Friday, November 30, 2007

Levels of American Greatness

Thanks to Mr. Champion for pointing out this little scrap of brilliance by Tao Lin in Seattle's The Stranger. He describes the levels of American literary greatness, from the bottom -- self-published blogger -- through the midlist and bestselling ladies, the cool guys, the near-geniuses, and all the way to Philip Roth. Haha! It's very funny and scarily accurate.

And it's nice to see someone come out and say, of the near-genius level, Women rarely attain this level of greatness. Yeah, it's my hobbyhorse. What's that all about, really? Is it something about American women as writers and readers, or about the critical establishment, or about marketing? Francine Prose published a great article about this, "Scent of a Woman's Ink: Are Women Writers Really Inferior?" in Harper's ten years ago, (which I OUGHT to be able to access online since I've been a subscriber since forever, but NO) which, if I recall, pissed a lot of people off just by pointing out that about 80% of all the big awards go to men, and 80% of the names of yearly lists are men's. I was miffed to see that each of the five NYTimes Year's Best Fiction titles were by men -- though I confess I don't know who I'm miffed at, exactly. I wouldn't want them to do a quota thing.

Is it that worthy literary achievements by women aren't being recognized? Definitely: Lydia Davis should have been on that list instead of, well, someone else. But it is also that worthy literary achievements by women aren't happening, too. I've been in writing classes -- taking them and teaching them -- from first grade on up through graduate school, and you can watch it happen: little girls write cirles around the boys, they love writing more than boys and care more about doing it well and produce reams of it. This is true right through college, when boys begin to catch up. And then, by the end of college and into graduate school, something happens: boy writers begin to become more experimental, daring, and confident, and the girl writers begin to self-destruct.

I wish we could figure out why.

(Oh, I have do have a quibble or two with Tao Lin's piece. He says that Don DeLillo and Pynchon will never reach the level of Roth because "they were born in America and their parents aren't Jewish." Hm, I don't think so. Actually, though I prefer the writing of Roth, I think all three are at the same level of "establishment greatness.")

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Realignment

There's something in the air up here at W6HQ, because R. and I are definitely feeling some kind of change. Man, I am bored with the inside of my head. Today was my first day off from work and other obligations for quite a while, and I couldn't even concentrate on reading a book (the new Denis Johnson, which so far I like), let alone writing one. Instead I paced around the house, checked my email over and over, and undertook obscure DIY projects, then got grumpy and unpleasant when everyone came home.

I think--and I am taking these words right out of Rhian's mouth--I am sick of this era and all its delusions. I am ready to embrace the next one, or create it, if that's what it takes. I even have in mind the novel that will represent it--the characters have been pacing in my mind for a few months.

But before that can happen, I have to finish revising the book that the era I can't stand anymore brought into being. It's a peculiar, rather short, unreliable-narrator story about a guy in the woods, and it's kind of about the Iraq war as well; and the first few drafts basically didn't work at all. Rhian, after reading it, actually told me to give up on it. (She knew I wouldn't, though.) I think I know how to do it, but to do so will require that I sop up the last dreggy half-inch of inspiration left in the poisoned well of the past couple of years, and Christ, that doesn't sound too appealing.

And yet I'm excited to start. Classes end this week; I will begin on Monday, if not sooner. There's something about wrapping your arms around a big hairy beast and gradually wrestling it to the ground...the weight of the work feels right, somehow. I am hoping this project will create enough momentum to propel me into this next phase, whatever it happens to be.

Meanwhile I have deleted the entire "Politics" folder from my Firefox toolbar. There is just no point in my keeping track of this crap anymore. Hillary Clinton said today that she would bring Colin Powell onto her advisory team, and reading this, I realized that my mental health would soon begin to suffer if I kept caring about the hopeless machinations of the vain, arrogant, calculating and cowardly. If these wankers want to stick with the glorious Bush years, they can have 'em. In a couple of months, I'll even have a book to dedicate to them. Good riddance!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Writing Identity

So, I'm WAY over that writer's block. But it's interesting: all kinds of new questions rise up. When I was last prolific, I was a late-twenties-something person with only temporary attachments to anything, certainly no kids or mortgages or poultry. My temptation is to resume writing about what I knew -- youngish singlish people, and their disillusionments and life changes and what have you.

But I'm really, really not that person any more. I'm now much older than the character in the novel I started in 2000, in many ways.

Do I start writing about mothers? How does one even do that? Or do I take an extra imaginative leap and embrace all of mankind, men, even? And hey: what's with all this wackiness one reads about these days? Ought that be my schtick? Only old writers do the realism thing lately. Am I old? Old enough?

What happens when you've aged, but your writing self has not?

I don't even know what I do anymore.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Weird Things That Stick With You

I wonder if it's possible to learn something about yourself by what little details you recall from things you've read. For my part, they're not usually the bits that the culture at large seems to remember...they're minor things, distractions. I have a collection of them, a kind of postcard album.

From Moby-Dick: not Ahab hammering the gold coin to the mast, or being carried away by the whale, but Ishmael and Queequeg snuggling homoerotically in the sack.

From Ulysses: not Bloom wanking on the beach, or Molly's big round butt (though God knows I do recall those clearly), but that crazy-ass dog in the bar.

From the collected poems of Robert Frost: not "The Road Less Traveled," not "The Gift Outright," not even my uncle's favorite poem in the world, "Two Tramps in Mud Time," but the creepy skeleton stuff in "The Witch of Coos": Torvald, THE BONES!!! (I am probably misquoting this--my Frost is at work.)

From Rhian's novel: the ghost in the donut shop.

From some random Stephen King novel: a woman demanding oral sex from a teenager, thus proving to my own teenage self that oral sex did indeed exist.

From some poem by a woman named Ruth something in a literary magazine I read like a dozen years ago: "I'm feeling a little pepper happy...A little pepper happy."

[edit: I think this was Ruth Tobias, in the magazine Fine Madness. She seems to write about food a lot, if the internet is telling me the truth. I can't find this poem anywhere, though.]

From a woman speaking at a funeral in a Jonathan Franzen novel (I think Strong Motion): "We were as sisters unto one another."

From Nicholson Baker's The Mezzanine: The remains of a dinner roll that has been run over by a lawnmower...which, interestingly, is presented in that novel as an image that is wedged in the mind of the narrator, rather than something he notices in scene. (As an aside, I have been brushing my tongue and the roof of my mouth as well as my teeth for more than a decade, only because somebody in a Nicholson Baker novel does, and it sounded so appealing.)

Hmm, so where does that leave me? Sex, death, food, and personal hygiene. Sounds about right.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Last Day of Writer's Block

Pretty cocky, posting something like that. After not finishing a novel or even a short story in *seven years* -- though I've written hundreds or maybe even thousands of pages in that time, including three (Four? Five?) half-written novels -- I somehow have never given up on the implausible idea that I don't want to do anything with my life other than write. How can you consider yourself a writer and not write? I don't know.

But that's all over. I recently got a couple of books in the mail that convinced me that it's over. Details later. Even if that information is nonsense, it doesn't matter, because I'm ready.

What did I do all those years, not writing? Haha! I learned to play the piano. I learned to knit, spin and dye my own yarn, and crochet. I sewed stuff for my kids. I made tons of miniatures: miniature food, miniature books, miniature furniture. I gardened and I repaired old dolls. Most recently, I blogged. The creative drive, when bottled up, finds new outlets, as generations of grandmas can attest to.

I may never publish again, and coming to terms with that is, I think, the key.

A lot of people, a lot of writers I respect, don't "believe in" writer's block. Well, they're probably right. There's no such external force stopping otherwise capable people from writing. But there's something. They can come talk to me and I'll tell them all about it.

Friday, November 23, 2007

In Which I Contradict Myself

(First, an aside: I just now noticed that Rhian's post yesterday was our THREE HUNDREDTH. Wow!)

If there's one literary trend I can't stand, it's the rise and continued popularity of the bionov. You know what I mean, those books in which the lives of the famous and dead are fictionalized. Girl With A Pearl Earring was probably the one that pushed me over the edge, with its smarmy passages about the act of artistic creation, and since then we've had a steady stream of the things, most of them quite lazy and ultimately disrespectful to their subjects. Can't these writers think up their own damned characters? Can't they manage to invent a plausible course for a life to follow, rather than crib one from a biography? Can't they find some scrap of genius within themselves, instead of riding its coattails? In dramatizing the epiphanies of the great, the bionovelist gets to nick a bit of that mojo for himself: journals and letters at the ready, he lays one hand on the laptop, and snakes the other up the ass of Virginia Woolf, or Albert Einstein, or whomever. The bionovelist pads her tale with source materials, heavily seasoning her prose with the products of a superior mind, then gets to talk with Terry Gross about her obsession. Bionovels are wrong. They're necromancy. They're sick, and they suck. know...when they're awesome and, um, life-affirming. And, uhh, bristling with moral authority. Like for instance the W6 favorite The World As I Found It, Bruce Duffy's hilarious, moving fictionalization of the life of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Or our friend Brian Hall's epic stunner I Should Be Extremely Happy In Your Company, a reimagining of the Lewis and Clark expedition--or his forthcoming Robert Frost novel, Fall of Frost, which I am now reading in galleys. I hate to say it, but this book is incredible--a quietly devastating piece of work that reaffirms both the poet's and the novelist's brilliance. When it comes out next spring, I'll devote a post to why it's so good.

For now, though, I will have to be content, once again, with chastising my own rush to judgement. Sometimes, it seems, a great mind of the present can multiply itself by a great mind of the past, and create something unique and wonderful, something that stands on its own. There is a line somewhere, an ill-defined boundary, which divides the abominable from the beautiful, and there is almost nothing capable of living in between--above that line we find the history plays of Shakespeare and a handful of novels; below it festers just about everything else. You come out of a bionovel a hero or a goat, and just about everyone comes out a goat. I had a good idea for one once, but forget it--I'll be keeping my distance from that literary third rail. To be honest, I don't have the guts.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving

Hope you're all having a nice Thanksgiving. Two small changes to the site: I took down the NaNoWriMo banner. I admit defeat! I can't yet explain my sudden and complete lack of interest in following through this year, but there you are.

And I added a Kiva banner, for now anyway. This is a great way -- I think -- to help out small businesses around the world. Microlenders get the interest (rather exorbitant by our standards, yet reasonable compared to what the borrowers would have to pay to a neighborhood loan shark) and you get your money back in a year or so. Anyway, it's fascinating to read about small farmers in Peru and butchers in Nigeria and cafe owners in Azerbaijan, and hard not to donate to them. Not book related at all, so I might not keep it up for long, but I thought it appropriate for Thanksgiving.

Bon appetit!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


Tonight's post will be brief, as I'm busy reading Rhian's post-apocalyptic lesbian gang novel. Man, this stuff is foxy--wait 'til you see what they're getting up to in their caves! It is just TOO HOT FOR BANTAM DELL!

Meanwhile, I bring you news of a new magazine called Murdaland. It is, apparently, a haven for literary crime fiction, and its web site is lovingly embedded with scary noises. A colleague of mine gave me a copy of the first issue, and although I haven't read the whole thing, it seems pretty damned good so far.

Crime fiction lives and dies by the opening line, so let's see where we stand with Murdaland #1...

Rolo Diez: "Night falls and there's nowhere to go."

Anthony Neil Smith: "I wanted to plan the coolest funeral ever for my girlfriend."

Kaili Van Waiveren: "Meatball opens the door holding a knife."

J. D. Rhoades: "These days, they mostly used the backhoe."

Tristan Davies: "In the course of my job, I sometimes wear a Boy Scout uniform."

Who the hell are these people, and where have they been all my life? (To be fair, I have met Tristan Davies, but this is the first thing of his I've read.) It's funny, there are established literary writers here (Mary Gaitskill and Richard Bausch), but they resist the temptation to start off with a much as I admire them, I'll be reading their stories last. Fast and lurid wins the race.

Go subscribe to this thing--its editors should be rewarded.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Women's Fiction

What is "Women's Fiction"? It's not romance, because that is a genre unto itself. Is it any old novel written by a woman? Or maybe any novel written by a woman that doesn't already belong to any of the big genres? Well, according to this article in the NY Times, Bantam Dell is starting a whole new imprint just for "Women's Fiction," with the idea that they will publish books that will appeal to reading groups.

Gawd. Could anything be more insipid or insulting?

Let me guess: all the books will have Happy, Life-Affirming endings. They will deal with problems Real Women have today. They'll be a little bit spicy -- but not too much! I wonder if Bantam Dell's new imprint will like my new post-apocalyptic lesbian gang novel? Will it appeal to book groups? Will it make them feel good about being in a book group? You know, I think I'll go ahead and write the Book Group Guide right now, because this book is very deep and I want to make sure no one gets too caught up in their coffee cake and misses some of my amaaaaaazing symbolism.

Argh. I'm not writing a lesbian gang novel, unfortunately. But if I ever start writing "women's fiction" please shoot me.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

I'm Allergic to Proust

Today my hardcore book group met to discuss Proust's The Fugitive, the sixth volume of In Search of Lost Time and the conclusion of the narrator's affair with his lover Albertine. And for the first time, I just could not freaking slog through it. The Prisoner was bad enough--I feel as though that book was a repudiation of what made the first four great--but I had a kind of narcoleptic reaction to this one. Every word just shut my brain down.

In the world of ISOLT, the whole Albertine diversion feels like some kind of bad dream out of which we hope, desperately, that Proust will wake from. The only remotely plausible thing about it is its pedophilic undertones (those which Nabokov would later borrow and bring to the surface in Lolita); otherwise, Proust might have just filled these 800 pages, a la Jack Nicholson in "The Shining," over and over with I AM NOT GAY I AM NOT GAY I AM NOT GAY.

It convinces me that closeted homosexuality is once and for all the hidden subject of this great work; it is the thing that most interests Proust, yet the one thing he finds impossible to address directly, as a manifestation of his own protagonist. It isn't like Thomas Mann in The Magic Mountain--there, Hans Castorp's love affair is unconvincing, but we never suspect that he himself is gay. Whether he realized it or not, Proust presents the narrator quite clearly as a gay man who never admits it to himself. The narration, on this topic, feels fundamentally dishonest, and I wonder to what extent the writer understood how profoundly he was being revealed. Certainly homosexuality is an explicit subject of the overall work (plenty of people in it turn out to be gay), but it is shocking to see how completely the pretense of the narrator's impartiality breaks down in these sections, and how utterly homosexuality dominates the ostensibly heterosexual material.

When Marcel (I will call our narrator this, for convenience's sake) is talking about the Swanns, the Guermantes, his mother, his grandmother--then we believe him. When he talks about Charlus, or Saint Loup, we begin to doubt. And when he talks about Albertine, forget it. He's full of shit.

It feels very much as though there is a real-life, male counterpart to Albertine, under whose sway this entire section was written; furthermore Proust was quite ill at this point in his life, and you can practically smell the cork lining of the room he never left during daylight hours. The impression of this book and its predecessor is that of being hopelessly cooped up. Only when Albertine dies and Marcel heads to Venice does the air clear and the Marcel we loved back in Combray return to life.

Or so I'm told. I didn't get that far. I think I'm going to skip ahead, read the last hundred pages of this book, and move on to the final volume, which evidently Proust wrote before the Albertine bits (or "le Roman d'Albertine," as he called it), back when he was working on Swann's Way. I would love to get to say I read the whole damned thing, but I'm afraid I'm just not going to make it. What a fascinating mess.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Audio Podcast: Lee Smith and Hal Crowther

Novelist and short story writer Lee Smith, and her husband, the essayist and journalist Hal Crowther, came to town to give a reading yesterday, and I had the opportunity to interview them both. Smith is author of more than a dozen works of fiction, including the recent novel On Agate Hill; she has won numerous awards for her work, including the Southern Book Critics Circle Award, a Lila Wallace / Reader's Digest Award, and the Robert Penn Warren Prize for Fiction. Hal Crowther has written three books of nonfiction, and his work has appeared in a great number of newspapers, magazines, and journals, including the Oxford American, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Time, and Newsweek. His most recent book is Gather At The River: Notes From The Post-Millennial South. We talked about why people always seem to want to know what it means to be a Southern writer, what is up with the Republicans' Southern strategy, and whether having a writer for a spouse is a blessing or a curse. Check it out at the Writers At Cornell Blog.

Thursday, November 15, 2007


Though I was quietly rooting for Lydia Davis, one can hardly complain about Denis Johnson scoring this time. I still haven't read Tree of Smoke, but I'm a big fan of his other stuff. The National Book Foundation website has a not-terribly-informative interview with him. Most of the questions are longer than Johnson's answers. I like this; writers ought to let the work speak for itself.

And I'll confess to being slightly irritated about this one of Davis's books being nominated. Her first couple of collections were almost totally ignored, by everyone, though they were every bit as good as the newest one. It seems like once she was "discovered" by McSweeney's, then published in the NYer, suddenly she's the It Woman. Oh, well, better late than never, of course. I guess I feel a bit like a teenager whose favorite obscure band is suddenly a hit. Hey, man, I liked her before she was cool!!!

JRL wouldn't tell you, but he has a new thing in the latest Paris Review. That's a pretty fine website, actually.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The (God Help Us) Great American Novel

I was talking with a colleague last night about the book he's writing--a study of the "epic novel." He is working on a few of the obvious choices--Ulysses, for one--and a few not so obvious--Gertrude Stein's mostly-unread The Makings of Americans--and pretty soon conversation turned to Norman Mailer, and the thread that has run through all his obituaries--his "failure" to write "The Great American Novel."

Of course I would hate to be saddled with this behemoth of an anti-accomplishment while still fresh in my grave, but to be fair, Mailer brought it on himself. As this piece in the Independent observes:

Mailer believed in it utterly. He called it "the big one" and dreamed of bagging it one day, as game hunters go after "the big five" of elephant, lion, buffalo, rhino and leopard. From the start he nursed Tolstoyan ambitions – or, given his interest in writing about psychological states under extreme pressure, Dostoevskyan ambitions.

The consensus seems to be, of course, that Mailer never wrote it. Of course, he wrote a lot of big American books--so what precisely is the GAN supposed to be? The Independent cited the results of a 2006 poll on the subject and came up with this description:

The Great American Novel should be a consideration of an historical event with grave resonances for the modern age; it will be centrally concerned with outrages against human rights, or the suspicion that beneath the smooth surface of American life, dangerous impulses still lurk unseen. It will be obsessed with death and, perhaps in consequence, display few traces of humour. And its author will be someone born no later than 1940.

There is something a tad tongue-in-cheek about this of course, and its implication seems to be that the whole idea is something of a sham. I must admit I'm sympathetic to this critique. The GAN was invented by Mailer's generation (of, need I even say it?, male writers) for selfish purposes--it was the idealized actualization of their own aesthetic, a fantastic vehicle for self-important achievement.

Sounds like I'm knocking those guys, but really I'm not. Every novel is envisioned as the ultimate expression of its writer's own aesthetic. The writing of any novel is an act of epic self-absorption. The difference with the GAN was that Mailer promoted the hell out of it, until it became a category independent of his advocacy. And ever since, the rest of us have been asked to wear this gaudy, ill-fitting vestment, and have generally been found lacking.

The ideal American novel is as protean as America itself. It changes its shape as America does. And what greater American value is there than independence, than the liberty of the individual? The real Great American Novel is whatever I say it is, whenever I happen to say it. It's whatever any of us are writing at any given time. In other words, as a concept, it's essentially meaningless. I can't help but write an American novel, frankly, and as for greatness, a guy can only try. Personally, I will take the workaday obsessions of Nicholson Baker--his minutae-obsessed escalator ride remains a high-water mark of American consciousness, in my mind--over Mailer's broad brush any day. I'll take the interior over the exterior, the hilarious over the grim (though if I have a choice, I'll take both at once), the apparently meaningless over the obviously important.

I once drew (horribly) a cartoon: the caption was "Charting The Interior Landscape." The picture was of a guy picking his nose. That's me, working on the Great American Novel. You got a problem with that?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Was Norman Mailer Right?

(Warning: Boring ramble ahead!)

Yesterday I heard an old interview with Mailer on Terry Gross. Among other things, he expressed the worry that one day people will mostly quit reading novels -- that fiction reading will go the way of poetry reading and become a rare and slightly obscure activity. People might say, he predicted, "I think I'll read a novel this year."


I have two thoughts about this. First is that poetry in its strictest sense -- slim volumes of highly concentrated language, meant to be read silently, alone -- has never been wildly popular. It goes through cycles of relative popularity and obscurity, and we're definitely in a down period right now. But our appetite for verse has remained strong. People are still powerfully moved by songs lyrics, prayers, rap, and so on. Poetry is just one branch of a still-vigorous tree. Saying that poetry is dead because sales of chapbooks are low is like saying visual art is dead because no one goes to galleries. Poetry constantly shape and appearance and particular appeal, but it all comes from the same place.

And I think that our appetite for fiction and narrative is equally unsatiable. It'll get longer, shorter, maybe more visual, and we'll get it from electronic boxes or holograms or whatever, but it won't go away. When and if it changes form, it will be because we needed it to. Publishing may collapse, bookstores may vanish, but the pleasures of narrative are so intense and universal and have been with us for so long that I feel certain they will be with us forever.

But maybe Mailer meant something very particular: that reading long narratives divided into chapters, printed on paper, and sold in airports is doomed as a popular activity. Eh, maybe. In this sense, I'm maybe more pessimistic than Mailer: I think it's done as a popular activity. Publishing a book means very little anymore; writers get the big bucks, and the big attention, when their books are made into movies. Mailer was one of the last American writers who was also an extremely famous public figure.

But so what? It would be a mistake for writers second guess the culture and start churning out what they perceive the public wants in order to try and save the popular place of literature. That's the quickest way to doom the novel I can think of.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Mystery of Influence

Every once in a while somebody asks me who my influences are, and invariably I respond by naming a few of my favorite writers. I think that's what people are after when they ask this, and I like talking about my favorite writers, so I never think much about whether or not I'm actually telling the truth.

Influence is a funny thing. I'm not entirely sure how many of the writers I love are actually strong influences on my writing. They all are to an extent, of course. But I do know that I would never try to actually write, say, an Alice Munro story. Sometimes I'll write a sentence and realize I am aping her cadences. Or a character will speak and I'll find him uttering something more George Saunders than me; or I'll describe someone's manic nature and realize I'm channeling Raskolnikov.

But mostly, when I write something, it's coming from who I am, not who I've read--and who I am was (and is) formed by far more than books. Books are a big part of it, mind you, but how many hours a day do I spend reading? Not counting the internet? An hour or two, or three if I'm lucky. The rest of the time the extraliterary world is shaping me.

In any event, here are a few non-literary influences.

BULLIES. I have a real thing about injustice. When I'm kind of pissed off, and doing some tedious task, and my mind goes on autopilot, it usually spins some kind of fantasy about putting some asshole in his place, or getting into a fight. And winning, of course. I have never won a fight in my life, but there you go. I believe this comes from being bullied as a kid. Not a lot--but it doesn't take much, if you're a certain kind of person. My tormentor in grade school was Pete Rossnagle. In high school it was some other guy, I forget his name, a wrestler--he was a lot smaller than me, but I was...ah...a...pussy? Can I say that? It's not a word I am comfortable using, but that's what I was. Anyway, looking back, an awful lot of my writing involves people being treated with unjust hostility, or humiliated in front of others, or seething with unexpressed rage.

STEVE MARTIN. Not his writing. (Though I think he's pretty good at it.) His standup act. I technically was not allowed to listen to his records--they contained swearing--but Matt Zarbatany was, so I went to his house. It's weird, listening to a comedy record with a friend: where do your eyes go? At the turntable, generally, or the liner notes. "A Wild And Crazy Guy" introduced me to absurdity as an art form, and my sense of it was later strengthened by Monty Python, Edward Albee, Euegene Ionesco, "Schizopolis," and Ween. Among other people and things.

THE REPLACEMENTS. That is, the Minnapolis rock band. Their album "Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash" was a real eye-opener, as was "Hootenanny" soon afterward. I'd liked slicker, more produced music before this; even punk rock, which I appreciated but didn't love, had a kind of aggressive precision to it. These records, on the other hand, were just all over the place--drunken, inspired nonsense. Around this time (I was maybe 15) I stopped combing my hair (haven't done it since, in fact) and untucking my shirts. I began to like unresolved chords, unexpected plot twists. And sloppy girls started looking pretty good to me.

PAC-MAN. What was it about this game that was so freaking fascinating? I think it was the fact that it was a problem, with a solution. There were "patterns" you could use to "solve" the game--paths your Pac-Man could take that would guarantee the monsters wouldn't get him. Everybody had their own patterns, but when you watched other people play, you realized that there were a lot of common moves--the answers, in other words, were flexible, but adhered to general precepts. The game occupied my mind a great deal in 1983 and 1984, and I think I began to apply this idea to other areas of my life: that there were myriad answers to problems, but all the reasonable answers had certain similarities. I started seeing the infinity of possibility narrow from an infinity of infinities down to a manageable, cozy infinity. Which is what you need to do, to write a book. I am probably overstating this one, a bit, but there you go.

SHUFFLE MODE. Yes, on the iPod. I admit that there were moments, in my long, tedious drive to digitize my entire music collection, when I was almost certain I was wasting my time. But I hadn't counted on shuffle. Though there is a lot to be said about the value of the album as an artistic unit, listening to a random succession of songs, across all genres, has an equal and completely different worth unto itself. If the point of a recording is to capture a particular time and place, a specific human moment, then to listen in shuffle mode is to catapult oneself through temporal and geographic space—-to fly from room to room, from concert hall to motherboard, over the course of an entire century, all during a walk to the post office. Songs I used to think similar—-two separate, say, postpunk anticapitalist anthems recorded by different bands in the same year-—revealed themselves as sonically, temperamentally, and morally divergent. Go figure! I'm not sure what this has done to me, exactly, but I can feel it: some sort of new way of seeing the meaninglesness of categorization, and appreciating the diversity of tiny details. Or maybe it's just my excuse for owning a cool gadget.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Neutral Main Character

I just read Alice Mattison's story, "Brooklyn Circle," in the latest New Yorker, and I don't even know how I feel about it. At first I was very much drawn in by her characters -- a middle-aged, Jewish New Yorker; her half-Jewish, half-black ex-husband who suddenly reappears in her life; and their overwrought 30-yr-old daughter. The writing is very good and smart and Mattison sets up some wonderfully interesting and compelling situations:the protagonist is still attracted to her ex; their daughter was either justly or unjustly arrested for arguing about the Iraq war. But as in so many stories these days, all the compelling situations are left entirely unresolved. They are set up, some lovely light is shined on them, and then the story ends.

Is this okay, just a short story thing? Because I know I have certainly done it. Ambiguity is interesting, and you don't want to tie up every single loose end in a tidy package at the end of the story. At the same it feels like a bit of a cheat to set up these complicated situations that readers have invested in emotionally, and then scoot out after putting the characters through a metaphoric journey and then dropping a hint or two as to possible outcomes. It feels formulaic, actually. Or maybe I'm jaded? See -- I don't know.

One other notable thing about this story is the invisibility of the protagonist, whose name is Con. Con is the least distinctive or developed character in the story, and the most interesting one -- the daughter -- spends the least time in it. We know very little about Con other than her social class and ethnicity, and a bit more about her husband, who has some personality quirks. I've always supposed that the penchant of writers for making their protagonist the least interesting person in the story is all about allowing the reader to identify with her. If the reader finds the main character too alien, the thinking goes, they won't be able to put himself in the protagonist's shoes. But is this really true? Again, it feels like an easy way out.

If a story doesn't do anything new or different, if it doesn't make any startling insights or show us any lives we didn't already know about, if we're not thrilled by its language or surprised by its empathy, if it's not funny or cathartic, then... what's it for?

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Time and Taste

So I have this hideous boil on my underarm, do any of you know a good ointment?

Ha ha!!! Just kidding!!! We haven't gone that far off the rails. No, today I want to talk about being a decrepit old geezer with eye bags and a hacking cough. Or feeling that way anyhow. This afternoon I stepped out of my office to get some lunch and bumped into a colleague of mine, emerging from his morning class. He advanced upon me looking frazzled and holding a DVD in his hand.

"I can't believe it! They don't like it! They don't like 'Blade Runner'!"

He'd been addressing the topic of narrative by reading stories that had been adapted for film, then watching the films, and seeing how the two compared. His class had loved "Minority Report," with its groovy special effects, fast pacing, and Samantha Morton (foxy even while bald and unconscious in a shallow pool of amniotic fluid), but they reacted with boredom and hostility to Ridley Scott's understated 1982 masterpiece.

We indulged in a ten-minute Old Man Confab on the stairs. By the standards of our profession, we're young fellas ("junior professors" is the term), but our students are literally half our age, and at long last we are witnessing the maturation of the next generation. It was bad enough when they started driving cars; now they're being allowed to form opinions about our movies. Good God!

My colleague pointed out that, when we were growing up, there was no cable, no internet. You didn't choose your entertainment; you accepted what was available. In our case (he's from New York, I'm from New Jersey), this was the evening and weekend movies on WPIX 11-Alive. Now, I am not complaining about the steady advance of technology; I'll take illegal downloads of Lost any day over, say, a sixth viewing of that Munsters episode where Grandpa runs away from home and ends up doing a magic act at a bar. But a childhood devoid of infinite choices did indeed leave us with a fairly broad view of what popular culture had to offer, and perhaps prepared us better for our eventual forays into the underexplored cul-de-sacs of the literary world. There's an argument to be made that it might be harder for young people these days to learn to appreciate things that aren't immediately to their taste--and what with the instant access to any and all desired information, the mystery of how things are created, and who is creating them, has been shattered.

I'm not so worried, though. The kids are, as they have always been, alright. (Though I'd take a red pen to that spelling, The Who be damned.) I tried to convince my colleague that they'll be into "Blade Runner" someday, the same way I eventually got into Moby Dick in spite of my schooling; the way I fell in love with Lolita in defiance of the college professor who wanted everybody to write papers on the "chess imagery." At 18, 19, 20, our students are finding themselves, and I suspected that one or two of my colleague's went home tonight wondering if maybe there was more to that movie than they first thought. I remember not getting R.E.M. until about four listens to Lifes Rich Pageant; Rhian didn't like seventies movies until we discovered John Cassavetes. You can change your taste, once you get a taste for doing so--it's part of being an aesthete. And there aren't many 18-year-old aesthetes, not yet.

Still, I wonder what form of excellence will emerge from the present cultural moment. I cannot guess, not for the life of me, and maybe that means it's time to kick back with my nose hair trimmer and a bottle of Metamucil and just let the youngsters take the wheel.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Watching Other People Play the Piano

Since we're all off-topic around here lately, with chickens and cats and using books as coasters, I thought I'd share one of my newest time-wasters: watching other people play the piano on Youtube.

The woman (her name is Irina, and I think she's Polish) plays beautifully, but what I like best is the way her kids come into the room halfway through and stomp on each other, and she doesn't miss a note. What she's doing is so impressive: making something beautiful while sitting there in her sweats with kids goofing off all around her.

The video of her playing Handel's Sarabande in D minor is also terrific, but there are no kids in it.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Artless Emotions

No post yesterday because our favorite cat died, and we were all too damned sad to accomplish anything. I'm not much of an animal lover, but this was a special cat, and to my great surprise I miss the hell out of him.

The worst part, of course, was telling the kids--Rhian and I discovered what happened right after they left for school, and we had to greet them with the news upon their return. Just a terrible day all around, and for the kids, probably a profound and memorable experience.

Here's the flip side, though: a memory from several years ago. Our kids spent one summer obsessed with these little plastic aliens--I think we got them out of a vending machine at Best Buy, or maybe it was a local toy store. They cost maybe a buck, and came with parachutes, and you could get them in several different poses. If I remember right, they were engaged in various sports.

So they had a bunch of these aliens, and one day we discovered you could get silver ones in bulk from Oriental Trading. We ordered something like 50 of them--they were really cheap, like five dollars for the lot of them. And then those arrived, and kept the guys occupied for maybe two months. I mean, they were gooned on these things...I don't think they'd had such sustained interest in anything in their lives.

Finally, one day Tobey was out with Rhian and they found glow-in-the-dark ones. For him, this was like a dream come true--and I mean that literally, it was as though he had dreamed this super special perfect thing, and then woke up, but instead of it being a dream it was TOTALLY REAL. Rhian said that he exited the toy store clutching the aliens and saying, "I can't believe this is happening."

It was hard to even listen to this little story when Rhian came home--I found it painful to even consider the level of unbridled joy our son was feeling. Would he ever be that happy again in his entire life? The purity of it was blinding.

As a writer, what the hell do you do with emotions like these? Grief because your cat is dead. Joy because the thing you most desired is now yours. These aren't the kind of emotions you put in books, they're the kind you put in greeting cards. They're not interesting--they just are. They are there to be felt, and just about any conceivable analysis of them comes off as pure saccharine. Maybe the power in them is their incapacity to be molded into art.

Or maybe you can write about them. I dunno. I'm not going to, I don't think. I would find myself trying to undercut or enhance them--it would be like de-faceting a diamond and burying it in the ground. And I'll bury my cat sorrow in recording magazines and Ithaca Beer.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Full of Yourself

The other day I had the slightly queasy experience of finding a book in my store written by someone I knew once, long ago. (No, not an ex!) It made me kind of sad, not because there was anything much wrong with the book, but because I knew lots of good writers then, really wonderful writers with lots of potential, all of them better than this guy. But those other wonderful writers moved on, or quit, or worked hard for a while and then gave up. But this writer didn't. He clung to his pretty mediocre stories for a long, long time, and finally had them published by a more-than-respectable publisher. Good for him!

But I wonder about the writers I know who have quit, and what they didn't have that the Published Guy did. Well, persistence obviously, but why?

Perhaps I'm a little too fond of making generalizations, but whatever: All the quitters I've known have been plagued by crises of confidence, even while doing excellent and worthwhile work, while the Published Guys (mostly, but certainly not all, guys) seem totally immune to negative feedback. (For the record, I consider myself to have a foot in each camp -- never quitting, exactly, but definitely flailing for long periods.)

It seems so unfair. I can think of three different writers, all women incidentally, whose work I admired but whose self-doubts ballooned in the face of some fairly minor criticism. They eventually quit writing fiction altogether. The Published Guy, I remember, used to argue vehemently in defense of his work, to the point where everyone else just shut up.

I think a lot -- a lot -- about the writers who've given up, and about the books that never got written. Being hard on yourself and self-critical seems like a good quality, but it might actually be a kind of poison, one lethal in high doses.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

The Uses Of Books

When you're a bibliophile, and books are the object in your home that you have the most of, it is inevitable that they will begin to find themselves repurposed for all sorts of extraliterary ends. There was a time in my life when the book--the physical object I mean--was sacrosanct, and could never be used for anything but its intended purpose. I shelved them with strenuous anality, keeping them flush with the face of the bookcase, wrapping their dust jackets in acetate slipcovers. Then I moved in with Rhian. Right now, on her bedside table, about nine books lay open facedown upon one another, their spines hopelessly broken. This kind of behavior seemed horrifying to me for a while, but since then, I've loosened up. How could I not? The things outnumber us by several powers of ten. Her attitude toward them is the healthy one.

There is nothing like a copy of Strunk & White, or perhaps a volume of Billy Collins poems, for propping up a table that's off true. A hardcover Ovid held open the window in Toby's room for five years, exposing itself to the elements, until it eventually began to look like a first edition. And while a rolled-up New York Review of Books (much more substantial than the New Yorker) is always handy for swatting a housefly, nothing really matches the satisfaction of dropping the world atlas onto one from a height of three feet.

At the moment, the latest Best American Short Stories is serving as a toilet-paper-roll platform (though the cheap cardstock used for the cover has curled in the moisture from the shower, and only a fresh and heavy roll seems willing to stay put), and a small French-English dictionary has been keeping fruit flies out of my wineglass every night for several months. I've used them as sun visors and trivets, and as obstacles for preventing the ingress of mice into my former writing studio. (The books I used for that were, in fact, a pile of remaindered copies of one of my own novels.)

You may consider it disrespectful for us to treat our books this way, but in my view it's the profoundest kind of praise. Books are life, and life is books. They are what's handy. I'm sure there's plenty a thirteenth-century monk who would keel infarcting to the floor to see it, but I am daily overjoyed to live in an age in which it seems perfectly reasonable to use a paperback King James Bible as a heel rest for the piano sustain pedal.

Friday, November 2, 2007

NaNoWriMo: Bad Start!

Things came up, as of course they do, (among them an elections thing, since I'm an elections inspector, and the newsletter for my job) and so I didn't get to my desk until I was good and worn out. Then I couldn't decide what to do, every idea was fraught with pitfalls that could derail the project after a week, so I decided to try a sequel to last year's novel. But after a couple paragraphs, I realized that if my main character wrote a novel based on one of my ideas, I could write that novel-within-a-novel as long as I could, and then just revert back to the sequel if I ran out of gas. Perfect solution!

So I got about three pages done, nowhere near the minimum, and today I had to take a kid to the doctor for the world's LOUDEST cough, so there went my daytime hours.

And the NaNoWriMo website has been so busy I couldn't log my pages.

In better news: our chickens finally produced an egg. (Note the tell-tale red feather in the corner: one of the Rhode Island Reds, Rosalyn Carter, was the culprit.)

It was small but delicious. If only I could produce a similarly small, but delicious, novel.

I'm curious about other people's first day of NaNoWriMo... did it happen for you?

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Audio Podcast: William Kennedy

I got the chance to talk with novelist William Kennedy today, as part of the Writers At Cornell Podcast Series. Kennedy is the author of many books, most of them (including the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Ironweed) about the history of organized crime in his native Albany, New York. We discussed the difference between screenwriting and novel writing, the morality of the criminal mind, the acting talent of Meryl Streep, and journalism as a springboard to fiction. Click the link and have a listen.