Salvatore Pane

Tag: Philip Roth

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

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Thoughts on Plot

I’ve been reading Lorrie Moore’s most recent novel A Gate at the Stairs. It’s enjoyable, and if you like Lorrie Moore (which I certainly do), you’ll enjoy this book. The voice is strong. The descriptions are surprising and unique. But there’s one crucial element missing: plot. I made a complaint about this on Facebook and certain people (ahem) complained about said complaint. I’ve been wondering a lot about why this is. Why when someone criticizes a literary novel for not having plot, many thoughtful readers will rise up and say literary novels don’t need plot. But that would never hold true for dialogue or characterization or any of the other fundamental building blocks of fiction. Imagine someone critiquing a novel’s characterization and a reader saying, well, literary novels don’t need characterization. 

By plot, I don’t mean melodrama. I mean tension, an inciting incident, anything that grabs readers’ attention and forces them onward. It could be something as monumental as a mother having sacrificed one of her children to the Nazis and dealing with the aftermath (Sophie’s Choice) or something as subtle and quiet as finding out how the final night of a closing Red Lobster plays out (Last Night at the Lobster). Plot is an absolutely necessary component to any work of fiction for me, but at some point, it became a dirty word in hoity-toity literary circles. In MFA workshops, it’s often thrown around as an insult. This story’s too plotted or too plot heavy. Again, can you even picture a reader who would say that a story has too much characterization? But what is a story without a plot? A quirky observation? A rant? 

Tension! A Plot!

 

When I think of really strong plots, I think of books that have elaborate underpinnings that are hidden from the reader. I think of Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road. On one level, not much happens. A married suburban couple is unhappy. They think moving to Paris will solve all their problems. The wife becomes pregnant and the husband uses that as excuse not to go. What will happen? But if you reread that book, you can see thematic seeds planted throughout. References to April wanting an abortion appear in the first 50 pages, before she even gets pregnant. Characters talk about how people are more alive in Paris before the trip is ever brought up. Rehearsals for Frank’s eventual failure of the soul occur again and again and again. Each scene is necessary, and pulling out even one would destroy the book as a whole. In that sense, it’s structured like an elaborate end-game Jenga tower. But upon first reading, none of this is apparent to reader. Everything is organic. This is an instance where plot is as important as dialogue, characterization, empathy, and all the other elements of fiction of the traditionally dominant aesthetic set. 

I can’t say why exactly I’m so drawn to plot, but it definitely has to do with my odd inclination towards structures. Maybe it goes back to my fascination with genre storytelling as a boy, and subsequent return to comic books as an adult. I’m not sure, but it certainly explains why I prefer Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Cloumbus (a tightly plotted coming of age novella) to his more celebrated Portnoy’s Complaint (a long, first-person rant directed at a psychoanalyst). One uses plot effectively while the other does not. Both are great books, but one plays more towards my preferences in literary fiction. The same holds true for Lorrie Moore. I love her short stories (the characters usually want something and try to achieve those goals, or else their inaction and stagnancy are the “point” of the story). But I’m not loving this novel as much as I’d hoped because the protagonist (though wonderfully vivid and defined) is given little drama or tension to play off of. She is adrift. That is all. One scene follows another but only a handful feel vital to the book’s movement and soul. Of course, I’m only 150 pages in, so maybe I’ll have a very different opinion by novel’s end (although I’d be hard-pressed to see a reason for the first aborted adoption meeting at Perkins). All these years later, and I’m still a believer in Tom Bailey‘s second rule of fiction: story happens when shit hits the fan. 

As advertised, a LOT of complaining.

Summer Reading List

A few days ago on HTML Giant, Christopher Higgs posted his summer reading list and asked readers to do the same in the comments section.  I’ve been constructing elaborate summer reading lists for awhile now. Check out this stack that I (mostly) devoured over a three week period last summer.

But a curious thing happened when fall rolled around: I didn’t delete the reading list file on my hard drive. I just kept adding to it and adding to it, updating with way more titles than I could consume in any given month. And now, with a new summer upon us, I have a list that has ballooned to 33 separate entries. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be a huge problem, but reviewing has taken a big chunk out of my reading for pleasure time. Oh, and this doesn’t even include all the graphic novels I’ve saved up for the summer (I have a different file for those with only 18 entries).

Prose

Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth
God Jr. by Dennis Cooper
After the Workshop by John McNally
Samuel Johnson Is Indignant by Lydia Davis
Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Feast of Love by Charles Baxter
Something else by Jay McInerney (not Bright Lights, Big City)
The Half-Known World by Robert Boswell
Desperate Characters by Paula Fox
Something else by Joe Meno (not The Great Perhaps)
Dalva or Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison
Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon
Netherland by Joseph O’Neill
Emperor of the Air by Ethan Canin
A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Morre
The Theory of Light and Matter by Andrew Porter
Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin
Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer
A Common Pornography by Kevin Sampsell
Something by Paul Auster
The Terrible Girls by Rebecca Brown
This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper
The House of Tomorrow by Peter Bognanni
Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter by Tom Bissell
We’re Getting On by James Kaelan
End of the Affair by Graham Greene
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower
Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy
A Fan’s Notes by Frederick Exley
Solar by Ian McEwan
Shoplifting from American Apparel by Tao Lin
Stories II by Scott McLanahan
American Subversive by David Goodwillie

Comics

The Nightly News by Jonathan Hickman
RASL vol. 1 by Jeff Smith
Young Avengers vol. 2 by Allen Heinberg and Jimmy Cheung
Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli
Omega the Unknown by Jonathan Lethem and Farel Dalrymple
The Flash book 1 Blood Will Run by Geoff Johns and Scott Kollins and Ethan Van Sciver
Fantastic Four vol. 1 by Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo
Daredevil vol. 1 Ultimate Collection by Brian Michael Bendis and David Mack and Alex Maleev
Daredevil Born Again by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli
Black Summer by Warren Ellis and Juan Jose Ryp
Batman Year One by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli
New X-Men vol. 1 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely and Ethan Van Sciver and Leinil Francis Yu
Global Frequency vol. 1 Planet Ablaze by Warren Ellis
Marvel 1602 Premiere HC by Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert
Superman/Batman vol. 1 Public Enemies by Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuinness
Wolverine: Enemy of the State by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr. and and Kaare Andrews
The Middleman: The Collected Series Indispensability by Javier Grillo-Marxuach and Les McClaine
I Kill Giants by Joe Kelly and J. M. Ken Niimura

Obviously, this list is way too ambitious for any human to complete in a single season. But I’ll take a crack at it. I imagine that most of the graphic novels will fall by the wayside as I already read three or four comics a week each Wednesday. However, if you think I’m missing something absolutely crucial, please let me know. And feel free to post your own lists in the comments sections.

Media Survival Guide: Flying to AWP

I am not a good flier. I don’t get extremely nervous (except that one time from Denver to Oklahoma City when I could see lightning bolts outside my window), but I do get anxious being in such a cramped area for prolonged periods of time. My body is lanky and unruly. I do not fit comfortably practically anywhere. My knees bang up against the seat in front of me. I never knew all this until recently, because I never flew much before moving to Pittsburgh. Before last spring, the only place I’d flown to was Disney World for my twelfth birthday (I prayed before and after each flight because the trip messed up my confirmation schedule and I was positive God would blow up the plane in retribution).  Since then I’ve flown a lot. Atlanta. Chicago. Vegas. Baltimore. And what I realized flying from Atlanta to Vegas while reading Jane Smiley’s Moo is that one book will never be enough for restless flier Sal Pane. Especially when the in-flight movie is Confessions of a Shopaholic and the woman besides me keeps telling me about Twilight.

I’m leaving for AWP early on Wednesday. It’s a long flight with a long layover. I’m going to need a serious amount of entertainment (and booze) to do this comfortably. Below you will find my list of all the crap I’m taking with me just for the flight. If you have any suggestions please let me know.

Prose

1. Mattaponi Queen by Belle Boggs

I’m reviewing this collection of short stories for BOMB and need to get the review done in the next few weeks. I’m hoping to make some headway during the flights, but I’ve already read three stories and they’re not really my aesthetic cup of tea. But as a reviewer, I have to be objective about my personal feelings on sub-genres and take the book on its own merits. In that regard, it kind of reminds me of a mix of Sherman Alexie, Russel Banks and Jean Thompson.

2. Last Mountain Dancer by Chuck Kinder

This meta-memoir by Pitt fictioneer head honcho Chuck Kinder is a rollicking good time spent in the honky tonky bars of West Virginia. I started it a month or two back but keep taking breaks. I think it’s better that way, otherwise you become overwhelmed by the power of Chuck’s voice. I prefer it in doses.

3. Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth

I tried to read Roth in college and failed miserably. I read American Pastoral and enjoyed it but didn’t think it was for me. Since then, I’ve realized the error of my ways. I went back to Goodbye, Columbus and was absolutely floored. This one was recommended to me by Irina Reyn after she read the latest draft of my novel, so I’ll be looking at this one extremely closely.

4. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon

This is another Irina recommendation, and yes, I know it’s astonishing I haven’t read this considering I’ve attended Chabon’s alma mater these last three years. I read Yiddish Policemen’s Union and The Final Solution but never his early work. Hopefully I can rectify that over the next week.

5. Three Delays by Charlie Smith

I don’t know much about Charlie Smith, but I received this book in the mail from the same editor who hooked me up with a copy of Justin Taylor’s Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever. This is the first novel I haven’t had to request to review. I got this one with no strings attached and I’d like to review it if I can.

Audiobooks

The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized Biography by John Ortved

I’ve never been a fan of audiobooks, but I recently listened to Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation during a nine-hour drive and really enjoyed the experience. This is one I’ve been looking forward to for awhile, and if you’ve met me in real life, you already know my penchant for quoting Milhouse at (seemingly) random moments.

Graphic Novels

1. Daredevil: Born Again by Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli

I just finished Miller and Claremont’s Wolverine a few weeks back and desperately wanted another Miller take on a classic Marvel character. Really looking forward to tearing into this. I splurged and got the copy with the original scripts. Hoping they’ll help inform the way I think about comic scripting.

2. The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite by Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba

When this was originally coming out in monthly format I refused to jump on because the writer is also the lead singer of My Chemical Romance. In the few years since he launched Umbrella Academy, he’s transformed from a crappy emo singer to one of the most revered writers in comics. People love this book. People who would never even dream of listening to MCR. Plus, Gabriel Ba is a god. Ok. Fine. I’ll give it a shot.

3. Justice League of America: New World Order by Grant Morrison and Howard Porter

I love Grant Morrison. I don’t know a ton about the JLA, but if I’m going to read a book about them, I want the Big 7, not the crap DC’s currently peddling. And the inclusion of Kyle Rayner as the group’s token Green Lantern instead of Hal Jordan? That’s a major plus in my book.

TV Shows on my iBook

Episodes 8-20 of Battlestar Galactica Season 2

I know this is starting to get insane, but man, I’m really loving BSG so far and completely regretting my decision to avoid it in favor of LOST.

Video Games

Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimore of the Rift

A week ago I posted about video games and mentioned how I was once very addicted to Japanese role-playing games but broke the habit about four years back. On Friday I drove to my local gamestop and purchased a Japanese role-playing game for my Nintendo DS. There’s lots of math and swords and mages. I planned on starting it on the plane and have already logged six hours. I am frightened that I will read nothing and return from Denver with level 99 summoners casting Ultima like it’s their job. I really hope that isn’t the case.

Review of Justin Taylor’s Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever

Hi everybody, just wanted to link to my latest book review. I’m writing for PANK now, and you can check out my thoughts comparing Justin Taylor’s new short story collection Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever to Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus here. Let me know what you think.