An essay on motivation.
“I think you are asking me, in the most tactful way possible, about my own aggression and malice. What can I do but plead guilty? I don’t know whether journalists are more aggressive and malicious than people in other professions. We are certainly not a ‘helping profession.’ If we help anyone, it is ourselves, to what our subjects don’t realize they are letting us take. I am hardly the first writer to have noticed the not-niceness of journalists. Tocqueville wrote about the despicableness of American journalists in Democracy in America. In Henry James’s satiric novel The Reverberator, a wonderful rascally journalist named George M. Flack appears. I am only one of many contributors to this critique. I am also not the only journalist contributor. Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion, for instance, have written on the subject. Of course, being aware of your rascality doesn’t excuse it.”
On literary mashups, double entendres, and questionable choices.
"Maybe you’ve heard of M__y Dick? I would bet you haven’t read it, and I bet I’d win that bet because I’d be leaving nothing up to chance. Here’s why: nobody has read M__y Dick. Scratch that. Nobody but me has read M__y Dick, because there’s only one copy in existence and it’s right here in my apartment, right here on this very desk I am writing to you from. That was the whole point. M__y Dick was just for me, for my own self-improvement. Of course, that didn’t stop them from talking about it, which was fine at first, and then it was not."
On George Plimpton and the founders of The Paris Review:
Early in the fifties another young generation of American expatriates in Paris became twenty-six years old, but they were not Sad Young Men, nor were they Lost; they were the witty, irreverent sons of a conquering nation.
Four dispatches from the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday:
In most places in the world, June 16 is just another day on the calendar, but here in Dublin, the day that James Joyce earmarked for Ulysses is celebrated with a fervor not seen here since the days of the druids when, if you really wanted to party, you needed a couple skeins of wine and a grove full of virgins.
A trip to the Famous Poets Society convention/contest in Reno.
“If you have read 6,000 books in your lifetime, or even 600, it’s probably because at some level you find “reality” a bit of a disappointment.”
In the Swiss town of Meiringen, where an obsessed group of ‘pilgrims’ painstakingly recreate the death of Sherlock Holmes.
Browsing the stacks with The Washington Post’s Michael Dirda.
An interview with Maurice Sendak.
I can’t ask anything. Once in a while if I’m forced into it I will conduct an interview, but it’s usually pro forma, just to establish my credentials as somebody who’s allowed to hang around for a while. It doesn’t matter to me what people say to me in the interview because I don’t trust it.
A clue-filled children’s book, a golden hare, and Britain’s greatest treasure hunt.
Retro, apocalypticism, and our “culture of disaster.”
INTERVIEWER: You once said the novel is dead. VIDAL: That was a joke.
An interview with the novelist.
His book panned in the New York Times after being misread by the critic, an author responds.
On collecting books.
I have lived in books, for books, by and with books; in recent years, I have been fortunate enough to be able to live from books. And it was through books that I first realised there were other worlds beyond my own; first imagined what it might be like to be another person; first encountered that deeply intimate bond made when a writer's voice gets inside a reader's head.
How Google’s utopian/dystopian plan to scan the world’s books failed and the Harvard-led team that’s picking up the pieces.
Uncovered letters reveal ties between the literary magazine and the CIA’s Congress for Cultural Freedom.
“I didn’t realize who my father was. So it didn’t make a whole lot of difference. I wasn’t there believing that I was receiving genius from on high. My father was my father.”
On “Poor Hartley,” the son of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
A profile of the eccentric Gene Weingarten, the only person to twice win the Pulitzer for feature writing.
On a Victorian-era murder case, and the novel it inspired.
A profile of Robert Caro, who’s been working on a biography on Lyndon Johnson for nearly 40 years.
Teaching Emily Dickinson at Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, Florida.
This interview with Kurt Vonnegut was originally a composite of four interviews done with the author over the past decade. The composite has gone through an extensive working over by the subject himself, who looks upon his own spoken words on the page with considerable misgivings . . . indeed, what follows can be considered an interview conducted with himself, by himself.
Jimmy McNulty, Mike Daisey, and the problems with skirting the system to get to the greater truth.
A profile of thriller writer Harlan Coben and what it takes to succeed as a novelist even when the literary establishment doesn’t acknowledge your existence.
A pilgrimage to J.D. Salinger’s New Hampshire home:
The silence surrounding this place is not just any silence. It is the work of a lifetime. It is the work of renunciation and determination and expensive litigation. It is a silence of self-exile, cunning, and contemplation. In its own powerful, invisible way, the silence is in itself an eloquent work of art. It is the Great Wall of Silence J.D. Salinger has built around himself.
Exploring the relationship between authors and their parents.
It mattered to her that she could have, or might have, been a writer, and perhaps it mattered to me more than I fully understood. She watched my books appear with considerable interest, and wrote me an oddly formal letter about the style of each one, but she was, I knew, also uneasy about my novels. She found them too slow and sad and oddly personal. She was careful not to say too much about this, except once when she felt that I had described her and things which had happened to her too obviously and too openly. That time she said that she might indeed soon write her own book. She made a book sound like a weapon.
A profile of Quentin Rowan, a.k.a. Q. R. Markham, ‘author’ of last fall’s short-lived spy novel hit Assassins of Secrets, which was pieced together using more than a dozen sources.
On Alison Winter’s Memory: Fragments of a Modern History, and issues of memory in the 20th century.
Underlying the compelling feeling that we are our memories is a further common-sense assumption that our entire lives are accurately retained somewhere in the brain ‘bank’ as laid-down memories of our experience, and that we retrieve our lives and selves from an ever expanding stockpile of recollections. Or we can’t, and then that feeling that it’s on the tip of our tongue, or there but just out of range, still encourages us to think that everything we have known or done is in us somewhere, if only our digging equipment were sharper.
On literary tourism:
Dickens World, in other words, sounded less like a viable business than it did a mockumentary, or a George Saunders short story, or the thought experiment of a radical Marxist seeking to expose the terminal bankruptcy at the heart of consumerism. And yet it was real.
Sixty-nine years after publication, Fortune revisits “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” – a story it commissioned but did not run.
The explosion of publishing created a much more democratic and permanent network of public communication than had ever existed before. The mass proliferation of newspapers and magazines, and a new-found fascination with the boundaries of the private and the public, combined to produce the first age of sexual celebrity.
On Patti Smith.
It was easy for lazy journalists to caricature her as a stringbean who looked like Keith Richards, emitted Dylanish word salads, and dropped names—a high-concept tribute act of some sort, very wet behind the ears. But then her first album, Horses, came out in November 1975, and silenced most of the scoffers.
Didion’s genius is that she understands what it is to be a girl on the cusp of womanhood, in that fragile, fleeting, emotional time that she explored in a way no one else ever has. Didion is, depending on the reader’s point of view, either an extraordinarily introspective or an extraordinarily narcissistic writer. As such, she is very much like her readers themselves.
Inside the Shel Silverstein archive.
One of the things you learn is that “polymath” doesn’t even begin to describe Silverstein. His creativity extended in so many directions that his archivists must be versed not just in turn-of-the-century world children’s literature, but Waylon Jennings’s deep cuts; not just in reel-to-reel tape preservation, but how to keep an old restaurant napkin scribbled with lyrics from falling apart.
James Wood on Saul Bellow:
One realizes, with a shock, that Bellow has taught one how to see and how to hear, has opened the senses. Until this moment one had not really thought of the looseness of a lightbulb filament, one had not heard the saliva bubbling in the harmonica, one had not seen well enough the nose pitted with black pores, and the demolition ball’s slow, heavy selection of its victims. A dozen good writers–Updike, DeLillo, others–can render you the window of a fish shop, and do it very well; but it is Bellow’s genius to see the lobsters “crowded to the glass” and their “feelers bent” by that glass–to see the riot of life in the dead peace of things.
When Saul Bellow and Ralph Ellison were roommates.
He and I had our differences. I am not inclined to be sentimental about those Arcadian or Utopian days. He didn't approve of my way of running the place. I had complained also that his dog relieved himself in my herb garden. I asked, "Can't you arrange to have him do his shitting elsewhere?"
The demise of America’s favorite mega-bookstore and the factors beyond the e-book boom that fueled the book retail meltdown.
We have a rich literature. But sometimes it’s a literature too ready to be neutralized, to be incorporated into the ambient noise. This is why we need the writer in opposition, the novelist who writes against power, who writes against the corporation or the state or the whole apparatus of assimilation. We’re all one beat away from becoming elevator music.
Thomas Pynchon walks down a New York City street in the middle of the morning. He has a light gait. He floats along. He looks canny and whimsical, like he'd be fun to talk to; but, of course, he's not talking. It's a drizzling day, and the writer doesn't have an umbrella. He's carrying his own shopping bag, a canvas tote like one of those giveaways from public radio. He makes a quick stop in a health-food store, buys some health foods. He leaves the store, but just outside, as if something had just occurred to him, he turns around slowly and walks to the window. Then, he peers in, frankly observing the person who may be observing him. It's raining harder now. He hurries home. For the past half-dozen years, Thomas Pynchon, the most famous literary recluse of our time, has been living openly in a city of 8 million people and going unnoticed, like the rest of us.
Pete Dexter, profiled.
"I'm sick and tired of the story," says Dexter, though he knows it is a signature moment of his trajectory from newsman to writing some of the most original and important novels in American literature, including the National Book Award–winning Paris Trout (1988), a riveting tale of an unrepentant racist who brutally murders a 14-year-old black girl in a small Georgia town in the late 1940s. Settling deep into a dark-green leather chair near a patio window that offers a commanding view of ferries chugging across the cold blue waters, Dexter begins: "It was not a good column. I was trying to write something I didn't feel." Dexter is referring to the column that almost got him killed.
How Timothy Patrick Barrus, a white writer of gay erotica, reinvented himself a (wildly successful) Native American memoirist.
An interview with the author.
"We live in a frightened time and people self-censor all the time and are afraid of going into some subjects because they are worried about violent reactions. That is one of the great damaging aspects of what has happened in the last 20 years. Someone asked me if I was afraid to write my memoirs. I told him: 'We have to stop drawing up accounts of fear! We live in a society in which people are allowed to tell their story, and that is what I do.' I am a writer. I write books."
On Gabo and his complicated role in the country of his birth, Colombia.
In 1972, James Wolcott arrived in New York armed with a letter of recommendation from Norman Mailer. He hoped to land a job at The Village Voice. Excerpted from his memoir, Lucking Out.
How lucky I was, arriving in New York just as everything was about to go to hell. I had no idea how fortunate I was at the time, eaten up as I was by my own present-tense concerns and taking for granted the lively decay, the intense dissonance, that seemed like normality.
On the tangled early careers of Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, Mary Karr and Jeffrey Eugenides.
Jonathan Safran Foer It’s been an awfully long time since we last spoke. Four years? And it’s been a long time since the reading world last got new material from you. About seven years? What’s been going on? Jeffrey Eugenides I’ve been writing a book.
21,000 words on the watchers and watched.
HEMINGWAY: You go to the races? PLIMPTON: Yes, occasionally. HEMINGWAY: Then you read the Racing Form . . . . There you have the true art of fiction.
"Hi," she said on the telephone, a week after the announcement. "This is Toni, your Nobelette. Are you ready for Stockholm?" Well, since she asked, why not? I left town for Greek light, German sausage, Russian soul, French sauce, Spanish bull, Zen jokes, the Heart of Darkness and the Blood of the Lamb. Toni Morrison's butter cakes and baby ghosts, her blade of blackbirds and her graveyard loves, her Not Doctor Street and No Mercy Hospital and all those maple syrup men "with the long-distance eyes" are a whole lot more transfiguring. Where else but Stockholm, even if she does seem to have been promiscuous with her invitations. I mean, she asked Bill Clinton, too, whose inaugural she had attended, and with whom she was intimate at a White House dinner party in March. (He told Toni's agent, Amanda "Binky" Urban, that he really wanted to go but... they wouldn't let him.) Salman Rushdie might also have gone except that the Swedish Academy declined officially to endorse him in his martyrdom, after which gutlessness three of the obligatory eighteen academicians resigned in protest, and can't be replaced, because you must die in your Stockholm saddle.
On Friday Night Lights as book, film, and TV show.
The story of Asa Earl Carter, aka Forrest Carter, the best-selling author of The Education of Little Tree, an autobiographical novel about “communion with nature and love of one’s fellow man.” He was also a Klansman, penning the famous George Wallace line, “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!”
The behind-the-scenes publishing saga of Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel.
An essay on poetry and madness.
People still think of poets as an odd bunch, as you’ll know if you’ve been introduced as one at a wedding. Some poets spotlight this conception by saying otherworldly things, playing up afflictions and dramas, and otherwise hinting that they might be visionaries. In the past few centuries, of course, the standard picture of psychopathology has changed a great deal. But as it’s often invoked, the idea of the mad poet preserves, in fossil form, a stubbornly outdated and incomplete image of madness. Modern psychiatry and neuroscience have supplanted this image almost everywhere else.
His friends remembered when Richard became famous. It was the year the hippies came to San Francisco. Richard had published one novel, A Confederate General from Big Sur, but it had sold miserably 743 copies and his publisher, Grove Press, had dropped its option on Trout Fishing in America. Donald Allen was the West Coast representative of Grove and the editor of the Evergreen Review, which had introduced the Beat Generation. Allen had a small nonprofit press called the Four Seasons Foundation, and he decided to publish the book himself. Allen sold 29,000 copies of the book before Delacorte bought it. Eventually, 2 million copies were sold. It was the kind of book that captured the spirit and sound of a generation. Soon there was a commune and an underground newspaper and even a school named after Trout Fishing in America. His short stories and poems appeared regularly in Rolling Stone, often beneath a photograph of him in his broad-brimmed hat. His face became a hippie icon. "For three or four years, he was like George Harrison walking down Haight Street," remembered Don Carpenter, a novelist and scriptwriter and a longtime friend of Richard's. His image infuriated what Richard called the East Coast literary mafia.
Three interviews with John Gardner, author of Grendel and The Art of Fiction, conducted over the last decade of his life.
On the oeuvre of Glenn Beck:
"The undisputed high point of Beck’s tenure in Baltimore was an elaborate prank built around a nonexistent theme park. The idea was to run a promotional campaign for the fictional grand opening of the world’s first air-conditioned underground amusement park, called Magicland. According to Beck and Gray, it was being completed just outside Baltimore. During the build-up, the two created an intricate and convincing radio world of theme-park jingles and promotions, which were rolled out in a slow buildup to the nonexistent park’s grand opening… On the day Magicland was supposed to throw open its air-conditioned doors, Beck and Gray took calls from enraged listeners who tried to find the park and failed. Among the disappointed and enraged was a woman who had canceled a no-refund cruise to attend the event." — from Alexander Zaitchik’s Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance
When she died in 1952, author Margaret Wise Brown left the rights to Goodnight Moon to a nine-year-old neighbor named Albert Clarke. The book became a classic. Clarke, living entirely off the royalties, became a deadbeat.
"I’m not familiar with books on style. My role in the revival of Strunk’s book was a fluke—just something I took on because I was not doing anything else at the time. It cost me a year out of my life, so little did I know about grammar."
An essay on gynobibliophobia and the critical reception of women writers.
An interview on craft:
Writing The Subs in three nights was really a fantastic athletic feat as well as mental, you shoulda seen me after I was done...I was pale as a sheet and had lost fifteen pounds and looked strange in the mirror.
On the unlikely friendship between Nelson Algren and the young writer during the final years of Algren’s life.
It was June of 1980 when Nelson called me breathlessly from the highway.
On the strange ethics of Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy:
What matters instead is the division of the world into good and evil, a division that begins with splitting sex into positive and negative experiences, then ripples out from that in fascinating ways.
In the past the only people who wrote autobiographies or memoirs were very important, those who had a crucial role in the history of their own country—Napoleon, Goethe—or were witness to major events or people who had singular, adventurous lives. Otherwise, it is ridiculous to write your autobiography.
Time is speeding up. And to what end? Maybe we were told that two thousand years ago.
On the shortcomings of both reality and fiction.
The author attends a Tolstoy conference as a grad student. She wears flip-flops, sweatpants and a flannel shirt, and tries to determine if Tolstoy was murdered.
Text from the books and Foster Wallace’s corresponding annotations:
Along with all the Wittgenstein, Husserl and Borges, he read John Bradshaw, Willard Beecher, Neil Fiore, Andrew Weil, M. Scott Peck and Alice Miller. Carefully.
On David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel, The Pale King, and his legacy.
Why utopias are best understood as fiction games, and how they quickly become dystopias when realized.
On writing what you loathe. Leslie McFarlane, ghostwriter of the early Hardy Boys novels, was so ashamed of the work he couldn’t even bring himself to name the books in his diary. “June 9, 1933: Tried to get at the juvenile again today but the ghastly job appalls me.”
On the Cairo knifing of 82-year-old Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz and its aftermath.
On Mark Twain’s recently released memoir.
On the language of hobos and the dictionaries it spawned.
J.D. Salinger on the beaches on D-Day, marching through concentration camps, and in liberated Paris.
A 2000 speech on the impossibility of all forms of exile, particularly literary.
A profile of the director, written from the set of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
On Huck Finn, the book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, and the evolution of language and race in America.
The fever-dream life and death of Chinese poet Gu Cheng.
“Fiction writers are good people, usually. There’s a lot of pretenders, but I haven’t met a lot of sons of bitches.”
In 1926, at the age of 12, Barbara Follett published a critically acclaimed novel. Fourteen years later, she disappeared.
A profile of the late artist and author Norris Church Mailer, who stayed with her husband Norman despite his notorious philandering.
Jay-Z on his new book Decoded, his parents’ record collection, and the real reason rappers have a tendency to grab their junk on stage.
On the BBC radio addresses of E.M. Forster: ”For one thing, he won’t call what he is doing literary criticism, or even reviewing. His are 'recommendations' only. Each episode ends with Forster diligently reading out the titles of the books he has dealt with, along with their exact price in pounds and shillings.”
James Frey is starting a publishing company, paying young writers (very poorly) to reverse engineer a Twilight-esque hit.
Booker winner Howard Jacobson on the bumper crop of hooker memoirs and what they say about our understanding of paid sex.
An interview with R. Crumb on how he adapted Genesis into comic form.
Eleven books into his planned thirteen book The Wheel of Time cycle, the most popular fantasy series since Lord of the Rings, Robert Jordan saw death on his own horizon and planned accordingly. A 31-year-old former Mormon missionary inherited his universe.
How a childhood gorilla-hunting safari and a string of sexless marriages led Alice Sheldon to become reclusive sci-fi legend James Tiptree Jr.
An interview with William Gibson on the “dark, dark world of marketing, advertising, and trend forecasting.”
The poet and his love affair with Italian motorbikes (and also lots of women.)
For nearly a decade, Laura Albert lived a double life as troubled teen turned cult writer J.T. Leroy, writing books, chatting constantly with celebrities, and convincing another woman to appear as J.T. Leroy in public.
An excerpt from a new biography explores the trio of tragedies that struck Dahl’s family just as his career was taking off.
A Pynchon conference in Lublin, Poland may say more about the men (yes, only men) who attend Thomas Pynchon conferences than the works of the reclusive author.
An interview with Lawrence Schiller, himself one of the great interviewers of his time, whose research fueled Norman Mailer’s Executioner's Song.
What the great romantic novels of history can tell us about “seduction theory” and the cult of the pickup artist.
In January 1966–the same month In Cold Blood was first published–Truman Capote sat down with George Plimpton to discuss the new art form he liked to call “creative journalism.”
A interview with David Mitchell, author of the recent The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and Cloud Atlas, on stretching a fictional universe across multiple novels and centuries of real history.
An email dialogue between David Gates and Jonathan Lethem on writing fiction in the age of online experiences.
The head of the Social Security Administration’s secret life as a respected poet.
Zadie Smith on Graham Greene, the master of “ethical ambivalence.”
After his untimely death at age 50, prior to the publication of any of his novels, Larsson is posthumously at the center of a publishing empire built on the international success of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Jung’s ‘Red Book’, a secret journal of dreams and drawings, has been in a Swiss vault for the better part of a century. The burden of its care has fallen on his descendants, who have reluctantly allowed it to be published.