Archive for December, 2008


The Lion Roars at Politics & Prose

December 31, 2008

As we edge into the new year, bookstore events are still mostly on hold in North Carolina, one of my two beats here. The big three independent bookstores — Quail Ridge Books, The Regulator, and McIntyre’s — won’t kick off their 2009 readings for another 10 days or so, and the chains are in a similar holding pattern.

In D.C., however, Politics and Prose greets the new year with a trio of big events over the next week. 

cover1Steven Johnson arrives on Monday, January 5, at 7 p.m. to discuss his book, The Invention of Air, and Robert Roper revisits Walt Whitman’s Civil War days in Now the Drum of War on the following night. But the event which most caught my eye welcomes Newsweek editor Jon Meacham, discussing his new biography, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House. Over the holidays, I read Clyde Edgerton’s review of the book in Garden & Gun, and from Edgerton’s brief remarks on the first “common man” president, I found myself just wanting to read more of Meacham’s book myself. Here’s an excerpt from Edgerton’s review:

Commentators from Jackson’s time might say this to us present-day Americans:

“We’re talking action politics. You should have been here when two pistols misfired in an assassination attempt and Jackson was beating the hell out of the guy with his cane when he was pulled away. You should have been here when it looked like South Carolina was about to secede, when there was almost a war with France, when Old Hickory refused to declare a day of prayer, when he fired his cabinet, and when he vetoed more bills than all the presidents before him combined. And, oh, yes—you want to talk about sex and stuff…Yep, you should have been here for all that. What a ride.”

A fair conclusion is that the Washington establishment was afraid of Jackson, that he saved the Union and in the process created an office that—rather than Congress—became the main power in national government. Harry Truman, placing Jackson among Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln as one of our four greatest presidents, said about him, “He wanted sincerely to look after the little fellow who had no pull, and that’s what a president is supposed to do.”

What a read.

Here at the cusp of a major transition over at the White House, that question of “what a president is supposed to do” may be weighing on all of us even more heavily than usual. Meacham discusses American Lion on Wednesday evening, January 7, at 7 p.m. at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Washington, DC.

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New At Narrative, and Questions About Contests

December 30, 2008

conan_doyleNarrative Magazine has recently begun offering a “Story of the Week” and “Poem of the Week.” As a fiction writer myself, I’ll admit to being more partial to the “Story of the Week,” and I’ve been impressed with the range and talent of the offerings, everything from classics such as Edith Wharton’s “The Rembrandt” and Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” (in case someone out there has missed it at this point) to contemporary works by writers including Stuart Dybek, Dennis McFarland, Joyce Carol Oates and more. This week’s story is “The Crime of the Brigadier” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — one of the tales that doesn’t feature Sherlock Holmes, I should point out — and given some of my own recent reading/rereading of Conan Doyle, I was glad to see his handsome mug on the email blast.

9780679640172Just prior to getting the email with Conan Doyle’s story, I also got an announcement from Narrative about the winners of their Fall Fiction Contest, and the second prize in the contest went to “Reverend Thornhill’s Wife” by Richard Bausch, a former professor of mine back when I was in the MFA program at George Mason. Bausch undoubtedly stands as one of the great short story writers of our time — already canonized as early as 1996 when Modern Library published his Selected Stories, then commemorated again with the mammoth Stories of Richard Bausch just a few years back, and even more recently honored with the PEN/Malamud Award for lifetime achievement in the form. “Reverend Thornhill’s Wife” won’t be published by Narrative until late February or early March, but many other stories are easy to find and certainly worth seeking out.

Still, as pleased as I was to see Bausch’s name in that second place category, his appearance there later prompted some discussion amongst some writer friends of mine about such contests and their purpose — the gist of which seemed to be an underlying, tacit assumption that literary magazine contests were generally intended for up-and-coming writers or at least writers less well-established or less well-known. 

I’ve had writer friends who’ve seen their careers boosted by such contests: Rob Drummond, for example — a classmate from my MFA program — won the 2007 Arts & Letters Fiction Prize for his short story, “The Unnecessary Man” and then found that story chosen by ZZ Packer for the esteemed anthology New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best, 2008. Here, a contest helped give some attention to a young and very serious writer who’s still building his career, and I can’t help but think that Arts & Letters is already proud to have helped “discover” this great new talent. 

But the assumption that such contests were exclusively for fresh talents or up-and-coming writers… well, that couldn’t entirely be supported, of course. Certainly, it’s easy to point to contests that explicitly court previously unpublished writers (Glimmer Train hosts one of these), but other contests don’t specify parameters of prior success — and how exactly would they do that? “You’re eligible if you’ve published less than ten stories in university-based literary magazines, but ineligible if more than 10 stories have been published or if any short fiction bearing your name has appeared  in The Atlantic Monthly or The New Yorker“? Somehow, that doesn’t quite work, and neither does the idea that contests are intended for “amateur” writers, leaving the “professionals” to find other venues. At the same time, the writers who enter these contests month after month (and sometimes year after year) might feel a little out of their league if they were losing to, say, Alice Munro or John Updike, or if they entered the “great unpublished novel” contest and heard that their manuscripts got passed over because Stephen King or Toni Morrison won instead. 

None of this is meant to undermine Bausch’s honor here; he is, as I’ve emphasized, a great writer, and a new story by him — or a new novel, like Peace, published earlier this year — is generally a cause for celebration. But the appearance of his name amongst the other writers on the list of winners and finalists for this contest — less well-known names in comparison to his — prompted some discussion, and I was interested to open up that discussion further here.

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The Rambler Publishes “Shrimp and Grits”

December 28, 2008

ramblerI’m honored that The Rambler, a fine, fine magazine based in North Carolina, has published my short story “Shrimp and Grits” in their January/February 2009 issue. The story is a personal favorite among the ones I’ve written — a rare story that gave me real pleasure while I was writing it — and I’m excited that it’s now in print. And I’m particularly pleased that it’s found a home at The Rambler, given the high quality of the fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and photography that regularly appears there. If you haven’t checked out the magazine before, definitely give it a look. The cover image here is by Lisa Whiteman; the feature interview this month focusses on actor and author Evan Handler; and an excerpt from one of the nonfiction pieces — “Dusty’s Two-Story Bus” by Nashville-based writer Jamie Givens — is available online.

And while we’re on the subject, I’ll also encourage you to look up the March/April 2008 issue for Tara Laskowski’s poignant essay “The Jukebox”; I’m biased where Tara’s work is concerned, of course, but that piece still stands in my mind as a model of short memoir.

Continued happy holidays to all!

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Kyle Semmel Talks Translations

December 21, 2008

kyletrimmedKyle Semmel’s work as publications & communications manager of The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, is unquestionably a full-time job. Semmel handles all of the marketing and advertising for the Center’s fine offerings (classes, readings, and other programs), helps to network the Center to other arts organizations in the area and beyond, and also heads up the organization’s blog at First Person Plural. But his work at The Writer’s Center is only part of Semmel’s life in the world of literature.

An accomplished writer himself, Semmel has long been committed to the craft of fiction. His first published story, “Lake Effect,” appeared in the Ontario Review, and “The Throw,” a fictional take on Dizzy Dean of the St. Louis Cardinals, is forthcoming in Spitball: The Literary Baseball Magazine. His interest in the novella has recently prompted him to work on a connected series of them (a project that continues to evolve) and to write on the novella in his posts for First Person Plural.

In publishing, Semmel has also been closely involved in recent years with the Santa Fe Writers Project, helping to produce and promote books including Ray Robertson’s Moody Food, Alan Cheuse’s The Fires, and Pagan Kennedy’s The Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex and Other Stories. 

And most recently, Semmel has found success as a translator — particularly helping to bring Danish authors a wider American audience. His translation of Danish poet Pia Tafdrup’s essay “Medellín Illuminated: Poetry and War at the 14th Annual Poetry Festival” was printed in Aufgabe: Journal of Poetry, and he’s been involved in an extended project translating a number of stories and a longer work by brooklyn-review-cover25Simon Fruelund, several of which have already found publishers: “Tide” appeared in The Brooklyn Review (full issue downloadable here); “Unsettled” was included in The Bitter Oleander; and  “What Is It?” will appear in an upcoming issue of Redivider: A Journal of New Literature and Art. As a result of his success so far, Semmel has recently been awarded a Translation Grant from The Danish Arts Council.

Semmel will be sampling his work at a Writer’s Center Staff Reading on January 11. In advance of that, he talks here about the art of translating and recommends several recent and upcoming translations. 

How did you first get involved in translating? And why Danish in particular? (A particular demand for Danish literature? A niche market? Some personal tie to the country perhaps?)

My father was fascinated by the German language and so I kind of absorbed his interest. It started there. In graduate school I met my wife, who is Danish. The two languages are very different, but they share enough similarities that it was easier for me to learn.

I don’t think there’s a “demand” for Danish literature, any more than Ecuadorian or Korean. There are a number of great Danish writers — a few Nobel prize winners, mostly forgotten today — but you do see very few of them in print over here. Peter Hoeg is probably the most well-known Danish writer living today after the success of Borderliners (a great book), 2316720789_763bee30d1but Christian Jungerson published a big book here last year, The Exception, that got great reviews (I haven’t read it), and this year Hawthorne Books published Peter Fogtdal’s The Tsar’s Dwarf. I don’t know how the translation reads — though since Tiina Nunnally translates, I suspect it’s wonderful — but the original is terrific and fun. Fogtdal has quite a few books, so there’s plenty more to mine there. 

I think I do it simply because I love doing it, it’s a neat challenge, and there are a large number of great undiscovered Danish writers out there.

How has your training and your skill as a fiction writer helped you with translating another person’s stories into English? And vice-versa, how has translating impacted your work on your own fiction? Can you do both at the same time, shuttling between projects?

These days I’m writing very little of my own fiction. I’m working on the manuscript by Simon Fruelund, and that’s taking the bulk of my time. I might — it’s entirely possible — be trying to avoid writing my own fiction by translating. Has it helped my own fiction? I don’t think so. For me, at least, it seems like two totally separate mind-sets. When I translate I’m taking a form that already exists and shifting it into another language. There’s something almost businesslike about it. You get in a groove, but the story is pretty much all set for you; you’ve just got to do it justice in a new language. When I write fiction I’m out in new territory, making up the story as I go along. There’s something both liberating and terrifying about that — which is probably why I’m not doing it.

But if I were writing fiction right now, I could shuttle back and forth between the two. It goes back to being two different mind-sets.

In advance of this year’s Nobel Prizes, committee member Horace Engdahl made some comments about American writers’ and readers’ insularity — particularly commenting that Americans don’t translate enough or read enough in translation. You’ve already written (passionately) about this controversy, and so I don’t want to revisit it too much, but I am curious why YOU, as a translator yourself, might encourage American readers to check out a new French or Japanese or (since you mentioned it) Ecuadorian or Korean or, of course, Danish writer? What might we get from those works that we won’t find in American novels and short stories?

bolanolastevenings_sI think this is the million-dollar question. Why, when sifting through the hundreds of thousands of books published each year in the U.S. alone, would we pick up a translated book over a domestic book? Marketing is the key. New Directions has been publishing Roberto Bolano’s books these past few years [even before The Savage Detectives and 2666] and doing a fantastic job of marketing them. He was a great literary talent — and it helps (from a marketing perspective!) that he died young — and he deserves to be translated into English. My gut feeling is that he’s going to be read in the same way as Garcia Marquez, and treated as a classic Latin American writer.

But the short answer is that American readers don’t read many translated books because they never hear about them. I don’t for one second think that Americans wouldn’t love to pick up more books by foreign authors. If publishers gave a little marketing shove to some translations then you could see more translated books being read.

By the way, I read in the Washington Post that Horace Engdahl stepped down from his position at Nobel. This might be stemming from his lame-brained comments. I don’t know. In either case, I think he’s a representative of an old world belief that needs to be replaced.

What recent (or even not-so-recent) translations would you specifically recommend to others?

Anything by translators Barbara Haveland or Tiina Nunnally. They translate Scandinavian books and they are very good. Barbara Haveland translated Jan Kjaerstad’s The Discoverer into English (which will be published in the spring by Open Letter Press), and Tiina Nunnally has done some of Per Olov Enquist’s books. Jay Rubin’s translation of Murakami’s After Dark is great. Rubin and Philip Gabriel both translate Murakami, and it might be worth seeing the difference in Murakami’s “voice” as it’s filtered through two different translators.

coverIn a separate but related aside, I recently heard a program on NPR’s “The World” about Linn Ullman’s new book A Blessed Child. Linn Ullman is the daughter of Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullman, and she’s a pretty important Norwegian writer. The new book is apparently a riff on her father’s famous film Wild Strawberries. What was interesting about this program was how the reporter and her guest — a man who directed the international literature division of, I think, the University of Iowa — never mentioned the translator even once. It sounded as though this guy, who describes the book’s plot, had read it in the original, and that sounded fishy to me. So I checked online and found that the translator was a woman named Sarah Death (yes, Death).

Now it IS possible that he read it in the original, but the fact is the book has been translated into English, and that’s a moment when it’d be very helpful for listeners to know that they don’t have to understand Norwegian to read the book.

Translators don’t get much respect. But a good translator can make or break a book, and they should be recognized for the hard work they do. I don’t think I’m just writing that because I’d like to do a lot more of these translations. I think it’s a legitimate concern, because the translator IS responsible for making the thing as right-sounding as possible.

In that regard, what does make for a “good translation”? How can we readers who may not have access to the original for comparison (or the language skills to make that comparison even if we had the original) — how can we judge whether a translated work is successful or not?

I think a successful translation should read smoothly. Readers don’t need to know a language to know that something sounds off. Or if something is written that you know is wrong — calling a medical doctor a medic or something like that, when you know the author must’ve meant something else. Of course, some things are simply impossible to translate, and it may come across as a translator error. Stilted dialogue in the translation may in fact be stilted dialogue in the original. So it’s not a perfect science. My best indicator of a good translation is fluidity: Do we forget this thing is translated? Does it read like something written in English? The same rules should apply for a translation that applies for a book published in English. It should flow, and the language should be exact.

 — Interviewed by Art Taylor

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Why So Bleak, Buddy?

December 19, 2008

41ma4tuqp7lIn the wake of yesterday’s post about Blackbird, a play reflecting on a relationship between a 40-year-old man and a 12-year-old girl, a thought came up: Why is it that we’re attracted to dark, desperate stories? And how broad is that “we” anyway? Are Tara and I, for example, among a minority seeking out darker, complex, challenging stories while others look toward entertainment just for that: entertainment? Or is that “we” societal? I recall, for example, wanting to read William Styron’s Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness back in 1990, and when my mother got it for me for Christmas, Dad asked what it was about. “Styron’s depression,” I told him, and he looked puzzled: “Why would anyone want to read about that?” he asked.

Why indeed?

no_country_for_old_men_coenA similar conversation came up last year with my parents, who each year try to watch all of the contenders for the Best Picture Oscar in advance of the Academy Awards. Last year’s slate was, of course, an uphill battle, including No Country for Old Men, Michael Clayton, There Will Be Blood, Atonement… well, you get the picture, and even the fifth film, Juno, had an underlying seriousness. Many critics commented that it was the bleakest (that was the word) bunch of contenders ever and that it must represent something larger about our world. That question came up again just a few weeks ago in a Washington Post article entitled “No Country for Upbeat Films.” Since last year’s Oscar race, we’ve had more dark films that have attracted both critical acclaim and big bucks at the box office: The Dark Knight anyone? Quantum of Solace, the bleakest Bond film yet? And the road ahead doesn’t look much cheerier — literally: the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road comes out next year. The Post article says that “bleak is chic. Hopeless is hot.” And then proceeds to ask why, offering at one point the idea that bleakness “gives us a strong hit of humanity. It strips away the banal. It raises our pedestrian struggles to grandiose heights.” 

annakareninaSo is it that goodness can’t show us humanity? that comedy or even happiness can’t reflect human nature because it’s inherently banal? Tolstoy himself hinted toward something similar in that oft-repeated opening line of Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”


As Tara and I talked about it yesterday, we came up with something a little different. It’s not that darkness shows us something more real about humanity or even that extreme emotional states of any kind capture something truer about who we are. A bad man doing bad things is ultimately boring; a good man doing good things is even more boring; but either a good man doing a bad thing or a bad man doing a good one…? Well, that’s got potential.

At least in our case, it’s the idea of complexity and of a layering of emotions that seems to draw us toward thinking of a novel or a film as more important or successful or interesting. Juno, as one of my students pointed out last semester, succeeded in her mind as a great work of art because at one minute she was laughing and at the next she was crying. Blackbird, to our minds, succeeded the other night because it wasn’t relentlessly bleak but instead because it tempered that bleakness with heart — even if it then broke that heart. 51bh1mkn2elTragedy isn’t necessarily a higher art form than comedy — any survey of Woody Allen’s films will turn that idea on its head pretty quickly — and it’s not entirely the dexterity with which an artist navigates between those two poles either. Instead, it’s that artist’s ambition and ability to earn something deeper than simple laughs or simple tears or simple fears, slapstick or sheer sentimentality or that punch in the gut.

At least that’s roughly what we came up with. Thoughts?

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