Monday, December 31, 2007

Who Needs an MFA?

I have an MFA, and I enjoyed almost every single second of getting one. Yes, even living on $600 a month and teaching freshman comp. I loved that. Beans and rice was, and is, my favorite meal.

That said: an MFA ain't worth the paper it's printed on. (And it's not much paper, either: of my high school, college, and MFA degrees, I think the MFA is the smallest, like 4 by 5 inches, as it should be. The high school one is the largest, and God knows I earned that one.)

When I was an undergraduate, my teachers told me, "Whatever you do, do NOT go into debt for an MFA!" More sage advice has never been given. All you potential people who might want an MFA: do not go into debt. It's not worth it. Only get one if they pay you to go.

If anyone really claims that the possession of such a silly degree means that a person is in some way a better writer than anyone else, well, they're lying, deluded, or working for a university with a brand new MFA program. All an MFA means is that someone in a writing program somewhere liked your submission enough to let you in, and that you cranked out enough stuff to stay in. That's all.

Most writers show up at writing programs already knowing how to write. That's how they got in. And once they get there, they're totally resistant to being taught anything. Ask most writing teachers and they'll tell you that undergraduates are MUCH more fun to teach, because they're open to learning a thing or two and trying new stuff. Not so true with the graduate students.

So why are they there? Many reasons, but "learning to write" is rarely up there. They want the two years of concentrated writing time (a dream come true for me, really), they want to reorient their lives toward writing, they want the teaching experience so they can become college teachers one day.

But CAN you learn to write in an MFA program, if you want to? Of course! You can also learn to write in a community college, or by reading Orwell during breaks from your job at the tomato-packing plant, or just by writing a shit-load and giving it to your best friend to read. There are as many different ways of becoming a writer as you can think of. All are legitimate. No one is born knowing how to write.

If a writer with an MFA has an easier time getting published than one without, it has little to do with the degree or the school and EVERYTHING to do with the people she or he meets there. Editors and agents are much more open to reading stuff that comes with a personal recommendation. They don't, and can't, give every submission the full, impartial attention it might deserve. This sucks. It really, really does. If I were to change ONE thing about publishing, I would wave my wand and allow agents and editors to see every single piece of writing with a fresh, energetic and unbiased eye.

That said, the "connections" that one might get with an MFA are usually not much more than a name and an address. The connections are a way to get out of the slush pile. But there are lots of ways to get out of the slush pile. Going to conferences is another way. Entering contests, publishing in small mags, and meeting other writers are all other ways that are every bit as effective. Sleeping with a published writer works really well!! Take it from me!!

I'm kidding!!

Also, and maybe this doesn't need to be said, but I don't think you have to be from a privileged background in any way to get into an MFA program. No one on the admissions committee cares if you went to Fredonia Central High or if you went to Miss Emily's Country Day. All they are about is if they like your stuff. And that's a complete and total crap shoot.

Saturday, December 29, 2007


Okay, break's over. Christmas is fun, but man, am I always glad to see it recede in the rearview.

I have never been much of a rebel. When I was a kid, the worst thing I ever did was probably getting kicked out of Perkins, or perhaps throwing pancakes off the roof of a parking garage. I didn't smoke or drink, got good grades, kept my shirt tucked in, and was generally an uptight little SOB.

I do, however, possess a very strong antiauthoritarian bent, which I've always tried to channel into writing and music. It wasn't authority itself I disliked, really--as long as it let me do what I wanted, I was fine with it. Indeed, for most of my life, I was quite friendly with the gatekeepers, probably because they always seemed happy to let me in. When I got started writing and publishing, I had no gripes with the system--it seemed like a good one to me. I was 25 at the time, and got taken out to lunch a lot, and asked by editors and publishers what I was working on, and in general I felt totally extra super special.

I didn't realize, of course, that this is how every first novelist is treated, before she's had a chance to establish that she isn't going to be writing any blockbuster bestsellers; and the non-arrival of The Big Novel effects an increasing distaste, and eventually disgust, and pretty soon you can't get anyone to return your phone calls, and e-mails become "lost," and nobody's terribly interested in taking you out to lunch anymore, and in general would prefer that you just stayed as far away from midtown Manhattan as possible for the rest of your life. This happens even to literary writers whom any sane person would consider successful--and the buyouts and consolidations of the past ten years have only intensified the process.

And so, having myself endured this literary rite of passage (not to mention an overheated economy on the verge of collapse, and eight years of Bush-fueled paranoia and cowardice), I have come around to realizing that yes, in fact, the gatekeepers are full of shit.

Brave man, huh--parties with the Man until the Man dumps him. It's pathetic, I know. But it has resulted in a belated appreciation for rebellion, which this week has taken the form of my grooving on Wall and Piece, a newish book by Banksy, the British graffiti artist. (This book, BTW, was a Christmas present for Rhian, but like most gift books for spouses, it was really for the giver.) I found out about him belatedly, when he started doing those "vandalized" versions of old paintings (most notably Monet's Bridge At Giverny with abandoned grocery carts half-sunk in the water) and stealthily hanging them in museums. He's also the rat-stencil guy, and the bobbies-kissing guy, and the guy who did the bitterly ironic paintings on the West Bank barrier wall. He's an iconoclast (who, like all good iconoclasts, has become an icon) and a joker, and am I alone in thinking that literature needs a guy like him? A guerilla writer? A stealth novelist? A memoir vandal?

It's a hell of a lot harder for writers to rebel than it is for visual artists and musicians--our product, the book, has historically required a fairly massive infrastructure to produce, not to mention a lot of time. There is not really a literary equivalent of busking, or tagging. But technology has changed. You can start your own publishing house (and maybe we should). You can sell your own downloads (and maybe we will--if people ever show the desire for such a thing). You can stage events, or start a blog (and apparently we have).

But still--it's not the same as the Beatles on the roof of Apple, or Banksy's Tesco soup can at MOMA. What do you think--you're a writer, and you want to stick it to the Man. How do you do it?

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Short Break

I guess we're on a Christmas hiatus here, sort of. Meanwhile, here's something that caught my eye:

Woman Fired For Writing a Book at Work. Hey -- JRL wrote his second book at work, in between answering the phone and taking admission at an art museum. How many other books were written on the clock? Many! It's a fine tradition. She should have been more stealthy. (Note to my boss, Gary: I wouldn't think of it.)

Friday, December 21, 2007

The New Yorker Winter Fiction Issue

I always heave these fiction issues out of the mailbox with a deep sigh; they ought to excite me, as the once did, back in the day, but instead they just make me weary. Maybe it's because I know I'm not in them. I don't think so, though--I think that I prefer normal New Yorkers--they're more likely to take you by surprise. The fiction issues, on the other hand, always seem to give you something you're guaranteed to like, which means I'm guaranteed not to.

Jhumpa Lahiri's story, "Year's End," is unbelievably long, and it will surprise no one to learn that it's about love and family, set against a backdrop of New-World / Old-World tension. I have nothing against Lahiri, her writing is fluid and clear, but like a lot of contemporary literary fiction that people actually pay money for, it spends a hell of a long time saying absolutely obvious things. The narrator, a fully Americanized Indian college student, recalls a nurse speaking to him during his mother's final illness. "This is the worst part," the nurse says, referring to the days of waiting for death. "I realized that Mrs. Gharibian had been right," the narrator admits, "there had been nothing worse than waiting for it to come, that the void that followed was easier to bear than the solid weight of those days."

Didn't Tom Petty say all there was to say about this, back in 1981? Do we really need such detailed elaboration upon facts that every human being on earth already knows? To be fair, there is more to the story than this small sentiment, but not nearly enough. I kept asking myself, What Would Alice Munro Do? (Perhaps we should print up some W6 tee shirts bearing this slogan.) I had a good idea of what, and I wanted it real, real bad--it could have made this story a knockout. But Lahiri let me down. Instead, she ends the story with somebody burying photographs in the sand. Cue the strings.

Lore Segal's story, "The Arbus Factor," is slight, and hinges on a zinger--the smug upper-middle-class couple whose restuarant conversation we have been listening to for a page and a half...turn out to be OLD! Good God, we've been tricked! The woman goes into the ladies' room and looks in the mirror, and some kind of crone looks back! And here I thought we were reading about middle-aged boring rich people. And even Junot Diaz's "Alma" doesn't do it for me--I generally find it hard to fault Junot, and this piece crackles with the same energy as all his other stuff. But it's about a guy who falls for a Dominican girl with a nice ass and then he cheats on her and she dumps him. It ain't bad, but he's written it already.

And "Beginners," Tess Gallagher's retro-Carverian reconstruction, well--I couldn't get through it. Lish's edit is so, so, so, so much better. Don't get me wrong: at the end of his life, the more discursive writer inside Carver came into his own. Carver knew it--a couple of the stories he collected in Where I'm Calling From are in fact pre-Lish versions, and he knew at the time when he was right, and when Lish was right. (Case in point: "A Small, Good Thing." The long version is the right one.) And his final story, "Errand," was in my opinion his best story, and is one of my favorite stories, period. But Lish was way right about "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," and I find this version painful to read. Like the Lahiri, it's needlessly elaborated; like the Diaz, it's a lesser work by a master of the form.

Maybe it's the weather, but I feel a terrible drear hanging over this issue. Every story's about the same damn stuff--love, marriage, boyfriends, girlfriends. They aren't dead topics, for sure, but can we have maybe one weird story? Just one that conforms to nothing whatsoever?

Here's a list of topics, then--all of you, go write these and send them to The New Yorker. Quick, before they fill the summer fiction issue. Pick one at random and get working:

1) An astronaut on a voyage to Mars ends up someplace entirely unexpected.
2) A day in the life of a five-year-old mind reader.
3) The zoo employees go on strike.
4) Some townspeople are protesting the building of a new bridge, and one goes missing.
5) A woman loses the mayoral election by five votes.
6) A breakfast cereal designer runs out of ideas.
7) A solider in Iraq goes AWOL and is taken in by a cadre of disillusioned reporters.
8) A man tries to commit suicide by walking into the sea, but he can't get it to work.
9) An agricultural scientist is angry at the college where he works because they claimed ownership of his many potato hybrids, and so he plans revenge.
10) An adolescent girl, discovering she is adopted, decides to start a rock band.

Good luck! If they accept your story, I get ten percent.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish (and me)

Many months ago when I discovered Literary Rejections on Display, I searched high and low for my collection of rejection letters, hoping to contribute to that fine blog, but I couldn't find them. They dated mostly from the late 80's to early 90's, when sending stories out and having them rejected was my favorite hobby. I knew that at one point I grew sick of the wallpaper of rejection I had surrounded myself with and threw most of them away, keeping only a few good ones: those with handwriting on them. I found them the other day, hidden away in a folder marked "Art."

The above is one of my favorites. (Perhaps I'll keep the others for LROD.) I don't remember what I sent -- some junk about the disillusionments of small-town teenagers, probably, or maybe small-town elderly people. Did I really think Lish might like it?? But I was happy to get this rejection note. I stuck it on my bulletin board and it was there long enough for me to more or less memorize it. Is it just me, or is this note totally crazy?

At the same time, it's really, really nice. It goes out of its way to make the impression that the mag is an accidental, collaborative thing, not a snooty magazine concerned with publishing only the very best, which you, sadly, are not. He didn't have to do that. He could have gotten away with snooty.

If I remember correctly, the Q's rejection note changed every few weeks (yes, I sent a lot of crap out) but was always similarly verbose.

Which is kind of ironic, when you remember that Lish is the guy often credited with (or accused of) cutting all the extra words out of Raymond Carver's stories.

I have always loved Carver's last story, "Errand," which is about the death of Chekhov. In it he leaves the minimalism, and presumably Lish, behind. It's a great, rich story and it seemed to indicate a new direction for Carver.

But I don't think that his early work would have been better without the editing, and wow, you can really see this in the story published by the online New Yorker this week. Carver fans will recognize that story as the one better known as "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," a much better title than the original, the forgettable "Beginners." That is one excellent edit. All the repetitive stuff, all the beard-scratching between thoughts: gone. Lish didn't make the story into something it wasn't; he understood what was essential about Carver and brought it out.

Tess Gallagher obviously cares deeply about her husband's legacy and thinks she's setting something to rights by publishing the stories in their original form. It's true the editing upset Carver, and he wanted to feel as if his success was his, and his alone, not Lish's. But I wonder -- if Carver had lived and gone on to establish himself apart from Lish, would he feel the need to do this? I don't know. Writers are egoists, and as hard as it is to be rejected, it's even harder, sometimes, to take an edit -- especially if it's a good one.

It makes me wonder if maybe what the world really needs now are more great editors.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Where have all the assholes gone?

In a welcome comment on the previous thread, reader Grant Munroe said something that rather surprised me, and which I think is worth its own thread:

...we wondered what had happened to spectacle in the world of letters. Not the spectacle of angry op-ed pieces, of political outrage. More old fashioned drunken spectacle. Fitzgerald making an ass of himself, or Mailer getting piss drunk on national television. Authors were brilliant people with little self-control. The public respected that.

So what happened? Why have authors tamed? Could it be the influence of academia? Is it that authors as teachers now feel the need to set a moral example? Whatever the reason, I think it’s a shame.

I'm not sure to what extent this was tongue-in-cheek, but wow--I sure don't think it's a shame. Let me address several things here.

First, I hate to dump on Grant, but it's a little bit tiring to hear, over and over, people complain about the civilizing influence of academia upon the world of art and letters. This is, at its heart, a right-wing argument--the implication is that Great Art has been girlified, that we've all been turned into a bunch of prim little homos and pussies by the feminists and queer theorists who have forced us all to march in lockstep lest we offend somebody.

My own experience of academia is that it is rigorous, challenging, and open to new ideas--and that it considers intellectual aggression a virtue, regardless of its gender associations. But maybe I've been hanging around the wrong colleges. More importantly, I think the basic trouble with this argument is not that academia's being blamed for the problem, but that anyone thinks there's a problem to begin with. Hemingway was a dick, and so was every other hard-drinkin', bar-fightin', wife-and-child-leavin' SOB who ever topped the best-seller list. The reason their exploits became so legendary is that they came to prominence in an age when writing by men was the only writing anybody took seriously. The more masculine the better, and if masculine meant drinking yourself to death, cheating on your wife, and (in Hemingway's case) socking Wallace Stevens in the jaw, then so be it. Was it any wonder Woolf and Plath committed suicide?

The fact is, angry op-ed pieces and political outrage take moral courage and rhetorical skill to pull off; while fistfights, infidelity, and drunken rage are the purview of cowards. And if the literary establishment--if such a thing even exists anymore, or if anyone cares whether or not it does--thinks otherwise, I will happily choose lifelong obscurity over treating other people like shit.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Golden Compass

I took the guys to see this movie today. I have never read Pullman's stuff--he started up too late for me to enjoy him as a kid, and our sons are too young to have gotten into him yet (well--the older one could read them now, actually), and so I am at long last one of those people who saw the movie without having bothered to read the book. And all evidence suggests that the book is better. Which of course is inevitable for any decent book, because it's a book, and a movie is never a better book than a book, unless the book was written expressly for the purpose of getting turned into a movie.

But as a movie, The Golden Compass is pretty decent, and the young lead actress is terrific, and Ian MacKellen is very fine as a polar bear (sorry--an ice bear, which is a like a very large polar bear that talks like Ian MacKellen), which the CGI geniuses have actually managed to make look quite a lot like Ian MacKellen when he talks.

I post about it here though because I read a review of it last week in our local Gannett paper, which utterly trashed it, leaving it with an anemic star and a half. Gannett is not in the business of disliking things--liking them is more profitable for everyone--and so this review, which stressed the "emotional coldness" of the film, struck me as a possible right-wing hit piece aimed at the movie's apparent anti-Christian bias. (And let me say that, yes indeed, it does seem to be pretty unsympathetic to religion, a sentiment Pullman has been more than happy to confirm in interviews.)

And so, hit piece it was, I think. Surely word came down from corporate that The Golden Compass must be snuffed out. Because, although the movie is not great, it's thoroughly entertaining, and posits some extremely interesting fantasy what-if's, most remarkable among them the idea of human souls taking the form of animal familiars. I assume this is straight from Pullman, as it's too smart for a movie otherwise--the implications of this arrangement allow for all kinds of fascinating psychological experimentation. Nicole Kidman, for instance, as Cruella DeVil (or somebody like her), actually abuses her own soul, then tearfully mommies up to it as it whimpers on her shoulder. BAD ASS!

I'm no atheist (agnostic to the core, thank you), but it certainly is nice to see this kind of moral rigor (however smarmily presented) thrown onto a big-screen kids' movie. It's thought-provoking, and the bears are way cool. I believe I will try to get Owen into Pullman ASAP.

Your thoughts?

Thursday, December 13, 2007

My Favorite Poet

Wallace Stevens is my favorite poet. To me all the poets who came before seem like his ancestors, and all the poets coming after seem like decendents: I'm sure it's not accurate, but I pretty much see all of poetry coming through the small window that is Wallace Stevens.

What a strange fellow! He worked most of his life for an insurance company, and even turned down a position teaching at Harvard because he didn't want to leave his company. In pictures he looks like my grandfather: grumpy and conservative. But his poems reveal a boundless imagination. He was more inventive and radical than the most radical bohemian. He wrote most of his best work after he turned fifty.

In 1993 I somehow got a copy of The Palm at the End of the Mind. For a long time the poems seemed impenetrable, but the titles alone made me think it had to be a great book.

Anatomy of Monotony
Evening Without Angels
Ghosts as Cocoons
Loneliness in Jersey City
Anything is Beautiful if You Say It Is
A Weak Mind in the Mountains
A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts
Extracts from Addresses to the Academy of Fine Ideas
Oak Leaves are Hands
Man Carrying Thing
Someone Puts a Pineapple Together
The Planet on the Table

I didn't, and don't, get all of his poems. I took a class on his work in grad school but dropped it: it was too hard, and it wasn't helping me like the poems any more than I already did. But if I don't get them, why do I even like them?

I think I like the way he moves from images to ideas, and then back to images, and then moves into sounds. Okay, that's an intellectualization of the reason. But it is sort of true: his images are not just images. They're ideas and sounds, too.


The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

Reading Stevens I feel frozen up parts of my mind breaking away, shifting, and thawing.

Anyway, I highly recommend reading a little WS to anyone who has a mind of winter these days.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Why revision is necessary

I'm kinda stuck on this subject right now, since I'm in the middle of this big novel rewrite, and I am not thinking about much else for a change. But I never cease to be amazed how much of the important work in a novel--more so, perhaps, than a story--happens in, say, the fifth or sixth draft.

I may have posted here before about my perennial experience writing a first novel draft--I cruise along like a bastard for about 150 pages, and then I screech to a halt. Why? Because that's when I finally begin to realize what novel it is I'm trying to write, and it's never the one I've been writing--it's this other one. So the rest of the manuscript is the "right" one, and draft #2 is always about going back and fixing the first 150 pages so that they're actually part of the same novel as the rest.

Draft three is about polishing draft two. Then I pass it around to people--Rhian, Ed, Bob, Brian--and get their opinions. Then I sulk for a couple of weeks (sometimes many months) and decide who to listen to and who not to. Then I write draft number four.

At this point, I'm beginning to discover the stuff that will later hold the book together. Images, themes, recurring secondary characters; familiar turns of phrase, evolving narrative flourishes, parallel plot twists. Today, deep in draft four, I found myself pulling a neat fast one--a prop that figures prominently in a flashback episode late in the novel, I ended up planting earlier on, without explanation. Suddenly there's a line drawing those two parts together, when before there was none. And I spent yesterday eliminating a character and repurposing some of her scenes--one appears in a dream, and another is taken over by somebody else. It turns out I didn't need her after all--in fact, she was all wrong for the book (as Rhian warned me, early on). I will probably end up cutting the dream, even.

Draft five will be another major overhaul, most likely, in the wake of another peer review, and then draft six will go to my agent. Should the thing be accepted by a publisher, I'll do draft seven under an editor's pen, draft eight in the wake of a copyedit, draft nine in loose galleys, and draft ten in bound galleys. And probably another one will sneak in there, somehow--maybe my agent will have some ideas, too.

That's one draft of new writing and nine or ten of revision. The new writing takes six months. The revisions take a year and a half, at least. This is where the pile of pages turns into an actual book. Up until then, it's just a good idea that I ruined by trying to actually write it.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

David Markson's The Last Novel

I've never been a big fan of the outrageously experimental, though I've always advocated for its right to exist, because, you know: something for everyone, correct? But so far I'm adoring Markson's The Last Novel. It is a novel (maybe?) with only the tiniest trace of characters, pretty much no plot, and absolutely no setting. It's a collection or list of observations about historical and literary personalities, with a few recurring themes, some connecting webs of influence, and a taste for the funny and ironic. That's pretty much it.

Here's a bit from where I stopped reading last night, fairly representative:
One can now hear famous pieces of music as easily as one can buy a glass of beer.
Proclaimed Debussy in delight at the advent of the phonograph.

They who drink beer will think beer.
Said Washington Irving.

Cracked, Edith Sitwell called Blake.

Flaubert's outrage at the notion of an illustrated version of Bovary.

I don't know how Markson intended it to work, or how it works with other people, but for me it's just delightful to see these fragmented bits of character and history tossed together so that they form almost random patterns. It makes me think of standing on a bridge in the fall and watching leaves float by -- they turn and bump into each other and sink in ways that seem random but that you know, because they are following the rules of physics, are actually predictable. But you don't know what the rules are, so you have to just observe it and be surprised.

I'm constantly impressed by how many different ways there are to write and to read.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Everything Is Writing

What with the end of the school year, I haven't been writing much. But I've found time to do a lot of other things while I "ought" to have been writing--playing music, tinkering around with electronic crap, and today, taking a bunch of pictures.

I'm of two minds about this. On the one hand, writing is my vocation, and ought to take it seriously enough to do it every day, regardless of my immediate desires. When I don't "feel like it," I am really cowering in the face of the work's difficulty. I oughta man up and get to work. I have a colleague, in fact, who told me I shouldn't even be blogging--to do so, he says, is to squander mental energy that ought to be expended on my work.

On the other hand, writing is the only job that you can safely claim to always be doing. Everything is research. This is kind of a running joke among writers, but it's true. You honestly never know which of your apparently mundane experiences will magically transmute themselves into good work. Indeed, the one experience that is least likely to inspire great writing is the act of writing itself.

But honestly--I spend way, way more time on my hobbies than I do on my writing. Part of it is laziness, I suppose, but most of it is that I want to make sure that I'm always allowing the world to stimulate me. And I want to engage all the parts of myself, in the hope that those experiences will seep in to wherever the mojo is kept.

Tomorrow, at last, I am getting back to my novel. I'm very relieved--I need to be working on something. And last night, while I was lying awake in bed, having spent a week doing nothing but reading student essays, playing the bass guitar, dragging a piano through the snow (don't ask), reading a true crime paperback, watching the Seinfeld DVD's and getting annoyed with my kids, I came up with three or four absolutely vital moves I will need to apply to this rewrite, and wrote them down, with great excitement, in the dark.

Would I have thought of them had I spent the week trying to write something else? I honestly have no idea. But I do know I will happily spend any number of future weeks wasting time, in an effort to replicate this success.

Friday, December 7, 2007

What is a Perfect Sentence?

There's been lots of interesting hubbub surrounding Rake's dismissal of BR Myers's review of Tree of Smoke. The gist: Myers (an Atlantic darling who made some froth a few years back by claiming that all the literary giants of today are just emperors with no clothes on; that all of us who might like them are just bullshitting frauds who can't possibly actually care about literature) complains that, among other sins, Johnson writes bad sentences, and that since the backbone of good literature is sentences, Johnson is no good. Oh, and Myers brags that Tree of Smoke is the only one of Johnson's works he has ever read, but he's sure the others can't be any good either.

(Off topic: hello, wtf? It is a rare honor to get to write a big long review in a glossy, well-paying mag, and he doesn't even bother reading the rest of the author's work? Come on, work for your money, sir!)

Anyway, there's some arguing in Rake's comments and on other sites about whether Johnson's sentences are, in fact, bad. It got me thinking about the spring of 1987 ('88?) when my beloved writing teacher Stuart Friebert taught us what a Perfect Sentence is. Yes, it exists. It is a sentence of perfect iambic pentameter, such as:

We kissed the cat then threw it down the well.

Because rhythm, even in prose, is vitally important, and iambic pentameter is the most natural rhythm of the English language: that's how our beats fall, and that's how long we can go without wanting to take a breath.

The other important thing, said Friebert, is to stick to words of Germanic, rather than Latin, root. Germanic words are shorter, stronger, more guttural, and came first. Our Latin words are often just fancy substitutes for simpler words.

I believe in this stuff like a religion. But is that it? No! There's also the commandments in The Elements of Style, which are mostly about grammatical clarity -- terribly important, too. But if you could write wonderful prose just by following a collection of rules, we'd all be doing it. And we aren't.

There is clearly a voodoo element involved. There is a Factor X about great writing that cannot be shaken out and distilled. And hey, if I knew what it was, I wouldn't be blogging: I'd be waxing my Pulitzer this evening.

But that's a cop out, isn't it? Here's what I think: you have to also be surprising. If you follow the rules and only follow the rules, you're not surprising anyone. What I like to read is writing made of sentences that pay attention to rhythm, but also knock rhythm off-kilter; that are mostly grammatically clear, but also make use of a judicious amount of fuzz and ambiguity. Not every sentence has to have a snake-in-a-can in it, of course.

Back when I used to teach writing, I sometimes gave the students the first line of Denis Johnson's "Out on Bail" as a writing prompt. The students always produced terrific, inspired stuff with it. There's something about that sentence that pushed open invisible doors in them. Here it is:

I saw Jack Hotel in an olive-green three-piece suit, with his blond hair combed back and his face shining and suffering.

What is the surprise there? The name "Jack Hotel"? The word "suffering"? Or maybe the strange way the sentence begins, not indicating any time or place ("The first time I saw..." or "That was the time I saw...") but just I saw. Funky! But rhythmic and strong enough to know you're in good hands, so you want to go forward.

The fault-finders could find fault with it, for sure. But being without fault doesn't make writing great. If only!

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Literature vs. Theory

I went to a talk last week at the college where I teach, and was a little dismayed to discover that, though it was sponsored by the English department, it made no mention of literature. Rather, it analyzed a particular social phenomenon by addressing its evolution in popular culture. Movies, TV shows, and celebrities came up a lot, and only one book was mentioned--one I've read and enjoyed, but which basically is an entertaining piece of crap. The Q&A afterward focused almost entirely on fashion reality shows, none of which I've seen, and which I was stunned to discover my colleagues watched religiously. What the hell's going on here?

On Rhian's recommendation, I picked up a book by another colleague of mine, Jonathan Culler. It's a primer on literary theory and its more controversial descendant, cultural theory. It is a really, really good book, and for me will serve as a kind of field guide to the scholars who people my department--smart, interesting people whose approach to literature, until now, made no sense to me whatsoever. Especially since, evidently, it isn't literature some of them are approaching at all, but other kinds of "texts" entirely.

Culler's vest-pocket definition of theory is as follows:

Theory is often a pugnacious critique of common-sense notions, and further, an attempt to show that what we take for granted as "common sense" is in fact a historical construction, a particular theory that has come to seem so natural to us that we don’t even see it as a theory. As a critique of common sense and exploration of alternative conceptions, theory involves a questioning of the most basic premisses or assumptions of literary study, the unsettling of anything that might have been taken for granted: What is meaning? What is an author? What is it to read? What is the "I" or subject who writes, reads, or acts? How do texts relate to the circumstances in which they are produced?

What surprises me about this definition is its familiarity. Any serious novelist asks himself these very questions, challenges the very assumptions theory, in Culler's definition, strives to challenge, every time he sits down to work. A good writer has got this stuff embedded in her mind--she doesn't write a page without filtering it with the kind of rigor theory appears to demand. The difference is that the theorist does this thinking for the purpose of academic illumination, and the novelist does it for the purpose of artistic expression.

It turns out that the talk I heard was an example of cultural theory--an area of endeavor that applies the central questions of literary theory to texts outside the sphere of literature (forgive me, academics, if I'm off the mark with this definition...I'm a neophyte here), in this case movies, TV, and figures in popular culture. What this is doing in an English department I have no idea--no more of an idea, anyway, than what I'm doing there--but the talk was interesting, and funny, and perhaps will lead to some good scholarship.

I think my past aversion to theory comes mostly from people who weren't very good at it. These are the kind of people who read a lot, and can tell you all about the extent to which a book cleaves to the late-twentieth-century capitalist-masculine social hegemony, but can't tell you if they liked it or not. They're kind of people who regard actual novels as artifacts, indistinguishable from one another, of the particular social context in which they were created. They're like paleontologists-in-waiting, who wish authors would just go away and die, so they can pick at the texts we leave behind.

Culler himself is famous around campus for having said, of contemporary novelists and poets, "You can stop now--we have enough." Or at least he's rumored to have said it. If he didn't, I don't want to know--it's a great line, one that hilariously encapsulates everything that writers fear might be wrong with theory. But from where I'm standing, it looks like writers and scholars--good writers, and good scholars--might well have the same interests in mind: the complexity and fascination of language, and the uses to which it is, and can be, put.

That said, I'm not watching "Project Runway," and neither should you. Read Culler's book instead. Or any book.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Nabokov's House

I was at a friend's house the other day and spotted a copy of Pale Fire on her dining room table. "Hey, funny," I said. "Because I always think of that book when I'm driving through this neighborhood." In Pale Fire, John Shade's house is apparently in my friend's neighborhood. Nabokov taught at Cornell for a number of years and PF is set here.

"Oh, yeah," she said. "I told you he lived here, didn't I?"

Um, NO!

Of course the rest of the visit I couldn't stop thinking of his big-nosed Russian profile at the picture window. It's a beautifully spare, modernist house, and it feels just like Nabokov's writing: part stylishly European and part suburban vernacular. Its big uncurtained windows look down over everything.

One of the books I keep on my desk to thumb through at odd moments is VN's last published novel, Look at the Harlequins!, which is a sort of fake autobiography. There's an awful lot of moving from house to house in it, which is true to VN's life -- he lived in ten or a dozen houses in Ithaca in as many years. And one of the many things I like about his writing is his attention to the trappings of daily life: the socks, the armchairs, the windows, the cars, the houses. Here's a bit about a different house he rented, where, according to local legend, wife Vera saved Lolita from the burn barrel:
The furnished apartment we finally rented on the upper floor of a handsome house (10 Buffalo St.) was much to my liking because of an exceptionally comfortable study with a great bookcase full of works on American lore including an encyclopedia in twenty volumes. Annette would have preferred one of the dacha-like structures which the Administration also showed us; but she gave in when I pointed out to her that what looked snug and quaint in summer was bound to be chilly and weird the rest of the year. (pg. 130)

Chilly and weird. That's Ithaca all right.

Anyway, living in Nabokov's house, living with the same doorways and shrubs and windows... can my friend help sharing something significant with Nabokov? Just being there for a couple of hours was a thrill.

Monday, December 3, 2007

A Damned Good Sentence

That would be one among many in the new Denis Johnson, which I'm slogging my way through presently. Slogging not because it's bad--in fact, so far, it's awesome. But because there are tons of characters engaged in situations whose import is not yet clear, and I'm tired and usually a glass and a half of wine into my evening when I sit down to read it.

So. Here, a priest is on a ten-kilometer walk down a dirt road. It gets extremely windy. And then:

An infestation of tiny black beetles numerous as raindrops roamed the gusts and sailed past.

So there you have it. That is a great sentence. It isn't raining, see, but the beetles are creating a kind of rain. But he doesn't use a simile for it--"beetles fell like raindrops," or "beetles flew throught the air like rain"--instead, he says they're numerous as raindrops, thus telling you how many there are while putting the idea of rain into your head. That is a high-level bit of technique right there. Okay, and then the beetles, they're not just allowing the wind to carry them. They're trying to fly, right?--so he has to try to describe the way the beetles are flying, but really they are being blown more than they're flying, but they are still flying.

roamed the gusts

That is just perfect. They're good with this, the beetles--they're riding in the wind and flying around within it. It's all of a piece. They roamed the gusts and sailed past.

That's the kind of sentence that separates great writers from competent ones. It isn't fancy, it isn't "impressive," it isn't trying to prove anything. It is just saying this one particular thing as eloquently and efficiently as possible. It packs the words with more meaning than they look like they can hold. The book is full of sentences like that, which is why it's taking some time for me to get through's very rich. But it's very, very good.

An aside, too: Rhian just emailed me this reminiscence of W6 hero Stanley Elkin by writer Abby Frucht. You might check it out.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

What's New?

I keep showing up at work, checking out the "New Arrivals" fiction table, and finding the same old stuff. Nothing new! I feel deeply hungry and itchy for something good, but I can't find it. You'd think right before the holidays *everything* would be coming out, but apparently not.

Nevertheless, I can't shake this feeling that good stuff is just over the horizon.

JRL and I were chatting last night about the Kindle. Ugh. Just ugh, and whatever. I admit to being a bit of a Luddite, but usually I can see the appeal of whatever technology I'm turning up my nose at. And I've pretty much caved on everything: JRL and I even have a dishwasher now. Haha! Yeah, we have iPods too. But the e-book just fills me with a feeling of vague disgust -- the feeling of having eaten too much at a holiday meal and then having a giant piece of pie shoved in front of you. I mean, who needs it? That feeling.

And I remember that I had the same feeling about new voting machines. We still, miraculously, for now, have the lever-style voting machines in New York. They're about as complicated as those little hand-held counters my mom took to the grocery store back in the '70's. Every time someone votes, they turn a little dial with the lever. At the end of the night, a bunch of octogenarians check the numbers on the dials and call the board of elections. What could be simpler? Room for error? Hell yeah! But since the octogenarians are all half Democrat, half Republican, it evens out.

Why mess with simple perfection???

Anyway, I had the idea, ruminating over the Kindle, that new technology has reached a point where it's not all that interesting and useful anymore. Maybe we've reached a kind of Peak Technology -- we'll continue getting Cool New Stuff, but it'll be progressively less appealing. (Exception: medical technology.) Could we be reaching a Post-Technological age? Could it be that soon people will begin rejecting new gadgets and embracing a slower, hands-on life? I certainly don't want to live in a gray pod surrounded by electronic devices, and if the internet has taught me anything, it's that every feeling I have is shared by millions.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

How It All Comes Together

I was talking to a friend last night, a writer whose work I like, about his forthcoming book, a novel told in a chronologically fragmented way. I asked how this approach had come about, and he told me that he didn't see the benefit of pressing the life of his protagonist, an old man, into the shape of a typical narrative. It was too complex--strands of the book stretched across time and across pages in a way that made his chosen structure feasible, if not inevitable.

While working on it, he'd asked a mutual friend, another novelist, what he though of this approach. And our friend told him that he ought to just write the book in the order it came to him.

It's possible to assign too much power to this perhaps overly simplistic piece of advice, but I cannot count the number of times I've disobeyed it, only to realize I'd taken a wrong turn. Almost all my best stuff, whether it has a predictable structure or not, retains the shape I imagined it having when I started. The actual content is often radically different, but the structure, no.

I'm not sure why this would be. I'm a big believer in the Drastic Rewrite, and I like to think there's nothing I've done in a draft that isn't open to possible revision. And indeed, there is a major exception in my work to this initial-conception rule: my last novel, Happyland, which was completely reimagined from its early drafts. But perhaps that doesn't count--what was eventually published (in severely abbreviated form, in serial) was essentially a new novel, formed out of the busted-up pieces of the original idea.

Even if inspiration isn't the main ingredient in the creation of a good book, it is real, and ought to be respected. Warily, of course--because some inspiration is stupid. But respected nevertheless. I feel as though an idea that hits hard and sticks to the roof of your mind must have something going for it, however coarsely it expresses itself at first. Inspiration isn't magic--it's the product of countless hours of subconscious cogitation, the opening of a painted-shut window you've been idly rattling at for ages. It may be untrustworthy, but it is meaningful, and it can lend direction to the grunt work to come.