Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Soup and Salad: Thanksgiving leftovers, a "pep talk" from Lemony Snicket, John Updike's legacy, NYT's 100 Notable Books, Do publishers matter?, Books for Soldiers from Press 53

On today's menu:

1.  At The Sacramento Bee, Sam McManis has a nice roundup of literary Thanksgiving moments.  Including those I previously mentioned from Richard Ford and Suzanne Berne, McManis spotlights fictional family holiday dysfunction from Philip Roth, Richard Bausch, Anne Tyler, and John Updike.

2.  National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is now over.  Thousands of writers are getting up from their desks, brushing off the Cheetos crumbs, taking a shower for the first time in a month, and turning on their TiVos to catch up on who got voted off Surivor while they were pecking away at their keyboards.  After grinding out 50,000 words*, life has returned to normal for these kaleidoscope-eyed scribes.  Before they finished, however, Lemony Snicket urged them to throw in the towel.  In typical fashion, Mr. Snicket (aka Daniel Handler) begins thusly:
       Struggling with your novel?  Paralyzed by the fear that it's nowhere near good enough?  Feeling caught in a trap of your own devising?  You should probably give up.
       For one thing, writing is a dying form.  One reads of this every day.  Every magazine and newspaper, every hardcover and paperback, every website and most walls near the freeway trumpet the news that nobody reads anymore, and everyone has read these statements and felt their powerful effects.  The authors of all those articles and editorials, all those manifestos and essays, all those exclamations and eulogies -- what would they say if they knew you were writing something?  They would urge you, in bold-faced print, to stop.
       Clearly, the future is moving us proudly and zippily away from the written word, so writing a novel is actually interfering with the natural progress of modern society.  It is old-fashioned and fuddy-duddy, a relic of a time when people took artistic expression seriously and found solace in a good story told well.  We are in the process of disentangling ourselves from that kind of peace of mind, so it is rude for you to hinder the world by insisting on adhering to the beloved paradigms of the past.  It is like sitting in a gondola, listening to the water carry you across the water, while everyone else is zooming over you in jetpacks, belching smoke into the sky.  Stop it, is what the jet-packers would say to you.

3.  Fans and scholars ponder the legacy of John Updike at The Millions.
       No detail was too small for discussion.  Attendees wanted to know if Updike did the dishes at home, whether he liked Sinatra, if he was handy around the house.  On bus tours, attendees pondered the department store where his mother worked, the restaurant where he’d lunched as teenager, the old movie theater featured in his non-fiction.
       Much of the attendees’ interest, understandably, focused on discovering if their idol was indeed the man they knew.
On the whole, it's an excellent essay on literary reputations and it all boils down to one crucial** question: “Can an author survive without authorial champions?”

4.  You can release that held breath now--The New York Times' annual 100 Notable Books list is out and open for debate.  Let the what-abouts and don't-forgets and how-could-yous begin.  These lists are always such great conversation-starters--at least among our tiny tribe of wild-eyed book enthusiasts, a group evenly divided between the Kingdom of Who Cares What Critics Think and the Commonwealth of These Lists Matter.  For what it's worth, I've read exactly 3 percent of the 100 Notables; another 15 of the books are waiting for me in the To-Be-Read stack.  Flavorwire has a list of their picks--books which, for whatever incomprehensible reason, didn't make the New York Times' list (yay, for Skippy Dies!).  What about your faves?  What notable books of 2010 do you think should have been on the list?

5.  The New Dork Review of Books (not to be confused with the aforementioned New York Review of Books) wonders whether readers pay attention to publishers.  Using the recent National Book Award winner Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon as a starting point, Greg the Dork goes on to say:
       But this got me thinking, in general, how much do readers really care about who publishes a novel?  Sure, everyone likes rooting for the underdog, it's always fun when a David slays the Goliaths, and I certainly understand that some readers enjoy supporting small, independent publishers in the same way that I enjoy supporting small, independent bookstores.  But when all else is equal, does a novel's publisher really have any influence on readers' purchasing decisions?
       To me, as I suspect for most readers in most cases, the answer is 'no'.
Greg does, however, admit he pays attention to books published by McSweeney's.  For me, all the Harcourts and Knopfs and Simons & Schusters go by in a vanilla blur, but I do specifically remember favorite books from smaller presses like Graywolf Press, Unbridled Books, Dzanc Books and Algonquin Books.  Stop me on the street, ask me to name books from those publishers and I'll rattle off at least two or three titles; do the same for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and I'll give you a blank stare.

6. Speaking of small presses....Press 53 will send a book to a soldier for every Press 53 title you buy between now and Dec. 12.  Speaking as someone who used to be on the receiving end of this kind of generosity, your purchase of this kind of one-for-one deal will not go unappreciated.

*The goal as stated on NaNoWriMo's website:  "Writing one 50,000-word novel from scratch in a month's time."  This year, an impressive number of participants hacked out their novels.  Again from the website:  "As of 6 PM Pacific (on Nov. 29), we have over 32,000 winners and nearly 2.8 billion words written."
**Crucial, at least, for those of us who have poured everything we hold dear--time, sweat, blood, marriages, arthritis--into this business we call writing.

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