"A slight Southern fetish, mixed with fear": Sufjan Stevens on his favorite writers

On Monday, Rick Moody talked with Sufjan Stevens and Wesley Stace about literature and music at the second PENultimate Lit event. The full audio should be up on the main PEN site soon, but in the meantime, you can watch short clips filmed by a few of the many Sufjan fans who were in the audience. In this one, Sufjan talks about his favorite writers, who are largely from the South-- Flannery O'Connor, Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner:

Sufjan's Illinois album, lent to me by one of our generous interns, reminds me more of the great Winesburg, Ohio than any other book I can think of-- and, indeed, at the very beginning of the clip, you can hear Sufjan briefly mention his fondness for Sherwood Anderson.

He also told a funny story about sending a short story to Harper's magazine back when he was writing fiction. Sufjan did an MFA at the New School; his thesis, he told the crowd on Monday, consisted of short stories set in two fictional Michigan towns (some of those stories, he said, led to the songs on his Michigan album). His story was rejected, and scrawled in hand on the standard rejection letter was a note that said, "Harper's fiction is impenetrable. Do not send any more stories." He appreciated the personal attention.

By the way, at the end of the clip above, you'll see links to two short clips from Sufjan's solo acoustic set at the event. And if you click here, you'll get moderator Rick Moody's thoughts on Flannery O'Connor, published in PEN America 2: Home & Away.

Update: The audio of the event is now online (along with some lovely photographs by Beowulf Sheehan).


"The Noble Beast": Joshua Furst on the courage of Norman Mailer

In the third of our end-of-year tributes to recently departed literary giants, Joshua Furst makes the case for Norman Mailer's importance-- to literature and to the culture at large. Mailer was a major figure in the history of PEN, and you can read other tributes and reminiscences here.

Joshua Furst published his first novel,
The Sabotage Café, in August. He is also the author of a short story collection, Short People, which Jay McInerney described as "scary, funny, brilliantly observed."

One of Norman Mailer’s great subjects—as the headline of his New York Times obituary so hostilely noted—was his ego. His ego and its discontents. This led, naturally, to an inconsistency in the work he produced—a sometimes embarrassing grandiosity, a sense that he was in love with his public platform and testing the limits of what it would withstand—that left him open to legions of jeers, scoffs and dismissive chuckles. What people often forget about him, though, is that despite—or maybe because of—his misses, when he did hit his punches landed with great force.

It’s hard to condone some of his more outrageous stances. His homophobia and sexism, the way he fetishized African Americans, so many of his ramblings read even worse, more naïve, less defensible today than they did when he wrote them. And they often came off pretty badly the first time around. He didn’t seem to mind.

At times, he appeared to be courting the ire of, as he would have it, “his public.” He’d say anything, piss anyone off, search out the most scandalous position he could muster and then wait, smirking, for the counterattacks. Or so it seemed. In fact, as frequently as not, he provided his enemies with their arguments against him, chiding and flaying his own persona as ruthlessly as he did everything else. For, what can be said about Norman Mailer that he hasn’t already said himself in copious detail? He published thousands upon thousands of pages, a great many of which were dedicated to the analysis of his own strengths and weaknesses, his appetites, his hatreds, his attempts to outpace the hard fact of his own mortality, his habit of sabotaging the public image he so doggedly groomed. He knew who he was and he neither allowed the threat of repercussions to silence him nor shirked them when they came. This, I believe, took courage.

All of which is exactly why he was such an indispensable voice in American letters and the culture at large. If Mailer often willingly played the buffoon, he did so with the knowledge that this was a sure way for him to slip free of the tyranny of his own fame.

Through the confluence of good writing and impeccable timing, he found fame early and realized soon after that this fame threatened to make him irrelevant, to brand him and box him in and squelch any relevance his future work might contain. So he made an existential choice: knowing full well that the journalists and ad-men, the publicists and politicians and marketeers and everyone else who believed more in sustaining the march of capital than in the freedom of the human spirit, would never forgive him for it, he unleashed his rabid nature, what he called in The Armies of the Night, his “beast.” He liberated himself from the expectations of his fame. This, too, took courage.

By loudly, publicly refusing to be accountable to anyone but himself, Norman Mailer was able to carve out a unique vantage from which to observe—and take part in—the national conversation. With his passing, I fear, a certain important animating spirit has disappeared from our national literature. Who among our younger generation of writers would risk his or her reputation and career as gleefully and frequently as Mailer did in his prime? Who among us is willing to rant and swear, and right or wrong, explode with indignation at the tyranny that surrounds us? And wouldn’t we be more vital if there were more brave sons of bitches like Mailer among us.

-- Joshua Furst

Joshua Furst is the author of The Sabotage Café, a novel, and Short People, a collection of stories. He has received fellowships from the James Michener Foundation and The MacDowell Colony, and was awarded the Nelson Algren Award for his short story "Red Lobster." He lives in New York and teaches fiction and playwriting at The Pratt Institute.


“Every gesture is gloved”: Wayne Koestenbaum on Elizabeth Hardwick

Elizabeth Hardwick died just over a week ago, at the age of 91. A great critic and essayist, co-founder of The New York Review of Books, Hardwick was also a long-time PEN member, serving on the board throughout the 1970s, including one year as Vice President.

Wayne Koestenbaum—like Hardwick, a critic and essayist, and also a poet—now serves on the PEN board himself. And those who have read his poem “Observations” (from Best-Selling Jewish Porn Films), in which he dreams of Hardwick correcting his choice of verbs, may already suspect his admiration for Hardwick’s writerly craftiness. I asked him to describe for our readers what he loves about her work, and he replied with this wonderful tribute.

I love Elizabeth Hardwick’s sentences. They’re strange and wayward. They veer. They avoid the point. Sometimes they are specific, but often they grow soft-focused and evasive at the crucial moment. They fuzz out by adopting a tone at once magisterial and muffled. When I was writing my biography of Andy Warhol, I told myself, “Imitate Elizabeth Hardwick.” By that advice, I meant: be authoritative, but also odd.

How to explain or summarize the Hardwickian tone? It offers tenderness where another critic might offer trenchancy. Its every gesture is gloved. From her introduction to The Susan Sontag Reader:
Essays lie all over the land, stored up like the unused wheat of a decade ago in the silos of old magazines and modest collections. In the midst of this clumsy abundance, there are rare lovers of the form, the great lovers being some few who practice it as the romance this dedication can be.
Strange syntax that second sentence has. I love, in this opening salvo, her articles, their proffering of a misleading specificity. “Essays lie all over the land...” Which land? Another piquant “the”: “like the unused wheat of a decade ago...” Her use of this (article? adjective?) astounds: “this clumsy abundance”; “the romance this dedication can be.”

From her essay “Wives and Mistresses,” in Bartleby in Manhattan:
The famous carry about with them a great weight of patriarchal baggage—the footnotes of their lives. Footnotes worry a lot. They, loved or unloved, seem to feel the winds of the future always at their back. The graves of the greatly known ones are a challenge to private history...
Everything here is tone, sonorous yet gracefully stumbling, a tone cemented by judicious, generous articles (“the famous,” “a great weight,” “the footnotes of their lives”) and by weird, sudden personification, a metaphor coming alive without warning: “Footnotes worry a lot.” I love, too, the insertion of the appositive “loved or unloved” immediately after the “They” of the second sentence: “They, loved or unloved, seem to feel...” Divorcing “they” from “seem,” she inserts “loved or unloved” like a great raw piece of beef soliciting our appetite.

In her later work, her effects grew bolder. The following, from a 1999 review of Andrew Morton’s Monica’s Story:
The shabby history of the United States in the last year can be laid at the door of three unsavory citizens. President Clinton: shallow, reckless, a blushing trimmer; Monica Lewinsky, aggressive, rouge-lipped exhibitionist; Judge Kenneth Starr, pale, obsessive Pharissee.
Her art there lies in the immortal, cruel epithet, the wine-dark sea of precise excoriation.

Final example, from her novel-which-is-not-a-novel, Sleepless Nights: “Every morning the blue clock and the crocheted bedspread with its pink and blue and gray squares and diamonds.” No verb. She means: “Every morning I wake up to confront the black clock and the crocheted bedspread.” But she omits the seeing, knowing “I,” and she omits the verb. Every morning the blue clock gives forth the bleak yet solacing fragrance that is the Elizabeth Hardwick sentence, worth our careful study.

-- Wayne Koestenbaum

Wayne Koestenbaum, poet and critic, is the author of several books, including the recent Hotel Theory. His biography of Warhol was published in 2001. His tribute to Gertrude Stein appeared in PEN America 5: Silences. He teaches at the CUNY Graduate School.


“Let the Olympic flame burn the prisons of thought down!”

Earlier today-- International Human Rights Day-- PEN President Francine Prose, along with Nelofer Pazira and Zheng Yi (the presidents of PEN Canada and Independent Chinese PEN, respectively) issued a letter to Hu Jintao, the President of the People’s Republic of China, and to Procurator General Mr. Jia Chunwang.
We are writing on behalf of our members and the entire community of International PEN, the worldwide association of writers, to urge you to release 40 of our colleagues who are in prison in your country in violation of their right to freedom of expression.

This past August, China launched a publicity campaign proclaiming “We Are Ready” to host the Olympic Games in August 2008. Today, on the 59th commemoration of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we challenge you to demonstrate that China is in fact ready – not just to stage the Olympics, but to acknowledge, protect, and celebrate the full rights of its citizens.
Read the rest here. They also included case work on those 40 writers, descriptions of which you can read here. More details about this campaign are here. You can also get help writing a letter to the Chinese government or to your US Representative.

Update: Salman Rushdie weighs in. “There are 40 of our colleagues in Chinese prisons who shouldn’t be in prison. It will be an embarrassment for China if even one of them is still in prison when the Games begin next August. There’s only one good number: zero.”

(The title of this post comes from Zheng Yi.)


News & Notes

The Sufjan Stevens/Wesley Stace event at Southpaw, organized and moderated by Rick Moody, has been rescheduled for December 17.

PEN pays tribute to Norman Mailer, with thoughts from Gay Talese and many others.

Also at the main PEN site, a remarkable audio slide show about torture, with voice-over by ACLU attorneys Jameel Jaffer and Amrit Singh.

Government officials in Turkey are promising to reconsider Article 301, which makes "insulting Turkishness" a crime. (Background info here.)

And, as the holidays approach, "ways to give back with books."