Friday, May 30, 2008

Labors of Love

I was talking to a friend last night about a local musician we both like. This guy started playing guitar and singing somewhat late in life, and despaired that he was never really going to be able to do either well. And in fact, when you hear his stuff, he doesn't strike you as being a hugely talented musician--his voice is rough-edged, his playing is unvirtuosic.

But man, the guy just does not sound like anybody else. What obviously happened is that, instead of cultivating "talent," he cultivated the part of himself that knew it could make music. As a result, his music lacks many of the things you expect it to have--instead it has these other things, inimitable things, stuff that comes from him, and from nowhere else. He couldn't imitate, so he made up his own rules.

I have a real fondness for people who are self-taught, who discover things in themselves that aren't visible to others. Great writers, I think, bring more than just their skills to the table--they bring something that's impossible to define, something that in fact defines them. They bring their personalities.

"Talent," I believe I've said before, is overrated. When we talk about teaching creative writing, we speak of "nurturing talent," but that's not really what we're doing. I think what we're doing is trying to help unusual people refine their peculiarities so that others can appreciate them--without, that is, accidentally refining them out of existence. This is what people are talking about when they complain about "MFA fiction"--they're referring to polished stories that are the product of de-peculiarization...or perhaps the result of attempting to refine something that was already gone.

We're all weird. Some of us, however, are more in love with our weirdness than others, and it's these people who develop reputations for distinctive work. For me, writing is often a process of wrangling my peculiarities--trying to drag them into the light, trying not to scare them off. Personally, I've always gotten off a little too much on other people's approval. I spent my teen years doing the opposite of what most cool people did--I basically tried very hard to fit in, and do what was expected of me. I got good grades and didn't get in trouble.

But the older I got, the more I felt as though I'd willingly snuffed out what was most enjoyable about being myself, and when I started writing seriously, I started trying to figure out where I put everything strange and unappealing, unpacking it, exploiting it. Everything I wrote was crap, of course--I hadn't been friendly with my quirks for some time. But eventually I managed to get some of that stuff back.

I still feel as though my writing is too predictable, too contoured. But to reach too hard for strangeness is to write something false. Nobody can really define "authenticity," but everyone can tell when it's missing--there is only so far I can push it before I sound like I'm pushing it. There's only so much oddness I can trot out before it becomes a tic.

"Be yourself." Can you think of a more exhausted cliché? Everybody knows you should be yourself. The trouble is in figuring out what that is, and then not being afraid of it. When writing's bad, that's often why.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Book Decor

Because I spent the evening covering all my new little sprouts with mason jars to protect them from the frost predicted tonight (I lost a bunch of squash plants to an unpredicted frost last night) and fuming about the cold, dry, wacked-out weather (though we're grateful not to have to deal with tornadoes) I thought I'd just do a little post, with this link from BoingBoing: books as decoration. You can order books by the foot or yard to fill out your library, though they're apparently not in English, so you can't actually read them. I like the idea of the sun-faded ones, for a "Zen" look.

Actually, I like this. I wouldn't do it myself, because how annoying would it be to have a bunch of books you couldn't even read?? But books are beautiful. There's a reason the Pottery Barn catalog has books in almost every furniture-porn shot, and it's only partly snob appeal. Books make a room look useful, and thoughtful, and lived in. Yeah, if you order books by the yard, it's a lie. But they still smell good.

Books as a prestige item? Heck, I'm not goint to argue with that.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Is Fiction Important?

It was with a familiar kind of despair that I picked up the Times Book Review last week and discovered what might be a record low for the amount of fiction and poetry reviewed in an issue--two works of fiction, one poetry, and scads of nonfiction. Maybe I'm blowing smoke out my ass, but I think this tendency began in the Charles McGrath era--McGrath doesn't really care much for literary fiction, and considered nonfiction to be the arena of "important" books, and this was reflected in his choice of books to review--and seems to have been maintained in his absence. (I should disclose that my own relative pooh-poohing by the NYTBR has indeed contributed to my disappointment with it--all my stuff has been reviewed either in Books In Brief or not at all.)

There's an argument to be made that nonfiction--books of knowledge of things, works of journalism, collections of facts, of information--addresses more immediately, more clearly, and more thoroughly than fiction, the problems and delights of our age. Novels and stories, when they tap into the zeitgeist, usually do so subtly, insidiously, and often apologetically; nonfiction, meanwhile, is there to take the bull by the horns. It serves a social and intellectual purpose. Its usefulness is obvious.

But, looking back, it's novels that taught me much of what I know. Not facts--those I learned from the Encyclopedia Britannica, which I read voraciously throughout my childhood, and from various Time-Life books (the one on weather's the one I remember best), and from Asimov on Numbers, and from Omni magazine. No, I mean that novels taught me how to live--how other people live, or how they might live; why people do things; the crazy things they do. Novels alterted me to the types of erudition I should seek in order to become a fuller person. They didn't teach me history, but they told me what history is--how people from then and there are different from, yet exactly the same as, people from here and now. In the void left by the childhood religion that failed to satisfy me, fiction taught me an ethics I could live by. It taught me about sex and death (actually, put both in Stephen King's column). From Ayn Rand, I learned to be an idealist; and from Tolstoy and Chekhov I learned not to be the kind of idealist in Ayn Rand novels.

Nonfiction made me a more informed person, and there's no denying the importance of that. But fiction made me a larger person, a more understanding person, a kinder and more decent person. Fiction helped me to understand, or at least try to understand, others' motivations. It stripped away the childish tendency to rush to judgement. It allowed me to lay down my armor and face the world with my most vulnerable self.

Of course...I turned out to be a novelist. So duh. But I think it's the same for many readers. The trouble is that fiction doesn't pay dividends right away--the best stuff sinks in slowly and deeply. And this is not a valuable quality in a publishing environment that considers a three-month-old book dead and gone.

As for the NYTBR, what're you gonna do? As this blog has often said, the novel's cultural cachet is at low ebb--you can hardly blame 'em. Can something so big, slow, and dorky ever recover its place in our easily distracted world? As far as I'm concerned, the point is moot--I'll keep on doing it no matter how passe. But I'd sure like to see fiction back on top in my lifetime.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

New York Times on Blogging

I'm not sure I need to bring more attention to the Times's article by and about the blogger Emily Gould, but what the hey. It's a long, loooong essay about blogging for Gawker and what it did to her social life. No, really, it is. It's also the cover story for this week's magazine. When the Times published it on their website a few days ago, it immediately racked up more than 500 comments, most of which were the "What has the Times sunk to?" variety.

Well, as we know, the Times sank to much greater depths not too long ago. So putting a giant content-free bag o' fluff on their home page is no great betrayal of their reputation or anything. I like blogging, I think blogging is interesting and fun, and I think it has a lot of largely untapped potential. But I don't get the appeal of this kind of blogging -- blogging about celebrities, gossip, and one's earring holes -- at all. I suppose I can understand why someone would want to do it, but why read it? I thought we were all, you know, pressed for time and everything.

I guess that's my feeling about the article, what I'd say in a comment at the end: more power to Emily Gould for figuring out a way to make a living writing. You go, lady! This stuff isn't any more trivial and fluffy than the rest of our popular culture -- Gawker is People Magazine for a younger, snarkier generation. I think so, anyway. I've followed links there several times but never quite figured out what it was all about, what's at the center of it. Maybe I'd get it if I lived in Manhattan.

What does bug me is the way Gould's kind of blogging -- gossip blogging, really -- has come to represent all blogging in the public imagination. Because it's self-absorbed and confessional and catty, all blogs have to fight that reputation. When anti-blog snobs decry the shallowness and essential badness of blogs, that's what they're thinking of. They're not thinking of Talking Points Memo or Hullabaloo or Condalmo or Moonlight Ambulette and so on (see blogroll for more goodies), all of which address their subjects with great thoughtfulness and intelligence. And best of all, they actually have subjects.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Updike's "The Full Glass"

I was reading the New Yorker this afternoon and suddenly got the crazy idea that I should actually read the new Updike story. Don't get me wrong--I like Updike. But the Updike I like is the Updike of book reviews, incidental (and highly erudite) essays, the Henry Bech stories, and Of The Farm. That's about it. I tried the first Rabbit book three times and got hung up in the same place every go-round: when women first appear.

That's the thing I don't like about Updike, when I don't like Updike. I've never read a memorable woman character in his stuff. They might be in there--I've hardly been through the whole oeurve--but by and large, they are not his forte.

This new story looked pretty good to me at first--an old man is taking his ritual drink of water one evening, and he reflects upon the concept of fullness--the times in his life when he has felt full. He begins with memories of water itself, and these are interesting, and seem to be leading up to something.

And then the something comes--it's an affair!

I certainly don't object to this topic in fiction. It's a common life experience, I suppose. But when Updike does it, it's always with this sense...not of privilege, exactly, but of inevitability. His characters talk about their affairs as though having an affair is an expected, even required, rite of passage in a man's life; there are always some earthy and poetic little riffs about fuckin'; and the women--both the mistress and the wife, who here is always referred to as "the wife"--are boring as shit, and ultimately pathetic.

And this "the wife" thing. Updike's narrator is an asshole--we're not supposed to love the guy--but the defiant way he weilds his little slights is terribly precious, and it bugs me how much Updike enjoys making his flawed men coddle their masculine foibles. When Philip Roth does philandering, it's big, wild, funny, creepy, and explosive. When Updike does it, it's masturbatory and redundant.

I guess what I'm complaining about, ultimately, is the way Updike's characters are men and women first, human beings second. I find this approach tiresome. The gender wars were over before he even started growing hair in his ears--can he find a new hobby horse already? When Updike doesn't have sex on his mind, he's as good as they come; when he does, he's the worst. I can't think of another writer like this, whose attention to a single topic so completely saps his usual artistic vitality.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Pen Names

A commenter on my last post (hi Diana) mentioned that Joyce Carol Oates also writes under the name Lauren Kelly, so her prodigious productivity is actually greater than it appears. I think she also writes under yet another name, Rosamund Something, does she not? (Wikipedia says Rosamond Smith.) The other day I was putting some thriller titles into our database and I thought the names seemed wonky, like "Douglas Preston" and "Gwen Hunter" and "Manning Coles." I thought, Who are these people really? Does Thomas Pynchon write thrillers between literary block busters? Or maybe Stephen King -- we know about Richard Bachmann, but are there other personalities? Maybe there are only a handful of super-productive writers out there, each with a list of aliases as long as their arm.

This might be truer than one would think. I once read an article about a science fiction writer who couldn't sell any more books because her sales figures weren't so great. So she added an initial and sent the book out again. Apparently, publishers would look up her name on a database, see the sales figues and pass, but the system considered a name with an initial a whole different name. So she got a fresh start and sold the book. And three books down the line, had to change her name again. Still!

I've often thought I'd like to write under a different name. Would my writing be noticeably different, I wonder, if an alter-ego were writing it? It would be nice to dodge the burden of who I think I am. Unfortunately I can't think of a good name. The easy way to go would be to take my middle name and my husband's last name: Margaret Lennon. Not terrible, but a bit drab. She's too much like me. How about Penelope Vinewinder?

No, I would definitely pick a man's name. Not a tough guy name (not Brad Gunn or Ted Armantrout) but a sensitive guy's name: Elliot Sands. Timothy J. Fern.

Small pet peeve: why do book jackets so often reveal the true identity of an author's pen name? Well, obviously, it's to have it both ways: get the name recognition of the established author without the expectations. Still, I think a pen name should have to go the distance. An alter-ego should have to struggle like any other new writer, not float in on the reputation of someone else.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Editing and being edited

Years ago, I sold a story to a Prominent Publication. I liked my editor there, but in addition to her edits I received, through her, the editorial edicts of the Big Editor, who I never actually spoke to. The story changed a lot during this process, and by the end, most of the edits were coming not from my editor but from the B.E., and they were making less and less sense with every pass.

I asked my editor what the hell was going on. "It's B.E.," she told me. "He says you're...a good reviser."

In the end, I put my foot down when B.E. threatened to delete my favorite paragraph in the whole story. This small rebellion was accepted without complaint, and the story ran, much changed, but still mine. There were a few days there, though, when I believed there could be no worse fate than being a "good reviser," and a vowed not to be so pliable in the future.

I didn't keep my vow, though. I am pliable. I'm the kind of person who, after talking on the phone with you for half an hour, will adopt your accent and patterns of speech. I'm pretty good at parodies and other forms of literary mimesis, and I'm highly susceptible to editorial suggestions.

This novel I'm revising was a lot different when I first wrote it. I had a "vision" for it. And, you know, being an artist, I figured, what could be more important than my "vision"? Then people started hinting to me that my vision sucked. They were right--so I changed it. Is this, then, a lapse in integrity? Is it a violation of the purity of my work?

I don't think so. I think an art work is a flexible thing. I'm not one of those people who believe that if you changed a single word of Moby-Dick it would be ruined. Indeed, Moby-Dick could be drastically different, still be terrific, and still pretty much be Moby-Dick. It changes in your memory--your Moby-Dick is not the same as mine--and it might as well be changed on the page, too. I also think there are an infinite number of ways of achieiving even a worthwhile "vision,"and, in the end, your editor might even know better than you how to successfully achieve it. And even when your editor is way off the mark, his suggestions, misguided as they might be, are liable to be exposing problems you hadn't noticed. Your solution might be better than his, but without him, you wouldn't have known what problems to solve.

I suppose I'm making a case for the usefulness of editorial input, and the inherent malleability of artistic endeavor. When I sit down to begin a new story or novel, I have a perfect picture in my mind of what it will be like. And then I start writing, and the picture is shattered forever. A first draft, I've come to understand, is a primordial ooze--the raw material from which the real work must be coaxed. And the coaxing process is often exhausting. Why not accept help?

In my view, the work has a life of its own, or should. It isn't your slave--it's more like your pet. You can train it to do some things, but there are certain habits you'll never cure it of, and certain talents you'll never be able to bestow upon it. Or maybe it's some kind of magic spell--you might think you created it all by yourself, but it draws its energy from the world around it--forces flow into and out of it seemingly without your assistance. If the work is published, people will comment on "themes" or "motifs" that you don't remember putting in there--that, in fact, you didn't put in there. These things are the work's personality. Accept and enjoy them. And listen to your editor.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Are You Buying Fewer Books?

So it looks like my bookstore isn't quite giving up the ghost yet. Which is good for me, since I have no other job skills, and also good for Ithaca. I have to say, though: where did all the customers go? The last couple of months have been deadly dull. No one comes in! No rousing chit chat. No nothing. Does it have anything to do with that $3.96 we're paying for gas around here?

How about you? Are you buying fewer new books? Is this a temporary trend, or a long-term one?

I've cut back a bit, mostly because I'm putting all my cash into my garden this month. But I've read some good stuff. The new O. Henry Awards collection isn't bad; I bought it because there's a story by a guy I know in it (Alexi Zentner, who's a student at Cornell and one of the stalwart Bookery II customers) and an Alice Munro story. Haven't read Alexi's yet, Munro's is good, of course, but I was quite taken by Michael Faber's "Bye Bye Natalia," about a Ukranian woman who's trying to decide whether to become a mail order bride. I liked it so much I bought his collection of stories, Vanilla Bright Like Eminem. I think that's an awful title, but it shows some guts.

Also, did anyone else read the Joyce Carol Oates story in the new Harper's? It's called "Suicide by Fitness Center" and it's creepy, especially knowing that JCO's husband recently died. I have mixed feelings about her, and think she ought to write more slowly and let someone else have some shelf space, but when she's good she's awfully good.

Friday, May 16, 2008

By its cover

I had the pleasant experience this week of seeing some first-draft mockups of the cover of my forthcoming novel (this isn't a promotional blog, but I doubt I'll be able to resist an announcement when it comes out next've been warned). They looked good--my editor and I made a few suggestions and sent them back for another round.

But aside from being pleased that the whole publication process was underway, I felt kind of odd. I've felt this oddness before, with my other book covers, and I feel it whenever a favorite book of mine is reissued, with a new cover.

We're often told not to judge a book by its cover--the old cliche, of course, means that we shouldn't judge things by their surface. But the fact is, we DO judge books by their covers. Walking into a bookstore is deeply meta for me--having been through the publishing wringer half a dozen times, I'm hyper-aware of the ways in which publishers are attempting to entice me to pick up their books. But this doesn't immunize me from those enticements. I absolutely pick up books with interesting covers, and should I go on to read those books, the images on the covers will color, however subtly, the way I read them.

So the oddness I refer to is the oddness of seeing a cover after I already know the book--and feeling as though it doesn't quite fit. In the case of my forthcoming book, I've had a cover in mind for about a year, and although my publisher asked what kind of cover I wanted (a rare privilege, I can tell you), and more or less listened to what I said, the cover the book will eventually have will not be quite right. It can't be. Even if I designed it myself, it wouldn't be right--because the cover I have in mind has hidden depths. It's layered, magically, almost. It can't exist.

Occasionally a book I've read will come out as a reprint, and I won't like the new cover at all. What I generally feel at this point is betrayal. A novel is different from, say, a movie, in at least one important way: because it's nothing but text--that is, a series of symbols with no inherent meaning--it depends upon its reader to create the story it tells entirely in her head. I think this is one of the reasons people have such deep, abiding, sentimental attachments to books--because they feel a book is their book. And it is, because they made it themselves.

And so, any kind of visual representation of a book--a cover image, say--feels like some kind of an insult. No, no, you want to say--it's not that way, it's this way. This is even more true when you wrote the damned thing. Have you ever heard a writer say, of his or her book, "Don't you love the cover? I think it's awesome." This is a rare occurrence, to be sure. No matter how good the cover is, it's wrong somehow--too dark, too cute, too busy, too spare, to bland, too designed.

The converse, as I mentioned, is when you see the cover first, and then come to associate the book with it. Infinite Jest, that's one, for me. All of Salinger's books, with their little stripes and distinctive typeface. The blocky, kind of awful illustrations on the covers of Rick DeMarinis's novels and story collections. Lorrie Moore's Birds of America. The Norton critical editions of classic literature, with those old-school one-color illustrations. Penguin Classics. The New Yorker. All the Audubon Society Field Guides. It is the habit, these days, of commercial publishers to have one cover for the hardcover edition, and another for the paperback, presumably to win a different audience the second time around. But do they ever wonder how the first audience feels? The one who already read the book, and now are being told that everything they believed in was just a lie?!?

In a perfect world, every book would have the same blank cover, with the title and author printed on it in the same typeface; and we would all make our judgements by reading the first couple of pages. Then again, maybe that's not a perfect world. Maybe that's a boring-as-shit world--a world in which everybody would beeline right out of the bookstore and go feast their eyes on some flowers, or video games, or other people.

Other people: that's the right metaphor. A book cover is like a pretty dress (or whatever garment floats your boat) that you can't wait to get underneath. And then, when your lover leaves you, and you see her wearing something new, ah!, the pain! Those reprints aren't for you--they're for someone else. Damn those covers! Jezebels! Judases! That's my story you're tarting up!

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Should Writers Be Critics?

If anyone has the time to read down to the end of the comments section of my last post, they'll see among the really terrific and thoughtful reader comments (you commenters make this blog worth doing) that Scott Snyder, author of Voodoo Heart and "The 13th Egg," one of the famous VQR Six, shows up to talk about some of the decisions he made in writing the story. Ack, I feel terrible when I criticize someone and they read about it on the blog, but what am I, stupid? Of course they do. And Snyder is really nice about it, too, which makes me feel worse.

But he provides an important piece of information: that the story was commissioned for an anthology of superhero stories written by writers who don't generally write that kind of thing. Which explains a lot, including the crazy ending. I stand by my point -- that it's not a "character" story -- but the context explains why it's not a character story.

Another piece of significant info: my own spouse and co-bloggist JRL was also solicited for that same anthology. Dammit, now we are in the awkward position of having apparently insulted the editors JR was working with.

It's not that big a world. If I say I didn't like a book, there's a small chance that the author and I have the same agent, or that the author had previously said very nice things about my husband, or that if I ever finish and publish another novel, that author will bring out the big knives for me.

There's also a philosophical hurdle, which I consider very carefully before I leap over it: the idea that writers should support other writers, period. That if they can't say anything nice, they should just shut up. Some writer friends only open their traps to kindly blurb other writers or to write positive reviews, and there is something to be said for this position.

Yet here I keep blathering on, as if the world is graduate school and everything I say will be considered in a dry academic context. Of course it's not school; the world is actually a complicated web of connections, histories, and obligations. Oh yeah, and there's Google. Still. I feel like the discussion of literature and writing shouldn't be left just to critics. Critics have less at stake. This stuff is important to me, and I think it needs to be discussed, and I hope if my own work is ever publically thrashed on a blog I'll have the equanimity to take it with as much grace as Snyder.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Titus Andronicus

Yeah, you know the one. The one where everybody gets their limbs cut off. The one where the scheming Tamora gets her dead sons served to her at a banquent, in the form of a pie.

The CW on this play is that it's among Shakespeare's worst, and it's true that it's no Lear. But it has several things going for it, some of them unexpected. Among the expected things: it's fast-paced, a quick read, and very likely a lot of fun to stage. In addition, its dramatic arcs are many and brief: you reach for the candy, you eat the candy. What the thing is about is not really the point--indeed, at first it seems as though it's going to be another succession drama, and before the first act (possibly the work of George Peele, says The Oxford Shakespeare) is through, it's turned into a revenge free-for-all. Its pleasures are not subtle ones.

But the surprises. Among them is getting to see Titus as a kind of proto-Lear or proto-Hamlet. He goes mad (though not quite mad enough for Tamora's dumbass plan to work), he experiences doubt. He's a warrior gone to seed, a hot-tempered military grunt who has no sense of strategy. You know, like McCain. He doesn't get much good poetry, but he has his moments, and I can see how a good actor, informed by Shakespeare's later plays, could get some decent milage out of the guy.

The character who does get the good poetry is Aaron, the moor. He represents, surprise surprise, the very embodiment of evil; we are still a ways off from Othello (or, as villainy goes, even Iago, for that matter). But he speaks with great nobility and integrity, and without all the asinine mush-mouthed verbosity of, say, Marcus, who, when he sees that his neice is drooling blood, goes on for ten lines or so about how cool it looks.

No, Aaron is a small, brilliant creation. He sires Tamora's bastard child; when she gives birth, she sends it to Aaron via a nurse, who tells him to kill it. Instead, he kills the nurse. At the end of the scene, he carries off the baby, saying:

Come on, you thick-lipped slave, I'll bear you hence,
For it is you that puts us to our shifts.
I'll make you feed on berries and on roots,
And fat on curds and whey, and suck the goat,
And cabin in a cave, and bring you up
To be a warrior and command a camp.

It's worth noting that the baby's almost the only one alive at the end--they even kill the clown.

The great unanswered question that we posed in the hardcore book group about this play is: how on earth did it come to exist? It's clearly Shakespeare's, but it's utterly nuts, and unlike anything else in the oeurve. Personally, I think the guy was just fucking around. He probably wrote the thing in a weekend--or tried to, and ended up getting distracted by the unexpected depth he was bringing to the characters. Not too much depth, mind you--but enough so that he filed it all away for future plays. It's gross, and fascinating.

Friday, May 9, 2008

The VQR, and the Short Story Today

I was very pleased and grateful that Waldo Jaquith and Ted Genoways showed up here to respond to our complaints about their snarky, slush-pile-mocking blog post. I was only somewhat familiar with the Virginia Quarterly Review itself, but had a favorable opinion of it -- a nice-looking mag with many good writers in it. So I wasn't really on board with some of the other complaining going on in the comments at LROD, that, as one commenter said, the stories they publish represent "one type of sensibility."

But editor Genoways took umbrage at this statement and provided links to six stories, saying that if anyone wants to criticize what the journal publishes, they should actually read the stories and be specific. Fair enough. I figured that since I had given them such a rough time of it about the blog post, I should read the stories, too.

So for the last couple days I've neglected my vegetable garden and instead immersed myself in the VQR. To my surprise, I found the stories to be very similar in some important ways, though on the surface they couldn't be more different: four of them are written by international writers and take place in four wildly different countries, and one American story takes place in the future and the other in the past.

Now, before I go on, I should say that I think it's perfectly fine for a magazine to only publish stories with a "particular sensibility." After all, a magazine is a product of its editors' tastes, and if that sensibility appeals to its readers, then the editors are doing their job. So none of what I'm going to say is a criticism of the VQR or a call for them to change what they publish. It's just that I think I've noticed something that applies to these stories, and also to lots of other fiction published these days, and which accounts for this reader's frequent lack of enthusiasm for fiction found in so many lit mags.

This is what it is: a lack of attention to character and a focus instead on culture and outside events. In every one of the VQR stories, though some moreso than others, the main character is a cipher. In "Hotel Malogo," by Helon Habila (perhaps my favorite of all the stories, incidentally) the narrator is a sixteen-year-old boy applying for newspaper or editing jobs in the capital city. Which is very cool and interesting, but that's all we know about him. There is nothing about his past, his psychology, or his desires. The point of the story lies in how he reacts to some violent events that happen in the latter half, but since we have no idea what kind of person the character is, it's hard to know how to interpret what he does. The very ending of this story is excellent, though; the only time when reading these six that I felt moved or surprised or literarily impressed. (I should say five and a half; one story I couldn't finish.)

The other stories, though very different in subject and setting, had a similar tendency to reveal as little character as events would allow, though in one or two of the stories ("Internal Affairs" and possibly "The Thirteenth Egg,") secondary characters are somewhat more filled out. In “Zanzibar” by Beena Kamlani, the lack of development and detail about the protagonist was particularly frustrating. She is a wife of a middle class engineer in India (maybe middle class; it's hard to tell and class in India is so baroque) whose life is improved by an almost magical cook who later leaves, causing the family to fall socially and flee the country. But the wife herself is a big nothing. All we know about her is that she likes to eat. It's frustrating because I know this character has lots of complex and interesting thoughts and feelings about every other character in the story, but the author would rather talk about all the wonderful food.

I don't think every story must be about psychology, or that a story that that skimps on character is necessarily bad. “Hotel Malogo” is quite a good story and most of the others aren't bad. But when character becomes an unimportant part of a story, so do all the things that go along with it: powerful human interactions, voice, humor, and metaphor, or at least the kind of metaphor that develops out of a character's world view. None of these stories had much of a sense of humor or a distinctive way with language.

Mostly what I wonder is: Why? What happened? There's definitely been a change of mood and taste. These stories read like fables or reportage compared to the stories of the 80's and 90's, which were much more voicey, funny, and idiosyncratic. Someone must like the change, but what caused it?

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Future

After a long day involving a flat tire, a missing spare, a cab ride in the rain, and my annual birthday bottle of limoncello, we are in no position to say anything of substance about literature. Luckily, Atrios is:

It's occurred to me recently that all the whiz-bang gadgets predicted either already exist in some form, or are unlikely to exist anytime soon. If one were to write a technology-centric non-dystopian novel about, say, the year 2040, what neato things would we imagine?

I can't come up with much.

Actually, that's an excellent question. I remember reading Kim Stanley Robinson's wonderful Mars Trilogy back in the early 90's, and enjoying its speculations, including a distant future in which people could access their own personal databases of information via a wireless wrist computer. This was a couple of years before the advent of, um...Hotbot? Webcrawler? Anyway, ten years was all it took for this to seem horribly dated. (A bit reminiscent of the Stanislaw Lem novel--Fiasco, maybe?--in which explorers to another planet are recording moving images using an enormous film camera.)

I can't come up with anything, either, aside from time travel, the last great conceptual frontier. Suddenly I'm terrified that science fiction is dead. Steve Jobs killed it. Horrors!

Monday, May 5, 2008

Good writing in unexpected places

Let us leave controversy behind for a moment, and talk about that rare pleasure: reading something that's unexpectedly good. For me, this usually comes in the form of some kind of technical or topical writing that I'm reading for the sake of information--like a product manual, or research material for a novel.

I've praised Peter Forrest's hard-to-find two-volume A to Z of Analogue Synthesizers here before. It's an exhaustive list of nearly every pre-digital-era synth manufactured (and some that were never manufactured, only prototyped), along with the history of its maker, ratings of its key features, and descriptions of its sound. For those of you who are already lost, I'm talking about music synths--you know, keyboards, like the ones people with orange hair used to play in pop videos. Nowadays they are mostly owned by 45-year-old retired dentists in Okinawa, because the damned things have become hugely expensive (I got my handful before prices spiked, natch). Forrest is a passionate, absorbing, and charmingly amused writer, and he knows how to turn even the driest company history into an entertaining anecdote.

Similar in outlook is Jason Schneider, author of the criminally-out-of-print three-volume Jason Schneider on Camera Collecting. A compendium of columns from the defunct (I think) magazine Modern Photographer, Schneider writes with inspired dorkiness about every obscure camera he's managed to get his hands on, and he's gotten his hands on a lot. A highlight is the story of how the Russian FED camera factory got its start as a Communist orphans' home, then somehow managed to start conterfeiting Leicas. Schneider is still writing these columns, now for Shutterbug.

I was shocked to find myself enjoying the hell out of The Doll: New Shorter Edition, by Carl Fox, when I read it cover to cover a few years ago as part of my research for Happyland. The book was Rhian's, one of several she owns on the subject of antique, particularly bisque-head, dolls, and its writing is precise and elegant. Here, in a typical piece of description, Fox might as well be talking about his own writing:

Their silk-embroidered garments may not be as lustrous as they were 150 years ago; their faces are faintly freckled and stained. However, these dolls of the Edo period have a beauty I find irresistible, not only in the detailed perfection of the costume but in the sensitive modeling of each doll's face, in their purity, the poetry of restraint. Even the ears are acutely observed and modeled, revealing a sculptural quality rarely seen in a doll. There are no shortcuts in craftsmanship. The cumulative effect is like the sound of a bronze bell which one continues to hear long after the tolling has ceased.

What can I say--after a while, the dude actually got me, like, into dolls.

Finally, I want to single out Kenn Kaufman's wonderful Lives Of North American Birds, a field guide that is not a field guide at all, but a kind of dossier of amazing characters you're likely never to meet in real life. Kaufman writes with great energy and respect, much as he does in his wonderful birding memoir Kingbird Highway, which I just finished reading the other night. Like all good topical writers, you feel that Kaufman could make you love almost anything. It isn't that I like birds better after reading him--rather, I like living better. That's what good writing does to you, regardless of the subject.

EDIT: Good God, I totally forgot! Our old friend A.J. Rathbun (whom we met through Ed, the Typhoid Mary of friendship) wrote a couple of the best drink books ever, Party Drinks!, and Good Spirits. A.J.'s a poet, and you can tell. His collection Want is also ace.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

On Rejection, Part 2

The comments section of the last post was getting a bit unwieldy, and as I was in the 12th paragraph of a new comment I thought we should maybe just start a fresh post.

The conversation about VQR's publication of their nasty editorial comments has raised some interesting questions. The one that interests me the most, as it is the main reason I brought it up in the first place, is whether writers ought to be able to take this kind of criticism. A commenter named James suggested that writers have an easy job, as jobs go, and should basically quit whining.

He's right, of course. However, this isn't about hurt feelings, mine or anyone's. You know what would be great? If the VQR actually put those comments into their rejection slips. I long for the days when editors were honest and told writers things like, "Quit writing, forever." But no. Instead they claim to have too many submissions to make individual comments (obviously not true, since the VQR even had time to publish theirs) and just send everyone some xeroxed bunk about being sorry, blah blah.

Why do they do this? Because they're chicken. They're afraid if they send out honest comments they'll come back to bite them in the ass. That Planet of the Apes guy? He's actually a professor of comp lit and he'll stop by their booth at AWP. And maybe his wife is on the board of the foundation that funds them. Or maybe they're going to diss the next Stephen King, who'll joyfully read aloud the rejection slip on Charlie Rose in 2011.

The problem with what VQR did, as I see it, is much more subtle than just being mean to writers. Whatever -- there's not a writer in the land who hasn't been called a pussy, elitist, no-talent waste of paper. If we couldn't take it, we'd have quit and gotten jobs in publishing.

The problem is that they displayed, on the blog of their magazine, a complete lack of respect for the process that butters their bread. Clearly, they find the slush pile laughable. But if there was no slush pile, everything in the mag would be by their friends and by the already-anointed (which is largely the case anyway). I think the health of the literary establishment depends on the slush pile -- on the openness of editors and other gatekeepers to finding greatness from the vast and varied masses. It's not easy; sometimes it feels impossible. But in order to have a great literature that kind of openness is vital.

And another thing that bugged me. Waldo Jaquith*, of the VQR website, said it isn't readers of the magazine or of the website they were mocking, it's all those other people who don't even know what you're supposed submit to a lit mag (apparently, stuff just like everything else they've published). So they only want work from people in the know, who send appropriate work. Again: this is death to good literature.

* I previously stated that Jaquith was an editor -- he's not! Sorry, WJ.

Friday, May 2, 2008

On Rejection

Though there is a whole blog that covers this subject exceedingly well, maybe it's time to bring up rejection over here in our neighborhood, especially after LROD's latest post: the Virginia Quarterly Review thought it would be entertaining to put on their website some comments from readers of rejected submissions. Yep. Just what all of us rejected writers (and what writer has never been rejected?) has always suspected: those literary magazines are laughing at us.

Oh, well. If you're going to do something like write stories and send them to strangers, you have to grow yourself a big ass suit of armor. When I was a kid and realized that I wanted to be a writer, and I read all those how-to books, I thought the wall covered with rejections slips was terribly romantic. I couldn't wait to start working on my wallpaper of failure. Man, I collected so many. So many that I developed a Keno-machine type relationship with my mailbox: surely this time would bring the payoff, if not the jackpot (acceptance) maybe enough of a win to keep me pumping in my nickels (handwritten comment at bottom of rejection).

After I'd sold a story or two, and was still raking in bushel-baskets of rejections, my rejection collection began to make me feel queasy. Somehow, the tiny (very tiny!) bit of success I'd had made rejection harder to take. Before, it had been a game, very much like gambling: nothing to lose! Once I'd published some stories, I lost my bravado. It did matter, now. Collecting rejections ceased to be fun, and I more or less quit sending stories to magazines.

Hey, who am I kidding? I know exactly why rejection got harder. Before, when I was unpublished, all those anonymous editors who didn't like my stuff were just idiots, just didn't recognize my wonderfulness. Once one or two of them liked me, I had to stop thinking they were all idiots, didn't I?

Anyway, you can see where this is going. The rejection/acceptance tension is what makes writing such a thrilling career, but also an awful, nauseating one. You put your best self, your most true and honest stuff, out there for people to pick over, pick apart, and, for the most part, toss aside. If you'd crocheted yourself a butt-ugly hat, you wouldn't get snarky editors somewhere saying about it: "barf-o." Writing -- fiction, or freelance -- is just a weird job. (Though visual artists tell me that they have it much worse: they have to stand there in their best clothes at the gallery opening and listen to this stuff in person.)

And here's something else: if you're really successful at emotionally disengaging from rejection, you might suddenly find that you're disengaged from acceptance, too. That's probably the best place to be, just focussed on the work, and not caring so much about its worldly status.

But if you're a writer, and not just a diarist, you want to connect. It does matter if you publish or not. You have to let it matter enough, but not too much. Some of us are better at this balancing act than others.