The Final, Hopefully Completely Updated 2014 Reading List…

“It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” – Oscar Wilde

This is a stack of books. There are lots of these at my house, (image courtesy freedigitalphotos.net)

(For previous posts in this series look here, here, and here.)

After several threats to do so, I finally take a bit of time to update the 2014 reading list. Several elements have played into the list expanding well beyond its original limits: new friendships with publishers who asked me to review books, interesting finds at used book stores, decisions to read books so I’d know a little better what I was talking about when I castigated their authors.

So here we go. This, I hope, will catch up the 2014 reading list. Anything else that swims into view will go on the 2015 reading list. (I offer links for books that I have already written essays about.) Continue reading

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The Song or the Singer? Trying to Understand the Success of Nicholas Sparks

In the case of a writer like Nicholas Sparks, perhaps it’s that he gives readers a familiar story arc time after time that explains his success…

A Walk to Remember by Nicholas Sparks (image courtesy Goodreads)

After reading a couple of superb pieces of literary fiction by J.F. Powers and Shelby Foote, I detoured from the 2014 reading list to take a look at the work of a writer whose success I’ve wondered about for some time.

Yep. That’s right. Literary fiction snob and crusty old professor Jim read him some Nicholas Sparks.

It happened accidentally. Lea and I were doing some book rearranging a few days ago and, as we shifted books from one bookcase to another, we came across a copy of Nicholas Sparks’s third novel, A Walk to Remember, a book Lea received from an aunt several years ago that had languished on our shelves. She moved to toss it into our donation box for the local library, but I stopped her. My words were something to the effect of “I’ve abused this guy’s work without having read it. I am going to read this novel and write about it.”

And so we proceed.

Sparks writes a form of genre fiction, something that is called, I believe, “romantic drama.” This subgenre of romance (a genre I have written about before, albeit in rather different form) always imposes obstacles on the lovers that they must overcome. In the majority (perhaps all) of Sparks’s work, as I understand it, that obstacle is one that one cannot overcome, only become reconciled to: death. In A Walk to Remember, the story of two high school kids who fall in love only to have that love tragically disrupted, one of the characters turns out to be terminally ill (another recurring motif in the author’s work, as I understand it). In most (perhaps all) of Sparks’s works, a main character is coping with a loved one who is dead or dying. This is the case in Sparks’s breakthrough book, The Notebook. And in his second novel, Message in a Bottle. And in a number of his other books.

At this point readers who know my tastes are thinking to themselves that I am being remarkably coy about a writer who clearly uses the “Motown approach” to writing fiction: one creates (or borrows) a successful formula, repeats it until audiences find it stale, then works to revise or refine the formula until it becomes successful again, and the cycle repeats itself. This is certainly true of Sparks and his approach to writing novels. It has earned him many millions of dollars, however, so it is difficult to argue that he shouldn’t do it.

What one must do then is consider each novel as a literary work. This is a fair way to assess Sparks’s work  and to hold him to account for what he achieves – or fails to. Continue reading

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It’s a Southern Thing…Shelby Foote’s Love in a Dry Season

Shelby Foote’s tale of upper class Southerners behaving badly is redolent with that peculiarly disturbing characteristic called “Southernness…”

Love in a Dry Season by Shelby Foote (image courtesy Goodreads)

Let me me do what any good Southerner would do when asked for an explanation – tell you a story…

When I was writing the original draft of my novel The New Southern Gentleman, I had the ear (and the somewhat bemused interest) of a New York editor who was, I remember, working at that time for Henry Holt. He read a good chunk of the manuscript and recommended that I contact a writer friend of his, a fellow by the name of Walker Percy, even going so far as to send me Percy’s home address. I wrote to that estimable personage, author of a work I found influential, The Last Gentleman, and therefrom ensued a somewhat brief but memorable correspondence. One suggestion that Percy made I ignored – not out of disdain for the advice, which was excellent I now know, but out of what we might call “the anxiety of influence.” After reading several chapters of my manuscript, he recommended that I read “my friend Shelby’s book Love in a Dry Season.” (For those of you who don’t know, Walker Percy and Shelby Foote were best friends for 60 years.)

It was a sin of omission I have now corrected. My apologies, Mr. Percy, for delaying so long in taking your insightful advice. Love in a Dry Season is a marvelous novel, not just for its ability to compel you to read a novel about people you don’t much like, but, too, for its inherent grasp of how to convey what being Southern means.

So now, to help you understand this assessment, here’s another story.  Continue reading

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When The Cloth Makes the Man: J.F. Powers’s Morte D’Urban

Catholicism is darkly comic in J.F. Powers’s Morte D’Urban – would that it were more comic, less dark, in the real world…

Morte D’Urban by J.F. Powers (image courtesy Goodreads)

Well, this goes back yet again to Wufnik. He and I seem to bandy about the names of writers that we want the other to look into (often further into) on a regular basis. I did a piece a few weeks back abusing some schmuck who proclaimed “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” the greatest short story of all time. In his comment on that piece, Wufnik mentioned a couple of stories: Shirley Jackson’s widely anthologized masterpiece “The Lottery” and “Prince of Darkness” by another unjustly neglected American master of literary fiction, J. F. Powers.

I’d read Powers’s story sometime ago (in fact, I’d read his first collection of stories, of which “Prince of Darkness” was the title work). So, thinking I should read it again given Wufnik’s high opinion of it, I promptly went out to one of my favorite used book sellers and looked for a copy of that collection. In doing so I came across, in addition to the story collection, Powers’s first novel, a National Book Award winner, Morte D’Urban. So I got both books. When I came to them in my always increasing reading list, I had to make a choice. Since my own first book, a “novel-in-stories,” is called Morte D’Eden, I decided to give the Powers novel a go.

Am I glad I did.

There seems to be something of a renaissance right now for neglected 1st generation university based lit fic writers. Like John Williams, whose wonderful novel Stoner has seen a resurrection over the last decade or so (following the author’s death), so Powers’s Morte D’Urban seems to be enjoying some re-appreciation, too, given its re-publication following Powers’s death in 1999. While these glowing reassessments feel a little creepy given that both authors had to die to get them (which isn’t making me feel all that sanguine about getting any critical love while I’m still ticking), it is to the New York Review of Books credit that they are introducing new generations of readers to two superb writers.  Continue reading

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Ben Ames Williams’s The Strange Woman and Art as Commerce….

Almost forgotten as a writer now, Ben Ames Williams’s novels and stories represent the most interesting of American literary legacies – market driven art….

The Strange Woman by Ben Ames Williams (image courtesy Goodreads)

This essay concerns one of the novels of Ben Ames Williams. If you’re asking yourself “Who?” be assured that you’re not alone. A very successful “popular fiction” writer of the first half of the 20th century, Williams is almost forgotten now.  The novel we’ll be discussing shortly is called The Strange Woman and was published when Williams was at the height of his popularity.  The novel itself is…okay. The writer who produced it is fascinating as an example of a writer who made his creative decisions with a watchful eye to the market and whose oeuvre, as a result reflects that watchfulness – and whose literary reputation also reflects that watchfulness.

I have written on multiple occasions about the American reading public’s interests, partly because I have wanted to understand the literary marketplace better myself, partly because as a writer who now lives in the purgatory assigned to the vast majority of those who write “literary fiction,” I have often looked with envy at those who have been able to navigate the labyrinth of American publishing in ways that have given them great success – both popular and financial (let me note here that no artist is averse to making money, no matter how much he/she may protest that art should be an act of illumination for humanity and money be damned).  The larger, more difficult question in all this is a straightforward one: How does an artist, any type of artist, both stay true to whatever muse is being followed and find enough success – commercial? critical? – to feel validated enough to continue to pursue one’s work without lapsing into despair?

Continue reading

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The State of Literary Art VI: The Final Frontiers…

In the end Joe David Bellamy’s Literary Luxuries reads now more like an elegy for a now lost literary landscape…and a lost friend to literature….

Literary Luxuries by Joe David Bellamy (image courtesy University of Missouri Press)

(For previous essays in this series, look herehereherehere and here.)

This, the last in this series of essays on the state of literary fiction at the end of the last century, will be a final look back to that halcyon time when an author thought he knew what the literary landscape was and felt comfortable making projections about whose literary reputations might last. Joe David Bellamy’s Literary Luxuries seems almost quaint now in its belief that the literary horizon was visible and that which authors might have lasting reputations would be a predictable thing.

Ah, the quaint mid- nineties.  You know, when we thought Yahoo would be the search engine of choice and that the Internet would be primarily a supplement to make library use easier.

This last essay will look at two sections of his book. The first is a “teaching writing” issue that Bellamy talks about in a section called “Literary Vices.” Here Bellamy is on pretty solid ground. He gives solid, if unexceptional advice (beware of being too autobiographical), though he still feels the need to defend the “super fictions” of such Postmodernists such as Barthelme and DeLillo against the criticism of John Gardner (a debate I discuss in  this essay). He also revisits the struggles he participated in against the attacks on the NEA (disguised, as pretty much all the Right’s attacks on anything that shows interest in public support for anything but military adventuring and their attendant crony capitalism, as moral outrage) by the Right while he was there. This is pretty straightforward stuff and Bellamy’s positions are probably in sync with most serious literary (or arts) types. Continue reading

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Peter Handke, the Nobel Prize, and the Weight of the World…

Handke, Austria’s (arguably the world’s) greatest living writer, will probably never get the Nobel…and maybe he shouldn’t…or should…

Peter Handke (image courtesy Wikimedia)

For some readers of this piece, the name Peter Handke will probably suggest only  controversy. Handke has spent the last two decades of his life under attack for his association with – and inexplicable defense of – the Serbian government of Slobodan Milosevic. No less a personage than fellow Nobelist-in-waiting Salman Rushdie has called Handke a propagandist for the Milosevic government’s genocidal policies. When Handke received the International Ibsen Award earlier this year, Pen Norway called for the selection jury’s resignation and one scholar called giving Handke the award the equivalent of giving the Immanuel Kant Prize to Joseph Goebbels. Other important literary figures have defended Handke stating that he deserves the Nobel Prize – one claiming that she received the prize when Handke was the more worthy recipient.

All this comes as no surprise – troubling though it is – to me. I’ve been an admirer of Handke’s work since I was introduced to him in undergraduate school. What grabbed me initially was his “anti-play” Offending the Audience.  The paperback edition we used for the class I took in German literature in translation featured a strip of film with multiple images of the author whose Keith Richards haircut immediately validated him as someone I could talk to and be understood by even as I understood him. He confirmed his “my generation” cred in the dedication of Offending the Audience where he lists John Lennon among his dedicatees. Finally, in his “Rules for the Actors” to that play there is this stage direction:

“Listen to ‘Tell Me’ by the Rolling Stones.”

How could I not embrace a fellow hip and happening guy like that? Continue reading

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