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Flatbush Flashback

Some Days I Think About Word Counts

Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea: 24,191 words

Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany's: 26,433 words

Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: 27,622 words

Thomas Mann, Death in Venice: 28,770 words

Joan Didion, Play it as it Lays: 32,482 words

Albert Camus, The Stranger: 36,451 words (Translated from French to English by Stuart Gilbert)

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness: 37,746 words

Saul Bellow, Seize the Day: 38,816 words

Jamaica Kincaid, Annie John: 41,909 words

Robert Rosen, Bobby in Naziland: 44,527 words

Lorrie Moore, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?: 45,361 words

Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea: 45,499 words

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby: 47,104 words

Paula Fox, Desperate Characters: 47,739 words Read More 
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Ten Days Without the Times

My wife, the Mistress of Syntax, likes to have The New York Times delivered, and when I know the paper's lurking outside the door, I can't resist reading it first thing in the morning. I also know that a half hour of total immersion in all the news that's fit to print about looming economic catastrophe, militarized computer hacking, and the latest Republican plot to hijack what's left of the democratic process, topped off with a dose of David Brooks's and Thomas Friedman's utter bullshit, will, by the time I need to put down the paper and get breakfast going, leave me feeling despondent. Reading the Times is hazardous to my mental health, and it should come with such a warning.

That's why, when my wife went out of town for ten days, I suspended the subscription. Instead, I began my day with a book. The first book I read was Joan Didion's Political Fictions, in part a bracing analysis of why much of what passes for "objective" political reporting in the Times (and elsewhere) is little more than a fantasy that the people in power and the journalists who cover them have agreed to tell. And though the book made me angry, it was a pure and satisfying kind of anger that confirmed my worst suspicions and brought me to a higher level of understanding, rather than leaving me feeling despondent and helpless.

The book I’m reading now, This Is How You Lose Her, a collection of short stories, by Junot Díaz, is literature in the best sense of that word. Díaz is all about voice—the natural voice of the street—as much as he’s about storytelling, and it’s the kind of writing that inspires and motivates me, which is the highest compliment I can pay any author.

But Díaz will have to wait, because tonight the wife returns, and that means tomorrow morning, The New York Times will again be lurking outside the door, and I will not be able to resist its siren call, and I will give myself over to the illusion that if I read it, I will know what’s happening in the world. Read More 
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Why I Like Joan Didion

Joan Didion in 2008. Photo by David Shankbone.
Variations on "What writers have most influenced you?" is a question I often get during interviews. The unsurprising short answer is Hunter Thompson, Henry Miller, and Philip Roth. (Click here for more detail.) But the list goes on to include George Orwell, Joseph Heller, and one woman, Joan Didion, now the only writer on the list who's both alive and active.

It was Heller who brought Didion to my attention, back in 1972. For a fiction writing class at City College, he put Play It As It Lays on a list of the greatest novels of the 20th century. (The list also included Catch-22.) Though I didn't enjoy it when I read it then, a recent rereading of this story of a woman's life in Hollywood proved Heller correct: Play It As It Lays is a great book.

But it was Didion’s essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem which I first read in grad school and have reread countless times since then, that proved influential. The essays are textbook examples of first-person journalism at its best—a perfect fusion of style, emotion, and information. And the title essay, about Haight-Ashbury in 1967, is one of those rare pieces of writing that I read and thought, “This is what I should be doing.” I also love the simple truth she expresses in the preface: “Writers are always selling somebody out.” Every serious writer should have that embroidered in needlepoint and hung on their wall. Because if you’re not selling somebody out, what you’re doing is PR.

I’m writing about Didion now because the other week, I finally picked up her 2001 essay collection, Political Fictions, a series of devastating takedowns of the democratic process, the journalists who cover politics, the politicians themselves, and the books that some of these politicians have written. What I like most about the essays is that Didion tells the truth as she sees it and, unlike the journalists she’s writing about, she doesn’t care who never speaks to her again. She sells out everybody.

For example, perhaps the kindest thing she says in “Newt Gingrich, Superstar,” about the literary output of the former speaker of the house is: “To Renew America shows evidence of professional copy-editing.”

And in “Political Pornography,” she says of the oeuvre of Bob Woodward, stenographer to the Washington power elite: “These are books in which measurable cerebral activity is virtually absent.”

Much of what Didion writes is truer now than it was 12 years ago. Which is why nobody mentioned in these 322 pages has ever used one word of Didion’s as a blurb on a book cover. Read More 
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