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Archive for the 'Literary Studies' Category

Friday, August 15th, 2014

Chris Andrews Gives 7 Reasons Why Roberto Bolaño Became So Popular in the U.S.

Roberto Bolano's Fiction, Chris AndrewsIn the following excerpt from Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe, Chris Andrews explores how and why Roberto Bolaño’s became so popular in the United States:

The reception of Roberto Bolaño’s work in English began in an unre­markable way. When Christopher Maclehose, publisher at the Harvill Press in England, bought UK rights for Nocturno de Chile (By Night in Chile) in 2001, Bolaño was already a well-established author in the Spanish-speaking world. In 1998 his first long novel, Los detectives salvajes (The Savage Detectives), had won the Premio Herralde de Novela and the Premio Rómulo Gallegos. The second of these prizes, in particular, is a mark of consecration in the Hispanic literary field, and it had been won, before Bolaño, by Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, and Javier Marías. By the end of 2001, La literatura nazi en América (Nazi Literature in the Americas) and Estrella distante (Distant Star) had appeared in German and Italian, and the French translator Robert Amutio, who had been trying to interest a pub­lisher in Bolaño’s work since 1996, had finally succeeded: Christian Bourgois had bought the rights to the two books already out in Italy and Germany.

By Night in Chile (2003) was positively reviewed and sold modestly (775 copies in the first 12 months). Distant Star (2004) was also well received by critics, but sold more slowly still. So far, this story conforms to a familiar pattern: an author recognized as important in his or her source culture is translated into English and published by a small press after having been translated into several other languages. Often the story stops here. Since substantial sales are not accompanying critical success, the publisher under­standably decides to cut her losses and take risks on more promising new names as yet untainted by failure in the marketplace.

This, however, is not what happened in the case of Bolaño. The Harvill Press bought UK rights for a third book, a selection of stories from Llamadas telefónicas and Putas asesinas, for which Bolaño chose the title Last Evenings on Earth shortly before his death in July 2003. Across the Atlantic, Barbara Epler at New Directions, who had acquired and published the translations of By Night in Chile and Distant Star with a prompt enthusiasm, negotiated with Harvill-Secker (the Harvill Press having been taken over by Random House and merged with the Secker and Warburg list in 2005) to bring out the book of stories in the United States before it appeared in the UK. It was published in May 2006. By this stage a certain excitement had begun to develop around Bolaño’s work in North America. Susan Sontag had provided an endorse­ment for By Night in Chile. Francine Prose read the story “Gómez Palacio” in The New Yorker and discovered in it, as she wrote in the The New York Times, “something extraordinarily beautiful and (at least to me) entirely new.” Bolaño’s reception was already beginning to break with the sadly familiar pattern.

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Thursday, August 14th, 2014

Chris Andrews, Translator, Critic, and Fan of Roberto Bolaño

“It has been a privilege to be involved, as a translator, in the process by which Bolaño’s fiction travelled from Blanes in Catalonia to Hyderabad and the western suburbs of Sydney, to name just two places where I know it has been read with a passion.”—Chris Andrews

Roberto Bolano's Fiction, Chris AndrewsIn addition to being the author of Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe, Chris Andrews is also the translator of several of Bolaño’s novels. His roles as translator, scholar, and critic give him a distinct understanding of Bolaño’s novels.

Andrews was recently asked by Publishers Weekly to discuss a book by Bolaño that has perhaps not received as much attention as it deserves, and he selected Distant Star, a novel he translated and was published in English by New Directions in 2004. The following is an excerpt from his essay:

Bolaño knew, at least from 1993, when he was diagnosed with a progressive autoimmune disease of the liver, that his chances of a long life were slim. I like to think that in 1995, as he wrote Distant Star, he also knew that he was finding his way into an enormous and singular territory, and that, as a writer, he would not have to start over. In Nazi Literature in the Americas, under the influence of Jorge Luis Borges and a lesser-known Argentine, Juan Rodolfo Wilcock, he had described imaginary works in a work of fiction. In Distant Star, he took another step, which would prove to be decisive, bringing three more processes into play: expanding what he had already written, allowing his characters to return, and exploiting their tendency to overinterpret their surroundings.

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Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

Bolaño, Epiphanies and Imminence — A Post by Chris Andrews

Roberto Bolano's Fiction, Chris AndrewsThe following post is by Chris Andrews, author of Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe. You can also read our interview with Chris Andrews about the book:

At the end of “Advice on the Art of Writing Short Stories” (in Between Parentheses), Bolaño writes: “read Chekhov and Raymond Carver. One of the two of them is the best short-story writer this century has produced.” Chekhov died in 1904, so either Carver wins by elimination, or Bolaño is suggesting that with just a toe in the century Chekhov beats all his epigones. In any case, the coupling is significant, for both Carver and Chekhov wrote epiphanic short stories. Describing the cards taped to the wall beside his desk in “On Writing,” Carver says: “I have a three-by-five up there with this fragment of a sentence from a story by Chekhov: ‘… and suddenly everything became clear to him.’ I find these words filled with wonder and possibility. I love their simple clarity, and the hint of revelation that’s implied.”

In Bolaño’s work there are moments when everything becomes clear to a character … or seems to be on the point of becoming clear. Sometimes the character has what the German critic Gunther Leypoldt, discussing Carver, calls an “arrested epiphany”: one that fails to deliver any definite content. This is what happens in “Gómez Palacio” when the director of the local arts council takes the narrator to her special place, which turns out to be a truck parking area in the desert, from which they can see the headlights of cars on a distant stretch of road. The narrator is initially skeptical, and with good reason: his host seems to be slightly crazy and has a taste for practical jokes. But then something happens:

I saw how the light, seconds after the car or truck had passed that spot, turned back on itself and hung in the air, a green light that seemed to breathe, alive and aware for a fraction of a second in the middle of the desert, set free, a marine light, moving like the sea but with all the fragility of earth, a green, prodigious, solitary light that must have been produced by something near that curve in the road — a sign, the roof of an abandoned shed, huge sheets of plastic spread on the ground — but that, to us, seeing it from a distance, appeared to be a dream or a miracle, which comes to the same thing, in the end.

Up to the explanation (“that must have been produced …”), the lyricism of this long sentence suggests something marvelous, and although the green light seems to breathe only for a fraction of a second, the aura created by the descriptive language does not vanish so quickly, partly because the explanation is conjectural, and partly because the final equation relativizes the importance of the physical facts: if dreams are miracles, why not hallucinations and illusions too? And yet this portent leads nowhere, and the narrator interrupts the lyric flight: “Then the director started the car, turned it around and droved back to the motel.”

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Tuesday, August 12th, 2014

Interview with Chris Andrews, author of Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction

Roberto Bolano's Fiction: An Expanding UniverseThe following is an interview with Chris Andrews, author of Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe

Question: How did you discover Bolaño’s work?

Chris Andrews: Chatting with booksellers in Santiago and Valparaíso in 2001. Bolaño was already very well known in Chile: he had won the Premio Rómulo Gallegos, and revisited the country twice in 1998 and 1999. His relations with the contemporary Chilean literary world were stormy (see the end of “I Can’t Read” in The Secret of Evil) but his loyalty to Enrique Lihn and Nicanor Parra (who turns 100 in September) was total. I like to think that he has recruited new readers for those two great Chilean poets.

Q: Did you expect Bolaño’s work to find a large public in English when you began translating it?

CA: No, but not because I didn’t think it deserved to be widely read. With the first two books, I was thinking: This could be it, because that’s the way it usually goes. An author who is well known and respected in his or her language usually gets one or two shots in translation, and unless something special happens straight up, he or she falls into the category of authors who have been tried and found not to work. Luckily, Barbara Epler at New Directions didn’t approach Bolaño in that way: she was committed to waiting for something special to happen, which it did, with the story collection Last Evenings on Earth, and then with The Savage Detectives, which was published by FSG.

Q: What kind of book did you set out to write with Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction?

CA: Well, it’s a scholarly book, but I wanted it to be clear as possible. I wanted it to be as true as possible to the complexity of Bolaño’s work, even if that meant qualifying my arguments quite often. I wanted to do justice to textures and fine details, but also to connect the fiction with large ethical and political questions, such as: Does Bolaño glorify brawling? Is his work romantic? Is it anarchistic? The book as a whole has an arc: it moves, very roughly speaking, from form to content to value, and there’s a shift in the conceptual background from narratology to philosophy.

(more…)

Monday, August 11th, 2014

Book Giveaway! Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction

Roberto Bolaño's Fiction

“An indispensable guide to navigating the rich world of Bolaño’s fiction.” — Publishers Weekly

This week our featured book is Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe, by Chris Andrews

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe to a lucky winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, August 15 at 1:00 pm.

Chris Andrews, a leading translator of Bolaño’s work into English, explores the singular achievements of the author’s oeuvre, engaging with its distinct style and key thematic concerns, incorporating his novels and stories into the larger history of Latin American and global literary fiction.

Read the introduction to Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe:

Thursday, August 7th, 2014

Thursday Fiction Corner: An Interview with Tamaz Chiladze, author of “The Brueghel Moon”

“Ultimately, the function of literature is to intensify mystery, not to solve it, isn’t it?”—Tamaz Chiladze

Tamaz Chiladze, The Brueghel MoonThe following is an interview with Tamaz Chiladze, author of The Brueghel Moon.

The novel is part of Dalkey Archive’s new Georgian Literature Series:

Question: Are either of the protagonists—Levan and Nunu—in any way based on you, or on your own experiences in relationships?

Tamaz Chiladze: For me, Levan and Nunu are quite real—they’re flesh and blood people. They live their own lives, have their own relationships, but neither has any similarity to my person or my personal life.

In general, characters are born, and are not so much based on the autho’s personal experience, but are more dependent on readers and their life experiences. I believe authors are more interesting and involving if they are able to relate their narrative to that of the reader. The link between them, their common, shared stories, play an important role in establishing this contact. I could also add that, in a sense, the process of reading is an act of discovering oneself, of bringing oneself alive.

I doubt I will sound original if I say that literary characters not only enrich mankind ethically, but increase its numbers worldwide.

Q: The novel deals with psychiatric issues such as depression, psychosis and psychiatry itself. What motivates you to communicate such things? Do you seek to represent a relationship be­tween psychiatry and literature or the act of writing?

TC: I’m not at all sure what inspired me to write the novel. I think there is hardly a writer who has managed to avoid depressed states or psychosis. They just can’t, and this is particularly true in our mod­ern times. Sadly, depression, neurosis, and psychosis have become quite typical, as if they are the normal conditions of our existence.

A writer helps readers to overcome their solitude, anxieties and fears. In this sense he acts like a priest or a doctor. But because he has sinned himself, in fact, a writer cannot be a priest. Neither can he be a doctor. He is better suited to the role of patient, especially considering how many times his aching, torn heart has been darned with the thread of hope. I would say a writer is the last surviving representative of the ancient caste of clairvoyants or oracles.True, no one seems to heed him, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t telling the right stories or saying the right things.

In any case, my novel has nothing to do with psychiatry as a branch of science. Ultimately, the function of literature is to intensify mystery, not to solve it, isn’t it?

(more…)

Friday, June 27th, 2014

Jenny Davidson on the Glimmer Factor, Sentences, Chocolate, and More

Jenny Davidson, A Life in Sentences

“All sentences are not created equal. Some are more interest­ing, more intricate, more attractive or repellent than others.”—Jenny Davidson

The following is an excerpt from “The Glimmer Factor,” the opening chapter to Reading Style: A Life in Sentences by Jenny Davidson:

I’ve always been bothered by the notion that literature is worth reading chiefly for what it teaches us about life. Of course we learn things about life from literature: it’s self-evident that a book may make its reader wiser or more philosophical in some measure consequent upon the nature of the book itself, the timing and circumstances of the reader’s encounter with it and the reader’s openness to transformation. But there is also something intolerably banal about the idea that the main reward of reading a novel by Leo Tolstoy or George Eliot should be my becoming a slightly better person.

Partly I am troubled that the motive of pleasure recedes so far from view. This kind of emphasis on self-improvement also steals the limelight from a more stringently cognitive aspect of reading. Not the simple fact of transportation, of being lost in a book, but rather a form of intellectual play that seems to me ulti­mately as ethical as its lesson-driven counterpart: ethical in the sense of its developing one’s capacities of comprehension to the fullest, taking the jumbled furniture of the human mind (the meager apparatus of Lear’s “poor, bare, forked animal”) and teaching it to make meaning out of words. To make the idea that literature tells us about life the primary reason for reading Laurence Sterne, Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf and their like degrades the very thing that draws me to literature in the first place: the glimmer of the sentences, not first and foremost the wisdom contained in them. By stripping literary language down to its constituent parts, I perversely gain a sense of transcendence, an emotional as well as intellectual liberation that comes by way of the most precise consider­ation of details of language.

All sentences are not created equal. Some are more interest­ing, more intricate, more attractive or repellent than others….

(more…)

Thursday, June 26th, 2014

Jenny Davidson Chooses the Best Books on Hoarding!

Reading Style

The following is a post by Jenny Davidson, author of Reading Style: A Life in Sentences:

The TV show Hoarders has brought a good deal of attention to what happens when our instinct to accumulate runs out of control; an inability to discard things when we are supposed to be done with them can ruin a hard drive, a book project, a house, a life.

In strictly literary terms, as long as the capacity to select and winnow remains, the accumulation of things can be a gift (the lists in Moby Dick, Homer’s catalog of ships, James Boswell’s lifelong practice of recording and storing the sayings of great men). But there is always the risk, with books like Richardson’s Clarissa or (in a very different vein) George R. R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice novels, either that the writing will proliferate to a volume that readers are unwilling to tolerate (Richardson) or that it will extend over a duration that creates a huge amount of frustration in readers hungry for the next installment (Martin). All of which is to say that hoarding seems to me one of the great literary topics of our time: I want to read a good nonfiction book about it, something roughly akin to Alice Flaherty’s fantastic account of hypergraphia in The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain.

For now, though, a list of five of my favorite books about hoarding:

Randy G. Frost and Gail Steketee, Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things
An essential guide to the disorder. Not at the literary level of Oliver Sacks, but then what is? Grippingly readable, full of fascinating observations and insights. Among other things, it caused me to look back on the house of family friends in childhood, a house that was astonishingly messy, and say, “Oh, that wasn’t ordinary mess, that was hoarding before there was really a name for it!” Full of useful suggestions and resources if you or someone you know is in need of help for hoarding or a related syndrome.

Jessie Sholl, Dirty Secret: A Daughter Comes Clean About Her Mother’s Compulsive Hoarding
A compelling memoir about what it means to be the adult child of a parent whose hoarding makes her house uninhabitable. Thoughtful, well-written, full of empathy.

Sara Ryan and Carla Speed O’Neill, Bad Houses
A brilliant graphic novel with a puzzle-like structure, this coming-of-age story considers the beauties and terrors of the estate sale, and more particularly what it lets us understand about people and their relationship with the objects that fill up their houses.

Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle, vol. 1
There are other reasons to read Knausgaard, of course, but in addition to his startling reconfiguration of the relationship between experience and narration and his extraordinary way with sentences, he also gives us one of the best literary depictions I know of how the thing we call hoarding can destroy a lived environment.

Charles Dickens, Bleak House
Many of the characters in this novel suffer from one kind of cognitive or psychological disorder or another; the novel as a whole offers some kind of a theory of disorders of accumulation, and the writing speaks to that in all sorts of ways. But the scenes that describe something closest to what we would now call hoarding are those set in Krook’s rag-and-bone shop.

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014

Jenny Davidson’s 10 Favorite Books About Reading

Jenny Davidson, Reading Style

The following is a post from Jenny Davidson, author of Reading Style: A Life in Sentences:

Since the internet has tipped us into the great age of listicles, I must confess that I have already been prolific in the matter of book-related lists online. Here’s a sampling:

Ten nonfiction books that have stayed with me.

My ideal bookshelf as painted by Jane Mount.

A post I wrote for the late Norm Geras about one writer who means almost everything to me.

Five of my favorite books about swimming!

The list I’ve made for today, though, tallies up ten of my favorite books about reading. Some of these I mention in Reading Style: A Life in Sentences; others are simply books that I read almost in a trance, mesmerized by the way they spoke about reading and writing, its delights and occasional tribulations.

Anne Fadiman, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader
An absolutely delightful collection of essays about reading by the author of the unforgettable A Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors and the Collision of Two Cultures. Both of these books of Fadiman’s are on my list of all-time favorites.

Francis Spufford, The Child That Books Built: A Life in Reading
A book that spoke to me so directly that I sometimes thought I must have written it myself in a dream! Spufford is better than any other writer I know on the spell that childhood reading casts on us and the external factors that may precipitate that kind of immersion in books.

Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading
Another book that I read with delight and a growing sense of relief—Manguel wrote this book so that I don’t have to!

Pierre Bayard, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read
A witty taxonomy, a playful provocation.

Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence
One of the funniest and deepest books I know about the bedevilment of a vocation for reading and writing by procrastination and all the other woes that flesh is heir to.

(more…)

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

An Interview with Jenny Davidson, author of Reading Style: A Life in Sentences

Jenny Davidson, Reading Style

“Sentences are my obsession—I linger on them compulsively, it is the feeling of words in the mouth that got me hooked on literature in the first place as a very young child and I wanted to write a book that conveyed some of the magic of that way of reading.”—Jenny Davidson

The following is an interview with Jenny Davidson, author of Reading Style: A Life in Sentences:

Q: You’re a scholar of eighteenth-century English literature, a novelist, and a blogger; how did these three hats you wear inform your approach to writing Reading Style?

Jenny Davidson: From my point of view, those three hats—scholarship, fiction-writing, blogging—are part of a single fully integrated set of activities, and I wrote this book partly to show what that means for me as a reader and writer. The separation between scholarship and fiction-writing has always seemed to me largely artificial—I will write a novel because there’s a problem or topic that I’ve pursued as far as I can by scholarly means and want to think about further in a different medium, and the same thing goes in the other direction. Blogging is something I took up about ten years ago: it was largely for my own enjoyment, with some minor self-promotional aspect I suppose, but I found as I continued to do it that it became an excellent way to develop and refine an easy, fluent critical voice that I could then take back into the more formal kinds of criticism I also write.

Q: In an age of “big data” and “distant reading,” why have you decided to focus on the sentence?

JD: Not so much a choice as a compulsion, I think. Work by new media theorists and literary scholars like Lev Manovich and Franco Moretti is motivated in part by a sense of the insufficiencies of the kind of mainstream historicist literary criticism that predominates inside the academy in the United States. My own dissatisfaction with that kind of criticism increasingly stemmed from the sense I had that the kinds of interpretation I practiced in the classroom were at least as exciting and revealing as anything I was doing in my published scholarship, but that for some reason the professional protocol seemed to be that I couldn’t just “do” that kind of very close work with sentences in print. I’m kicking back against that here, and I’m interested in thinking more about how to explain and defend a methodology that is related to some older kinds of formalism—as practiced by critics like Roman Jakobson and Victor Shklovskii—and even to the New Criticism or Cambridge-style practical criticism in the tradition of I. A. Richards, but that also benefits from the insights of other more obviously historicized and politicized schools of criticism.

That is a fancy way, though, of saying that sentences are my obsession—I linger on them compulsively, it is the feeling of words in the mouth that got me hooked on literature in the first place as a very young child and I wanted to write a book that conveyed some of the magic of that way of reading.

Q: You begin the book by acknowledging that you’ve always been bothered by the notion that literature can “teach” us about life. What do we miss out on when we focus on the “lessons” of literature?

JD: That opening is a little bit tongue-in-cheek, in that obviously we do learn things about life from literature, and I have hugely enjoyed books like Alain de Bouton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life, Sarah Bakewell’s Montaigne biography and Rebecca Mead’s recent book about a lifetime of reading Middlemarch. But when it’s done with less sensitivity than these authors muster, it often leads to a kind of oversimplification—a lack of attention to what the books are actually doing, how they work—that makes me really annoyed. I will read novels by Austen or Henry James again and again neither because of the psychological insights they offer nor because of how those insights might illuminate aspects of my own experience in the world, but rather because the sentences are utterly ravishing, and because there is nowhere else on earth I can learn the things these books teach about narration and the techniques and conventions by which human experience is translated into language.

(more…)

Monday, June 23rd, 2014

Book Giveaway! Reading Style: A Life in Sentences, by Jenny Davidson

Reading Style: A Life in Sentences

This week our featured book is Reading Style: A Life in Sentences, by Jenny Davidson.

In addition to features on our blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Reading Style to a lucky winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, June 27 at 1:00 pm.

“Jenny Davidson has the rare gift of being warmly analytical—highly intelligent but never mandarin, authoritative and intimate at the same time. Reading her discussions of writers ranging from Marcel Proust to Wayne Koestenbaum—by way of Jonathan Lethem and George Eliot—is like being in the company of a very clever friend as she unfolds the treasures of her bookshelf.” — Rebecca Mead, author of My Life in Middlemarch

Read the chapter, “Lord Leighton, Liberace, and the Advantages of Bad Writing: Helen DeWitt, Harry Stephen Keller, Lionel Shriver, George Eliot”:

Monday, June 16th, 2014

Laura Frost on Bloomsday, James Joyce, David Foster Wallace and the Pleasures of Unpleasure

James Joyce, Bloomsday

“The modernist legacy, its essential ambivalence, continues, and let us hope that it does, for it signals not only the continuing problem with plea­sure but also pleasure’s continuing potency.”—Laura Frost

In honor of Bloomsday, we offer an excerpt from the coda to The Problem with Pleasure: Modernism and Its Discontents by Laura Frost. In the excerpt Frost notes the popularity of Ulysses beyond the confines of academia but also recognizes the popular perception that it is a difficult, unpleasurable book more talked about than actually read. She goes on to explore how Ulysses exemplifies modernism’s relationship to both difficulty and pleasure and how this dichotomy has been explored more recently by David Foster Wallace:

While general audiences, living through a time of political and social upheaval, dazed from one war and about to enter another, embraced mass culture amusement, modernist writers took up the mantle of arduous, deliberate pleasure as a defense of language, con­templation, and the autonomy of art. As their work confirms, even as they expounded the charms of unpleasure, they were constantly aware of the attractions of “the tepid bath of nonsense,” as Huxley put it.

Cut … to the Upper West Side of Manhat­tan in our time, to Symphony Space, a venue known for its annual live reading of selections from Ulysses on June 16. The Bloomsday celebra­tion, like others around the country and the globe, indicates how mod­ernism—even high modernism—has been embraced and absorbed not just into the academy but into contemporary culture. And yet on the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday in 2004, British and American newspapers noting the event found a way to emphasize Ulysses’s repu­tation as the most famous unread novel of the twentieth century. The New York Times observed that Ulysses “has come to stand as the apogee of ‘elitist’ literature” because of its “byzantine difficulty.” NPR pointed out that “the difficulty of reading Ulysses is as legendary as the novel itself.” And the BBC commented that “for all its renown and notoriety, it is a book that few have read and even fewer comprehend.”…

Clearly, modernism is alive in and outside the academy. However, it is worth noting which parts of modernism are foregrounded and which are sidelined or minimized. While the generation that canonized modernism and New Criticism promoted it as a thorny, complicated body of work, those features are not emphasized as much in recent modernist studies, which has notably sought to integrate the vernacu­lar modernisms of “Gertrude’s Paris” into the field. Perhaps it is inevi­table that once we have mastered modernism’s maneuvers, its knots are unraveled and its edgy energy is diminished. Modernist unplea­sure, a defining feature of this literature, may register most forcefully with the first-time reader who struggles with linguistic and narrative innovation. To sense this textual unpleasure is to recover what made modernism surprising, shocking, and challenging in its own time….

(more…)

Thursday, April 10th, 2014

Excerpt from The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s by Mary Helen Washington

The following is an excerpt from the introduction to The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s, by Mary Helen Washington.

In this excerpt Washington discusses the important, but often overlooked, role of the Communist Party and the radical left in both supporting Black writers and artists as well as shaping the themes and aesthetics of their work:

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014

Video: Mary Helen Washington on African American and the Communist Party

In the following video, Mary Helen Washington, author of The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s, explains how her Catholic upbringing in the 1950s led to an interest in the relationship between African Americans and the Communist Party. She describes how Communist newspaper in the United States became one of the few venues to provide serious discussions and coverage of African American literature during the 1950s. She also talks about her desire to see the work of radical African American artists and writers from this period become part of the canon:

Mary Helen Washington Video from UMD College of Arts & Humanities on Vimeo.

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

Interview with Mary Helen Washington, author of The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s

Mary Helen Washington, The Other Blacklist

“I’m trying to restore that tradition of mid-century black left radical resistance, so that we don’t remember the 1950s only as the era of ‘integration’ but as the era of black civil rights radicalism. I’m restoring the other blacklist, the black blacklist.”—Mary Helen Washington

The following is an interview with Mary Helen Washington, author of The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s:

Question: Why did you choose to focus on the 1950s?

Mary Helen Washington: I came of age in the early 1950s in Catholic schools in Cleveland, Ohio, fed on a steady diet of anticommunism at school, and, at home, a steady diet of integration, but both of those prescribed lessons—anticommunism and integration—separated me from the story of radical civil rights activity. While the black left of the 1950s was protesting discrimination on every front, from residential segregation to unions and factories, we black kids were being taught that integration meant blacks becoming acceptable to the white mainstream. When the left-leaning National Negro Labor Congress (NNLC) came to Cleveland for their 1952 conference, they staged a protest downtown against the airlines for refusing to hire blacks. Since stories like these were blacklisted by the anticommunists as well as the integrationists, black kids grew up in the 1950s with no access to a critical discourse on race. Radicals used terms like white supremacy and racial justice, not integration, while black kids were learning that we should dress, act, and speak a certain way as a marker of acceptability, radicals were defining integration as claiming the rights of citizenship—as you can see from the NNLC poster featuring the Statue of Liberty as a black woman.

Q: Why did you call the book The Other Blacklist?

MHW: Most of what we know about the McCarthy era focuses on the white left. Communism is seen as a white left radicalism, though black civil rights activists were deeply involved in radical movements in the 1940s and 1950s. People who were investigated by J. Edgar Hoover for being communists were routinely asked if they were involved interracially because civil rights activity was considered radical. This is a very powerful and commendable radicalism that black people don’t get credit for. They weren’t the Hollywood Ten, but they were the New York/Chicago 100. There’s a fine documentary on screenwriter and novelist Dalton Trumbo and his admirable resistance to HUAC, but there’s no documentary on black radicals like Alice Childress, Lloyd Brown, Julian Mayfield, Charles White, Elizabeth Catlett or Lorraine Hansberry [some of the figures in my book], who also paid a price for their radicalism. I’m trying to restore that tradition of mid-century black left radical resistance, so that we don’t remember the 1950s only as the era of “integration” but as the era of black civil rights radicalism. I’m restoring the other blacklist, the black blacklist.

Q: You have a chapter called “Spycraft and the Black Literary Left.” Can you talk about the connection between government agencies, politics, and art?

MHW: Keep in mind that the Left and the Communist Party supported black artists when no one in white mainstream culture (with the exception of J. Edgar Hoover) showed any interest in black culture. They came to the defense of black culture because they saw art as a means to effect social and political change. One critic Willliam Maxwell says that Hoover should be considered an important historian of black culture becaue he always took black literary production seriously. The FBI files are thus a mixed blessing—a gold mine for biographical material because the FBI kept close track of the activities of radicals, and also a record of governmental abuse of artists and intellectuals. There’s a current play on Broadway about the life of Lyndon Johnson called All the Way that shows how relevant these issues still are. The character playing J. Edgar Hoover asks LBJ to justify his relationship with Martin Luther King because, Hoover claims, King is being advised by communists. The government, particularly in the age of McCarthy and Hoover, created the tradition of demonizing the Left that is still with us and that has resulted in the dismissal of an entire generation of black intellectuals and artists.

Q: Why is radicalism of the 1950s still relevant?

MHW: We’re grappling with the same issues today but without that radical perspective. I’m thinking about Rachel Jeantel in the Trayvon Martin case and all the discussion that was generated about Jeantel’s appearance and speech—the way she looked rather than the case itself. Another example is Paul Ryan saying “inner city” people live in a culture that doesn’t value work or doesn’t have a work ethic. And here we see how “inner city” becomes a code for “black.” The jurors from the Jordan Davis case in Florida, one white and one black, said that the Davis case, in which a black man was shot and killed because a white man thought his black music was too loud, was not about race. This kind of political illiteracy shows how and why we need what I call a critical racial discourse. As Boston Governor Deval Patrick said—“words matter.” Even more than words, the radical left—and, yes, I include communists– gave us examples of a powerful resistance. The Rosa Ingram case and the Trenton Six—which were also about racial violence inflicted on blacks– were fought in the courts, in the streets, and in African American artistic production. When Rosa Ingram was sentenced to death along with her two sons for killing a man she claimed had violently assaulted her, the left and civil rights groups organized the protests that eventually freed them, and, as part of that protest, artist Charles White made the Ingram case the subject of his 1949 drawing.

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Monday, April 7th, 2014

Book Giveaway! The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s, by Mary Helen Washington

The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s, Mary Helen Washington

This week we will be featuring The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s, by Mary Helen Washington on our blog, twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of The Other Blacklist to a lucky winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and indicate your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, April 11 at 3:00 pm.

In The Other Blacklist, Mary Helen Washington recovers the vital role of 1950s leftist politics in the works and lives of modern African American writers and artists. While most histories of McCarthyism focus on the devastation of the blacklist and the intersection of leftist politics and American culture, few include the activities of radical writers and artists from the Black Popular Front. Washington’s work incorporates these black intellectuals back into our understanding of mid-twentieth-century African American literature and art and expands our understanding of the creative ferment energizing all of America during this period.

For more on the book, read an excerpt from the introduction.

Thursday, March 6th, 2014

William Gass

William Gass

Now that we are distributing Dalkey Archive Press, we are familiarizing ourselves or reviving our admiration for a variety of the authors on their list. One of these writers is William Gass, whose Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife is now available again.

Gass, of course, has been one of the most important writers of the past forty years and his work while always compelling can also be challenging. For those interested in exploring more about Gass’s work, here are three very different resources. First up is the aptly title Reading William Gass , a site curated and created by Stephen Schenkenberg, which collects recent news and reviews about Gass.

Two recent, but very different, interviews are also worth pointing out. In the How I Write Feature on The Daily Beast , Gass talks about, among other things, his morning routine, what makes him cry, what makes his laugh, his love for Westerns, and some of his favorite books. Here’s an excerpt from the interview:

What is the story behind the publication of your first book?
The manuscript of Omensetter’s Luck was stolen, and I had to rewrite it. But that story is not behind its publication. It fell into the hands of a wonderful agent and terrific editor, after it was rejected a dozen times.

Was there a specific moment when you felt you had “made it” as an author?
Not really, but the day I saw a stack of my books in a window of the Sorbonne comes close.

What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day?
Having passed the morning without scrapping the previous day.

Tell us a funny story related to a book tour or book event.
That they take place.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Don’t take my advice.

Also of interest are Gass’s instructions for the design of his epic masterpiece The Tunnel.

Finally, here is an extraordinary interview with Michael Silverblatt:

Thursday, February 27th, 2014

Thursday Fiction Corner: Zulfikar Ghose on Machado de Assis

Stories

“The modern short story as created by Chekhov, Kafka, Henry James, Conrad and Joyce is a marvel of world literature. Add Machado de Assis to that list and you will find yourself in a world of sheer magic.” — Zulfikar Ghose

We are proud to be distributing Dalkey Archive Press, one of the leading publishers of avant-garde fiction and literature in translation! In today’s edition of Thursday Fiction Corner, we have an excerpt from an article at Dawn.com by poet, novelist, and literary critic Zulfikar Ghose. In “The Real Magicians of Latin America,” Ghose discusses the writing of some of the great authors of Latin America, and argues that no such list could be complete without Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, whose newly translated Stories is newly available from Dalkey Archive Press. You can read the article in its entirety here.

The Real Magicians of Latin America
By Zulfikar Ghose

As has happened before in literary history, posterity’s impartial eye sees among the neglected shadows what a past age, blinded by the intense light in which it stared at the illumined famous, had all but completely missed. As our enchantment for the likes of Márquez and Vargas Llosa, which has been nourished and sustained by the publishing industry’s need to project writers of little more than ordinary stature as giants, diminishes, a more fastidiously discriminating perception shows us the figures who had been cast in the shadows. In South American fiction contemporaneous with Márquez is the remarkable Álvaro Mutis; before him Felisberto Hernandez, María Luísa Bombal, and Graciliano Ramos; and before them all, writing his best work at the end of the 19th century, the truly great Machado de Assis (1839-1908).

An unprecedented literary feast awaits readers for whom these names are new. Forget the thirdraters you were sold as geniuses, forget your Forsters and Hemingways, your Bellows and Lessings. Reader, come out of the tapas bar where you’ve been nibbling at stale, over-salted snacks and deluding yourself you’re at a banquet, come where your taste buds may experience ecstasy. A new English translation of the stories of Machado de Assis provides us with an occasion to commence this feast.

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Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

Interview with Caren Irr, author of Toward the Geopolitical Novel: U.S. Fiction in the Twenty-First Century

Toward the Geopolitical Novel, Caren IrrIn a wide-ranging interview with Critical Margins, Caren Irr discussed her new book Toward the Geopolitical Novel: U.S. Fiction in the Twenty-First Century. In the book, Irr argues that one of the dominant trends in twenty-first century American fiction are works that have a multinational or global reach. More precisely the works of writers such as Edwidge Danticat, William Vollman, Junot Diaz, Chris Abani, Susan Choi, and others are geopolitical in the sense that they explore issues arising in international disputes, travel, or networks.

Irr contends that the work of these contemporary writers differs from twentieth-century political novels not only because of the preponderance of interest in the global but because of its more skeptical attitude toward ideology or political doctrine. Irr explains:

The internationalism of the Old Left is an important source for some of the writers working in a contemporary geopolitical vein, but the concern with ideology and political conversion so apparent in mid-20th century works is usually absent in the new writing. The newer authors almost never position themselves as part of an international political movement, and very often they seem to be more concerned with documenting global processes rather than urging readers to adopt particular positions on them. In that sense, they tend to be problem novels rather than persuasion novels.

In the interview Irr also discusses the different genres that make up the twenty-first century geopolitical novel:

The genres I used to organize my project are all modifications of important existing forms. The digital migrant novel emerges out of immigrant assimilation narratives. The Peace Corps fugue is a variation on the political thriller. Neoliberal allegories develop out of the national allegory, while contemporary revolutionary fiction fuses the historical novel with apocalyptic near future fiction. Expatriate satires largely build on and invert conventions of the classic expatriate narratives of the 1920s.

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Thursday, February 20th, 2014

The Post-Book

Permission

As close readers of our blog might have noticed in our recent New Book Tuesday posts, we are now distributing Dalkey Archive Press. Needless to say, we are very excited to be working with one of the leading publishers of avant-garde fiction and literature in translation. Today, we have a fascinating excerpt from a conversation in BOMB Magazine’s BOMBlog between S. D. Chrostowska, author of Permission, and Kate Zabreno. The two “discuss Permission, the vagaries of readership and publicity, rag-bags, and the transgressive novel as essay, commodity, and monster.” You can read the interview in its entirety here.

The Post-Book
S. D. Chrostowska

… By semi-public I did not mean small presses and poetic novels. I am not arguing for writerly oblivion, for self-mortification for the sake of Literature, unless as a ritual of asceticism. The existence of this literature is, as you point out, largely funded, dependent on grants and academic support. I am not romanticizing this. And I share what I take to be your concern over the increasingly public nature of writing as encouraging automatic over-sharing and self-indulgence. I think the book industry still keeps a tight rein on this, but not for long as literary publishing continues its transition to the digital. The blog and the book each have something to offer us. The blog is great for unlacing, for defining oneself by overstepping limits normally in place or, in the way you conceive it, as a counterattack against self-censorship, against the self-discipline that leads to partial self-erasure. The idea that no one reads us does, as you say, liberate, and publicness constrains. Anonymity is not the answer because we identify with Anon too. Nor is the answer to the problems that come with publicity to be found in the handwritten diary—not, anyway, for the self-aware writer who expects his/her private work to fall into the hands of others. As the standards relax thanks to the fluidity of written communication, professionalism and relative formalization catch up with us in the permissive online environment, which is neither a womb nor a solipsistic mind.

I am trying to highlight that there is no escape from publicity if you are a dedicated writer. Giving it up is not an option. One can resist some of it, discipline oneself spiritually for being overly invested in one’s public self, distracted from core concerns. And one can certainly fight against its pernicious systemic effects. This is what I find so refreshing and valuable in your work.

Isn’t it possible for the tide to turn? For certain writers to become semi-private without feeling they are sacrificing something—ambition, praise, recognition? For writers to go underground, where it is safe to say that with the aid of modern technology their work will be preserved for those who come later when the tide turns again? For writers to embrace ephemerality, not as preparatory for the real work of writing, not as a means of working up to the world of the book, but as valid in itself? For writers—some writers at least, or for some of the time—to self-semi-publish? (more…)