On Writing Fiction: The Case of Philip Roth (1933-2018)

“We must read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading does not wake us up with a blow to the head, then what are we reading it for? A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”  …Franz Kafka

Some of the best writers in world literature—Kafka in German, say, Isaac Babel in Russian, Philip Roth in English—are the kind of writers who love to inflict blows to the head of the reader. In so doing they must, however, be ever aware that someone smacked upside the head will yell, and yell loudly.

Nathaniel Rich discusses this issue in regard to Roth (NYRB, March 8, 2018).

Philip Roth had “to defend himself and to explain himself to the paranoid assimilationists of his father’s generation who berated him for ‘informing the goyim that some Jews might not be paragons of virtue and might even possess human qualities.’” Roth told his detractors, “Fiction is not written to affirm the principles and beliefs that everybody seems to hold.” This was in response to the reaction to his story, “Defender of the Faith,” published in The New Yorker in 1959. Continue reading

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffery Eugenides

 

Given that the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of “The Virgin Suicides” (Warner Books, 1993, 249 pages) is about to appear in print, now is a good time for another look at a novel that has become a modern classic in American literature.

Set in Wayne County, Michigan, in and around Grosse Point, a suburb of Detroit, “The Virgin Suicides” is steeped in gloom. Since it is narrated, however, with verve and humor, you don’t quite comprehend how sad it is until you’ve read the final pages. You put the book down and that’s when the melancholy grabs you by the soul. Continue reading

All Things All At Once, by Lee K. Abbott

Recently I’ve decided to read and review what are generally accepted as the best short story collections by living American writers. With publication of All Things All at Once (Norton, 365 pages), Lee K. Abbott, widely acknowledged as a “writers’ writer,” has seven collections of stories in print. His work has appeared in some of the most highly regarded literary journals. In addition, his stories have been featured in Best American Short Stories and have won O. Henry awards. This most recent collection features new stories, plus several previously published.
Continue reading

U. R. Bowie joins Dactyl Review as Contributing Editor

I am happy to announce that U. R. Bowie (pictured left) will be joining Dactyl Review as Contributing Editor. Bowie is the 2017 recipient of the Dactyl Review literary fiction award for his novel The Tale of the Bastard Feverfew. At DR we believe literary fiction writers make the best literary fiction reviewers. And vice versa. Bowie’s work offers substantial support for that premise.

Bowie has been contributing reviews regularly since the spring of 2016. As a professor of Russian literature, he brings special insight to novels that are touched by the Russian soul. His reviews of The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis (both dealing with Russian themes) and his most recent review of The Trick of It by Michael Frayn (a novel about novel writing) stand out as the kind of reviews literary fiction authors want and need. (Read his reviews now, if you haven’t yet.) Unlike a lot of hack reviewers working for pocket change for the prepub make-it-or-break-it publications such as Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews, Bowie, working for the love of it alone, has actually read the books he reviews, not just skimmed them. We can tell because he analyzes the actual language used by the author and does not make comments about the characters as if they were real people not literary constructs. Continue reading

Dactyl Foundation 2017 Literary Fiction Award

U.R. Bowie’s The Tale of the Bastard Feverfew: One Man’s Journey into the Land of the Dead wins Dactyl Foundation’s annual award for literary fiction.

Bastard Feverfew is about an insurrection at a maximum security prison. Mike Miller (author of Worthy of this Great City) reviewed this year’s winner, noting that “The book succeeds in that it leaves the reader with a sense of a journey taken. We’ve experienced a reality we’d prefer to deny, we’ve endured and survived but will never completely forget. That’s an accomplishment for both author and reader.”

In addition to publishing six novels/short story collections over the past four years (Gogol’s Head, Hard Mother, GoogleGogol, Disambiguations, Own: The Sad and Like-wike Weepy Tale of Wittle Elkie Selph, and Anyway, Anyways ), Bowie has been a prolific contributor to Dactyl Review in 2017.

Congratulations U. R. Bowie and many thanks to Mike Miller for submitting the review. Bowie and Miller each agreed to a review exchange this year, and we hope other reviewer/writers will be encouraged to support each others’ work.

-VN Alexander, Editor

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Hotel Ortolan by Tom Whalen

If you choose to read this book, to visit this Hotel, you will find it to be finely crafted by photographer Michel Varisco and writer Tom Whalen into a labyrinth of stairways and passageways of uncertainty, mystery, and intrigue, along which there are scattered bread crumbs, enticements, clues and innuendo that will take you down corridors that you hope will lead to your room. Henry Green described good prose as a “gathering web of insinuations.” Once you check in, whatever past you may have had will become a forgotten dream and then time itself will become inverted, then finally cease to have any meaning at all. Continue reading

The Heritage of Smoke by Josip Novakovich

In The Heritage of Smoke (Dzanc, 240 pages), a collection of short stories set mainly in 20th century war-wrecked Croatia or Ex-Yugoslavia, Josip Novakovich makes American-born writers, whose plots inevitably turn on sexuality and identity, seem merely whiny and self-obsessed. This masterful storyteller follows ordinary lives in the relatively small, recently-renamed Eastern European country, of which Americans are only vaguely aware, whose diverse cultures and old animosities persist through regime change. Caught between the whims and wars of super power nations and petty dictators, the characters revealed here endure, curse, and try to have fun. Novakovich’s characters tend to be listless, jaded, and stubborn, but they also have a kind of a dignified persistence, like old trees growing in the cracks of mountaintop stone . Continue reading