This is a lost week. A case of flu has both me and my wife unable to do much, and I've missed a complete week of classes. This ailment is strange – it fogs the eyes as much as the brain, making it hard to even read. More in a week.
About a year ago, Philip Roth tossed off his fifth novel of this new century, calling it Everyman, alluding to a fifteenth century allegory. Roth has seen this short book (182 pages) panned, and that, to my mind, is unfair.
The book deals with a man in his seventies coping with the emotional residue of prior divorces and the death of his parents. His tries to remain vital as death begins to shadow him and sneers at those succumbing to what he sees as the negotiable inanities of failing minds and bodies.
Perhaps this book disappoints critics and readers because the rage of previous books doesn’t have a place here. Certainly, practitioners of American culture, who continue to spurn the inevitability of death, will find Everyman a bit depressing. But for insightful readers of Roth, Everyman’s lamentation on faltering bodies can be taken as Roth’s still-wicked humor, drawing on the ironies inherent in a durable spirit fighting to remain within a fragile body.
The old Roth pops up in fits and starts – his Everyman trifles with oral and anal sex in the company of a twenty-something model, obviously an aging man – author and character – surrendering libido to imagination. Roth’s skilled technique persists here, the multiple layers of backstory, the narration flitting between present and past with a seamless ease to hearten the early nineteenth century inventors of that novelistic technique.
Everyman’s psychological insights are, to the unpracticed eye, those of a rather superficial man, a man with no clear vision of life. But Roth manages to connect this banal character’s life recapitulation to the male psyche’s common ground. This has always been Roth’s greatest gift to literature: to pluck someone from the masses and to draw his/her uniqueness from that person’s attempts to cope with the manner in which the human experience swallows one whole.
I think Roth kept the book short on purpose – it’s meant to be an elegy in prose form. While poetic elegies attempt to encapsulate a life passed, this one sums up with Everyman still on his feet, if only in flashback. And by tracing a life backwards in time, Roth also manages to place Everyman in a context having little to do with death. Stripped bare of everything except life itself, Everyman’s situation reflects our struggles with identity – struggles rarely resolved and embraced in a single life. Perhaps this is the most significant thing about Roth’s work in Everyman: There’s so much work to do in assembling the fragments of a life into a coherent whole and so little time to manage it.
Part of the manner in which reading dovetails with writing is that we read better than we write. By this I mean it’s easier to see the flaws in a piece of writing we aren’t so intimately connected with. If integrity prevails, a writer can notice something good – or bad – about someone else’s writing, and apply those strengths or correct those weaknesses in one’s own. I’m about to embark on an historical fiction piece, and have been reading historical novels by a number of authors to see how they approach both the historical and fictive aspects.
Which brings me again to Nicholas Nicastro, author of a trilogy on John Paul Jones.
As can happen, overreaching may have led him down a difficult path in his second offering on Jones, Between Two Fires. Where in The Eighteenth Captain, he evokes eighteenth-century novel techniques through the use of those of the twentieth century, Between Two Fires resorts to an authentic version of eighteenth century techniques. The novel is epistolary, i.e. told though letters to sweethearts by two culturally disparate characters: Severence of the previous novel, and Two Fires, an Iroquois man.
Narrative through letters isn’t a bad way to go, but this version of epistolary writing causes me problems. Nicastro has his two men write inordinately long letters, the narrative covering rather long periods of time. First, the unrealistic length of their letters diminishes the narrative effect. This is to say that no one has probably ever written letters so replete with literary devices, including extended use of dialogue. Secondly, the reader is unable to forget that these are letters, which places an obviously contrived barrier between reader and plot. Nicastro manages to justify Severence’s long letters by having them written indirectly as a spy’s reportage to his sweetheart’s father. Those of Two Fires, who speaks and writes more eloquently in English than other of the book’s characters, can make no such claim.
What does Nicastro do right? He manages to tie these disparate characters and their lives together fairly well through this cumbersome technique. His aim in the letter passages is to keep Jones from center stage long enough to portray the heinous actions of both whites and Native Americans in the early American backwoods as they struggle to occupy the same piece of dirt.
The story eventually gets around to Jones and his famous scrape with the English frigate, Serapis. But by the time we get to this point, the naval showdown seems almost anticlimactic. Still, the battle scenes are where Nicastro shines. His narrative of the battle (now in a conventional omniscient third person point of view) is detailed and vivid, his depiction of Jones and his shipmates intimate and most plausible.
His characterization of Jones becomes strikingly similar to that of brutal whites battling Indians in the hinterlands: a narcissistic cur with blood lust. I’m comfortable with this view of Jones since Nicastro has done his research well in other aspects of the story.
But for my taste, Between Two Fires is firing at too broad a target to work as a cohesive novel, particularly a keystone to a trilogy on Jones. Nicastro’s prose is capably constructed, and his characterizations are imaginative. This is enough for me to anticipate the final episode, which I assume involves Jones taking his fighting temperament to Russia.
This time I’m going to say nothing – simply let the press do it for me. Below are excerpts, first from the New York times, December 29th, by Josh Getlin, and last by Lisa Rein, from the January 2 Washington Post.
If you’re a writer, keep the faith – keep writing and honing your skills. Better days will surely come. Readers, I hope you’ll find ways of letting your libraries know their trove shouldn’t be geared to sales, bookstores your preferences, and publishing companies what you’d like to see in print. This goes especially for men, whom the publishing industry, particularly the houses handling literary works, seems to have ignored.
NEW YORK — It started off with bestselling author James Frey admitting his memoir, "A Million Little Pieces," was in fact a work of fiction, and ended with celebrity publisher Judith Regan getting fired for allegedly making anti-Semitic comments after her proposed O.J. Simpson confessional book-TV deal got shot down.
In between came charges that 19-year-old Harvard novelist Kaavya Viswanathan had lifted passages from a rival chick-lit author, and hotly disputed allegations that Ian McEwan, one of the most respected names in modern literary fiction, may have been guilty of plagiarism.
It was that kind of year in publishing — one the literary world would like to forget.
"A lot of this is pretty tawdry stuff," said James Atlas, biographer of Saul Bellow and a longtime editor. "It was, in so many ways, a year of miscreancy in the American book business."
In 2006, the once-genteel publishing industry learned to its dismay that it could no longer escape the relentless media coverage and Internet scrutiny that have become part of modern life. Although the book world has had scandals in the past, the furious pace and intensity of negative publicity in 2006 seemed to buffet publishers harder than ever.
Among those hit was Ira Silverberg, a New York literary agent who was stunned to learn last January that his client J.T. Leroy — a bestselling author believed to be an HIV-positive teenage prostitute — was in fact a 40-year-old San Francisco woman who had concealed her identity for years.
"I was duped, it made me question my faith in publishing, and I was bracing for a stretch of bad media coverage," Silverberg said. But then, within 48 hours, yet another scandal broke in the book world: This time it was Frey's turn, and the ensuing uproar — which included his groveling mea culpa on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" — quickly superseded the news about Leroy.
Despite this wave of negative publicity, many observers insist that the book world continued to thrive in 2006. Although sales were generally flat, quality fiction and nonfiction shared spots on the bestseller lists along with more commercial works, and books continued to find new customers in outlets such as Starbucks, gift shops and other venues. Still, it was a year that many in the literary trade will remember as a time of scandal and controversy.
Among the contretemps:
Even though he was exonerated, reporters from around the world converged on "Da Vinci Code" author Dan Brown's trial in London, where plaintiffs claimed he had lifted material from nonfiction sources.
There were allegations of plagiarism against former President Carter; critics said two maps in his new book on the Middle East conflict were taken from another author, without giving him credit. A spokesperson for publisher Simon & Schuster said, "We stand behind the book fully."
In the spring, charges surfaced that Augusten Burroughs' runaway bestseller "Running With Scissors," a memoir, contained major distortions and invented material.
The annus horribilis ended with the firing of Regan, publisher of ReganBooks. She was terminated after allegedly making anti-Semitic remarks to a HarperCollins attorney about her plans to publish yet another controversial book — this one a "fictional biography" of New York Yankee legend Mickey Mantle that included unflattering (and invented) sex scenes between the slugger and Marilyn Monroe. Regan has denied making anti-Semitic comments and has vowed to file suit against HarperCollins over the termination.
Five ago, Silverberg noted, the book world didn't experience such scrutiny, "and now anything even vaguely scandalous is going to get picked up and amplified. We live in a culture hungry for the scandal du jour, and then the next one. We'll see more unflattering episodes in the future."
Others were more blunt, calling 2006 a turning point. Roxanne J. Coady, owner of a Madison, Conn., bookstore and co-editor of "The Book That Changed My Life," said: "There's just no place for the book world to hide anymore. Any idea that our business is somehow above the fray seems ridiculous now. We are as vulnerable as any other business."
For some, this is inevitable in a corporate-run publishing world that is pressured as never before to show increasing profits. Publishers pay large advances to authors who, they hope, will connect with a public hungry for sensational material. In their haste to find the next bestselling memoirist, the next "Da Vinci Code," there are bound to be more incidents in which writers (and publishers) are caught fabricating stories, stealing material from others or pushing projects in dreadfully bad taste.
Hello, Grisham — So Long, Hemingway?
With Shelf Space Prized, Fairfax Libraries Cull Collections.
You can't find "Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings" at the Pohick Regional Library anymore. Or "The Education of Henry Adams" at Sherwood Regional. Want Emily Dickinson's "Final Harvest"? Don't look to the Kingstowne branch.
It's not that the books are checked out. They're just gone. No one was reading them, so librarians took them off the shelves and dumped them. Along with those classics, thousands of novels and nonfiction works have been eliminated from the Fairfax County collection after a new computer software program showed that no one had checked them out in at least 24 months.
Public libraries have always weeded out old or unpopular books to make way for newer titles. But the region's largest library system is taking turnover to a new level.
Like Borders and Barnes & Noble, Fairfax is responding aggressively to market preferences, calculating the system's return on its investment by each foot of space on the library shelves — and figuring out which products will generate the biggest buzz. So books that people actually want are easy to find, but many books that no one is reading are gone — even if they are classics.
"We're being very ruthless," said Sam Clay, director of the 21-branch system since 1982. "A book is not forever. If you have 40 feet of shelf space taken up by books on tulips and you find that only one is checked out, that's a cost."
That is the new reality for the Fairfax system and the future for other libraries. As books on tape, DVDs, computers and other electronic equipment crowd into branches, there is less room for plain old books.
So librarians are making hard decisions and struggling with a new issue: whether the data-driven library of the future should cater to popular tastes or set a cultural standard, even as the demand for the classics wanes.
Library officials say they will always stock Shakespeare's plays, "The Great Gatsby" and other venerable titles. And many of the books pulled from one Fairfax library can be found at another branch and delivered to a patron within a week.
But in the effort to stay relevant in an age in which reference materials and novels can be found on the Internet and Oprah's Book Club helps set standards of popularity, libraries are not the cultural repositories they once were.
"I think the days of libraries saying, 'We must have that, because it's good for people,' are beyond us," said Leslie Burger, president of the American Library Association and director of Princeton Public Library. "There is a sense in many public libraries that popular materials are what most of our communities desire. Everybody's got a favorite book they're trying to promote."
That leaves some books endangered. In Fairfax, thousands of titles have been pulled from the shelves and become eligible for book sales.
And nowadays, library patrons don't like to sit at big tables with strangers as they read or study. They want to be alone, creating a need for individual carrels that take up even more space. And the popularity of audiovisual materials that must be housed in 50-year-old branches built for smaller collections only adds to the crunch.
Classics such as Ernest Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" are among the titles that haven't been checked out in two years and could be eliminated. Librarians so far have decided to keep them.
As libraries clear out titles, they sweep in new ones as fast as they can. A two-month-old program called "Hot Picks" is boosting copies of bestsellers by tracking the number of holds requested by patrons. This month, every Fairfax branch will display new books more prominently, leaving even less space for older ones.
"We don't want to keep what people don't use much of," Clay said. Circulation, a sign of prestige and a potential bargaining chip for new funding, is on pace to hit 11.6 million in the Fairfax system this year, part of a steady climb over the past three years.
There are no national standards on weeding public library collections.
As Fairfax bets its future on a retail model, some librarians say that the public library may be straying too far from its traditional role as an archive of literature and history.
Arlington County's library director, Diane Kresh, said she's "paying a lot of attention to what our customers want." But if they aren't checking out Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," she's not only keeping it, she's promoting it through a new program that gives forgotten classics prominent display.
"Part of my philosophy is that you collect for the ages," Kresh said. "The library has a responsibility to provide a core collection for the cultural education of its community." She comes to this view from a career at the Library of Congress, where she was chief of public service collections for 30 years.