Lev Grossman

If you’re coming to this website for the first time because of the Time article, welcome. Please feel free to leave comments, bop around the archives, and, if you have about three days of spare time, check out The Bat Segundo Show, a literary podcast featuring interviews with today’s contemporary writers.

Yes, I’m aware of Lev Grossman’s essay. And I actually think his article is very fair and reasonable. But I should point out three things: (1) Edward Champion is my real name, (2) Contrary to my criticisms, I don’t think Lev Grossman is a complete tool nor a total chickenhead. (3) I am actually getting paid for my review coverage. (See, most recently, the Philadelphia Inquirer.)

In any event, as an olive branch to Lev, he’ll be getting something nice from me soon. And I will try in the future to paint less of a Manichean picture of the man.


  • Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, the only screenplay Coppola wrote that wasn’t an adaptation, is one of the finest films to come out of the 1970s (better, I would argue, than the first two Godfather movies). But does the film’s taut narrative structure and grand ethical questions make for meaningful television? How many variations of “He’d kill us if he had the chance” can be said over the course of 22 episodes before the mystery unravels? (via Lee Goldberg)
  • Is a bestseller guided by a hook? The Publishing Contrarian opines that Kim Edwards’ The Memory Keeper’s Daughter would have sold like parkas in Juneau regardless of its literary value.
  • If it’s any consolation, I don’t get it either.
  • Thomas Quinn on the Rebus books and Rebus’s possible death. There’s a big ballyhoo over how a guy like Ian Rankin could possibly be thinking about killing his bread and butter off. But I suspect that it’s easier for Rankin to effect than most people think. Perhaps Rankin is tired of writing in Rebus’s metier or would rather annihilate his hero after having said everything he’s needed to say through him. I suspect, however, that Rankin’s Quandary will turn out similarly to what Sir Arthur Conan Doyle went through. (via Jenny D)
  • Scott takes umbrage with John Freeman’s review of Only Revolutions. While I quibble over Scott’s claim that House of Leaves lacks literary experimentalism (it was a thunderbolt, sir!), he does have a good point about the long legacy of experimental novelists who have been long ignored by newspaper critics.
  • C. Max Magee reproduces a dispatch from the Brooklyn Book Festival.
  • “Who knew Joyce Carol Oates would be so funny?” That’s the lede by a bemused staff writer for The Beacon News, who apparently isn’t aware of Oates’ long history of dark comedies and mysteries. It’s understandable. These are often occluded by her literary reputation. Even so, I’m getting really tired of the generalization that anyone who is considered “literary” is incapable of being funny. One of the great joys in talking with John Updike was being able to reveal that, contrary to the way people reacted to his BEA fulminations, the guy was a jester. For those who insist that Oates is “too serious” because she turns out too many books or Updike is “stiff” because he expresses his concerns about digital books, I wonder how you can seriously suggest that authors who regularly delight us with their sentences and who express their great powers of invention are without a sense of humor. Aside from the notion that anyone who associates as adeptly as Oates and Updike has to be concocting some pretty amusing shit in a drafting phase, it also takes a certain off-kilter person to become a writer. It takes an even more idiosyncratic person to stick with it and become successful, whether through sales or reputation. Anyone contending with multiple paychecks of varying dollar amount arriving in their mailbox at strange intervals has to have a sense of humor about it, if they want to stay sane and keep pushing forward.
  • Perhaps in response to Sara Gran’s Brooklyn article, the Associated Press makes the case for upstate New York. My own essay on the overlooked literary Meccas of Bakersfield and Peoria will be appearing in this week’s PennySaver.
  • The Scotsman: “I had high hopes for the two titles under consideration here, by novelists Ali Smith and Nick Hornby. Suffice to say that one is going on the shelf, and one is going to a charity shop.”
  • Derik observes that a new serial authored by Seth can be found in the New York Times.
  • Slushpile talks with T.R. Pearson.
  • The Seattle Post-Intelligencer talks with James Ellroy: “My tape recorder is useless because he punctuates his sentences with the ‘F’ word like other people use commas and periods.”
  • Sarvas at the West Hollywood Book Fair.
  • A conversation with Stephin Merritt and Lemony Snickett.
  • Arthur Salm examines a slate of recent memoirs.
  • Jeff Bryant enters the track-by-track description game with Tindersticks II. Rumor has it that Mr. Perez, the originator of this trend, will turn out another one.
  • If you’re an indie bookseller complaining about your financial woes, look at it this way: you could be hawking books in Baghdad.
  • Etymologic: The Toughest Word Game on the Web. (via Books, Words & Writing)
  • William Gibson predicted lonelygirl15.
  • Scott Westerfield on how he names his characters.
  • And, more later, kids. FYI: It’s a week crazier than a group of penguins trying to hold a cocktail party on a melting icecap. So if it’s a little light than the norm, my apologies.

Devil on Devil

I normally depsise Joe Queenan’s preening reviews, but his takedown of Joe Eszterhas’ The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood is pretty funny:

Heavily influenced by Plato’s pedagogic masterpiece “Critias,” “The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood” is constructed as a sort of open letter to an imaginary neophyte who wishes to learn how to write scripts about blast-furnace ballerinas and cold-blooded murderers who refuse to wear underwear, even though by doing so he shall lose his very soul. A lengthy series of axioms, anecdotes, exhortations, accolades, admonitions and insults, the book does not need to be read in the order in which it was written. Rather, much as in the case of the Old Testament, which it greatly resembles in its stylistic delicacy and unquavering jeremiadic tone, the reader can dip in anywhere.


Is it even remotely possible to prevent all media outlets from writing articles about The Wire? I think not. The way some folks have been covering things, the show is the Second Coming. Well, it could be, given that George Pelacanos is involved. But I’m wondering why the media outlets can’t seem to keep their trousers zipped with regard to this point. Is there no other television that matters? And where were you for Deadwood?

Substantial Reporting

Who does this tosser Charlie Brooker think he is? Navelgazing over some pop idol that smart people have the good sense to ignore. I’ve only just read this wanker’s column and, according to the hed, this guy’s “supposing.”

That’s what he says, bold as brass. “Supposing,” As if loathing Justin Timberlake was some noble call to journalistic duty. All the problems of the world and this bitchy little punkass has the temerity to lock his crosshairs into something as substantial as the decaying graymatter inside his own microcephalic skull. I wouldn’t even bang his mom. And he actually got paid for this drivel? Good Christ. The Guardian ought to be ashamed. Why doesn’t he just get a blog?

I mean Jesus Christ, Brooker: “supposing” is a word you reserve for contemplating Schroedinger’s cat or Fermat’s Theorem. Has your feeble little monkey ass even heard of these things? Have you even read a book in the past six months? In a equitable world, your ass would be on the dole with all the other sad hacks who thought that they could make a difference polluting column inches with speculations on Suri’s legitimacy. But no, this Brooker guy thought he could get away with a snarky column filled with all manner of feeble vitriol. It reads as if it was written by a retarded teenager who was just kicked three times in the crotch by an octogenarian suffering from Alzheimer’s.

He can’t even take the piss out of Timberlake properly, quibbling over how Justin says “motherfuckers” on his recording. Good Christ. What sensitive ears this Brooker kid has! What overbearing prattle wasted away on fluff! If I meet Charlie in a pub, I’d throw him to the dogs. I’d get him soused on crappy Budweiser and demand that he recite the first stanza of Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. Lord knows if the wanker could get past “The curfew tolls.”

And wait, it gets worse. HE USES CAPITAL LETTERS AS IF HE IS SHOUTING! Right. Something for the illiterate MySpace crowd. Points with the kids. Because that’s what this is all about. A newspaper trying to hook its talons into a readership it scarcely understands. That Brooker is the posterboy for this flummery only serves to demonstrate that newsrooms are better staffed with marsupials randomly punching in keys.

I want Charlie Brooker’s skull on my dining room table. I want to have Charlie Brooker’s arm for dinner. I want to chop off his cock and compare it against Rasputin’s in that Russian Sex Museum. I’m sure it’s much shorter. I want to claim all sorts of crazy things because it might sell papers or boost my Technorati rating.

Charlie Brooker. Charlie Looking for a Hooker (Because He Can’t Land a Date), more like.

A Find of a Lifetime

American Heritage: “Through the flickering eloquence of silent film we see a people resilient beyond anyone’s imagining, visiting one another’s country homes, parading through downtown Muskogee in some two dozen Packards, crowding an enormous church in Tulsa not long after the riots, during a gathering of the National Baptist Convention.” (via MeFi)

When Publishers Podcast

Unbridled Books gets into the podcasting game, with interviews featuring Ed Falco and Lise Haines. I’ve listened to the Falco podcast and it makes the catastrophic mistake of having Ed Falco read his work through the phone with the gain at a clipped level. This slack fidelity isn’t the way to get readers interested in an author. An author should read his work in person, ideally in front of a crowd, where the sound man can get decent levels and there’s a better aural dimension.

Further, while it’s good to see Unbridled embracing the podcast format, I don’t believe it’s legitimate journalism when a publisher has someone within its own house interview one of its authors. No matter how hardball the questions, there is simply no way to shake the troubling sense that the interview is promotion first, journalism second, and that the interviewer is pulling punches.

I certainly believe that publishers should have a podcasting presence. But perhaps it’s best reserved not for interviews, but for a more liberal use of the medium. Perhaps having an author read his work, transforming a story or a novel excerpt into a radio drama with sound effects and various actors performing dialogue, would be a better use of a publisher’s resources.

Pointless Tests on a Moment’s Notice

In response to this nonsense, which suggests that bloggers who are “used to cranking out pointless rants on a moment’s notice” are worse than “highschoolers [sic]” “well-practiced at responding to their teacher’s inane writing prompts,” I note the following:

I took the GRE test twice last year and scored a perfect 6.0 each time on the written essay section. It was some of the laziest, half-assed writing I’ve ever done.

In short, Greta and Dave Munger can bite me.

(via Scott)

Sam Tanenhaus: Bestseller Lists You Don’t Know About, Yes. Substantial Fiction Reviews & More Women Writing, No.

Editor and Publisher: “You won’t find the new politics bestseller tally in the print edition of Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. The line-up is only being posted on the Web site’s book section, along with the paper’s other bestseller lists. ‘The more best-seller lists, the better,’ Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the Book Review, told E&P. He said he had not known about the new listing, but supported it. ‘We have talked a long time about different categories for books.'”

Laura Barton Likes Her Interviews Sugar Coated

From Laura Barton’s interview of James Frey:

“It asserted that a six-week investigation had cast doubt on some of the details in Frey’s memoir.”

Cast doubt? If by “cast doubt,” you mean show without a shadow of a doubt that Frey had fabricated substantial details, I suppose you’re right.

“Of the 5,000 letters sent to him, he says, only 50 have been hate mail.”

You can always trust a liar.

“And maybe this is one of the things about Frey, whatever he does, whether it be tubes of glue or writing books, he wants to do it the most – to be the hardest, to be the strongest, to win and to defeat.”

That and thousands of other would-be writers who subscribe to Writer’s Digest without writing anything. Big whoop.

“a persecution that seems particularly vicious when you consider that a man who is known to have manipulated the story of his own past is allowed to occupy the White House.”

Politicians do this all the time. Memoirists do not. Bush was smart enough not to write a book on the subject.

“He sits here before me, an impermeable rock of a man, and his very solidity, the unassailable fact of James Frey, seems strangely reassuring.”

Yeah, I’ve seen plenty of guys like this cruising in the Mission on a Friday night. Get out of the house much, Laura?

“The Echo Maker” Roundtable in October

For those who enjoyed the roundtable discussions involving David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green and T.C. Boyle’s Talk Talk, I’m pleased to report that, at the beginning of October, we’ll be plunging forward with another one.

This may be our most comprehensive roundtable yet. Fourteen people will be participating, offering their thoughts on Richard Powers’ forthcoming book, The Echo Maker, and discussing the book in light of previous work. Some of the participants are well-schooled in Powers. Some of them are people you know.

But you’re definitely going to want to stick around for this, because a few unexpected guests may also be putting in an appearance. More details to come.

Hand-Crafted Baker

I’ve had my own Nicholson Baker post sitting in draft for many months, but thankfully Barrett Hathcock observes what makes Baker’s work tick:

Perhaps what’s striking about his prose is that it “feels” old fashioned. It feels in some ways pre-Modern. It feels written by hand. I have no way to quantify this, and I’m not sure I can offer a more canny analysis of this gut response. I suppose it comes partly from his vocabulary and partly from the feeling that his narrators are almost totally without a sense of or aspiration for hipness or a certain type of contemporary sophistication. They are, basically, excitable dorks and are energetically unironic. And—and perhaps this is the source of the lack of drama, the reason why these novels are one quiet still pool in the middle of so many contemporary prose-whales—the narrators are basically happy. In their compulsive noticing they exude a type of strange joy.

[UPDATE: Derik has discovered Baker of late too. Maybe this is the cue to read the Baker volumes I haven’t read that have been sitting in my long-term TBR pile for quite a while.]

Being a Book Lover

There are seventeen books now arranged in two vertical piles on my floor. I must read them now. Every morning, I shift these books to my bag and my pockets, as pivotal as keys and wallet. There are books for interviews, books for review, and books I must read to remain more or less au courant. It’s a lot of information to digest. And I’ve responded to this by reading at every spare moment. Reading as I walk, reading while I’m on the subway, reading well after the rest of the city has gone to bed. Reading between phone calls. Reading before and after meeting friends for drinks. Reading even when the words whirl into a Gaussian blur or I can’t parse a sentence.

I wonder if I read too much, and why I feel compelled to have a book on me at all times. I’m not anti-social, although I like to spend long periods alone. I must have books — the way that others crave cashews or chew nails. I sometimes panic when I run out of books to read and I am in the middle of nowhere with time to kill. On long trips, I pack more books than I can possibly finish. I contemplate strange scenarios where I’m stuck in an elevator or locked in a building and there’s the small possibility that humanity will fail me. The books are trustworthy friends. And unless I get mugged by a pugilistic bibliophile, the books won’t leave me anytime soon. I wonder if this is a horrible conceit on my part or if this makes me a misanthrope. I wonder if all this is insalubrious. I wonder if this is an addiction.

When not reading on the bus, I observe my fellow commuters. A good 80% of them stare into space: some lost in happy reveries, others with wan mugs fixed on time passing them by. Clearly, I’m in a minority. It’s not that I can’t dream or think or get lost. But I prefer to do these things on my own time. I respond poorly to people interrupting me when I’m lost in a dream, but I’m very interested in people. In public, I feel that the courteous thing to do is to pay attention. I don’t like ignoring others.

This is probably why I feel comfortable getting lost in another person’s vision of the universe, or why I can shift from observing the real world to getting immersed in a book with greater ease. Do the books galvanize me into being social? Perhaps. I used to be very shy, but I’ve learned to disguise my diffidence. Information, foreign perspectives, and things I know nothing about or that I am wrong about are of great comfort. The books put my own neuroses into perspective when stacked against something horrible like the Tutsi massacre. This regular experiential clash grants me succor in social environments and it allows me to listen.

I wonder if this is why people always ask me for directions or seem to think that I’m the guy with all the answers. I wonder if this is why people have the tendency to open up to me. Is it the books or my temperament? Are the books a crutch? Are they holding me back? How do others get along so well without them? I simply can’t.

Books are such a strange thing to have as the center of your life. It seems strange to rely upon them so intensely. But I am, after all, a strange person. And if it hadn’t been books, it would have been something else.

Because of all this, I try to encourage any nervous kid hiding behind a book that reading is okay, that there is nothing wrong with being a book lover, and that books, in their own strange way, are often a vital and unexpected starting point for life itself.