Saturday, March 29, 2008

Brian Hall's "Fall Of Frost"

The time has come at last to plump for our friend and neighbor, Brian Hall, whose new book Fall of Frost was published by Viking the other day. The novel is a fictionalized life of the poet Robert Frost, and was inspired by an event late in that life: his meeting, in Russia, with Nikita Khrushchev.

Why this meeting isn't better known is anyone's guess; it's not even mentioned on Frost's Wikipedia page. Not long after reading "The Gift Outright" at Kennedy's inauguration (instead of the poem he was supposed to read), Frost persuaded the administration to let him make a sort of informal diplomatic mission to Moscow. By Hall's reckoning, Frost had the noble but naive idea that he understood the kind of man Khrushchev was, and could break through the rhetorical impasse between east and west by speaking with him directly. The meeting was, of course, of no real consequence, until now, when it has inspired a really wonderful piece of work.

Hall's last book, I Should Be Extremely Happy In Your Company, was a fictional account of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and is one of the best biographical novels I've ever read. That's not saying much, because, as I've said here before, I can't stand biographical novels. Unless, that is, they are amazing, and that one was. Ambitious, broad in scope, intensely imagined, it ought to have given Hall an airtight reputation as one of our best novelists.

I'm not sure that it did, though. Historical novels usually don't make literary reputations; they mostly make historians hate you, sometimes with good reason. So it was with perverse joy that I learned that Brian's next book would be...another historical novel, this time about a poet. The man just couldn't get enough. And I'm sure that there will be many biographers of the poet who will have some manner of hissy-fit over this book.

But like I said, Fall of Frost is fantastic, not as biography, but as literature. With the Khrushchev meeting serving as a kind of flash-forward backdrop, the book examines Frost's life in fragments, filtering known biographical details through a fictional consciousness that can only be described as spectacularly vivid. This Frost feels like the Frost of his poems. It is unsullied by the kind of scholarly agenda that mars most biographies (and indeed, we are treated, in the book, to a darkly hilarious glimpse of Frost's first, hostile biographer, Lawrence Thompson); instead, it strives to construct a probable Frost-mind, an emotional and intellectual landscape upon which events of the poet's life are projected. We get the devastating deaths of his children; his marriage, and later, his affair with his married secretary; his thorny relationship with scholars and readers; his walks in the woods and lame attempts at homesteading. He comes off as a complex, deeply flawed, and eminently likeable character. The life was long and tragic; the book is articulate and quite funny.

I dunno. I know I said I hate the bionov. But there's something to be said about the value of such a book--even beyond its value as a literary work. A novelist, or at least this novelist, puts together the pieces of a life in a different manner from a biographer. Fall of Frost is the life of Frost as your friend, your intimate. It's the life of Frost, as if you were Frost. It is not like a biography at all, and maybe that's what makes it so good.

One caveat--the version I read is not the version you can now go out and buy. Because the Frost estate withheld from Hall its permission to quote the later poems, he was forced to go back, post-galleys, and feverishly rewrite a lot of scenes. To hear him tell it, the result is different, but of comparable quality. But to be safe, I'm not going to quote anything here.

Friday, March 28, 2008


Do you believe in inspiration? I do. I don't know what it is, though, and worse, I don't know how to make it happen. When I was a younger person I thought that inspired writing was the only good writing. I thought that if writing was worked over and rehashed it was dead. Which meant I hardly ever rewrote anything. It was either good when it came out, or I trashed it.

Once I was daydreaming in a poetry class and I heard this voice in my head. It said, When I was two and a half I stuck a knife in an electric socket. I couldn't believe how vivid it was. I sat up straight in my chair, as if zapped by electricity myself. When I got home after class I pounded the whole story out. It couldn't have taken very long. It was one of the most enjoyable writing experiences of my life.

But reading it again all these years later, the story really wasn't that great. It had a strong voice, but the voice cloyed after a bit, and the story was pretty darned sketchy. It wasn't my best work, though it felt like it at the time.

Later when I wrote a novel, there were parts in it that were anything but inspired. It was the stuff I had to put in to fill spaces, to make one section connect to the next. Ugh, I couldn't even read those pages: they didn't fit and they seemed lumpy and awkward. I complained to JRL; he said he couldn't see any difference between those pages and the others. Later my editor picked out one of those sections as her favorite. WTF!

Now that I'm a grown-up person I have more respect for the hard work of writing. That stuff you toil over is probably better, from the reader's point of view, than the easy stuff. It's more thoughtful, more grounded, more intelligent and honest.

Still -- there's no better feeling than having the words tumble out faster than you can write them, when all the sentences seem supercharged and full of extra meaning. It's really only happened to me a few times, and I have to say I love it. It usually means a new voice, a new way of approaching my work. What is it, I wonder? Is it the unconscious suddenly busting through a wall and standing in the conscious mind's living room? Is there any way to make the walls thinner? Because I could certainly use a bit of that.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Lore and Language of Schoolchildren

I know that Theodore Roethke admired and emulated nursery rhymes. You can hear it in his prosody, lurking underneath each alliteration and rhyme. He works on that border between nursery innocence and adult insanity. It's too much to bear, sometimes. In the 1950s, folkorists Iona & Peter Opie listened to the songs and chants of the playgrounds of Great Britain, and compiled them in an indispensable study recently re-issued by the equally indispensable NYRB classics imprint (with an introduction by Maria Warner, whose Phantasmagoria is one of my favorite books of 2007). When I get too confused or excited by the arguments of and about contemporary poetry (great articles about which in the new PMLA), and need to find somewhere to start over at my own table, this is the sort of thing I reach for:

The sausage is a cunning bird

with feathers long and wavy.

It swims about the frying pan

and makes its nest in gravy.


It’s a knock-kneed chicken, it’s a bow-legged sparrow.

Missed my bus so I went by barrow.


Masculine, feminine, neuter.

I went for a ride on my scooter.


Adam and Eve in the garden,

studying the beauty of nature.

The devil jumped out of a Brussel sprout

and hit Eve in the eye with a tater.


and this, perhaps the best couplet in the language:

Mary Jane went to Spain

in a chocolate aeroplane.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Fried Chicken and Sazeracs

While I read and type in my southern California mountain home, I stream the audio from WWOZ, a public radio station in New Orleans that plays jazz and local music. My pal TR is a dj there, though I always miss his show. Just now they were announcing that the Tennessee Williams Festival has begun, and good luck to them. I prefer the Words and Music Festival, which developed from the Pirates Alley Faulkner House Bookshop's celebration of Faulkner's birthday (which I share, along with Olivia Newton-John).

Today also arrived a request for a good New Orleans restaurant that catered to vegetarians, particularly Ward Six supporter A.J. Rathbun, whose cocktail book Good Spirits is up for two IACP awards, the ceremony for which will be held in New Orleans soon. I suggested Galatoires, which can assemble a variety of potatoes brabant and stuffed eggplant and broccoli bernaise, and also because it is the launching place for Eudora Welty's great story "No Place for You My Love."

Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table, by Sara Roahen, just arrived via Powells last week and I've been reading through its fine and thoughtful essays about my favorite things, which she discovered about the same time I did, and who also left the city around the time of the levee failure. Among these things: sazeracs and the fried chicken at Willie Mae's Scotch House.

I've never been hog wild about Tennessee Williams, with the exception of this, and most certainly this, mostly because I've never lived anywhere with much theater, I think, or where theater wasn't an accessible thing to me, or the theater where I was seemed silly. I suppose it's in the same boat as serious fiction and any poetry, and that there should be some solidarity or recognition, but I don't much feel it. Do you?

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Fork River Space Project

"I don't believe in someone sitting in the desert, not having read anything, and suddenly writing a beautiful novel. I don't think it happens. I think we're influenced by what we've read, and by the way it synthesizes within you, and becomes your own style." --Beena Kamlani on

On a smaller scale than John's Cornell Writers audio, here at Idyllwild Arts Academy we've had a gang of writers visiting campus and working with the students over the past month, and a ten-minute exchange between the students and two guests is now live at Beena Kamlani, a writer/editor whose short stories have been knockin' em dead over at Virginia Quarterly Review and Ploughshares, talks about how real-life dialogue triggers her writing, and about Tolsoty v. Dostoyevsky as guides. Solon Timothy Woodward, whose first novel Cadillac Orpheus just came out, talks about the importance of "reading, reading, reading" in his development as a writer, especially since he's spent the last twenty years or so of his professional life studying and practicing medicine. Here's the consensus of Beena and Tim and the students of the writers who attend to the richness of the sentence and are still able to carry a story:

Wright Morris
Stanley Elkin
Saul Bellow
James Baldwin

If you listen to the podcast, you'll note that Morris and Elkin come up first, and the others follow.

I hadn't thought of Wright Morris for awhile. I left my copy of The Fork River Space Project behind in New Orleans. I wish hadn't. It's a deeply weird book with gorgeous writing and just enough science fiction to have helped it on its way out of print. Here's a quote from it:

"I have just discovered I can magnify objects by a slight pressure on the lids of my eyes. My head lies on the pillow, a fold of the bedspread touches my nose. The weave is coarse. If I press lightly on the lids of my eyelids the material of the spread looks like a fishnet. If I lid my eyes and turn to face the light, I see a color glowing like heated metal. Across it motes flick, like water insects. The color changes to a smog-filtered sunset. If I give myself over to this impression, I am free-falling in space (that is my sensation), and only by an effort do I recover my bearings. I owe this to Harry Lorbeer. He started me thinking--or should I say seeing? On the mind's eye, or on the balls of the eyes, or wherever it is we see what we imagine, or imagine what we see."

Leonard Michaels' Collected Stories

I just spent the afternoon with this big book, in an effort to overcome what I thought might have been an unfair distaste for Michaels' fiction, acquired I'm not sure where. I think it was the result of the late "Nachman" stories, the ones featuring the mathematician Nachman, which appeared occasionally in the New Yorker at a time when I desperately wanted to appear there instead. I didn't like these stories, much in the way I didn't like Evan S. Connell's Koerner stories (Koerner was a writer), and thought I didn't like Michaels because of them, the same way I thought I didn't like Connell.

But Connell I turned out to love, once I read his other stuff, and today I thought perhaps the same would prove true for Michaels.

Well--not quite. But almost. There's more to Michaels than I thought. But I can't count him among my favorites. His prose, especially in the earlier stories, is baroque and overheated; he reads like a man very eager to prove his intelligence. He does, of course, but at times this is small comfort. I imagine Michaels, his writing self, as a small, wiry, authoritative man in a suit, strolling around at a cocktail party slapping everyone in the face. He is dislikable, but he cuts a compelling profile.

The early stuff is all about rapes, beatings, suicides, and sexual perversity, and it is presented with chilly erudition. I remain resistant to it. But Michaels begins getting very interesting around the time of his second book of stories. Pieces like "Eating Out" and "Downers," with their series of strange, blackly comic vignettes, or the masterful "In The Fifties," a deadpan list of relationships, encounters, and events, show Michaels at his most innovative and engaging.

He's also a master of great openings. Here are a few:

I'd work at a story until it was imperative to quit and go read it aloud. My friend would listen, then say, "I feel so embarrassed for you."

I was the most dedicated basketball player. I don't say the best. In my mind I was terrifically good. In fact I was simply the most dedicated basketball player in the world.

When my uncle Moe dropped dead of a heart attack I became expert in the subway system.

Talmudic scholar, master of Cabala, Isaac felt vulnerable to a thousand misfortunes in New York, slipped on an icy street, lay on his back, and wouldn't reach for his hat.

I scribbled a hasty note, regretful, to the point.

In the spring of the year following his divorce, while traveling alone in Germany, Beard fell in love with a young prostitute named Inger and canceled his plans for further travel.

But after a page or two, Michaels usually seems to stop caring about his reader, and retreats into his private world of intellectual and emotional circularity. Personally, I'm only intermittently inclined to join him there.

But that's enough, ultimately. The book is definitely worth reading--Michaels' insular brilliance is a peculiar thing to experience, and is of particular value seen as a career-spanning whole. Give it a try, see if you can take it.

Friday, March 21, 2008

How Do You Find What You Read?

A commenter on the previous post implied that I don't read widely enough, and this is probably true, though it isn't for lack of trying. It did get me thinking about the books I've read in my life and why I read them and how I came across them. I didn't, in fact, graduate from MFA school with a list of accepted authors. The pressure there was to catch up on all the classics we missed out on as undergraduates. That's when I read the Russians and Moby Dick and Thomas Mann and Henry James.

I almost never read book reviews. Wow, that's a confession. I scan the NYBR and the NYer reviews for titles and names I might recognize (and it's part of my bookstore job), but you know what? I don't care what some hired gun has to say about a book. Is this heresy? Do other people depend on reviews? I do love a good trashing though (Tom Bissel's recent flaying of Scott Spencer's book was a delight, though probably not to poor Scott Spencer.)

I take word of mouth (and that includes blogs) very seriously. No one's being paid to flog books on a blog (at least not the ones I read) and I've found it much easier to find bloggers whose tastes I respect -- after only just a year of reading litblogs -- than I did in a lifetime of exposure to mainstream reviewers. Money corrupts! Anyway, since I've been here, I feel like I've uncovered an endlessly deep mine of great book recs.

My mom told me to read Nabokov.

My friend Catherine told me to read Alice Munro.

Serendipity is another way I've found things to read. Since I work at a bookstore I see lots of new books all the time, but so many that I've developed kind of a hardened attitude toward them. Most of them aren't really worth the $27.50, so a book has to grab my attention before I'll open it. I found Lydia Davis on the sale shelf ($2.00!!!). I liked the title of Lynn Tillman's American Genius, a Novel. Other books I've just found at the Salvation Army or garage sales and I thought I should rescue them. Library wandering used to be a real treasure trove, but I don't have hours to spend roaming the stacks like I used to.

There are a few contemporary writers I found out about in college and have read because of classes I took. These include Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson, Margaret Atwood, Tim O'Brien, and... hm. That's about it, actually.

How do you find books?

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Reading About Yourself

The other day I was reading Lorrie Moore's short story "People Like That Are the Only People Here," which is possibly the most devastating story of the decade. I first read it years ago, like in 1998 or so, when it came out. It's held up even better than I remembered. It's about a couple -- a woman, mostly -- whose baby son gets a kidney tumor. Downer, yes? No -- yes -- sort of. The story's mostly about the experience of taking a baby to the hospital to get treatment and suddenly finding oneself in the strange alter-world of sick kids.

But it's also very much about what it means to use one's life experience in writing. Moore says in the bio section of Best American Short Stories, "This story has a relationship to real life like that of a coin to a head." In other words, it happened. The husband in the story says, "Take notes on this. We need the money." The woman, the writer, bridles at this -- this isn't fiction, it's real life! But the last lines of the story are "Here are the notes. Where's the money?" Damn!!! It's devastating!!!!

In 1998 I was a writer, too, and I had a year-old son. If something horrible happened to me, maybe I too would exploit it. In any event, I empathize.

With all the talk lately about the "death of the short story," I've been making a mental list of short stories I love, and this one is on it. Honestly, I don't think there's a single story on my top ten from before 1980. I like stories that are about what it's like to live now, to be a human being on this planet at this time. I admire stories like "Hills Like White Elephants" (just an example) but I don't love them as I love the Moore story, or "Sleep" by Stephen Dixon, or "Glenn Gould" by Lydia Davis, or several Alice Munro stories. Is it because I'm self-absorbed, and need to hear stories about myself? Maybe! Is that a bad thing?

For me, reading is very much about figuring out the world as I know it. I'm drawn to stories about women, about writers, married people, mothers, sisters, snowstorms, school, the 80's, the 70's, right now. I also like stories about thinking and psychology. Not exclusively, but still: it seems like an awfully narrow way to read, but there you are.

Maybe one reason I'm so excited by short stories right now -- even if there aren't as many new ones as there used to be -- is because so many people with my particular interests are writing them.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Obama's Speech

I don't have a great deal to say about this, other than that I think it's the best political speech of my lifetime, so far. The clips I heard of the thing suggested perhaps a slightly lackluster delivery, but the text is amazing. You can read it here, on DailyKos. this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, "Not this time." This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children. This time we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can't learn; that those kids who don't look like us are somebody else's problem. The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a 21st century economy. Not this time.

This time we want to talk about how the lines in the Emergency Room are filled with whites and blacks and Hispanics who do not have health care; who don't have the power on their own to overcome the special interests in Washington, but who can take them on if we do it together.

This time we want to talk about the shuttered mills that once provided a decent life for men and women of every race, and the homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, every walk of life. This time we want to talk about the fact that the real problem is not that someone who doesn't look like you might take your job; it's that the corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a profit.

This time we want to talk about the men and women of every color and creed who serve together, and fight together, and bleed together under the same proud flag. We want to talk about how to bring them home from a war that never should've been authorized and never should've been waged, and we want to talk about how we'll show our patriotism by caring for them, and their families, and giving them the benefits they have earned.

Read the whole thing. He wrote it himself. I think that this is the kind of oratory that, given a sustained, impassioned chance in the marketplace of ideas, really could begin to effect some real change in the way we talk about, and think about, race.

I have been trying not to get to excited about Obama's candidacy, given the serial disappointments of the past eight years. But reading that speech, it's hard not to give in to hope. There is no bullshit in it (well--the Israel pandering is perhaps a tad extreme, but he's got to combat that madrassa nonsense somehow), and the reason, I think, is because Obama is an actual writer. A writer of books that are not total crap, and now a writer of a great speech. You get the sense, with this speech, that you have just heard a politician say exactly what he means, without compromise, for the first time in forty years.

So. Not to get all political, for a freaking writer this fall. And if you live in Pennsylvania, next month.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Dan Kennedy's "Rock On"

Now that my generation is firmly established in the literary world, I find myself often getting kind of squeamish about the habitual recitation of shared cultural symbols--particularly rock bands. As I've observed before on this blog, there is considerable overlap between the universes of rock and roll and lit, and while I ought to applaud or at least tolerate people my age writing about things that are important to me, more often than not I feel the way you might feel if somebody told you they thought your wife was smokin' hot.'re certainly right about, thanks?

So when a writer, especially a male writer, especially a McSweeney's-affiliated writer, shows up with a memoir about the music industry, my instinct is to start hunting around in the medicine cabinet for my anti-cringe serum. It turns out there's no need, though. Dan Kennedy's Rock On is really funny, and surprisingly genuine.

Kennedy worked for Warner Brothers Records during the era (an era that's ongoing, I believe) when the record industry was beginning to wake up from its long period of denial about downloads. Kennedy managed to get a job making TV and magazine ads for Warner bands--his first gig was to help Warner celebrate 25 hit-filled years of smug weasel Phil Collins--and rode this wave of good fortune for the year and a half until he got fired. He gamely tries to sell the idea of a download subscription service to a bunch of jaded CEOs, misunderstands The Darkness, fawns over Duran Duran's road manager, alienates his boss's dog, and fails to recognize Jewel:

The first time I saw Jewel at the office it took me ten minutes to recognize her even with four huge posters of her album cover on the wall of the hallway we were both walking down..."Who's this attractive blond woman walking toward me? Think. She...looks...very...familiar, but I can't quite...Connie, maybe? From accounts payable? Yes! That's her. That's who does the expense checks! it? And I kind of nodded hello as we passed in the hall and as soon as I was ten yards past my brain made a positive ID and I was thinking, "Wait a minute. That was Jewel. But with pores. And a normal, human-sized waist."

Kennedy doesn't place himself above it all--he's just as susceptible to the vanities of the industry as the people around him. But he doesn't overdo his sad-sackitude (perhaps the chief pitfall of the fin-de-siècle hipster humorist), and the book ends up having this wry, self-deprecating integrity that I would never have expected from it. He's just a guy who loves music and ends up spending eighteen months buddying around with music's abusive ex-husband. You gotta feel for him.

The memoir bits are interspersed with amusing song lyrics, inappropriate band names (death metal bands: The Ginger Snaps, The Trolleymen), and little fantastias of things he should have said and didn't. Ultimately the actual material is a tad thin, but what do you want, the guy only worked there a year and a half. Buy the book--it'll take you a day to read, it's a paperback original, and it's from an indie press.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Lee Child

A quick search suggests to me that I haven't posted about Lee Child yet. How is this possible? I am a slavish fan of the guy. Child is a writer of thrillers starring Jack Reacher, a drifter and ex-military-policeman who possesses near-superhuman investigating, shooting, and fighting skills. A typical plot: Reacher is minding his own business in one or another American city--generally drinking coffee or walking down the street--when he suddenly gets swept up in some apparently random crime that ultimately proves to be the first hint of some massive and sinister plot. Or, in another common scenario, the military ferrets him out because he's the only guy they know of who can accomplish some incredibly dangerous and complicated task. Since Reacher has no phone and no address, he has to be tracked down in clever ways--for instance, by depositing an amount of money in his bank account, the amount of which corresponds to some code that only Reacher will recognize.

If this all sounds incredibly dumb, I'm not going to argue with you. But Lee Child is an awesome writer, and he plots these books with such stunning, austere skill that you are willing to fogive him any and all implausibilities. Reacher is a great character, too--tough, intelligent, and highly moral. There's always a girl to bed, of course, and sometimes it's a girl in danger--but invariably the girl is an FBI agent, military officer, or other badass, and at some point she gets the opportunity to snap some Russian mobster's neck or break somebody's wrist with her boot. The heronies of these books end up protecting Reacher as much as they protect him. Later, they like getting it on with him but don't complain when he hits the road--they're no more sentimental than he is.

I think my favorite of the bunch is One Shot, wherein Reacher is supposed to find the cracks in the most airtight murder investigation ever. Child seals up the case so completely that you can't even begin to believe it will ever be broken, and when it is (just as the back flap promised), you can't believe you didn't see it all along. I also like Without Fail, where the Vice-President-elect is being targeted by assassins, and Reacher is called in to find the holes in the Secret Service's plan to protect him.

Child's prose style is declarative, practical, and tough, just like his hero; he is never prone to the kind of cute indulgences most crime writers fall victim to. There's no philosophizing, no gratuitous soundtrack, and no brand names. Chicago is never about to be blown up by terrorists, and there are no genius serial killers who taunt the cops. Child is British, but he is masterful at portraying the blankness of the American landscape; he has his cultural debris down cold. The books are pure escapism, so you won't feel proud of yourself when you're done reading them--all you'll want to do is read another one.

OK, back to the Shakespeare...

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Thoughts on Author Photos

Does it make me shallow if I admit that I almost always look for the author photo when I pick up a new book? Not that I think it can necessarily tell you much about the writer -- often it just tells you how the publisher wants to market the book. Still. I'm usually curious about the author's age, for one thing. I'm better disposed toward a book by an author my age or older, or one who displays a bit of eccentricity. I dislike pets in pictures, though this is probably ungenerous. I'm deeply disappointed if there's no picture at all.

One great picture is Jane Smiley's on the flap of Moo. It's a flash picture taken in what is probably Smiley's kitchen, and she's grinning and wearing a pair of huge glasses. The anti-glam shot!

Men should not wear tight white tee-shirts in their author photos. It makes them look like they're trying too hard not to be effete. Writing is effete! Get used to it!

My first author picture was taken by my husband in the woods behind my parents' house. It was ten degrees and windy, and I was five months pregnant. Not surprisingly, I look simultaneously puffy and rigid. They got Marion Ettlinger to take another one, for the paperback. She is a marvelous person and an incredible photographer but unfortunately I remember little of the experience because she had to feed me about 18 glasses of wine in order to get me to relax enough. I do remember asking her why she chose to photograph writers, of all people. And she said, It's easy to make actors and models look good. But writers are a challenge!

Haha! True enough! I brought the poor lady a paper sack full of wrinkled thrift shop dresses that smelled like cat pee, and until that day had never plucked a single eyebrow hair in my life.

Anyway. Maybe that's the appeal of author pictures: they're of people who are a challenge to photograph. I am in fact deeply suspicious of writers who are too good looking. I can't help but think the book can't possibly be any good. And if it is, No fair!

I would like to see more creativity in author photos. I'd like to see a picture of Philip Roth biting into a giant burger, for instance, or Claire Messud looking all red-faced and sweaty after a game of softball. Would that be cool, or weird?

* It has been brought to my attention that JRL once wore a white tee-shirt in his author pic. Sorry!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Bosworth's Life of Arbus

Sorry to do two photography posts in a row, but that's what I'm reading about these days. I think maybe my next novel is going to involve a photo and video documentarian, so all these books fall under the category of "research."

I was pretty excited about this biography of Diane Arbus, which has evidently now served as the inspiration for a really bad movie about Diane Arbus. I'm in the Arbus-is-awesome camp, though I know a lot of people find her photos exploitive or insulting. For me, Arbus's pictures are all about the uncanny singularity of human beings--her "freaks" are ultimately not all that much more freaky than we are, they just can't conceal it. I've always seen a great love for her subjects in her work, even if some of them haven't seen it that way, later.

In any event, I found this book frustrating. Bosworth is very good on Arbus's life outside her art--her upbringing, her depression, her relationship to sex and to her body. But the thing I wanted the most was the very thing this book--and almost any biography, ultimately--was least articulate about: the pictures themselves. Maddeningly, there are no Arbus images of any significance in the paltry sets of photos included; one imagines that this is a copyright issue, but it's still a major omission in a biography of a photographer. And this omission seems to carry over into the text itself. Bosworth describes a few important pictures, and touches occasionally on how they were taken, but for the most part these sections are heavily generalized, describing the kind of things Arbus did while working, as opposed to specific things, techniques, approaches, philosophies.

The book also lacks a clear sense of how Arbus used the tools of her trade. This isn't merely a gear-geek complaint: Arbus clearly found cameras important and fascinating. She carried many different ones at once, and sometimes grew disenchanted with one or other, precipitating a switch. We learn that, early on, she switches from the Leica to the Rollei, and later from the Rollei to the Pentax. But aside from a few brief technical details, we don't know what this means. Arbus is quoted in here at one point as saying that she liked complicated cameras, that taking a picture shouldn't be easy. In the book I wanted to be reading, this would be the springboard for an entire chapter. What was it about the process, for Arbus, that made her want to struggle? How, specifically, was the process connected to her life, to her sense of herself?

Bosworth should be commended here for not offering up a reductive cause-and-effect "explanation" for Arbus's work--the psychological portrait we get of the artist is distinctive, respectful, and convincing. But there is a great void when it comes to the pictures: it's as though Bosworth is more interested in Arbus the woman--and Arbus as a woman--than about Arbus the artist. Most maddening is the absence of any real discussion of her very late work photographing developmentally disabled people in New Jersey--we hear about her taking these pictures just before her suicide, but never see them, and never see anyone else seeing them, in spite of a new afterword by the author, written a couple of years ago. I think these pictures will go down in history as the best thing Arbus ever did--they're beautiful and moving and strange, and the product of her switch to "the Pentax," the effects of which we don't ever hear about in this book.

This may sound like nitpicking. I realize that it's hard to write about art, especially in the context of a broader, more personal goal. But this is why I almost never read biographies of artists--the stuff I want the most is never there. I don't care about the nannies and the boyfriends--I care about the pictures.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

William Eggleston

I want to continue on the theme I wrote about in my last post--that it isn't what you write about, it's how you see.

Last week I got a couple of art books from the Cornell library--William Eggleston's monographs The Democratic Forest and Ancient And Modern. Eggleston is an American photographer who is often credited for popularizing color photography as a fine art medium. He's known for his pictures of ordinary objects and people, which he finds largely (though not exclusively) in small American towns. (The photo above is one of my favorites, in miniature--take careful note of the blurry posters in the lower right hand corner.)

If you don't know Eggleston's work, and think you can picture what I'm talking about, don't make the mistake of thinking he's a purveyor of Americana. He isn't. We're not talking about old folks laughing on verandas or aproned moms baking pies. We're also not talking about, say, the raw and disturbing portraits of vulnerability you get from, say, Nan Goldin. Rather, Eggleston's talent is for making the ordinary seem alien. The familiar--abandoned houses, people walking down the side of the road--hits you with new force. His most famous quotation--come to think of it, one of his only quotations--is "I am at war with the obvious." It's a bit misleading, because his pictures are of things you've already seen.

It's just that you've never seen them his way. This is what makes him a great artist--his eye.

If you're up for being simultaneously depressed and inspired, Rhian and I recommend a documentary about him, "William Eggleston In The Real World." It's a straightforward, low-budget production, shot on video; it basically follows Eggleston as he shuffles around taking pictures of stuff. The filmmakers had to subtitle everything he said, because he mumbles everything. The film makes his life appear somewhat chaotic--we meet his dissapated paramour a good hour before we ever see his wife--but his vision is always clear. "I think these are the best I've ever done," he mutters, looking at his latest set of prints. "You say that every time," the paramour retorts.

Eggleston represents everything that I think is unique and good about American art, and about American writing. His work is egalitarian without being common. He is brilliant without pretension. He implies that all experience is valuable, and that all people are interesting. This is a message worth hearing two posts in a row, I think.

EDIT: And props to 5RedPandas if she can name the album that lightbulb photo is on the cover of...

Friday, March 7, 2008

Against Reading

I'm reading The Solitary Vice: Against Reading, a truly delightful book of essays by Mikita Brottman. It's not really against reading, only against certain kinds of reading: the kind of reading that's good for you, that you do because you feel you ought to. Reading, says Brottman, is best thought of as a vice: a source of pleasure and "a tool for self-exploration."

Yes! Exactly! Reading is not like taking vitamins or working out -- it really isn't. It makes you pale and self-involved. Heavy readers have terrible social skills. We're constantly disappointed in people. We have obnoxious vocabularies and use words we can't even pronounce. There's no evidence that readers are happier than non-readers. It wrecks your eyesight. The only good reason to read is because you really like to do it, not because it will make you an Improved Person. It won't.

And you know what, there's nothing wrong with being a non-reader, either, as Brottman points out. Obviously, being actually illiterate is a terrible burden, but there are plenty of people who have no interest in books or literature who live fulfilling and even outstanding lives. I remember a friend of my parents who claimed to have not read a single book since college. But he was an amazing math professor and could sit down at the piano and play anything. You know, if the devil came to me and said, I'll let you be brilliant at math and the piano if you never read again... I would have to think long and hard about it. (I would probably choose reading, ultimately, but I'd feel a pang every time I looked at my piano.)

Also, Brottman devotes chapters to "trash" reading -- celebrity confessions, true crime, and psychological case studies (I LOVE psychological case studies!!): the kinds of stuff I'm often embarrassed to admit I read as much as I read literary fiction -- and says why it's just as valuable, in its way. Like good fiction, these genres explore why humans do the things they do and why they feel what they feel.

It's so marvellously refreshing to read about reading in a way uncluttered by self-help bullshit or nostalgic self-mythologizing.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

What's The Point, Again?

So another mighty memoirist has fallen. I'm probably not the only one to feel completely unsurprised by this development--and also not terribly surprised that it was Riverhead who was re-suckered. (Full disclosure: they used to be my publisher, but rejected my third novel because it was "odd.") When you live by the lurid confessional, you die by the lurid confessional--or in this case, continue dragging your moribund ass into the future by the lurid confessional.

Perhaps the publishing industry should be asking itself whether inadequate fact-checking is not, in fact, the real problem. Its dismay is akin to that of the sad couple who, after inviting their alcoholic uncle to their wedding and providing him with an open bar, cannot understand how he could be so rude as to drink himself sick and vomit all over the bridesmaids. Publishers are in the habit of paying enormous advances to people who can provide them with extraordinary life experiences, and so what do you think is going to happen? People are going to generate some, that's what.

I was talking to the writer Paul Lisicky today (interview here) about this very thing. He's a guy with a fairly regular life, who managed to write a wonderful memoir about it. What's extraordinary about Paul is not his experience (gay coming-of-age, abortive church-music recording career) but about the way he has chosen to see that experience. His book is good for the reason that all good books are good--the world is interesting to him, and it is interesting to hear him talk about it. It's people like Paul whom publishers should be rewarding--people who, with their work, can show readers that their own lives are valuable, that their own experience is worth treasuring, and analyzing, and talking about--instead of people who pretend to be what they're not. Good writers enrich readers. The value of their work extends outside itself. It offers a new paradigm for understanding the world.

The ironic thing is that every memoir is fictional, in a way--memory is an elusive thing, and all experience is subjective. But the good memoirist enters into a contract with his reader, a contract that goes something like this: "Though we both understand that this account is not objectively true, I, the writer, will do my best to present you with the world as I know it, in the most interesting possible way; and in exchange, you, the reader, will give me the benefit of the doubt." The more prominent writers break the contract, the fewer readers are likely to buy into it in the future. The entire genre is brought low by these lies, and while I certainly don't applaud the writers who are doing the lying, I have far less respect for the publishers who keep them in business.

Personally, I am too uncomfortable with the vagaries of memory, at least for now, to write anything but fiction. But I applaud people like Paul for managing to make art out of life, even if they didn't escape from Attica or balloon across Siberia. Bring your copy of "Love And Consequences" back to the store and pick up his book instead.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Who Are You Writing For?

When I was a junior or senior in college I went to my writing teacher, Diane Vreuls, with a major dilemma. I had written some stories I liked and was thinking of sending them around to magazines. But, I told her, if they were published in these literary magazines, who would read them? College professors? People with with degrees in literature, MFA students? People in Manhattan apartments sipping cognac, whatever that was?

I wasn't writing for them! Those weren't my people! My people were small town people, rural people, people who bought their underwear in six-packs from the Dollar Bazaar, people who went to the Chinese Buffet still wearing their snowmobile suits. I'd never been to New York, didn't know anyone with an MFA -- what in the world could I ever say to that kind of reader?

Diane (the kindliest person in the world, incidentally, six feet tall with her white hair in a bun and the intensest blue eyes behind big glasses) told me something along the lines of this:

You have no idea how big the world is, little girl. You have no idea who your readers will be. There are people reading literary magazines in laundromats in South Dakota. There are homeless folks in libraries reading everything they can find. There are southern housewives who stop at the bookstore after teaching Sunday school. You never know, and it's not even your business. You're writing for people like you, and if you're going to be a writer, you must believe there are people out there who are like you in some essential way, whether they're sipping cognac or riding a snowmobile.

That was pretty much exactly the thing I needed to hear -- it busted me out of my reverse-classist snobbery in a big way.

Years later, having gone through MFA school and done a little teaching myself, I published a novel. It got some nice reviews but certainly didn't make a big splash in the literary world or anything. It went quietly out of print. Then... I started getting emails from people who had found my book at the dollar store and wanted to tell me that they enjoyed it. I was thrilled, of course -- beyond thrilled.

What am I trying to say? I guess that the ideas that writers choose their audience, that they write for "the ivory tower" or for "the common man" or whatever is just false. I mean, you can direct your writing at whoever you like, but you don't get to pick who reads it. Readers get to pick. I love that.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

More on the Short Story

I feel like maybe I need to defend my outrageous statement of a couple posts ago: "The literary short story is doing fine."

Here's an example, one of the finest short stories I've ever read in my life: Alice Munro's "Dimension," which was in the New Yorker in 2006 and reprinted in BASS 2007, the one edited by Stephen King. It's about a woman whose husband murders their children. You couldn't ask for more difficult material -- I can't usually read that kind of thing, and yeah, I more or less sob the whole time I'm reading it. But people, take a look at that story. I don't know if anyone has ever committed an act of such extraordinary empathy. It takes the top of my head off. It really does.

And how about Lydia Davis? Those of you who value plot over all might not love her, but she does everything a great artist must do: she communicates a specific and meaningful experience -- often just a mental state of being -- in an absolutely original way. Her collection was nominated for the National Book Award! I never thought I'd see the day.

Jim Shepard's collection, Like You'd Understand, Anyway, was also nominated. Now, I'm not crazy about his stuff. I find it tedious and the characters muted. But he's writing short stories, and lots of people with taste different from mine love it, and it is highly imaginative and original.

And Miranda July's collection was published this year, too -- it's another totally original piece of work.

There are many others -- I'm sure I'm leaving some obviously good ones out.

You know, I don't expect to be blown away every time I open the New Yorker or Harpers or The Paris Review or the Georgia Review or Epoch or The Alaska Quarterly Review or whatever. But sometimes I am! And you know what, genius is rare. I read a truly brilliant short story maybe twice a year. Do we really need more than that? Do we need Hemingway on the back of our cereal boxes?

Maybe some readers don't like anything I mentioned above. Maybe you like something different and something that isn't published much these days. If so, please, start a press! Or a journal! Even a web journal. Seriously -- it's so much easier than it used to be to become a publisher. When I get my stuff together and find my letterpress I'm going to start a publishing house, no joke.

But maybe you think there's good stuff out there, but not enough people read it. There's only way to get Americans to read more -- if you think that's a useful goal -- and that's by teaching literature in schools. And teaching it well. God knows if we'll ever be able to turn the ship around and do that.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

My Minifesto

I indulged in a hysterical flameout in the comments of the last post, on the subject of integrity, elitism, and art. But it feels inadequate and reactionary, and I thought I ought to take a moment to say what I think the whole point of writing is.

First off, I'm with Rhian--I think that it's silly to say that more writers should produce "traditional" short stories--which, in the context of this argument, seems to mean direct, clear narratives with a satisfying emotional arc. There is, of course, nothing wrong with a story like this--I've read and enjoyed many in my time, and the template for this kind of story is eternally burned into my mind, as it is into the minds of every contemporary writer.

But the idea that this kind of story should regain primacy in the publishing world is simply absurd. Why? Because a good writer does not write a story in order to please people. He does not write a story to earn praise, or to be loved, or to satisfy his publisher, or to satisfy his mom. A good writer doesn't write so that she'll feel better about herself; she doesn't write to become famous, and she doesn't write to get money. We might well hope to achieve these things as a result of our writing--and huzzah to those who manage to--but these things are not the goal. They are ancillary to the purpose of the work.

A good writer writes the way she does because there is no other way for her to write. A good writer writes the way he does because there is something in himself that he has to get out, and his story is the only way to do it. A good story--a good anything--is the result of passion, honesty, integrity. A good writer writes because that's what she has to do.

Sometimes the product of this effort is accessible to many people, and becomes famous. Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov. Sometimes the product is strange, difficult, obscure, and off-putting to most. Gertrude Stein (as Rhian said), late Joyce. But the writer doesn't have any control over what other people think. And he doesn't write based on what other people think. The reason Finnegans Wake is still in print isn't that it's beloved the whole world over. It's in print because it's unique, mysterious, and fascinating to a small number of dedicated fans.

If I could choose to be a genius whose work everyone loved, or a genius whose work was difficult and obscure, I'd pick the former. I want everyone to love me. But the truth is that I don't get to be a genius of any kind, and I don't get to choose how popular I am. I only get to choose how to express what I need to express. Once I do that, I throw it out there and hope for the best--and when the work is poorly received, it hurts. It really does, because what is actually being poorly received is me--the most absolute core of what I am. This is why most writers--the ones with integrity--don't read their reviews. Because the work means too damned much to them, and there's no point in hearing that you are hated.

If writers, on the whole, all tried together to please more people, then all writing would start to be more similar. The thing that makes writing exciting--its uniqueness, its personal signature--would begin to fade. The point is moot, of course, because no writer who's any good would listen to a nonsensical suggestion like this. Good writers do not give a crap what people want. All they want is to make something that they powefully believe needs to exist.

And again, sometimes vast amounts of people agree. Mr. Munroe, in the previous comments, mentioned the unlikely bestsellerdom of Cormac McCarthy--what could have been less likely? But keep in mind--as Skoog reminded me on the phone yesterday--that he wrote half a dozen flops before he hit it with All The Pretty Horses. He was writing for his own reasons, not our reasons. Somehow, though, our reasons came around to line up with his.

Does anyone honestly believe that, say, John Barth is some kind of fake? That he produces his metafictions not because he loves producing them, but because he wants to impress people? Does anyone think that what David Markson really wants is to write sprawling bestsellers, but he does his weird little novels to show how smart he is? That Lydia Davis could in fact be writing chick lit, but she's too pretentious to admit it?

Seriously. You cannot possibly believe that. They write these things because they love writing these things, because they're the things they can write. And the people who read them--you can't possibly believe people read Ben Marcus to impress girls. You can't possibly believe people people read Donald Barthleme to piss of their parents.

Some people like this stuff. Some people love it. Who in their right mind would banish it from the earth? Who could possibly want to narrow the huge, bizarre, glorious variety of human expression? What fool would deny human beings their peculiarity?

At the moment, folks, the short story is not a popular form. Movies, pop songs, TV shows--those are popular forms. Some of those things are awesome, and thank goodness for it. (My friend Brian, reading a draft of my new novel, couldn't resist pointing out how much it appears influenced by "Lost.")

But the short story, for now, is in the best possible place--it's a vehicle for pure artistry. And people are doing brilliant work in it. If you want more happy endings, petition the publishing houses. Start a magazine. But leave the goddam writers alone. They're not writing for you. They're writing for themselves, and for the future.