The Legend of Gary Shteyngart’s Blurbs

A smart, amusing look at the strange publishing practice of blurbing new books and how Russian-born novelist Gary Shteyngart has emerged as a kind of blurbing king pin who will seemingly blurb just about anything, and do it with real flair.

The short 15-minute video has dozens of interviews with New York writers, critics and editors, as well as an interview with Shteyngart himself. The film was made by writer and editor Edward Champion.

Casting Sophia Coppola in ‘The Leopard’

My Twitter friend the writer Kim Askew invited me to guest post on her site Romancing the Tome last week as part of a celebration of the release of her new book Tempestuous (co-authored with Amy Helmes). I wrote about one of my favorite novels The Leopard by the Italian writer Giuseppe di Lampedusa and why director Francis Ford Coppola should use it as a vehicle to redeem Sophia Coppola’s notoriously poor acting performance in his 1990 film The Godfather III.

Hoping Sophia Coppola one day stars in ‘The Leopard’

I was honored to guest post for Kim alongside such luminaries as famed literary networker Lauren Cerand, writer and editor Edward Champion and publisher Richard Nash.

This is not the first time I’ve written about Sophia Coppola. Last year in The Millions I imagined moving to Paris and bumping into Sophia and her singer husband Thomas Mars somewhere in the Latin Quarter.

My ‘Full Stop’ Piece on David Foster Wallace

Recently I had the good fortune to be named a monthly contributor to Full-Stop Magazine. For my December piece, I wrote how I had been unknowingly “shadowing” the late-novelist David Foster Wallace across America for years. When I read the novel Infinite Jest back in 1996 or ’97,  I immediately recognized that Wallace and I shared connections to some very odd and specific American places.

Vol. 1 Brooklyn linked to the article today as part of their “Morning Bites” daily round-up. Morning Bites (and Afternoon Bites) features some of the best literary and cultural writing  online and is well-worth keeping tabs on.

I have blogged about David Foster Wallace before. Most recently I wrote about the mystery surrounding religion and David Foster Wallace. There is a lot of speculation that DFW had been something of a closet Christian–but the issue of his faith in not a clear one–and D.T. Max’s new biography seems to discredit the notion that Wallace was a believing Christian.

William Giraldi: Tough-Love Critic

A new essay or book review by critic William Giraldi has become something of an event. In a world where bloggers discuss how they “feel” about a book, and the online literati praise every new novel as if it were Ulysses, Giraldi has become the adult in the room, reminding us what true criticism can and should be.

In September Giraldi wrote “Letters to a Young Critic” in The Daily Beast after a review of his was singled out for being too negative. His Daily Beast essay was chock-full of no-nonsense opinions guaranteed to make him persona non grata on Twitter and in trendy Brooklyn bookshops:

“Much of what you will review will be written by those who have emerged from the MFA mill and who have been Pavloved into believing that every effort, no matter its anemia or inertia, deserves praise because the writer tried so hard and cares so much. You’ll be confronted by the preposterous sense of entitlement that the professionalization of writing has brought about…Don’t pander to the ‘literary’ snipes who live their dreary lives online, that legion of wonks who are mere tourists in the land of literature.”

In an age that rejects objective truth and vilifies judgment of any kind, Giraldi insists that there are objectively bad books, books that drag us all down as writers, readers and human beings, and that a critics’ obligation is to call a spade a spade. “Relax your standards in literature,” he writes, “and the relaxation of other standards will follow.” In the same vein, T.S. Eliot wrote that the function of criticism was “the common pursuit of true judgment.” (The problem of making objective artistic judgments in the modern world is something I wrote about for Full-Stop Magazine in June).

At the end of the essay Giraldi provides a kind of syllabus of great essays and books that any would-be-critic should read and ponder.

On November 30 Giraldi returned with a review in the Los Angeles Review of Books called “Rotten Reviews Redux: A Literary Companion.” Like his essay in September, this piece is full of wisdom and tough-love gems for the online literati. Giraldi surveys the enduring legacy of E.M. Forster’s book Aspects of the Novel along with the almost-forgotten one by critic Percy Lubbock The Craft of Fiction. He also focuses on the “pervasive suspicion that the best literary comment is always penned by those who are masters of the genre they comment on.” But, perhaps even more importantly, the review is worth reading because Giraldi’s acerbic wit is on full-display , and in the PC-world of book reviewing, there is nothing more refreshing. A sampling:

 “A world with no deservedly antagonistic reviews would be a literary Disneyland: a wretched uniformity of pleasantness.”

“What a critic likes and feels is immaterial; it’s what a critic sees and thinks that matters. But that is precisely what you’ll find spattered across the Net and in many a newspaper east to west: unlettered opinions with scarcely more authority than the feral scratching in Cro-Magnon’s diary.”

“Literature to these online cabals is a social event and not an artistic endeavor; they congregate to swap recipes of cuisine no discerning person would ever care to eat. The idea that a novel can be garbage, and that a critic has the imperative to call it such, is anathema to their aspartame outlook; these vast middle-strata scribes have turned to writing, apparently, because Habitat for Humanity is too demanding.”

Javier Marias’ ‘Your Face Tomorrow’ Trilogy

Spanish novelist Javier Marias signing a book.

I have begun re-reading the novel Fever and Spear by the Spanish novelist Javier Marias. It is the first volume in his Your Face Tomorrow trilogy that is published in the U.S. by New Directions.

Bookworm host Michael Silverblatt said the books were what detective novels would sound like if Henry James had written them. Marias’ prose is masterful (Marias has said he prefers the English translations to his original Spanish) and his books contain Proust-like digressions and refined Jamesian investigations into the lives of private, oblique characters.

I hope that Marias continues to win readers in the U.S. and that his name gets on the Nobel Prize shortlist. Here are some excellent  interviews and articles on El Maestro:

Here is a quote from his novel Fever and Spear:

“It’s shocking how easily we replace the people we lose in our lives, how we rush to cover any vacancies, how we can never resign ourselves to any reduction in the cast of characters without whom we can barely go on or survive, and how, at the same time, we all offer ourselves up to fill vicariously the empty places assigned to us, because we understand and partake of that continuous universal mechanism of substitution, which affects everyone and therefore us too, and so we accept our role as poor imitations and find ourselves surrounded by more and more of them.”

Writing and War

It is disheartening to learn that Afghanistan is now officially the longest war in U.S. history. It would have been inconceivable to Americans in 1975, that in a few short decades after the Vietnam War, we’d enter into another long conflict.

Politics and military strategy aside, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have already produced a number of important books including the non-fiction work The Good Soldiers by David Finkel, which earned him a 2012 MacArthur grant.

Jacob Silverman has a review in Slate about four new war novels taking up the subject of U.S. fighting men in the Middle East.

Today’s new books have to be considered in light of the cartloads of literature that came (and continue to come) from the Vietnam War.

Vietnam veterans and celebrated writers Tim O’Brien and Tobias Wolff spoke last year about war and writing (video below). O’Brien’s book The Things They Carried is a stunning read by a master storyteller and a must for anyone who is interested in war and literature.

In the Stanford University talk Wolff commented that many anti-war films about Vietnam, such as Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, can actually inspire young people to join the military (Wolf sites Gulf War veteran Anthony Swofford’s memoir Jarhead where he writes about Marines watching Platoon as a way of getting enthused for combat).

O’Brien said he obviously writes anti-war books, but curiously enough, he meets readers who join the Service after reading his work. Here is the video of O’Brien and Wolff:

Tim O’Brien in Conversation with Tobias Wolff on “Writing and War” from Stanford Humanities on Vimeo.

Henry James Meets Proust’s Characters

One of the pleasures of reading literary biographies is learning what happened when famous “writer A” met famous “writer B” for the first time. Some of the great encounters are a young James Joyce meeting W.B. Yeats (or later Samuel Beckett meeting Joyce), Oscar Wilde hiding in the Proust family bathroom, because Marcel was late, and Wilde couldn’t deal with Marcel’s parents alone. More recently we have the clash of East Coast/West counterculture sensibilities when Ken Kesey met Jack Kerouac.

Until I came across the following paragraph in Leon Edel’s one-volume biography of Henry James Henry James: A Life, I had never heard of a writer meeting the future fictional characters of another writer.

That’s what happened on July 2-3, 1885 when the famously polite Henry James agreed to show three French gentlemen (bearing introductions from painter John Singer Sargent) around London. The three men later become some of the principle characters in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost time. Edel writes:

“We now know that James had spent his two days with three of Proust’s famous characters. Montesquiou would become the model for the Baron de Charlus. Elements of Polignac apparently went into the fashioning of Bergotte, and of Pozzi into Dr. Cottard. A novelist of the nineteenth century had been cosorting with the real-life characters of a novel of the Twentieth.”

Interview with New Henry James Biographer

Henry James is the novelist whose writing straddles two centuries as well as two continents. He was an American by birth, English by residence and a European in his sensibilities.  It’s generally agreed that the definitive James biography is Leon Edel’s five-volume work (I myself have the one-volume abridged version, fearing I might miss out on an entire decade of my life while trying to hang in there with Edel).

Picture of five-volume Henry James biography by Leon Edel

There is now a new biography of James that examines his life through the prism of one of his more famous (and accessible) novels Portrait of a Lady. The new book is titled Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece and it is written by literary critic Michael Gorra.

Gorra gave an insightful interview with Leonard Lopate on WNYC radio. Here is the full interview.

The Faith of David Foster Wallace

There have recently been a spat of blog posts and articles about the late novelist David Foster Wallace’s faith and whether the upcoming D.T. Max bio of Wallace will shed any light on this important subject. The latest round of interest in Wallace’s Christian faith (we don’t know exactly what denomination he identified with) was set off by a blog post by Daniel Silliman.

Silliman’s post was eventually picked up by The Daily Beast columnist Andrew Sullivan who has a fine article on the subject with links to a number of articles that provide us more clues about Wallace’s Christian faith and how it relates to his work. (Last fall Sullivan also wrote about an article I penned on Catholic writers wherein I referenced DFW’s interest in the Catholic Church).


I believe the significance of Wallace’s faith has been largely ignored because the practice of religion, and Christianity in particular, play almost no part in the lives of many literary editors, critics and writers. I think Sullivan gets it right when he writes:

My suspicion is that among DFW’s literary and academic peers, his church-going and attachment to Christianity (however complicated and complex) is not a feature of his life that intuitively is understood – and so the language and themes in his writing that point to this, whether overtly theological or not, tend to get downplayed.

Sullivan has a link to a video titled “A Life through the Archive” which is a panel discussion on David Foster Wallace‘s life and includes biographer D.T. Max. You can also read an excerpt from the forthcoming Wallace bio here.

Last December I blogged about David Foster Wallace‘s concern that writers today are ducking “the deep questions” of life a la Dostoevsky (also a believing Christian). Wallace complained about contemporary literature’s “thematic poverty,” but he just as easily could have criticized its spiritual poverty as well.

UPDATE: 12/8/2012 – I finished reading D.T. Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, and there was nothing in the book to indicate that DFW was a Christian or a Church-going person of any kind. Max writes that Wallace was interested in the Catholic Church for a time, but was ultimately not able to get past dogma, established beliefs, etc.

One item that may explain why people believe Wallace was a Christian, was his habit of referring to his AA meetings as “church” (Wallace was an alcoholic who regularly attended Alcoholic Anonymous meetings), which was apparently his way of concealing from journalists and others his struggles with addiction.

When Wallace was dating the writer Mary Karr (who later converted to Catholicism), he often talked about faith with her. Max writes:

“Wallace said he was trying to pray, because, even though he did not necessarily believe in God, it seemed like a good thing to do…So for a time Wallace too hoped to receive the sacraments, thinking that if he and Karr were to marry they could have a religious wedding (ultimately the priest told him he had too many questions to be a believer, and he let the issue drop). Wallace’s real religion was always language anyway.”