How Winter Began--Giveaway on Goodreads

Cool!  There's a giveaway on Goodreads of my forthcoming collection, How Winter Began.  It won't be published until October, but fifteen people will get the bound galleys in advance--and the galleys have the beautiful cover with the image from a painting by Remedios Varo, one of my all-time favorite genius artists. 

The University of Nebraska Press has more about the book, including beautiful endorsements from Sandra Cisneros and Lorraine López. 

I'm combing through the proofs now at home, trying to make sure the text is letter-perfect.  More importantly, there'll be a party in October in Lincoln to celebrate the launch.  So if you're around...


Après le déluge

I'm very grateful to have a few minutes--now, at last, at the winter holidays--to express how excited I am that Hell or High Water is doing well in France.  Many thanks to Gallimard for bringing it out in November as part of its historic Série Noire line, and to Isabelle Maillet (whose translation must be very good), and to all the critics and book bloggers who've so generously reviewed it.

It's a funny thing, reception.  Back when I was working on my doctorate about modernist literature, I was always fascinated by the fact that William Faulkner initially earned such a lackluster (even damning) reception in the United States, where he had fallen completely out of print by WWII.  He was only revived during the post-war years by U.S. critics with a nationalist agenda.  And then the Nobel came, and now we teach him in college. 

But France--clever France--loved him all along:  his lushness, his brilliance, his so-called deviance.  His wild, polluted mind, running rampant.  (What's not to love?)  His long, unflinching gaze at damage. 

So it's kind of a thrill, I admit, to find the "charm and gutsiness" (my weak translation) of my beloved protagonist Nola Céspedes embraced by French readers, along with the book's descriptions of New Orleans, that most French and lovely of American cities. 

Merci beaucoup.


What Lies Inside: Race and Class in The Goldfinch

"You can't write something better than The Goldfinch.  You simply can't."
                 --Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love

People are still talking about Donna Tartt's best-selling, Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel The Goldfinch (2013); Evgenia Peretz's new piece in Vanity Fair lays out the ongoing controversy over its aesthetic quality.  But despite all the discussion, there's an element of the book that's been overlooked.  In a 771-page novel set in contemporary New York, Las Vegas, and Amsterdam, almost all the characters of color are servants, and they play bit parts.

This seems to be as invisible to critics (and book-club enthusiasts) as it is naturalized in the novel.

Now, it's a belief commonly held by the well-to-do that their domestic workers live and love to serve.  Call it the Downton Abbey fantasy:  the lower classes may indeed have their own little lives and dramas, but their true emotional investment lies in Lady Mary's happiness. 

Tartt's rosy yet flat depictions of working-class servants of color seem to partake of this fantasy, from Goldie the Puerto Rican doorman (and the other doormen:  "a big happy Dominican guy," etc.), to Cinzia the housekeeper, who "cried, and offered to stay and work for free" when the young protagonist Theo's mother can't afford her services anymore, to Etta, the Barbours' housekeeper, who "rushed to hug [Theo]:  I had the night off but I wanted to stay, I wanted to see you."

I'll work for freeI had the night off but I wanted to stay?  Uh, right.  Tartt's working-class people of color read like wishful caricatures.  Her servant characters don't quite say, "You is kind.  You is smart.  You is important," as in The Help, but they come close.  In contrast, all characters of importance in the novel--the ones with meaty speaking roles or any complexity--are white.

Why would a novel set primarily in New York and Las Vegas exclude people of color from any roles that aren't working-class servitude?  (That is, aside from "the Korean lady" and "Enrique," two insensitive and inept social workers who mispronounce Theo's name after his mother's death, and "the Chinese kid" who plays a role in the book's cartoonish crime-novel climax.)  When characters of color do appear, they function, not in the fullness of their humanity, but merely to revolve around the well-off white characters they serve.

It's an odd omission in a book that attempts to take, in other ways, such care.  Layered, amusing, and often artfully crafted at the sentence level, The Goldfinch explicitly favors the old over the new, the real over the fake, the lost or carefully preserved work of art over the easily accessible commodity.  It values the odd and fine-grained over manufactured polish; it loves (and wants us to love) quirky, damaged Pippa instead of picture-perfect blond Kitsey.  For many people--especially the sort who commit to hefty novels--its sensibility is easy to like.  It's an elegiac novel, with a series of lost mothers at its core and a lament for the passing of old ways at its heart (Old Masters, the old country, the faithful craft of artisans).  In The Goldfinch's neat sets of binaries, New York--with its beautiful old architecture and museums--easily trumps Las Vegas, with its gaudy imitation icons, junk food, and miles of tract housing.

So when Theo, our bereft protagonist, unwraps what he has believed (for years) to be the stolen painting The Goldfinch (the numinous MacGuffin that drives the action of the book, representing for Theo his dead mother and redolent of all Old-World art and culture) but which is actually a faked package with which light-fingered Boris has pulled the old switcheroo, I knew that what lay inside the wrapping mattered.  It mattered to Theo.  It mattered to Tartt.  In the ideological structure of her novel, whatever lay inside that wrapping represented the cheap, fake substitute for what was good and true and real--the beloved, the dear, the irreplaceable.  Whatever lay inside was the linchpin of Tartt's symbol system:  the precise negative of the delicate, precious Old Master painting enshrined on the cover, in the title, and within the novel's plot.

So I read with a sinking feeling, in Theo's voice, of

a snarl of packing tape into which I'd cut, painstakingly, with an X-Acto knife, twenty minutes of delicate work, pulse throbbing in my fingertips, terrified of going in too hard and nicking the painting by mistake, finally getting the side open, peeling the tape strip by strip by careful strip, with trembling hands:  only to find--sandwiched in cardboard and wrapped with newspaper--a scribbled-up Civics workbook (Democracy, Diversity, and You!).

Bright multicultural throng.  On the cover Asian kids, Latino kids, African American kids, Native American kids, a girl in a Muslim head scarf and a white kid in a wheelchair smiled and held hands before an American flag.  Inside,...the book's cheery dull world of good citizenship, where persons of different ethnicities all participated happily in their communities and inner-city kids stood around their housing project with a watering can, caring for a potted tree...

As the author, Tartt could have placed nearly anything inside that muddle of tape and newspaper and cardboard.  Yet this is what she chose, and so herein lies the great betrayal, the worthless substitute for all that has been stolen from Theo:  a multiculturalism depicted as facile, a didactic, banal, tokenized vision of compulsory equality and justice.  Gone is The Goldfinch, and with it the beloved lost hierarchical world of Beauty and Art and Culture (and dark people, presumably, in their places where they belong, serving).

This is the unremarked core of the novel, our newest winner of the Pulitzer Prize.  This is its own troubling heart of racial/class anxiety to which the glowing reviews (and scathing critiques) have largely been blind.

Perhaps these two kinds of moments in the book (the one-dimensional, eager servants of color; the big reveal of the "cheery dull world" of racial harmony where wondrous Art should be) are not deliberately hostile, not Tartt's reaction to the future posed by rapidly shifting U.S. demographics.  Perhaps the book is not evidence of a nostalgic raced/classed fantasy.  Maybe Tartt's choices along raced/classed lines are not angry.  (When writers of color write nakedly and directly about the real-life results of erasure, negation, and stereotyping, we are often called angry.  I think of Gloria Anzaldúa, for example, or bell hooks.  When white writers erase, diminish, typecast, and pigeonhole people of color, few commentators take note.) 

Perhaps Tartt's eager servants and banal multicultural textbook are simply omissions, blind spots, failures of vision and craft, the result of an imagination expansive in some ways yet cramped in others.  Such flaws are, in the history of decorated literature, not uncommon.   

Whatever the significance of Tartt's choices, they haven't yet been thrashed out on a cultural level, because the book's many supporters and critics haven't been interested in discussing this aspect. 

What does it say about contemporary U.S. culture and letters that The Goldfinch has earned wild marketplace success, won critical acclaim, and stirred significant discussion while its race/class politics have gone unremarked?  



Great Carson City Lit Fest

As both a former at-risk kid and former foster parent, I'm grateful to bestselling YA novelist Ellen Hopkins (Crank, Burned, Glass, and more) for starting Ventana Sierra, a nonprofit that helps at-risk teens (and particularly foster kids who've aged out of the system) transition into housing and college.

All the proceeds from the Ventana Sierra Advanced Writers Workshop, where I'll be teaching this Friday, go to the program, as do the proceeds of Ellen's other brainchild, the Great Carson City Lit Fest

The inaugural lit fest will be held this weekend in Carson City, Nevada; here's Ellen talking about it in the Reno Gazette-Journal.  (I've loved how generous and unpretentious Ellen is from the moment I met her.)  I'll be giving a reading at 9:30 on Saturday morning.  It'll be my first time in Nevada! 

Crime Fiction: Bridging the Literary/Commercial Divide

So I'm flying out tomorrow morning to offer a little talk in Boston at The Muse & the Marketplace conference, organized by Grub Street.  It's a cool conference that I've admired from afar for a while, so I'm happy to have the chance to go.  I love some of the writers who'll be presenting, like Pam Houston and Rigoberto González, and my entirely lovable agent Mitchell will be there.

This is my session:

"Contemporary Crime Fiction:  Bridging the Literary/Commercial Divide" 

(Not to be Britishly self-deprecating, but I did wonder, crafting the description, if I wasn't including a bit of fiction in the title itself.  Truth be told, I often feel as if, rather than bridging the literary/commercial divide, I've plummeted right down into it.  But I didn't think that "Plunging into the Literary/Commercial Abyss" would attract many takers.)

Here's the description:

From crime novelists whose prose has all the texture of literary fiction (Gillian Flynn, Tana French, Dennis Lehane) to decorated literary authors who've turned their hands to crime (Kate Atkinson, John Banville, Robert Olen Butler), writers are blurring the lines between literary fiction and a genre long considered formulaic. But what does crafting a successful literary thriller or mystery require? This session will explain conventions of the genre and discuss recent novels by authors who push the boundaries of the form to explore contemporary sociopolitical concerns.

The novelists I'll discuss at the end, the ones who "explore contemporary sociopolitical concerns," are Attica Locke, Steph Cha, Chris Abani, and Linda Rodriguez, and I'm really looking forward to sharing their work with the folks in Boston.  (I'm lugging a ton of books for show-and-tell; I hope I can heave my suitcase up into the overhead bins.)  Always the professor (sigh), I also developed a handy handout for when we go over crime fiction history and concepts, and it includes some of my favorite crime publishers and crime fiction reviewers, too--practical insider info to take away.  My great hope, as always, is that the session will be useful

One main point I plan to make is that, for literary writers who want to try their hand at crime fiction, the broad popular audience for mysteries and thrillers cannot be taken for granted, underestimated, or condescended to.  No way.  Crime readers are smart, they're knowledgeable, they're immersed in the traditions of the genre, and they expect from any new book a sophisticated dialectic between conventions of the form and innovation.  Moreover, it's a wildly competitive area of publishing.  For both of these reasons, literary authors who think they can swan in and be heralded as geniuses by the masses had better think again.

Another key point is that crime novels are expansive vessels.  Anything you want to put in a literary novel, you can put in a crime novel. 

I love talking/thinking/writing about this stuff. 

So I hope the session will provide a helpful, bracing cautionary note as well as practical concepts and tools for setting out--if writers dare--on the tricky, exciting, challenging journey of writing crime fiction. 

Without falling into the abyss.