Vladimir Nabokov dedicated every novel he wrote the same way: "to Vera." This weekend, the Russian magazine Snob is publishing a selection of love letters from Vladimir to his wife over a fifty-year period (she burned her half of the correspondence).
Literary longshot: Jaimy Gordon's surprising National Book Award win for her horse-racing novel, Lord of Misrule, is perhaps even more inspiring than the Seabiscuit story. The book was ignored before it was nominated for America's most prestigious literary prize, and as the New York Times reports, even afterwards it only received two reviews—one in The Daily Racing Form.
Sloane Crosley, the Vintage and Anchor publicist famous for her sassy memoirs I Was Told There'd Be Cake and How Did you Get This Number is saying "See ya!" to the publicity grind, so she can concentrate on writing full-time. Crosley announced in an email to her colleagues, "I will phantom-limb miss this place but I very much look forward to keeping in touch."
There's a predictably ridiculous culture-war skirmish going on over Obama's children's book, Of Thee I Sing; meanwhile, Sarah Palin is under the impression that it is illegal to write about her book before it comes out.
The National Book Awards were announced last night, and the honors for nonfiction went to rock icon Patti Smith for her memoir of Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids. (Read Greg Milner's review. Listen to the Bookworm interview.) "There's nothing more beautiful in the material world than the book," Smith said in her acceptance speech. (Smith will appear again tonight at a tribute for the late novelist Jim Carroll.) We were excited to see that the relatively unknown Jaimy Gordon won for her novel Lord of Misrule. Tom Wolfe won the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters (a.k.a. the lifetime achievement award)—and spoke for what seemed like a lifetime. As Edward Champion tweeted during the ceremony, "Tom Wolfe: the National Book Awards's answer to Fidel Castro."
At the Faster Times, there's a funny and thoughtful conversation between Deb Olin Unferth and George Saunders about the "state of the creative-writing degree." Particularly great are Saunders's opening remarks about MFA programs, in which he advises: "Don’t apply just because you think it’s the thing to do or is a 'good career move' or everyone else in your school is doing it. Apply when you really feel you need ... something: shelter or focus or good readers or just some time out of the capitalist shit-storm."
Guernica Magazine has posted a previously unpublished interview with John Updike, in which he discusses at length his admiration of Nabokov, though he critiques Nabokov's maddening novel Ada or Ardor: "It was too much of a good thing in that his, what you might call his narcissistic side, the self-reveling side . . . there was a kind of vanity and a preening and a dandyish cruelty. There is a cruelty in Nabokov, which—you know, life is cruel, so why can’t a writer be cruel? But in that case, it seemed to me to be too much, and in some ways the book was very aristocratic."
The brainy literary-arts magazine Triple Canopy has a new design.
The Bard of Brooklyn, novelist Paul Auster, is appearing tonight on his home turf at BookCourt to promote his new novel, Sunset Park, which largely takes place in the eponymous neighborhood.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux president Jonathan Galassi has just completed an impressive new translation of Giacomo Leopardi's Canti, the nineteenth-century collection of forty-one poems that Joseph Luzzi characterizes in the new Bookforum as covering a "dazzling variety of styles and themes, from confessions of private pain and humiliation to philosophical satires and grand pronouncements on current events." At the Work in Progress blog, Galassi shares images of his Canti proof pages, offering a fascinating glimpse at the revisions and edits that went into making his musical and faithful en face edition. As he writes: "Trying to make Leopardi sound plausible in English has been very, very laborious—and exhilarating."
One of our favorite Brooklyn bookstores, Unnameable Books, is the type of carefully curated new and used shop that has become increasingly rare, if not nearly extinct (Atlantic Books is also a precious exemplar of what a good used bookshop should be). Unnameable's owner Adam Tobin chats with The Prospect Heights Patch about what it takes to thrive as a local independent bookseller in the age of e-books and Amazon.
The inimitable New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere Jones is becoming an editor of the forthcoming iPad newspaper, The Daily, headed by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. New Yorker editor David Remnick doesn't sound worried: “People who write here do all sorts of things—books, other writing—so he can do what he wants as long as the work here doesn’t suffer.”
Alix Christie estimates that there are ten million people currently writing novels, the majority of which will never be published. What keeps these writers going?
Jay-Z at the New York Public Library, photo by Jori Klein.
Bookworms and b-boys (and girls) were buoyant last night at the New York Public Library’s Jay-Z appearance with Cornel West. Fans showed up hours before the 7pm event, giddy with anticipation at seeing the music biz's "number-one supplier." Jay-Z is promoting his lavish new autobiography, Decoded, which mixes memoir and a labyrinthine self-deconstruction of his lyrics. Tickets were notoriously hard to come by, and those lucky enough to have them weren’t above gloating (“We’re all VIPs!” someone in the general admissions line shouted during the long wait to get past the security area). Inside the normally hushed Celeste Bartos auditorium, the mood was an odd combination of library colloquy and hip-hop concert: The crowd a mix of fervent Jay-Z fans and those more familiar with the LOC than the HOV’. But an A-list celebrity like Jay can easily bridge such divides, and his charisma enthralled the audience after the packed house had been warmed up with soul songs (Marvin Gaye, James Brown), Jay-Z’s Black Album track “December 4th" (featuring a recording of Jay-Z’s mother talking about his childhood), and a Louis Armstrong tune. The moderator, the NYPL's Paul Holdengraber, said he was experiencing a “euphoria of ignorance” about hip-hop. He quipped that he grew up comparing the merits of various versions of The Magic Flute, and drew a noticeable blank when Jay-Z mentioned the rapper Ol' Dirty Bastard, saying, "You will lose me at times." But Holdengraber said that he loved what he had learned from Decoded, and his new-found enthusiasm for Jay-Z's work was genuine and infectious, as he gamely and capably steered the conversation with Jay-Z and West, reading selections from Decoded, and pronouncing Jay-Z to be a major poet, a statement that garnered roof-rocking applause.
During the wide-ranging, nearly two hour discussion (which was live blogged at The Guardian), Jay-Z answered questions from West and Holdengraber honestly and eloquently. He spoke about growing up in the Marcy Projects in Brooklyn (as described in the song "What More Can I Say:" "I remember vividly/What these streets did to me"), and the thrill of discovering rap: "It made language new." Jay-Z repeatedly stressed the importance of context in understanding hip-hop culture, explaining that that was the main reason his lyrics are annotated in Decoded. He cited the song "99 Problems" as an example, because the word bitch features prominently in its catchy chorus. Jay-Z told the song’s story, which is about “driving while black,” and offered the not-quite-convincing explanation that "bitch" refers to a dog in a police K-9 unit, adding, "I was being provocative . . . it struck me as deeply funny that people thought I was talking about women." (Perhaps not as funny to women who would love to see that degrading word banished from pop-culture.)
The trio also talked about God (Jay-Z is a believer, opining that all religions are "praying to the same God," though he admitted a moment of doubt when the Notorious B.I.G. was murdered), fame ("It's more of a challenge than a burden"), Obama imitating Jay's famous gesture, and how Jay forgave his father for leaving his family, an encounter chronicled memorably in the song "Moment of Clarity." Jay-Z gave Harry Belafonte, Lupe Fiasco, and some old friends in the front rows shout-outs along the way, but there was no sign of his wife, Beyonce. The evening ended with Jay-Z's “Empire State of Mind,” a song that catpures both the beauty and grit of NYC, blasting on the PA. The audience bobbed their heads and clapped along. Wrapping up, Holdengraber asked West if he had any more questions for Jay-Z, and West, obviously moved by the music, simply said, echoing the chorus: “I am inspired." Kudos to the city's finest cultural institution for bringing together a Princeton professor and a poet from the projects to inspire us all.
Joan Didion once wrote that "a writer is always selling someone out." That phrase takes on multiple meanings in Suzanne Mozes's New York magazine story about author and self-proclaimed rebel James Frey's new publishing company, Full Fathom Five. Frey himself is obviously taking young, ambitious authors for a ride, offering them contracts custom-made to screw artists over. Thankfully, Mozes does a great job of selling Frey out, too, nailing his false charisma and exposing the insidious contractual maneuvers his company has worked hard to keep secret.
President Obama's new book for kids, Of Thee I Sing, goes on sale today.
Over at the Paris Review, Witz author and Bookforum contributor Joshua Cohen gives some advice about how to beat writer's block (drink through it, duh), and explains why you should promote your frenemy's book.
At his reading at NYU on Friday night, Junot Diaz read his excellent short story "Nilda" and provided some choice off-the-cuff remarks too: "There was plans to read other shit before shit got like this.... Fuck."
Yesterday, the Columbia Journalism Review reported that the Newsweek.com staff—after learning that their site will soon be folded into The Daily Beast from a New York Times article—became so irate that they started a Tumblr, Save Newsweek.com, lodging bitter complaints against their print counterparts: "Newsweek.com ... have always remained an ugly stepchild to its print grandparents, who were too busy burning money to notice." But reports of the demise of Newsweek.com appear to have been premature, as Tina Brown, newly named editor-in-chief of the combined The Newsweek Daily Beast Co, has posted on Twitter that Newsweek.com would not disappear. (Meanwhile, at The Awl, Choire Sicha calculates just how much money the various print and online enterprises are losing.)
British professor Stephen Parker has discovered that Bertolt Brecht probably had an undiagnosed rheumatic fever, though doctors thought Brecht was just a hypochondriac (he later died from a heart attack likely caused by the fever). Professor Parker says his discovery provides new insight into the prickly German playwright: "it affected his behavior, making him more exaggerated in his actions, and prone to over-reaction. . . . He carried the problem all his life and compensated for this underlying weakness by projecting a macho image to show himself as strong."
On Wednesday, the National Book Award will be announced. In preparation, former NBA judge Tom LeClair offers synopses of the five finalists, predicts a winner (he correctly called last year's victor, Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin), and petitions for his favorite, Karen Tei Yamashita's I Hotel, "the most ambitious in its cultural range, the most diverse in character, the most ingenious in form, and the most idiosyncratic in style."
'Tis the season for e-books: The New York Times has rounded up a band of prescient analysts who predict big sales for e-readers over the holidays. Book publishers are optimistic that that's good news for the industry, as Carolyn Reidy of Simon & Schuster cheerfully notes: "The digital will be an added plus to what looks like we’re starting to pull out of—a very lackluster market . . . That will make for a very happy year after two Christmases that have not been very happy.”
Tonight, historian Morris Dickstein and author Honor Moore will discuss John Williams's quietly devastating 1965 novel, Stoner, recently reissued by the New York Review of Books Classics. Stoner was chosen by Last Call (a history of prohibition) author Daniel Okrent as one of his favorite books in Bookforum's roundup, "2010: A Year of Reading."
The long-rumored merger between Newsweek and the Daily Beast is finally official, with Tina Brown as the editor-in-chief of both publications. Brown writes of the partnership: "Working at the warp-speed of a 24/7 news operation, we now add the versatility of being able to develop ideas and investigations that require a different narrative pace suited to the medium of print." As the Observer notes, Brown's last print publication was the luckless Talk magazine, which began with a bang in 1999 before folding in 2002.
Last week, Paul Devlin at Slate pointed out some transcription errors in The Anthology of Rap, writing, "this book, with its university-press imprimatur, will be quoted from by future students and scholars, and while much of it is accurate, too much of it is not." Now, the Anthology's editors respond.
Alice Gregory's moving and thoughtful book review for n+1, "Sad as Hell," which considers Gary Shteyngart's novel Super Sad True Love Story, should be required reading in The Social Network age. Only partially about Shteyngart's book, Gregory's essay uses the novel as a backdrop for her eloquent chronicle of being young and technology addled: "I catch myself performing hideous, futuristic gestures, like that 'hilarious' moment three seconds into an intimate embrace in which I realize I’m literally rubbing my iPhone screen across his spine."
n+1's new print issue, "Self Improvement," comes out today and features an excerpt from Sheila Heti's excellent new novel, How Should a Person Be, as well responses to Freedom from n+1 editors, and much more. If you prefer "Self Improvement and instant gratification," a digital version of the issue is available now.
Tonight, Triple Canopy is hosting an event in downtown Brooklyn, featuring Joe Milutis, the author of Ether: The Nothing That Connects Everything, discussing "literary minutia," as well as Triple Canopy editor (and Bookforum freelance editor) Sam Frank reading "an adaptation of issue 10's 'Happy Moscow,' which he isn't sure how to characterize, and maybe something more he hasn't written yet but has maybe only dreamed."
Published last month, Bound to Last is a new anthology for which thirty authors pay homage to their "most cherished books." There are some excellent and in some cases deeply inspired entries: Ed Park geeks out over the Dungeon Masters Guide; Nick Flynn assembles a series of personal, melancholic fragments about Ryszard Kapuscinski's Shadow of the Sun. But the most personal essay is by artist Karen Green, the widow of David Foster Wallace. Her topic is The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel, but the essay basically uses quotes from that book as a framework for her reflections about DFW's suicide—about selling the house that they shared, about describing what had happened in the house, about talking to her late husband's psychiatrist. "I was asked to contribute to this anthology because I am the widow, via hanging, of David Foster Wallace," she writes, "whose writing I enjoyed very much, but whose made-up potty humor songs on a road trip I liked even better." Green's humor is on a par with Hempel's: Her description of the gift shop at the L. A. Coroner's Office is both skewed and also, somehow, respectful of life. The piece is the most moving thing we've read about Wallace's death yet.
After two decades in Gotham, indie publishing icon Soft Skull Press is heading to Berkeley. As the New York Press writes, "While it might not be the end of Soft Skull altogether, by leaving New York, the press will never be the same. After all, Soft Skull is the quintessential New York City indie press." New York Press details the imprint's history, from its early days in a Greenwich Village copy shop, publishing books like Lee Ranaldo's 1995 Road Movies, through its Downtown heyday, when a motley mix of musicians, activists, and authors hung out in its basement office and produced books like Eileen Myles's novel Cool for You. A few years ago, Soft Skull merged with Counterpoint Press, and is now decamping to Counterpoint's Bay Area offices. As the New York Press notes, "Soft Skull leaving New York makes perfect sense. After all, the New York that fostered Soft Skull—the one that made room for punk rock poets, nightclubs like Tonic and copy shops where smart, bored kids could bind books and sell them out of their East Village apartment—isn’t the New York that we live in anymore." Here's hoping that the press survives, and thrives, on sunnier shores.
Tonight at New York's Center for Fiction, the National Book Critics Circle will host a roundtable discussion on the question: "Should novelists review other people’s novels?" We predict that the short answer will be "yes," as the panelists include Roxana Robinson, Lev Grossman, and Jane Ciabattari, all of whom are both fiction writers and book reviewers.
(Line)breaking up is hard to do: On the imperfect art of poetry formatted for e-readers, the Poetry Foundation has found that small poetry publishers waver between optimism and doubt. As Copper Canyon Press's marketing director, Joseph Bednarik, says, "“Copper Canyon is all about the poem on the page, the poem in the book. . . . As a publisher, we’re excited by the possibility that e-books afford, but we need to be careful about the way poems and e-books are presented."
In the '90s the Gap memorably informed us that Jack Kerouac wore khakis, but did he wear an angled baseball cap too? A new project confirms the essential frat dude that’s at the heart of Kerouac's work, translating his classic novel into bro speak.
David Rosenthal, who left his post at Simon & Schuster last summer, has been hired by Penguin USA to lead a new imprint. According to an article at the Times, the position will generate "competition between Penguin and Simon & Schuster," as Rosenthal pursues authors he has worked with in the past, who have included Bob Dylan and Bob Woodward. The editor himself sounds prepared to mix things up. "I’m going to make lots of trouble,” he said. “They’re going to let me go after the kind of—I wouldn’t say quirky—but the peculiar stuff that I sometimes like. What they want very much is for me to be able to indulge my passions, indulge my taste.”
The University of Texas's Harry Ransom Center has been on a roll this year: After obtaining the papers of David Foster Wallace and Denis Johnson, they have now acquired the archives of author-performer Spalding Gray.
At Salon, Jonathan Lethem offers a glimpse of his new, book-length, meticulous close reading of John Carpenter's cult sci-fi classic They Live.
Among the things you'll learn from an interview Tao Lin did while on Ecstasy: He doesn't think Asperger's Syndrome exists. He is much more depressed by rejection from women than he is by rejection from the press ("Like if I’ve emailed a girl that I like a lot and they haven’t responded in a few days, I feel really bad. The New York Times and other stuff like that doesn’t affect me at all"). And carbs are worse for you than heroin is.
Roxane Gay at htmlgiant overcomes her reservations about The Paris Review: "Is The Paris Review good? Grudgingly, I must revise my previous statement. The magazine is fucking exceptional and as a contrarian know that it pains me to admit that."