Writers’ Corner: Franzen vs. World

Jonathan Franzen

As literary contretemps go, the great Jonathan Franzen-Jennifer Weiner debate of 2013 might not measure up with the best of them. It’s not exactly Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald or James Woods panning Zadie Smith’s writing as “hysterical realism.” But it’s nevertheless a bookish debate with some fire to it playing out in the commons, and thusly rare enough to deserve note.

the-corrections_oprah_book_club1In short, Franzen started things, as is his wont, with a cranky screed in The Guardian against, well, things he doesn’t like about the modern world. It’s a lengthy piece, with some well-considered points about Austrian satirist Karl Kraus and how (now, as in Kraus’ time in fin-de-siecle Vienna), “the nexus of technology and media has made people relentlessly focused on the present and forgetful of the past.”

But there’s also a good dose of simple ornery lashing out against a modernity that has been much more artfully critiqued elsewhere. Franzen also doesn’t seem to think that novelists have ever in history been dragooned into doing anything to sell their books besides writing more of them better. To him, just being asked to take part in social media for the sake of publicity is anathema. Of course, the jury is definitely out on whether an author’s Twitter or Facebook presence actually helps sell books. But Franzen’s above-it-all attitude rankles here, as it did back in the days of his tantrum over seeing an Oprah Book Club burst on the cover of The Corrections.

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Then there’s Jennifer Weiner. A writer of middlebrow popular fiction, Weiner’s books (like those of Jodi Picoult and others) are exactly the kind of thing which sell plenty of copies and yet never get any critical attention. She’s been having a go at the New York Times and other publications for not covering books of this sort. Whereas Franzen’s books—which might deal with more serious subjects but are difficult to classify as literature—are covered in depth. More particularly, Weiner’s been denouncing the Times, and correctly so, for having a dire shortage of female contributors.

Now, replying to Franzen’s line about “literary novelists are conscripted into Jennifer-Weinerish self-promotion,” Weiner herself penned a swift and lightly denunciatory piece for The New Republic where she calls out Franzen for essentially whining from the mountaintop:

In 2010, I coined the hashtag Franzenfreude. It was very bad German for a very real problem: When Franzen’s most recent novel, Freedom, was published, newspapers and magazines devoted thousands of words to the book and its author, while giving other literary books far less attention, and, in some cases, ignoring commercial works completely. Perhaps Franzen’s recent name-check was payback for when I implied that he was the face of white male literary privilege, or for pointing out that he’s the kind of writer who goes on Facebook only to announce that he won’t be doing Facebook, with the implication that he doesn’t have to do Facebook, because the media does his status updates for him. Or maybe he just really, really hates “The Bachelor.”

As Weiner points out, Margaret Atwood tweets. So does Joyce Carol Oates. And it probably doesn’t help sell a single extra copy of their books. Maybe they just like having a new format to write in. Is that so horrible?

Readers’ Corner: Banned Books Week

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It’s national Banned Books Week, when bookstores and libraries put up their displays of frequently challenged or censored titles that various bluestockings have tried to keep from us over the years. Given the ever-declining reading habits of the country, it’s nice to see that some people out there still find the printed word (Adventures of Huckleberry FinnSlaughterhouse-Five, Beloved, and so on) so threatening that they give it the perverse honor of trying to ban it.

This isn’t an issue of the past, school districts are still coming under fire for assigning certain books. In 2011, Sherman Alexie’s award-winning young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was challenged for use in a ninth-grade Washington state class.

tempestJust last year, the Tucson school district — in a fit of reactionary pique — decided to eliminate any books that offended their knuckle-dragging sensibilities. They removed any books that dealt with Mexican-American history; in a district where over half the students have some Mexican-American ancestry.

Not content with banning history, in January:

...administrators informed Mexican-American studies teachers to stay away from any units where “race, ethnicity and oppression are central themes,” including the teaching of Shakespeare’s classic [The Tempest] in Mexican-American literature courses.

Once upon a time, Decline of the West-styled conservatives like Allan Bloom were lamenting that American education was ignoring the classics in favor of a multiculturalist agenda. Now the very people who once might have once sided with Bloom are going after Shakespeare.

If you go here, you can find out how to submit your very own Virtual Read-Out video.

Readers’ Corner: Francomania

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A modest proposal from Minh Lee over at Bookriot which deserves at least some consideration: Let’s put James Franco on all book covers. See his Franco-fied version of The Picture of Dorian Gray above and other classics (the best of which must be Lolita) here.

asilaydyingThe idea came from the waves of dismay that arose from many literate corners on the release of the movie tie-in cover for Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Franco directed and wrote the film adaptation coming out later this year. Any concerns about the book design, though, are overshadowed by the fact that the film is co-starring his buddy Danny “Eastbound and Down” McBride. Perhaps the film uncovers Faulkner’s funny side?

Judging by the trailer, probably not:

Quote of the Day: Men Don’t Read

Men. Reading.
Men. Reading.

Depressing, provocative, or just plain true, here’s something to consider from Bryan Goldberg; he made millions off co-founding the incredibly popular crowd-sourced sports site Bleacher Report and is now trying to do the same for women-centered writing (whatever that is) at a site called Bustle. According to Goldberg:

Men, to the best of my knowledge, don’t even read … When’s the last time you heard a man say, ‘I’ve been reading this great book, you’d really like it’? My girlfriend always tells me about these books she’s reading, and I don’t even see her reading the book! Where does this book live?

Apparently it doesn’t occur to Goldberg to just pick up a book and find out what this fascinating and mysterious hobby is all about.

But in any case, he is not wrong in the aggregate, as any bookstore employee can tell you: Women buy books, men don’t. There is the occasional squawk of disagreement on this issue and plenty of anecdotal evidence to the contrary, but mostly, the numbers bear it out.

A 2007 story from NPR reported that even among avid readers, the typical woman read nine books a year, compared to five for men. Men make up just 20 percent of fiction reader. It’s hard to believe that those numbers have changed much in the past six years.

Back in 2005, novelist Ian McEwan (Atonement, the amazing new Sweet Tooth) tried an experiment. He and his son went around a London park distributing books for free. The result?

Every young woman we approached – in central London practically everyone seems young – was eager and grateful to take a book. Some riffled through the pile murmuring, “Read that, read that, read that …” before making a choice. Others asked for two, or even three.

The guys were a different proposition. They frowned in suspicion, or distaste. When they were assured they would not have to part with their money, they still could not be persuaded. “Nah, nah. Not for me. Thanks mate, but no.” Only one sensitive male soul was tempted.

“Frowned in suspicion, or distaste.” And remember, this was before every man had a smart phone to obsessively check up on sports scores.

New in Theaters: ‘After Tiller’

Dr. Susan Robinson in 'After Tiller'.
Dr. Susan Robinson in ‘After Tiller’.

after_tiller posterAfter several recent documentaries about abortion that have hewed to a closely nonpartisan viewpoint (12th & Delaware, in particular), After Tiller stakes out a definite position. In staunchly defending the heroism of the four doctors who still provide late-term abortions after the 2009 assassination of George Tiller, the filmmakers have created a powerful but still thoughtful investigation of a tough subject.

After Tiller is playing now in limited release. My review is at Film Racket; here’s part:

When Dr. George Tiller was assassinated at his Wichita church by a pro-life fanatic in 2009, he became the eighth abortion clinic worker in America to be killed. At the time he was one of the country’s only doctors who performed third-trimester abortions. Tiller continued his work despite fulminations from extremist groups like Operation Rescue and pundits like Bill O’Reilly (who referred to him as “Tiller the Baby Killer”) and the threats that followed all that overheated rhetoric like a storm. He said at one point, “Everything has a risk to it.” That risk shrouds all the stories told in Martha Shane and Lana Wilson’s hopeful, quietly optimistic documentary After Tiller; there’s a reason that none of the patients in the film have their faces shown…

You can watch the trailer here:

Writers’ Corner: Flannery O’Connor

flanneryoconnor1Nobody ever accused Flannery O’Connor of being a lightweight. Books like Wise Blood got her slapped with the Southern gothic label; all those eccentrics and deeply wounded souls. But her writing exists in a curious, dark, God-haunted world all of her own.

Last week’s New Yorker featured a surprise installment: Selections from the journal that O’Connor kept while attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1946 and 1947 when she was in her early 20s. The excerpts included in the article reveal a work that is less personal journal than it is a series of impassioned pleas to a God who seems both loving and unimaginably punishing:

Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon…. I do not know you God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside.

I don’t want to be a coward, staying with You because I fear hell…. I believe in hell. Hell seems a great deal more feasible to my weak mind than heaven…. I can fancy the tortures of the damned but I cannot imagine the disembodied souls hanging in a crystal for all eternity praising God.

No one can be an atheist who does not know all things. Only God is an atheist. The devil is the greatest believer & he has his reasons.

If I ever do get to be a fine writer, it will not be because I am a fine writer but because God has given me credit for a few of the things He kindly wrote for me.

There’s a lot of overheated adolescent self-punishment in these entries, but also a powerful dose of love, looking for a target. In addition, O’Connor shows an acknowledgment that many non-religious writers would agree with: That she is not the author of what she writes. Many aren’t sure where that gift comes from, but they don’t completely trust that it emanates from themselves alone.

Soundbooth: ‘Wise Up Ghost’

elviscostelloroots-wiseupghostcover1Apropos of nothing to do with music, it must be said that the cover for the new Elvis Costello and The Roots collaboration, Wise Up Ghost and Other Songs, is likely the album cover of the year. Clean with about being overly minimal, with an elegant serif typeface, it’s the sort of thing more bands should aspire to.

That remains true even if Elvis, Questlove and the boys are just paying homage to copying the cover for the classic City Lights edition of Allen Ginsberg’s first poetry collection Howl; a work that most likely had little direct influence on any of the artists working on this album.

When in doubt, steal well.

New in Theaters: ‘Prisoners’

Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal in 'Prisoners'.
Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘Prisoners’.

prisoners-posterWhenever Hugh Jackman leaves Wolverine-land to return to the world of real-ish moviemaking, he leaves a spotty record. For every Les Miserables (2012), there’s an Australia. For Prisoners, he teams up with a bona fide director, Incendies‘ Denis Villeneuve, for a story that makes him push into territory beyond his usual action/romance repertoire.

My review is at Film Journal International; here’s part:

For his first Hollywood film, Denis Villeneuve’s take on Aaron Guzikowski’s famously long-unproduced screenplay about the kidnapping of two little girls is rooted in a rare workaday realism. When revelations start knocking the film this way and that, Villeneuve keeps a firm hand on the pressure valve while still giving his performers room to grow with the story rather than in spite of it. Without him, this might have been just an exceptionally twist-laden thriller. With him, it’s a dour but exceptionally high-stakes drama with several performers giving their best efforts in years…

You can see the trailer here:

New on DVD: ‘World War Z’

Brad Pitt tries to save his family in 'World War Z'
Brad Pitt tries to save his family in ‘World War Z’

worldwarz-dvdIn case you missed the last zombie apocalypse to come running into theaters with bloody abandon, World War Z is out today on DVD, Blu-ray, and all other home viewing media.

My review of the summer’s surprise hit (all that talk of reshoots and budget problems), Brad Pitt vs. the Flesh-Eating Undead, can be found at Film Journal International; here’s part:

Zombies are people, too. That’s one truth understood by the better stories in the genre, from Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend to Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake. At no moment in Marc Forster’s churning and unfocused World War Z are the rampaging CGI hordes of the undead made to appear like anything more than swarming bits of computer code. Many of the human actors don’t fare much better…

The rather vague ending left a gaping opening for a sequel, which is apparently being planned right now but has not been officially greenlit yet.

Here’s the trailer:

New in Theaters: ‘Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction’

Nastassja Kinski with Harry Dean Stanton in his signature scene from 'Paris, Texas.'
Nastassja Kinski with Harry Dean Stanton in his signature scene from ‘Paris, Texas.’

harry_dean_stanton_partly_fictionWith over 100 credits in everything from avant-garde 1970s Westerns to Wim Wenders arthouse films to The Avengers, Harry Dean Stanton is one of those character actors they don’t seem to make much anymore. And they certainly don’t make movies about. Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction is one of those rare treats that true movie fans are tossed every now and again which almost makes up for the vale of iniquity that is modern cinema.

It’s playing now in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International; here’s part:

When Sophie Huber’s downbeat and jazzy Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction works, it’s almost by happenstance, like catching a glimpse of something beautiful out of the corner of your eye. Of course, as with most works of art that seem to be beautiful accidents, it’s artfully crafted down to the smallest detail…

You can watch the trailer here:

Or, for a real treat, check out his full climactic monologue from Paris, Texas:

 

New in Theaters: ‘Blue Caprice’

Isaiah Washington plays John Allen Muhammad in 'Blue Caprice.'
Isaiah Washington plays John Allen Muhammad in ‘Blue Caprice.’

blue-caprice-posterIt isn’t getting much attention right at the moment, but hopefully viewers will seek out Blue Caprice, which opens in limited release this week. My review is at Film Racket:

Alexandre Moors’ chilling, confidently minimalist feature debut is a horror film that doesn’t try to shock. It’s a slow immersion into a claustrophobic box of paranoia that makes the real world feel like a long, long way away. This is about the only approach that feels appropriate for a story based on the Beltway Sniper case. Over the opening credits, Moors shows news footage of the reign of terror led by John Allen Muhammad and Lee Malvo, when they gunned down some 13 people at random during October 2002. The music is a downbeat fugue, which sets the tone for the rest of this mourning story which never pretends it knows the answer to the one question that matters: Why?…

The trailer is here:

 

Writers’ Corner: Seamus Heaney

seamusheaney11995 Nobel literature laureate Seamus Heaney passed last week into the realm of writerly immortals. Called by some the greatest Irish poet since Yeats, he never quite indulged in W.B.’s profound Celtic mysticism. Nevertheless, you could certainly smell the peat bogs in his poetry’s earthy rhythms. He also recognized the island’s bloody sectarian history without being trapped by it.

Check out the first line of the first poem, “Digging,” in his first collection, 1966’s Death of a Naturalist:

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Given that Heaney was a Catholic from Northern Ireland, those lines weren’t just a statement of intent, they were thick with danger; something that the vast majority of poetry eschews. Not that Heaney was any ideologue; he was too thoughtful for both sides during the Troubles and made enemies all around, as good writers should.

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And for anybody who has painful school memories of the glum verses of Beowulf, go try out Heaney’s verse translation of it from 2000. Gloriously melodramatic and lyrical at the same time, it’s meant to be read aloud by a campfire to a ring of rapt listeners. It’s how more writers should aim to sound.

New in Theaters: ‘Salinger’

J.D. Salinger: Was he writing more books all those years up in New Hampshire?
J.D. Salinger: Was he writing more books all those years up in New Hampshire?

salinger-posterShane Salerno has mostly been a screenwriter for flicks like Armageddon. So it was surprising to hear first that he’d been working for nine years on a documentary about J.D. Salinger and second that he had some pretty large bombshells to drop about the infamously reclusive late author (i.e., new books!).

Salinger opened this week and is being promoted for a potential documentary Oscar nomination that it won’t quite deserve. My review is at Film Journal International:

Although Salinger contains several acute insights about the author’s psychology, its tendency to get as overly excited as the distributor’s heavily hyped publicity campaign sometimes cheapens the whole affair. It’s clearly a labor of love for Salerno, an action-film scribe (SavagesArmageddon) who reportedly spent nine years doggedly digging up material. But he teases out bombshell fragments about the possibilities of new Salinger writings with all the subtlety of a rocket-propelled grenade and resorts to laughable recreations with an actor who looks nothing like Salinger himself…

The trailer is here:

Readers’ Corner: Lello Bookstore

lellobookstore1There was an article published by Lonely Planet last year that ranked the world’s 10 greatest bookstores, and it’s an impressive list. Only one American listing (City Lights in San Francisco) but at least it’s number one, so yay us.

Each of the stores look to be well worth a visit, and of course City Lights is something never to miss if you’re within several dozen miles of San Francisco. But one of the more architecturally astonishing is the Lello Bookstore, located in Porto, Portugal. According to Book Riot, Lello is the oldest operating bookstore in the world. It looks like, well, something from another world, where the most treasured possessions are books and reading is believed to be an occupation, not a hobby.