Friday, February 29, 2008

Friday Night Opinion Page

One thing that has been getting my (admittedly easily gotten) goat lately is the perennial lament that short fiction has lost its audience because perverse writers and editors insist on being all post-modern and counter-culture and everything. If only, the argument goes, writers went back to crafting charming and traditional stories like the ones that used to be published in The Saturday Evening Post, everyone would read stories! The Average American would sit down and enjoy a short story of an evening, and would maybe even read aloud to Junior who would thereafter cease his gang activity, etc.

Gosh, such baloney.

So, what did happen to the ubiquitous "traditional" short story, if it wasn't murdered by John Barth and Robert Coover? Here's my theory: it didn't go anywhere; it just changed its medium. We humans have an almost endless appetite for stories -- for the conflict/drama/resolution thing. We still do; most of us just don't get our satisfaction from short stories anymore. We get it from television and movies -- actually, mostly television. In this theory, television corresponds to short stories and movies to novels. The reason novels have fared better is because it's hard to get people to sit in a movie seat for fifteen hours.

Anyway, speaking as a reader, there are more than enough short stories out there to fill my needs. Alice Munro alone almost does it. I forgot to go to bed last night because I was so enthralled by Margaret Atwood's latest collection. There's this Australian guy named Tim Winton whose book I just got -- very, very old fashioned traditional stories, almost Cheevery. Every week the NYer brings a story to my mailbox, usually not to my taste, but hey, I'm picky. Oh yeah, and every year there's Best American, O. Henry, New Stories from the South, etc., plus Harpers, Esquire, Playboy, and numberless literary mags who generally err on the side of boring, but who offer endless pickings, anyway.

The literary short story is doing fine. Fine, I tell you!

Because popular culture has shifted away from the written word somewhat (not entirely, of course, as Mssrs Grisham and Crichton will be happy to tell you), the short story has been freed from the burden of popular entertainment. It's different now, but not necessarily worse. There's some crazy stuff out there (nothing as crazy as Gertrude Stein, though) but if you look, you'll find plenty to like. Unless, of course, you're a writer longing for the romantic days when you could make a living pounding out stories for the slicks. Wasn't that an awfully brief interlude, though?

Cultures change, and a culture's art changes with it. It's constantly fresh and new. And thank Mother Nature for that.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Art and Fear

This won't be as long a post as I think this book deserves because it's only 53 degrees here in the room with the computer in it. Really! A lot toastier than the 7 degrees outside, though. It's a good thing I own lots of pairs of fingerless gloves.

Art & Fear
, a small 120-page volume by David Bayles and Ted Orland, is one of my favorite writing guides, though it's really about all kinds of art and has none of those "Always give your characters a distinguishing physical trait" kind of tips. Here's the first paragraph:
Making art is difficult. We leave drawings unfinished and stories unwritten. We do work that does not feel like our own. We repeat ourselves. We stop before we have mastered our materials, or continue on long after their potential is exhausted. Often the work we have not done seems more real in our minds than the pieces we have completed. And so questions arise: How does art get done? Why, often, does it not get done? And what is the nature of the difficulties that stop so many who start?
It's really a wonderful meditation on questions of why we make art, why we insist on subjecting the world to these things we make, and why an activity that should be fun and liberating and joyous is often anything but.

This probably isn't a book that every writer will find interesting. But if you're one of those who write for a while, then agonize for a while, then write some, then quit, then agonize about quitting... you'll appreciate the endless insights offered here.

Now, to the woodstove.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Intuitionist

I've just finished rereading this novel, Colson Whitehead's 1999 debut, for the Weird Stories class. I liked it a lot when I first read it--Whitehead is one of my favorite contemporary writers, in fact--but this time I liked it more. It seems important, somehow. At the time it was published, it merely appeared to me like an inventive book in what I'd hoped would be a new era of literary invention. Now, though, it feels special. The intervening years have been disappointing in a lot of ways, and Whitehead's book increasingly seems like a highly improbably bullseye.

In case you aren't aware--the book is about Lila Mae Watson, the first black woman elevator inspector in an alternate-universe civil-rights-era New York that values elevator inspectors as much as, say, cops or firefighters. And in this universe, there are two schools of elevator inspection: the Empiricists, with their methodology of careful observation; and the Intuitionists, who are able to feel the elevator's pain. On the eve of an election--the Chief Inspector election--a prominent, brand-new elevator (just inspected by the previously infallible Lila Mae) goes into free-fall and crashes. This virtual impossibility stinks of sabotage, and Lila Mae is thrown into a mystery that involves politics, the mob, and the missing notebooks of James Fulton, the father of Intuition.

The book is a thriller of the DeLillian order, brainy and discursive, self-reflexive. (It's even printed in the DeLillo typeface.) But where it succeeds most spectacularly is as a new way of talking about race. Whitehead's protagonists are all reluctant to assume the mantle of racial identity (in his subsequent two novels, this burden actually renders then physically ill), and its attendant obligations; their concern is the invention of the self, and what the self means within the confines of the group. Through Lila Mae, Whitehead works through these contradictions, employing an elliptical narrative style that jumps halfway into each scene, then backtracks to the beginning to demonstrate how the present moment came to be. It's disorienting without being alienating, dark and funny, optimistic yet incredibly sad, and it offers a way forward from the doldrums of the post-civil-rights era. In fifty years, it will seem shocking that it was pre-Obama.

Also, the ending is great. Lila Mae discovers the particularity of Fulton's self-invention, and borrows it as a template for her own. All the book's mysteries are solved, but in a way that demonstrates the folly of clear answers. It's all very surprising, very deft, and very satisfying, without ever compromising its intellectual standards.

I feel as though each of Whitehead's books has been a little less good than the one before. Not a lot less good, just a little. Less...clear and whole, I guess. It's as though, with The Intuitionist, he stumbled upon a way to be great, and he is riding this wave of excellence and waiting for the next one to come take him away. I'm pretty confident one will arrive--he's a terrific writer. But this book is definitely going to last--it is getting better every year.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Writing Rules

I said in a comment a couple posts ago that there are no writing rules -- meaning no hard and fast, unbreakable rules -- and I believe that. It's as easy to come up with the exception to a rule as it is to make one.

But of course there are rules floating around out there, and some writing teachers feel like their students aren't getting their money's worth unless they finish the class with a nice little portfolio of do's and don't's. But usually, if you follow these rules, you end up writing exactly like the writing teacher, and who wants to do that?

Here are some of the rules of fiction writing I've heard over the years. Some are more valid than others, but none are written in stone, in my opinion. What do you think? Have you heard any good, or bad, ones?

* Never write in dialect, that is, spell out how someone pronounces words. You should be able to to convey an accent through word choice and punctuation alone. (I follow this rule.)

* Dialogue should never convey information -- that's what exposition is for. (I like this rule, too.)

* Characters should never speak directly to each other in dialogue. There should always be an element of misunderstanding or not listening.

* At the end of a story, you should get all the characters together in a room. (This might not have been a rule, just a good way to end a story, but I'm not sure.)

* Never switch the point of view in the middle of a paragraph.

* Use no adverbs, ever.

* A word of Germanic origin is better than one of Latinate origin.

* Always say "fuck" instead of "make love."

* Never open with dialogue.

There have to be others, but suddenly I'm drawing a blank.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

There's No Such Thing As A Cliché

I've been getting into photography lately, and so a few weeks ago I found myself walking around the house shooting random stuff, in order to test out some new equipment. The pictures weren't very interesting, by and large, but there was one that really stood out--a picture of the hall closet doorknob. It's a cool knob--made of elaborately molded brass and unusually large--but I'd never really gotten excited about it before. Now, however, looking at it on my computer screen, I was kind of mesmerized by the thing. I called Rhian and the kids over to look at it. And the four of us stood there, staring at this photo of a doorknob, while the real actual doorknob went entirely neglected about eight feet behind us.

It practically goes without saying that the frame is everything--in fact, Rhian thought this was too obvious to post. But seriously--it's everything. The entire concept of the cliché, in fact, is a matter of how experience is framed--there is no human reality, however culturally overexposed, that can't be made into a successful work of art. Shakespeare was an early adopter of this way of thinking; Andy Warhol a more recent one. A good artist can take the wilted castoffs of a culture and make them into something great.

There's even a subgenre of cliché-reframing in literature, and I'm always delighted when some writer or other takes a crack at it. Donald Barthleme's "The Indian Uprising" is a hilariously literal approach the the idea--a battle of sloppy historical provenance takes place in a landscape of cultural garbage. David Foster Wallace's story last year--the one about the teenage pregnancy--is a subtler take; part of the reason I liked that story so much (and a lot of people seemed to hate it) is that it's about teenage pregnancy, as drearily afterschool-special a topic as it's possible to imagine. George Saunders' "Brad Carrigan, American" actually lampoons the emptiness of TV culture in a manner that seems fresh and vital and disturbing. Alice Munro never seems to run out of stunning ways to present marital disharmony. And Jonathan Lethem's "As She Climbed Across The Table," which I posted about a couple of weeks back, manages to be original while also being an academic comedy, a love story, and about seventeen different works of pop philosophy.

I've heard a lot of stories about teachers who try to outlaw things--things they think are hackneyed and deflated. One writing prof we know once issued an anti-mermaid edict, and one student, a friend of ours, responded by handing in a mermaid story. A good one, apparently. The edict was rescinded.

One possible definition of a cliché is: something that's important to people, and which they can't stop talking about (like, you know, um...mermaids). We're sick of it for the latter reason; but we can't ignore it because of the former. A good writer can crack open the nut of a cliché and fork out the meat, leaving the old familiar shell behind. Indeed, that's a writer's job description--forking out the meat. A writer who ignores cliché has failed, a writer who succumbs to it has also failed. Success is framing the cliché as revalation.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

A Beautifully Imperfect Book

A post on Tally Ho Sulky reminded me that though I'm a huge fan of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, I'd never read Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. I suddenly knew that it was exactly what I wanted to read, right now, and fortunately our library had a copy, a 1959 edition that had been read so many times that every single page had been dog-eared and the corners completely rounded off.

It's been years since I've had such a thoroughly delicious reading experience. Our kids are home from school this week and one has the flu, so I let them watch movies while I sat in another room reading by the woodstove.

The thing about this book is that it's definitely not perfect, at all. I wanted to know more about all of the characters; I wanted the subplots more developed; I wanted the paranormal stuff better explained. Yet, yet -- picking the book up each time was like tumbling into a gorgeous dream-space. Jackson's voice is so compelling, the house so vivid, and every interaction between the characters so charged, I didn't care at all about the flaws.

There are so many different ways to love a book, aren't there? It's so great that a book doesn't have to be perfect to be wonderful. Sometimes it's easy to forget that when trying to write one.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Interesting Things on the Sister Blogs

I'm very excited about the conversation I just had with poet and essayist Mark Doty--go have a listen on the Writers At Cornell Blog. Mark is a visiting writer at Cornell this semester, and gave an excellent reading here last week (along with other visiting profs Paul Lisicky and Denis Johnson). Today we talked about his poetry, particularly his preoccupation with animals; how his treatment of death, as a subject, has changed over the years; and the notion of artistic representation (and its place in artworks themselves). Mark is hugely articulate about his own work, and it was a great talk.

Over on The Litlab, poet Virginia Heatter offers up a surprisingly funny homophonic translation of Sappho--or, as she prefers to call it, an "aural Rorschaching." Virginia is an MFA student in poetry at Cornell.

Finally, I want to say how very much I love Adrian Tomine's new New Yorker cover. Perfect--literature from laptop to hobo campfire.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

I Love Semicolons.

Currently the most e-mailed NY Times article is on semicolons. Ha!

I swear I didn't know how to use a semicolon until graduate school, when I suddenly had to teach undergraduates how to use them. I blame the 70's! I went to schools where we didn't study English; we studied "Language Arts" and wrote in journals and watched the movies of all the books we read. I didn't learn a scrap of grammar until I took a foreign language, and punctuation just fell by the wayside. I knew I was ignorant, but I thought I'd get by all right with what I picked up via osmosis. Somehow I didn't absorb the rules for semicolons. I know I'm not the only one.

Once I did learn the rules, I was mad for them! I loved writing sentences of different lengths and with different rhythms; semicolons were a new instrument I could mix it up with. I think of colons as being a right pointing arrow, a kind of LOOKY HERE symbol (before I got comfortable with colons, I used to sprinkle my school notes and journal writing with actual arrows, which served the same purpose. I think I got it from math class). But semicolons are like tape lashing together two separate thoughts: a bit sloppy but indicative of an important if subtle relationship.

But then I read what Vonnegut had to say about them: "First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites* representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college."

And it's true no one ever needs to use a semicolon; a period and a capital will do every time. Semicolons would detract from Vonnegut's voice, which gets so much of its power from its simplicity. But sometimes you don't want to write two separate sentences.

Anyway, that and other similar quotations got me self-conscious about using them. I was pretty spare about using them in my published novel, though a few sneaked in. I was freer with the colons, though. There's nothing frou-frou about a colon! And there's a dash on almost every page. Christ! Almost as bad as exclamation points!

* This blog has nothing but support for transvestites and hermaphrodites!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Self's Deception

I picked up a copy of this Bernhard Schlink mystery at Rhian's store the other day, because it has a blurb on the back from Håkan Nesser, whose The Return I really got into last year. I'd glanced at Schlink's books from time to time, figured I might like them, then somehow managed not to actually read any. Finally this week I read Self's Deception.

Not at all what I expected, though I don't know what I expected. Schlink can really write, and this book diverts from forumla in several ways, most prominently among them his detective, Gerhard Self, who is a dyspeptic 69-year-old who wheezes walking up the stairs. Self is prone to wonderfully dry asides, like this one, which he issues after wearily observing a Heidelberg street scene:

I find the tide of strolling consumers in pedestrian areas no more agreeable, either aesthetically or morally, than comrades on parade or soldiers on the march. But I have grave doubts that I will live to see Heidelberg's main street once again filled with cheerfully ringing trams, cars honking happily, and related, bustling people hurrying to places where they have something to do, and not simply to places where there's something to see, something to nibble at, or something to buy.

It's a nice change of pace from the usual hard-drinking, self-loathing gumshoe of pretty much every other mystery series out there, even the good ones. Self is in fact rather self-satisfied, a hedonist at heart, the kind of guy who spends his first day in jail (having aided a suspected terrorist in escaping to France) thusly: "I ate a few of the pretzels with some cheese and apples, drank the Barolo, and read Gottfried Keller."

Evidently prison isn't so bad, in Germany. In any event, I recommend this book--although the mystery itself is only somewhat interesting, and Self's deadpan delivery eventually becomes--not boring, not irritating, but uninspiring--and it's taken me more than a week to get to the end. Self's Deception is a novel I've been happy, every day, to get back to, but not exactly anguished to put down for the night.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

First Novels and Pancakes

A friend of mine, quoting a friend of hers, probably, used to say that the first novel a person writes is like the first pancake of a batch: you have to throw it away. This causes me a little anxiety on Sunday mornings, because I make a lot of pancakes and rarely throw any away. It seems to hold at least a little bit true for novels, though. Many published first novels are wonderful, polished gems, but in the closet of almost every writer I know there's a real first novel, the unpublished one. At least one -- often more.

I have one. I worked on it for three years before I decided to give it up. It wasn't easy to make the decision to let it go -- it was painful enough that I remember exactly when it happened: June of 1996. I remember that because it was on my honeymoon; yep, I actually brought the damned thing on our honeymoon, 300 pages in a Kinko's binding. I still have it, and my favorite thing about it now is the wine stain on it.

How did I know it was over, though? I didn't, really. It had probably been over for a year or more, the life draining out of it, my enthusiasm waning. But I couldn't let it go because I still basically liked it. It was up to that point the best thing I'd ever written, by a long shot. I had written scenes that made me laugh and evoked powerful feelings in me. It took a long time for me to see that as a novel it didn't hold together. There were a few good scenes and some good characters and even some okay writing, but it didn't mean anything. It didn't add up. And because it didn't add up, I couldn't make the scenes run any deeper and I couldn't figure out a way to end it. If a book doesn't mean anything, it can't have an ending. It can only just stop.

Maybe it was the honeymoon, the change of scenery, that allowed me to see the book for what it was. I remember flipping through the pages on the hotel bed and thinking, Blah, blah, blah. We had just gotten back from looking at a catacomb full of mummies. Now that was interesting.

When we got home I started something new right away, and that was it, the old novel was forgotten. The new one was slower and deeper and more organic. But I couldn't have written the second without the first -- the first one showed me I could do it. I had to have those pages written in order to be sure-footed in the next one. And all that dreadful, seemingly pointless work, the kind of CPR we do to try and revive a doomed piece of writing, isn't pointless. It all counts eventually.

But wouldn't it be great if there were a machine you could toss your piece of writing into and it would tell you the truth? It would say GIVE IT UP NOW, or THIS IS BRILLIANT or EH YOU COULD DO BETTER I GUESS. How much hair pulling and teeth gnashing such a wonderful gadget would prevent.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Six-Word Memoirs

Just a quickie here, to launch you into your weekend of literary shenanigans. Via BoingBoing, we learn of this new book of six-word memoirs, Not Quite What I Was Planning. A sample:

Kentucky trash heap yields unexpected flower. -- John Kurtz
Changing mind postponed demise by decades. -- Scott O'Neil
Despite disorders, jafroed jewboy gets girl. -- Michael Eisner
Didn't pull out. Downhill from there. -- Roger Daubach
Thought I would have more impact. -- Kevin Clark
Yes, you can edit my biography. -- Jimmy Wales
Must remember: people, gadgets. That order. -- Brian Lam

Now I will take a deep breath, overcome my sorrow at not being invited to the party, and offer up "Lower sales, fewer New York friends." Anyone?

Thursday, February 14, 2008


I don't think I've said much on this blog about Kathryn Davis, whose peculiar novels have earned her something of an obscure-genius status among people who read peculiar, obscure things. Needless to say, I'm one of those people--I think Davis is a fantastic writer.

One book of hers I fully expected to love when it was published is Hell, a slim, nightmarish novel about several households in the grip of suffering. For some reason, though, I couldn't get through it. I have felt rather guilty about this for some time, and maybe that was what made me add it to the syllabus of my ongoing Weird Stories class--if I assigned the thing, I figured, I'd be forced to read it, and would get to drag a bunch of students down with me in the process.

As it happens, though, I loved it this time--and a few students seem to have had the same experience. Tried it once, didn't like it, read it again, thought it was great.

Why should this be? I think that the problem, for me anyway, was that Hell doesn't make the slightest attempt to adhere to any traditional form of narrative momentum--yes, it jumps around in time, but it also blurs the lines between these times, so that you never know when you are. To make matters worse, the characters bleed into one another, and an apparent murder mystery that emerges halfway through (yes, there's even a detective) remains, in the end, firmly unresolved.

It's not that I need narrative linearity to enjoy a story. But it's certainly an approach to story that I am programmed to expect and appreciate. Hell defies this convention, and at first doesn't seem to offer anything to replace it--as a representation of lived life, the book is utterly incoherent, and the rules for reading it do not appear, at first look, to be built in. But on the second read, a pattern emerges. Hell is built in translucent layers, each layer a household at a particular time and place. There's the narrator's childhood home, and then that same home thirty years later. There is the doll house the narrator plays with as a child (filled with its own existentially-challenged "characters" in the form of her dolls), and the home of Edwina Moss, a cookbook author of the late nineteenth century who seems to have lost her mind. There is the home of a dissolute (and possibly murderous) bachelor, and briefly, we get the court of Napoleon. None of this is supposed to make narrative sense--but it all does make thematic sense. Stack up the layers, then hold them up to the light; a picture begins to emerge. During class yesterday, I was suddenly reminded of an old game show, Camouflage, on which contestants had to try to find images hidden in a complicated line drawing, made up of layers that were stripped away over several rounds. It was my favorite game show ever, I think (though that YouTube link above doesn't do it justice--or doesn't do my memory of it justice, anyhow).

Anyway, once I had this idea--that the book was a palimpsest, with the places, events, and characters all existing in parallel planes, casting shadows over one another, sharing characteristics, combining and pulling apart--I thought the book was great. I still do. I also realized for the first time what a dedicated Woolfian Davis is--the dreamy precision of her prose, her preoccupation with history's bearing on the domestic sphere, her disinclination to embrace the conventional satisfactions of the novel. I can now recommend Hell as strongly as Labrador and The Walking Tour, two books I push upon everybody.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Some First Chapter Reviews

I've been reading an awful lot of books lately, but not finishing many. I thought I'd spend this post chatting about just the beginnings of a few of them...

An Arsonist's Guide To Writers' Homes in New England starts marvelously. I borrowed a copy from my store and read it during two lunch breaks, and I found it funny and smart: the narrator, who somehow managed to burn down Emily Dickinson's house as a teenager, rebuilds his life, but his past comes back to haunt him. He's a little bit unreliable. I was enjoying it so much I actually bought it in hardcover. But when I brought it home and started reading again, the plot was suddenly implausible and the writing leaden: so many sentences about walking from one place to another. I had no interest in finishing! I gave it to John and he had the same experience. Dang! It was so good at first.

The Keep by Jennifer Egan -- I think Jennifer Egan has the perfect career, don't you? She's about my age (or looks it) and could win a prize OR end up on the bestseller list, either one! This novel is about some American men wandering in and around an eastern European castle with satellite phones. I never figured out why. I felt like I had to read an awful lot to get that far. It's true, I'm an undisciplined reader, but I do plan on getting back to The Keep some day. I'm sure it gets better.

The Tenants of Moonbloom by Edward Lewis Wallant is really quite wonderful -- all of the writing is carefully brilliant. Sentence after sentence is marvelous: "The furniture was their own, yet the place looked like a furnished room. Even the family photograph on the dark, clubfooted table had the quality of a hotel-room reproduction. There were things that Norman did not want to know." The rhythms are a little odd and like that of a young writer still not totally confident, and it reminds me of that really early Roth novel, Letting Go, which was published at almost the same time. I only just started this one, and haven't yet found a solid two hours to sink into it and become fully engaged, but I will.

I scored a galley of All the Sad Young Literary Men (to be published in April) by Keith Gessen, apparently of the magazine n+1, which apparently hates bloggers. I say apparently because I get all this stuff from other blogs. What kind of craziness is this? There's a chapter or two about some New York writery types, then suddenly inserted is a chapter about Al Gore's daughter going to college with someone. I can't tell with whom, because the point of view changes from third to first -- who are you? It is all extraordinarily difficult to follow and also, possibly, the most claustrophobic thing I have ever read. It's a bit like listening to someone go on and on and on at a graduate student party. Do you want to read about Ivy Leagueish aspiring writers and their sex lives? I didn't think so.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Duma Key

Well, I did it--I bought the new Stephen King. I've posted semi-copiously here about my rocky relationship with the guy (click the tag below), and wasn't sure what to expect this time around. I'm pleased to say the book is actually pretty good, one of his best in a really long time.

Now, if you don't like King, all the things you don't like about him are on display here: his florid elaborations upon completely obvious things, using as many words as possible; his gratuitous text formatting!!; copious quotations from pop songs; pointless literary references; and lots of random name-dropping of places he likes going and people he knows. But if you like King, you've learned to tolerate these habits--they're like grandpa's potbelly and scratchy beard. And here, he seems to have them under control.

Mostly. This book is an example of the subgenre King excels in--a man, transformed either by tragedy or personal weakness, retreats to a creepy house in the middle of nowhere to try to make art. Mayhem ensues. This time, it's a building contractor from the midwest who loses an arm and some of his mind in a crane accident; the subsequent changes to his personality precipitate a divorce. He holes up on the Florida Gulf Coast (right down the road from my grandma's condo, actually, so I know all the places he's talking about) and starts painting pictures, which turn out to be, um, channeling an evil spirit.

The last fifth is pretty much skippable--it involves the compulsory mano-a-mano battle against the baddies, and you've already read it--but the rest is actually quite wonderful. The protagonist is distinctive, the supporting cast hugely memorable (even if they all talk in pithy vulgarisms at all times), and there is plenty to enjoy before the expository-dialogue-packed denoument. King is terrific on the act of artistic creation; it's his favorite thing in the world to write about, and he is great at ferreting out its darker aspects.

King got a lot of loving attention for his recent attempt to write a literary novel; personally, I couldn't get through Lisey's Story, and I don't understand why he wrote it. His careful attempt to introduce restraint into his writing only made his essential unrestrainability all the more obvious, and I feared that he was going to continue on this campaign of trying to please the very people he's been calling snobs his entire life. (See my steam-puffing-out-of-ears post about his Best American anthology.)

Happily, those fears were unfounded. Duma Key is a hugely entertaining and intelligent piece of work, with a dumb ending. Glad to have ol' grandpa back, scratchy beard and all.

Friday, February 8, 2008

We're Not Worthy!

So what do you think -- is it just snobby of Zadie Smith to refuse to award the Willesden Herald fiction prize, as Ed Champion claims here? Or do we writers deserve the cold water splashed in our faces for being so decidedly unbrilliant in our production of "fictio-tainment"?

Though I can certainly imagine reading 800 short stories and not being crazy about any of them, I do find it a little bit ungenerous of Smith to withhold the money and attention from some unknown struggling writer who'd overjoyed to have 1/10 of Smith's career. She could really have made someone's day -- someone's decade. I can't imagine having the nuts to look down from my comfy throne as doyenne of the literary best-seller and deem every one of the masses unworthy that little prize -- which I'd never even heard of.

But maybe that's why I'm not a doyenne. I'm mushy-hearted, mushy-brained -- mushy everythinged. To be a Zadie Smith you have to be as tough and confident and brilliant and uncompromising as a diamond.

Or maybe the stories were just really, really bad. Just stinko. Maybe they were so terrible she couldn't in good conscience attach her name to any of them.

But you know what -- it's rare to be good these days, and extremely rare to be brilliant. Maybe that sounds like nonsense and I can't really explain what I mean. It's just a feeling I have that, right now, all writers are working against a kind of invisible cultural riptide. Perhaps Smith is right to try and shake the situation up.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

What's the Point?

Pardon the existential angst, here. This post on Literary Rejections on Display, among other things, has put me in a dark mood. LROD posted this 34-times-rejected story to ask if it actually deserves all those rejections, or if it is really good enough to be published. Well, heck. There are enough little rags out there so that anything -- almost anything -- can be published eventually. The LROD story isn't terrible and could get published somewhere, but after 34 no's, what is really the point? So that on the 38th try your story will be accepted by FishHead Literary Review, circulation 200? If that? I don't even know the names of 34 literary magazines. I certainly don't read that many.

Oh, wait a minute, now I remember: acceptance makes us feel good. It means we don't suck.

But if FishHead Literary Review were any good at all, wouldn't we subscribe to it?

The power of "publication" to legitimize our sense of self-worth is enormous and inflated. I'm including myself here. My first published story, printed in a magazine called Kinesis which is at least a dozen years gone now, was definitely bad. It contained a couple of charming elements, maybe, including a electrician I liked, but it was really not very interesting or complex or funny. But when I try to cheer myself up, I include that publication on my mental list of accomplishments -- near the bottom, for sure, but still: I wouldn't want it not to have happened. It's still a little bit important to me. What I don't include on that mental list is writing that I know is better but was never published. Such is the power of someone else's approval.

At core I'm an idealist (I think) and I firmly say to myself, and to anyone: One reader is worth it. One reader is all you need, really. So maybe in that sense the $1.50 postage plus envelope times 34 and all the waiting and the rejection heartache really are totally worth it to reach those FishHead Review subscribers.

Here's what screws up the calculus: the Internet. Didn't appearing on Literary Rejections on Display just reach more readers than any small lit rag would? I don't know her (his?) stats, but I'd guess they're pretty solid. What does that mean, to get all one's readers in that context? I can't even guess. Such strange times we're in, vis-a-vis the written word.

Litlab Goes High School

With any luck, Rhian will come roaring in here later with a proper post, but for now I wanted to direct your attention to The Litlab, where I just posted a selection of experimental writing from Skoog's students at Idyllwild Arts Academy. Skoog has got some talented kids under his wing, and his mad lit skills only make them more so.

The Litlab winter hiatus is over, so if you've got something good, please send it in!

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Who Should Review Books? And Where?

Posting has been light lately, as W6HQ has been overwhelmed with scheduling oddities, including one of us (Rhian) working the polls for Super Tuesday. Personally, I threw in for Obama. Hillary looks just as good on paper, if not better (Paul Krugman is very persuasive on the subject of their competing health care plans), but Obama's got the mojo, and America could use a little of that stuff right now. In any event, tonight's result will neither make my day nor break my heart.

What would make my day, though, is the magical appearance of excellent book reviews all across the land. Fat chance of that! I don't think there's any aspect of literary culture that people complain about more than book reviews. The superstar reviewers are routinely disdained, sometimes because their superstar status seems undeserved, mostly because, if you disagree with them, their prominence only serves to remind you how powerless you and your opinion really are. Everyone hates The New York Times Book Review--in part because they're the primary popular book section in the country, but mostly because they let lightweight writers review other lightweight writers, resulting in embarrassing over-praising of work that shouldn't be featured in the first place. And because, ever since McGrath swept through town, they appear to consider fiction and poetry to be less important than nonfiction. And then there are the jacket-blurb factories, Kirkus et al., who review book many months before they're published, and can cause entire publicity departments to give up on a writer in an instant--all under an anonymous catchall that leaves nobody at all responsible. We do, of course, have The New York Review of Books, Bookforum, The London Review of Books--genuinely excellent publications that nevertheless are not widely read by the masses of people we hope will want to buy our books. These magazines are about as good as book reviewing gets, but they leave me unsatisfied--not in my reading of them, which is enjoyable, but in the way they make me long for writing that was more succinct but just as intelligent, and widely available.

What do I really want in a critic? I used to think that professional critics were no good--that writers should be judged by other writers. But that's even worse--the whole thing would just be horribly incestuous and overwhelmed by blatant logrolling and the discharging of vendettas.

No, what I want is for smart readers to review books. Intelligent, incisive people who praise reluctantly, criticize respectfully, and take the time to figure out what makes a writer tick. The reviews of my own work which I most treasure are not necessarily positive--indeed, the best one ever went out of its way to observe how undercooked my first couple of novels were--but rigorous, respectful, honest, and even-handed. And these are rare.

The best thing said in recent years about critics was said by a critic: Anton Ego, of the Pixar movie Ratatouille, which I consider to be very nearly a masterpiece of a flick. (You should see it if you haven't--it's a children's picture about artistic integrity!) Over the closing scenes, the dour Frenchman intones:

In many ways the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgement. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But, the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things... the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something... and that is in the discovery and defense of the new.

The discovery and defense of the new! That's what book reviewing should be all about--accepting the new and different at face value, and trying to judge it on its own terms. If it falls flat, so be it--but take it seriously.

Rhian might already have said this, but I think she's right--some of the most useful book reviewing of recent years has appeared in the customer comments of (I don't need to hotlink that, right?) It's true! There are smart people on there, saying what they think, without guile, without preconceptions. Of course, most customer comments are crap, or worse, but it turns out to be very easy to weed these out. The good ones are by readers who are rooting for the new and interesting--they want books to be excellent, because they want to have a good time reading them. They're not getting paid, either--they're offering up their opinions because their opinions mean something to them, and they want them out there.

The internet is not entirely there yet, I think, as an organ of cultural evaluation. It needs to develop a history, a track record. But it's coming along. People bitch about bloggers all the time, but we don't need less of them--we need more. It doesn't matter if most of them suck. Most of everything sucks. What matters is that they're honest. And this is increasingly how I feel about book reviews--excellence would be wonderful, but when you get down to it, shitty honesty is better than brilliant disingenuousness.

Now go Barack the vote!

Sunday, February 3, 2008

A Very Weird Book

Our frenemy and resident gadfly, Max, suggested we read Alan Harrington's The Revelations of Dr. Modesto, so I tracked it down. It sounded pretty interesting: first published in 1955, it's about a loser salesman who writes away for the secrets of success from the back of a magazine, follows the advice to the letter, and becomes wildly if unhappily successful. He then goes on a bizarre trek to find the mysterious Dr. Modesto. It reminded me a lot of The Phantom Tollbooth, actually: they're both picaresques peopled with irrational characters.

This isn't a book about people so much as it is about ideas -- and one gets the impression, reading it, of ideas slamming into each other and bouncing off walls like bumpercars. The main idea is Dr. Modesto's "Centralism," which claims one can achieve success by being as close to "average" as possible -- dressing, acting, and speaking as much like the norm as one can, including living in the middle of town and mirroring people's needs and desires back to them. Of course this kind of success is shown to be meaningless and a charade, and Dr. Modesto a lunatic. It must have seemed terribly subversive at the time, and indeed it predicts the popular overthrow of "square" culture pretty accurately.

The best thing about this novel is the writing, which is often stunning. It makes me wish the story itself weren't so jangled and pressured and trying to make a point. Novels are all conversations with their culture, aren't they? But some novels address larger and more universal questions (war, say, and peace), others take on smaller, individual questions, and still others are about the passing mood of a society. The latter books don't always wear as well over time. We're much more cynical and knowing about conformity now, and the topic even seems a bit tired in YA novels.

Harrington, who hung out with the Beat crowd, apparently later became obsessed with the idea that our society was being taken over by psychopaths. True enough, as it turns out. I wonder if his anger and consternation at the culture of the time overwhelmed his more literary tendencies. Well, I certainly empathize.