That genre is not the fictional resource book, which belongs to a long and noble tradition that goes at least as far back as Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary, released in installments from 1881-1906 and collected in 1911. Rather, what areas is an example of is the comedy of literary-geekdom, a blend of reflexive humor, satire, silliness and surrealism that, if not invented by the McSweeneys' website, is at least exemplified by it.

Why I Hate National Novel Writing Month, and Why You Should Too

Edit: Instead of reading this old thing, why don't you read How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Accept NaNoWriMo?

So November is "National Novel Writing Month", where people are challenged to write a complete 50,000 word novel in one month. The concept owes it's origins to the 24-hour Comics Day, originally thought up by Scott McCloud (of Understanding Comics fame), though the stated purposes of these two challenges could not be more divergent. The 24-Hour comic was invented because Scott McCloud was dismayed at how slowly his friend Steve Bissette was working. "I'll bet he could do a full length comic in a day if he wanted to!" He thought. Doing a comic in a day was an exercise to stir up the creative juices in a comics creator, and the 24 hour comic website includes a "Random story seed" section to help you pick something for your exercise. "Is this really the best way to make a great comic?" asks the FAQ. "Probably not, ... but that's not the real goal. The goal is to have the experience of trying. It's a creative exercise that can teach you a lot about what you're capable of." This is noble and interesting.

Rather than being an exercise for creators, "National Novel Writing Month," instead posits itself as a challenge for non-writers. Quoth the website:


My walking tour of the southern states got messed up after Texas. I stayed too long in Amarillo with a trucker and got a ride to the border. I waited for an hour and another trucker came along. Next thing I knew I was sitting on a lawn in a hick town somewhere. Everyone who walked by was drunk, or off somehow. Even their shadows were off. One guy walked up to me and said, "You sleep with niggers, don't you?"

Fiction by Sharon Mesmer.

Serialized Fiction

I really like the idea of serialized fiction. One of the appeals of TV and comics for me is coming back to the same characters and seeing what they're up to (and how they've changed). In other countries, such as China (and especially Hong Kong), serializing fiction in newspapers is still widespread, and created the cradle which gave birth to novelists such as Jin Yong. In Scotland, Alexander McCall Smith is getting credit for revitalizing serialization in newspapers here in the West. Personally, I'm looking forward to Michael Chabon's "Jews With Swords" serial upcoming in The New York Times Magazine. For now content yourselves with Jaime Hernandez' excellent La Maggie La Loca. (Jaime's Maggie and Hopey characters I've been following loyally for quite some time from their adventures in Love and Rockets. If you like La Maggie La Loca, go check those out.)

The Criticism of George Orwell

For a really fascinating read, one can find nothing better than Orwell's early essay "In Defence of the Novel," first published in 1936.

Ideas vs. feelings vs. genres vs. science vs. America vs. Britain vs. the world

No Reading Versus Watching today because I've been swamped and now I'm off to see Manu Chao kick ass in Prospect Park. But I have plenty for you folks to read instead.

Right now on the Internet there are two dramatically different discussions happening. On the one hand, we have an article in the Globe and Mail that argues (absurdly) that men don't read books because books are about feelings and men like ideas. In response we have an (even more absurd) response from Bookslut's Michael Schaub saying that men do too like books with feelings and further, books about ideas are lame and only read by graduate students who get stoned and read Pynchon. (Suddenly my respect for Bookslut as a critical organ plummets.)

On the other hand, SF writer Charles Stross recently said that British SF is better than American SF and further, SF/Fantasy/Horror have all gotten too trashy (this is a new development?) and his daddy can beat up your daddy or something like that. To which Chad Orzel responded with "an oh-so-scholarly 'Well, fuck you, too.'" Stross isn't entirely clear on what he thinks more SF should be like, but if his own novels are any judge, I'd hazard that he wants more pages and pages of boring, essayistic explanations of possible scientific advances espoused by two-dimensional characters.

And as for Michael Schaub? Well, if he wants to read Amy Tan, more power to him. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that the best novels have ideas AND feelings (among other things), and I'll bring up the Wet Asphalt Favorite Example™ Moby Dick as my case and point. Further, again and again I'm disapointed at the level of discourse going on among people who should be smarter than this. I mean, seriously, everyone, grow up already.

Against the Day?

Conversational Reading has an interesting discussion about the forthcoming Pynchon book. All the lit bloggers have been in a flurry about Against the Day being solicited on Amazon. But are we actually going to read it?

Now, I'm a fan of Pynchon, and someone who defends him to his detractors. I've read Gravity's Rainbow, The Crying of Lot 49, Slow Learner and Vineland (which is a good book, damnit). But there's this sense where maybe Pynchon hasn't grown very much; all his books seem to in some way hit the same notes, notes that he and his cohort of post-modernists were all hitting very hard in the seventies. I didn't read Mason and Dixon because it struck me as an elaborate rehash of Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor. Against the Day, from Pynchon's own description on the Amazon page, should by rights be a good book:

The sizable cast of characters includes anarchists, balloonists, gamblers, corporate tycoons, drug enthusiasts, innocents and decadents, mathematicians, mad scientists, shamans, psychics, and stage magicians, spies, detectives, adventuresses, and hired guns. There are cameo appearances by Nikola Tesla, Bela Lugosi, and Groucho Marx.

Right on, right on. And yet, somehow, I'm just not sure if I want to wade through another 900 page book by the man, even with Groucho Marx. People who picked up the "Pynchonesque" mantle, like David Foster Wallace and Mark Danielewski, are interesting because of the way they evolved from Pynchon, in the way they extended and mutated his ideas and created new things out of them. This strikes me as something Pynchon himself seems to have failed at.

Yet, I'll hold off for the reviews. If there's a consensus that this is the Pynchon book that breaks to mold, well then it'd be something to see.

I think Derrida called it Hymen, so it's time to pop your cherries boys.

I recently had an opportunity to re-read Dana Gioia's infamous essay "Can Poetry Matter?" after a blogger challenged my take on Gioia's involvement in the New Formalism posted here recently. It got me thinking about what it is to be a writer in our culture, and what it is that puts those sorts of thoughts in our heads. By those sorts of thoughts, I mean the ones that gives a relatively successful writer like Gioia the idea that poetry should be doing something different, or that the status of literature in our culture is something other than it should be. I want to uncover and identify that impulse that drives various writers and critics to do the things they do and talk about contemporary literature in the way that they do.

One Story: The Wet Asphalt Interview

One Story is the only literary magazine I currently subscribe to. It's format is perfect: a single story in a small booklet, published every three weeks, that I can put in my pocket and take on the subway with me. The quality of the stories is also very high. I sat down with the editor and publisher at a café in Manhattan to talk about literary magazines, publishing and the state of short fiction in America.