Thursday, December 17, 2009

Why you should compromise your artistic integrity

There's a great story in that Carver biography about Gordon Lish trying to edit Vladimir Nabokov for Esquire in the same way he edited Carver. "Who is this fellow Gordon Lish and what is he doing?" the great man said, according to editor-in-chief Frederick Hills. "We simply return it to him and say, 'This is not possible.'" Nabokov's primary editor, of course, was Nabokov. But most of us can use a real editor, even if it isn't one as aggressive and, ultimately, monomaniacal as Lish.

Whenever an editor (or anyone else, for that matter) asks me to change something, I get my hackles up, just a little. "Who the hell are you to tell me how to make my art?!!?" But the fact is, there are two audiences for your work: the one that contains only you, and the one that contains everyone else on earth. And it's the latter audience an editor is working for.

Dare I say it's the more important audience, as well? The editor, if he's any good, is doing you a favor. He is showing you things about your own work that you're incapable of seeing on your own. He is pointing out your blind spots. A good editor treats the story as something other than a masturbatory enterprise; she is trying to figure out how to make the world accept and enjoy your vision.

There are an infinity of ways to make a story work--and your way might not be among the best, even if you wrote it. Because really, if you're any good, you don't know what the hell you're doing, anyway. Your writing should be a process of discovery, not transcription. When an editor says to you, "We'll publish, but only if you'll do X," consider doing X, and not feeling bad about it. There are times when no is the only possible answer, and I've had times like those. But a lot of the time, the editor knows better--she has seen what you were trying to do and is attempting to help you do it. (I would argue that this was, in the early days, what Lish was doing for Carver.)

Think of it this way: there is no definitive version of anything. Your story is different in the mind of everyone who reads it, because literature is a participatory art, not a dictatorial one. So let up on the reins a little. Your integrity is a strength, but it can turn on a dime into a weakness.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Self-defeat, self-destruction, and fame

This post isn't a review of the new Raymond Carver biography, as I'm only about halfway through--indeed, at the moment, I'm at the nadir of Carver's life, when he is busy drinking from morning until night, bankrupt, and whacking his wife on the side of the head with a wine bottle. At the moment, I can barely even think about rereading Carver's work (which is what I planned to do after reading the bio), so odious, cowardly, hypocritical, and repulsive is the man at this stage of his life. Presumably things will soon start getting better, and my sympathy for the master of the short story will return.

But Jesus Christ. What a fucking bummer. Carver comes off very poorly here, as does almost everyone he knows--drinking buddies, enablers, philanderers, abusers, liars, fools. And Gordon Lish (whose editing I do believe improved Carver's work enormously, as Rhian and I previously discussed in these posts) would appear to be a total ass.

And yet...these monstrous years created a tremendous, if small, body of work--some of the best stories of the past half a century. I find myself in the position of not wanting it to be true, as there is nothing that enrages me more than that particular masculine insecurity that surfaces as self-pity and disrespect for women. But it is, and it often seems to be. How come weak men so often create great art?

Here's a passage from the book that really got my blood boiling. Carver is palling around with John Cheever in Iowa, who is busy drinking himself to death:

Cheever told Ray, "Fiction should throw light and air on a situation, and it shouldn't be vile. If somebody's getting a blow job in a balcony in a theater in Times Square, this may be a fact, but it's not the truth." Cheever believed fiction is "our most intimate and acute means of communication, at a profound level, about our deepest apprehensions and intuitions on the meaning of life and death." Both writers also disdained the so-called experimental fiction of the era.

What a bunch of horseshit! How convenient for Cheever, denying that the squalor of his own life could be regarded as "the truth" (Cheever and Carver got to the liquor store early, to make sure they were the first guys in the door), then dissing the fiction of the era designed specifically to explore the nuances of what he claimed to hold most dear. The hypocrisy and insecurity are staggering.

And yet...Cheever! And Carver! I love what these men did--they are heroes. And my heroes are bastards.

Of course, if we go around holding our favorite artists to high standards of personal behavior, there will be little art left for us to love. But why should that be? How can such personal weakness give way to such stunning brilliance? You can tell, obviously, that I have a horse in this race: I want to believe a nice fella can be a genius, too. And sure, I suppose it's possible. But it is sad to see how a writer so original could have been living, daily, the most boring imaginable cliché.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The books that made you who you are

Not the books that influenced your writing--those we've covered elsewhere. No, I'm talking about the books that formed your personality--the ones that taught you how to live. It is true of my life, and I suspect of others' as well, that it isn't always the best written or the most artistically satisfying that show us what we can be. A lot of philosophical questions to which I would never otherwise have been exposed to came to me, in my teens, through the hammily-written sci-fi novels I loved; Stephen King got me thinking seriously for the first time about sex and death.

But I think the biggest influence on my personality has to be physicist Richard Feynman's as-told-to memoir Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!, which I first read in paperback at the age of 16, and which gave me a sense, entering adulthood, of what sort of man I wanted to be.

OK, I guess I was never destined to be the tireless ladies' man that Feynman was. And I'm sure there are people out there who find this book insufferably boastful--re-reading it now, for Rhian's annual husbands-welcome book group meeting, I realize that the entire narrative is an extended brag, albeit undercut by a charming (to me) self-deprecation.

But Feynman was a great intellect and a fascinating character, as James Gleick's superb biography bears out, and he served as an excellent role model for me. An expert in his field, Feynman nonetheless eagerly put himself in places and situations that were unfamiliar to him--a dance for the deaf, Brazilian samba bands, biology lectures. He was someone for whom work and play, the realms of the social and intellectual, were one and the same. He recounts his conversations with an illiterate nightclub emcee with the same enthusiasm he describes being defended, at his first lecture, by Albert Einstein.

Feynman gave me a notion of myself that I still hold dear. I wanted to be charming, but to show respect. I wanted to work hard and enjoy myself doing it. I wanted to be funny without being a clown. I wanted to be willing to try anything new without fear of embarrassment. I wanted to treat failure as an opportunity to learn, and success as an opportunity to be grateful to others.

I realize that this book isn't necessarily a true or full picture of Feynman--rather, it's the way Feynman wanted to be seen. It is his ideal version of himself. But what better role model for my ideal (and equally unachievable) version of myself? I don't live up to it, of course, but whatever.

It's been a particualr pleasure, this time around, to read about Feynman's time at Cornell, particularly his mini-manifesto on teaching, and why it helps, not hinders, one's work. "If you're teaching a class," he writes: can think about the elementary things you know very well. These things are kind of fun and delightful. It doesn't do any harm to think them over again. Is there a better way to present them? Are there any new problems associated with them? Are there any new thoughts you can make about them?...The questions of the students are often the source of new research. They often ask profound questions that I've thought about at times and then given up on, so to speak, for a while. It wouldn't do me any harm to think about them again and see if I can go any further now...So I find that teaching and the students keep life going.

When I last read this book, I hadn't the slightest inkling that I would ever be a teacher. The greatest surprise this time around has been discovering that it still has something new for me.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Original of Laura

The first thing you need to know about this new Nabokov thing is that it is not a novel. It's not even close. It's a bunch of notes, basically, with some quite fascinating bits of story strewn around in it. It has no narrative arc, no coherence--just a few characters and a few scenes that might eventually have become a very good novel, if its author has lived.

I have little to say, then, about the story that The Original of Laura might eventually have become. Rather, I'll comment on this strange heavy literary artifact--the big black book with the fading titles that bears Nabokov's name. First off--I'm glad it was published. It is fascinating, and its destruction in the flames Nabokov requested consume it would have been tragic. (I'm in the camp that maintains no deathbed wish for unfinished works to be burned should ever be honored--indeed, no deathbed wish should be honored, ever. But that's a subject for another day.) Most of the credit here should go to the book designer, Chip Kidd, whose execution is simply brilliant, from the haunting cover to the perforated punch-out note card facsimiles. Some should go to Dmitri Nabokov as well, who, in the end, chose to ignore his father's wishes and publish the cards; his snotty introduction, however, is a missed opportunity to contextualize his father's unrealized achievement and explain better the author's working process.

What amazes me here is how Nabokov apparently went about writing this would-be novel; the cards are divided into "chapters," and it appears to me that Nabokov held in his mind some overarching conception of the story--its general shape, its changing points of view and intersecting plotlines--and composed truncated versions of each chapter first, resulting in an incoherent but seductive novel in miniature. It's a bit like the pencilled study an artist sketches onto the canvas before he begins mixing his paints--a vague outline that suggests various possible brilliances.

About half of this book isn't even that, though--just notes, thoughts, ideas. Some cards only contain a sentence or two, a few scribbled words. Others are impregnated by thrilling erasures, the shapes of the letters still visible underneath the words that have replaced them. I can't imagine trying to write a novel the way Nabokov apparently was here, and it makes me intensely curious about the note cards from his previous, finished novels. Perhaps Cornell has some--I will have to check this out.

In any event, this is absolutely a book worth reading, and more importantly studying, if you consider yourself a student of Nabokov's work. I couldn't help thinking of the Nabokov biographer Brian Boyd, who, in a recent talk at Cornell, described his first reading of these cards, back in the eighties, sitting in Vera Nabokov's living room with the widow staring at him from across the room. You can feel her gaze, and Boyd's amazement, and Nabokov's surprisingly steady hand, in these miraculous pages.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Youth reading culture!

I've been reading The Golden Compass to the kids lately, and, aside from a rather disorienting in-media-res opening that seems designed more like the beginning of a movie than the beginning of a book, I'm amazed at how good it is. Its explorations of the nature of the soul are very surprising and quite moving, even to me. And when, the other night, while the kids were in bed, I accidentally picked it up instead of the book I had been reading for class, I was struck by a wave of disappointment that I wouldn't get to continue reading alone.

Anyway, my students were a bit bored during the last class of the semester on Thursday, in part because we were discussing The Unconsoled, which only about 5 out of 35 liked. (To me, it's maddening in only the best possible way; to others, it's just maddening.) There's a section in which the protagonist, Ryder, recalls his childhood "training sessions," during which he would challenge himself to resist, while alone, the desire to go to his parents, and instead would endure the pain of separation.

I told my students that this reminded me of the scene in The Golden Compass where Lyra, its protagonist, is challenged by her daemon (in the book, this is a physical manifestation of the soul that takes the form of a companion animal from which a person cannot be separated by more than a few feet) to speak to a frightening warrior bear, and literally drags her into the conversation, causing feelings of deep pain and desolation. Both this scene and its analog in The Unconsoled are about the creation of the self via an intentional detachment from objects of love.

Suddenly the class woke up. They had all read the book, and they all saw the parallel. The rest of the session was actually pretty interesting. When I told Rhian this later that night, she pointed out that, though we were encouraged to read when we were kids, we lacked any real shared literate culture--there were not many seminal books that every smart kid read, and certainly no series as weighty as Pullman's or as widespread as the Harry Potter books. There was, say, the Hardy Boys, but those books kind of sucked, and you didn't go yammering with your friends about them. She argued--and perhaps will do so some more in the comments--that, far from the conventional wisdom that kids today are being devoured by trash culture, they are rather forming a powerful shared literary experience.

Of course, my Cornell students are a pretty rarefied group--they are all smart, and most are obsessive readers. But it seems to me that Rhian's right, that people of college age today are informed by a shared body of actually quite decent books, which they all understand and can talk about, and which form a common intellectual background that they are building on as adults. We had interesting childhoods, but I don't think we had anything quite like that.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Christmas books and Dickens' manuscript

Hey, have you seen this? The Morgan Library has allowed the New York Times to reproduce, online, the full manuscript of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," the story that is now about to celebrate its 166th, and last, Jim-Carrey-free year. Rhian and I actually saw the manuscript--or, anyway, a single page of it--at the Morgan one year; they display it one page at a time. Now you can plough through the whole thing, and compare notes with the rest of the internet.

The amazing thing about the manuscript is how much it looks like a manuscript you or I might be working on. Well--ours would probably be inkjet-printed. But the process is the same, the feel of the endeavor is the same. It is entertaining to see the Times' critics dissect the work:

Unwilling to believe that he is being visited by ghosts, Scrooge defiantly tells one spirit that he might be nothing more than the product of indigestion, "more of gravy than of grave about you.'' One way Dickens tweaks this speech is he substitutes the more bland description of a "spot of mustard" for the more visceral "blot of mustard."

That's a lot of words to spill about the change of a single letter, but we can only hope, fervently and in vain, that future readers will get their rocks off the same way while poring over our forgotten 3.5-inch floppies.

The most remarkable thing about "A Christmas Carol," of course, is that it is a Christmas story that doesn't completely suck. There aren't many, are there? We like Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory" (Rhian turned me onto it, as well as the BBC film of it, some years ago), but I can't think of any others offhand.

So what do you think? Got a Christmas book you actually like? Not that we'll go rushing out and buy it, or anything.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Three weird new books

Well! We are all back at the grindstone after multiple Thanksgivings and various nefarious activities, so I thought we'd offer up a triple-header of brief book reviews. Since my semester is drawing to a close, and I have been teaching the undergraduate edition of my Weird Stories class (which ends with a reading of perhaps my favorite weird book ever), today's theme will be New Weird Novels.

First up, Padgett Powell's new novel, The Interrogative Mood. We've been fans of Powell's for many years, particularly the short story "Mr. Irony Renounces Irony," which for the better part of a decade we walked around the apartment/house quoting at random. This new novel isn't quite a comeback, as Powell never stopped writing, but it does represent a new public interest in the man, which Rhian commented upon in an earlier post. Powell deserves it; the book is great fun--very smart, unexpected, bizarre, and just long enough. It consists entirely of questions, much like William Walsh's recent book Questionstruck, which I also liked, and in fact blurbed. Powell's book is different--much breezier, less rigorously po-mo, and about more stuff than pretty much all the other novels this year combined. The only reasonable response to it is to answer, at random, a page of questions. And so, my answers to page 64: 1) Any old paper is fine. 2) I have no idea. 3) Halberd yes, halyard no. 4) Yes. 5) Sometimes, I suppose. 6) I doubt it. 7) Probably not. 8) Yes, I certainly can.

Up next, Margaret Atwood's new one, The Year of the Flood, which is a sequel to her wonderful Oryx and Crake--indeed, the new paperback editions of that earlier novel now declare it "Book one of the MaddAdam trilogy," which suggests that the inventor of the LongPen is not through with this particular post-apocalypse. Personally I'm glad of it. I love Atwood in her sci-fi mode, and this book is every bit as good as the first, if perhaps a bit too dependent upon it in its formal approach. It consists of two parallel narratives, one in first person, one in third, from two narrators, onetime members of an environmental religious cult, and now two of the only surviving people in the world, in the wake of the events of the first book. The narratives here consist of a brief frame story in the ruined present, with generous helpings of flashback, just like Snowman's narrative in O&C, and we get to see some of the same characters again, this time from a new perspective, and with new contextual weight. Atwood is doing a marvelous job creating this world, and she sketches out the religious cult ("God's Gardeners") with something resembling breathless glee.

Finally, and I'll keep this short, is Stephen King's new one, Under the Dome. For several years I enjoyed nothing more than obsessing over my obsession with King, but all of a sudden I don't feel like talking much about it. I gave up about a third of the way through this one, and I think I have given up on King for good. There's a reference in the note in the back of UTD to some kind of heavy editing that supposedly took place, but I see no evidence of it here, as the plot, delightful as it is (inexplicable force field surrounds small Maine town), plods along dreadfully, with the exact same kind of gloomy events (rapes, beatings, murders) repeating themselves over and over every 25 pages or so. (King's embarrassing loathing of academia, by the way, is on display here as well, with probably the most pathetic portrayal of an English professor I've ever read. In what world are people really like this? And does he think professors don't ever read him? Hell, some of us even teach him.) It ought to be light, quick, and fun, and ends up being ponderous and depressing. I dunno, maybe it's me that's changed. But 35 bucks is a lot to pay for a book, and I think I've just dropped my final wad of scratch on the Master of Horror, alas. Great cover, though--lurid, glossy, and over the top. Tell you what--just grab this cover image, print it out, stick it to your fridge, and call it a day.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The literary narrative as the shadow of life

For reasons I can't begin to fathom, our nine-year-old, Tobey, who until recently was mostly interested in superheroes and video games, has suddenly developed abiding obsessions with chess and, of all things, topology. (At the top of his Christmas list: a Klein bottle.) Needless to say, we approve. But this latter obsession recently produced an interesting byproduct, which I delivered a brief, impromtu lecture on yesterday in my undergraduate Weird Stories class. It's an idea that came from this YouTube Tobey and his brother turned up the other day, and which we've all watched a few times since:

In the video, Carl Sagan demonstrates the way a perfect cube is rendered in two dimensions, in shadow, its equal sides distended, its perfectly square planes skewed. He goes on to describe the "shadow" that a four-dimensional hypercube would cast in three-dimensional space--indeed, he's got a model right there with him (of course, YouTube is two-dimensional--but leave that alone for now).

It occurred to me, walking to work yesterday, that a literary narrative can be conceived as a two-dimensional rendering of three-dimensional reality. That is, with a few notable exceptions, literary narratives are told linearly--you read one word after another, turn all the pages in the same direction, and never go back.

In reality, though, we experience linear time more complexly. When I walk to the bus stop (I told my class), I go out the door, down the steps, across the driveway, through the meadow, and across the parking lot of the school next door, then stop on the shoulder of the road to wait. Linear. But my mind is traveling through time--noticing the chicken shit the birds left yesterday, imagining having to clean it up tomorrow. Noticing the broken taillight on the car from the mishap of last week, picturing myself bringing the car to the mechanic after the weekend. Recalling having mowed the meadow; anticipating its spring return.

When we write a story, we strive not to represent the linearity of time, but to evoke the way memory and the imagination extend themselves forward and back. Flashbacks, foreshadowing, frame stories, back stories--these are all techniques we use to collapse more dimensions into fewer--like Sagan and his cube, to cast the shadow of reality onto the page.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned

This week's blogging caesura is attributable to work and an unfortunate pedestrian incident, but we are back in action with this bouquet of praise for Wells Tower's amazing new story collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. I first came across Tower's fiction in The New Yorker, which published his story "Leopard." I thought it was pretty good, but not good enough to make me go scrambling for this book when it hit the shelves--indeed, in retrospect it seems to me to be the weakest in the collection. But then Ed Skoog was in town and insisted I buy the book, saying that it was the best debut in a decade, reminiscent of Jesus' Son, etc etc, and as usual, Skoog was right.

The collection is indeed reminiscent of Denis Johnson's collection, in its brevity, directness, and wild energy; it also evokes Raymond Carver, for its convincing portrayals of working-class angst. It's a guy book, for sure--that is, a book that is masculine in tone, not a book that women won't like--with flawed male protagonists brooding over their failures and indulging their eccentricities. But it eschews the trappings of simplistic self-destruction narratives and chooses instead to wallow in the weirdness of life. Characters are strange, very strange, but very convincingly strange--never do you feel you're reading something that's quirky for quirkiness's sake. The Wacky is nowhere in evidence.

Here's a passage from "Down Through the Valley," a story in which a man is convinced by his ex-wife to drive their daughter and her injured current boyfriend back to town from the new age retreat where he hurt himself. Barry is some kind of earthy herbal therapist.

I asked a lot of people about Barry when Jane got mixed up with him. I knew a lady who'd legged down with him one time. She said the weird stink of him had been a problem, which I was pleased to hear. She also said that he had a huge banana, that he did breathing exercises beforehand, and that afterwards he'd gone in the kitchen and whipped up a big beet salad.

You've got to love the word choices here--"lady," "legged down," "the weird stink of him," "banana"--and the way the beet salad serves as a kind of subtle exclamation point at the end of the paragraph. Tower's language is just great--highly original, seemingly effortless.

There are many standout stories here, but people seem to talk the most about the title piece (also the last in the book), which takes the easy, workingman's poetry of the other stories and applies it to what appear to be Viking marauders. You'd think the result would come off as Donald Barthleme lite, but instead it's extremely fitting, very funny, and deeply disturbing. A neat trick to top off a winning collection.

Am I an asshole to hope he's writing a novel? I really do, though I will happily accept more stories.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Chronic City

This seems to be the year in which my favorite writers publish novels that don't make any sense. I'm talking about the new Jonathan Lethem, Chronic City, an exhaustingly unmoored narrative about weird male friendship, set in an alternate-universe Upper East Side. There's lots to like here, especially if, like me, you like Lethem--an escaped tiger wreaking havoc, giant urban conceptual-art pits in the ground, a chocolate wind, a mayor with apparently magic powers, a 9/11-like event that left the towers standing but covered downtown completely with a mysterious gray fog. This is a world that mingles real pop cultural referents (Lou Reed, Marlon Brando) with familiar-sounding simulacra: A 1000-page novel called Obstinate Dust, by someone named Ralph Warden Meeker; a band called Chthonic Youth; a children's TV program called The Gnuppet Show.

Our guide through this world is washed-up child TV star Chase Insteadman, whose first person narrative focuses primarily on a doomed former rock critic named Perkus Tooth, and all his wild ideas. They pal around with Richard Abneg, former squatter and presently the mayor's real estate fixer. There are some women for these guys to moon about (Chase's doomed (again) astronaut fiance Janice, and his earthbound bitchy ghostwriter girlfriend Oona; Richard's socialite lover Georgia; Perkus's doomed (yet again) waitress crush), but mostly this is a book about guys being friends in New York.

Oh, yeah, and pot. There's lots of it. Almost everyone is high almost all of the time. While high, they bid on stuff on eBay, get acupuncture, discuss conspiracies, and eat hamburgers. It is a bit like a baked Seinfeld.

If that doesn't sound so bad, it isn't. Lethem is funny and inventive, and as with Lorrie Moore's incomprehensible novel, I found myself perfectly happy to return to Chronic City and read a few more pages. But when you get right down to it, this is a stoner book. It just goes on and on, folding over on itself, referring to itself, creating mini-mythologies out of its intricate, chaotic parts. We hear of mysterious detail after mysterious detail, conspiracy after conspiracy, and it will not surprise you to learn that Everything Is Connected, and Nothing Is What It Seems. The problem is, nothing seems to mean anything outside the smoky self-refential boundaries of the book. Here is a typical late passage:

In my brain Sterling Winston Hobo was to Ralph Warren Meeker as Florian Ib was to Morrison Groom. Or maybe they were all the same person! Was Noteless involved in designing the tiger? [...] The secret lay outside my understanding. Oona Laszlo might have my existential puzzle's edge pieces hidden on her person somewhere, but I'd never make her admit it. I could only forumlate bizarre accusations: for instance, that Oona was preventing anyone from reading Meeker's Obstinate Dust. This was obvious, since she'd tricked me into chucking one copy into Urban Fjord, and then pretended to forget the title when Perkus requested a second.

You can tell why Michiko Kakutani hated it. It's as if Lethem set out to create the book that would most offend her sensibilities--a postmodern, self-mythologizing Dork Side Of The Moon. She actually called it "lame," right there in the Times!

I wouldn't go that far--as a Lethem superfan, I am happy to take the bad with the good. There is something perversely satisfying about these 467 pages, in their audacious unlikeliness; you almost can't believe what you're reading. Personally, I lived Chronic City on the sofa, laid up with the flu, and it has inhabited my dreams and disrupted my sleep for several can't, in all fairness, call such a novel a failure.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Why can't more books look like these?

I don't understand why we haven't yet seen an early-seventies mass-market retro paperback cover trend. To wit:

(Click for a larger image.)

I've written here before about my desire to be published in mass-market format--to be, once and for all, fully back-pocketable. But the other part of my love for this format is the work that went into the cover art, back in the MM heyday. In general, I dislike photographs on fiction book covers--indeed, my favorite two of my own book covers (Mailman and the US version of Pieces For The Left Hand) are the only ones with no photos on them, and the most retro in intent. A photograph implants itself in your head; it detracts from the invention your mind has to make when reading. The covers above are interpretive, not representational; they spark the imagination.

Occasionally a new book comes out that seems to follow this aesthetic, one that wears a beard proudly, a beard that is just now beginning to be flecked with gray. The new Lydia Davis collected stories is one--pictures don't do it justice, it's simply a beautiful, beautiful literary artifact.

And of course there is nothing worse than the movie tie-in cover, complete with photos of the actors in dramatic poses, or their photoshopped faces hovering in the air over a burning house, or some such horseshit. "You better check out the movie first," these covers seem to say.

So what do you think, people? Are you with me? As long as we've got the seventies economy, can't we have the book covers, too?

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Your relationship to language

I find myself getting into arguments on the internet lately, taking a side that, at one time, I didn't think I'd ever take: that of defending some of the most irritating habits of colloquial speech. If you spend any time reading and contributing to online discussions, you know the kind of argument I mean. Somebody says something like, "My sister has issues," and then some self-appointed savior of the language swoops in to inform the OP (original poster, for those of you who don't engage in these kinds of discussions) that their sister has problems, not issues, and that they hate it when people confuse the two. (And then there are those who will object to my using the plural possessive to refer to a singular antecedent in the previous sentence, whom I respectfully invite to suck it.)

No, I don't especially like lazy and imprecise usage--but I dislike sanctimony even more, especially when it is in the service of a pointless losing battle like the one waged daily against the forces of linguistic invention. The fact is, "issues" is now a synonym for "problems," and if the world needs a new word to claim the territory that "issues" is now spread too thin to cover, then such a word will soon spring into being. Your OED may not be fond of one's sister's issues, but soon it will be, because, as any lexicographer will tell you, the rules of language are constantly in flux, and innovation is constantly ongoing. Mistakes turn into habits turn into scripture, more quickly now than ever before.

I'm a teacher of writing, though, and I can't help but be annoyed when I encounter, even among my grad students (you know who you are!), fundamental problems ("issues," if you will) with verb tenses, point of view, subject-verb agreement, and syntactic ambiguity (the unintentional and distracting variety, that is). They should know better. But really, it's hard to blame them--the writer has to inhabit two minds at once: the one that adores the colloquial, with all its beautiful awkwardness and random innovation, and the one that values clarity and brevity above all else.

For my part, I fall more into the colloquial-enjoyment camp with every passing year. Indeed, the main reason I love the internet so much is the enormous variety of written voices--freed from the rules of grammar and usage (not to mention definitive personal identity), internet writers are wildly expressive and distinctive, as much through their flaws as communicators as through any intentional gambit.

Where do you stand on this issue? (Not, I'm sure you'll agree, "problem".)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Nabokov prognosticates Sarah Palin!

Sarah Palin is already in the literary news this month for the announcement that she is going to "write" a "book" (by which I mean "hire someone to ghostwrite" a "pop cultural artifact"), but check out these two passages that I just came across in Vladimir Nabokov's hilarious 1962 novel Pale Fire. In the first, deposed king and loquacious protagonist Charles Kinbote is describing the mountains of his native land of Zembla:

...a few peaks rise some two thousand feet higher and retain their snow in midsummer; and from one of them, the highest and hardest, Mt. Glitterntin, one can distinguish on clear days, far out to the east, beyond the Gulf of Surprise, a dim iridescence which some say is Russia.

If this isn't enough to justify a vice-presidential candidacy for Kinbote, check this out, from the very next page...Kinbote here is referring to himself in the third person:

His mother was an American, from New Wye in New England. She is said to have been the first woman in the world to shoot wolves, and, I believe, other animals, from an airplane.

Two years before the former Alaska governor's birth, no less! The man was even more talented than I thought.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Are Writers Taking Enough Risks?

The New York Times Magazine published a very nice profile of Padgett Powell today, which is great for him and for his publisher and editor, who, in the interest of full disclosure, is a friend of JR's and sent us a copy of the book. Which I haven't read yet, though John has, and he will no doubt write about it sooner or later. I like Powell's writing because, as Dan Halpern points out in the article, "What Powell does with language and sound, with timing, rhythm and cadence, is a thing of strange precision." Powell's one of those writers I read just for his paragraphs.

But what I really wanted to talk about was a comment by Barry Hannah which is highlighted in the profile: "'At the moment, American fiction is kind of dull, frankly,' Barry Hannah says. 'I don't know who else is adding to it besides Padgett. Very few people are bringing something new. He is.'" And then, later on, Halpern says, "What Powell does that most writers don't dare anymore is to risk that failure" -- "that failure" meaning, of course, failing to connect with a reader.

Okay, hold it right there. If American fiction is in fact dull right now, it is not because writers have lost their nerve. Every writer risks failure every single time he puts his hands on the keyboard. Writing isn't easy, and, as far as I can tell, most writers don't have much of choice about what they write on any given day. They write what they can write, and if it's a 500 page Bildungsroman packed with social commentary, well, that's what it is. But if what they can write is a novel made entirely of random questions without answers, as Powell's book is, that, too, is what they write. Writing at all is risky. I mean, we could be planting garlic or coaching our kid's soccer team, for the love of god, doing something useful and good and admirable, instead of probably wasting our time in a small room somewhere.

The real risk taker, here, is the publishing house. Right now there are thousands of writers out there, I promise, who are writing the strangest, "riskiest" stuff imaginable... but no one's publishing it. Ecco Press took a chance on this book, and that is great.

However... it's probably not as much of a risk as it was a few years ago, now that all the 80's writers seem to be making a comeback: Lorrie Moore on the bestseller list, Jayne Anne Phillips nominated for a National Book Award. Knopf is rereleasing two of the late Laurie Colwin's books next spring. I've been going through next season's catalogs at the bookstore, and there's a notable lack of youth in them. Lots and lots of books by old -- and even dead -- people are being published. Also, books by white people, especially non-American white people: tons of Brits, Scandinavians, and Australians. For the time being, anyway, the fad for Asian and Middle Eastern writing appears to have waned a tiny bit. (Oh, and if you are a young new writer, and there are a few of them in the catalogs, it helps to have long flowing hair (women) or very short beard and tousled hair (men).)

It's the economy, of course, making everyone want to go with the tried and true. So maybe it's not even the publishers we should be blaming for any perceived lack of riskiness in American fiction. It's freaking readers! But wait, don't blame readers! Readers are great, they're keeping this whole thing afloat! (Inasmuch as it is afloat!) And who can blame us for not wanting to spend $26.95 on a book by some young punk we've never heard of? I only spend that kinda dough on books I'm sure about.

Anyway, yeah. It's easy to blame writers for whatever failure might be sinking the industry -- after all, they're a suspicious, unsavory bunch of people who don't have real jobs, drink too much, probably don't exercise enough, and rarely give us exactly what we want. It would be so much easier if they did, wouldn't it? If writers' abilities conformed exactly to public taste? If you could always find exactly what we wanted to read, if books were never rejected by publishers, if bookstores didn't have put huge boxes of stripped paperbacks into the dumpster. This guessing what will sell, what we should write, what we should buy -- what a pain in the butt.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The FTC Blogging Guidelines, clickthroughs, and AdSense

There's been a fair amount of talk these past couple of weeks about the FTC's new blogging guidelines, which recommend, among other things, that bloggers reveal their relationships with the products and companies they write about. For instance, if you're, say, a gadget blogger, do you buy the products yourself? Or do you get freebies from tech companies? Or just review copies which you then have to return? Bloggers, the guidelines suggest, ought to be revealing this information, in the interest of transparency.

The reaction has been complicated. Most bloggers initially seemed more or less on board, at least in principle. But some controversy has resulted from the gradual realization that the new rules don't apply to traditional news media. In other words, they're regulating the little guy first, and hardest.

You'd think most of this wouldn't apply to us, but you'd be wrong. In this interview with Ed Champion, FTC rep Richard Cleland says that review copies of books ought to be returned.

Seriously? Yes. From Ed's interview:

In the case of books, Cleland saw no problem with a blogger receiving a book, provided there wasn’t a linked advertisement to buy the book and that the blogger did not keep the book after he had finished reviewing it. Keeping the book would, from Cleland’s standpoint, count as “compensation” and require a disclosure.

But couldn’t the same thing be said of a newspaper critic?

Cleland insisted that when a publisher sends a book to a blogger, there is the expectation of a good review. I informed him that this was not always the case and observed that some bloggers often receive 20 to 50 books a week. In such cases, the publisher hopes for a review, good or bad. Cleland didn’t see it that way.

“If a blogger received enough books,” said Cleland, “he could open up a used bookstore.”

Cleland said that a disclosure was necessary when it came to an individual blogger, particularly one who is laboring for free. A paid reviewer was in the clear because money was transferred from an institution to the reviewer, and the reviewer was obligated to dispense with the product. I wondered if Cleland was aware of how many paid reviewers held onto their swag.

“I expect that when I read my local newspaper, I may expect that the reviewer got paid,” said Cleland. “His job is to be paid to do reviews. Your economic model is the advertising on the side.”

In other words, if you review books for free, and get nothing in return, then you still have to return the book. But if you're getting paid to review books, not only can you keep the money, you're not responsible for returning the book. The assumption that good reviews are expected from bloggers is, in my view, insane; I could lecture you for hours about all the crap books that get praised by crap reviewers in the nation's major newspapers (if there even is such a thing anymore), and much of what we say here consists of rigorous criticism. Hell, in the last post, I was even critical of one of my favorite writers in the world.

FWIW, I do not accept galleys from publicists. Rhian does, occasionally. 95% of the books we write about here, we buy ourselves, at an independent bookstore, no less. (Most fiction I buy, or nonfiction used as research for something I'm writing, is paid for by my Cornell research account, but other kinds of books are out-of-pocket.)

Other stuff falls between the cracks, though. We sometimes post about our friends here, and if we do, we do so in the form of praise. Friends we're likely to criticize we don't post about. lies, but not necessarily the full truth. Also, we have friends in publishing, who sometimes send us stuff they think we'll like. Some of these people may expect us to post on the blog about what they send, but often we do not. In the next week or so, I will be posting about just such a book--Padgett Powell's The Interrogative Mood. I like it--but I also like Matt, the editor who sent it to me. I'm here to tell you I'm not doing him a favor, but ultimately you'll have to take my word for it.

The real pisser here is, the only way for bloggers to actually earn money from their blogs is to run ads, and many of those ads would be in the form of clickthroughs to bookstores, or AdSense. But this apparently doesn't give us the same rights as, say, the Times Book Review, which is in fact no less insulated from cronyism, insider baseball, and mutual backscratching than we are. Indeed, apparently it makes us even more suspect. Even if the Times Book Review's editors are careful to avoid such unethical behavior, they are dependent upon their writers' voluntary disclosure of any conflicts of interest, and believe me, not everyone reports everything.

The FTC's guidelines arrive at a time when I have just recently been noticing how much traffic we get (more than I thought), and considering, after two years, partnering with Powell's for clickthroughs, or sticking some AdSense in the left column. (Rhian, FYI, is leery of this, even without the FTC's rules, and I admit that I am, too.) We have run this blog for nearly three years now without attempting to make a penny off of it, and we'll continue whether we end up running ads or not. But it irks me to think that we would be suspected of unethical behavior if we link readers to Powell's (regardless of whether we like the book in question or not), while there's nothing wrong with Knopf taking out a full-page, blurb-littered ad in the same freaking issue of the NYTBR that their latest literary blockbuster is being praised in.

So: damned if we do, damned if we don't. For the record, the last two books we reviewed, the Lorrie Moore and the Ishiguro, we bought at a store, and are keeping. When we review books here, we will tell you where they came from. And for my part, I still don't want to hear from publicists. No offense--I have one of my own, and she is great. But we write this blog because we like it, not for the swag. Which, nine times out of ten, if it actually existed, would end up propping up the dining room table or on in a box for the library sale.

EDIT: Markos has just posted a very similar diatribe, with more swears, over at

Friday, October 9, 2009

Kazuo Ishiguro's Nocturnes

Kazuo Ishiguro is the author of one of my favorite novels of all time, The Unconsoled, the story of a concert pianist on tour. Of course that's not really what it's about, and its modus operandi--bizarre narrative complexity rendered in deceptively simple prose--is what makes it remarkable. The novel has a dreamlike logic, a rarefied and audacious version of the strange narrative technique of Ishiguro's other works; it's like a crazy machine that digs itself deeper and deeper as it goes, until it reaches some kind of blazing, highly pressurized core.

His new book is also dreamlike, and is also about music, and so I opened it with great excitement the other night. I was half finished by bedtime and done by the following afternoon (after teaching a couple of classes in between!), and I'm not sure what to think about it. Like the Lorrie Moore novel I just read, this book may be suffering at the hands of my excessively high expectations, or it might simply not quite be working.

Nocturnes consists of five long stories. I'd like to say "linked stories," and they are, sort of. In one, a guitarist accompanies one of his musical heroes in a serenade for the hero's dissatisfied lover; in another, that same lover encounters a saxophonist while recovering from plastic surgery. A songwriter meets a mysteriously tense couple at a mountain retreat, an unwitting visitor plays a strange (and only distantly musical) part in a lovers' quarrel, and a cellist falls under the spell of an unlikely teacher. They're all, to some extent, about sexual or quasi-sexual relationships, though there is no sex. They all are rather mysterious, but no mysteries are solved. And though they're all about music, the music seems almost incidental to the story--characters discuss it in abstract, almost dismissive terms, as though it's not worth going into.

Ishiguro's best books achieve by sleight-of-hand, and there is some of it on display here. First-person narrators in Ishiguro are always unreliable, and perhaps a little clueless; people react in bizarre, unpredictable ways to seemingly uncomplicated social stimuli; endings arrive unexpectedly and leave the reader scratching his head.

But in the novels, the head-scratching starts around page 50, and by the time you get to the end, you've scratched so long and hard you're almost all the way down to your id. Here, Ishiguro never lets us get very deep. His simple narrators stay simple, his waking dreams never fully take hold. Moments of comic awkwardness (a man with a bandaged face caught on a theater stage with a turkey stuck to the end of his arm) never have time to ripen into enigma, and seem more like slapstick. And the non-ending endings, which in the novels echo richly with the complexity of what came before, here tend to disappoint.

Still, none of it is bad. It just all feels underdeveloped. I think Ishiguro's genius remains with the novel, where he continues to expand and revise a curious subgenre that consists only of him; these stories, though, are for superfans only (like me).

Monday, October 5, 2009

Lorrie Moore redux

I stayed up late last night finishing A Gate At The Stairs, and figured I ought to address my thoughts on it before they slip away. I'm not sure why I haven't seen this in any review of the book, but it's one of the strangest novels I've read in a long time--kind of a train wreck, in fact, albeit one that is consistently gripping and beautiful.

Like Rhian, I love Lorrie Moore, and consider her one of my strongest contemporary influences--indeed, she's a hero of mine. I even kind of love the new book, after a fashion. But A Gate At The Stairs makes no sense. Can we be the only people who have noticed this? There is an ostensible plot--a twenty-year-old woman becomes the babysitter for an adopted mixed-race toddler--which in and of itself is perfectly good. (I particularly appreciated the character of the mother, a guilt-wracked restauranteur.)

But Moore seems to have taken a strong, fairly short narrative--one that was not quite finished--and, instead of developing and shaping it further, garlanded it with all manner of bizarre subplots. A long section gives Tassie, the narrator, a Brazilian boyfriend. Then he turns out not to be Brazilian, and in fact is clearly planning a terrorist bombing--but there is no terrorist bombing, and in fact Tassie never mentions him again. There is a story line about Tassie's family, which is purely descriptive for hundreds of pages, then suddenly sprouts a plot--will Tassie's brother join the military?--and this plot then terminates in a scene so revolting, implausible, and gratuitous that I couldn't believe I was reading it. The adoption line is filled with intrigue--strange people outside the house, wordless heavy-breathing phone calls--but it's all red herrings. In fact, the baby plot, which we're to have understood was the main story, just kind of fizzles out a hundred pages from the end and never returns. There is an email Tassie inexplicably doesn't bother to read, which later proves to have been The Key To Everything. There are three separate but almost identical scenes of just people talking about racism, overheard from the next room, and whole sections that are just lists of wildflowers or types of food. It all feels...random. It is never uninteresting, not even for a minute, because Moore is a genius of the sentence. But the big picture is utterly incoherent.

The oddest thing of all, though, is the narrative voice--though the book is supposed to be told, in the first person, by a 28-year-old Tassie of the future, the eloquent, discursive narrator bears no resemblance at all to the demure rock bassist that has been presented to us. It is nearly impossible to imagine Tassie talking this way--the narrator of course is Moore herself, and the gulf between them is enormous. Moore's voice also infects all the dialogue, making everybody (all the educated people, anyway) sound identically blessed with mordant wit. (The book is very, very funny.)

I don't presume to know what happened here--I've never seen anything like it. The prose is some of the best I have read in an American novel in twenty years, while the story feels like a first draft, or worse, a desk drawer full of notes. And I said...I kind of love it. Moore constantly surprises me, which (to quote her) is more than I can say about some people.

The National Book Award nominees will be announced in a couple of weeks, and Moore is going to win, mostly out of collective embarrassment that she didn't win it for Birds of America. (Was that brillant, brutal story collection even nominated? Insanely enough, I don't think it was.) Well--my money's on her, anyway, in spite of everything. Read A Gate At The Stairs, but know that it is one batshit crazy novel, a mad scientist of a book, and the most unlikely bestseller I've ever read.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

How much of your life should writing take up?

I was going to talk about this in the comments of the last post, where reader Mark was talking about the consistent quality and prolificity of Philip Roth's work, but thought it was worth a post of its own. I believe the reason Roth can be so good, and produce good work so often, is simple. It's the same reason Toni Morrison gave this past week at Cornell, when an audience member at her talk asked how she could be so productive, even while being an editor and teacher, as she has often been.

I don't really consider Morrison especially prolific, but I certainly do think she produces work of great worth. And her answer was, "Because I don't do anything else. I read books, I teach books, and I write books. That's it." She said that she doesn't go on vacations, really, or "go skiing." She just lives the work. As far as I know, so does Roth--he lives in a small town in, I believe, Connecticut, doesn't indulge in many extraliterary pursuits, and just goes at it like a madman.

I'm not like that. I'm too easily distracted. Some of my distractions, particularly the creative ones, I find useful to my writing, but others of them (posting on internet forums, re-watching the entire "Mr. Show" DVD set, drinking bourbon) are of no particular value other than pleasure. I do think I need to cut down on these things--most of us do, really. (Though it's OK to watch "Druggachusetts" one more time, you have my permission.)

The other night, as I was trying to digest her quite excellent comments on my novel manuscript, Rhian told me that I don't take myself, and my work, seriously enough. If it isn't good enough, that's probably why. I'll never be the artists Roth and Morrison are, but if I want to be more like them, perhaps I should listen to her.

But what do you think? How much seriousness can a writer take? Is the kind of singleness of purpose necessary to create Nobel-worthy work (and where, might I ask, is Roth's Nobel?) even achievable by any but a handful of people? For the rest of us, I'd imagine there is a point beyond which we begin to get diminishing returns--the work will be fully realized, but the joy will have gone out of it.

I think I have a ways to go before I'm there, though, and I really ought to do as the Mrs. says. Meanwhile, enjoy that photo there--it's Toni Morrison talking with my colleagues Ken McClane and Margo Crawford. Morrison turns out to be an incredibly cool lady, as well as an artist of the first rank, and it was a major, major pleasure to get to meet her. (Rhian can tell you about nearly knocking her flat in the cloak room after the reading.)

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Man Who Wrote Too Much

Pardon the week-long hiatus--we're both, lord help us, writing. Today, though, I finally threw in the towel and decided to print out a fresh draft of my novel for Rhian to read. Every time, I think this is the one she's going to race through in a day, then say, "It's perfect, send it off." And every time I'm wrong. (She is responsible for the removal of an embarrassingly ill-fitting element from Castle.) In any event, even if it sucks, it's nice to have it out of my hands, if only for a week.

This is the tenth novel I have actually written, counting the ones that didn't get published, and I'm beginning to wonder maybe if I'm writing too fast. This is a fault I have always felt free to find in other writers, but haven't really ever taken seriously the notion that it's one of mine, as well. In general I produce a (so far) publishable one every two years, and have done a couple even faster than that.

And usually I'm satisfied with the results, more or less. But last night I was reading this new Lorrie Moore. I like it, and I have always looked up to Moore as kind of a hero. But above and beyond that, the book has a particular quality my work lacks--it feels carefully composed, worked over. It's written...exquisitely. It feels like somebody's first novel in ten years.

Of course, there's something to be said about a book that feels unburdened, that you can read quickly, that skates along in an uninterrupted progression of thoughts. This is what I tell myself I'm writing. That my stuff is qualitatively different because of my pace, and this is a neither good nor bad thing.

But then again, think of the popular writers who publish a lot. T. C. Boyle. Joyce Carol Oates. Even if you really dig them (and there is a lot to like about these writers), admit it--you sometimes think they publish too much. You kind of wish they would calm the hell down and go into hiding for ten years. There's a slight taint to the respect we have for them, because of their output. It's not even necessarily about quality--even if they published the same damned books, unchanged from the versions we know, and just spaced them out to every five years, we would probably convince ourselves that these books are better, because they appear to be the result of years and years of effort.

That's not the main thing, though--the prose is the main thing. And while I don't want to emulate Lorrie Moore, I am thinking that the next book I write will be much shorter and much more finely wrought. (I think I already know what it is, a novel I've been wanting to write for nearly a decade, ever since a graduate student suggested it to me after reading a little metafiction I published in a local newspaper.) And if I know what's good for me, when I'm finished, I'll wait ten years before putting it in the mail.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Vexing Case of Murzban Shroff

Indian fiction writer and longtime friend of this blog, Murzban Shroff, has for some time now been entangled in a maddening free speech case in his home country:

Use of the word ‘ghati’ in his book Breathless in Bombay has landed first-time author Murzban Shroff in trouble, with an activist claiming that it “lowers the reputation and image of Maharashtrians in the eyes of non-Maharashtrians”.

While 47-year-old Shroff, a Mumbai-born Parsi, maintains that the term is not aimed against any community, activist Vijay Mudras wants the government to seize all copies of the book, which he feels is a serious threat to communal harmony.

More coverage of the case can be found here.

Though this kind of thing is much more a problem in India than it is for writers here in the US, we have seen the phenomenon before--an apparent unwillingness among some people to comprehend the difference between portrayal and advocacy. All Murzban is doing here, of course, is trying to show life as it is actually lived, and it is this, not some imaginary threat of "communal disharmony," that bothers his critics.

We American writers tend to take our free speech for granted, and it's shocking when someone we know is actually threatened with prison time for telling it like it is. You might want to let him know he's got your support.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Significant Objects

I was approached last week by the web-based literary/conceptual-art project Significant Objects to write a short story inspired by this item--a ceramic choirboy figurine. I am not one to shy away from a wacky project, so here's the result, one long sentence about a mother, a boy, another boy, and a choirboy.

The gimmick here isn't just the object and the story, but that the object is actually for sale on eBay. All proceeds evidently me. So if you want me to have a nice lunch in a week or so, put in a bid.

My personal enrichment aside, I must say that I think this is a great idea, and wish more editors would toss us writers a bone like this more often. There is nothing to get the creative juices flowing like arbitrary restrictions arriving unexpectedly in one's email inbox. It's a testament to the desire among writers for such schemes that the list of participants on the S.O. site is quite long, and features a number of writers who are a lot famouser than I am, and could probably make more lucrative use of their time.

But it's hard to imagine a more pleasurable use for it. Here's to random literary stunts.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

A Poem About Chickens

I'm sure it's illegal for me to publish the whole poem here, even if Andrew Sullivan did so on his blog. But Andrew Sullivan writes for The Atlantic, where this was originally published, so he probably has special dispensation. In any event, I'll just link to the rest of it. It's a great poem, because it really gets at the pathos of chickens. It's easy to be flippant or cute about them -- there are so many cliches. But there is something essentially tragic about chickens. I found the last half of the poem to be especially moving.

But while you're over there on the Atlantic site, don't get roped into reading the ridiculous essay by a certain "drink-soaked former Trotskyist popinjay" on why Jon Stewart isn't funny. You might enjoy the thing about the Erie Canal by Ithacan Rachel Dickinson, with great pics.

Hens, by Henri Cole

It’s good for the ego, when I call and they come
running, squawking and clucking, because it’s feedtime,
and once again I can’t resist picking up little Lazarus,
an orange-and-white pullet I adore. “Yes, yes, everything will be
okay,” I say to her glaring mongrel face...

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Importance and Unimportance of Plot

I stole the title from somewhere, probably one of the 10,000 how-to books I've read, and surely we've posted on this very same topic before. Old subject! But I've been thinking about it again, having just read, back to back, Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist and Lorrie Moore's The Gate at the Stairs. In Baker's novel -- which I really, really liked -- almost nothing happens. But so what? "Stuff happening" is not the point. It's about a character who tells us about his life and pet subjects (poetry, mostly). I love the way Baker sees things, and I love his language and humor. And there is movement: mostly just through a mood.

So yeah, after reading that, I was feeling quite indifferent about the whole plot thing. In fact, I started to think: Feh, stuff happening -- who needs it? Books in which nothing happens are the best!

But then I read the new Lorrie Moore. I love her stories, by the way: I think she creates great characters and situations and I like her punnery. But her use of plot is very strange in this new book.

The novel's about a year in the life of a young midwestern woman who gets a job as a nanny for an older couple to help pay for college. That's pretty much the whole story. Several very dramatic things happen... but, strangely, they aren't connected. For instance, here's one plot element: her boyfriend turns out to be other than what she thought. When this happened, I thought: Oh, so this is what the book's about! But no. After it happened, it all went away, and pretty much never came up again.

Isn't that weird? It's very much like life, actually: you're living your life, and things just happen to you. (Like-Life is the title of one of her earlier collections, actually.) In fact... almost* nothing that happens in The Gate at the Stairs is instigated by the protagonist, other than her getting the job in the first place.

You know the old definition of plot: it's not The king dies, then the queen dies, but The king dies, and the queen dies of grief. In a plot, things don't just happen, but they cause other things to happen.

So I guess I'm saying that The Gate at the Stairs doesn't really have a plot, though some extremely dramatic things happen. In that way it's like The Anthologist. But it is also very much unlike The Anthologist, because it doesn't seem comfortable with nothing happening, so it makes things happen, though they don't really have meaning in the larger context. And even the events that seem integral to the book (the nanny bits) don't have much fallout.

Is that so bad? No. I couldn't put the novel down. (For me there are 3 categories of book: Couldn't Put It Down, Couldn't Read It, and Had to Read It For Book Club.) In spite of my quibbles, I would rather read Lorrie Moore than almost anyone. Still, it made me think that like Alice Munro, Chekhov, and lots of other writers, she really is a short story writer at heart. The novel read like a stretched out short story, with two big unrelated events thrown in to beef it up. If I were editing the book, I'd cut out those unrelated things, then totally implicate the narrator in the main story -- as it is, the nanny just witnesses what happens.

But sheesh, no one ever asks me!

* In one case, something happens because she doesn't read an email!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Return of the desk

So here's the desk I wrote Mailman and Happyland sitting at, among other things. It used to live in my little 8x10 writing shed at our old house, with the tiny woodstove sitting on the left and the wall of corkboard on the right, and through the window in front of it I could watch squirrels stealing all the seeds from our bird feeder.

Then I got this job and found myself going to my office at Cornell instead of to the shed. Plus I was between novels and not writing much, and I didn't require a lot of solitude to do the editing stuff I was then busy with, and so for the better part of a year I didn't use the desk at all. Around this time we decided to move, so I went out to the shed to begin cleaning it out. I then discovered that mice had taken up residence in my files and in my typewriter, had shat upon many of my books, torn others of them up for bedding, and completely destroyed pretty much every personal letter I had ever received. They messed up the desk, too--the drawers were filled with seeds. One was so awful I had to punch out the bottom panel and burn it, along with all my ruined papers.

After we moved, I stored it in the basement, where it grew a thin layer of mildew. More mice moved into it. It sat there for more than two years.

Then, this past Thursday, I hauled it out into the light, washed the entire thing with bleach-soaked rags, let it dry, then rubbed it all over with Orange Glo. I did the same to my old office chair, and moved them both into our back room. Then I went to Target and bought a lamp.

I feel as though a great sin has been atoned for. I should never have let it get to that state! Right now my novel manuscript is sitting on it, waiting to be read--I will start on that tomorrow. I'm hoping the desk still has a bit of mojo in it, and if so, will forgive me for what I put it through.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Generative Power of Dreams

Rhian had a dream the other night in which some familiar landmarks--our henhouse and chicken run--had been transformed. Instead of the hardware cloth, plywood, and pressure-treated lumber (sorry, water table) the run is really made of, Rhian's brain had reconfigured it with chain-link fencing and a metal-frame door.

This led to a conversation--why on earth would her mind create this fence at all, let alone in the vivid, fully-imagined detail it appeared to her? The chicken run is a very, very familiar thing to her--she sees it many times each day, and could easily describe its every particular from memory. There's no clear reason for the mind to abandon the familiar and replace it with the vivid and new.

I was reminded of a conversation I was having with a student last week, about dialogue in fiction. All of the characters in her story sounded the same--she needed to listen more carefully to the way people really talk. The fact is, I told her, most conversation is designed to impart information, not personality. Any nonstandard filigrees or strange patterns of speech are disadvantageous to the conveyance of content, and our minds tend to ignore them.

But in fiction, all we care about is who people are, and what they like. So the part of the mind that ignores detail must be turned off, and the part of the mind that creates it must be turned on. It's the same part of the mind, I think, that makes completely new things where the familiar should be. The challenge of writing good fiction is to keep this part of the mind switched on even while awake.

I'm teaching a favorite story of mine this week, Kelly Link's "Stone Animals." (This is for a new class--the undergraduate version of my "Weird Stories" course from last year.) This story works with the logic of a dream--Link's mind, when she wrote it, was likely on an associative tear. It's the perfect example of a writer dreaming while awake, packed as it is with creepy nonsequiturs that somehow seem just right. It isn't the strangeness that's so striking--anybody can be selfconsciously weird. It's the just-rightness that's the trick, and it's the kind of thing that most of us have to be in some kind of trance to accomplish, the dream state that creates memorable fiction. Would that I were able to enter into it more often...

Note: this is our 600th post. Yowza. Image above, BTW, is by Gregory Crewdson.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Writing and Running

I recently read Haruki Murakami's memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running and found it pretty interesting, though I don't know if I'd recommend it to anyone who isn't a writer and a runner or a huge Murakami fan. He doesn't have a lot of insight into either running or writing; mostly he just says, to paraphrase: "I write because I'm good at it and I like doing it. And I run because I'm good at it too. I just started one day, and here I am, twenty years later, and it's been great." Then there's a lot of geeky detail about his writing schedule, his running schedule, his marathons, etc.

The book interested me because I've put a lot of thought into the connections between writing and running--they've always felt connected to me. I started running when I was ten, around the time I started writing. And I go through similar long periods of slackdom with both, often at the same time -- I can probably blame these slack periods for the fact that, considering how long I've been at them, I'm still -- embarassingly -- pretty much a beginner at both. They both require a not so easy-to-maintain combination of mental toughness and faith that the activity is really worthwhile, even though, minute by minute, very little gets accomplished. They're both solitary and don't depend on other people. And they both feel much better when they're over.

Plus, a lot of writers I know also run or, in the case of the wonky-kneed (JRL), walk. Joyce Carol Oates reportedly runs 6 miles every morning -- as prolific in her running as her writing. Just this morning I was reading an article about hydration during running, and there was a quote from a woman I happen to know, and who happens to be a novelist (and who sometimes looks at this blog -- are you there, KL?). I had no idea she runs, but I'm not surprised.

There are obvious, practical reasons writers might run: it's cheap, it counteracts all that sitting, it's outdoors. But I feel like there are deeper, more mystical reasons, maybe something to do its linearity, the way your eye moves past words on a page just like it moves past trees and weeds and telephone poles. Maybe it has to do with sustained attention. Or rhythm.

What do you think -- will doing a lot of one lead to a person doing a lot of the other? I, for one, hope so.

Friday, August 28, 2009

You suck, and you shall suck forever more

I had a minor epiphany this evening while talking to a graduate student at a party. This has been a rather mournful week for me--I finished a draft of a novel last Friday, and instead of feeling the celebratory frisson a non-writer might assume to be my due, I fell into a funk. First drafts, I have learned, are like casual sex. They can be great fun, and they might even feel like love. This week, however, I am knocked up. And starting soon, I'm going to have to start changing diapers.

Or, as I put it to my student earlier: I grew up Catholic. And the message of being a Catholic is: you're a sinner. And you need to repent. But while you're repenting, please keep in mind that you're still a sinner, and it doesn't matter how much good you do in your life, because a couple of total strangers who are distantly related to you pissed off God, like, a million years ago, and so you are inherently sinful, but if you don't toe the line you'll be even more sinful, and then God will be pissed off at you, too. So get on your knees, motherfucker, and get to work.

So, um, yeah, I am not a Catholic anymore. But boy have I brought the lessons of my youth to my writing. Because the message of novel writing is: you suck, and you're going to keep sucking. But it might be possible to suck a little less than other people, so cowboy up and face your suckitude head on.

Revision, as I have said here before, is the process of staring your suckitude in the face and accepting its inevitability, but then trying to work with it somehow. Early in my career I got a terrible review--one of the first generation of Amazon customer comments, in fact. This is what it had to say about my first novel: "It just goes to show, you can't polish a turd."

Ouch. But you know what? You can polish a turd, sometimes to a high sheen, so it doesn't even seem remotely like one anymore. And if you put your mind to it, and if you grew up Catholic, the entire polishing process can be kind of interesting. At least it is for me--or has become thus, after many years of forcing myself to do it. Art is flawed, and the sooner you accept that, the sooner you can get to work burnishing those flaws into something new and better, that stands on its own, independently of you and your dumb ideas.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Mister Skylight

The time has come to shamelessly flog the latest new book from a Ward Six contributor, Ed Skoog's wonderful collection Mister Skylight. I've been reading various drafts of these poems for years now, and have had the pleasure of watching this collection gradually evolve into one of the most assured, extraordinary debuts I've ever seen. Ed is just a great writer, and this is a great book. From Copper Canyon, Ed's publisher:

The phrase Mister Skylight is an emergency signal to alert a ship's crew, but not its passengers, of an emergency. This debut collection is alert to disasters--the flooding of New Orleans and the wildfires of California--and also to the hope of rescue. Interior dramas of the self are played out in a clash of poetic traditions, exuberant imagery, and wild metaphor.

Here's a sample, selected almost at random, since it reminds me of eating lunch with Ed, which is probably the #1 most frequent and pleasurable thing I've done with Ed over the past fifteen years. It's from "Recent Changes at Canter's Deli."

The telephone is no longer upstairs.
Cut fruit in cold cup will never be whole.
Nothing is where it was. The plate
is beside the bowl. My mind's all fucked up,
distorted, pale light reflected on stainless steel
of the walk-in cooler. It is not where it was.
Here's the spike to build a body of receipt.
Sweat collects on the waterpitcher lip
like the goodbye of a woman I loved.
The clerk bends his body to pray the miracle
of the handwashing station, turns knife to loaf.
The present pours into the pepper shaker.

Echt Skoog, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Buy this awesome piece of work.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Novelization of the Screenplay of the Book

I don't get this, not even a little bit. According to the biographical notes in the latest New Yorker, Mr. Eggers is going to publish the novel version (for all the kids who read the NYer, I guess) of the screenplay he wrote for Spike Jonze of the Maurice Sendak picture book Where the Wild Things Are. Really? Really?? I had heard rumors, but I didn't believe it.

It's unbelievably terrible. I'm not even one of the people who love the original book (I never read it as a kid, and my own kids preferred In the Night Kitchen) but I'm appalled that Eggers thinks that adding a dumb step-father, a mean sister, and a bunch of overly-familiar family dysfunction somehow adds to the story. What's so wonderful about Where the Wild Things Are is its air of mystery. Nothing is explained, but everything is vivid and real and bizarre. The Eggers version is, tragically, boring. The monsters are given flat, sit-com-like dialogue. By trying to explain the story, Eggers robs the story of its magic, and it soon ceases to make sense.

Why do this? Why put your greasy fingerprints all over a story that was otherwise perfect? What is with this need to take, and own, all the cool things?

On the other hand, I truly loved the Sherman Alexie story that was in the August 10th issue. Many years ago I saw Alexie "read" -- he actually just shut the book and told the story, which was totally cool and impressive. This new story, "War Dances," is about a guy obsessing about his health while thinking about his father's death. I love the way he can so funny while writing about death -- it reminds me of another Native American writer, James Welch, whose perfect Winter in the Blood is also sad and hilarious.

So I guess I'm not about to cancel my subscription. Haha. As if!