Salvatore Pane

Tag: Cormac McCarthy

Is Literary Fiction a Genre? Hint: Yes.

In a recent profile of Justin Cronin in the New York Times Magazine, Colson Whitehead is quoted as saying he’d “rather shoot [him]self in the face” than have another discussion about literature genres. I don’t blame him. When people ask me what kind of fiction I write, I usually say, “It’s about people,” and leave it at that. But as I read Ringwald’s book, I found myself pondering literary fiction: as a genre, as a taxonomical category. When It Happens to You, you see, is a sterling example of literary fiction, if we were to consider literary fiction as a straightforward genre like romance or science fiction, with certain expected tropes and motifs.

-Edan Lepucki in The Millions

Today, Edan Lepucki argues that literary fiction is a genre. This is something I’ve long thought. There are stylistic tics and repeated themes in literary fiction just as there are in sci-fi or fantasy. Lepcuki uses her argument to satirize a few recent trends from the major presses, but I would take this one step further. What I’m always telling my students is that lit fiction is the ultimate genre because it can synthesize all of the other genres as once. Lit fiction can use sci-fi tropes (look at George Saunders or Alissa Nutting), and it can use horror tropes (looks at Comrac McCarthy or John Fowles), and it can even draw from fantasy (look at Seth Fried or Wells Tower). It’s an umbrella genre that can examine “low” art through a “high” art lens. Do you guys think about it this way? Do you think of lit fiction as one more genre, or is it totally separate from the world of dime fiction and supermarket novels?

Fall 2011 Fiction Recommendations

One of my favorite aspects of teaching is recommending fiction to students. There’s almost nothing better than reading a student story and thinking, “This person absolutely needs to read Lorrie Moore!” Matching students with their established counterparts is an integral and rewarding part of the job. I vividly remember being an undergrad creative writer and going to meet with Tom Bailey or Gary Fincke. Their office shelves were lined with books, most of which I’d never heard of. They’d go over my drafts with me and then list off three or four writers I had to read right that very second. Most times, I’d walk straight to the library and take out every last book they recommended. Reading everything I could get my hands on helped me develop as a writer, and I try really hard to pass that enthusiasm on to my students.

That being said, I’ve decided to again share every fiction recommendation I’ve given out this semester. This term I taught two fiction workshops, one at the University of Pittsburgh and another at Chatham University. In total, there were 33 students, meaning 66 workshops and individual conferences. The same ground rules I set forth last spring still apply. This is by no means a comprehensive list of the writers I teach. In fact, most of the writers on this list don’t show up in my syllabus. I recommended them because students put up work that was in conversation with these established writers. There was something to be learned there, something we might not have covered in the classroom or maybe not in enough detail. Some of the writers who appear the most often were in the syllabus, and I kept recommending other work by them to remind students of the lessons we’d learned throughout the semester. And literary journals! There are a bunch of literary journals at the bottom of the list. I want all of my students to become active literary citizens in the vein of Blake Butler, and that means supporting (submitting AND reading) emerging and established literary journals.

The numbers alongside the names represent how many times I recommended a specific author. Please leave suggestions in the comments feed. I’m always looking to shake up my reading list. If you have certain writers you recommend to students again and again, share. If you’re a student and were truly impacted by a specific writer, share.

George Saunders 15
Alissa Nutting 14
xTx 11
Andre Dubus 10
Matt Bell 8
Patrick Somerville 7
Kirsty Logan 7
Amber Sparks 7
Etgar Keret 7
Raymond Carver 7
Lorrie Moore 6
Martin Amis 6
Wells Tower 5
Breece D’J Pancake 4
Tom Perrotta 4
Alice Munro 4
Emma Straub 4
Bobbie Ann Mason 4
Roxane Gay 4
Kelly Link 4
Brian Allen Carr 4
Cathy Day 4
Scott Snyder 4
Deborah Eisenberg 3
Tillie Olsen 3
Colson Whitehead 3
Don Lee 3
Joyce Carol Oates 3
Matthew Simmons 3
Donald Barthelme 3
Gary Fincke 2
James Alan McPherson 2
Tobias Wolff 2
ZZ Packer 2
Alice Munro 2
Paul Yoon 2
Richard Yates 2
Barry Hannah 2
Bret Easton Ellis 2
John Fowles 2
Benjamin Percy 2
Donald Ray Pollack 2
Blake Butler 2
John Minichillo 2
Steve Himmer 2
Rick Moody 2
Philip Roth 2
Trey Ellis 2
Tim Jones-Yelvington 2
Junot Diaz 2
Steve Almond 2
Jonathan Lethem 2
Justin Taylor 2
Tina May Hall 2
Tom Bailey
Stewart O’Nan
Sarah Gardner Borden
Deborah Eisenberg
Teddy Wayne
A.M. Homes
James Baldwin
Peter Bognnani
Jayne Anne Phillips
Rebecca Barry
Aubrey Hirsch
Joe Meno
Richard Ford
Seth Fried
Rick Bass
Sherwood Anderson
Jeffrey Eugenides
Brian Oliu
J.A. Tyler
Lydia Davis
Dennis Cooper
Douglas Coupland
Cormac McCarthy
Cory Doctorow
Mike Meginnis
Rachel Glasser
Kevin Wilson
Gregory Sherl
Dave Eggers
Jay McInerney
Miranda July
Scott McClanahan
Brock Clarke
Peter Mewshaw
Frank Hinton
Shane Jones
Aleksandar Hemon
Tim O’Brien
John Irving
Gary Shteyngart

The Emprise Review 5
Hobart 5
kill author 4
PANK 4
Metazen 3
Prick of the Spindle 3
Flywheel Magazine 3
Annalemma 3
Atticus Review 3
Monkeybicycle 2
Decomp 2
Gargoyle Magazine 2
Dark Sky 2
Barrelhouse
Pear Noir!
Parcel
The Collagist
Diagram
Weave
FRiGG
Caper Literary Journal
Elimae
Stoked!
Barrelhouse

Here’s Everything I’ve Recommended to Fiction Students So Far This Semester

So, I’m running this advanced fiction workshop and it’s all like woah. One thing I like to do in a classroom setting like this is meet individually with every student after they workshop. I remember very vividly going to see Tom Bailey and Gary Fincke in undergrad and how reassuring and empowering it was to know that writers I really respected were taking my work seriously (not that the students necessarily respect me in the same way I outright worshiped Tom and Gary). In my conferences, I always bring a marked up copy of their manuscript along with a one page note with strengths and prescription. But there’s also, usually, a note at the end with some writers and journals to read, and maybe even a few places to begin submitting to. At AWP, Amy Hempel said one of her favorite parts of running a workshop is putting an emerging writer with a published one, giving a young writer the book they absolutely have to read right this second. It’s one of my favorite parts of the job too, and I’ve kept track of what I’ve recommended so far.

Keep in mind, we read a lot of stuff in class. So I rarely touch on writers we’ve discussed ad nauseam like George Saunders or Lorrie Moore or Gary Shteyngart or Amelia Gray. Also, it’s only halfway through the semester. So there’s still a lot of time. Basically, what I’m trying to convey here, is this isn’t a list of the best writers for undergrads. It’s merely the group that this particular class needed to read at this particular moment. When there’s something lacking in student work that is absolutely nailed in a story collection or novel, students need to see that–in fact, there are a few writers on here I respect without actually enjoying their work. So, without further hand-wringing, here’s what I’ve recommended so far this semester.

Writers

Andre Dubus (5)
Ray Carver (4)
Wells Tower (4)
Alissa Nutting (2)
xTx (2)
Bobbie Ann Mason (2)
Emma Straub (2)
Sean Ennis (2)
Stewart O’ Nan (2)
Adam Levin
Michael Chabon
Trey Ellis
Tobias Wolff
Matt Bell
Don Lee
Ethel Rohan
Tina May Hall
Jayne Anne Phillips
Bret Easton Ellis
Jay McInerney
Douglas Coupland
Martin Amis
Cormac McCarthy
Joshua Ferris
A.M. Homes
Rick Moody
Jonathan Lethem
James Alan McPherson
Joyce Carol Oates
Deborah Eisenberg
Cathy Day
Richard Russo
Blake Butler
Miranda July
Aleksandar Hemon
Shane Jones
Jeanette Winterson
Philip Roth
Deborah Willis
ZZ Packer

Journals

The Fourth River (4)
Flatmancrooked (4)
FRiGG (2)
PANK (2)
Bluestem Magazine (2)
Weave (2)
The Emprise Review (2)
Metazen (2)
Hot Metal Bridge
Annalemma
Barrelhouse
Dark Sky
Fairy Tale Review
The Good Men Project
Wigleaf
elimae

Comics

Fables

A Challenge to the Great Gatsby 8-Bit People

THIS EXISTS.

THIS EXISTS.

A group of talented, young geniuses have turned The Great Gatsby into an 8-bit NES game, and I couldn’t be happier. Ever want to kill a flapper using an expertly thrown bowler hat? Now’s your chance. Ever want to fight the entire roster of the 1919 Chicago Whitesox? Now’s your chance. And there’s even an obviously false backstory to the game that claims its owner found the prototype cartridge in a yard sale, and that it’s a localization of the Japanese game Doki Doki Toshokan: Gatsby no Monogatari (any Nintendo fan will tell you this is a play off of Doki Doki Panic, the Japanese version of Super Mario Bros. 2).

There’s so much I love about this. The fabricated backstory. The idea that somebody cared enough about NES games and The Great Gatsby to combine the two. How level two is a total homage to the second level in Ninja Gaiden II, annoying birds and all. This is a project done with love, and all who’ve read this blog for any amount of time or spoken to me in person can attest to the fact that I am completely obsessed with all things Nintendo Entertainment System. There’s just something uniquely charming about the graphics and music, how they hint at what they’re supposed to represent, how you still have to use your imagination. It requires an active participation that you don’t see much in other media. If there’s a spectrum of how much active participation something requires, television and film are at one end (very little) while prose books exist on the other extreme. Comics and old Nintendo games definitely fit snugly in the middle.

What really stunned me about this game is that is was actually fun to play. It’s not just a one-note joke, and  it’s pretty comparable to games like Yo! Noid or maybe something like Adventures in the Magic Kingdom. It takes the joke started with the recent There Will Be Blood SNES video to a whole other level. And this all got me thinking about what other literary works are particularly deserving of the 8-bit conversion treatment. So, without further adieu, here’s my personal challenge to the Great Gatsby team. Here are the books I think they should tackle next. I don’t know who the programmers are, but I sincerely hope this isn’t a one game project. Feel free to add your own in the comments section.

1. Super Sad True Love Story

2. The Old Man and the Sea

3. London Fields

4. Yiddish Policemen’s Union

5. God Jr. (my head is exploding just trying to picture this one)

6. Moo

7. The Magus

8. Light Boxes

9. The Road

10. The Things They Carried

I’m Sick: My Triumphs, My Failures

I haven’t done a thing with this blog in a week because I’ve contracted the sore throat from Planet Fuck. That, combined with a three class teaching load, has seriously eaten into my ability to get anything done this week. Mind you I’m not complaining. I’m lucky to have a job, especially one that’s actually what I went to school for. But I feel like shit, have been writing less because I feel like shit, and sometimes I send half-delirious e-mails to my students when one too many of them agree electronically about their complete contempt for all things James Baldwin.

Regardless. How productive are you while sick? Are you able to actually get writing done or is it one of the first things to fall by the wayside? I haven’t written since Tuesday which is disgustingly bad for me. I’m planning on remedying that today, but I’m just sleeping so much more because of this cold and it just hasn’t been working out. Instead, I’ve been playing a lot of Earthbound. Its electronic warmth comforts me. Also, I’ve been reading the absolutely wonderful Elephants in Our Bedroom by Michael Czyzniejewski and Richard Yates by Tao Lin.

Me too, Ness. Me too.

Mostly, I’ve been spending a great deal of time thinking about what fictional books I’d most like to read. I don’t mean fiction books, I mean books  written by fictional characters in TV shows and movies. I feel (although I cannot prove) that someone on HTMLGIANT did a thread like this awhile back, but I can’t remember. For my money, I’d most like to read My Triumphs, My Failures by Gaius Baltar from Battlestar Galactica and Wildcat by Eli Cash from Royal Tenenbaums. The later was written in an obsolete vernacular, and according to Wikipedia, a mash-up of Cormac McCarthy and Jay McInerney. What’s not to like, right? And the former is the type of dry political nonfiction I crave. “The nature of modern life is obsession,” Gaius writes in the penultimate episode of season three. Have truer words ever been spoken?

To reiterate: I’m sick, and this is the type of shit I do when I’m sick.

Bi-Weekly Friday Comics Roundup V: In Which Spider-Man and Wolverine Go Back In Time to Fight the Asteroid that Killed the Dinosaurs

A lot of big name comics have come out in the last few weeks including the end of Siege (the conclusion to Marvel’s seven years in the making event run dating back to House of M) and Brightest Day (DC’s fourth attempt at a (practically) weekly series). I loved Brightest Day #0 and 1 but found myself more drawn to the kookier books which most likely speaks to my tastes as a comic book reader. So, without any further adieu, let’s talk some comics.

1. The Nightly News written and drawn by Jonathan Hickman

I bought The Nightly News completely on a whim for ten bucks. I was at the Free Comic Book Day Event in Scranton where Comics on the Green, the best comic store in NEPA, had a sale on graphic novels. I love Hickman’s work on SHIELD and Secret Warriors, so I figured I’d take a look at some of his indie credits. The Nightly News is the first book I’ve seen from Hickman that he actually drew, and holy crap was I blown away. His complete disregard for the traditional grid layout and reliance on graphic design makes Nightly News something that needs to be seen to be believed. The book just exudes cool, and it’s really smart too. It even includes a reading list in the back with entries from Noam Chomsky and Dan Kennedy. Definitely worth a pick-up, especially if you think comics ends and begins with Clark Kent.

2. Astonishing Spider-Man and Wolverine #1 written by Jason Aaron with art from Adam Kubert

This is the type of book that makes me keep reading superhero comics, a book so goofy, so downright ridiculous that it can only exist in comic book form and still be played straight without irony. The very first page of Astonishing opens on Peter Parker and Wolverine who have been trapped in the prehistoric ages for months. Wolverine commands an army of missing links; Spidey studies bugs in solitude. Then the asteroid that wipes out the dinosaurs shows up in the sky. What are Spider-Man and Wolverine going to do about it? I have no idea, but I guarantee I’ll be sticking with this limited series.

3. The Walking Dead #71 written by Robert Kirkman with art from Charlie Adlard

For those of you unaware, The Walking Dead is the most consistently great indie book on the stands. No matter what the state of superhero comics, I can always depend on any given month’s issue of Walking Dead to deliver. #71 is no different. Rick and his gang of post-apocalyptic survivors have stumbled onto an unspoiled gated development outside of DC run by a bunch of upper-class yuppies pretending the zombie infestation isn’t really happening. As always, the true creepiness in the book comes from the human characters. Issue 71 doesn’t even feature a single zombie. Instead, we witness the growth of Carl, Rick’s young son pictured in the cover, and how he is completely unable to relate to children after everything he’s been through (seeing firsthand his mother and newborn sister getting blown away by a shotgun, strangling a young child to death, almost being raped, etc. etc.). This is one of the darkest comics I’ve ever read, and any fan of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road absolutely must check it out from the very beginning.

4. The Return of Bruce Wayne #1 written by Grant Morrison with art from Chris Sprouse

This is the first time I’ve ever mentioned a comic before reading it, but the build-up to this series has been so good that I couldn’t resist. Two years ago, the DC mega-crossover Final Crisis ended with Bruce Wayne deposited in prehistoric times to live with cavemen and dinosaurs (hmm… this is turning into a running theme). Since then, we’ve been treated to amazing stories where Dick Grayson, the original Robin, has had to fill in as Batman. But now, we’re finally going to see what brings Bats back to the DC Universe proper. And since it’s Grant Morrison doing writing chores, I would safely assume that this book is going to be all kinds of crazy. A definite pick-up to be sure.

5. Unpublished artist Jaime Castro

This is the final character sketch I’ll post from collaborator Jaime Castro, but hot damn, this is my favorite piece of concept art I’ve ever received from an artist I’m working with.  Jaime knocked this drawing of Dr. Boston out of the park, and Mark Kleman (my co-writer) and I, cannot wait to get the full comic back from Montgomery X. Chesterfield, Gentleman of the 22nd Century. More details to come.

The Most Unfortunately Titled Article Ever Published or Why America Hates English Professors

A few days ago I read an entry on the LA Times blog Jacket Copy written by former Pitt MFAer Carolyn Kellogg. The article links back to a feature published in The American Book Review conspicuously titled “Top 40 Bad Books”. Normally, I wouldn’t read such a list because there’s so much great literature out there, so many wonderful opportunities. Why dwell on the negative? But the writers Carolyn name-checked from the article were enough to pique my interest (and rage): Cormac McCarthy? F. Scott Fitzgerald?! RICHARD YATES ??!! Umm….. huh? The introduction (there’s no author credited) gives us this:

Richard Ford once said that it takes as much effort to produce a bad book as a good book. And as disheartening as that sounds, what Ford’s assertion might raise, and what most everyone who has attempted the task of a book-length work already knows, is the notion that effort alone does not ensure a book’s success, and that there are probably more ways for a good book to be overlooked than a bad book to never make it into print…

That said, what constitutes a bad book? Is it an overrated “good” book? Can an otherwise good author produce a “bad” book? Is the badness in style, in execution? Or is it in theme or outlook? Or is the notion of a “bad” book even comprehensible in the age of postmodernism, poststructialism, and cultural studies?

Calling the question of “bad books” to the fore elicited—as might be expected—an overwhelming response. The forty responses below were selected to demonstrate the sheer variety of responses to what at face value seems a simple question. But as with most literary matters, nothing is as simple as it appears—not even the question of what constitutes a bad book… (American Book Review)

Ok, let’s just ignore the fact that they used the dreaded “theme” while discussing literature. I didn’t realize this was AP English. Anyway, what’s on the list? The Great Gatsby. Revolutionary Road. All the Pretty Horses. The Ian Fleming James Bond novels. Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence. Dreiser, Melville and Colson Whitehead also make appearances. On initial glance, I wanted to yell and scream and rant. The list is made up of 40 entries written by College English Professors (in all Caps of course). A few of the entires are obsessed with attacking well-renowned writers and tearing down their legacies (the Yates and Fitzgerald entries are especially, and needlessly, unkind), but there are many examples here of professors (and a writer or two) doing good work. Some don’t even name a single book. For example, take a look at what Dagoberto Gilb has to say on the subject of bad books:

Like bad girlfriends (and boyfriends, too), there are so many categories of bad books that it’d be gruesome and pathetic to categorize the various species of that sorryness. Setting aside the intrinsically aggravating that the very coquetish author is actually stupid, or the editor who chose the manuscript is too dumb or lame or dazzled, or that the system which perpetuates both of them is as flawed as a university paying for a Glenn Beck lecture series, and omitting the writers who are really salespeople, as are their duped or complicit publishers hyping their so pretty product as though…. Wait a minute, that may be what I think is a major bad book or line of them even. (Gilb) (His ellipses, not mine)

One professor wonders about the usefulness of bad books and cites Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Another, Gerald Graff, talks about the practicality of bad books in pedagogical practice. Graff writes, “It has always seemed strange to me that bad books aren’t a prominent part of our school and college literature curriculum. How do we expect students to learn to tell the difference between good and bad books unless we assign some bad ones for comparison? Don’t you need badness in order to know goodness?” Another interesting tangent is brought up by Carol Guess who says:

Notice (2004) was published posthumously. Its narrative voice was so unique that no press would touch it until Lewis committed suicide at forty. Her suicide allowed the book’s publication; now she was dead, and sufficiently chastened for examining experiences that mainstream culture attempts to suppress. Before she killed herself, Lewis wrote one more novel, The Second Suspect (1998). This book was published and reviewed during her lifetime. It was bought, and it was read. The Second Suspect is a terrible book. But it’s not just a bad book; it’s so much more. It’s a bad book riffing off the author’s masterpiece. The Second Suspect is a rewriting of Notice, but minus everything that makes Notice literary. The Second Suspect takes plot, characters, and themes from Notice and reduces them to formulaic drivel. (Guess)

It’s obvious that Guess isn’t arguing that The Second Suspect is one of the worst books ever written, just as it’s painfully clear that some of these professors have axes to grind (look at the lambasting poor Cormac McCarthy takes!) and are using the American Book Review as a platform to air their theoretical grievances. So although the article in its entiretry is far less inflamatory than expected, what I can not stand for is its title. “Top 40 Bad Books” is a horrible title when the article in question doesn’t even have a list, when some of its contributors don’t even put forth a single book. I’m hoping that this is some type of marketing ploy, that the Editors at ABR chose this title knowing it would be controversial and would garner more attention (case in point, its mention on this blog). But an article like this written by a legion of college professors does much more harm than it does good. It purpotrates a stereotype that America loves to hate, that of the stodgy old English professor who despises everything.

For an example of what I’m talking about, check out The New Republic’s review of a recent memoir, The Professor and Other Writings, by Terry Castle. Ross Posnock, the reviewer, starts his critique with the following:

The public expression of contempt for professors is one of our cherished national pastimes and is that rare thing—bipartisan… Recently on its front page the New York Times invoked “the classic image of a humanities professor … tweed jacket, pipe, nerdy, longwinded, secular—and liberal” in a story on a sociological study of the power of typecasting. And in the annals of egghead bashing, the perennial butt of the foolproof punch line has long been the English professor. For decades Hollywood has dined out on this stereotype—Dennis Quaid’s bloated, bleary, and insufferable literature professor in Smart People is only a recent entry in a long parade of fatuity—but the Times has also loyally done its part. Their reports on the MLA convention are always good for a laugh, with their generous sampling of silly and sex-addled paper titles (who can forget “Wandering Genitalia in Late Medieval German Literature and Culture”?) that the Times cited a few years ago as proof that “eggheads are still nerds” with too much “sex on their minds (and time on their hands).” Whether the accusation is justified or not is less the point than the casualness of the contempt, the easy assumption of a license to scorn. Almost no group is more safely maligned and mocked. (Posnock)

I love the New Republic (especially their dryly titled lit blog The Book), but when they think you’re stodgy you know there’s a serious PR problem. Articles like “Top 40 Bad Books” reinforce the stereotype that English professors are cranky old dipshits seething in their Ivy Towers casting their hate outwards at everything. They are not lovers of literature; they are destroyers. Fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction are the manure from which they produce their cornucopia of brilliance. While Carol Guess and Gerald Graff and Dagoberto Gilb attempt to subvert this assumption, there are just as many examples within the ABR article that prove it. Since there are no bios included within the text of the article (only the names of institutions), one has to wonder if these hater professors teach Literature exclusively or if they dabble in their school’s Comp or Creative Writing departments.

The reason why I ask about what department these professors come from is because of an article by William M. Chace in the American Scholar. This was passed around in secret between friends of mine because the views expressed within are relatively controversial in a University environment. Entitled “The Decline of the English Department”, Chace’s article explores how and why enrollment numbers in English departments across the country have plummeted since the 1960’s coinciding with the ascendancy of critical theory as the main text of the humanities classroom. His findings are what you expect. He blames things on cultural studies and theorists with pseudo-political, pseudo-philosophical agendas (thus satisfying neither the politician or philosopher) and the shift away from the so-called Great Books. This stereotype of an English professor is in line with the bogeymen presented in the ABR article: Learned Men coming down the mount to explain to us philistines why The Great Gatsby is one of the top 40 worst books ever written.

But not all is doom and gloom. What Chase ignores is the rise of undergraduate Creative Writing programs and MFAs. Their enrollments have skyrocketed since the 1960’s with MFA programs pumping out 5,000 graduates a year. Similarly, Comp programs have also evolved thanks to the work of dedicated scholars like Mike Rose and Richard Rodriguez. While regular humanities classes become more and more specialized and in some cases jettison works of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction altogether, creative writing and comp classrooms have put the focus back on student work and the so-called great books. So, to cap off this long, rambling rant, we need more professors like Guess and Graff and Gilb willing to ruminate over tough subjects, but also willing to celebrate the beautiful act that is the reception and creation of literature. And what we need less of are professors making lists of the worst books ever written and explaining why exactly the work of Richard Yates is so offensively terrible.