Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Unconsoled

Today was the last session of the Weird Stories class, which we convened here at W6HQ in order to discuss what has to be my favorite novel of the past 25 years, Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled. I have to admit, I was a little nervous to bring this book to the floor--I suppose I wasn't sure how durable its spell over me really was, and I didn't want to break it by talking.

I needn't have worried. The class seemed to like it pretty well (a few people appeared almost as enthusiastic as I am), and no amount of analysis managed to dislodge its hold on me.

The book, in case you haven't read it, is about a concert pianist, a Mr. Ryder, who visits an unnamed European city for a concert. In the process, he becomes entangled in some kind of local crisis involving the arts, has some encounters with his estranged lover and her son, and fends off, with a kind of innocent arrogance, the hysterical demands of various hordes of townspeople. If this sounds rather vague and uninteresting, that's because very little of the fascination of this book comes from its plot; rather, the focus here is the narrative technique itself. The book operates on the logic of an extended dream sequence--characters appear and disappear in unexpected places; time is compressed or stretched; amnesia gives way to sudden, exhaustive recall; enormous physical distances are leapt over in moments. Ryder travels many miles outside of town to attend a meeting at a rural cafe; he returns to his hotel through a door in the back of a closet. Ryder enters an apartment he has never seen before--but moments later, he knows that a certain cupboard is filled with board games. Expected events never occur; unexpected events occur with regularity. A man conducts an orchestra mere minutes of having his leg amputated. A loitering stranger turns out to be a high school friend. At the end of an impossibly long elevator ride, Ryder suddenly notices somebody in the elevator he'd managed to miss. An impassible brick wall runs unexpectedly through the center of town.

If the book is about anything at all, maybe it's about impotence--the incapacity of Ryder to affect change; the inability of the story to reach a conclusion; the impossibility of communication, or love, or sex. Or maybe, as a student of mine suggests, it's about Ishiguro's frustrations with his reception as an artist. Or, as another student suggested, it might be an exploration of Confucian philosophy. Or maybe it's about exile. Or something.

In any event, it's not like anything I've ever read before. Like Ishiguro's other narrators, Ryder is stridently artificial, striving, with his amiable first-person narration, to create a version of himself he can bear to inhabit--the book is a story he's telling himself, the story of who he is, or isn't. Or, perhaps more likely, it's the story he's telling himself in order to avoid the subject of his identity. This is a tempting interpretation: Ishiguro has a complicated relationship to the writer's identity. He is stridently British, downplaying his Japanese heritage at every opportunity--yet his first two novels are set in an imaginary Japan--or two imaginary Japans, I suppose. The Unconsoled is as British a novel as has ever been written (the perverse layers of politeness that burden its characters are among its most striking elements); yet it is about homelessness, and alienation, and the difficulty of cross-cultural understanding.

Anyway, that's enough talking about it. I don't want it to make sense--and I want to fill the world with more of that same kind of senselessness.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A Life of One's Own

Ilana Simons's little self-help book, A Life of One's Own, could have been awful. Its subtitle is A Guide To Better Living Through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf, and it makes a person wonder: how about just reading Virginia Woolf? Who needs an intermediary? And also: life advice from a person who committed suicide? How's Simons going to play that one?

But isn't it a pretty book? It's got rough-cut pages, too. It was hard to resist. And I'm glad I didn't, because it's a really nice book. I love Virginia Woolf, though I haven't read all her work. I find it hard going and emotionally taxing; I've started Jacob's Room several times but reading it makes me want to cry. I do have her diaries, though, and they're wonderful.

So I don't mind this distillation of some of her ideas. Simons is modest and intelligent and subtle, and I think she gets it right, though a Woolf scholar might disagree. Some of the chapter titles are Accept Solitude, Work Hard Even Without A Sign of Success, Be Aware of Prejudice, Find a Political Voice, Make Use of Time, Read and Be More, and Simons uses the life and work of Woolf to make these points. The writer I know and love is fairly represented here. It would make a great Mother's Day present. (Suddenly the blog has turned into the bookstore newsletter...)

I've been taking a bit of a break from reading fiction lately, which I do now and then and feel bad about but then I remind myself that reading fiction, especially very good fiction, is hard. It works your imagination, your emotions, your intellect, your empathy, and requires much more sustained attention than nonfiction. The occasional break can renew the energies. Unless you take too long a break and get all out of shape. I think some short fiction. Anyone read any good collections recently?

Sunday, April 27, 2008

How Writers Talk About Writing

The ostensible point of this post is to let you know that I've just posted an interview with poet Eavan Boland over at the Writers At Cornell Blog. Boland read at Cornell last week, and the following day spoke with me about Irish poets in the literary consciousness, the difficulty of being a woman creator in a national literature that romanticizes women, and the idea of the writer--particularly the Irish writer--as exile. I also recommend her New Collected Poems, which I just finished reading, and which is really excellent.

But also wanted to address, in a more general sense, the diversity of approaches writers take in talking about their craft. Over the year and a half that I've been conducting these interviews, I've talked to nearly 20 writers, and have found that the conversations have been nearly as different from one another as the work we've discussed. Eavan Boland is a precise and succinct conversationalist, when it comes to her poetry; she answered my questions with the air of an experienced writer who has long ago made some decisions about what she does and how she does it, and didn't feel the need to elaborate. Junot Diaz was her near-opposite--ask the guy where he got his sport coat and ninety seconds later you'll be hearing about dictatorship and literature as seen through the lens of Foucault. George Saunders' self-deprecating amiability, Alison Bechdel's careful soul-searching, Heather McHugh's mad energy--their ways of seeing what they do are as divergent as their personalities.

This might seem kind of obvious, but I bring it up because I feel as though, often, we listen to what writers have to say in order to find out the "key" to what they do, maybe so that we can read them with greater sophistication, or imitate them in our own work. We want to know what time of day they write, or whom they like to read, or whether they're married or not, or have children, or are religious, or gay, or like music or sports.

What do we expect to get out of this exactly? For me, I've left behind the notion that I can, say, write novels like William Kennedy's by listening very carefully to what his childhood was like. I no longer mine literary interviews, memoirs, or writing guides for trade secrets. Rather, I like to read writers' personalities the same way I read their books--as inimitable expressions of individuality. I like to be reminded that there is no right way to do anything, and there might not even be a good way to do anything. There is only the way you can do it, nothing more. The only material, the only talent, that you can work with is your own; and imitation serves mostly to show you precisely what you can't do.

So how do you figure out what you can do? I honestly don't know. Sometimes I get optimistic and think that I've only scratched the surface of what I'm capable of, if only I can figure out how to get at the good stuff. At other times I feel as though I hit my ceiling years ago. But listening to other writers talk about their work, I understand that most of them have the same problem. Most of them are hopelessly groping around in the darkness of their own potential, wondering if and when they're going to bump up against something great. At the best of times, it's this search that creates the good work--the effort of the thing turns out to be the goal. At the worst of times, though, it can get pretty lonely in there.

These interviews, for me, have been like postcards from the no-man's-lands of other writers' minds: It's dark as hell, wish you were here.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Why I Don't Read Mysteries Anymore

I used to love reading mysteries: Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes, Ruth Rendell, those Swedish people, the Sue Graftons (up to H, anyway). And once in a while I try again, because I love the idea of mysteries, but it's been a long time since I've found one that doesn't engage in one of the following deal-breakers:

Excessive blood and gore. I know, it's murder, and murder's bloody, and I don't want to pretend otherwise. But I'm not interested in seeing the human body taken lovingly apart before my eyes, I'm really not. The last time I tried reading Henning Mankell (I think it was him), he described a person who had been skinned alive. Okay! Too much! That was a few years ago and I'm still nauseated. Not everyone interested in crime and puzzles is also into blood and guts. Even giving blood makes me pass out.

Serial Killers. I dislike serial killer novels for two reasons. For one, it seems too easy for the writer: as soon as things get slack, Oh no, he strikes again! When I was a kid watching The Incredible Hulk, I noticed that Bruce Banner consistently Hulked-out at 20 after, 40 after, and right before the end. Pretty soon I was more interested in timing the Hulkings-out than in following the story line. That's how I feel about serial killers.

Secondly, they're implausible. Yeah, Ted Bundy was real, and interesting, but all the serial killers after him seem like tired knock-offs. And real ones never act like the ones in books, killing according to a secret design that the detective, matching wits with the killer, has to figure out before another innocent dies.

Getting Into the Mind of the Killer. I don't want to be there. It's boring and it undercuts the tension. Getting into the mind tells you who the killer is, or else the author has to go through annoying acrobatics to keep it from you. Or it doesn't matter who it is, it's just some random serial killer. Why do authors think this technique adds to the storyline? They probably don't think this, but just need to fill pages. (Exception to this one: when the whole book is told from the killer's point of view.) Especially bad: when the killer's point of view is entirely in italics.

When the Detective is in Peril at the End. Gawd, I hate this. I especially hate when the detective and the bad guy are alone at the end and have to have some kind of hand-to-hand showdown. Of course this is a Hollywood thing, but it's bad there, too. What, is there some rule book out there that says the detective's gun has to fly away and the bad guy has to die quasi-accidentally, like falling on a big spike? Please spare me the spike ending.

So, seeing this list, you'd think I'd go for the Cozy Type Mystery, which seem designed for weak-stomached ladies like myself. But sadly, no. I tried a few, and they were, without exception, the most poorly written, implausible, creepy (in a bad way) things I'd ever read. In the new Cozies, the murder has to be Cute. Think about this: cute murder. In the three I read, the victim totally deserved it, because otherwise feelings of grief and injustice would undermine the coziness of it all. So a cute murder happens (stabbed with knitting needles, beaten with a pepper grinder, poisoned with special bad mushrooms) to a person who probably deserved it (town gossip, village show off, camp bully, summer person) and life goes on pretty much as usual in its charming small-town way until the sharp-eyed main character figures it out. Done skillfully, as in the Miss Marple books, this can be okay, but a really ingenious puzzle has to be at the center to make these work. The writers I read thought their ham-fisted attempts at cuteness would be enough. Nope. (Did you know that there are cozy mysteries based on pretty much any theme you can think of? There are Ceramics Mysteries, Candle-Making Mysteries, Bed-and-Breakfast ones, Mommy-track, figure skating, etc. Why is this depressing? I guess it's the idea that you have to be lured into a work of fiction by it being about your hobby -- about you!)

The last good mystery I read, and it was really more of an old-fashioned Gothic than a mystery, was Barbara Vine's The Minotaur. I loved that one. If you know any of any others that meet my requirements, let me know about them!

I mean, I really don't think I'm asking for too much.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Hypertext Fiction, Oh My!

In the comments of the last post, reader G. C. Munroe wonders if perhaps the internet will not only change the literary dialogue, but fiction itself. He links to his quite interesting fiction blog and writes:

What the authors and the editors of these websites haven't taken advantage of are the tools used on Wikipedia, on the best daily blogs, etc., ie. illustrations (also, I guess, used by Boz, etc.), and - more essentially - hyperlinking. Allowing for a more dynamic method by which to navigate, increasing the speed by which the reader can accumulate knowledge...Now you might be thinking, if hyperlinking takes an essential role in new fiction, how could this ever transfer to books? This, I think, is where ebooks come into play. Touch of a word opens a new window, takes you to a new page, in an instant.

(The ellipsis is mine.)

Now, I don't know about you, but I remember when Robert Coover was going to make hypertext fiction the next big thing. We tried it, and people didn't seem to like it too much.

But I wonder. When I was talking with my class the other day, and I was holding forth on the idea that nobody wants to read a novel on a computer, a couple of students said they had--and one of them, a former teacher of young people, said that, to his students, reading on a computer was not only normal, but preferable. Maybe this generation is the one with whom hypertext will catch on.

Here's the thing about hypertext, though. When I'm using the internet, I'm generally looking for information. And when it's information I want, I enjoy the blinding speed (as Mr. Munroe puts it) with which I can accumulate the knowledge I want. Hyperlinking makes that possible.

But when I'm reading a novel, speed is the last thing I want. What I want is a contained, hermetic world that I can ponder, and compare to the one my mind usually inhabits. I don't want to make choices--I want to submit myself to the mind of another person, the writer. I want to experience The Work: for the writer's intellect, her grand vision, the flavor of his emotions. I don't want to worry about all the possible choices I might have made, or might make in the future, and where those choices might lead. That's what life is like. I want my art to be different.

That isn't to say there isn't something to hypertext fiction. But it isn't the "direction" that fiction is "moving," in my view. It's something else entirely, something on another track. There will always be a desire for the non-participatory narrative, and there will always be a desire for something you can be a part of. But so far, text-based fictions have not found a stable home in the arena of the latter desire.

What do you think? Is hypertext fiction poised to rise again? Or did you have enough of the stuff in 1992?

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Blogging's Influence on Books

I was skimming through the ARC of Jennifer Lancaster's humorous weight-loss memoir, Such a Pretty Fat, and was rather taken aback at how... tedious it is. It's got lots of energy and a good premise (she's a fat person with no self-esteem problems) but sheesh, she goes on and on and on about herself and her terribly cute daily minutiae, to really an absurd degree. It's like having lunch with a pathologically self-absorbed person: after a bit all you can do is nod and say Uh-huh and keep glancing at your advancing-way-too-slowly watch -- but it goes on for 300 pages! I found myself wondering, Since when does a mildly amusing anecdote about your dog -- the kind that only barely qualifies for speaking aloud, when you have nothing better to talk about -- deserve to be written down for a mass audience?

Oh, yeah. Since blogging.

Such a Pretty Fat
is basically a bunch of blog posts tied together with some contrived and unbelievable story lines (she keeps buying Barbie heads while high on Ambien) in order to turn it into something that resembles a book. But its heart is a blog. And though I'm not really interested in daily-life blogs (why, I wonder? The intimate lives of complete strangers should be interesting to me, but they're not), I'm sure Lancaster's is a fun one. She's very clever. She's probably terrifying to be around in person: one of those people who snarks so viciously about everyone around her you go queasy thinking about what she's saying about you when you're not there. A blog is the perfect medium for her.

But as a book... I don't know. Obviously I'm a fan of blogging and think it's going to be vital to the future of literature (somehow or other), but I hope that future doesn't look like this, like a blog: less edited, less reflective, more self-centered, and with a lower bar for being funny and interesting. Since there's no paper to waste online, you might as well ramble on and on until you accidentally say something worthwhile. Hell, I've done it myself. But a book costs money and uses natural resources and one expects a little bit more.

Have I just contradicted JRL's pro-blog post of a couple nights ago? Oh, well. We contain multitudes.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Blogging Is Better

I have never had much of a conceptual attachment to blogging, even in the year and a half or so since Rhian suggested we start this blog. I've written a couple hundred blog posts since then, but I don't really think of myself as a blogger--rather, this just feels like more writing, and its public instantaneity more of a novel quirk than a defining feature.

But lately, I find myself getting more and more annoyed at the traditional media's relationship to blogging. Much of this comes from my reading of political blogs, many of which have been the only ready source of actual news since the Iraq war broke out in 2003. Today's piece in the Times about TV news' "military analyists" and their true role as Bush-administration propagandists was indeed appalling, but is not remotely surprising to those of us who have been following online the mainstream media's decline with despair over the past few years. Blogs have served a real, important purpose, not just for political partisans, but for anyone interested in up-to-the-moment investigative journalism. Which should be everyone.

Anyway, the traditional media line on political blogging is similar to its line on literary blogging: that is, bloggers are not legitimate writers. The reason? No gatekeepers. Anyone can write a blog; therefore, blogs are of no value.

Officially, I don't give a crap what these blowhards think. I'm not even a blogger, remember? But as someone who has spent some time among the gatekeepers, I have to say that some of them have no goddam idea what they're doing; most of them value profit over art, loyalty, and the courage of their convictions; and the gate-kept world (at least in the realm of fiction writing) is basically a slum festooned with ten-thousand-dollar jewel-encrusted toilets. This is the primary reason I am not especially concerned that book reviewing in newspapers is dying. Newspapers, by and large, are garbage, and a time will soon come when nobody will believe anything they print anymore.

Now people still do read newspapers. In a lot of places (Ithaca, New York, for instance) the paper is the only way to actually find out what's happening in town, however awful the majority of the content may be. Newpapers made themselves indispensible back in the day, and it will take some time for their primary functions to move into other media. Classified ads, of course, were the first traditional newpaper function to become 100% worthless, but book reviews are next.

I was part of a panel up at school that featured our visiting writer that week, Salman Rushdie. And someone in the crowd asked Rushdie if he worried about the dearth of serious book reviewing in newpapers. He said that he was, and that the internet had not picked up the slack--yet.

I was glad he added the "yet." He thought we might be ten years off. I am thinking less. In the gate-kept world, ten years is a reasonable estimate, but online, there aren't any gatekeepers preventing you from doing things. Change happens quickly. And literary blogs are growing in number and quality.

The thing is, it's pointless to say there are no gatekeepers in the blogging world. There's no gate. The metaphor doesn't work. Think, rather, of the internet as an infinite mountain range, and online literary discussion a single mountain. The best writing is at the top, and it gets increasingly bad as you approach the bottom. Everone knows who's good: there she is, sitting at the peak. If she isn't writing so well, she slips down, and somebody else takes the summit. When he starts to suck, someone's waiting to take his place. You see, on the internet, there is no equivalent of David Brooks or William Kristol: people who, because they are inside the gate, keep on getting to shoot their idiot mouths off in spite of being wrong, wrong, wrong about everything, over and over and over again. It's easy to keep people outside the gate, but it's hard to get rid of them once they're in. On the internet, you're only on top if you're awesome. And when you're not awesome, you're not on top. Effective immediately.

In other words, on the internet, you have to sing for your supper. You might not be able to depend on your favorite sites to always be good--but you CAN depend on SOMEBODY being good at any time. And because we're not beholden to the publishing industry (W6 does not accept galleys, does not take paid advertising, and does not have a click-through deal with Amazon), literary bloggers can write about literature as a continuum. We don't have to address the new thing. And if we do address the new thing, we can mix it up with the old and out of style. On literary blogs, literature is a huge, inclusive, evolving animal, where every book can have its little pocket of relevance, in perpetuity. We can talk about Flannery O'Connor and G. K. Chesterton with impunity, because we're not trying to sell anything. And we might be yelling into a vacuum, but we're yelling whatever the hell we want.

I do not mourn the death of the newspaper review. I've enjoyed some good ones, and resented some bad ones, but on balance, it's time to move on. The only really good book writing is happening in independent magazines like the NYRB and LRB, and the New Yorker and Harper's...and right here, online.

So start a blog and make it a movement. Suck all you want, lounge around the bottom of the mountain. But one of these days you'll have your moment on top. And I hope that Salman Rushdie will be reading your posts sooner than he thinks.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

A Writer and Her Times

Part of me would rather just sit on the couch and read tonight rather than post (F. Karinthy's A Journey Round My Skull is waiting half-read, not to mention a true crime about polygamists), but I can't let go of the question that Max posed in the comments of the last post: If an unknown, unconnected, relegated-to-the-slushpile Flannery O'Connor were alive today, would she be published?

Of course this is really several different questions. If Flannery O'Connor were writing today, how would her writing be different? Would she still be writing about Southern Grotesques? Would she even write at all? Would her love of language have been beaten out of her by dreadful 1970's reading curricula (which I blame for the low numbers of readers today)? Would she be writing scripts for reality TV shows, instead?

And, okay, say she was a writer and had the same pet subjects. Even though most current editors would claim to respect her as a canonical writer, would they actually publish her? Or is her gift and her talent one particularly suited to her times, and not really transferable to other times?

And say her gift does transfer, and she writes more or less the same stuff but neatly updated for today's reader: you know, with televangelists. Are today's editors too thick and money-grubbing to recognize a good thing when they see it?

Here's what I think: Some, maybe most, writers have talents and material that are not transferable. That is, they are stuck in their times, they speak only to their times, and teleported elsewhere they would not have much to say. The great historical writers are mostly the exception: Shakespeare, Dickens, Homer. But the rest of us are able to write and be published only because of a particular juncture of self and country and era.

I think Flannery O'Connor is one of the exceptions. I think if she were alive today, she would be a writer, and though her material would be different, I think she would be able to publish it. Who knows if she'd get the kind of audience she did in her own time. But her voice is distinctive enough, and she herself was persistent and single-minded enough, that she would probably publish books.

I don't live in the city, and I've met only a few editors, so I can't make many sweeping judgements about them. But thinking about all the people I know who want to write, all the people who've tried to become writers, I can't think of a single one who writes moderately well and is persistent who hasn't published. I know lots of brilliant unpublished writers, but every single one of them -- without fail -- has quit or is still quite young or new at it or is taking a very long break. There are about as many of them as there are mediocre writers who work their tails off and get book contracts, present company included.

So what I'm saying is, I think there are at least a couple of editors who are smart enough to recognize the good in our contemporary F. O'Connor. Not all of them, judging by the appallingly bad memoir I just skimmed in ARC (Such a Pretty Fat it's called, I'm not joking). An obvious talent like hers would float to the top of the slush pile eventually, with or without her connections or MFA. Maybe it would take a while, longer than it should. But I think it would happen.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Mystery and Manners

Flannery O'Connor's book of essays, Mystery and Manners, has been much more of a bible to me in my writing life than anything else, even moreso than Strunk and White. I first read it almost twenty years ago, when writing my first stories (I'm old!), and return to it every now and then for encouragement and inspiration. I love her grumpy, modest arrogance and absolutely clear vision. One essay in particular, "The Nature and Aim of Fiction," never fails to sweep away my (ever-recurring) confusion and despair. I thought I would repeat here some of her rather casually tossed-off bits of wisdom, but if you are serious about writing fiction, I strongly suggest you read the whole thing yourself.

"I know well enough that very few people who are supposedly interested in writing are interested in writing well. They are interested in publishing something, and if possible, making a "killing." They are interested in being a writer, not in writing.... And they seem to feel that this can be accomplished by learning certain things about working habits and markets and about what subjects are currently acceptable."

But, she says, "The person who aims after art in his work aims after truth, in an imaginative sense, no more and no less. St. Thomas said that the artist is concerned with the good of that which is made; and that will have to be the basis of my few words on the subject of ficion."

And a few pages on:
"The beginning of human knowledge is through the senses, and you cannot appeal to the senses with abstractions.... The world of the fiction writer is full of matter, and this is what the beginning fiction writers are very loath to create.... The fact is that the materials of the fiction writer are the humblest. Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn't try to write fiction."

She goes on to talk about the novel versus the short story, the role of theme, etc. Then this, "People without hope don't write novels, and what is more to the point, they don't read them. They don't take long looks at anything, because they lack the courage."

And then this: "Fiction should be both canny and uncanny. In a good deal of popular criticism, there is the notion operating that all fiction has to be about the Average Man, and has to depict average, ordinary everyday life, tht every fiction writer must produce what used to be called 'a slice of life.' But if life, in that sense, satisfied us, there would be no sense in producing literature at all."

Oh, Flannery, you make it sound so easy and sensible!

She goes on to express strong opinions about the worth of writing classes and universities and what a writing teacher can and can't do for a student, but I won't repeat what she says in hopes that I might encourage those MFA-obsessed folks to go find this marvelous book.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Man Who Was Thursday

Speaking of Ed, as I did in the comments of the last post, it was he who recommended this book to me back in the day, and I've read it several times in the past ten years, each time more aware how deeply flawed it is, and each time more enamored of it. I assigned it to the Weird Stories class this week, and yesterday a student stopped me in the hall for the sole purpose of informing me, quite soberly, that "That book's fucked up."

Tell me about it. G. K. Chesterton is best known for his delightful Father Brown mysteries, and this novel shares their deft plotting and quotable wit. The book is quite short--120 pages in my cheapo Dover edition--and tells the story of a policeman who infiltrates a secret cabal of anarchists, each named after a day of the week. He discovers their assassination plot, and through his efforts to foil it discovers that all the other anarchists are also underdcover policemen, except for their leader, the impossibly large and terrifying Sunday. Who Sunday turns out to be is...well...

I don't think I've ever read another book that changes its tack so drastically in its final pages. Up until, say, page 100, the novel is a smart, energetic, ironic romp, free of any fealty to representational reality, and fueled by politics, philosophy, and action. In the end, it turns into some kind of vague allegory, slathered all over with outre Christian iconography.

Some of my students hated the ending. I don't blame them. But the older I get, the more I love flawed books, not in spite of their flaws, but because of them. And this book is definitely flawed. The ending is so surprising, so ambitious, so--as one approving student put it--audacious, that I'm willing to forgive Chesterton entirely for writing a book that it was probably impossible to finish in a fully satisfying manner. It reminds me quite powerfully of "Fall Out," the enigmatic final episode of The Prisoner, and if Patrick McGoohan has never read this book, I'll eat my hat.

The very end--the last page, in fact--is strangely sentimental, a kind of vision of heaven. And in spite of myself, it never fails to move me. Gabriel Syme, the book's protagonist, announces at some point that "The rare, strange thing is to hit the mark; the gross, obvious thing is to miss it." I beg to differ with him: in this case, it's missing the mark that's rare and strange, and strangely inspiring. This year is TMWWT's centenary--celebrate by picking up a copy.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Praise, Criticism, and the problem of Other People

Like any writer, I have a complicated relationship to my readers. And I don't mean "published writer" or "professional writer." I'm talking about anyone who writes. If all you do is scribble in your diary, you've got an audience: the future version of yourself who will no longer feel quite the same as the one who's writing. And that future you may sneer at the you of the present, just as the you of the present is sneering at the you of the past. Or, perhaps, envying the you of the past.

But it's true, the more people you hope or expect to read your work, the more complicated things become. Personally, I want everybody to read my work. The complications come from the further desire for them to like it. Or, should I say, the need for them to like it. Or at least respect it.

It's common for a writer to say that, when she's writing, she isn't thinking about her audience--she's just deeply engaged in the act of writing. I say this all the time, in fact, and it isn't a lie. Anyone who is passionately engaged in some creative endeavor is familiar with that amazing feeling--total absorption in an imagined world. It's part of the reason people keep making stuff even when their public fortunes turn south. A good session of writing, or painting, or whatever, is like a kind of hyper-alive dream state.

But unless you are an amazingly self-contained person, this state is nestled firmly under the big tent of others' regard. Your work is about other people, and it is ostensibly directed at other people. Yes, you write for yourself--but most of us desperately need to see ourselves reflected back to us in the mirror of The Public. Even if the public is just your husband or wife, or pen pal. And if other people are really important to you, and to the way you define yourself, you imagine the glowing reviews, or the gratitude of your tearful readers, or the awards banquet or whatever.

For some of us, this is a real motivating force. The desire for approval, for validation. For others, it's a distraction, a cause for terror. Some of us get one little whiff of others' regard, negative or positive, and run like hell from it, never to publish again. Some of us claim loudly to disdain it, and are lying. Some of us admit loudly that it does indeed motivate us, in an effort to preclude our having to admit it to ourselves, for real. There are probably some of us, minor superheroes, who really, truly don't give a crap. I really, really, really want to be one of those people.

Well--maybe not. Maybe this desire keeps me honest. Maybe the need for attention--any kind of attention--is the one thing that actually allows us to accept constructive criticism. And maybe our awareness of this need gives us an even more useful skill--doubting others' praise. Praise, of course, is what we really want when we ask for constructive criticism. But receiving it is rarely as satisfying as we hope. Most normal people have a little voice in the back of their heads, saying, "If she likes your book, she must be an idiot. Or a liar." I suspect that voice spends its time sparring with the voice that says, "He doesn't like your book? What a sad, sad little man!"

My writing is for me, but it is about you. Or maybe it's about me, and for you. In any event, I hope you like it. And if you do, you're a liar. And if you don't, you're an idiot.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Writers and Atheism

Why are so many writers atheists? Not all of them, by any means, or even most of them, but I have been noticing lately that atheism is over-represented among book people. The official stats are that about 2% of Americans are atheist, which, considering the people I know, seems ludicrously low. Then again, I think the official numbers of gay and Jewish people also seem too low, so maybe my view of reality is a tad distorted.

I am an atheist. It's not an important part of my identity or anything, and I have no interest in reading about atheism or joining atheist gangs or whatever. I'm an atheist because I was raised without religion, and my life's experience hasn't caused me to change my mind or feel the need for or the presence of a deity. Au contraire, in fact. Recently an old friend died, too young, of esophageal cancer. He was an artist, a painter, who dedicated his life to his art. Really, I don't say this lightly, but he was a kind of angel: he inspired everyone he met by his love of and single-minded devotion to light and color and paint. He gave me so many gifts. He was a sweetheart. But now he's dead of an incredibly cruel and painful disease, and certain other evil bastards still walk the earth. If there is a god, he has some explaining to do.

And of course, that's just the latest. The Holocaust is, for me, the biggie. I can't reconcile that and God. Also, famine, genocide, children with cancer, etc., etc. I have heard a lot of arguments on the part of the religious, but the explanation there is no God is still the most convincing one to me.

Anyway, I'm not interested in arguing theology here. I keep my opinions to myself for the most part. I have religious friends and I respect the fact that they have grappled with the exact same questions and come to a different conclusion.

Because there have been a number of books for and against atheism published lately I've found myself thinking about it more, and justifying my position to myself. I was reading Wendy Lesser's essay about her friendship with Leonard Michaels ("Difficult Friends") in her book Room for Doubt, and I came across this bit:
It's strange that I can feel so intensely about Annunciations without having any feeling for God at all. Or perhaps it would be more correct to say that if I have any feeling about God, it is utterly negative. I don't believe he exists but I dislike him anyway. Nothing in my life justifies this attitude: unlike Job, I don't have a particularly valid gripe against God. But I have managed, in my typical fashion, to convert a rational sense of disbelief into a more personal emotion. Raised as an agnostic, I have instead turned into a full-blown atheist, with an intense reaction against almost any form of religious observance. My rational agnostic side is what makes a philosopher like David Hume so attractive to me, but my faith-based atheism makes me much more like Lenny, who was eminently capable of holding two logically conflicting positions at once. Like Lenny, I am personally offended at God's demonstrably bad administrative performance; and like Lenny, I have chosen to replace God with art.

Then just yesterday Terri Gross on Fresh Air was replaying an interview with Philip Roth in honor of his 75th birthday. She ended the interview with a question about faith or spirituality, but he was having nothing to do with it. "I'm not interested in deluding myself," he said. Another atheist!

It's possible that writers actually aren't more likely to be atheists than the population at large, and it just seems that way because they're the ones writing about it. But I don't know. I feel that if I were religious, I wouldn't have the urge to write. I feel like my urge to write is very much tied to my need to find meaning in the world, and that if I believed in God, I would find meaning there, instead.

There are religious writers, of course, Flannery O'Connor not the least of them. But I really do think that for many of us, reading and writing literature serves the same function as a religion. It provides a structure for the consideration of moral questions. It's about why the world is the way it is. It's about beauty and ugliness. It offers glimpses of the possibility of immortality.

If we had a Bible, what would it be? Strunk and White?
Our first Communion -- a library card?

Friday, April 11, 2008

Podcast: Alison Bechdel

I feel bad doing this, because I really owe the blog a "real" post. But instead I'm going to direct your attention to the Writers At Cornell Blog, where I have just posted a brief interview with cartoonist and graphic memoirist Alison Bechdel. We talked about the fluidity of memory, the pitfalls of writing about real people, the advantages of drawing small, and how obsessive-compulsive tendencies can be brought to bear upon the making of good art.

I want to reiterate here how much I love Bechdel's book, Fun Home, and how much I admire her for writing it. If you're a fan of her long-running indie comic Dykes To Watch Out For, you're accustomed to her political acumen, distinctive drawing style, and memorable characters. But nothing in the strip really prepared me for Fun Home, which I find amazingly moving and genuine and deep. Her evocation of childhood--specifically, the childhood of an artist--is extraordinary. The book is obviously deeply personal, but it also creates a kind of universal portrait of the birth of the creative imagination, and is a must for anyone obsessed with making things.

Alison gave a fantastic reading and presentation at Cornell last night, one that included not only an emotional delivery of the book's first chapter, but a hilarious and instructive explanation of how it came to be. It speaks volumes about what kind of person Alison is that, after presenting this material many times to many audiences over the past couple of years, she was still visibly moved by it, and managed to move all of us, as well.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Your Material

One of my favorite Alice Munro stories is an older one called "Material." It's about a woman whose husband is a struggling writer. They get divorced and years later he's a successful writer, and she finds a story of his that's based on an experience she recognizes from their time together. His story is a good one, but it still makes her angry -- angry that he can take reality and distort it for his own purposes, but also that he can actually interpret and process this material, which a non-writer has no choice but to leave as experience.

(It's especially interesting that the object of the anger in Munro's story is the writer -- it's as if Munro is angry at herself, or at least exploring her own weaknesses. Her willingness to do this is one thing that makes her great.)

I had a friend in graduate school who was a good writer, but whose stories were a little bit light, a little bit emotionally distant. One day she told us a horrifying story from her childhood -- a story so powerful and emotionally resonant we were just flabbergasted. "Wow," we said, "have you ever considered writing about that?" No, she said. "You wouldn't have to write about it directly, but you know, that's powerful stuff --"

NO, she said again.

I think this instinct -- the unwillingness to tap one's deepest wells -- can be a very good one. Writers who rely too much on autobiography for their work often find themselves tapped out. Or else they end up telling the same story again and again.

Still. We all carry around a mass of themes and experiences that can't help but inform our writing. Recently I reread an ancient collection of stories I'd written in college. Not one of them was even slightly autobiographical, but I was startled to see that every single one of them was about the same thing: disillusionment.

Weird! I wasn't aware of that at the time. What about my life back then made me so stuck on disillusionment? I don't remember. But it had to come from somewhere, didn't it? I wonder if the stories would have been better if I'd recognized this recurring theme and dealt with it head on. Instead, the repetition of theme gives the stories the same impression as room full of women of varying ages and hairstyles, but all wearing, say, capri pants.

Anyway. It's interesting to see how different writers take the stuff of life and turn it into fiction: some slap it in uncooked, others let it metamorphose.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Moominland Midwinter

We don't post too often about books for children, mainly because (and I think I can speak for Rhian here) we think that most of them are utter crap. It's rare to find a really great one. The Little House On The Prairie books are brilliant and wonderful...Roald Dahl of course...The Phantom Toolbooth. You know the ones.

But it's only recently that we discovered Tove Jansson's "Moomin" series of short stories, novels, and comics (I can hear our comics-pedant son Tobey screaming "Not comic books, graphic novels"). Jansson, a multitalented Finn who died a few years ago, appears to have been some kind of literary and artistic genius. Moominland Midwinter is a moving, haunting, and utterly original piece of work, so much so that it's almost hard to believe somebody actually went to all this effort for children. That she did so makes it even better.

The Moomins are a family of schmoo-esque creatures who live off the land. The protagonist, Moomintroll, is a sensitive little boy; he lives with his parents, Moominmamma and Moominpapa, and the motley collection of orphans, wanderers, and eccentrics whom they take in. This world is packed with different sentient creatures; they all look like animals of some kind but are all human-like, with a few notable exceptions. The stories mostly focus on the Moomin family, and this book does too, though it is quite different from its more lighthearted predecessors.

Moomins are warm-weather animals--they hibernate in the winter. The premise of this book is that Moomintroll wakes up in January and can't rouse his family. The amount of sunlight per day can be measured in seconds (this is Finland, remember), and the world he wakes to is entirely alien. Strange creatures are inhabiting all his old familiar haunts, everything is covered with snow, and everyone he knows in the world is asleep. What follows is a kind of mini-odyssey, in which Moomintroll learns self-reliance and social responsibility, and apprehends fully, for the first time, the sensual wholeness of life truly lived.

The book is filled with sophisticated, beautiful prose composed with a limited but expressive vocabulary. Here, Moomintroll is moping around his silent house, considering the strangeness of other people's lives:

Such things just are, but one never knows why, and one feels hopelessly apart.

Moomintroll found a large box of paper decals in the attic and lapsed into longing admiration of their summerish beauty. They were pictures of flowers and sunrises and little carts with gaudy wheels, glossy and peaceful pictures that reminded him of the world he had lost.

First he spread them out on the drawing-room floor. Then he hit upon pasting them to the walls. He pasted slowly and carefully to make the job last, and the brightest pictures he pasted above his sleeping mamma.

And here, later, when spring finally arrives:

This day the spring had decided to be not poetical but simply cheerful. It had spread flocks of small scatterbrained clouds in the sky; it swept down the last specks of snow from every roof; it made new little brooks run everywhere and was playing at April the best it could.

Evidently (see the Wikipedia link) this was the first of a run of rather more serious Moomin stories, which would lead Jansson, in the seventies, to begin writing entirely for adults. It shows. She brought her sophistication here first, and in this novel (translated with great nuance by Ernest Benn), we see real art being brought to bear upon the strange epiphanies of childhood. Read it to your kid immediately.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Unfinished Novels

I just read Shirley Jackson's unfinished novel, Come Along With Me. It's only thirty pages, though, so maybe it should be in quotation marks instead. It's one of my favorite kind of novels: a woman with a mysterious past leaves it all behind and starts a new life. Gosh, how many books have I read like that? Not enough! That's one particular theme I can't get enough of.

Jackson had a wicked sense of humor and a real misanthropic streak she managed to keep tamped down most of the time. She let it rip for these few last pages. Her protagonist -- a medium who talks to the dead -- lies about everything, compulsively shoplifts, and doesn't have a nice thing to say about anyone. It's tragic that it's over so soon, rather like Jackson's life.

(For years I didn't read any of her novels because I had to read "The Lottery" in high school, and I hated it. It seemed so heavy-handed. But then I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle and was a convert. In an essay in the same volume as Come Along With Me she describes getting the idea for "The Lottery" while pushing her daughter up a hill in a stroller, so now I have new respect for it.)

There aren't that many unfinished novels published. I know that something of Hemingway's was published a few years back, but I didn't read it. The reviews weren't so great, but anyway, who wants to read something with no ending? Dickens's Edwin Drood is a murder mystery, but you never find out who did it. Ugh!

But some writers, like Shirley Jackson, have such a slender oeuvre that every paragraph seems valuable, and I certainly enjoyed her unfinished book a lot more than many finished ones. It makes me wonder about what makes a book worth reading in the first place. How much of it is the ultimate satisfaction of an appropriate ending? How much is just getting to see through the author's eyes?

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Readings, Again

I've posted about them before, but I've got literary readings on the brain again. I gave one last week, then went to another last night, and there was one at Rhian's bookstore this afternoon. Last week's reading was a university affair (me and two colleagues) and took place in a lecture hall. Last night's was delivered by four graduate students in a record store. Today's was similar to that one.

I have to confess, I'd gotten sick as hell of the things. Around this time two years ago, I would have been happy never to have to attend one ever again. But I dunno--since then, I've really enjoyed some amazing readings, from both published writers and students. I don't think I've changed all that much--I think it's the readings that have changed. The mood of the people who attend them, and the way people talk to each other afterward.

There are specific reasons for this here in Ithaca. At school, our department received an anonymous grant to raise the profile of our series, and as a result, we've been able to publicize more, and draw more interesting writers. The grad students' series used to take place in Goldwin Smith, the English department building, but they moved it downtown to the record store, and now people get to wander in from the street, instead of having to drive up to campus and park. The town-gown border has been blurred a bit. And this other reading, the one today, was I believe an extension of a new local literary magazine.

So we've had a convergence of good fortune and positive energy here. But I'm wondering perhaps if the literary reading itself, in America anyway, is entering a kind of golden age. In much the way that the self-destruction of the record industry (and the parallel devaluation of recorded music) has rendered the live concert more central to the experience of contemporary music, maybe the ongoing implosion of literary publishing is driving the story to the streets.

Just maybe. If you've read this horrifying post at Literary Rejections On Display, you may, right this moment, be considering just how close to the suicidal edge commercial publishers are presently teetering, and wondering what the new literary order might be.

Perhaps it will involve people coming out of their houses and watching each other make fools, or heroes, out of themselves in front of microphones. Increasingly, I hope so. Everyone seems a little more relaxed to me these days, now that they're no longer expecting six-figure advances. They appear to be actually enjoying their cigarettes and beers as they consume them, and to be listening to others without malice. Again--that's just a snapshot of my hermetic little world. But wouldn't it be nice?

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Being Negative

I recently got the news that the bookstore I work in, a really great independent one, thirty-some years old, is probably going to close in the next couple of months. Even though I knew that this was always a possibility, and that it was probably an inevitability, I'm still shocked. I thought that if any town could support an independent bookstore, Ithaca -- town of 50,000 students and their professors -- could. But as it turns out: no. Selling a carefully chosen selection of books in a non-warehouse-sized store is thing of the past. The expense is too great; the profit too small.

But it stinks. It REALLY stinks. Ithaca has shops that sell bongs and incense and Bob Marley tee-shirts; it has a shop that offers only high-end kitchen ware; it has about fourteen RiteAids. But not one teeny little independent bookstore? Not any more.

What's the point in even living in town if it's exactly like every other town? You might as well be a brain in a jar hooked up to the internet.

It makes me angry that the citizens of Ithaca have decided that buying books from the big boxes on the strip or from the internet Gargantua is preferable to buying them from a locally owned store. Or maybe they're not buying books at all. Maybe they're just reading blogs.

I do try to stay positive. I'm for books and literature, not against anything else. I love the internet. But I don't want to live all my life here; I want to be able to walk into a store and see the people I like and say Hello and what have you read lately? I love buying a book and carrying it to the little grocery next door and getting a cup of soup and walking across the street to the park and sitting there with my book and soup and feeling a kind of bliss. You can't feel bliss in the Barnes and Noble parking lot, even if you have air conditioning in your frigging car and you shell out for a Flappacheeno.

I've met so many great people at the store. Customers know us, know our schedules, know who to ask if they want a cookbook (not me) or a kids' picture book (not me either).

Oh, well, this is not an original rant. You can argue till the end of time over Convenience and Wide Selection and Discounts versus Knowledgeable Clerks and Interesting Selection and Local Dollars. But I guess this latest development has undermined my basic optimism. Ithaca without Bookery II is a lesser town. There's no good side to it.

(Undermined, but not destroyed: I secretly believe that the B&Ns and Borderses will self-destruct a few years down the line and commercial rents will plummet and more great books will be published in paperback by small presses, and we'll be living through another Renaissance...)

Meanwhile, I have other business to attend to. Just got a batch of new chicks:

And there are seedlings to transplant:

Oh, yeah, and books to read.....

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Audio Podcast: Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, Ernesto Quiñonez, and me

This is the interview that I referred to in the previous post. It is now available for download at the Writers At Cornell Blog, and features poet Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon (author of the collection Black Swan), novelist Ernesto Quiñonez (Bodega Dreams, Chango's Fire), and me, being interviewed by three Cornell Lecturers in English (Stephanie Gehring, Jon Hickey, and George McCormick). It's about 45 minutes long and sounds neat, having been recorded on the stage of a large auditorium...we discuss (as I mentioned) writing as subversion, the influence of music on literature, childhood favorites, and the literary reading as a performance. Check it out!

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Writing and Rebellion

With any luck, tomorrow I will be posting a new interview in the Writers At Cornell podcast series. It features a couple of my colleagues, and myself, being interviewed by three lecturers in English. You can listen to the whole thing then, but one topic came up which I've been thinking about ever since our conversation.

That is, writing as a form of rebellion. All three of us seemed to regard it as such, although for all of us the sentiment appeared personal, rather than as a kind of doctrine. One of us grew up in a religious southern black family; another in working-class Spanish Harlem; another in white, middle-class suburbia, and in a way, each of us, in our work, was and is reacting aggressively to the world around us.

I'm the suburban kid, of course. My childhood was pretty great--family harmony, pleasant enough town, not a ton of money but enough to get by without worrying too much. But even for me, writing was a form of escape and rebellion. It was something I was always OK at, that teachers told me I could do--but I didn't really get into it seriously until I was in college, and was expected to enter into some kind of prestigious and lucrative career. My parents were never against writing, per se, but they weren't too crazy about the idea, not until I started publishing. They had been good to me when I was a kid, but a little inflexible, like a lot of parents, and writing felt like a shot across the bow of people's expectations for me, especially theirs.

When I was young, the approval of adults meant a lot to me. I deeply desired the ratification of authority. Writing was the only rebellion of my entire life (unless you count, as I did in the interview, wearing jeans to high school). And it still is. In general I like getting along with people, and tend not to rock the boat, but when it comes to writing, everyone can just go fuck themselves. That's my territory.

I guess I'm wondering if writing, good writing, has to be an act of rebellion, even if that rebellion is vanishingly small and personal. One has to rebel, perhaps, against others' expectations, against one's own inertia. You can comb your hair and wear your necktie, but you need to keep a revolutionary close at hand, a little John Brown of the soul, a MicroChe.