Tuesday, April 28, 2009

JRL in Portland, OR and Seattle, WA this week

Readers: at the risk of semi-quashing Rhian's post, I want to tell you that I'll be reading at Powell's World of Books on Burnside tomorrow night, Wednesday the 29th, and at Elliot Bay the following evening. Details on my website. If you're in the area, stop and say hi!

OK, carry on...

Monday, April 27, 2009

Beauty and Talent

Is it really necessary to spend even a moment denying the connection between looks and talent? Apparently so, after this dumb article in the Sunday NYT. Making "snap judgments" based on appearance is perfectly natural, the author claims, because back when we were cave people, our very survival depended on our ability to rapidly put stuff into categories. What nonsense. What survival advantage is there in assuming a woman who doesn't pluck her eyebrows can't sing? The real purpose of the essay is to make us feel a little better about being shallow people who read the Sunday Styles section.

While I'm apparently the only person in the world not moved to tears by Susan Boyle (I mean, as happy as I am for her, is anyone really surprised that an unattractive person is actually talented? How often have we seen this cliche? It's always the froggy little guy in the college a capella group who steps up and wows everyone, or the zitty teen who's a piano whiz. Beautiful people don't need talent, because the world loves them anyway) and find the whole thing grossly manipulative, I'm fascinated by the story anyway. Most of the commentary on the phenomenon ignores the fact that this happened on a British show. The British have always loved underdogs, and as Americanized as their pop culture has become, the Susan Boyle episode has served to make them feel British again, i.e. better than Americans.

Which, okay, they are. When are we going to get our chubby, homely, 50ish woman on American Idol? Ha ha!

Anyway, it got me thinking about good-looking writers. Traditionally, writers have been a bad-looking bunch. Not only are the less physically gifted of us drawn to the bookish life, but that life -- indoors, surrounded by cigarettes, booze, and coffee -- has not done us any favors. Lately, however, you can be pretty sure that when you flip to the back flap of a new hardcover, you'll see a quite attractive person. Part of this is just the wondrous skills of photographers like Marion Ettlinger, who can make the frumpiest writer look acceptable (and who told me once that she photographs writers instead of, say, actors, because of the challenge). And these days, with ubiquitous orthodonture and good grooming, it's not hard to look okay. But it is no secret that editors ask agents what their writers look like. It is much easier to create a literary sensation if the writer is gorgeous.

It's all very depressing. I find it hard to accept that even readers are this superficial, that we won't buy a book written by an ugly person. Why is it, though? Why do so many people assume -- if they actually do -- that a beautiful author will create a beautiful work? Here's a theory: we interpret good looks as code for I want to please you. A pretty woman wants to please us, so her book will please us, too. She cares about our needs! An unattractive writer -- perhaps one who has committed the cardinal female sin of unplucked brows -- doesn't care what we think, so heck, who knows what we'll find in that book! Maybe something unpleasant.

Monday, April 20, 2009

JRL reading in Brooklyn tomorrow night

W6 readers: I will be reading Tuesday, April 21st--that's tomorrow night--at the Park Slope Community Bookstore, in Brooklyn, New York. The address is 143 Seventh Avenue, Brooklyn; the event starts at 7pm. Come on down and say hello--I'll be reading from my two new books, Castle and Pieces for the Left Hand.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Salle de bains livres

The time has come to transcend all boundaries of taste and list the books that are presently shelved in your bathroom. I have no idea how these get there, but once they're there, they stay for a long, long time.

The current W6HQ lineup:

George Pelecanos, The Night Gardener
Norman Doidge, M.D., The Brain That Changes Itself
Syd Field, Screenplay: The Foundations Of Screenwriting
Edgar Allen Poe, Stories and Poems
Margaret Atwood, Lady Oracle
Lee Reich, Weedless Gardening
Diana Schwarzbein, M.D., The Schwarzbein Principle II: The Transition
Susan Jacoby, The Age Of American Unreason
Marc McCutcheon, The Writer's Guide To Everyday Life In The 1800's

I think Poe has the endurance record. The radiator has heated and cooled this book so many times over the past two years that it looks like a piece of lasagna.

Describe, please, your library of the toilet.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

True Crime

I've been out of town for a few days, visiting with relatives. And though I have a copy of Kafka's The Castle in my suitcase (because about a dozen people, in inquiring about my new novel, have asked how direct the influence is, and I have had to say a dozen times, in total humiliation, that I have never read it), I've mostly spent my time reading true crime books.

Rhian loves true crime, and typically that's what she's reading when I'm reading police procedurals. But this time I'm all over it. Man, the writing is often quite bad. But these things are fascinating. The thing that really gets me about them is the utterly bizarre, unpredictable details. No matter how desperately the author wishes to adhere to the conventions of the genre, all these ridiculous elements of real life keep intruding.

I just read a few by Joe McGinniss--they're really not bad, by the low standards of the form. In one, we watch the aftermath of a husband's murder-for-hire of his wife, from the point of view of their three teenage sons. The kids' grandmother's friend moves in to become their unofficial guardian; she's a loony Bible-thumper who invites the accused gunman's wife to live with them, out of charity. Imagine--the wife of the guy who probably just killed your mom is there in the kitchen when you get up every morning.

Or, in another McGinniss book, a wealthy wife murders her wealthy husband during an affair with a home theater installer. While she rots in prison, the home theater installer marries a blond woman with "a silver sports car," as a Chinese news magazine reports. The article ends with this man mowing his lawn: "The sweating Michael took off his shirt and walked around with his fat belly bouncing around."

Bad crime fiction is all cliché--the bad writer doesn't have the skill to stray from the norm. But bad true crime, in all its coarseness, can't help but let life spill out all over the place, like Michael's fat bouncing belly. I'll take a good novel over a good true crime any day (with the possible exception of the stupendously awesome Black Dahlia Avenger), but when only the bad is available, give me the truth.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

I'm Jealous of Movies

Reading the comments of the last post, I suddenly endured a wave of jealousy for people who get to make movies. Now, this isn't to say that I actually want to make movies. I think I would be bad at it, despite being a guy who knows how narrative works and likes taking pictures. It seems to me that, if you are going to be a director of films, you either need to find artistic collaboration appealing, or you have to be absolutely arrogant, charismatic, and commanding, so that you don't really need to collaborate. Neither of those scenarios applies to me.

But if I could make movies alone, the way I write novels, that would really be something. For one thing, as we have argued here before, movies now possess the cultural cachet that novels once did. Or rather, that novels once were allowed to cling to a piece of. Film is absolutely the dominant form of narrative in American culture, and perhaps this is as it should be, or as it is inevitably destined to be. The filmmaker equivalent of me--an indie director, say, with a small following--will have many, many times more viewers than I will ever have readers. And if there's one thing a writer wants, it's an audience.

I'm not talking about that so much, though. The joy in writing isn't really in its meager public manifestation--it's in the act of creation. And the filmmaker has access to things the novelist doesn't, things I sometimes desperately want.

Take the movie I discussed in the last post--"Broken Flowers", with its symbolic, metaphoric final image of two identically dressed boys driving past the protagonist in slow motion. This is an image of profound simplicity and elegance, and you can't do it in a novel. You could describe it, certainly, but it wouldn't be the same as simply holding it up before the viewer's eyes. And in a film, such an image is inherently fleeting, at least in the theater. You see it, and it's gone. Its aftereffects are more powerful than its actual manifestation.

Or how about the ending of "The Visitor," with our newly-angry hero working out his emotions by beating his conga drum in the subway station, as trains roar past. In a novel, a description of the scene would seem mawkish, overdetermined. In the movie, you don't even think about how it got there. It's just happening.

And the filmmaker has the advantage of tyranny over the senses. Compromises may have to be made in the creation of a scene, but once it's made, it's made--and every viewer sees the same thing, hears the same thing. The novelist can make her paragraph perfect, but she is doomed never to be understood the way she wishes to be--everyone will imagine different sights, sounds, and emotions as they read. The filmmaker makes iconic images; the novelist makes a map that leads the reader to generate his own images.

Ultimately, the filmmaker collaborates ahead of time, with all those people in the credits, then lords it over the viewer. The novelist works alone--but every reading of his book is a collaboration. A novel is inherently unfinished, inherently imprecise.

Naturally, I'm glad do what I do, or else I wouldn't do it so damned often. But when I'm asked a leading question, or read (God help me) a review, or am asked to explain what I do, I often wish that I had access to the dictatorial power of the image, the soundtrack, and flooding of the senses.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

I Thought Of An Ending I Like

Okay, a quick addendum to the recent post on endings: I thought of one I like, and which might actually be my favorite ending of anything ever. It's the ending of a movie: Broken Flowers, the 2005 Jim Jarmusch flick starring Bill Murray. I'm going to describe it now, so if you haven't seen this movie but plan to, proceed with caution.

Bill Murray plays an aging lothario who gets an anonymous letter from a former lover, telling him they have a son together, and the son might be coming to see him. So, to prepare, Murray's character, Don Johnston, goes on a road trip, visiting all his old lovers, trying to figure out which one sent the letter. The road trip makes up the bulk of the movie.

Long story short, he doesn't figure it out, and when he gets back, he meets a kid at the bus station whom he thinks must be the son. He tries to befriend him, but ends up freaking him out: turns out it isn't the son, just a stranger. And in the final scene, as the freaked-out non-son runs off, a car goes by bearing two passengers who are around the same age as the son would be, and who are wearing the same clothes. And Don just watches the car go by in slow motion until it's gone.

The message: from now on, every kid he sees for the rest of his life will briefly seem like his son.

Why's this a perfect ending? For one thing, it's weird and somewhat cryptic, but not obscure. It also doesn't spell anything out: instead it leaves a metaphorical clue. Finally, it doesn't shut down the movie; rather, it opens it up. It gives the character a future. It shows you exactly how far Don's soul-searching has brought him, and shows you (and him) the consequences of what he has (and hasn't) found.

It's brief, simple, and artfully arresting. It makes demands on the imagination, but doesn't lord it over you. It allows the viewer to make the connection, lets you have the epiphany rather than simply showing you someone else having it.

Somehow I have to figure out how to do this in writing.