Twice a year we endeavor to bring you an issue devoted solely to books and nothing else. Here we have failed again. As correspondent Michael Erard discovers in his coverage of the Texas Book Festival, there is no safe haven from politics–not even in literature–in this strangest of all political seasons. Our correspondent edged his way past a throng of election protestors to reach the Festival, held on the Capitol grounds in Austin, only to find presidential historian and TV personality Michael Beschloss fielding questions on the morass in Florida. Fortunately there is John Graves, a legend in Texas letters, selected as the special honoree of the book festival on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of his seminal work Goodbye to a River, his disquisition on the value and meaning of a river’s history in the age of progress. Graves doesn’t write about politics–he doesn’t even talk about politics–but he does write about what matters in his own singular way, a project, Erard argues, that may be indispensable at times like this. At a time when dozens of Beschloss’s occupy the national stage (when one is more than enough), what we need is an extra Graves. There is a role for literature in a time when the nation’s institutions (including, we learn as we go to press, the U.S. Supreme Court) have been dragged down from the plane of ideals to the muddy playing field of politics and personal ambition. “Works of literature matter most,” Erard writes, “for the types of public conversations they can sustain, and the health of such conversations is crucial to democracy.” Yes, it matters who comes out of the mud on top, but it’s not the only thing that matters, as good writing reminds us. “[Graves’] books and essays make a particular case that we could not get any other way, the case for what we should keep around, preserve, and protect, what needs our attention, and what we like,” Erard observes.
In the spirit of the new era of the Observer, we are pleased to welcome three young writers who have never written for these pages. Dan Halpern wades through two westerns, the latest McMurtry installment and the new Bud Shrake epic, and finds it rough-going. Rosemary Hutzler reviews Austin poet Marlys West’s first collection of poems, Notes for a Late-Blooming Martyr. And Merrill Feitell, herself a new voice in short fiction, examines George Saunders’ new collection of short stories. We also welcome two new artists to our list of contributors. Austinite Lance McMahan illustrated our cover, and Grady Roper, who edits a popular comic magazine in San Marcos, provided art for Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton’s essay on the New Creationism. Former editor Lou Dubose meditates on the underappreciated art of the obituary, beginning with his own, while another former editor, Geoff Rips examines famous Texas Rabbis, not the least of which was his great-great-grandfather. On the eve of the release of the paperback version of Barbara Jordan’s exhaustive official biography, longtime contributor Lucius Lomax examines another bio of the Texas hero released recently with less fanfare: her FBI file. Finally, we’re proud to present a previously unpublished short story from an important voice in American fiction, Texas writer Dagoberto Gilb, whose work the Observer has been proud to feature over the years. “Snow” is from Gilb’s forthcoming collection, Woodcuts of Women, due out in January from Grove Press.