Thursday, August 28, 2008


Well, that's cool. I was reading the convention coverage on Daily Kos, and something caught my eye--artfully arranged agglomerations of words used in the various speeches, with the most-used words printed in the largest type. I followed a link and ended up at Wordle.

I'm sorry, am I the last one to know? I plugged in a short-short of mine, "Switch," from the Pieces For The Left Hand collection, and got the result above. I like it--it reminds me of Edward Tufte's wonderful books on the subject of visual information. If anyone comes up with a really good one, post it somewhere for us.

Monday, August 25, 2008

"The Likeness," and Weird Friendships

I just finished Tana French's follow-up to the wonderful In The Woods, which instantly became one of my favorite crime novels ever when I read it a couple of weeks ago. In my review of that book on this site, though, I failed to mention a few elements which suddenly cast sharp shadows in the light of the new book, The Likeness. The previous book is a first-person narration, from the point of view of Rob Ryan, a Irish homicide detective; a significant part of the book elaborates upon his unconventional friendship with his partner, Cassie Maddox (the first-person narrator of The Likeness).

Ryan and Maddox, in that first book, have a platonic relationship of unusual intimacy. Ryan is always sleeping over on Maddox's couch; they know everything about each other, and clearly find one another attractive. Everyone assumes they are an item, and Ryan almost never mentions any feelings for another woman--until the novel's last third, where, blinded by his attraction to a suspect, he makes a huge mistake that blows the case. He also blows the friendship, by sleeping with Maddox, then cruelly shunning her friendship.

In the new book, Ryan does not appear. But Maddox mentions their night together. I've brought the book back to the library already, I'm afraid, but she says something like "He wanted to sleep with me; I let him." It's more complicated than that, of course, and part of French's appeal is her skill at unreliable narration. Ryan and Maddox are onto themselves, but not quite as much as they think.

In The Likeness, we have a bizarre premise: back when Maddox was an undercover cop, she and her supervisor invented a girl named Lexie Madison for Maddox to inhabit, in order to crack a college drug ring. Now Maddox is off the homicide squad and is working domestic violence, and she gets a call from her boyfriend, another homicide cop: come to a crime scene immediately, there's something you have to see. The something turns out to be a young woman, dead in an abandoned cottage: she looks identical to Maddox, and her ID says Lexie Madison.

If that seems implausible, what happens next is even more so: Maddox goes back undercover as the dead girl, moving in with the girl's four housemates, who have been told she wasn't dead of her stab wound, but merely in a coma. She is supposed to infiltrate their web of friendships in order to discover who really killed Lexie Madison--and who this Lexie Madison really was.

Well. Let me say right off that I loved this book, and found it every bit as absorbing as its predecessor. But the premise isn't merely hard to believe: it's impossible to believe. It simply couldn't, wouldn't ever happen. If this is likely to bother you, don't read it, because it's really the one flaw in an otherwise spectacular, and superbly written, crime novel.

The interest here isn't the plot, though. It's the friendships. Lexie's housemates are a group of disaffected graduate students who co-own a decrepit mansion and spend every single second of their time together. One's a girl, and one is gay, but they aren't lovers, and they don't seem to have lovers outside the group, either, or even other friends. They have a "no pasts" rule--any conversational references to their lives before they met are strictly forbidden. They cook meals together, and in the evenings they sit around the parlor reading and playing cards. None of them owns a computer or television. They're inveterate weirdos, in other words--and Maddox, who had to drop out of college ten years before when a rumormongering psychopath destroyed her social life, falls for them in a big way. The real story of this book is the story of Maddox going native, actually coming to love this quartet of suspects, and trying to convince herself it's all part of the job. In the end, she cracks the case, but that isn't the only thing that cracks, and the happy ending with boyfriend Sam is intentionally undercut by a minor chord.

Anyway, after In The Woods, I wouldn't have identified Weird Friendships as French's subject. But perhaps it is. It's a good one, too, as I can't think of many other books that embrace it so completely. Maybe The Haunting of Hill House, or some of Ruth Rendell's nonseries thrillers. I'm also surprised we don't see it more often--after all, how many relationships fall neatly into our commonest categories for them? How many relationships are completely nonweird? Not many. This is my Topic Of The Week, and I'm going to write a story about it immediately.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Writer As Chattel

Oh, my. This one is making the rounds of the blogs today, and I can't resist throwing it onto ours as well. I saw it on Boing Boing. It would seem that, according to Sian Pattenden's blog in The Guardian, Random House has decided to insert the following clause into its boilerplate contract for children's authors:

If you act or behave in a way which damages your reputation as a person suitable to work with or be associated with children, and consequently the market for or value of the work is seriously diminished, and we may (at our option) take any of the following actions: Delay publication / Renegotiate advance / Terminate the agreement.

Pattenden doesn't seem to think this particular offense will take hold: "Random House," she writes, "will suddenly realise that it's not very good PR and cease this rot immediately."

But you know how this kind of thing works--somebody floats it, it gets shot down, and then at some point in the future it gets floated again, by somebody else, in a slightly diluted form, and it seems kind of familiar, and not such a big deal anymore. And in a few years we're all eating it for breakfast.

Personally, I see this is more evidence that the major publishers have gone the way of the record giants, falling over themselves to be the first to become completely irrelevant; and before long all the decent books will be published by smarter, weirder, smaller, and more interesting presses who regard actual talent as their strongest asset. But what do I know--I'm just a guy on the internet.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Wood on Lit, Kirn on Wood

I was a little nervous to pick up James Wood's How Fiction Works. As I said a few posts ago, I don't love Wood's book reviewing, though I respect his intelligence and erudition. But there is something seductive about How Fiction Works...the physical artifact itself is quite beautiful, with its retro text-only cover printed on matte stock, and the text tightly situated within generous margins. It looks and feels like it might well be a small gem.

It pretty much is. It a smart, entertaining, rather haphazard guide to reading and writing fiction, filled with great quotations from Wood's copious bookshelf, and spangled with surprising personal touches, such as his description of a debate he has with his wife at a concert, or his memories of being read Beatrix Potter as a child.

This isn't what I expected. Wood is famous for disliking things--Don DeLillo for instance, and postmodernism--but here we find him, for the most part, in a rather jovial mode. The book is ninety per cent praise, and the big news here is that Wood is much better at praise (for Flaubert and Chekhov, especially) than he is at criticism. When something raises his ire here, he tends to overstate his case (David Foster Wallace's "hideously ugly" language, Roland Barthes' "murderous hostility" to realism), and he has an unappealing tendency to enclose concepts he finds distasteful, such as Amazon "reader reviews" and creative writing "workshops," in quotation marks. But when he likes things, he is eloquent, charming even: "Novelists should thank Flaubert the way poets thank spring: it all begins with him." Or, during a discussion of metaphor: "In New York City, the garbage collectors call maggots 'disco rice.' That is as good as anything I have been discussing."

In his book reviews, Wood seems always to be constructing himself a literary Alamo from which to fight his losing battle--he is dour in his defense of realism. I wish he would let his guard down more often, as he does here. People's complaint about him seems to be that he is a snob, but what of it? Wood is trying to uphold certain standards, and this is an admirable goal. Personally, I find his taste rather narrow (I happen to find Wallace's language beautiful), but the stuff he knows, he knows the hell out of. In How Fiction Works, his knowing is a force for good. I recommend it.

I hardly know how to begin to address the subject of Walter Kirn's review in this past Sunday's NYTBR, however. Like me, Kirn is bothered by some of Wood's nastier turns of phrase, and, also like me, he could have done without the book's condescending introduction. But after that, Kirn loses his cool. The review is a diffuse, embarrasing rant that seethes with professional jealousy and class paranoia. He openly mocks Wood's erudition, as if it's a bad thing, and tries his best to make Wood look like a pampered pussy. "He flashes the Burberry lining of his jacket," goes a parenthetical aside, "whenever he rises from his armchair to fetch another Harvard Classic."

Kirn, who, according to his Wikipedia page, went to Princeton and married the daughter of a movie star, really ought to get down off his low horse. I don't understand what his problem is--he's probably the most-read book reviewer in the entire world. Yet his review bristles and spits, and collapses into an anti-elitist screed, like a John McCain campaign ad. Read the review if you must, but don't let it stop you from enjoying the Wood book, which is a welcome addition to the canon of popular literary criticism, a genre I feared was dead.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Something awesome and something awful

Let's start with the awful, which is actually kind of awesome. It's this year's Bulwer-Lytton Prize winner, penned by a guy with the delightfully implausible name Garrison Spik. Here's his entry:

Theirs was a New York love, a checkered taxi ride burning rubber, and like the city their passion was open 24/7, steam rising from their bodies like slick streets exhaling warm, moist, white breath through manhole covers stamped "Forged by DeLaney Bros., Piscataway, N.J."

As I think I've said before, I'm actually not a great fan of this contest--they generally pick something too absurd to be funny. The ones I like are the ones that seem as though they might actually have been written in earnest, and are earnestly bad. Mr. Spik's fits the bill, at least until the mention of Piscataway. That's too Borscht Belt for my taste, I'm afraid, but the rest I like.

The awesome is Tana French's debut crime novel In The Woods, which was recommended here by reader Elizabeth. This book has a striking cover, and for weeks I had picked it up over and over at Rhian's store, hoping it would be good. But it opens with what I thought was a terrible piece of writing--a gratuitously lyrical, pretentious two-page preface--and I couldn't make it past. Elizabeth's recommendation sent me back to it, though, money in hand, and as it happens, the preface is not only pointless--it isn't remotely like anything else in the book. Indeed, the writing in this book is superb, and the novel is literary above all, by which I mean it is most concerned with the mental journey of its narrator, a detective-in-denial named Rob Ryan who, at age 12, was the victim of a crime he can't remember. When a new, creepily similar crime occurs in the same place, and it falls to Rob and his partner Cassie Maddox to investigate it, they decide to keep Rob's past a secret and let the case take them where it may.

It takes them places they don't want to go, of course, and French unravels both mysteries (to varying degrees of completeness), and their complicated relationship, with the skill of a seasoned veteran. The characters are marvelous, the plot is thrilling, the sentences are focused and agile, and the ending is audaciously maddening.

There's a blurb from USA Today on the back of the paperback, BTW, that ought to have been deleted in the pipeline. "Readers who like their hard-boiled police procedurals with an international flair will love In The Woods." Actually, no. The book is not remotely "hard-boiled"--it's humane and nuanced; and there is no "international flair" at all. The book takes place in Ireland, but what it's about is local politics, small towns, and the universality--and banality--of evil. There is no gratuitous travelogueing, nor divorced alcoholics listening to bebop. The reviewer seems to have randomly picked some cliches out of a marketing manual. It reminds me of the time I was given some flap copy for a book of mine, which described as "beautiful" a female character I myself had described, in the actual novel, with the word "unbeautiful."

In any event, French's new book, The Likeness, is on my bedside table, and Piscataway is in my travel plans.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Uh's magic

I was talking with a student today about magic-realist fiction, and it occurred to me that it's very difficult to explain why I think it works when it works, or doesn't work when it doesn't. On one hand, and on general principle, I don't like the stuff. This includes Garcia-Marquez, whom, like any sane person, I respect and admire, but who I've never really been able to warm up to. On the other hand, I can think of plenty of examples that I think work well, and that I quite like. I've mentioned a few here from time to time. I'm usually delighted when students throw something animist, magical, or supernatural into their stories, especially when they manage to pull it off.

So how does one pull it off, then? This is purely off the top of my head, since I am no expert on the genre, but here goes.

I think magic realism has to have some kind of strong cultural basis--that is, not the culture the writer comes from, but the culture of the story. It can't just happen in a story--it has to mean something, to the characters, to the history of the place where the story is set. For instance, if some kids are sitting around wanting some pizza, and all of a sudden some fairies fly out of nowhere to give them a bag of gold coins and a cab ride to the pizzaria, that's dumb. But if some kids are standing by the sea mourning the death of their father, a fisherman whose boat sunk, and all they've ever known is the world of seafaring, and they've grown up hearing all these legends about spirits in the water etc., and a beautiful but dangerous water nymph washes up half-dead on the shore and they end up going down into the sea to help her avenge the trident-carrying father who kicked her out for loving a human, who turns out to be the kids' father, who is not dead but has become a merman and is living in some undersea cove, that's also dumb.

But it does make sense. All the magical crap has to do with what the kids know, how they grew up, and what they believe in. A good magical element also ought, I think, to have some kind of metphorical power--some relationship to the real world, or to Freudian psychology, or to social trends, or to mass national anxiety, or something. Randomly occurring magic bucket-shaped angels filled with various soft drinks would not be good. But a bearlike silver-furred animal that looks kind of like your mother? Sure, maybe.

Magic realism, badly done, can easily come off like so much naive wishful thinking. (Don't you wish dreams could come true? Well...they can!) And all too often, it's used as a writerly convenience--for instance, is there a nasty character who deserves to die painfully? Invent a killer tree sprite with mind-reading powers and send one to knock him off! But when it's good, it feels like a natural product of the story and its characters--practically an inevitability, even.

Part of the problem in even talking about it, is that it all sounds awful in description. (This is the trouble with taking science fiction and fantasy seriously, too.) In practice, though, in the right hands, it can be great. Indeed, it can be unique--a writer with an original vision and a distinctive voice can use it to create a new kind of mythology.

Anybody care to throw in some choice recommendations?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

What would you want in a writing guide?

Rhian and I were at the Jersey Shore this past week, and so we took along some W6-recommended crime novels. We really got into Lawrence Block's Hit Man, recommended by Mr. Saflo. It's a lighthearted (if you can believe that) book about a hired killer, and I enjoyed it a hell of a lot more than many of the literary books I've read lately.

This is kind of a theme lately, I suppose...thinking about what makes a book good. Ambition is not necessarily advantageous, and neither is depth. When a book is those things, and still good, then that's great--but, as I've said here recently, I think what I'm looking for, above all, is honesty: to one's readers, to one's characters, and to one's own preoccupations.

Anyway, this brought me back to a thought I've been having on and off ever since we started this blog, and that is that maybe we ought to write a writing guide. I mean, we talk here a great deal about writing--our processes, our philosophy, our successes and failures. So why not write a book? We are not the most wildly famous writers in the world, but so what. It wouldn't be about getting published, it would be about making something you can be proud of. Which, for both of us, I think, is the goal.

The thing is, I've never really loved a writing guide. And there are already so many of them out there. Does the world need another? Probably not. Still. With more than a couple of decades of writing and teaching between us, we probably have a few things to say that someone might enjoy. If Lawrence Block has managed to turn out four writer's manuals (and yes, he has), then surely we could manage one between us.

Do you ever feel as though you want to read a good book about writing--an inspiring book, an entertaining book, whatever--but the thing you want doesn't seem to exist? What are you looking for in a book about writing, if in fact that's what you're looking for?

And should its title be something like The Ward Six Guide to Writing a Novel? Or do you prefer one of those cryptic metaphor titles, like Shaving the Deacon's Goldfish: A Life In Writing, or A Thimbleful of Opium: Finding Your Voice, or perhaps The Bastard in the Butterchurn: A Novelist's Companion?

Or should we just stick to blogging?

PS, big thanx to Ed for posting so diligently in our absence.

Man Down

Oh, my heart is rent. Mahmoud Darwish, who I did not know, except through his poems, which is the only way to know most friends, has--how impossible--died.

A recent poem from the Virginia Poetry Review: click the title to read the rest.

With the Mist So Dense on the Bridge

With the mist so dense on the bridge, he said to me,
“Is anything known to the contrary?”
I said, “At dawn, things will be clear.”

He said, “There is no time more obscure than dawn.
Let your imagination succumb
to the river.
In the blue dawn,
in the prison yard or near the pine yard,
a young man is executed, along with his hopes for victory.

In the blue dawn, the smell of bread
forms a map of a life where summer is more like a spring.
In the blue dawn, dreamers wake gently
and merrily walk in the waters of their dream.”

Friday, August 8, 2008

Being Way Into Zombies

In my defense as a citizen of a democracy, I must admit that I have read Marvel Zombies in hardback form. (And then sold the volumes on ebay to get them out of my house.)

Marvel Zombies, in its several bound books, certainly is much worse than what I have recently excoriated my students for reading.

I had to read it. I ran across a mention that She-Hulk, at one points, eats a bunch of children, and I thought, whoa, what's this about?

Not much, it turns out. But I turned several days' attention on Marvel Zombies, my first significant return to the Marvel universe in decades, although I have been a diligent consumer of zombie media in the meantime. I think I'm done, though. Turns out that the subjects of zombies and superheroes are just as vapid as they seem, despite intelligent efforts to make them vivid and meaningful.

One notable work of fiction regarding zombieness, of course, is described here. (Although the internet filter where I live prevents me from accessing the magazine in which it appeared, last March, in extraordinary awesomeness.

I say this with a heavy heart (a delicious, still-beating heart), and have to take it back a little, because two of the most intelligent things I've read recently were by former students, one a great zombie-poem manuscript that should appear in this world someday, and another student's senior honors thesis about the architecture and philosophies of zombies (this a brutal reduction of his serious work.)

I am not, certainly turning away from comics. Brian K. Vaughn is writing work of enormous popularity and depth, with his recent Pride of Baghdad and Y: The Last Man. In particular, the long range narrative of Y (in which all male mammals in the world die suddenly, except one dude, Yorick, and his pet monkey) constantly surprised me, by character development as much as plot, in a way I've never seen in comics, which seem either flat and standard or falsely brooding and adolescently deep. Y is good stuff. (John, he's also a writer on Lost the last few seasons.)

It probably requires little comment that a thing called Marvel Zombies is disappointing, for some people, and for others, it is an outrageous lie to say that something called Marvel Zombies could be anything less that the most perfect human creation. I guess I wanted it to be one thing, but it was another thing.

So I sold it on ebay to a gentleman from Illinois, who asked that I send it express, because his son was "way into zombies," which is not the sort of thing dads used to say about sons.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008


August is, despite its brightness, the 3 am of the year. Most everyone is in some kind of sleep, occupational sleep, summer sleep, cultural sleep. I'm teaching a summer class on the short story to high school students, but mostly they just want to talk about Stephanie Meyer's Twilight books. They no longer want to talk about Harry Potter, although they're all experts and scholars on the subject--they're like old academics who could, if forced to, lecture for months about deconstruction or structuralism, but have moved on. No, they want to talk about Twilight, and do so with a weird gleam in their eyes and giddy catches in their voices.

Meanwhile I place these short stories before them, and they turn out to have read many of them before, though when asked about them, they get key details wrong, or switched around. It doesn't bother them. Bartelby the Scrivener is suddenly down for whatever, and Sonny in Sonny's Blues is now a guitar player who meets the devil at the crossroads.

But if a student gets a detail of Twilight wrong, or even right, an enormous quarrel begins and won't end until someone is sullen.

Me, I hate a vampire story. And I'm tired of superhero movies.

"And I confess I find it hard/ speaking to people/ who are fond of outer space," wrote the poet Stephen Dunn in "Turning Forty."

But who am I to complain. In high school I read mostly Stephen King and Ayn Rand because nobody was around to suggest anything different, and my own taste was too slow in developing to warn me away.

Where does that turn happen, away from crap to works of real value?

Sunday, August 3, 2008

How lovely that driving is,/ how deadly.

I spent today preparing to teach a two-week short-story-writing class to high school students. I always like to start over, when I teach, rather than fall back on old class plans and lessons. Otherwise I might start to think I'm really only a teacher, and am done with learning. It's a pleasure to be using short stories of Roberto Bolaño for the first time in this context. "The Grub," from Last Evenings On Earth, should lead to a different series of questions and writings than I'm used to, or at least that's what I'm hoping.

Bolaño. Bolaño. Bolaño. I read and read and read him, but I can't explain why--what in his writing is so appealing? There's some sort of recovery happening when I read his stores and novels. (Not so much the poetry.) He makes me want to write. He makes me a little more disgusted by other writers.

I was surprised, rereading John Cheever stories in my search for interesting models and talking points for these high schoolers, to find more mystery and sympathy in his work than I ever used to, and I think it's because they remind me of Bolaño--a similar patient spokenness in both, a similar composed and devious honesty. It's an odd match, I acknowledge, but there's some metaphor between them. Check out "The Death of Justina" or "Clemantina."

Another writer who seems fresher in context of Bolaño is John Newlove, a Canadian poet who also died in 2003. He was from Saskatchewan, as unlikely a place on earth as Chile. He lived for a while around Deep Springs College in Death Valley, though I'm not sure if he taught there.

This John Newlove poem is worth a whole life. It's from his 1986 book The Night the Dog Smiled. I found it in a small bookstore in Victoria, or rather Kurt Slauson found it and encouraged me to buy it. At the time the buzz in the english department at the university of victoria, apparently, was that Newlove had disappeared after the book came out, was in hiding, maybe for drink or health, or maybe stealth. This poem should be on the Canadian dollar, on its flag. I hate the poet laureate trend in North America, the condescending nationalistic nod it implies. Yet Canada should make John Newlove the Canadian permanent posthumous poet laureate for writing this poem.


You never say anything in your letters. You say,
I drove all night long through the snow
in someone else’s car
and the heater wouldn’t work and I nearly froze.
But I know that. I live in this country too.
I know how beautiful it is at night
with the white snow banked in the moonlight.

Around black trees and tangled bushes,
how lonely and lovely that driving is,
how deadly. You become the country.
You are by yourself in that channel of snow
and pines and pines,
whether the pines and snow flow backwards smoothly,
whether you drive or you stop or you walk or you sit.

This land waits. It watches. How beautifully desolate
our country is, out of the snug cities,
and how it fits a human. You say you drove.
It doesn’t matter to me.
All I can see is the silent cold car gliding,
walled in, your face smooth, your mind empty,
cold foot on the pedal, cold hands on the wheel.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Arguing on the internet

I got into a the kind of situation a couple of weeks ago that I had thought I'd rendered myself immune to. I was posting on an internet photography messageboard about a picture, by a famous photographer, that most people seem to like but which really bothers me. So I hotlinked to the image and laid out a little argument about why the picture wasn't really very good, why it was ultimately kind of dishonest, aesthetically speaking, and not among the photographer's best stuff.

Well. I expected people to disagree with me. But many of the angriest, most insulting comments came from people who didn't understand why I was getting all bent out of shape about a photograph. One person said I reminded him of all the assholes he knew in art school. Another guy said that sometimes a picture is "just a picture." Someone else just said "bullshit"; two separate posters told me to "lighten up." Another forum member tried to tell me what an idiot I would sound like to the photographer, as if wanting to be admired and congratulated by the artist was something I would ever aspire to.

I should have abandoned the thread, but I kept going back in. If you like art, I argued, shouldn't you form passionate opinions about it? Shouldn't small things matter? And as for the photographer's opinion, did anyone really care? Does anyone really think that an artist's opinion of his own work is worth a damn? I reiterated what I'd said a few months back, at a reading, when someone raised the question of discovering the definitive meaning of a book: "If you want the wrong answer, ask the author."

It was all pointless. For that evening, I was a pariah, or at least my forum personna was. I actually couldn't sleep--I got out of bed at one in the morning, turned the computer back on, and kept on arguing. Eventually, I gave up. A few people were on the same page as me (thought some of them disagreed with my argument), but they were neither in the majority, nor among the loudest commenters.

I suppose I thought I was still on this blog, where passionate, contradictory, and poorly supported diatribes are the norm, and spirited debate about tiny things has a lot of value. But I dunno--aside from here, I don't think I'm going to be arguing with people on the internet anymore. It takes a special online community to have a decent discussion, and perhaps there aren't too many out there that fit the bill. Even here, the soapboxes belong to Rhian and Ed and me, and we can always tamp down comments with a new post. Blogging isn't a democracy--indeed, it can easily slip into insularity and self-aggrandizement (though I hope we don't make those mistakes here). Genuine reasoned debate, in an egalitarian online forum, is rare.

What, if anything, do you get out of arguing with people online? Does doing so cause you more anxiety than enlightenment? Or have you found places where it really works--where it feels like a good college class, or book group, or front-stoop rap session, or whatever?