Thursday, August 9, 2007

Writers May Be The Problem

John and Rhian, while you’ve been sunning or not sunning yourselves, I've been haunting the national hurricane center website, although at the moment it shows no cyclonic activity. But we are late paying our house insurance in New Orleans, thereby opening a window of personal vulnerability. Which will reach the city first? Late check or as-yet-unnamed tropical wave ? As the second anniversary of Katrina approaches, so have new Katrina books, some to provide witness and outrage, some to exploit the misery. (And as Harry Shearer points out, reasonable people may imagine Katrina as merely chapter one of a longer narrative.)

Only two books about Katrina make sense to me, the graphic novel Revacuation, by Brad Benischek, and Year Zero, a compendium of articles from Both are fictions: Revacuation reimagines the storm and aftermath as a looking-glass metropolis of anthropomorphized bird-families, rats, dogs, zombie scarecrows, and disembodied hands on wheels. Year Zero is fake news that tended to happen.

I called Revacuation a graphic novel, and that's what it looks like published, but it retains the ragged glory of the artist/writer's narrative sketchbook he kept during his family's displacement to Mississippi, Texas, Alaska, California, New York, and back to New Orleans to reassemble their lives. The book is full of comedy and tragedy, and belongs on every bookshelf. I suppose one measure of the value of post-Katrina literature is how it would look to someone who knew nothing of the event, and Benischek's transformation of the cruel facts I think would look pretty monumental.

Matt Suazo’s introduction to Year Zero asks

"Have we learned to live each day to the fullest? Have we learned to cherish the time we have with those closest to us? Have we learned that every day is a blessing and that is all in the hands of the Good Lord? I can only speak for myself, but I have learned none of those things. Instead, I have learned the true meaning of dread. And not just passing, momentary, mutable dread, but sustained, soul-crushing, benzodiazepine-requiring dread. I have also learned that the truth doesn't matter and that the only thing that matters about the truth is that it is funny."

Some real news exists in Year Zero. The greatest work in the book is Tara Jill Ciccarone’s investigation of the grisly murder-suicide of Zachery Bowen and Adriane Hall, who were familiar and sympathetic neighborhood types. Ciccarone was beaten up during her reporting, and that makes it into the piece as a crucial aside. The piece reads a little like a cell phone conversation with someone having a fiery car crash.

A third book will probably make sense, Patty Friedmann’s A Little Bit Ruined. Friedmann’s work deserves to be better known for her fine and funny and outrageous novels Eleanor Rushing, Odds, and Secondhand Smoke. She didn’t evacuate, and waded a long ways to safety when the water came up.

(Calalloo published a magnificent issue about the storm, and it’s big as a book. It belongs on any shelf of appropriate response.)

On the other side of the ledger, the crude exploitation of death and authenticity continues with big names. Shameless Douglas Brinkley, a hideous writer and boyish historian, set the bar high last year with The Great Deluge, a selectively-researched overview of the event, hurried to shelves. James Lee Burke, an otherwise respectable figure, has turned my stomach with his sentimental blorp The Tin Roof Blowdown.

I was complaining to my friend Lofstead last week about the success of a mutual friend whose Katrina book has been recently released. We were at the Viceroy in Palm Springs, a strange hidden bar, the only bar worth visiting in that strange city. Lofstead was passing through on vacation from the bar he runs in New Orleans, Handsome Willy’s. He would accept none of my complaints, though he’s down on the book too. “The man filed,” Lofstead said. “He wrote it. Sure there are dozens of better books to be written about it, but they aren’t getting written. The guy showed up for work and did his job. What are you doing? Where’s your better book, your more moral book, your more appropriate non-exploitative book? Quit yr bellyaching.”

I get his point. He hasn’t written his book either.

July’s Harper’s added to the trouble. Duncan Murrell’s article “In the Year of the Storm” was part of a genre we’ve noticed of sensitive lads coming to suffer in New Orleans and leave. (Reminds me of the great Rodney Jones poem "Romance of the Poor" -- "I came as a tourist to their woe." )They mostly come to my old neighborhood, make friends, drink at Markey’s, get everything wrong, and leave badly. Hell, I left too. But Murrell’s article ends with le mot juste as a self-indictment: “thief.” And it is thievery, a pillaging of ruins, to write these pieces. It really really is, even if--especially if--the writing is beautiful. Soon after the flood, The New Yorker ran some gorgeous photographs of destroyed homes.

“Writers are the problem,” my friend Anne says, surveying the impact of Katrina on American letters. They’re the problem when they do write, because they get it wrong, and they’re the problem when they don’t write, because there’s the chance they could get it right. Revacuation and Year Zero got it right, at least, in my humble.


rmellis said...

What about Billy Sothern's book? I've been looking at it at the store and feel both pulled and repelled...

Ed, you've touched on a subject that is never far from my mind. When I was in college, a white guy in my writing class wrote a story from the point of view of a black woman, dialect-spelling and all. The story was bad on many levels, but I never forgot what the teacher said: "You're not allowed to tell *someone else's* story."

I love and respect that teacher, so it put the fear of god in me. Surely he didn't mean I could *only* tell my dull, middle-class white girl story. Actually, I think he did.

But -- how do we find the line around our story? Can I not tell the story of a white, middle class man? I think I can; I just might. But writing from the p.o.v. of an Asian man would be more tricky. Is it a matter of ability, empathy, experience, or just identity?

Anyway, I used to sometimes write about New Orleans, because I lived there during an important time in my life. But I don't think I can do that anymore. Its story has moved far beyond me.

ed said...

Rhian, I think with fiction you have the freedom, probably the obligation, to write from considerably other points-of-view. Non-fiction, though, that tells someone else's story is more impish. One reason why In Cold Blood continues to hold readers' attention is the raciness of Capote's gleeful exploitation, or at least the suggestion of his exploitation. (Like how the reputation of Lolita sells most copies, not the majesty of it.)

I haven't read Sothern's book, Down in New Orleans, but I think he's getting it right & righteous in what I've read in the Nation. He's doing true work too, in New Orleans, as a lawyer for death row inmates.

How's the beach? Sandy?

Anonymous said...

Ed, sandy it was, but it's behind us now: we have returned. The chickens got larger in our absence; the sound they make as they drop from the roost is like that of a fryer thudding onto the linoleum floor of the Acme.

Your posts are epic and un-follow-uppable. But we'll muddle through.

Did you see Benjamin Kunkel's review of Frederick Seidel's Ooga-Booga in Harper's? I think it may be the longest article about a book of poems in an American general interest magazine in fifty years.

Actually, I'm sure it isn't.

rmellis said...

Stanley Crouch in his book of essays The Artificial White Man makes a good argument for white people (like P. Roth) who use their imaginations to tell the story of people unlike them (as Roth does in The Human Stain).

Though I feel a bit iffy about some of Crouch's other opinions (he doesn't like Obama!).

ed said...

Crouch is certainly far out. He came to NOCCA and I was the designated driver. He talked from the moment I picked him up, all the way through the building tour, through the on-state conversation with Alvin Batiste, through a gimlet, & back to the hotel without taking a breath. Or listening. Everything seemed somehow to relate, positively or negatively, to Billie Holliday, in which he was probably accurate.

Anonymous said...

You should have brought him and Sarah Vowell at the same time, then had them debate one another on the subject of, say, artisan cheeses.

Mark said...

Ed, our friend in N.O. is quite clearly having the time of his life as a survivor-poet. Lofstead is wrong. Silence is better than dubious "filing" right now. But it is not a question of who owns the story. Anderson Cooper should not be disdained for building a career on the ruins of N.O.--the plastic people must be allowed to rule as they see fit--but anyone who wants to be taken seriously as a writer and a human should consider whether we really need to hear from him/her at this moment in time. Personally, unless the memoirists can somehow get a bunch of money dumped on the city, I wish they'd all shut up. And I don't expect big things from any of the Katrina novels that are assuredly in the pipeline right now. Writers are not the problem--they are just irrelevant.
That said, Revacuation is the shit.

ed said...

I agree with you, Mark, except that these books are irrelevant. One of Anne's points is that these written documents shape the perspective, and therefore the response, and the historical memory of it. There's a connection between the fast-buck-makers and public ignorance. It is probably true that what we know of history has been written by jackasses for the wrong reasons. Pliny, Herodotus, etc--and I don't mean just that the margins have been left out, that people have been silenced--not just that the Roves have shaped history (he just resigned, by the way) but equally by the Chris Roses.

Duncan Murrell said...

I tried, that's all I can say now. I don't know how to answer your criticism except that I didn't realize how hard it would be to write something coherent out of the experience of those eight months. I didn't understand what I was getting into when I began. I'm not quite the outsider you might think I am, but I'll accept that description for the sake of argument. Even so, I don't accept that an outsider shouldn't try to describe what was not previously part of their experience.

I'd welcome a continuing discussion on this subject, and thanks for being civil. It's been a long time since I was called a "lad."

Duncan Murrell

Duncan Murrell said...

p.s. Tara Ciccone served me my second beer the January night I got into the city. At Schiro's. That night we all puzzled over a flyer that was going around, part of what became a series, that contained a cartoon depiction of a man with bad skin and not-so-loving friends who had allegedly stolen an iPod. It was a running joke for a little while, but then I didn't see her for months until she read her story "Wait for Me, Susannah" at a New Orleans Review benefit down at that wine place, Bacchanal, on Poland.

That's a long way of saying I agree that she's great and deserves more attention.

Did you know Addie Hall? I know I saw her at the Spotted Cat, where Bart Ramsey played, but I really remember meeting her at The John. I wrote a crappy poem about that odd and brief encounter. It's in my notes somewhere, I hope I lose it.

There were so many people to write about, I felt overwhelmed.

Anonymous said...

It is a great delight to me to see that, in the unmistakeable New Orleans manner, a would-be literary dustup has already devolved into a discussion of bumping into people in restaurants and bars. Surely this earns Mr. Murrell a little Delta cred?

ed said...

Well, John, you're right of course. I'm willing to take it all back upon the mention of The John, which is about a different type of John entirely.

I didn't know Addie Hall, Duncan, but I did play some music with Bart Ramsey from time to time at Liuzza's, usually on Thursday nights. That's Liuzza's by the track, not the other Liuzza's.

I hope you don't take it that I'm critiquing your outsider status, because I was an outsider too for my eight years there, a short-timer. I also agree that you have every right to address the issue--the story of what's happened and what is happening in New Orleans is part of your story as a citizen, and I appreciate that you did your time in the trench, and am glad that you went downtown to do it. My expectations are impossible, though, as I hope that each big piece I read/hear about the state of new orleans will contain the solution. I want someone to fix it, you know?

I did like your piece, and the older one describing the long walk up to lakefront and back. You bore, in both articles, truly substantive witness. What felt laddish was the wholly appropriate sense of bewilderment, fear, obsession, and general overwhelmedness that came out reading like defeat. I was rather hoping for victory.

Ten points goes to Harper's and Roger Hodge for continuing to pay attention.

Duncan Murrell said...

Thank you, a blessing on your heads.

Still, I think that Ed raises an important point that should be discussed at some length: After a disaster, what's useful writing and what's porn? The urge to write porn is nearly overwhelming. I'm choosing to talk about this here because yall seem considerate and thoughtful. But I've been called a vulture and, my favorite, a "disaster archaeologist," and I'm not sure those descriptions are entirely incorrect. Mostly incorrect, but not entirely. What should be written? Who should write it?

In the writing of my article, I realized that whatever conventions of journalism I thought I could use to apprehend the disaster of New Orleans no longer applied. That left me not a little unmoored. The longer I stayed, the less sure I became. I was the most confident on my first day of reporting; on my last, I just wanted to get the hell out of there.

I'm sure yall know, but Ed had a very fine poem in that New Orleans Review issue I mentioned earlier.

Mark said...

Before the storm, we were just unexceptional people getting by in a town that happened to be more interesting than most; after the storm, each individual (Codrescu, Tanya, the racist dudes at Smitty's) is a stand-in for some larger force that is presumably important to the story of the city's failed recovery. Similarly, Polidori's houses functioned as metaphors, not places where you woke up and got breakfast started for your kid while rinsing out the coffee pot. I moved to New York after the storm, and everyone I met there very clearly viewed me in this way, too, as their window into this crazy situation that they otherwise couldn't fathom. There doesn't seem any way around this inside/outside problem. Even the journalists who are insiders render people and scenes from N.O. in this way.

It is the most basic convention of journalism, right? Go talk to someone in whose life the larger story seems encapsulated or usefully refracted? So even when you treat your subjects with obvious respect, you dehumanize them--symbols, not people. I don't see it as a moral failing on the journalist's part, though it may be that all journalism is immoral.

Duncan said...

I believe you're right, Mark. I certainly arrived in New Orleans intending to find a few people whose stories might stand in for the whole story. (Whatever that was.) I thought I had found those people at first, but the longer I stayed the more obvious it became that there were no three, or four, or ten people whose stories could contain the whole. Every insight into the life of one person was, with time, undermined by a glimpse of another person's experience. (I tried to gesture toward this in a bit toward the end, talking about the particularity of each story and how they couldn't be factored or multiplied.) Finally I gave up on that, which left me with a problem as a narrator. I hoped that the collapse of my preconceptions and my project as a straight journalist, if laid out plain, would be its own story about the city and how calamity undermines the things we had faith in; in my case, my ability to use the tools of journalism to understand something I should have known was way too big.

I'll cop to stealing that idea from Hans Peter Nossack's beautiful little book, The End about the bombing of Hamburg and its aftermath. He does it brilliantly, I think I failed. The problem becomes this: you can't simply say I lost faith, what I thought I knew was bullshit and expect it to mean much to anyone. I felt I had to illustrate it, and that meant writing something that is the record of that loss of faith: something that begins conventionally, undermines itself, and disintegrates into something confused and obsessed and uncertain and a little nuts. Had I thought about that a little more, I probably wouldn't have even tried. It's sounds workable on paper, but in practice it's a recipe for an article that is itself confusing, contradicting, overlong, and not terribly entertaining.

And, let's face it, part of the project of journalism is to entertain. I didn't find those eight months entertaining, and I would have rather quit than tried to attach something uplifting or inspirational to the story of those eight months. It would have been false. I especially wanted to avoid writing anything like the two archetypal American post-disaster stories written by journalists since the Chicago fire and identified in Kevin Rozario's essay, "Making Progress: Disaster Narratives and the Art of Optimism in Modern America": the inevitability of the city's resurrection into something better and stronger, and the wistful longing for the old city. (This essay was collected in the book The Resilient City.) I didn't want to write either of those. Again, I they seemed false to me.

Why false? It might not have been, had I been a different person. I might have been like my friend who taught at UNO, who blocked out the crap and always pushed on, and it wasn't because she was dumb or a pollyanna, but because she's suffered in her life and found that soldiering on works for her. But, then, that's only my perception of her. She could have been suicidal, or she might very well have been the most optimistic person in New Orleans, I couldn't tell.

Here's what I was. I was a writer who had just published a little article in the magazine on termites and nature in New Orleans, which was on the stand when the storm came ashore. I spent nearly two months talking myself out of pitching a story to the magazine, but finally I decided that if I had cared enough about the city to write about its termites, I had to at least make an attempt to pitch something about the storm. Otherwise my earlier interest in the city would be exposed to myself as so much bullshit; I could work up the energy to write about the city when it was safe, but not when it was a far more difficult task. So I wrote a long pitch, namechecking everyone from Lafcadio Hearn to the slave king Saint Malo, proposing to walk here and watch this and listen for that. None of that ended up being relevant. The essence of the pitch was a stunt, which was that I would go and live in the city for most of a year and write about what I found. I don't know how many other writers pitched New Orleans stories to the magazine, nor why they picked mine. But they did, and so I had to do it.

I left behind my wife and my two-year-old daughter, returning home every fourth week for seven days. I experienced a hollow kind of freedom, I suppose, which I spent writing and interviewing and drinking. Always drinking. Sometimes I wonder if my collapsing conception of the story was actually the result of my own dissolution and attendant guilt, and not anything caused by what I was witnessing and experiencing. It's possible. I dreamed about what I would write when I should have been dreaming about what I was seeing. At the end I was just tired.

I had 200,000 words of notes when I got home, plus 100+ hours of recordings. I wrote 40,000 words, which I cut to 30,000 before turning it in. Then we cut that in half by necessity. I don't think it was a better article at 40,000 words, it just said more.

At the end I did think I was a thief, I didn't just throw that in at the end because it sounded good. I had gone down to the city to take back a big story. I had ambition, I imagined the glory I would earn, this would be my title shot. Arrogant, ambitious, self-important. Yes.

Therefore the best outcome, or at least the most just, seems to me what has happened to that article since: it's meant nothing. It's sparked no real conversations about anything. I think very few people have read it. Or maybe plenty have read it, but they haven't been moved to say anything about it. My phone does not ring. This bothered me, I'll admit it, but the more I think about it the more I think that this is right, this is the way it should be.

I've been changed, though, and that's good.

I am confessing my sins here because I've had no other place to do it, and this seemed as good a place as any. I've wanted to say these things to someone who wasn't a friend.

rmellis said...

Duncan: Thank you so much for these comments. This has been an incredibly interesting and valuable discussion -- and rather humbling, actually.