Thursday, May 27, 2010

New Franzen story

So what do you all think of this new Jonathan Franzen piece in the New Yorker? I assume it's a novel excerpt from his forthcoming (fall) book.

Personally, I like it a lot. I love the way Franzen infuses ordinariness with such nervous energy...the characters feel familiar and highly specific at the same time. He is very good at hapless people, people who are weird but not weird enough to get any kind of credit for it. And lately, perhaps because my kids are getting older, perhaps because of the time I spend teaching, I have really been enjoying reading and writing stories about teenagers.

There is a point to this post, though, and it's to complain about the one thing I don't like about this story. (Spoiler coming, so stop reading if you care.) As soon as the protagonist, Patty, is raped, and her mother reacts the way she does, the end of the story becomes a foregone conclusion. Patty is going to cave into her family's wishes and not press charges. I begged Franzen, in my head, to end the story differently, but no dice.

It isn't just that I wanted to see the girl fight--though that is certainly so. It's that this is such an overly familiar plot and character device: the character who chooses inaction, and whose emotions go unexpressed, only to emerge transformed somewhere else. Maybe this is why I favor crime fiction these days, even when it isn't written so well--to read about characters who do stuff. We literary writers rely heavily, too heavily I think, on the use of thwarted desires and suppressed impulses to move our characters. We populate our stories with losers, misfits, and weirdos. We encourage our readers to get their nerd on--and maybe that place is getting a little too comfortable for my generation of writers. Maybe we've wrung a little too much sympathy out of our readers.

I'm not trying to get on Franzen's case here, in part because this character is probably much more nuanced in the novel, in part because I do love to read his take on these emotions and situations. But, as I've said many times, the failings that bother me in other writers are always the ones I myself am most guilty of. That novel I junked last year didn't work mostly because the protagonist was a squirrely, thwarted, "lovable" dipshit. Franzen is good at this kind of character, but I've gotta move on.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Story party

Rhian had a really good idea a couple of months back--she would throw me a 40th birthday party, and insist that people bring, in lieu of gifts, a short anecdote to tell. The party was last night, and the stories were great. And luckily people brought booze, too.

The interesting thing was, only a handful of the people invited were writers, and all but two of them left before the stories got started. Almost everybody was a Narrative Nonprofessional. And the story hour was easily as riveting as a good episode of The Moth or This American Life. We had a guy hanging on for dear life all night on a sheer rock face while standing on one foot. We had an ornithologist lost in Alaska, mistaken for a lesbian, and reeking of gasoline. We had a summer job at a junkyard, a harrowing visit to Palestine, a rock star forgetting all his songs, and a Hungarian epistolary lunatic. Some of these people, you would ordinarily have to twist their arm to get three words out of them--yet, given the opportunity to tell a great story, they had no trouble at all.

I'm not going to make a case here for the universality of narrative, yada yada yada. Maybe I'm only attracted to potential friends who are good entertainment. But I am shocked at how much more interesting everyone is than they think they are.

Of course, it was a special occasion--asked to do this weekly, a lot of people would probably balk. But maybe this is something everyone ought to do every few years--go over somebody's house, get a little drunk, and testify. We recommend you try it.

Photo: Rhian cooked all the food, out of Andrew Sean Greer's guerilla party guide Cooking For The Criminally Insane. You can count on a future favorite-obscure-cookbook post from one of us.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Take a novel workshop with JRL

A quick post here, for quick consideration. There are still a couple of spaces open for the novel workshop I am teaching at this summer's Colgate Writers' Conference, June 20-26. If any W6 readers have a bit of extra dough, a decent-sized novel chunk, and a hankering for a fun week of litty shenanigans in the rolling hills of upstate New York, drop me an note, jrobertlennon at gmail, and I will refer you to the organizers. Thanks!

Monday, May 17, 2010

The shape of a career

At the moment I am simultaneously working on two magazine articles, each requiring me to assess not just a book, but (briefly) a writer's entire career. The writers in question are both prominent, both widely published, read, and appreciated. And yet neither, I think, enjoys a full appreciation of their career--its real scope, with all its twists and turns, its eccentricities intact.

In one case, the writer had one smash hit, and one notorious book everyone hates. In the other, the writer has somehow become known as the author of one really serious book that gets taught a lot in college classes, and a bunch of other stuff generally thought to be a little bit frivolous. But close readings of each (hell, not even that close) reveals these reputations to be woefully inadequate. Both writers are much more interesting than their hits and bombs would suggest. Indeed, the famous books aren't even the best ones, and the bombs are the most interesting of all. (We should all have such bombs.)

It's one thing to read, say, a novel closely. That's the least you should do. But you don't really understand a novel fully until you've examined its context--its place in a stream of developing themes, ideas, and stylistic motifs. I am actually a little bit embarrassed not to have already noticed what I'm noticing now about these writers. They are both better, broader, and stranger than I thought.

The tragedy of all this is that a writer has no control over any of it. It's bad enough that we can never quite get a novel right--try getting an entire life right! As for these two, they are still writing--quite vigorously, in fact--which complicates things even further. They are moving targets.

Perhaps the writer whose career can be neatly summarized, or already is, has already failed. Maybe it's the mystery and misdirection that makes them interesting. Or maybe that's just the thesis that will keep me writing about them.

image: "Book Cell" by Matej Krén. Click for link.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Free e-book: JRL's Video Game Hints, Tricks, And Cheats

OK, folks, here it is: version 1.0 of my e-book, Video Game Hints, Tricks, And Cheats: Essays, Exercises, Riffs, Gags, And Other Incidental Writings. You can download it at my website in either EPUB or pdf formats. I suspect the EPUB is only really suitable for iPad at the moment; I tried it on a couple of computer-based readers (Adobe Digital Editions and some Linux thing) and the formatting ranged from Almost Right to Not Right At All. But it looks good on the iPad for sure. To install it on iPad, download into your computer's e-books folder, drag into iTunes, and sync. The book will appear on your iBooks shelf. (You can't download EPUB directly from Safari to iBooks yet.)

The pdf, on the other hand, will look good on whatever will display a pdf, but you won't get to do the neat little webby shenanigans you can with EPUB, like changing the font and text size. Eventually I will buy InDesign CS5 and make the EPUB universally readable, but that's the future.

The book itself is a collection of random, mostly comic writing from the past dozen years, including pieces published in Harper's, Granta, The Los Angeles Times, McSweeney's, and elsewhere. Most of the pieces here are available on the "Read Online" section of my website, but quite a few have never been seen before.


Saturday, May 1, 2010

The e-book and definitiveness

Okay, I'm coming pretty close now to having my free e-book ready to go. I've been grappling with the kind of stuff experienced copyeditors can do in their sleep--consistency of punctuation, formatting, and style--and if I know myself well, I know that soon I will have to just throw up my hands and put it out there.

This got me thinking, though. Unlike every other thing I have ever published in my entire life, what I put up for download doesn't have to be a definitive edition. Indeed, if a writer has sole control of a work, and the work can be updated and uploaded at will with a few mouse clicks, then is there really any justification for declaring it to be finished?

Well--sure. As I've written before (indeed, in an essay that will be in the e-book called "Limping To The Finish"), one declares things finished in order not to spend the rest of one's life agonizing over them. And readers, of course, don't want the novel they're reading to change as they read it (see Stanislaw Lem, "Vestrand's Extelopedia in 44 Magnetomes"); they want to enjoy a complete, fully realized work. At least most of them do. I do.

But as this work is a loose collection of incidental writing, a genre I intend to continue writing in, and which is unlikely to appeal to a print publisher, why should it be definitive? Indeed, it's as much like a piece of software as it is a book. I could update it occasionally in new editions--or I could update it constantly, with version numbers. If I want to keep thinking about it every day for the rest of my life, that is.

Which of course I don't. But I do like the version numbers idea. I doubt I am riding a wave that will destroy definitiveness forever, but I do think that some books, in this new format, will benefit from having looser standards for completion, perhaps mine among them.