The world of literature lacks scandal, hype and pretty dresses

From Ann Patchet’s scathing op-ed piece on the Pulitzer prize not being awarded to anyone:

With book coverage in the media split evenly between “Fifty Shades of Grey” and “The Hunger Games,” wouldn’t it have been something to have people talking about “The Pale King,” David Foster Wallace’s posthumous masterwork about a toiling tax collector (and this year’s third Pulitzer finalist)? Wallace is not going to have another shot at a win, which makes the fact that no one could make up their minds as to whether or not he deserved it all the more heartbreaking.

Let me underscore the obvious here: Reading fiction is important. It is a vital means of imagining a life other than our own, which in turn makes us more empathetic beings. Following complex story lines stretches our brains beyond the 140 characters of sound-bite thinking, and staying within the world of a novel gives us the ability to be quiet and alone, two skills that are disappearing faster than the polar icecaps.

Unfortunately, the world of literature lacks the scandal, hype and pretty dresses that draw people to the Academy Awards, which, by the way, is not an institution devoted to choosing the best movie every year as much as it is an institution designed to get people excited about going to the movies. The Pulitzer Prize is our best chance as writers and readers and booksellers to celebrate fiction. This was the year we all lost.

I know reading fiction is important. But I keep hearing this “fiction makes us empathetic” quip as if it justifies its existence. I think the importance of fiction goes so much deeper than that. But I’ll leave that argument for another time.

(Thanks to David Clark for the link.)

Why is the non-Pulitzer-prize-winning Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams novella ten bucks for kindle?

The Pulitzer Prize wasn’t awarded for fiction this year for the first time since 1977. None of the three finalists–Denis Johnson for Train Dreams, Karen Russell for Swamplandia, and the late David Foster Wallace for The Pale King–were chosen because no book received a majority vote.

I’m posting here the beginning of Train Dreams by Denis Johnson (and a little video prize after). I dare you to stop reading after the first sentence. I wanted to buy this novella for my Kindle, but it’s ten bucks, which I think is ridiculous for a 128 page book (that’s like three page clicks on my Kindle–I like small font). I’ll pay five maybe even six bucks, but I may as well walk down to Powell’s or the library and read it standing in the aisle. The publisher, Macmillan, set the price. Sorry Macmillan, but: “The price is wrong.” Anyway, read this and try to stop reading it after the first sentence, you won’t be able to (and watch the video after):

In the summer of 1917 Robert Grainer took part in an attempt on the life of a Chinese laborer, caught or anyway accused of, stealing from the company stores of the Spokane International Railway in the Idaho Panhandle.

Three of the railroad gang put the thief under restraint and dragged him up the long bank toward the bridge under construction fifty feet above the Moyea River. A rapid singsong streamed from the Chinaman voluminously. He shipped and twisted like a weasel in a sack, lashing backward with his one free fist at the man lugging him by the neck. As this group passed him, Grainer, seeing them in some distress, lent assistance and found himself holding one of the culprit’s bare feet. The man facing him, Mr. Sears, of Spokane International’s management, held the prisoner almost uselessly by the armpit and was the only one of them, besides the incomprehensible Chinaman, to talk during the hardest part of their labors: “Boys, I’m damned if we ever see the top of this heap!” Then we’re hailing him all the way? was the question Grainier wished to ask, but he thought it better to save his breath for the struggle. Sears laughed once, his face pale with fatigue and horror. They all went down in the dust and got righted, went down again, the CHinaman speaking in tongues and terrifying the four of them to the point that whatever they may have had in mind at the outset, he was a deader now. Nothing would do but to toss him off the trestle.

They cam abreast of the others, a gang of a dozen men pausing in the sun to lean on their tools and wipe at sweat and watch this thing. Grainier held on convulsively to the Chinaman’s horny foot, wondering at himself, and the man with the other foot let loose and sat down gasping in the dirt and got himself kicked in the eye before Graineir took charge of the free-flailing limb. “It was just for fun. For fun,” the man sitting in the dirt said, and to his confederate there he said, “Come on, Jel Toomis, let’s give it up.” “I can’t let loose,” this Mr. Toomis say, “I’m the one’s got him by the neck!” and laughed with a gust of confusion passing across his features. “Well, I’ve got him!” Grainier said, catching both the little demon’s feet tighter in his embrace. “I’ve got the bastard, and I’m your man!”

The party of executions got to the midst of the last completed span, sixty feet above the rapids, and made every effort to toss the Chinaman over. But he bested them by clinging to their arms legs, weeping his gibberish, until suddenly he let go and grabbed the beam beneath him with one hand. He kicked free of his captors easily, as they were trying to shed themselves of him anyway, and went over the side, dangling over the gorge and making hand-over-hand out over the river on the skeleton form of the next span. Mr. Toomis’s companion rushed over now, balancing on a beam, kicking at the fellow’s fingers. The Chinaman dropped from beam to beam like a circus artist downward along the crosshatch structure. A couple of the work gang cheered his escape, while other, though not quite certain why he was being chased, shouted that the villain ought to be stopped. Mr. Sears removed from the holster on his belt a large old four-shot black-powder revolver and took his four, to no effect. By then the Chinaman had vanished.

Hiking to his home after this incident, Grainier detoured two miles to the store at the railroad village of Meadow Creek to get a bottle of Hood’s Sarsaparilla for his wife, Gladys, and their infant daughter, Kate. It was hot going up the hill through the woods toward the cabin, and before getting the last mile he stopped and bathed in the river, the Moyea, at a deep place upstream from the village.

Dang, that’s good.