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?


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.


July 4 Ramblings

I’m a day late here, but some observations about the Fourth of July are in order, especially since this one ended in a zero (240, for those of you keeping score at home). One of the surprising coincidences of the date is that two of the early heroes of the republic, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, died not only on Independence Day but on the same one, 1826, on the fiftieth anniversary. You really couldn’t make this stuff up. As it happens, they died on the 22nd birthday of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who really is an outstanding candidate to be born on the Fourth of July.

And under the heading of no coincidences here, Walt Whitman published first edition of his great hymn of liberty, Leaves of Grass, on the great day in 1855. If, long after we vanish, someone wants to know about the American character, the American voice (what he called his “barbaric yawp”), they could do no better than to ignore everything else and read that poem. Like the poet, it is vast; it contains multitudes. Whitman’s maneuverings to publish his poem on the holiday equal those of James Joyce to publish Ulysses on his fortieth birthday. And why not? It’s the perfect date for such an appearance.

Finally, twenty-eight years ago, National Public Radio began its own tradition of presenting the entire Declaration of Independence read by the anchors, reporters, and commentators. Those early years had great voices–Red Barber, John Ciardi, Kim Williams, along with Susan Stamberg and Bob Edwards, among others. Of those, only Stamberg appears on this year’s installment. The result is always incredibly moving; at least, it is to me. Here’s a link to the current model: At the end of those early readings, co-host Bob Edwards always noted that King George wrote in his diary that “Nothing of any importance happened today.” Feel free to insert your own response noises.

Italian Cover

Italian cover - NovelsThe gorgeous Italian edition of How to Read Novels Like a Professor is just out. Clearly, this is the classiest cover I’m ever going to get. The book also sounds better in Italian, even if I can’t understand it and, in any case, they couldn’t do anything about the content.