T. Coraghesson Boyle

Today is the 68th birthday of T. C. Boyle, although, as my title suggests, I prefer his adopted middle name (he was born Thomas John, but what sort of name is that for an artist?).

He burst on the literary scene in 1983 with Water Music, perhaps not his best novel but the one that’s the most fun. Since then, he has skewered his (and my, of course) generation as well as major American figures from sex researchers (Kinsey) to architects (Frank Lloyd Wright, although there was plenty of sexual exploration there, too). He and Louise Erdrich are probably the two contemporaries on whose work I’ve leaned  most heavily over the years. Their debut novels (hers was Love Medicine, published the year after his) are among the most audacious in the last half-century.

His Paris Review interview is linked here:

http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/651/t-coraghessan-boyle-the-art-of-fiction-no-161-t-coraghessan-boyle

William Trevor

A truly great writer died on Sunday. William Trevor was 88 and had been on the literary scene since a few minutes after the Ark struck dry land. The details of the life are in the NY Times obit (link below), and encomia from all sorts of Irish writers of note are in the link to the Irish Times. They will handle that part of the story better than I can. What I will offer instead is a sense of his stature. For the first time in four decades it is possible for someone not named Trevor to be acclaimed the greatest living short story writer in English. My copy of his Collected Short Stories weighs in at something over 1200 pages. It appeared in 1993. Contemplating what the eventual page total of his Complete Stories will run to beggars the imagination. He wrote these stories in between and around writing something like nineteen novels–which on their own would constitute a major career. For something like two decades, any new Trevor title was likely to land on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. Given all that, it is slightly shocking that he is so little known in this country. I have never had a conversation with anyone other than a specialist in contemporary Irish literature who had the foggiest idea who William Trevor might be. The loss is entirely ours.

From the NYT: https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwjD66jK9LrQAhVK1oMKHTjPAcoQqQIIHjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.nytimes.com%2F2016%2F11%2F21%2Fbooks%2Fwilliam-trevor-dead.html&usg=AFQjCNEOg7PtGEQAKBLKVV3ndX1qPRBOFw&sig2=rw_xmRhssX3nzgFgFI3jsg

And the Irish Times: http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/a-complete-gentleman-a-master-craftsman-writers-salute-william-trevor-1.2876898 

 

Colson Whitehead and the NBA

National Book Award, that is. I was about twenty pages into The Underground Railroad when the thought struck me, “This book is going to win the National Book Award.” I bring this up not to tout my prescience (since there’s nothing there to tout) but to show what a force this novel is. Even in a chapter or two, it showed that it had everything: great prose, terrific characters, narrative magic, vivid descriptions (even when they are of hideous actions), and a powerful social commentary (often essential in prize winners). Read it.

In case you’re wondering, I have been right precisely one other time, when I finished Orhan Pamuk’s Snow and thought, “Someday, this guy will win the Nobel Prize.” Even then, I was wrong. My “someday” meant, in a decade or so, not in three months.

A Halloween Treat

No tricks here. Today is the birthday of John Keats (1795) and, as the last day of October, an appropriate moment to share his great poem “To Autumn.” I append it below for those of you who think fall is a good time for poetic commemoration. For all you others, happy Halloween anyway!

To Autumn

John Keats, 17951821

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, 
  Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless 
  With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees, 
  And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core; 
    To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells 
  With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees, 
Until they think warm days will never cease,
    For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store? 
  Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor, 
  Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep, 
  Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
    Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep 
  Steady thy laden head across a brook; 
  Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
    Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they? 
  Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,--
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day, 
  And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn 
  Among the river sallows, borne aloft
    Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies; 
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn; 
  Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
  The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft, 
    And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Literature Prizes and Genre

The Nobel Committee’s awarding of the Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan has not, of course, gone unnoticed in the literary community. More than one novelist has taken to social media to say they feel hard-done-by. And to be fair, this is the first award to an American since Toni Morrison’s win in 1993. But a lot of comments read like sour grapes. Gary Shteyngart, for instance, said that he gets it, that “reading books is hard.” Since he is in no position to win a Nobel anytime soon, we can take his statement as showing that he feels aggrieved on behalf of his craft, which is fair enough.  Last year it was Belarussian oral history compiler Svetlana Alexievich and now this, two minutes and three chords.

The Committee, meanwhile, seemed a little defensive, citing Homer and Sappho, which is reaching back rather far. We could cite instead an actual Nobel Laureate, William Butler Yeats, noting that his award did not say, “for everything that is actual poetry but not for ‘Down by the Salley Gardens,’ and a handful of other songs.”

Let’s try thinking about this another way. Rather than defining literature as comprising two or three privileged genres, maybe we can think of it as, irrespective of genre, those endeavors that feed into the One Big Story, the story what it means to be human. That shift can be jarring, I know, when we consider that it would include not only Homer and Shakespeare but also Mickey Spillane, not only novels and poems and plays but also memoir, New Journalism, cinema, and popular song. But bear in mind that prose fiction’s membership in the club is quite recent. For its first couple of centuries, the novel was regarded as a commodity rather than an art form. Not until Henry James and a couple of others began theorizing about the novel in the late nineteenth century did the practice of fiction begin to be seen as a serious literary art. I realize not everyone is willing to make that leap with me. But hold it in mind as the Swedish Academy’s bombshell ripples out into the culture.

Disregarding matters of genre, name another writer whose influence is as profound, whose reach is as global as Dylan’s. When speaking of songwriters in other countries, the phrase is almost always, Mali’s Dylan, Uruguay’s Dylan, Estonia’s Dylan. I mean, who else gets this treatment? Besides Shakespeare, that is. Hardly anyone.

Now, I didn’t always have this view of the literary world. I recall distinctly in high school (that I can recall anything distinctly from so long ago is miraculous, but never mind) that when we were to study poetry in English class, certain other students would clamor for popular songsters, usually the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and of course Dylan. Oh, come on, I thought, let’s study real poets, if we’re studying any of them. So what happened? In the words of someone, “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”

The Age of Writing – 3

After a slight delay, the third installment about writers of different generations. At a talk I gave the other day, I happened to mention that all of my writers, that is, the ones who were young when I was, are getting old. And as someone who professes to study contemporary literature, that’s not really a problem, because there are always new writers coming along. The talk, as it happens, was at the kickoff event for a community read at Mott Community College; they’re calling it Mott Novel, and the novel in question in this inaugural year is Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. She’s not brand new, but she’s still young enough to qualify as someone who is renewing her chosen literary form. If I said to you–heck, if someone said to me–that this is a post-apocalyptic novel, you would say something like, “Honestly? Haven’t we had enough of those.” But what matters is the nature of a particular apocalypse and what happen in the “post” period. Oh, and how well it is told. This one is told extremely well.

I have been extremely impressed with a number of other writers as well, and I apologize in advance for those I fail to name. Amanda Coplin (The Orchardist) and Adam Foulds (The Quickening Maze) demonstrate what can be done with meticulous historical research if you can then make it sing. Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife is a marvel of invention. Zadie Smith has been around so long that we almost forget how young she still is. And the still comparatively young (compared to me) Irish novelists Emma Donoghue and Colum McCann continually surprise. If the last decade produced any works more astonishing than Room and Let the Great World Spin, I missed them.

Of all the newer writers, Helen Oyeyemi is fast becoming a favorite. She wrote her first novel while still in secondary school, which is how she could have five published works of fiction before turning thirty. First I read Mr. Fox, loved it, then had to wait for Boy. Snow. Bird. to come out in paperback (because I’m a cheapskate) and was completely blown away. And then, not wanting to wait for her next novel, I went backward in the catalog when I found White Is for Witching at Powell’s City of Books this summer. More delight. I love what she can do with reworked fairy tales, which isn’t quite like Angela Carter, whom I idolize, or like anyone else, come to think of it. Plus, her name is just so darned much fun to say.

So, if you’ve finally read everything by your favorites, or if their numbers dwindle away, don’t mourn. All you have to do is look around.

The Age of Writing – 2

I’ve been thinking about the matter of age as regards writers and other creative types. Partly, that’s a response to, well, getting older. Some of it is about seeking out younger writers to follow, something a student of contemporary literature must always do. But a big part of it is watching the generation I admired as an up-and-comer in the academy grow old and, too steadily, leave us. For now, though, let’s just focus on the growing old part. It’s really interesting.

This is, I believe, the first time in history that so many writers have continued to be productive so deep into life. Three things prompted this musing. The first was learning recently that one of my favorites, English poet Geoffrey Hill, died earlier this summer at age 84. Never heard of him? Not surprising. He was the least known major poet one can imagine, especially stateside, where his horde of fans probably numbered in double digits, possibly low double digits. Another was hearing Margaret Atwood, one of Canada’s great gifts to the world, interviewed this afternoon about her new graphic novel. What a thing to produce as a first effort at age 77. The third item was picking up the latest volume of poems by W. S. Merwin, The Moon before Morning, published in 2015, when he was a mere 88. His first volume appeared in 1952. That means he published books of poetry while Harry Truman and Barack Obama were in office, along with every president in between. Who knows, he may grace another administration. This is something to celebrate.

So is the continued productivity of so many great artists into their late seventies and eighties. It’s partly improved health care, partly fewer really bad life choices (less smoking and heavy drinking, no absinthe), but whatever the cause, we have a lot of celebrating to do: poets Gary Snyder (86), John Ashberry (89), Galway Kinnell (87 when he died in 2014), novelists Toni Morrison (85), Atwood (although she’s just a kid), and Doris Lessing (94 when she died in 2013), and directors Woody Allen (81) and Clint Eastwood (85). I know I have missed quite a few, but you get the idea. I remember in grad school a professor telling us that William Butler Yeats was one of the very few great poets of old age; it was true, but he only lived to not quite 74. Good for a century ago but hardly notable these days.

Coming Attractions?

IMG_0354

It’s really happening. I got my copies today. Coming to better bookstores September 13. How will you know if they’re better? Well, do they have the book or not?

The Age of Writing – 1

I think this will be the first of three observations about writers at different stages of their lives and careers. This has been on my mind for a while but was brought to the fore by The Writer’s Almanac this morning, in which Garrison Keillor noted that that the poet Rita Dove was born on this date (August 28) in 1952. So we share a birth year (I’m slightly older) and a home state, Ohio, although she grew up in Akron and I near Dayton. Moreover, she attended Miami University, which I considered seriously, since it was less than an hour from home.

That got me thinking about writers of my generation, and how they are rapidly becoming the senior figures in the world of letters. My definition of that “generation” here is that they have to remember the Sixties as fairly young people, which means that in 2016 they range from their mid-fifties to early seventies. As a group, they continue to write faster than I can read. I’m mostly caught up on a few, having read the latest books by Graham Swift, Kazuo Ishiguro, Julian Barnes, and Ian McEwen and only being one or two behind on Louise Erdrich, Paul Muldoon, Roddy Doyle, and Colm Toibin. With others, such as Tim O’Brien and Ms. Dove, I’m sadly in arrears and need to catch back up.

Here’s the thing, though: for me, they are still the hot young properties, doing new and daring things. And they are–hot, new, daring. Just less young than we all once were. I hope they and I–and you, of course–continue in that vein for a good long time.

Love the One You’re With

When you’re in my business, you visit a lot of bookstores. Big. Small. New. Used. Also shelves in department stores, kiosks, stalls, and library clearances. I’ve been to the bi-coastal giants, the Strand in Lower Manhattan and Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon. Liked them a lot. And also the decidedly non-gigantic Grolier Poetry Bookshop right off Harvard’s campus, where I once spent a bundle of money and flew out with much heavier baggage. I frequented Border’s when there was only one, in downtown Ann Arbor, and later visited various lesser relatives in sundry towns. I’ve also been to half a dozen different bookshops in AA over the years. There are lovely bookstores in Petoskey (where I once gave a talk at McLean and Eakin) and Traverse City (where I aspire to). And let’s not even start on those emporiums of textbooks, college bookstores, which I often seek out.

But we’re talking love here, and for me there was only one. When I moved to East Lansing in 1975, there was no serious source for books in town–hence the acquaintance with Border’s at that other school down the highway. And then something magical happened. A former English professor started Jocundry’s Books and changed the city. It didn’t hurt that it was virtually next door to the crumbling barn that housed the English department or that it was right across from my favorite lunch spots. They got the right books in and hired excellent people to advise readers when the need arose. They had events in-house and sponsored others out on the street. When tragedy struck and the owner and two employees were killed in a plane crash (coming home, if memory serves, from a booksellers’ conference), the mourning was widespread. When they moved to newer digs on the main drag, it was an event, although many of us wondered if the success would buoy them up above the higher rent. It didn’t, and a host of factors led to the closing down of a cherished spot.

The store was replaced by a Barnes & Noble, which was actually very nice for a chain store. I eventually forgave them for being one of that “host of factors” that led to Jocundry’s demise. But it, too, closed after a number of years, leaving downtown East Lansing a new bookstore desert (we do have an excellent used bookseller, Curious Books, which has outlived all competitors). There is a B&N on the far side of Lansing, but it’s in a Mall and can never really be my store. There are also two branches of Schuler Books, a Grand Rapids-based independent, in neighboring towns, and they are very nice. I have friends and even former students there, and I have learned to love them, even if I can’t get to them via an easy bike ride as I could to Joc’s. Over the last two decades, we have all seen many bookstores and chains go dark, which is always a cause for sadness. Still, one never quite gets over that first heartbreak anymore than over that first new love. If your town still has a bookstore, embrace it, support it, and love it for the small miracle that it is.

Jocundry