Monday, December 29, 2008

Some highs and lows of 2008

Consider this list highly informal, haphazard, and largely unliterary.

BEST BOOKS. My favorite novels this year were probably Tom McCarthy's Remainder (in the lit category) and (in crime, my other big genre) Tana French's excellent In The Woods and The Likeness. In poetry I continued to hopelessly dig Frederick Seidel. In photography, my favorite this year was Jonas Bendiksen's The Places We Live, and in humor I loved Ian Frazier's Lamentations of the Father.

BEST ALBUMS. Honestly? I hardly paid any attention to music this year. I mean, I listened to it a lot, in shuffle mode, and I played a fair amount myself. But I seem to have at last lost the thread of contemporary music. The new records from Radiohead, Steve Malkmus, Vampire Weekend, and Electric President were good, but I didn't memorize entire albums' worth of lyrics as I once did. Alas. Or perhaps not alas, I haven't decided yet.

BEST MOVIE. This year, it was all about The Natural History of the Chicken.

BEST STUFF. Pentax cameras, Canon rangefinder lenses, Eastman 5222-XX film, Ubuntu Linux, the grass-fed steer portion (1/4 of one) that Rhian bought and which we're slowly devouring our way through, goldtop Tokai Love Rock guitar, packing peanuts made from cornstarch, TCHO chocolates, Blacet and Doepfer modular synthesizer products, waxed shoelaces, Cockos Reaper digital audio workstation, Buffalo Trace bourbon, New Balance cross-trainers, Golden Comet chickens, Adobe Lightroom, Tom Thumb 61-key upright piano ($100!), Fage yogurt, Netflix "Watch Instantly."

WORST WORD. The worst word of 2008 is "folks." The presidential campaign has ruined it forever. During one of the debates, Obama actually referred to terrorists as "folks." Et tu, Barack?

BEST MOMENT. Speaking of Obama, I was on the edge of my seat election night along with everyone else, and boy was I happy when he won. But it didn't move me the way I expected it to. That happened a couple of weeks later, at his first press conference as president-elect. The presser was utterly boring. Obama said nothing of substance (at least nothing new), and reporters didn't ask him anything that would have allowed him to show his stuff. But I actually wept. It was so normal, so uncontentious. It reminded me of the old days, when I didn't have to think about how awful the president was day in and day out. I still can't believe Obama is going to be president in a few weeks.

BEST LINGUISTIC PHENOMENON. LOLcats. I shit you not. I don't know why I love the stuff so much, but I do.

OTHER BEST LINGUISTIC PHENOMENON. The introduction of internet slang into actual speech. I have heard about half a dozen people say "teh" this year, and overheard a girl at the mall the other day shout, "EPIC FAIL!" I myself have actually, in lieu of laughing in response to a joke, merely said "lolz."

WORST LINGUISTIC PHENOMENON. The persistence of "Git 'r' done!"

BEST YOUTUBE. One of the most beautiful things I've seen or heard all year:

WORST YOUTUBE. Duh. Swinging baby.

Please feel free to join in, in the comments...

Wednesday, December 24, 2008


There's a small part of me (very small, mind you) that can't stand the holiday season, because its particular rhythms pretty much enforce the accomplishment of nothing. Between now and January 5, when the kids return to school, I will be doing various advanced forms of nothing--reading, taking photos, playing some guitar, staring at the internet. But the stealth project of the coming weeks is the mental preparation for the novel that damned if I'm not going to start writing on the 5th.

So far I'm a little behind, in that I haven't given the thing a moment's thought. Well, that's not really true, I've been thinking about it for the better part of a year--but the particulars of how I'm going to write it, what's going to happen in it, its opening lines, what the voice is going to be like: all of that remains shrouded in mystery. There was a time when this would have panicked me--I used to be a big, big outliner. But over the years I've come to admit to myself how little I actually use the outlines, and how much of what's good in the book ends up being stuff I had no idea I was going to do.

So why not have no idea about the whole thing, right? Then it will all be good! Um, no, not really. But it won't be any worse than the outlined first drafts were.

What I have for this book are characters. I've got them all pretty much down in my head. I don't know a great deal about them, per se, but I know what they're like. I also know how they're going to come together, and that's what I be writing about when I start writing.

I have to admit, I quite like this feeling of incipience--the feeling that soon I'm going to try to make something. I might even like it more than the actual trying to make something, in fact. And the feeling is all wrapped up in the notion that 2009 is going to be a very different year for a lot of people--that it will be a year of sitting back, clearing our heads, and figuring out precisely what is really important to us and how to hold on it. Some people will not be able to hold on, and it makes me sad to think of it. But for those of us whose savings aren't wiped out, and who manage to keep our jobs, it could be a very good year, the kind that forces us to simplify, organize, and remember what makes our lives worth living. For me, it's my family, of course, and music and art and books, both reading them and, fingers crossed, writing them.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Are video games anything like novels?

In Neal Stephenson's wonderful 1996 novel The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, an orphan girl happens across a one-of-a-kind interactive "book," printed on electronic paper, which takes the place of a parent, teaching her how to live her life. I like this as a plot element, but I also like it as a metaphor, because narratives do teach us how to live, and we use them to teach others. How many of you have never said to your kid, "My uncle Al smoked those, and he died of emphysema at the age of 41"?

I was thinking of this the other night when, in an effort to head off some incipient preteen antisocial behavior on the part of our older boy, I opened up his Nintendo DS and fired up Kirby Super Star Ultra, a game involving an adorable puffball who rides on a star and inhales his enemies. I know, I know, sounds like a failed Sid & Marty Krofft show, but give the kid a break, he's 11.

Anyway, I am certainly aware that this is hardly the most sophisticated game out there. But I was amazed at the degree to which the game was swathed in narrative complexity. First-time players are offered the spectacle of a little play (complete with stage and puffball audience) that teaches you the basics of the game, and fills you in on the story. The controls, to a guy weaned on Pac-Man, are dizzyingly complicated; there are tons of possible actions, and the game, while goal-oriented, allows for elaborate exploration of its little world. As narrative, it is easily as absorbing as a novel (though never as satisfying as a good one).

Readers of this blog are probably aware of my preoccupation with non-literary influences, and I admit to being big into videogames in the early 80's, when "shoot the rocks into smaller rocks, then shoot the smaller rocks" was what passed for plot. But games are very, very different now, and I wonder what effects they're having on kids' sense of story--their understanding of life, and its goals and challenges. Some of these effects, doubtless, are bad. But perhaps, much in the same way that malnourished children are more likely to suffer the damaging effects of lead paint, games' ill effects are mostly felt by those whose social and emotional needs are not being met. Perhaps a healthy kid (like mine, I hope) is actually getting something out of the primitive narrative of video games. I think I did, maybe, though it would be hard to make a convincing case for it.

A few years ago, some enterprising geeks started "filming" dramatic short features using characters from first-person shooters as "actors," and overdubbing their own dialogue. The fact that they could do this with some success tells you that games could be a viable format for narrative art. So why not get rid of points, treasures, guns, and enemies, and make literary video games?

Well--for the same reason only a fool would devote his life to literary novels. There isn't much of a market. But it could be that games-as-art is only getting started. Or maybe the moment has passed.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Note From a Previous Self

I was looking at an old journal of mine, from 1992 or so, and found this bit of wisdom: "The secret to happiness: write every day and keep the house clean."

Well, it's something I keep forgetting and relearning. But for me, it's truer than ever. Writing and housekeeping are deeply connected somehow. I'm not the only woman I know whose domestic obligations are constantly getting tangled up with writing, either: we do a load of laundry before we sit down at the desk, or we write until we have to stop and buy groceries or cook dinner. I live in a household where the guy, also a writer, does half the housework, but -- and he'll correct me if I'm wrong -- I don't think he feels the same way about it. I know he likes a clean house, but it's not half the secret to his happiness.

Oh, my god. I sound like I'm in a ladies' magazine. I wish it weren't true, though. I wish my identity as a writer were stronger than my identity as mother, wife, or "The Chicken Lady."* Part of it is that I haven't published lately, but part of it is just that I find domestic life thoroughly absorbing.

And I can't even express what a surprise this is to me. At the time I wrote the note about a clean house, I thought I'd never get married. Then I thought I wouldn't have kids, or if I did, I'd be pretty indifferent at it. Turns out I love it and find it fascinating, more fascinating, usually, than writing.

Of course, kids grow up, stop asking you to read to them, join bands, grow beards, and move out. I suspect I'll return to my old ways eventually. And it's not like domesticity is incompatible with writing. It's just somewhat harder to get motivated.

Anyway, writing every day and keeping the house clean is good advice for all writers, don't you think? Not too clean, like Martha clean. But clean enough.

* No, I don't have a part-time job as a college football mascot. But I have a bunch of free ranging chickens, and lately when I tell someone where I live and which house, they say, "Oh, you're the Chicken Lady!"

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The final word

Posting has been light this week, thanks to the five-inch-thick pile of papers that has been lying under the mail table for the past month: page proofs of my two books that are coming out in spring, a novel and a story collection (the latter a U.S. edition of a book already published overseas, a few years ago). Those in the publishing trade will know that page proofs are printouts, on standard letter-sized paper, of the "designed" pages of a book, which represent the way they'll actually appear in the bound, printed edition. When you see a mistake in this context, it looks horrible, like a turd on the Thanksgiving table. You really want to fix it. From the writer's standpoint, page proofs are also the last chance--your final opportunity to make changes before the book hits the stores.

Well--it's not necessarily the end. John Updike apparently has a shelf of every one of his books, with changes marked on the pages, for a projected posthumous omnibus edition. Henry James considered some of his early works little more than first drafts, and completely rewrote them late in his career. James Joyce famously added around 100,000 words to the Ulysses proofs by hand, driving his printers batty.

But for me, it really is the end. I don't think there's a Lennon Library of America edition in the cards, I'm afraid--and even if there was, when I send in the proofs, that's it. It's over. Indeed, I just made, via email, what is pretty certainly the last edit to the novel. And I corrected some mistakes in the other book, as well. (A writer who was sent the stories for a blurb, generously returned one--along with two pages of grammar and usage mistakes she'd found.) Thinking about my older stuff, there's no question in my mind that there's room for improvement. Some of it actually makes me wince to think about. But for some reason, I feel the need to be true to those former versions of myself, the ones who made those mistakes. The mistakes, in the end, are more important to me now than the rest.

Of course I didn't think they were mistakes at the time. I thought the first couple of books were perfect, when I sent the proofs in. I would never think that now, about anything I've written--I've come to accept the inevitability of imperfection (I know, I know--most of you had this epiphany when you were like 12. But cut me some slack). Back when my career was starting out, though, I wrote a book review for a small magazine, and when it was published, I was appalled to find some horrible mistake in it--I can't recall what the mistake was, some formatting error, I think. I actually took the editor gently to task for introducing this mistake into my work, and received a sincere apology.

Then I thought to check my original file on my computer, and, lo and behold, the mistake was mine. I couldn't believe it! It was the kind of mistake I would never make. I groveled to that editor like I'd run his only child down in the street. He was puzzled by the force of my shame, but he didn't realize the breadth of the transformation I was undergoing. The myth of my infallibility, already on shaky ground, had fallen into a crack in the earth. Good riddance!

Indeed, I even kind of like mistakes now. I like to find a typo in a great book, or a bum note in a good song. I like to see a microphone dangling over a movie scene, or a birthday cake with a thumbprint on it. That is, I like the mistakes that other people have made. I still hate my own, but I expect them now. The proofs I sent out yesterday are doubtless full of things that will embarrass me. But a little embarrassment is a good thing. And not just for other people.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Missing and the Lost

Lately it seems that about fifty percent of new novels have a missing person in them. No, really: that many. I read a lot of flap copy in my job at the book store. And this isn't exactly a criticism, because I'm sort of obsessed with the subject myself. In the late 90's, I noticed that a woman who lived in our building was throwing away an awful lot of stuff. The other tenants and I watched the dumpster carefully: she was putting such great stuff in it, like clothes and unused file folders and even a pet taxi. These days, such behavior would make my hair stand on end, but back then we just thought, Great finds!

Later we heard that she had disappeared, leaving her kitchen cupboards full of shoes and her fridge full of iced tea. Her car showed up, ominously, at the end of a logging road.

And then she was found, hanging around a religious group in a distant town. It was such a bizarre interlude, and one I have never stopped thinking about. I remember with clarity the music I was listening to then, and the fact that during this time I once watched a pack rat crawl up the outside of our building, looking for a window to climb into.

A few years later, a guy here in Ithaca vanished on his way home from working at the Sunglass Hut in the local mall. He was a quiet guy who lived with his mother, and one day he left work on foot and was never seen again. I think of him every time I see the words "Sunglass Hut." Something happened to him, something strange and, from this perspective, inexplicable. But what?

Whatever happened to these people, it would be a good story. I suppose that's the appeal for these missing person novels: humane mystery. No blood, no viciousness, just pure mysterious absence.

But why now? Of course, I wonder if it's all about 9-11. American novels have always been about death and grief, but this missing person obsession: it's pretty new. What does it mean? What kind of social anxiety is it reflecting?

And here's another observation that may or may not be related: hardly anyone write social satire anymore. It might be my favorite kind of novel, but no one seems to have the heart for it anymore. I've started writing a few satires myself, and found them fizzling quickly. They make me feel bad, kind of. Francine Prose, who wrote the hilarious Big Foot Dreams, which made fun of tabloid journalism, and Hunters and Gatherers, which mocked New Age beliefs, has come out with Goldengrove, an apparently unsatirical novel about a character's struggles with the death of her sister. Prose always has her muzzle to the wind. What does it mean when she, too, has abandoned satire? If I knew her, I would ask her.

Have we Americans become... earnest? Yow.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Jim Woodring

I thought I'd take a moment this evening to crawl out from under my pile of student papers to write about a favorite cartoonist of mine. First, though, let me plump for a truly wonderful comics store, Dreamscape Comics in Bethlehem, PA. My parents live nearby, and thought the place would be a nice afternoon trip for our kids; as it happens, I'm the one who left the store with a teetering pile of graphic goodness, while everyone else waited for me outside.

The first thing I looked for when I arrived there (and found promptly) was Jim Woodring's The Portable Frank. I'd read a few of these stories before, in comics anthologies, but didn't realize until recently they'd been collected in a couple of books. I first encountered Woodring in the liner notes, and on the cover, of a record by the band Christmas (if you know them, you know their album In Excelcior Dayglo, but the one in question was the late, James-McNew era Vortex). The drawings were cryptic, evocative, and more than a little bit scary; they included a hammer-weilding man with a drawing for a face, a flying insect with what looks like a testicle for a head, and a monstrous larval fish emerging from a glass of water set on a windowsill. They were simultaneously prosaic and surreal, and backgrounded by fractal shapes whose curves seemed...somehow...Freudian.

"Frank" is probably what Woodring is best known for. This wordless strip features a cat--well, I think he's a cat--with Mickey Mouse hands and feet, who lives in a kind of onion dome and has a pet that looks kind of like a squashed toaster. The two of them go out on little jaunts, encounter frightening, inexplicable creatures and situations, and return home, often disturbingly transformed. Here's a summary of a typical strip, "Gentlemanhog." Frank is out walking with his friend, a pyramid-shaped chicken (in other strips, the chicken is often having a yard sale). They discover a pot full of fireworks. They blow up a tree, and then the chicken, against Frank's warning, ties some firecrackers to the tail of a sleeping hog-man (a recurring figure who is alternately fierce and pathetic, but always deeply sad). The explosions frighten the hog-man, who runs into the wilderness until he becomes lost. He finds a strange garden, and once there, drinks from a fountain. It is then that he is approached by a black man.

No, not an African-American man. A black man. Like, a silhouette. The man leads the hog-man into his home, an Arab-styled open-air mansion, and there, over time, he civilizes the hog-man, teaching him how to read, do laundry, and wear clothes. Eventually the black man dies (by melting in his bed), and the hog-man lives alone...until one day he sees Frank through his spyglass, walking across the wasteland with a bundle on a stick, like a hobo. The hog-man invites him inside, and the two enjoy a nice glass of wine. The hog-man then asks Frank to wait, goes out on a motorcycle, and returns with a package. A few panels later, he places a large covered platter in front of Frank, and removes the lid. It's the pyramid-shaped chicken, plucked and roasted!

Hmm. Well, you had to be there. There is something about Woodring's style--his simple, clear lines and juvenile appeal, combined with his dark humor and slightly revolting symbolism--that really gets me excited. He's not trying to do anything in particular--he appears to have no social agenda, and seems uninterested in literary devices. But his work is so thoroughly the product of personal obsession and visual intuition, that it strikes me with unusual force.

From Fantagraphics Books, of course.

Monday, December 1, 2008


Lately I've started to read several novels that I've been really excited about, novels with wonderful concepts and solid, evocative writing -- at least in the first chapter or two. And then something happens. The story stops moving forward, the voice grows stiff or foggy and hard to follow, and the book just turns into a real slog. In fact, lately it's the rule rather than the exception that this happens. It's like watching someone tread water or churn butter, except there's no butter. What's going on?

Surely some of this is just me, because usually these books are well-praised and admired. Maybe I don't have a lot of patience for the slow bits. But I have a couple of alternate theories. Maybe the writers sold their books on the basis of the beginnings, and then panicked at the prospect of writing 300 more pages. Or maybe the writers are still early in their careers and have spent a lot of time writing short stories and simply don't know what to do after page 50.

Or maybe it's just that great concepts are over-rated, and the abilities to write clearly and compellingly and to sustain a storyline are very rare things indeed.

I've learned not to name names on this blog when I'm being mean, because writers have a way of Googling themselves and I really don't want to ruin anyone's coffee break. But one example is All Shall Be Well; and All Shall Be Well; and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well, a novel with a terrific review in the New York Times, and a great set up: a cranky medieval re-enactor goes to Europe to search for his missing son. The prologue and first chapter are just perfect: funny and tender and arch. But I'm on page 92 now and working hard to persuade myself to keep going. I think I will, because I just love the idea so much. But what happened to all that clever energy?

Here's one last theory, based on evolutionary biology: it doesn't matter what happens after page 50, because if the reader has gotten that far, he's already bought the book. There's a lot of pressure to make the blurbs, the cover, the title, and the first chapter really great, but not so much on the middle. Perhaps eventually, like tails on primates, the middles of books will disappear altogether.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Worst Ending Of Anything In The History Of Ever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Good Enough?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Just to clarify

From Charles Taylor, in this week's NYTBR:

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Alice Fulton, and poets writing fiction

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Life Experience vs. Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Is Postmodernism Over?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Blogger Summit

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

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

Friday, November 7, 2008

Brenda Hillman, first impressions, and Blink

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 6, 2008


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


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

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

Sunday, November 2, 2008

How Fast Do You Write?

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Terrance Hayes, and messing about with identity

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 30, 2008

National Novel Writing Month

Well, it's that time of year again: November, when I try to decide whether NaNoWriMo is really, actually, a good idea. Can anything good come out of a single month of pressured writing? If I was serious about writing something, why not a six- or even three-month deadline?

But I can't seem to resist this opportunity: an externally imposed deadline, without any worries that what I come up with will fail. Because of course it will fail! The project is absurd! Maybe I should look a little more closely at my attraction to doomed projects.

Anyway, last year I fizzled out after three days. I can't remember why. But this year an old friend is doing it, too, and I feel vaguely positive about the whole thing. I just can't come up with an idea. A good NaNoWriMo idea can't depend on research -- there just isn't enough time, unless you do it all ahead of time, which I didn't. The ideal NaNo novel has a gimmick, a kind of trick you can work out thirty different ways over the month, starting fresh each day. The first year I tried writing a traditionally plotted novel, but found it too difficult to pace everything right, and the plot kept running off the rails whenever I'd have a bad day.

Is anyone else doing it? My name over there is Triptraptrop. If you sign up, we can read each other's bad stuff!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Stealth YA!

I was delighted to find that a new Kelly Link collection was coming out, and so I ordered it from the Bookery. As she was typing it into the computer, Rhian paused. "Oh wait--this is a young adult book." I told her I didn't think so. She said sure it was, it's listed as YA. We looked into it--there didn't seem to be anything in the descriptions online that suggested the book was YA. Maybe it had been misfiled, I figured. I ordered it.

The book came in the other day and I sat down to read it. Nothing on the jacket, flaps, endpapers, or title page suggested it was YA. Then I read about halfway through the first story.

It's YA. I love Kelly link, but wow, this has really got me steamed. Yesterday my friend and collaborator Lou Beach wrote me with this link to an article on Link and this new book; go read it, it's good, and bully for her for writing a YA collection: it's always a pleasure to see something for teenagers that isn't a horrific piece of shit.

But a big middle finger to Viking for disguising this work as something other than kids' lit. I'm happy to have shelled out to further Link's career, but I'm a grownup, dammit, and I've been deceived. As that article suggests, they're hoping that Harry Potter fans will dig it, and I'm aware that there are people over the age of 17 who were able to endure Harry Potter, so I suppose this sleight-of-hand is for them, and they won't mind a bit. But in my view, there is a big difference between YA and adult literature, and I want the strong stuff.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

An unlikely inspiration

OK, file this is under extra-literary. Last night, when the family sat down to dinner, I went scrolling through the iPod looking for some decent music to listen to while we ate. And I came across an old favorite, an album I have been listening to for ten years with absolute pleasure and have never gotten sick of, an album I find inspiring, amusing, and moving every time I hear it.

Obviously you want to know what it is. I must warn you, knowing is not likely to be of much help. It's called "Home And Abroad," and it's by Howard Skempton, a British avant-garde composer, and it consists of 32 pieces for solo accordion. It's not on Amazon, it's not anywhere (NOTE: I just noticed, there seems to be a used copy at I can barely find any evidence the thing exists. But I love the hell out of it.

In 1996, I was working at the Missoula Art Museum as a receptionist and, since there were only seven of us, I ended up hanging shows, doing lighting, and (one grueling month) stripping wood floors. That year, we commissioned a piece by Hamish Fulton, a self-described "walking artist" whose pieces consist of him taking a really long walk in the middle of nowhere, then returning several weeks later looking like a homeless man, and spending another week or so filling a gallery space with conceptual work based on his walk--mostly wall paintings, texts, sculptures, etc. His stuff is great, and we really hit it off, so well in fact that a couple of years later we hauled our then-one-year-old son Owen to Canterbury, England, to visit him and his wife.

Hamish and Nancy Fulton are great people, and their cottage outside of town has since served as a model for us on how to live our lives--a book- and art-filled house, idiosyncratically decorated, and filled with a lot of smart, funny conversation. In any event, they picked us up at the train station, and when we walked into their house, this album was playing.

It's hard to describe. Sometimes it sounds like folk music, sometimes modern classical, usually both. It's rhythmically odd, the melodies are sinuous; the playing is rife with good humor. Think...think....of Eric Satie crossed with Weird Al Yankovic. In any event, I immediately asked what it was, characterizing it as being like "an alcoholic circus," and Hamish promised that he would get me a copy.

Well. Our visit was wonderful, and we went home. Time went by. I thought about the album daily--I really wanted it. (This was before it was easy to rip CD's, let alone upload them to your ftp.) Eventually a package arrived from Hamish, but he mustn't have been able to find me a copy, because the one he sent had a little sticker attached to it that read "Fulton." He'd given me his own.

Is it a stretch to say this record has influenced my work? Maybe. More likely, it has served as a reminder of what I like in the world. Simplicity mixed with surprise. Mournful humor. Brevity. This music presumes nothing, and gives everything. It's weird and quietly powerful. Every time I listen to it, it's like listening for the first time. I don't think I can name a book that makes me feel that way.

Rhian will think I'm nuts for posting this, but I just love this album. It's one of the only things I've ever been able to write while listening to--instead of pushing my concentration away, it goes with the flow. It isn't just the music, either--it's the strange journey that I had to take to reach it, a journey that Hamish's walk was a part of. And I love the fact that things still exist that are hard to find.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Recommending Books

One of the things I get paid the big bucks for, down at the book store, is recommending books. Okay, I will confess: I don't really like this part of the job. Sometimes I do -- sometimes I really sense that a customer will like what I like and I turn all fanatic, pressing my favorites on them. And sometimes I feel like a temporary psychic: something just descends on me and I know a customer is destined for a certain book. A woman looking for something for her hip, J.S. Foer-reading niece? That Miranda July collection, duh!

But most of the time I'm a little bit at sea. Do you know what people ask for most of the time? Besides a gift for their precocious 7 year old niece (and I make sure those poor kids get the fancy gift edition of The Secret Garden), they want something "light, uplifting, like a beach read... but not stupid." Aw, geez, man, I dunno! Elizabeth McCracken's The Giant's House is pretty charming and smart, but the guy dies in the end, so is it uplifting? I usually press them a bit more: Do they like The Secret Life of Bees, or The Devil Wears Prada? Exactly what kind of fluff are they after? Or do they not want fluff at all, just something more fluffy than The Tin Drum?

Why do people like what they like? I think about this a lot. Do most people like whole classes of things, or are they more likely to like specific examples of a wide range of things? We assume the former but I think the latter is more common. People are quirky. Sometimes the narrator of a book just ticks them off, and there's no explaining it. It's almost as hard to set people up with a book as it to find them a lover.

And anyway, why are they asking some random schlump behind the counter what to read? Oh, I get it: they want someone to blame. Cousin Wanda didn't like Duma Key? Yeah, well I know whose fault it is -- that bookstore woman's!

There's nothing better than getting a recommendation right, though. I know it's happened to me, though I can't think of any titles at the moment. Do you have any recommendation successes to share? I'll be sure to steal them for my next shift.

Biblio Burro

This article on Colombia's burro-powered bookmobile might be the charmingest thing I've read in a long time.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Taschen: The Polaroid Book

Is there anyone else out there who loves Taschen? Their books are big, beautiful, and cheap, and they appear dedicated to abolishing the distinction between high and low culture, embracing everything from portraiture to porno. And then there's the architecture, the old maps, classic anatomy texts, illuminated manuscripts...almost everything they put out is interesting.

Anyway, The Polaroid Book isn't new, but I just picked it up at the Bookery for fifteen bucks, and it's a tremendous inspiration--not just for photographers, but for anyone who likes representing the world in art. Polaroid photography was developed by Edwin Land in the 1920's and refined through the thirties, and exists in a variety of formats; the one people know best, however, is the square-frame pack film, used in instant cameras and recently discontinued, which created pictures like the one above (taken by Karin Elizabeth, on flickr, and pretty much selected at random).

What is it about Polaroids? For me, it's the the saturated pastels, the darkened edges, the sense of immediacy and accident. People used Polaroids to instantaneously commemorate experience: you took one, and could look back fondly on the moment, a couple of minutes ago, when you took it. The result was a heightened sense of the flow of time, the way life changes from moment to moment--something that the very best fiction does, as well. I also like that Polaroids are an artifacty format--the instant snaps like Karin Elizabeth's are usually shown inside their lopsided paper frame, which serves to remind you you're looking at a picture. The old Land Camera positives always had those rough, distorted edges, as well--evidence that art is a process, that it is something made by man. I like art that flaunts its artificiality. I like art that is about itself.

Anyway, the book is little more than page after page of cool pictures, and I recommend it. It expands one's idea of what is worth representing in art, and how it can be represented. And it shows that art can be egalitarian, and it can be refined, sometimes in the same instant.

EDIT: Reader Lou Barranti, a contributor to this book, sends the following correction: "Your post says that 'Polaroid photography was developed by Edwin Land in the 1920's and refined through the thirties...' Actually it was in the late 1940s that Land created the Polaroid photographic process. Perhaps it was a reference similar to the following statement in a Wikipedia article that you may have seen prior to writing your piece on the Polaroid book (in fact, you link to that Wikipedia article at the beginning of the above quoted sentence): 'The original material, patented in 1929 (U.S. Patent 1,918,848 ) and further developed in 1932 by Edwin H. Land, consists of many microscopic crystals of iodoquinine sulfate (herapathite) embedded in a transparent nitrocellulose polymer film.' It wasn't a photographic film. It was a light polarizing film (or filter) that Land created in the 20s to which this article refers. This was his first major invention. The Wikipedia entry for Dr. Land ( ) has more on his photographic invention. There are more authoritative sources out there, of course (Barbara Hitchcock's essay in The Polaroid Book, for example), but what I read there seems to line up with what I know about Land and his invention (instant photography, that is; I don't know much about the rest of his professional life, other than that he invented Polaroid polarizing film.)"

Sunday, October 19, 2008

To the Colonies!

Anybody here ever been to a writer's colony? Neither JR nor I ever have. We've always been too busy trying to make money or having kids or taking care of them. Also, what's two weeks or four or eight weeks, really? If a person needs quiet and isolation to work, she probably needs a lot longer than that to get anything done. Anyway, I always thought, isolation is over-rated: I once spent a summer alone in Missoula, Montana, in an apartment with a mountain view, knowing no one yet, and wrote about five total pages of sheer crap.

However, for whatever reason, I've been thinking it might be awfully fun. For the first time, I think I might tolerate two or even three weeks away from our sons. They're awesome, but you know. When I was a teenager I spent hours and hours ALONE. Wow, that sounds just blissful, now. And though just a few weeks might not be enough to get a ton of writing done, it might kick something off.

Here's the scary part: What if you got into something terrific like, I dunno, YADDO or something, and then you spent the WHOLE TIME just sitting there, staring into space! And every evening at dinner in the Grand Hall, or whatever, you'd be sitting with your plate of rotini while all the other colonists talked about their Big Breakthroughs and how they just nailed that scene in Chapter Five. Maybe shop talk is a faux pas at colonies. I don't even know. But when I start my colony, out in the woods behind our house, it will be Verboten.

And sometimes I think that the main reason to try and get into a colony is for validation. Normally I would sneer at that -- who needs the approval of OTHERS? -- but heck, a little dollop of validation would nice, now wouldn't it?

What do you think? Are writers' colonies just an indulgence for the vain and idle? Or are they a valuable experience?

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Two specimens of awesomeness

I was impressed by two things this week, one a novel, the other a poem. The novel is the late Stieg Larsson's thriller The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. This book is a bestseller and hardly needs my recommendation, but it is a superb example of the genre, and kept me distracted from everything else in my life for a couple of knuckle-biting days. Larsson was a Swedish journalist who died in 2004 at the age of 50; he left behind this novel and two sequels, complete but unpublished. That Wikipedia page also calls Larsson a photographer, and I'm not surprised to learn this. Cameras play a role in this book, and the protagonist knows a little too much about them. He can identify a Hasselblad, for instance, at 200 yards.

The protagonist in question is a middle-aged financial reporter named Mikael Blomkvist, who stumbles into a murder mystery wrapped in a family conundrum rolled into a financial puzzle; his co-protagonist is a 25-year-old borderline-autistic punk girl named Lisbeth Salander (the girl in the title), an emotionally disturbed ward of the state, hacker extraordinaire, and crack private investigator. I know--it sounds hopelessly corny, doesn't it? It really isn't, in spite of the occasional (and necessary) run of expository dialogue. Indeed, the book flirts with literariness now and then--not too much, luckily. The point of reading it is the absorbing plot and the wonderful Lisabeth, who is, in spite of her outre, overdetermined persona, a truly original creation, even within the very impressive Scandanavian crime scene. A wonderful book.

The poem is by Frederick Seidel, and is in this week's New Yorker. It is called "Poem By The Bridge At Ten-Shin," is quite long, and is just extraordinary. I am a real sucker for the way Seidel lurches from erudition to crassness, from the lyric to the nursery rhyme, from the wise to the puerile, often inside the same line; here, he seems to achieve some outrageous apotheosis of self, with line after line of mad juxtaposition and loopy rhyme. The poem is rude and childish and brilliant; please give it a look. Here's the ending:

The Earth keeps turning, night and day, spit-roasting all the tanned
Tired icebergs and the polar bears, which makes white almost contraband.
The biosphere on a rotisserie emits a certain sound
That tells the stars that Earth was moaning pleasure while it drowned.
The amorous white icebergs flash their brown teeth, hissing.
They're watching old porn videos of melting icebergs pissing.
The icebergs still in panty hose are lesbians and kissing.
The rotting ocean swallows the bombed airliner that's missing.

Jesus Christ. Those last four lines, with their catatonic rhyme scheme and cracked-up rhythm, somehow just scare the shit out of me. Happy Halloween.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Hey, Late Bloomers

In the latest New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell argues that you don't have to be a precocious young punk to be a genius. He proposes a model of creativity that takes years and years to develop, years that might look like total failure while the artist slowly works out her thing. Wow, I love this: the idea that slow, hard work and inspired originality are not mutually exclusive. For too long I thought they were; I thought if the work didn't come to me in a big flash it probably wasn't any good, and if I had to pick at ideas to get them right, they were dead. These days, nothing comes easily, and I like thinking that my labors are just part of a longer, more frustrating, but equally rich experience.

Boy, though, that bit about Jonathan Safran Foer -- who tossed off his first novel at 19, having not really read much or thought about writing until then -- was a bit hard to take...

Anyway, read the article. Unless you're a 19 yr old genius, it will make you feel good.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

How Far Is the Ocean From Here

Moonlight Ambulette is a wonderful blog, one of my favorites. Amy always has excellent recommendations and hilariously charming commentary. I knew I'd love her first novel. It's about a very pregnant runaway surrogate mother stranded in a down-at-heel motor lodge in New Mexico, and it's full of weird, surprising, beautiful writing and good characters. On the surface I guess HFITOFH is about family-making (can you make a family out of random strangers?) but a step or two deeper down it's about what people owe each other -- indebtedness. The characters are constantly giving each other things: pebbles, breakfast, lodging, babies. (One of my favorite lines is when one of the characters demands his breakfast: "'Pop-Tarts and a orange,' he said. 'Yeah.'" He gets the Pop-Tarts, but no orange.) I loved the setting, too: the desert, the motel with its huge, buzzing neon sign and greenish swimming pool. Anyway: it turns out you can blog AND write great fiction! Or at least Amy can.

It's good to be back. I shouldn't have picked an election season to try and give up the internet, though. I would have done more writing if I hadn't spent so much time checking the latest tracking polls. Several of my old lit-blog haunts disappeared during my hiatus: Writer, Reading is gone (drop a line if you have a new blog, WR) bloglily is taking her own break, etc. But I'm totally raring to go. Anyone seen Max around? I really miss that mean old son of a gun.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Fiction-based blogging?

Here's a quickie to tide us all over until Rhian gets her behind in gear and takes hold of the rudder. They're up to something peculiar this week at Boing Boing Gadgets: that celebrated geek-tech blog has undergone a temporary transmutation into a fictional mouthpiece of "Infomercia, a massive super-conglomerate turned government on an alternate Earth in which indiscriminate technological consumerism and promiscuous corporate partnerships have become the backbone of an oppressive, Orwellian dystopia." Blogger John Brownlee goes on:

In this world, Boing Boing Gadgets is one of an endless number of official government mouthpieces, controlled by Infomercia's Ministry of Machines (MiniMac, or MoM for short). In fact, all gadget blogs are either mouths of MiniMac's propaganda machine, or the mouths of its foreign counterparts. As such, links that go to Gizmoldovia's cluster of gadget blogs will tend to be laudatory; links that go to Engasian sites will be disparaged.

So the blog will evidently be spending the week wearing the vestments of a meta-novel, in the form of a gadget blog in an imaginary ultra-consumerist nation. I'm not sure how ironic this is supposed to be, since Boing Boing Gadgets is already a voluntary mouthpiece of an ultra-consumerist nation, but no matter. I like the idea.

Similarly, Rhian said something interesting to me the other night--she wondered what I thought of occasionally discussing extra-literary matters on this blog. Since I've already allowed politics and photography to ooze onto these pages, I don't see why not...we always end up bringing everything around to books, anyway. It reminds me of the mental games I play every winter while trying to decide which expenses I can justify as business deductions on our taxes. Since we're writers, all of life informs our work, does it not? So every last Twix bar, in theory, can be written off. I've never had the guts to go all the way, and I doubt we'll go that far here, either. But perhaps you can anticipate a subtle broadening of our outlook.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

What came in the mail

Here's a hodgepodge of stuff from this week's mailbag. The main thing was my box of books from the UK. About twice a year I put in an order, so that I can get my hands on some of my favorite British writers' books before they come out here. Mostly mysteries. In this fall's box I've found new stuff from Tom McCarthy (and by the way, how on earth did the guy get such a huge Wikipedia page? Consider this an official request: somebody please plump mine up, I don't have the chutzpah to do it myself), Karin Fossum (not a police procedural this time around, but apparently a literary venture), and Arnaldur Indridason, along with the latest from Barbara Vine and P. D. James.

I've read the latter two, and thought they were both OK. Vine/Rendell is reliably good, especially in her Vine mode, but this new one (The Birthday Present) is strangely subdued and unsuspenseful. And the James (The Private Patient) feels a bit as though she's going through the motions. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the act of reading these books, and picked them up with great eagerness in the evening, despite their shortcomings. Why? It's the way these writers create and maintain their settings. In Vine's case, it's London, with particular attention to the workings of Parliament; in James's it is Dorset, and a former manor house that has been converted into a private plastic-surgery hospital. There is a lushness and comforting realism to these places; both writers are masters at describing streets and roads and interiors, never in terribly thrilling prose, but always with steadfast professionalism. Both books were genuine pleasures in a personally anxious week.

Yesterday's mail also brought the latest Paris Review, featuring two items of note: a new short story by a guy I've never heard of, Jesse Ball (yes, yes, that website is pretentiously uninformative, but hey), and a new poem, "October," by our own Ed Skoog. The Ball story is about a starving poet who applies for a mysterious job--he fills out a bewildering application, and then endures an interview with an inscrutable man; the result is a hundred-thousand-dollar gig trying to avoid being murdered by another applicant. It sounds hopelessly Chuck-Palahniuk, I know, but it's really more like a less tired, more driven Paul Auster--spare and cryptic without seeming coy. I strongly suspect it's the first chapter of Ball's forthcoming novel.

Ed's poem I have read before, in a manuscript copy of his forthcoming book, Mister Skylight, coming out from Copper Canyon around the same time next year as my new book. The money shot:

It's eleven-eleven, time
to make my daily wish,
catch the stilt legs of those
two birds who land twice
a day inside the clock.

And finally, for fans of my better half: Rhian's return is nigh. Stay tuned.

Sunday, October 5, 2008


I like the new Philip Roth. Is this surprising? There was a time, several years ago, when I thought the recent Zuckerman trilogy might be some kind of swan song--a late-career resurgence that would be followed by a sighing decline. I'm embarrassed to admit this now, but Roth is the kind of writer whose excellence would seem hard to sustain for more than half a century: unlike, say, Alice Munro, whose genius is steady and reliable, Roth's, since the late seventies, has been uneven. All his books are good, but some are thrilling, and when he started ramping it up around the time of Sabbath's Theater, and kept it there for three more in a row, it was easy to imagine he might soon take a bow and walk off the stage.

Nope. There have been, what, five novels since then?, all of them stunning in one way or another, particularly last year's Exit Ghost. This one is a surprise--no familiar characters, no old men, and most of it takes place at a college in Ohio. Our first-person protagonist, Marcus Messner, is a butcher's son from Newark. When he begins college in a small Newark school, his father begins to worry about him--so much so that it becomes a kind of sickness. When Marcus is out late one night studying, his father becomes fixated on the idea that he is out playing pool, and double-locks the door against him. This event precipitates Marcus's transfer to Winesburg College, a day's bus ride away.

The book is set against the backdrop of the Korean War, in which Marcus is terrified of being killed; his plan is to graduate first in his class, become an officer, and avoid combat. So far it's a rich, if simple, story--but fifty pages in, Roth does something shocking. I'm gonna spoil this small surprise, so if you care, stop reading. But in the wake of the book's pivotal event (I am delighted to tell you that it is a blow job), we get this:

What happened next I had to puzzle over for weeks afterward. And even dead, as I am and have been for I don't know how long, I try to reconstruct the mores that reigned over that campus and to recapitulate the troubled efforts to elude those mores that fostered the series of mishaps ending in my death at the age of nineteen.

There's your novel, right there. The blow job comes from Olivia Hutton, a willowy gentile with razor scars on her wrist, lots of sexual experience, and a violent aversion to talking about her father. Marcus's relationship with her lies at the center of a series of accidents and misjudgements (including clashes with the Dean, a lunatic roommate, a quickly declining father back in Newark, and a dalliance with a Jewish fraternity) which do indeed lead to death.

This death--Marcus is telling the story from a kind of athiest purgatory, and the act of remembering consumes his consciousness; it's easy to see this riffing as Roth's contemplation of the novelist's creative dream-state: "...Would death have been any less terrifying if I'd understood that it isn't an endless nothing but consisted instead of memory cogitating for eons on itself? Though perhaps this perpetual remembering is merely the anteroom to oblivion." So we get this, but mostly we get Marcus's wild descent into his doom. Olivia's disturbed, if poised, lasciviousness gives way, toward the book's conclusion, to a campus-wide panty raid; Marcus's visiting mother complains about his declining father, "I cannot sleep beside him in the bed anymore." Marcus finds his dorm room ransacked, and anointed with semen. In each case we see sexual urges deflected, reflected, and perverted, and if gives you to wonder if plain old wholesome sex is even something that exists in Roth's world.

Well, if it doesn't, that's fine by me. Marcus is so cheerful and energetic in charting his own death spiral that the book is actually kind of a delight to read; Rhian kept coming into the room and asking me what I was chortling about. I feel as though this was an easy one for Roth; it's like watching Emeril Legasse make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. In any event, Roth is still on fire, and I did something with this book I haven't done in many, many years (and haven't had the time to do): I opened it up, sat down, and read the whole thing, cover to cover, without interruption. The fact that I would want to should tell you something.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Podcast: Charles Simic

Sorry to dish up one of these lazy-ass cross-postings, but I have just uploaded to the Writers At Cornell Blog a fresh interview (just a couple of hours old!) with U.S. Poet Laureate Charles Simic.

Well...ex-Poet Laureate, actually. His stint ended a couple of days ago, and he's agreed to spend part of his first week off here in Ithaca, talking to students, giving a reading, and letting people take him out to dinner. During the interview we discuss not only his Laureateship, but his new book, The Monster Loves His Labyrinth, a collection of notes, a la The Notebook Of Anton Chekhov, a W6 favorite. I also ask him to repeat perhaps my favorite literary anecdote ever--the one about the time he met Richard Hugo at a conference in San Francisco, and they realized that Hugo actually dropped bombs on Simic during the Second World War. I love this story not only because it's so delightfully serendipitous, but because, in its mixture of horror and slapstick, it seems to match Simic's literary aesthetic so perfectly.

I love Simic's poems, and in the interview describe them as little cottages that, once you enter, turn out to be haunted mansions. This is among my favorite of these podcasts that I've done, so do click that link. Sorry about the clicks and pops...

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Romeo and Juliet

Be honest--how many of you have read this thing since high school? I hadn't until yesterday, and good grief, it is not the play I thought I remembered. It was today's subject in my Hardcore Book Group, in which we are reading all of Shakespeare in roughly chronological order, and though opinions on it were diverse, we all agreed on one thing: there is some sick shit going on in Verona. I'll take it a step further and venture the opinion that "Romeo and Juliet" is a cruel, manipulative work about violent perverts. So there!

The general cultural appraisal of "R&J" would seem to be that it is a tragic tale of doomed love. Fair enough. But I was shocked at how detached it actually is from conventional sympathies. Romeo is painfully flighty, Juliet in open rebellion against her choleric father and embittered mother. "By my count," the Lady Capulet tells her marriage-shy daughter, "I was your mother much upon these years / That you are now a maid." In other words, I didn't get to be happy when I was thirteen, and neither should you. The supporting players say almost nothing that is not a double entendre, and their jokes often come at the most inappropriate moments; homoerotic tension abounds, even in the opening passages, wherein a couple of Capulet servingmen verbally duel with "tools," "naked weapons," and "standing" "pieces of flesh." Juliet's Nurse, commonly played as a source of comic relief, proves to be cruel and vindictive in the end, and bawdiness turns to bloodiness in an eyeblink whenever characters clash.

The play reads like a comedy for long pages until Mercutio is killed in act three; his "plague o' both your houses" tips the slapstick into doom, and from then on every move is a mistake, and every mistake results in death. There is, ultimately, nobody to truly engage our empathy--everyone is too small, too flawed, too shortsighted. It is easy to forget, if you haven't read the play in a while, that in act one Romeo is mooning over somebody named Rosaline, and when he starts in with Juliet everyone assumes he still talking about yesterday's girl. He is, in other words, an impetuous child. Threatening suicide is his answer to every problem, much as (accurately, it turns out) doomsaying is Juliet's response to every drama. Meanwhile, Capulet comes off as an affable oaf until he reams out Tybalt for street fighting; even then we give him the benefit of the doubt. Tybalt's a jerk, after all. But when he unleashes his fury on Juliet--"Hang thee, young baggage!"--we are shocked and appalled.

A reader can never get comfortable here; the play twists and turns and screams along at a furious pace, never giving anything time to sink in. But this, ultimately, is the source of its greatness. It's ugly and mean and mesmerizing, and surprisingly radical in purpose and method.

One group member compared it to the Divine Comedy--in that case of that famously blasphemous poem, its instant popularity became, in his words, "a cyst" that the Church had to grow around. What better way to defuse "Romeo and Juliet"'s power, another group member responded, than to force every high school student to read it? In my high school, we even watched the quite racy 1968 Franco Zeffirelli movie of it, ensuring our innoculation against the bonds between violence and sex.

On second thought, maybe that didn't work so well, after all.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The saddest book in the world

What is it? It turns out to be a harder question to answer than I first thought. I'm not talking about horrific, or disturbing, or violent--such books (and I'm talking about fiction here, because otherwise the question becomes all too easy to answer) are a cinch for most of us to stomach, and are in fact popular. Stephen King, Cormac McCarthy. Blood Meridian may be shocking, but it isn't going to bum you out. Well--for a little while, it will. But it is alien, and you can characterize it, in your mind, as a fantasy, and detach yourself from its bloody charms.

The obvious choice is the collected works of Virginia Woolf, of course, with particular attention to Jacob's Room, Mrs. Dalloway, and To The Lighthouse. The latter's middle section, that brief but incredibly detailed description of the empty house, with ivy crawling in the windows and soldiers dying far away, is quite the heartbreaker. I'm about halfway through Out Stealing Horses, and it too is definitely in the running.

I'm tempted to say Carver, but nah. There is ironic distance there, and this is not a bad thing. That's where the art is, in Carver. This month, all of David Foster Wallace seems unbearably sad, but perhaps that's just his death imposing itself over the work. From the next room, Rhian has shouted "The Velveteen Rabbit!", and so as long as we're doing children's books, allow me to throw in Charlotte's Web and the shamefully obscure Miss Osborne-The-Mop, a copy of which, in the early days of the internet, I managed to find for Rhian after her years of fruitless searching, thus scoring some serious marriage cred. (Knowing me, I probably spent it inside of a week.)

Indeed, children's literature, historically, has been a haven for gentle misery; when a book for adults is sad, it's called a "tearjerker" and is thought to be manipulative and in poor taste. For some reason, though, it's OK to choke up the kids.

Help me out here. What's the saddest book in the world?