From a substantive new interview with Joshua Rothman:
I had felt for many, many years that the form of the novel, as I used it, created a distance from life. When I started to write about myself, that distance disappeared. If you write about your life, as it is to yourself, every mundane detail is somehow of interest—it doesn’t have to be motivated by plot or character. That was my only reason for writing about myself. It wasn’t because I found myself interesting, it wasn’t because I had experienced something I thought was important and worth sharing, it wasn’t because I couldn’t resist my narcissistic impulses. It was because it gave my writing a more direct access to the world around me. And then, at some point, I started to look at the main character—myself—as a kind of place where emotions, thoughts, and images passed through.
Good fiction-writing advice from one who knows.
I’ve been knocked over by the beauty and control of Jessie Greengrass’s short debut novel, Sight, about becoming a parent and losing one. (I’d seen coverage in The Atlantic and The New Yorker.) I was impressed and absorbed by the very first page:
The start of another summer, the weather uncertain but no longer sharply edged, and I am pregnant again. In front of me is all the ordinary and useful disarrangement of my desk and beyond it the rain-smudged window with a view across our garden to where my daughter plays, watched over by Johannes. She has begun to lose, lately, the tumbling immediacy of toddlerhood. I notice it when we walk together, our strides separate, or when we sit face to face across a table—how she is taller now and straighter, and inflects her actions with intent. Once her thoughts broke like weather across her face, but that readable plasticity is gone and she is not so transparent: complexity has brought concealment. The weight of her body when I lift her takes me by surprise, its unfamiliarity a reiteration of the distance between us. She used to clamber over me, her legs, around my waist, her arms around my neck, as though I were furniture or an extension of herself, unthought-of or intimately known. Now she stands apart and I must reach for her, on each occasion a little further until it seems her progress towards adulthood is a kind of disappearing and that I know her less and less the more that she becomes herself. This is how things out to be, her going away while I remain, but still I think that if I could then I might reach across to where she stands, outlined against the violent yellow mass of a forsythia bush, and pull her back to me, to keep her always in my sight so that she might be nothing more than the sum of what I know of her.
Every 20 pages or so after that, reading at night in bed, I would tell my wife, This book is incredible — I’m stunned.
Don’t miss it.
On this Father's Day, here are four terrific recent pieces I've been lucky to come across — two very short essays, two short poems — that capture this part of life so well:
The Longform Podcast's new episode with Elif Batuman is fantastic. I've enjoyed her writing for a few years, and in this interview you can just feel her thinking deeply about literature and writing and gender and observing in cities around the world and much more. As interviewer Max Linsky tweeted when sharing the link: "Genuinely, this is the most fun I have had in a long time. It was so fun, in fact, that at one point I stopped and said 'Wow I’m just very happy to be sitting here with you! This is so fun!' And then Elif was very gracious with me and then she said a bunch more brilliant things." It's true.
I also loved Design Observer's new episode with Aminatou Sow. She was new to me, and I'm clearly late to the game. On being late, though: Really enjoyed Sow's skepticism of the tech press's focus on the young (who wants to peak at 28?), vs. her interest in longevity; she's long thought the ideal age is 63 .
A wonderful conversation with an enduringly impressive thinker and writer.
A great fortune of my life has been to know this once-in-a-generation writer and be transformed by his work. At ReadingGass.org, I've begun sharing the many memorials coming in, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch obituary, which includes a few comments from me. I send my deepest condolences to Bill's wife, Mary, and their entire family.
A does-the-heart-and-mind-good interview with Georgina Godwin.
For The New Yorker Radio Hour, Joshua Rothman walks Central Park with one of my favorite living writers. I especially loved this bit, which comes after Knausgaard is asked about the differences between the way children and adults go through their days:
I have four children, and maybe when I spend a summer day with them, it is like nothing. Time is just passing. There's nothing remarkable happening. It's like the world is not attached to me, and I'm not attached to the world anymore. And then I remember the summers when I was a child myself — how important everything was, how attached I was to everything that happened, and how slowly those days evolved, somehow. I find it very easy to underestimate my own children. That I don't see them — that they're just little creatures, not realizing that they have an enormous, huge and independent inner life. Somehow, the task is apparently to be aware of that.
After discovering this short appreciation in a Jonathan Lethem essay collection on bookish things, I just read it aloud to my wife, who'd been curious about why I've been so utterly taken by this series and increasingly hungry for each subsequent volume. Lethem nailed it ("Knausgaard's approach is plain and scrupulous, sometimes casual, yet he never writes down. His subject is the beauty and terror of the fact that all life coexists with itself."), and he was only one volume in.
Great idea for a piece, well-executed. (And what a sentence.)
A special piece by Daniel Mendelsohn about Homer's epic, his father and a journey they took together.
Loved this World Book Club episode, with informed and curious readers asking Knausgaard about one of my favorite works of literature in several years. We shouldn't be surprised that he's a thoughtful and candid interviewee.
In September of this year, I was honored to be part of “The William H. Gass Symposium: International Writing” at Washington University in St. Louis. I joined Lorin Cuoco, who co-founded the International Writers Center with Gass in 1990 and was its associate director until 2001, in giving some opening remarks, then discussing Gass’s work with William H. Gass Fellow Matthias Göritz and Ignacio Infante, associate professor of Comparative Literature and Spanish at the university.
I spoke about my work editing and publishing ReadingGass.org, The Ear’s Mouth Must Move: Essential Interviews of William H. Gass and Abstractions Arrive: Having Been There All the Time. To say I was in impressive company is an understatement. Don’t miss the other videos all housed here together.
A wonderful, gratitude-filled essay by George Saunders.
I’m honored to be taking part in a roundtable discussion as part of this special event hosted by Washington University Libraries. Near St. Louis? Please join us on September 23.
Having just finished book three of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle (I enjoyed the first two more, though this volume’s still captivating), I was eager to listen to both part one and part two of the author’s interviews on Michael Silverblatt’s “Bookworm.”
It’s great listening. These insights from Silverblatt — which followed his comment that Knausgaard clearly knows his “great literature” — rang especially true for me:
What’s daring about My Struggle is that you’re willing to put the difficulty of the literature of the century — Joyce on — aside, to recapture the human. To make it human again, or to restore it to humanness. And in doing so, you risk being wildly misunderstood….
These works of great literature, in some way, speak to readers. And they speak from a world of genius. And I feel that in order to restore the possibility of originality, and even grandeur, you had to enter the zone of shame and the zone of ordinary life, which is banality. And you had to ask, Can great literature be made of such things? Am I willing to try to write six volumes of daily life, when all of us are feeling that our daily lives are disappointing and dissatisfying? Can the novel of Knausgaard restore our feelings of the importance of daily life?
I can’t think, personally, of anything more important. I’m very grateful when I read these books, because I feel like you’ve restored my interest in human beings. In going to the grocery. In feeding a child and making sure things are taken care of from one day to the next.