Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Worst Ending Of Anything In The History Of Ever

"The Mist" has always been my favorite Stephen King story. In it, a lakeside New England town is engulfed in a mysterious mist, which turns out to contain all manner of terrifying--and evidently alien--creatures. The protagonist is a man (in typical King style, he is an artsy type with working class roots) who is trapped in a supermarket with his son and a couple of dozen other people, as the monsters roam outside, occasionally picking off one or another of the minor players. Class conflicts play themselves out in the supermarket; a crazy religious nut gets everybody all riled up, and a small group of cool-headed folks manage to escape to the parking lot and the protagonist's car. They drive off into the mist, hoping to get out of it. At the end, the progaonist reveals that they are still on the run, still in the mist, and that he is writing the story down for anyone who may find it, in case they don't survive.

Rhian and I just finished watching Frank Darabont's movie version. It's very faithful (and features a very fun performance from Marcia Gay Harden, as the religious nut), right up until the end. I'm going to tell you how it ends, now, OK? Are you ready?

The car runs out of gas, so the protagonist takes a pistol and kills everyone else in the car, including his own son. You know, to spare them from the monsters. He wants to kill himself, too, but he's out of bullets. So he gets out of the car to wait to be eaten. Instead, the mist clears, the sun comes out, and rescuers arrive. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!!!!!! He murdered his only child for no reason!

It's a quarter past eleven, and we have to be fresh tomorrow for our big family Thanksgiving, and here I am, wide awake, trembling with rage at this awful, manipulative movie. Rhian's comment was typically incisive: there is something wrong with the state of American narrative. How could this have happened? How could anyone have thought this was a good ending?

Let me lay this out a second. The point of a horror movie, if I'm not mistaken, is not to force you to contemplate the greatest horrors imaginable, and make you miserable. The point, rather, is escapism. When people get killed in horror movies, they're fools. If people in horror movies are shrewd, kind, and hard-working, they survive. Because a horror movie is big dumb fun. It's not about death. It's about abandon. It is supposed to be entertaining.

And this one was, for almost its entire length. It was really entertaining! We even stayed awake all the way to the end. But it turns out it's all a ruse, all this emotional investment that it asks you to make in this band of brave ordinary citizens. It decides to make you empathize with a man who shoots his son in the head and is rescued moments later. Viewer, this movie says: fuck you. Because we hate you. You stupid fuckers, who are so fucking stupid that you can be seduced by a narrative--we hate you. We wish we could shoot you in the head, but then you wouldn't buy popcorn and Coke. Instead, we will work super hard to make you care about characters, and then take them away from you, in a marvelous and highly implausible little act of insane brutality.

Here's something that people should think about--something that comes up in my fiction workshops often. Trick endings are inherently idiotic. Even ones that don't enrage and disgust you. They are cowardly sleights of hand, for writers who lack the confidence to make their books and films be about human beings, and what it means to be one. The trick ending writer would rather burn the theater down than risk making a fool of himself on stage.

A story whose lesson is that life is pointless is not, in fact, a story. It's nihilist propaganda. Inherent in the very concept of narrative is the idea that life is, in fact, worth living. This does not mean that all narratives should have happy endings. It's that those endings, happy or not, should mean something. The ending of "The Mist," the movie, has no meaning. It's the product of some idiot at some script meeting saying, "Awww, all those movies end with the good guy gettin' rescued. Let's be different! Let's be hardcore! We're gonna take this one all the way!" In other words, it's the product of insecurity, of the writer's fear that his ideas are inadequate, that they must be gratuitously subverted, to prove how original he is, how he's not like all those other people, the people who write scripts people enjoy.

If you want a great movie with an very unhappy ending, check out Thomas McCarthy's wonderful The Visitor, a film about injustice, mourning, and human misery that makes you glad to be alive. It is a narrative that is proud to be a narrative, and doesn't feel the need to piss on your shoes as you leave.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Good Enough?

A commenter down below -- Pete -- suggested that my question about life experience was irrelevant because a brilliant writer can make anything interesting. And as for the rest of us, well, there's no hope. He also guessed that there are only about a dozen truly great writers per generation.

In a way he's right. There probably are only a few writers every generation who are universally acknowledged, are taught in schools, and have the staying power to last into later centuries. And it doesn't matter if they're Melville or Conrad out adventuring, or Virginia Woolf at home in bed, or Proust in his corky cell. To them the question of lifestyle is completely pointless.

But I'm not a fan of the Great Man theory of literature. I'll never be Tolstoy, which is too bad, yeah, but I think there's a place for me and all the other non-Tolstoys out there. Because the vast world of literature isn't divided into the great and the non-great; it's much, much more interesting and complex. There are books that aren't brilliant, but are pretty darn good. There are books that are okay, but have a great, unforgettable character. There are books that are pretty mediocre but that you can't, for some reason, put down. There are books that are bad but that get you through a hard time.

When I was 17 I wrote a poem that was published in The Buffalo News (I got $17.50 for it) and a crazy person mailed me a fan letter. I will never be convinced that the poem was any good at all, and I haven't actually written any poems since. But for some reason that bad poem connected with someone. I don't know what it was; maybe the grim industrial imagery? You never do know. Which is all a way of saying that 1) a piece of writing doesn't have to be great to do the essential thing, which is to connect, and 2) life is more interesting with a few bad poems in it.

I don't think everything can or should be published, just because it might be meaningful to someone, somewhere. And in general I think editors should be more picky and writers should be harder on themselves. Still, I would hate to live in world where only Geniuses were published. Because I, for one, don't want to read only the work of Geniuses.

So I guess I'm talking about Good Enough. What's good enough? Argh, I don't know. Leave that for editors.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Just to clarify

From Charles Taylor, in this week's NYTBR:

Part of what I respect about Stephen King — and I suspect it’s part of what drives some of his fellow writers and some critics crazy — is the honesty of that [sic] admission, in this book’s introduction, that he churned out stories for money.

Horseshit. He might have asked an actual writer or two. I have never met a single one who thinks that it is in any way wrong to accept money for writing, or even to write specifically for that purpose.

The thing that actually drives me crazy about Stephen King, as I've written here many times before, is that he's smarter than most of his books--that, if he wrote half as many, they would all be twice as good. And I should know--I've read 'em all. But only a fool would begrudge a popular writer the money that he has earned.

As for Taylor, he'd obviously rather declare writers elitists and snobs, based on an opinion he just made up for them on the spot, than actually find out what they think, and risk disproving a cherished stereotype. Unexamined fantasy nonsense.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Alice Fulton, and poets writing fiction

How many poets can you think of who can write fiction? I don't mean DO write fiction--there are plenty of those. CAN. As in, are actually good at narrative. Ed's a very good fiction-writing poet, actually (and Ed, I read your new story like two weeks ago and still haven't written you about it, but it's good); Denis Johnson was a good poet before he went whole hog for fiction and drama. But most poet fiction is not very good, as fiction. It is often excellent on the sentence level, and sometimes the paragraph level. But most poets don't seem to know how to keep their mind a few pages ahead. They're in the moment, at the expense of the past and the future.

Poet Alice Fulton is a colleague of mine, and she just published her first collection of stories, The Nightingales of Troy. I can't tell you how surprised and delighted I was to discover how good it is. We talked about the book the other day in an interview for the Writers At Cornell Blog. The stories are linked, following four generations of a family in Troy, New York; the prose is intricate and baroquely comic, packed with all manner of period detail. (Were you aware that there was once such a thing as Bayer Heroin Powder?) In a way, this book reads like poet fiction; the power in Fulton's prose is in its self-contained richness. But the stories are real stories, and together they form a larger story that is not quite a novel. Recommended.

(Also, for a sobering look at present-day Troy, check out this piece on Brenda Ann Kenneally's "Upstate Girls" photoessay, with slideshow. And speaking of poets--congratulations to Mark Doty for winning the National Book Award for poetry--couldn't have happened to a better guy.)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Truth

Rhian was working on something interesting recently--a personal essay. This is an unusual activity at W6HQ--we've always been pretty hardcore fiction writers. Back in grad school, we would roll our eyes when another personal essay came down the pike; we used to joke that the Montana license plate should read THE MEMOIR STATE, and the last line of our friend Gerri's bio, when she published her poems in magazines, was "She is not writing a memoir."

At least a little of this anti-essay sentiment was jealousy, I think--I can't speak for Rhian (especially now that she's a traitor!), but in my case, I just don't think I've had the life experience to make it interesting. Oh, my life has been plenty interesting to me. But, as I might have suggested in the comments of the last thread, it's been a life of sitting around making stuff up in my head.

I have tried my hand at a few. I wrote a couple for a Prominent Magazine, but each time the work disintegrated into a series of arguments with the editor, who wanted the essays to end differently. The editor would say something like, "Maybe when it was all over, you thought something like this." I: "But I didn't." Editor: "But maybe you did." In the end, I gave up--if it wasn't going to be true, I didn't want to write it. Period. Those pieces remain unpublished.

Maybe, however, I was wrong. Earlier this year I posted about an argument I had--a flame war, really--on a photography forum about a particular picture I dislike. My argument boiled down to the pedantic idea that a photograph is always a manipulation--that photography is not, in fact, a documentary form. The matrix of artistic choices involved in taking, developing, and printing a picture is so thick that little truth can ever be glimpsed through it. Now, if the photo were overtly fictional (as in the work of Jeff Wall, Gregory Crewdson, Sandy Skoglund, etc.), we could relax and take what truth from it we liked. But the deceptive prospect of objective truth prevents us from actually seeing any truth.

I guess I felt the same way about essays and novels--an essay is never going to be true, so why not just write fiction? But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I oughta loosen up and embrace the winking nontruth of the personal essay. Perhaps readers are grown up enough to have absorbed the impossibility of objective truth in an essay, and in fact consider it a part of what makes reading one pleasurable.

Something tells me I've posted about this before, but it keeps gnawing at me. Whaddya say, should I give in and write some essays?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Life Experience vs. Writing

A teacher of mine once said that if you want to have a lot of big adventures, go have big adventures. But if you want to write, stay home. I guess I've pretty much internalized that advice, at least the staying home part. There is another school of thought, though, that says if your life is boring, your writing will be, too.

Which is true? I worry about this, because I sometimes feel like my range is too narrow, and maybe it's because I never lived in China or dropped out of aeronautics school or had an affair with Spiro Agnew or sold gold futures in Dubai. One of the most persistent feelings I get, actually, is regret that I only have this one life, and I can't, actually, be a psychiatrist in Mexico City or deep sea fisher person or raise sheep in Iceland or even teach math in Indiana. I yam what I yam, and it's not much to write home about. Or write about.

But you know, the novels I love best aren't the ones about a writer's exotic experiences. They're either based on careful and loving attention to ordinary emotions -- like Housekeeping, for instance -- or on book reasearch, like Bruce Duffy's superbrilliant The World as I Found It. I guess what I like is imagination. I like the way the human mind works, and I love being surprised and moved by seeing the ordinary world in a new way.

Exotic experiences ARE interesting, of course. But weirdly, they make boring fiction. At least to me. The place for interesting experiences is the memoir or the essay. If you did a cool thing, tell me about it, but don't *lie* -- make it real, make it true.

Oh, yeah, this could all be me rationalizing, because I hate leaving my kids and my chickens and flying freaks me out. I don't want to get any more weird jobs. I doubt I'll ever hike in Nepal. And though I've done one or two semi-interesting things in my life, I've never figured out how to write about them.

Do writers need to have interesting lives in order to write well? Or do they just need interesting minds?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Is Postmodernism Over?

No, this isn't what you think. Like most of you, I just read Zadie Smith's lovely Times piece, Two Paths For The Novel. And while I haven't read Netherland, and probably won't, I think Remainder is a brilliant, extraordinary book, and I recommend it to everyone I can. Nevertheless, I have to ask if postmodernism is done for. The origin of this question lies, oddly, in John Lanchester's critic-at-large piece in this week's New Yorker, about the collapse of the financial markets. At one point, he's talking about derivatives, monetary abstractions which bear little relation to the assets they are supposed to represent, and the trade of which has contributed hugely to our recent drop over the edge of the earth. Here is the money quote, or rather the poverty quote:

With derivatives, we seem to enter a modernist world in which risk no longer means what it means in plain English, and in which there is a profound break between the language of finance and that of common sense...If the invention of derivatives was the financial world's modernist dawn, the current crisis is unsettlingly like the birth of postmodernism.

The recent crash is entirely self-referential, reminding us that most of the money we've been earning and spending over the past fifteen years has been imaginary. The consequences of the crash, of course, are horribly real.

This phenomenon, coupled with the death of David Wallace, got me thinking that maybe this whole idea is dead. Perhaps we have had quite enough of pretending. And reading Smith's review doesn't do much to change my mind. For one thing, I think that her argument is based upon a false dichotomy. "The two novels are antipodal," she writes, "indeed one is the strong refusal of the other." And yes, these books appear very different. But they are not responses to one another, and they are not opposites. They're two very different personal reactions to a cultural moment, and there is room in the world for both of them, along with the thousands of other books that have been written about that same moment. There are not two paths for the novel. The paths for the novel are infinite.

I don't mean to take Smith to task; in fact, her review is superb, when it hews to the works themselves, their strengths and failings. What I am suggesting is dead (not, I assure you, declaring) is the notion of postmodernism as a discrete area of artistic endeavor. I'm suggesting that maybe it's time to stop betting the house on postmodernism, and admit to ourselves once and for all that it is merely a quality inherent to narrative--indeed, to artistic expression. Hamlet is about writing, Bach's Inventions are about music. And painting has always been about painting. What's perhaps over is not self-referentiality, but our torrid affair with self-regard. Maybe our cultural preoccupation with cultural preoccupation is what made us consider it reasonable to invest all our money in the idea of investing our money. The distinction is semantic, but I think important.

The ideas that make Remainder a great book are real. They are part of how we see ourselves, rather than abstract concepts about seeing. I'm not proposing that Remainder is postmodern, and thus Remainder is dead; I'm proposing that Remainder is realism, and the real encompasses the imaginary, and not the other way around.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Blogger Summit

There may not be a new post this weekend, as we're conducting serious business here at W6HQ: an important summit meeting with Moonlight Ambulette. Our negotiations will have far-reaching effects on the literary blogosphere: Condalmo will be expected to post five times more often than usual, the Rake will be asked to change the name of his blog on a weekly basis from now on, and Ed Champion will be forced to become a restaurant critic. These are all Amy's ideas, of course, we just sat there nodding.

Somehow we found time to enjoy a terrific reading from Amy's new book at The Bookery. She was very funny, and passed around a helpful handout about how to get your novel published. (Hint: live around the corner from Paul Auster.) Thanks to my students for attending, and for the hippie who played the bongos down the hall the entire time: dude, you are awesome.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Brenda Hillman, first impressions, and Blink

So I just got finished reading Blink, Malcolm Gladwell's book about intuition and snap decisions. I'm not going to devote a whole post to it, but it's quite good, in that gee-whiz kind of way that everything of Gladwell's is good, and it's impossible, after reading it, not to go around applying his ideas to everything.

Anyway, there's a story near the end, in which Gladwell discusses the dominance in orchestras, throughout the twentieth century, by male musicians. Even until recently, female musicians were uncommon in major orchestras, and when they appeared it was generally to play "petite" instruments like violin or flute. This has changed lately, though, as auditions now take place behind a screen. Once it became impossible for orchestra directors to see the musicians, women began to be hired in greater numbers. Of course directors believed they were only using their ears--but their prejudices colored their perception.

I brought this up today with poet Brenda Hillman, in our interview for the Writers At Cornell Blog, because I'd noticed something about her reading--something was missing from it. Hillman is a good reader (and a superb poet, by the way), but her poems depend, in part, on the way they're laid out on the page. Some of her poems are underscored by fragmentary stanzas, printed at the bottom of the page in small type. Some of them have large spaces between words, or multiple columns, or unusual punctuation; her latest book has war poems printed in white on black pages. It was a pleasure to hear her read, but it was a greater pleasure to read her.

Hillman's reponse to my comments was interesting; click the link above to hear the interview. But afterward I considered further--many poems, unlike almost all stories and novels, can be visually apprehended all at once, in a fraction of a second. In fact, if they can be, they will be. Poems can tell us how to read them before we've understood a word. And in fact, now that I think about it, fiction isn't all that different; when we're in a bookstore and we pick up a novel, we quickly flip through it to see what it looks like. Is it mostly dialogue? Are the paragraphs long, is the type small? To look at the pages of a book is to see what the weather is like in the world of that book. When you flip through, you're deciding whether or not you want to live there for a while. The content, at this stage, is immaterial. It's a test of how the book feels.

When you write, if you write, do you think about this? What it will look like? I must admit, I never really have, except when trying to do something experimental. I'm always kind of surprised when I get the page proofs for my books--they don't look right. They look like something someone else did.

Anyway, Hillman also talked about political activism and writing, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, and depression. I liked her a lot, and I like her work even more. Check it out.

Thursday, November 6, 2008


Wow. Unreal, isn't it? Listening to NPR's current series of stories whose subject can be summed up as "OMG we cannot freaking believe a black guy is gonna be president," it occurs to me that, in fact, we Ithacans will be ruled almost entirely by women and minorities. We have a black governor (a legally blind one, in fact, who can do a standing backflip); a female Police Chief, Mayor, and DA; and now a President who isn't merely African-American, but whose father is from actual Africa. And, lo and behold, the world is not ending. Amazing!

In any event, NPR is right that the Obama presidency is a milestone in the civil rights movement, and we should celebrate. But Obama's race isn't what makes him most interesting to me. It's his apparent lack of contempt for the country he will be leading.

For the past ten years, the right has become expert at projecting its failings onto the left, and the mantra of the past few months has been that Obama hates America, isn't a real American, isn't loyal to America. This ought to give you a hint of the way the Republican leadership regards you and me. And it isn't merely its opponents that the right despises--they hate their supporters, as well. This is why the party faithful was so horrified by Sarah Palin: she was beloved by the religious fundamentalists without whom the Republicans would never have been in power, and whom the Republicans in power loathe. You know, "the nuts," as Karl Rove used to call them. Remember the expression of pained endurance on McCain's face as the racists at his rally screamed their epithets? McCain couldn't stand those people, and his efforts to endure them took years off his life.

The biggest part of my problem over the past eight years has not been the degree to which I despised the President. It was the degree to which he despised me, and, even more maddeningly, despised his own base. Americans came not only to feel neglected: they quite rightly felt hated. And this is a real problem for a writer. When your leaders feel contempt for you, you can't write about your country as though this dynamic doesn't exist. I've spent these years trying to channel my anger and humiliation. And anger is a blunt instrument--there are only so many things you can do with it. It is artistically limiting.

The best thing about Obama is that he doesn't hate America, or Americans. He certainly doesn't hate the liberals, like me, who elected him. But he doesn't appear to hate the white racist Evangelicals who regard him as the Antichrist, either. Indeed, he doesn't seem to hate anyone. Who knows, maybe he harbors all kinds of resentments that he never expresses, neither in word nor deed. But that hardly matters. What matters is the way he behaves, and he behaves like a guy who intends to be everyone's President, not just his supporters'.

It's impossible to overstate the effect this can have on the national mood. We look to our leaders not to tell us how to act, but to tell us what the parameters of our actions are. Obama will make it OK to love your enemy. No, not "the terrorists." Each other. He truly is a uniter, not because everyone loves him, but because he appears to love everyone. Think about it. He will be the first President who really gets African-Americans. (Clinton didn't do too badly there, but still.) This will give the fearful whites among us an excuse to do the same. We may mock and deride racists, but a lot of them are racist merely out of habit, and could welcome the opportunity to put their fear behind them.

Don't get me wrong. Obama will fuck up sometimes, just like every President. And I suspect he won't be as progressive as I, and other liberals, are hoping. But it will feel good to be irritated with him without having to despise him. It will feel good to be disappointed by him without feeling as though he intends his policy mistakes as personal insults to me and everyone like me. And his successes, which I hope are many, will feel even better. And writing, maybe, won't seem like such a chore anymore.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


If you think there's going to be a serious post today, you're out of your mind. Rhian is a poll worker and will be spending her day at the Varna Community Center (pictured) making sure all goes smoothly on what may be the last year for New York's wonderful mechanical voting machines. (As a lover of vintage technology, I will be sad to see them go, if they every really do.) We live on the end of town where things begin getting a little bit conservative, but I was shocked, on a Sunday drive up through Genoa and Aurora, to see how many Obama-Biden signs festooned the edges of farms. About half. Anyway, as for me, I'll be teaching my classes, hanging out with the kids, and gnawing my fingernails until they bleed.

You'll need something to keep your mind occupied while you wait for the results to come in, so let me recommend this movie, Protagonist, a 2007 documentary about four men, and the ways in which their life stories resemble the ideals of Euripidean drama. The movie consists mostly of interviews with the men--a gay ex-preacher, a kung-fu-teenager-turned-writer, a bank robber, and a German former terrorist--interspersed with bits of actual Euripidean drama, acted out by large wooden puppets. If this sounds strange, it is. The four men are extremely articulate and engaging, though, and their stories are weirdly similar, implying some universality in our experiences of control, violence, and catharsis. Good writerly food for thought on this very distracting day.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

How Fast Do You Write?

Today, finishing the day's NaNoWriMo pages (I haven't put them onto my page at the site yet, nor answered messages there, because the site is incredibly slow) I realized I do all of my writing in one of two gears: Fast or Slow. When I'm trying to write carefully and well, I'm in Slow Gear. I spend huge amounts of time staring out the window, winding my hair around my fingers, erasing, paging through books. I have no idea how long it takes to write a page in this mode; I lose track of time, plus I'm sure it varies. But when I'm doing NaNoWriMo or writing any kind of first draft not meant for the eyes of others, I write at a very specific pace: 15 minutes per page.

If I try to write faster, at a ten-minute per page pace, it's likely not to make sense. Sentence logic falls apart and everything turns into garbled stream-of-consciousness. If I slow down to 20 minutes per page, I find myself trying too hard to make everything perfect, and I slow down even more. For some reason, 15 minutes per page keeps everything running smoothly -- I have enough time to compose, but not quite enough time to think.

However, what I come up with is rarely any good. It takes endless slapping and poking and squeezing to make it workable. Lately -- and this is probably the source of my trouble these last few years, my not-finishing trouble -- is that it feels more productive to write a few more speedy pages than to do the hard work of revision.

JRL tells me it's ALL about revision. I should know this by now, but I never quite believe it.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Terrance Hayes, and messing about with identity

Here's a link to the interview I did with poet Terrance Hayes on Thursday, as part of the Writers At Cornell podcast series. Hayes is the kind of interviewee I like best--quick on his feet and willing to engage any kind of question with enthusiasm (even with, as was the case here, a bad cold). He's the author of three books of poetry and the recipient of half a dozen awards. The books are really excellent; I recommend them without hesitation.

We talked about the evolution of poetic rhythm in his work, the power in repetition, and the lure of popular culture to the poet...but maybe the most interesting stuff he said was on the subject of identity. One of the things I like about Hayes's work is that it creates certain expectations based on what we know about the poet, and what we expect his subject matter to be, and then does a neat little pivot and dumps the reader into uncharted territory. Specifically, he's African-American, and he intentionally employs certain words that allow us to make assumptions about what's to come, e.g., we assume "Hip Logic" will be about hip-hop, and "The Blue Terrance" will be about the blues.

And indeed they are. But the poems in Hip Logic are also about the body (with the hip as its fulcrum), and about the notion of coolness; and the "Blue Terrance" series of poems also turn out to be about sadness, and self-definition, and painting, and other things. He draws you in with safe subjects and then leads you to dark and unusual places, which is where, as a reader, I often most enjoy being.

Anyway, I see Hayes as a member of a new generation of black writers, along with people like my colleague and friend Lyrae Van Clief Stefanon and the novelist Colson Whitehead, who are exploding the racial pigeonhole they might happily have nestled in, in order to create something really new and exciting. They manage to turn readers' narrow expectations into a vehicle for exuberant experimentation. A neat trick, that.