Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Soup and Salad: Bad Sex with Jonathan Franzen, Patricia Cornwell helps vets, In praise of teeny-tiny presses, Patrick Somerville on Catch-22

On today's menu:

1.  Jonathan Franzen's Freedom is just one of the nominees for the annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award given by the Literary Review.  I liked Freedom (Your Mileage May Vary) and there's really little that's "bad" about the novel...but, yeah, okay, I guess some of the coitus is a little drippy.  Here's Patty Berglund's initial adulterous encounter with family friend Richard Katz (as filtered through the third-person "autobiographer" voice Patty uses in her sections of the book):
       Three times, altogether.  One, two, three.  Once sleeping, once violently, and then once with the full orchestra.  Three: pathetic little number.  The autobiographer has now spent quite a bit of her mid-forties counting and re-counting, but it never adds up to more than three.
       There is otherwise not much to relate, and most of what remains consists of further mistakes.  The first of these she committed in concert with Richard while they were still lying on the rug.  They decided quickly, while they were sore and spent, that he should leave now, before they got themselves in any deeper, and that they would both then give the situation careful thought and come to a sober decision, which, if it should turn out to be negative, would only be more painful if he stayed any longer.
One thing's clear: Patty Berglund ain't no Emma Bovary.

2.  Patricia Cornwell is urging fans to support veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars by making in-kind donations during her book tour for her latest Kay Scarpetta novel Port Mortuary which is set at Dover Air Force Base.  Bring dental floss and shampoo, meet the author, support a vet.  Cool!

3.  Have you been following the Giller Prize brouhaha?  The Canadian tempest-in-a-teapot all started when the annual literary prize was given to Johanna Skibsrud's The Sentimentalists, a novel based loosely on the Vietnam War experiences of the author's father.  The New York Times noted that Giller Prize winners can usually expect to sell about 75,000 copies of their book in the afterglow of awards ceremony.  The Sentimentalists, however, is published by smaller-than-a-breadbox Gaspereau Press which gave it an intial press run of 800 copies.  Now, reader demand has placed burden and stress on Gaspereau since everyone wants to read the novel NOW.  Initially, Gaspereau refused to budge from their handcrafted-book philosophy, saying they'd take their own damn sweet time in delivering a quality book package for readers.  Public outrage was immediate and furious.  One reader wrote The Globe and Mail to say the book would become "the Cabbage Patch dolls of this year’s Christmas shopping frenzy.”  (Indeed, if you try to buy it from Amazon right now, the going price is a mere $860.59.)  Poet Jacob Scheier told NOW Magazine: "This is apparently a huge affront to capitalism, which considers it a sin when people cannot consume what they want exactly when they want it."   David eventually caved to the public Goliath and now publisher Douglas & McIntyre will take over the printing from Gaspereau.  Before that happened, however, a former Gaspereau employee wrote an impassioned blog post in defense of doing things the slow old-fashioned way.  "Part of the controversy seems to boil down to a conflict between art and craft (probably Art and Craft in capital letters, all high and mighty)," she wrote.  "It illustrates the problem of an age where the book is seen not as an end in itself but a vehicle, a corpse-like vessel for a writers’ work."  She went on to give interesting details about how the book is produced and then had this to say (which got me standing up from my chair and applauding--much to the alarm of my co-workers at the office):
It suggests to me a fundamental lack in cultural literacy even within the book publishing establishment about what a book is, what it is capable of, and the parameters from which it came.  There are publishers that do not even check the grain of their paper stock.  Show those books to me in twenty years and I guarantee they’ll have pulled out of their ‘perfect’ binding, particularly as the glue ages and brittles.   Sure, we want to buy something simple, we want to buy something easy, something that can be quickly labelled and shelved in a neat little pile and off-loaded on the consumer.  We want to eat McNuggets.   Sometimes maybe it might be a good idea to absorb something of value, something of worth, not because it is easy or quick but because it isn’t...Wouldn’t it be appalling if we wrote the way GP is being told to produce their books?  Conveniently.  Without due care.  Without consideration.  Do we only write what is easy?  Why should an author settle for less than what their writing deserves?  How ultimately self -defeating.  We should value ourselves and our work enough to demand more, to learn more, to throw down a flag or two.

4.  At The Story Prize blog, Patrick Somerville (author of The Universe in Miniature in Miniature) has plenty to say about what makes a good short story collection cohesive and effective, but I especially liked his comments on Catch-22--which, as anyone who has been paying the least amount of attention to The Quivering Pen knows, is one of my two touchstones for Fobbit (The Naked and the Dead is the other).  I often worry that my novel is episodic and fragmented, so I appreciated what Somerville had to say about the book for which we both share a goobery kind of head-over-heels love:
....while it was the humor in Catch-22 that captured my imagination when I was a teenager, what I went back to, and keep going back to, is the form of that book, how it's put together, why it's put together in the way that it's put together.  It's a novel that you might be able to argue is a deeply disguised collection of linked stories; it's episodic, fractured, and nonlinear, and yet the reader moves forward, bit by bit, and slowly reconstructs the straight line of time.  You circle back and you circle back, and the radius of the circle keeps expanding, but it’s the same circle.  I wonder about Heller's experience of writing that book, about the convenience he afforded himself by building it in the way that he did.  He got himself into a great position—he had this huge, epic story on his hands, but he could also sit down and sketch out a little incident, insert it, and not have to completely freak out about the bigger storyline.  Because despite how complicated that book is, the bigger storyline is very simple:  Make things more nuts.  Make the crazy grow, and push it to the point, by the end, that no one can bear it any longer.  Not the characters, not the readers.  My God, I absolutely love that book.

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