Tag Archives: helen dewitt

Helen DeWitt Day At LARB

Today the Los Angeles Review of Books publishes my review of Helen DeWitt’s novel Lightning Rods, plus a very strong review by Lee Konstantinou and Konstantinou’s absolutely demented interview with DeWitt that is a must-read.

I think Konstantinou makes some very insightful points in his review, but I have one area of strong disagreement. Toward the end he laments:

DeWitt’s use of cliché points, too, to the novel’s main weakness. If Lighting Rods is about selling the unsellable, if it’s about the deranged genius of American capitalism, DeWitt’s style grates against her theme. What the history of entrepreneurship shows, if nothing else, is how very appealing, how very sociable, how willing to speak in vernacular, the new is, how very opposed to cliché and cant the true innovator is. DeWitt makes a common mistake, conflating the creatively destructive entrepreneur and the corporate bureaucrat that the entrepreneur wants to destroy. The Steve Jobses of the world not only know the language of cool but are thoroughly ideologically committed to destroying stale conventions. In our world, Joe would hate cliché.

Konstantinou is of course completely correct that the truly new never speaks in cliche, but I regard it as a misreading of Lightning Rods to view its principle inventor, Joe, as a force representing the new. Joe, who invents the “Lightning Rods” enterprise, speaks in cliche because his work is in fact not new. It merely seeks to uphold the social order that he succeeds so magnificently within. As I write:

In The Last Samurai DeWitt showed a strong interest in notions of normalcy and its opposite, and this is a theme that occupies a central place in Lightning Rods. With Joe, she seems to be asking, What inspires someone to go beyond the normal?, as well as, Can hard work alone ever really get you there? “All I want is to be a success,” Joe reflects, but is even a multi-billionaire who triumphs by the rules of capitalistic logic anything more than a steroidal embodiment of normalcy? Pursuing this question, DeWitt pays close attention to desire’s inspirational role in a capitalistic society. For average-joes like Joe, a desire for wealth, sexy women, and, above all, respect are the strongest motivational forces possible. DeWitt is terrific at differentiating these various forms of desire, as well as showing how they, and not notions of career or social good, really drive our economy. Yet aren’t these desires merely average? DeWitt is ever mindful that most people work their hearts out on their “third of fourth or fifth choice because there just isn’t any money in their first choice.” The implication drawn across Last Samurai and Lightning Rods is that the truly different — those who really change society — manage to hold out for that first choice.

And that notion of “holding out for one’s first choice” moves us perfectly into DeWitt’s interview:

I spent nine years in Oxford (B.A., D.Phil., JRF), then decided I could not face the enforced specialization of academia. Spent seven years working on various novels, trying to combine this with various jobs. In 1995 I decided this must stop. I had 100 novels in fragments, including a 300-page single-spaced MS with terrible structural problems. I quit my job: I would write till money ran out. Had terrible argument with my father, could not deal with this big difficult book. Thought: We don’t pick our parents. If we could choose, I would have picked someone better than this. Thought: OK. I can’t work on this book. I will write a novel with a simple structure that can be FINISHED. I will set aside a month and write with NO INTERRUPTIONS. (Story: Son of single mother, obsessed with Seven Samurai, goes in search of better father than the one fate provided.)

Did a lot of research, started writing in September 1995 with NO INTERRUPTIONS. Wrote very fast. Chapter about a gambler in 2 days, chapter about a painter in 3. Looked at these pieces of paper which had been blank only days before; thought: This is the real thing. But the book was not finished in a month, I was about to run out of money, had to do freelance secretarial work. (Was desperate to finish the book and get back to the 300-page monster.)

A lawyer in my office saw two chapters, thought they were brilliant. His wife wanted to option them for a film. Introduced me to an agent, Stephanie Cabot . . .

Awesome Helen DeWitt Interview

[Link added. Sorry for the oversight.]

At Bookforum, Morten Høi Jensen interviews Helen DeWitt (the subject of last fall’s Big Read) on the eve of the release of her novel, Lightning Rods.

The interview is quite interesting for a number of reasons, one of which is that DeWitt rewinds the whole story of the publication of The Last Samurai. It gives you some idea of how dysfunctional the publishing industry is when DeWitt had such trouble even finding someone capable of producing her book, let alone wanting to publish it.

HELEN DEWITT: This is hard to talk about. One way and another, The Last Samurai was THE major obstacle to publication of Lightning Rods. But the purpose of LR (and the other books I worked on in 1998-9) was originally supposed to pave the way for The Seventh Samurai (original title). My first agent, Stephanie Cabot, sent out partial drafts of The Seventh Samurai in London, back in 1996-7; editors thought it was too dense, too difficult; there were too many quotations, too much Greek, Japanese, Old Norse . . . It was clear that it would be easier to publish a book in a single voice, with a linear narrative, with no quotations, no Greek, no Japanese . . . More importantly, worryingly, it was clear that the people I talked to would be incapable of seeing a book like Samurai into print. For the book to be properly produced I would need to be in a very strong position—probably with three or four published books behind me. One editor did eventually offer £7500, but she was so vague, so woolly-minded . . . It’s hard to get a first book published. I tried to imagine getting Greek typeset, getting Japanese typeset, with this editor and thought: if I go through with this I will commit suicide within six months. I can’t do this.

It’s sad when publishers are so frightened of getting involved with a book as brilliant and innovative as Samurai for fear of alienating their readers. And, frankly, publishers are underestimating their audience. I’ve passed that book on to all kinds of readers–from the super-intense to the much more casual–and none of them have found the book out of range.

New Directions To Publish New Helen DeWitt Novel

Last fall, myself and readers of this site joined the ranks of Helen DeWitt’s fans when we read her novel The Last Samurai. Unfortunately, being a writer of the first rank doesn’t always mean you an get your books published (ask Sergio De La Pava about that), as DeWitt self-published her second book as a PDF on her website (and somehow garnered a review in the London Review of Books).

But, it seems that there are still presses out there willing to publish good books by good writers. I have been informed by New Directions that they will publish a new novel by Helen DeWitt, titled Lightning Rods and scheduled for this fall. Like many of you, I eagerly await this one.

The Last Samurai: Chance, Blocked Geniuses, and Irregular Grammar

Based on the evidence of the first section we’re reading of The Last Samurai, I think it’s fair to say that Helen DeWitt likes to layer her works in the best tradition of the postmodernists. Already, I’ve noticed a number of themes that she has returned to in various ways again and again: the role of chance in life, the likeness of writing (particularly grammar) to other forms of art, blocked geniuses, cultural literacy, and parents and children. All of these pop up in at least two distinct threads from the first 84 pages, and most of them more. This kind of layering/concatenation strikes me as central to the styles and world-view of postmodernists like Wallace, DeLillo, and Pynchon, and I see it very much in evidence in DeWitt. It even happens on a phrase level, as in “anxious to seem anxious to please,” [70] which is very reminiscent of Wallace in particular, who used similar effects to continually point out the self-consciousness of even supposedly sincere personality tics.

To exemplify the chance theme, I’d like to quote a bit of text that reminded me very much of one of my favorite postmodern romps of 2010, Cesar Aira’s The Literary Conference. While reflecting on the role that just one book has played in shaping the narrator’s life, she tells us: Continue Reading


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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