Recent News

A January Roundup (So You Don’t Have to Go Click-Click in All Sorts of Places)

Manuel Munoz, Portland, OR Oct 2011

Here’s a quick rundown of some interviews, articles, reviews, and other media for What You See in the Dark, all in a handy-dandy list:

VERY CHOICE BITS

An alumni profile in Harvard Magazine (for all the dirt on how Manuel came from dirt).

A radio interview with Michael Silverblatt on KCRW’s Bookworm (if you want to hear Manuel quiver in front of a genius).

A review by the film critic Charles Taylor at the IFC film blog (if you’d like a beautifully argued observation of the novel’s chief aims).

A review by the film critic Miguel Rodriguez at KPBS’s Cinema Junkie (if you’d like a consideration of why Psycho is used as the novel’s cultural touchstone).

An invited blog post at the Library of America (if you’d like to see the debt Manuel owes to the great mind of Gwendolyn Brooks).

Manuel’s Juror Favorite selection from the 2011 PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories (if you’d like proof that Manuel’s literary taste includes something other than his own, and also if you’d like to say you appreciated Matthew Neill Null before everyone else did).

Some pictures of Manuel’s work space (in case you’re curious like that).

SOME INTERVIEWS

An interview conducted by fellow writer Jenny Shank over at New West (if you want the scoop on why the hell Manuel did the second person thing).

An interview at TimeOut Chicago (if you want a precise rundown in a glossy, classy mag).

An interview with the lovely Creosote Journal (if you want some more about how Manuel ran across the Petula Clark/Harry Belafonte moment).

An interview with the very popular film blog, The Film Experience (if you want to hear Manuel go on about Robert Altman and the glory of Nashville again).

An interview with Houston’s OutSmart Magazine (if you’d like to get a read on Manuel’s sometimes testy relationship with queer literature).

A video interview with Park City TV in Utah (if you want to judge how jazz-handy Manuel is on camera, or to admire his scuffed boots).

An interview at La Bloga (if you’d like a take on small-town transgressors and a little cachetada at Obama’s tip-toeing).

SOME PRINT AND MEDIA REVIEWS

They loved it at NPR.

They loved it at Publishers Weekly.

They loved it at O Magazine.

They loved it in Cleveland.

They loved it in Philly.

They loved it in Austin.

They loved it in Chattanooga and in Edmonton, Canada (no, really–there are just no links anymore!)

SOME BLOG POSTS

A playlist of film scores is posted over at Largehearted Boy.

A pairing with Chuck Palahniuk at Beverly in Movieland.

A review by Laura Marris at CultureMob.

A review by Lisa Peet over at Open Letters Monthly.

A review (for realzies!) from the very well-read Backlisted.

A review over at Three Guys, One Book.

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Pauline Kael Was Gangsta!

From this week’s New Yorker article on Pauline Kael: “In 1970…Kael conned a UCLA assistant professor, Howard Suber, out of publishing an essay on Citizen Kane: she promised a collaboration, vanished with Suber’s proprietary research, and ultimately used it for an extended piece of her own, ‘Raising Kane’ (1971). It’s seen today as one of the defining works of her career.”

She will knock you down...

Kael is great fun to read. She was wrong about a lot of films, but she often wrote about them in a way that was at least half-convincing, if only for the bon mots circling those convictions. Never a fan of Streep, her take on her in The Deer Hunter at least doesn’t confuse the character with the actor: “It’s a testament to Meryl Streep’s heroic resources as a mime that she makes herself felt–she has practically no lines.” And she’s fair in puzzling over why Diana Ross never became a bigger movie star: in reviewing Mahogany, she laments the film’s use of old showbiz tropes and outdated melodrama, and flat-out says that Ross “deserves better than white hand-me-downs.” Her essay, “Why Are Movies So Bad? Or, the Numbers” from 1980 seems sadly parallel to the demise of the book business. (I try not to read it too often.)

I have a battered copy of her For Keeps: Thirty Years at the Movies, which I bought from the remainder shelf of Borealis Books in Ithaca years ago, so I may not go in for any of the books that are about to come out in this fall’s Kael revival. But I do have high hopes that we’ll get film critics with renewed interest in her as more than just a figure in their background (some reviewers would do really well to just read her).

If it trickles over into book reviewing, all the better, since so much of it is flat and uninformed. Maybe if you come to a reading some day, dear reader, I can tell you about a particularly lazy one–the rehash of the publicity material that was sent out with the galleys and re-edited as an “interview,” just by adding “said”! And she got paid for it! It’s a great story…

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Why the National Book Awards Are Still Relevant (Part Two)

Did any of you read it?

It isn’t the first time that the National Book Awards have been compared to the Oscars, and while that comparison is simply for the sake of dreaming about how books could reach a wider audience, it misses the fact that books take longer to consume, longer to circulate, and longer to assess. The wonderful thing about following smart film blogs like Nick’s Flick Picks or The Film Experience (or the sorely missed *StinkyLulu) is the currency of both the posts and the people reading them. The strong debate about a divisive film is usually had by people who have seen the films. Books rarely have that kind of undivided attention, and even when they do (like last year’s big stink about Franzen), it’s still a conversation largely involving the participation of people who have yet to pick up the title. Who wants to follow that?

So we’re back to reviewers, and we’re back to our dependence on them to do more than react to publishers’ main titles. Over at NPR, Rachel Syme at least asks about book reviewers’ responsibility about “dropping the ball” (though the question ends up being rhetorical more than anything else). One look at the page and you’ll see the book being advertised is Obreht’s. What a surprise. Why not feature Krivak? Or Otsuka? (Why not read Krivak? Or Otsuka? And preferably without a knife out?) When Syme brings up the example of Jaimy Gordon’s reissue of Bogeywoman by Vintage, she describes it as a “fizzle,” insinuating that the NBA’s choice of the McPherson title Lord of Misrule last year was primarily a boost to the little guy. The question (and the ire) here should be on Vintage: did they advertise? Or on reviewers: did anyone pick up Bogeywoman and reassess it in light of Gordon’s new novel? My guess is no, on both counts—that “fizzle,” that failure to catch fire, should reflect on neither Gordon nor the awards, and more on the people who can stoke the flames.

Ultimately, these complaints about the relevance of the Awards have more to do with the shortlist failing to validate the admittedly hard work of the reviewers. I’ve seen the interior of a reviewer’s den: the stacks of publicity envelopes, the galleys, the author info packets. It’s a miracle for a reviewer to cover 30-40 a year if he or she is lucky. I get it, okay? A prize list ends up making that work look futile. But let there be no confusion that a reviewers’ choices about what to cover have little to do with quality or what we should rewarding with culturally significant prizes.

I’ll trust a judge like Yiyun Li or Victor LaValle over a reviewer any day. I’m teaching Yiyun Li’s A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and the day my undergraduates came back after having read her story “Immortality,” I knew something had clicked. Something changed in their perception about what a story could do, what it could offer, and even what they might expect from other stories from here on out. Prize lists function in the same way to a lot of readers—we’re ready to try something new. I’m excited to read Jesmyn Ward and Andrew Krivak and I’m thankful the NBA slate made me aware of them. As for reviewers, yes—you missed these. Look harder next time.

*Film fans should click through on StinkyLulu’s Supporting Actress Sundays, which was once a monthly feature asking readers to revisit and reassess Oscar performances in this particular category. Film nerds like me will find it deeply fun and engaging. It almost inspired me, at one point, to do it with past NBA slates. While the 2001 slate was considered a cakewalk for Franzen at the time, I know a lot of readers who ignored the book pundits for a while and took up some of the other four books on that slate. Dan Chaon, for example. Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me. Those nominations brought them needed readers, and it most assuredly got reviewers, on the next go-arounds with new books, to open the galley package and just give them a goddamn try.

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Why the National Book Awards Are Still Relevant

You go along with this?

The sad thing about Laura Miller’s slapdash effort to take down this year’s slate of National Book Award finalists is that it sounds like the same argument made last year, the year before, and the year before that. Miller calls the “head-scratching” about the fiction slate a “frustrating impasse between the press and the public,” but fails to take responsibility for how she and other book reviewers—not the prize juries—are largely responsible for that impasse.

However Miller might want to define “public,” a little more honesty about the nature of that public would be in order. It matters very little to me, as both a writer and a serious reader, what the American public might be buying in droves. (I worked in publishing and I know the answer to that question—you really don’t want to know.) If Miller wants awards to function as tools for readers to “sort out the most important books of the year,” they’ve got plenty of other ways to do that, from ubiquitous best-of-the-year lists from loads of sources, to the latest movie trade paperback tie-in (the ones with your favorite book cover suddenly replaced with a garish movie poster and stacked all over Walmart). That alone should suffice for the four or five books that Miller guesses the average American reader takes on over the course of a year. And if that’s not enough, Miller is welcome to revive the now-defunct Quill Awards if she’d like a People’s Choice Award equivalent to selecting our country’s finest.

But for the rest of us who truly take reading seriously, a National Book Award finalist slate is something we approach with two key elements most book reviewers are missing: curiosity and generosity. My impulse is not to sniff at a writer like Jesmyn Ward, but to read more about her and what her book might offer me. Readers like us end up glad to learn of “obscure” writers like Bonnie Jo Campbell or Joan Silber or Kate Walbert. Edward P. Jones was alerted to many not with The Known World in 2003, but way back in 1992, when his fantastic (and classic) short-story collection, Lost in the City, was a finalist for—you guessed it—the National Book Award.

For Miller to carp about the slate ignoring writers like Ann Patchett or Amy Waldman is disingenuous. As a reviewer, she’s privy to the big-house publicity for these books, and she responds in kind by reviewing a handful of them. She chooses, and in doing so, is a judge of sorts. Talk about irrelevant: it’s no wonder so many book reviewing venues have gone under. When reviewers like Miller grant the same paltry number of titles all the attention, you’re damn right that we, as serious readers, start to depend on prizes to do the work that reviewers should help us do. I doubt very much that Miller even cracked open the package that contained Andrew Krivak’s small-press offering The Sojourn. Why would anyone trust her dismissal of a book she chose to ignore? Remember when Tinkers won the Pulitzer? The “holy goddamn” New York Times (to borrow Robert Duvall’s lovely phrasing from Network) issued the weakest apology about how they “missed” it. Lots of readers (and booksellers) are grateful that the Pulitzer prize jury did not.

Prizes like the NBAs have never been designed, first or foremost, as sales tools. They are efforts to build and sustain our national literary culture. Granted, time ends up being the harshest judge of all, and books move up or down as readers consider them in their own eras and spaces. But the efforts of organizations like the National Book Foundation, the PEN/Faulkner, the Pulitzer board, etc., are much too important to dismiss, much less by people who have failed to read the books they are prepared to rail against. With the demise of so many outlets for book coverage, we truly have become a nation of book reviewers in the worst sense: the re-packagers of the publishing industry’s major “pushes,” with little filtering. We used to have book critics, people who assisted the whole of American literature by alerting the public to good books. And they did so with the spirit of generosity and curiosity, nothing more. We could really use a little more of that.

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The Pleasure of Prizes: Edith Pearlman and the National Book Awards

Binocular Vision

I love when the major American literature prizes get announced: I gripe very little about omissions or snubs. With only five slots (three for the Pulitzers), no list will please anyone. Instead, I take the prize list as a personal invitation to take up a writer with whom I might not be familiar. I wish newspaper reviewers and columnists would approach the lists the same way, rather than wonder about this or that book that they bothered to take note of only because a major house was really pushing it.

In poetry, the prize lists always serve me well: since I’m not of that world, I need a guide of some kind. The National Book Awards brought me to Alan Dugan, for example, when he was a finalist (and eventual winner) in 2001 for Poems Seven. They brought me to Ben Lerner’s beguiling Angle of Yaw and Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler and Linda Gregerson’s Magnetic North. My poet friends usually have plenty more to tell me about what I don’t know, but I hang on to the pleasure of discovery. It isn’t very much different from my bookshop days in the 1990’s, when I’d scour the Lambda Literary nominations (back when they sort of meant something), then went looking for those titles at Wordsworth. It helped me build a reading list.

In fiction, the pleasure is even deeper, maybe because I take so much heart and inspiration when the major prizes lift someone out of the fog. This morning, I literally jumped out of my chair when I read that Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision: New & Selected Stories was nominated. I’m thrilled because she’s a short-story writer—a very dedicated one—who has been published widely and yet modestly. It’s Lookout Books, a small press out of North Carolina, that published her title this year, and they get to join Bellevue Literary Press and McPherson as presses (those two that brought out Tinkers and Lord of Misrule) that clearly privileged merit over market value and, in doing so, have been richly rewarded in other ways.

Pearlman has been published by Eastern Washington University Press, Sarabande Books, and University of Pittsburgh Press via the Drue Heinz Literature Prize in 1996 (which is how I discovered her, reading the titles that had won the prize, back when it seemed like the Drue Heinz was the only short-story prize contest around). These are smaller presses with modest distributions, but more important is how they collectively contributed to what big publishing houses always claim to do, but seldom accomplish: nurture and support the growth of a writer.

I’m thrilled to see someone like Edith Pearlman receive recognition like this. It reminds me very much of when Gina Berriault’s Women in Their Beds came out from Counterpoint and ended up winning both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the PEN/Faulkner. I was about twenty-five years old at the time, but I remember sensing even then that some writers are asked to wait in the wings for a long time before being invited out to the national stage. I’ve been irked, too, as I posted this morning on Facebook, that this phenomenon happens most frequently to women writers. But no matter. Pearlman’s nomination means so many good things: more readers for her, some more attention to yet one more small press fighting the good fight, and perhaps even some new converts to the great pleasures and mysteries of the short story.

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What I’m Reading in the Morning: David Trinidad’s Dear Prudence: New and Selected Poems

David Trinidad, with morning coffee

When I worked in publishing, I was always puzzled about “the fall season,” as if anything the book world could unleash was on par with Hollywood’s “Oscar season,” which starts right after Labor Day. In publishing, the fall books are geared to release and ship just in time for holiday shopping: hence, the glut of big books by big names releasing by mid-November, all of them vying for the same review space, but only a handful getting any sort of consistent traction. It always made little sense to me, especially with big open spaces in other parts of the year, like early summer or January. Take Jayne Anne Phillips’s Lark and Termite, which Knopf wisely released right at the beginning of 2009. Apart from being a good book, it competed with very little in the bright white of January’s nothingness (at least in the review sections), and that tactic helped sustain attention for the novel all the way through October and the National Book Award nominations.

This year, the fall season in the book world has brought two titles I really have been anticipating. Book glut be damned, I’ve got my eye on Dagoberto Gilb’s new short-story collection Before the End, After the Beginning, which pubs on November 1st from Grove. The other is already out: David Trinidad’s wonderful Dear Prudence: New and Selected Poems, from Turtle Point.

Trinidad’s volume is the latter of his stunning one-two punch this year. In addition to this volume, he edited A Fast Life: The Collected Poems of Tim Dlugos for Nightboat Books, a definitive edition for any young poet, but also one imbued with a moving, elegiac, and ultimately instructive quality. Trinidad’s introduction to that volume speaks to his dedication in preserving Dlugos’s work and legacy—the poet died of AIDS at forty—and the extraordinary patience with which Trinidad arranged and ordered Dlugos’s output, awaiting the right publisher. It translates into an act of literary rescue, one poet devoting energy and mind to another who can longer speak for himself—an act, really, of community in the truest and deepest sense.

I said the Dlugos volume was “instructive,” but Dear Prudence has the same feel. To carry each volume is a nod to persistence, to the value of a writer producing poems that, consciously or not, speak to each other across years, across forms, and across subjects—there’s literal weight to this work. The selected poems come from a variety of small presses that published Trinidad’s earlier books before he began being published by Turtle Point in 2000, and I had a hard time not skimming through to revisit poems I knew from Plasticville or The Late Show (books I remember from the late, lamented Wordsworth Bookstore in Harvard Square).

Dear Prudence starts with a section of new poems titled “Black Telephone.” In them are some of Trinidad’s recognizable preoccupations—the allure of sub-narrative in film, the refractive quality of pop music on one’s emotional history, the continual reshaping of the personal past the more one digs into it. But something new (to me, anyway) is the affirmation of influence. A clever framework is a series of poems around Sylvia Plath, a poet whose singular fury functions as a baseline for most of us in our early reading, but whose real power comes only later (mostly in reading her terrible imitators). But seeking models or idols or mirrors in poets like Plath is hardly anything to snicker at. In “Underlined in Sylvia Plath’s Copy of Tender Is the Night” comes a testimony to the power and need for reading, a writer’s ever-present search for the arresting and the startling, often in another writer’s work. It’s no surprise when Anne Sexton, another of those poets who serves as a timeless first-gate-keeper to poetry for many, shows up to comment on all of this in “Anne Sexton Visits Court Green.” Half the fun of the poem is giving over to its authority in depicting Sexton as the cool, serenely acidic woman her pictures suggest she might be, and this blends in perfectly with Trinidad’s lifelong obsession with the movies, with performance and public masks, but also with the spell woven by the mythology of art and its producers.

That world of art can appear anywhere, as suggested by the look Sexton gives to the laburnum in Plath’s garden, the poet’s subject often within striking sight. So it’s no wonder to me that Trinidad finds something worthwhile in producing a haiku for each of the episodes of the Peyton Place television show DVD reissue (“Peyton Place: A Haiku Soap Opera”) and that, embedded in the strange curl of Dorothy Malone’s hairdo, is yet one more space still untouched and undefined by a poet. This book starts to serve, in moments like that, as a testament to maintaining and holding true to a remarkable vision, however idiosyncratic it may seem to the rest of the world. “Fame not necessary,” he writes in “Pink Button,” “for the poems / each word / eye candy / for the literary / pilgrim.” Damn right.

Posted in Recent News Tagged

An August Roundup (So You Don’t Have to Search and Then Click-Click in All Sorts of Places)

Manuel Muñoz

Here’s a quick rundown of some interviews, articles, reviews, and other media for What You See in the Dark, all in a handy-dandy list:

VERY CHOICE BITS

An alumni profile in Harvard Magazine (for all the dirt on how Manuel came from dirt).

A radio interview with Michael Silverblatt on KCRW’s Bookworm (if you want to hear Manuel quiver in front of a genius).

A review by the film critic Charles Taylor at the IFC film blog (if you’d like a beautifully argued observation of the novel’s chief aims).

A review by the film critic Miguel Rodriguez at KPBS’s Cinema Junkie (if you’d like a consideration of why Psycho is used as the novel’s cultural touchstone).

An invited blog post at the Library of America (if you’d like to see the debt Manuel owes to the great mind of Gwendolyn Brooks).

Manuel’s Juror Favorite selection from the 2011 PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories (if you’d like proof that Manuel’s literary taste includes something other than his own, and also if you’d like to say you appreciated Matthew Neill Null before everyone else did).

Some pictures of Manuel’s work space (in case you’re curious like that).

SOME INTERVIEWS

An interview conducted by fellow writer Jenny Shank over at New West (if you want the scoop on why the hell Manuel did the second person thing).

An interview at TimeOut Chicago (if you want a precise rundown in a glossy, classy mag).

An interview with the lovely Creosote Journal (if you want some more about how Manuel ran across the Petula Clark/Harry Belafonte moment).

An interview with the very popular film blog, The Film Experience (if you want to hear Manuel go on about Robert Altman and the glory of Nashville again).

An interview with Houston’s OutSmart Magazine (if you’d like to get a read on Manuel’s sometimes testy relationship with queer literature).

A video interview with Park City TV in Utah (if you want to judge how jazz-handy Manuel is on camera, or to admire his scuffed boots).

An interview at La Bloga (if you’d like a take on small-town transgressors and a little cachetada at Obama’s tip-toeing).

SOME PRINT AND MEDIA REVIEWS

They loved it at NPR.

They loved it at Publishers Weekly.

They loved it at O Magazine.

They loved it in Cleveland.

They loved it in Philly.

They loved it in Austin.

They loved it in Chattanooga and in Edmonton, Canada (no, really–there are just no links anymore!)

SOME BLOG POSTS

A playlist of film scores is posted over at Largehearted Boy.

A pairing with Chuck Palahniuk at Beverly in Movieland.

A review by Laura Marris at CultureMob.

A review by Lisa Peet over at Open Letters Monthly.

A review (for realzies!) from the very well-read Backlisted.

A review over at Three Guys, One Book.

Posted in Recent News

The Macondo Writers’ Workshop and the Importance of Lifelong Mentors

Manuel Muñoz and Helena María Viramontes

I’ve said many times that good mentors nurture not only writing, but spirit and heart. I was reminded of that at the end of July while team-teaching with my mentor, Helena María Viramontes, at the invitation of Sandra Cisneros’s Macondo Foundation in San Antonio, Texas. In a week of hard work, gentle debate, and open discussion, Helena demonstrated once again how critiques need not be harsh, how performing the service of reading—especially at the draft stage when a writer is most vulnerable and fragile—is always an opportunity to selflessly reaffirm, to encourage a vision other than your own.

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Film Critics to the Rescue! Plus, an Appreciation of La Mera-Mera, Gwendolyn Brooks.

Over at the IFC film blog, critic Charles Taylor shows book reviewers how it’s done with a beautifully argued observation of the novel’s chief aims.

At KPBS’s Cinema Junkie, critic Miguel Rodriguez does the same thing in considering the role of Psycho in the novel as more cultural milestone than simple re-enactment.

A huge thanks to both of these gentlemen for their thoughtfulness and their enthusiasm.

Over at the Library of America blog, a guest post about the lasting influence of Gwendolyn Brooks’s gorgeous novel, Maud Martha.

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Big week for Manuel: an alumni profile with Harvard and an interview on Bookworm

Anything you wanted to know about how a working-class Chicano kid made it through Harvard is all right here. Thank you, Harvard, for acknowledging me as one of your own.

The great Michael Silverblatt of KCRW’s Bookworm posts an interview with me recorded in early April. Nice to be bookended on the program offerings by David Foster Wallace and Marjorie Garber, no?

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