August 29, 2006


Jerry Sticker

I'm going to try to make this one so I'll let you know what happens

Peter S.

In the spirit of fairness, I should probably hold off on commenting about Marisha Pessl's work until actually reading the entire book. That being said, I found her reading last night at Skylight to be somewhat disappointing.

As an aspiring twentysomething novelist, I had every reason to be excited for a glimpse at the newly crowned wunderkind. Beyond that, as an avid consumer of literary fiction, I really hoped to be awed by her talents. (What's better, after all, than adding a new author to the rolodex?) Unfortunately, this wasn't the case.

To begin with, the sections from which Pessl read were freighted with similes to the point of distraction. Some, of course, were clever and well-placed, but the majority seemed superfluous and detracted from the overall descriptive flow. Additionally, and I know this is perhaps unfair--and I really do hate to make a tired structuralist critique--the notable similarities to Donna Tartt's "The Secret History," if only from a superficial armature standpoint, were a bit off-putting for me.

Lastly--and, again, I don't mean to pick nits--during the Q&A Pessl made several borderline embarrassing grammar mistakes; e.g., failing to distinguish between subject and object ("She returned the draft to my mother and I"), mis-using the subjunctive, etc. Admittedly, anyone can get nervous during a Q&A, and I'm not trying to suggest that Marisha Pessl doesn't know basic grammar. Nonetheless, it seems somewhat inconsistent for the author of a "pitch-perfect," sprawling pomo tome to be making simple grammar errors. One questions, for instance, whether a Moody, DFW, or JCO would fall prey to said pitfalls.

Again, to be fair, one can't really blame Pessl for a case of nerves (if that is, in fact, what it was) during her first reading tour. But she didn't really help her case any when she later admitted that, as an undergrad at Barnard, she simply "made up" footnotes for academic papers b/c she was "too lazy" to actually do the required research. That is, in the wake of such recent literary hoaxes as JT Leroy, James Frey, and Kavvya Viswanathan, a rising-star young author would be well-advised to avoid elucidating instances in which (s)he cut corners.

Again, I can't stress enough that I'm not putting Pessl in the fraud category; rather, I intend only to point ways in which she might lend herself more literary credibility, which is sure to be a concern going forward, given that she's already suffering something of a minor (if ineluctable) backlash against her "glamorous young author" status. In a nutshell, I guess I'd suggest that her handlers advise her to skip a few sessions of cardio and instead cozy up with Strunk & White.

That is, the best way, perhaps, to stifle the criticism that Pessl is primarily being championed b/c she's such an obviously saleable commodity (and no, she's not as hot in person) would be to have her give truly erudite interveiews and readings. Last night, at least, she failed to deliver.

Jerry Sticker

I think your asking a little too much of her Peter.

I wasn't going into this expecting a speech from Gore Vidal. Instead I was expecting someone who would be a little nervous and make mistakes and I doubt the average person in the crowd even noticed her grammar mistakes.

I found her approachable and very honest about who she was. When she explained her footnote technique and its origins I appreciated the honesty and forgave her laziness.

It wasn't the most thrilling reading I've been to--I told Mark Sarvas in an email that I caught myself getting bored and reading other books in the fiction section while the reading was going on. But it wasn't the worst either. It was about what I expected for a first time author.

And I try to separate her a little bit from the media blitz that's going on. I think that's more the part of a brilliant agent than a dazzling writer. I think her writing is promising and will probably get a lot better.

I think some people are thrown off by someone who has been thrust into early success without seemingly having earned their stripes. I appreciated the fact that Marisha admitted she came to this success sort of from the side door after working at Price Waterhouse Coopers-she even admitted to it being a cushy job--and deciding to give a third attempt at writing a novel another shot.

I appreciated that she elucidated in more detail how she got her agent through a website and didn't make it seem like her talent was some batman signal for all the agents of gotham city to come bumrush her.

I think if anything her honesty will be tempered as she gets to do more readings and becomes more polished on what not to say. I'm not entirely sure that's a good thing.

Peter Sutherland

Jerry, thanks a lot for your reply (I was wondering if anyone else had gone to Skylight!). I'm always interested in hearing someone else's take vis-a-vis a reading/author/book, and this occasion is certainly no different. Overall, I agree with much of what you wrote.

That being said, I guess we'll have to agree to disagree about the relative seriousness of Pessl's admission that she made up footnotes for academic papers in college. Perhaps it's largely a function of my being a recent college grad ('05), with the memory of my thesis still fresh in mind, but I'm somewhat less inclined to praise her "honesty" about being academically dishonest (an ironic choice, that). Ivy league schools--like most colleges, I would imagine--are extremely competitive places, and it's simply not fair to everyone else who's logging long hours in the library for someone to make up her research. Maybe I am being too tough on this point, but I nonetheless think that most people in an academic setting would tend to agree with me.

Beyond that, I think you're conflating my suggestion that Pessl become more grammatically polished with the unwarranted assumption that this would somehow lead to her overall honesty being "tempered." I don't think this is the case. At no point do I espouse her being anything less than forthright in the future; rather, I merely posit that, should she want to retain a higher degree of literary cred., she's going to need to refine her speaking (i.e., grammar) a bit. This is not, of course, tantamount to tempering one's honesty, which would obviously be undesirable (thus my choice to criticize her academic dishonesty in the first place).

Lastly, I do have a slight problem with how you characterize Marisha Pessl's process of getting an agent. Specifically, Marisha reported that she'd sent out ten unsolicited e-mail queries, then heard back from six agents immediately who wanted to read the full manuscript, and within three days had received an offer for representation. I won't presume to comment on your familiarity with the publishing business (and the process of getting an agent, in particular), but Pessl's experience was, contrary to what you indicate, a very rare occurence. Put another way, it's about as close to being "bumrushed" as one can get on the basis of sending out unsolicited queries.

Again, I stress that I do appreciate that Marisha Pessl is under the microscope as a young author, and therefore deserves some leeway. And, to be sure, grammar mistakes are hardly cause for alarm. In this respect, I think you're dead-on, Jerry. Nonetheless, with fame comes scrutiny. Is it unfair? Perhaps. But I think we would all be well-advised--esp. in light of the fake authors of late--to do a little more scrutinizing of the "Next Big Thing," whoever (s)he may be.

Anyways, thanks again for your response.

cheers, Peter

Emily Lyon

Greeetings and Congratulations from your Maryland Relatives!!!!

Patrick Oury

This is four weeks late, but maybe you'll see it anyway

peter, you make me laugh. She's a writer, not an English professor, or a post-grad student anywhere studying literary criticism. "Literary Cred." is bogus. So what. Who cares, I didn't go to the reading, haven't read the book yet, but it's hard to listen to people talking about her freaking grammar when she answers questions. Readings are stupid anyway. Read the book. That should let you know if she has literary cred. "Failing to deliver" at some reading has nothing to do with whether she can write. "Delivering" at some goofy reading is this: Read passage of book however the hell you want to read it. Sip water. Look hot. Answer questions. Leave.

Go study more Ole Martin Skilleas and drink some tea.

I apologize for the angriness (is angriness not a big enough word here? Should I check my thesaurus?). I believe yall have a friendly discourse going, and I won't disrupt it, so I won't respond back or anything. Thank you peter. Good luck being an author.

The comments to this entry are closed.


  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."


  • The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald


    Penelope Fitzgerald's second novel is the tale of Florence Green, a widow who seeks, in the late 1950s, to bring a bookstore to an isolated British town, encountering all manner of obstacles, including incompetent builders, vindictive gentry, small minded bankers, an irritable poltergeist, but, above all, a town that might not, in fact, want a bookshop. Fitzgerald's prose is spare but evocative – there's no wasted effort and her work reminds one of Hemingway's dictum that every word should fight for its right to be on the page. Florence is an engaging creation, stubbornly committed to her plan even as uncertainty regarding the wisdom of the enterprise gnaws at her. But The Bookshop concerns itself, finally, with the astonishing vindictiveness of which provincials are capable, and, as so much English fiction must, it grapples with the inevitabilities of class. It's a dense marvel at 123 pages, a book you won't want to – or be able to – rush through.
  • The Rider by Tim Krabbe


    Tim Krabbé's superb 1978 memoir-cum-novel is the single best book we've read about cycling, a book that will come closer to bringing you inside a grueling road race than anything else out there. A kilometer-by-kilometer look at just what is required to endure some of the most grueling terrain in the world, Krabbé explains the tactics, the choices and – above all – the grinding, endless, excruciating pain that every cyclist faces and makes it heart-pounding rather than expository or tedious. No writer has better captured both the agony and the determination to ride through the agony. He's an elegant stylist (ably served by Sam Garrett's fine translation) and The Rider manages to be that rarest hybrid – an authentic, accurate book about cycling that's a pleasure to read. "Non-racers," he writes. "The emptiness of those lives shocks me."