John Williams, Writer and Editor, Part 2
July 8, 2010 | by John Williams
This is the second installment of Williams' culture diary. Click here to read part 1.
DAY FIVE9:30 A.M. I read a profile of novelist David Mitchell by Wyatt Mason in The New York Times Magazine. I try to read anything Mason writes. He’s always sharp, and he was among the few critics who gave one of my favorite novels1 (It’s All Right Now by Charles Chadwick) its due. As for Mitchell, I want to read him in theory, but I’ve yet to feel inspired to actually pick up the books. I’m most interested in Black Swan Green, his semi-autobiographical novel, and by consensus his least formally inventive.
11:45 A.M. I go back through several publishers’ catalogs to firm up a list of titles that I hope to assign for review on The Second Pass in the fall. I add Dinaw Mengestu’s sophomore novel, How to Read the Air, and the list is now sixty-five books long, which seems ambitious. I may have to prune it a bit.
4:35 P.M. I read the first few pages of The Art of Losing, a debut novel by Rebecca Connell that appeared in the mail last week. It’s being published in October, and I add it to the list for review. I realize this is the opposite of pruning.
11:00 P.M. The Criterion Collection recently released Make Way for Tomorrow, a 1937 movie directed by Leo McCarey, who also directed Duck Soup, The Awful Truth, and dozens of others. I watch it on my laptop. It stars Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi as an elderly couple who lose their home to foreclosure. None of their children are able to take them both, so they’re separated. Legendary character actor Thomas Mitchell is great as George, the son who takes in his mother. Made in the wake of the Social Security Act of 1935, the movie, without being overtly political at all, unfolds like an argument for the importance of social safety nets. There are moments of real humor, but the overall mood is melancholy3.
9:43 A.M. I listen to a bit of sports radio while having breakfast. This is a habit4 I’ve developed over the past year or two. All the talk at the moment is about where LeBron James will end up playing basketball next year. James’ free agency feels like the peak (I hope) of interest in money and business masquerading as an interest in sports.
11:00 A.M. I talk to my friend Jon Fasman on the phone about his completion of a long special report on gambling for The Economist. He traveled around the world to write it. It will be out any day now, and I can’t wait to read it.
11:30 A.M. My iTunes keeps crashing, so I go to Pandora and turn on the Son Volt station I created. It plays Damien Jurado’s driving “Paperwings,” which improves my mood.
2:11 P.M. On Twitter. Not finding much through it today. There were two days last week when I felt, for the first time, the addictive quality5 of the site. I seem to have returned to normal since then.
6:00 P.M. I get home to find this week’s issue of The New Yorker on my stairs, and I take it with me as I head to the subway to meet friends in Central Park—the hot weather has broken, giving way to a climate for humans, and we plan to enjoy it. On the train, I read a profile of Steve Carell by Tad Friend. The piece is well done, but it makes me wonder about the improv-influenced comedy of Carell, Will Ferrell, et al., and its weaknesses. I like some results of their method, but it also seems to turn every character into a version of the Carell character in Anchorman—a severely, unrealistically stupid person who gets laughs by just saying things out of context over and over again. On the return trip, I read James Wood’s review of the new David Mitchell novel and this week’s short story, “The Erlking” by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, one of the magazine’s 20 Under 40 honorees. The story is apparently a play on a work by Goethe, and perhaps knowing the original—and not being sleepy on the subway—would have helped.
9:43 A.M. Twitter, for the latest and greatest. The first link I follow is to a column by Fauzia Burke about whether Twitter really helps publishers sell books. Then, I find a nearly ideal way to start a day: a camera test from The Muppet Movie in which Kermit and Fozzie have an existential conversation about whether Fozzie is a real bear. This, in turn, leads me to a clip of Prince joking with a Muppet. OK, time to get off this YouTube carousel before the whole day is lost...
10:25 A.M. I see that The Believer’s new music issue is out. I read the beginning of Nick Hornby’s “What I’ve Been Reading” column. (Only the first three paragraphs are available online.) He writes about a British actress who took issue with the idea of the talking cure, saying that psychologists are “not listening in the way that someone who loves you does.” Hornby writes, “That’s the whole point, and to complain that therapists aren’t friends is rather like complaining that osteopaths aren’t pets.”
10:34 A.M. Start my daily visit to various literary blogs6. Through no fault of theirs, I’m bored. There are some mornings when the web just doesn’t do the trick. There should probably be more mornings like that. A lovely breeze is coming through the kitchen window. I leave to do my laundry, taking a book with me.
11:00 A.M. The book I take is Bigger Deal by Anthony Holden, a sequel to his first memoir about playing poker, Big Deal. The cover blurb is from Martin Amis: “Holden is the top writer in pokerdom.” There’s a lot of competition these days, but Holden is good.
8:00 P.M. I originally planned to simply write here: “Redacted.” But no, confession is more fun. I’m at the Gershwin Theater to see the musical Wicked with family members who are in from out of town. It’s pretty much as I expect: bad lyrics throughout (I think one character tells another, “you’re like a handprint on my heart”), but some satisfying spectacle7.
11:56 P.M. Back home, I pack for a July 4th weekend away. It will be spent next to a lake with ten friends, cooking, swimming, and Scrabble- and Wiffle ball-playing. I take five books8 with me, which, I can tell you after the fact, is four and nine-tenths too many.
John Williams is the founder and editor of The Second Pass.
- A 700-page debut novel published when Chadwick was seventy-two, It’s All Right Now tells the story of one man’s life over several decades. The narrator, Tom Ripple, is a brilliant creation: true to life, fond of bad puns, passive, frustrated, loving, forgetful, nostalgic, accidentally insightful about himself. Chadwick’s style and Ripple’s thoughts are subtle but possessed of great accumulated power. Mason wasn’t totally alone in praising it. David Gates said, “No writer—no writer—has ever been more scrupulous in honoring his characters’ complexity,” and Benjamin Kunkel called the novel “[a]t once modest and epic” and described Ripple as “one of the most vivid and robust characters in recent British fiction.”
- The only novel by Grossman I’ve read is The Book of Intimate Grammar, and that was many years ago, but I remember admiring it. Advance word about the new novel has been enthusiastic, not even including Nicole Krauss’ already legendarily effusive/mystical blurb.
- On one of the DVD’s extras, Peter Bogdanovich recalls having dinner with Orson Welles, and asking him if he’d ever seen Make Way for Tomorrow. Welles responded: “Oh my god! That’s the saddest movie ever made! It would make a stone cry!”
- I go back and forth about this habit. On the one hand, sports talk can be brutally repetitive, ridiculously speculative, and, well, meaningless. On the other, its rhetorical strategies can be interesting even when they’re kind of dumb, the callers are reliable sources of insanity/entertainment, and the whole enterprise is more spirited and less scripted than, say, NPR. Plus, if you’re a fan of the different species of New York City/Long Island accent, WFAN is a goldmine. Sports radio is one of the few things in the culture that still feels genuinely regional.
- If you don’t check Twitter often enough, the sheer volume of material you miss makes it difficult-to-impossible to catch up. So the site rewards addiction, is most useful as an addiction. And when people are posting interesting things (this goes in cycles, like most things in life), it’s easy to want to check the site more than once an hour. The key is to just stay away altogether for a day or more at a time.
- My usual suspects include, but are not limited to: Maud Newton, Levi Stahl, Mark Athitakis, Dan Wagstaff, Scott Pack, John Self, Levi Asher, The New Yorker’s Book Bench, Jacket Copy, Paper Cuts, Book Slut, and the blog you’re currently reading.
- What I find interesting is that most people my age (including me) would reflexively slam Wicked, but the transformation of the wicked witch is very similar to the transformation stories so central to movies like Iron Man and The Dark Knight. And somehow, the culture has convinced my generation (or my generation has convinced the culture?) to take movies about vigilantes in rubber costumes very seriously.
- I take Jackson Lears’ book to finish (I don’t); Shields’ Reality Hunger and Black Planet to brush up on (I don’t); a new biography of Charlie Finley, the colorful former owner of the Oakland A’s, to possibly start (I don’t); and Anna Karenina, of which I read about forty pages on Saturday afternoon.