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!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Grapes of Wrath

(Photo by Dorothea Lange, from Shorpy.)

Every year Cornell University, the college I teach at, does a New Student Reading Project, wherein everyone at the institution, including faculty and staff, are asked to read a book along with the incoming freshmen. This year, oddly, it's The Grapes of Wrath, a book that much of the incoming class probably just read in high school. But guess what? I didn't. I had never read a word by Steinbeck, in fact, until this past week, when I plowed through Grapes with a mixture of consternation, absorption, and awe.

Steinbeck wrote this book in 93 sittings, longhand, on 18" x 12" ledger books, the sort of feat that makes scribblers like me swoon. Our hero! It was originally conceived as a series of nonfiction pieces for Life, then metamorphosed into a novel which interspersed the story of the mirgant Joad family fleeing the dust bowl with chapters of omniscient quasi-reportage and artful invention intended to capture the people and places of the age.

Let me say right off that this book is too long, too sentimental, and too didactic. I admit that I bristled at Steinbeck's characters' conviction that the only honest form of labor is done with a man's hands, for the benefit of his own family and community. I became very tired of being reminded of the soullessness of machines and the evils of capitalism, and grew frustrated at the cascading indignities Steinbeck visited upon his characters, and the way this manipulated me into sympathy.

But all that said, it's a hell of a good book. The Joads are genuinely interesting, their situation compelling, and the social structure that controls their lives quite fascinating. And Steinbeck's prose, if it sometimes overreaches, is nonetheless supple, poetic, and often deeply moving. The last chapter is simply brilliant--the way the floods break up the story into a dreamlike kind of logic, and drive the remaining Joads to the dark barn where the story ends with a stunning redemptive scene, just blew me away. The last paragraph courts melodrama in a big, risky way, and I admire that; I also love the way Steinbeck lodges the novel's last shred of grace in the heart of the one of the most annoying characters in the history of American letters, Rose of Sharon.

I'll be leading a discussion of the book with some first-year students next week, and am quite excited--even if they've read it before, the book is worth reading again, post-housing-bubble, post-Madoff, and post-anti-healthcare-assault-rifle-brandishing. And next thing you know, I'll be posting about The Catcher In The Rye.

Sunday, August 16, 2009


This last week has been the first hot one this summer in the northeast, and the first week JR & I don't feel like we have to pack up and go somewhere to do something. And my garden's pretty much off on its own recognizance. So I got a lot of reading done -- mostly nonfiction, for whatever reason.

One theme that kept coming up: What the hell happened to EDITING? All week I kept a running list of bad sentences, which I read out loud to JR. I had half an idea I'd put them in a blog post, but then I realized I didn't want to be a snoot and anyway, who knows when I'd run into these writers? Instead let me focus on the one book I read this week that knocked me for a loop: The Natural Laws of Good Luck, by Ellen Graf. I'll admit right here I don't think it's the best title; I had to go back and look three times to remember it, and anyway, it sounds Markety. And it doesn't have much to do with the book, which is short on good luck.

It's the memoir of a woman in her forties who goes to China to meet her Chinese girl friend's brother, falls in love, marries him, and brings her new husband back to her ramshackle house in upstate New York. It's an extremely unconventional thing to do (everyone's bringing back little girls from China, not husbands!) and Ellen Graf -- an artist -- proves herself to be a highly unconventional woman, to say the least. Which, for me, is about 1/4th the charm of the book; the other three quarters being her fantastic character study of her new husband and her ideas about romantic love, which, honestly, moved me to tears.

The book is also better written, on a sentence level, than the other books I read this week. Better written, more original and moving... hm, why a small press -- Shambala -- then? Why can't such a smart, skillfully written, intelligent, tender memoir get published by the big guns? Because Ellen Graf is kind of a weirdo, and I say this with the utmost respect. Publishing is going through a nervous period, and an unconventional female narrator like this one -- who seems completely out of touch with popular culture -- isn't obviously "relatable." I hope I'm wrong, but I have trouble seeing this as the next Oprah book.

Anyway, sorry about all the cynicism. It's been a weird summer. But if you, like me, have felt your faith in humanity wavering lately, read The Natural Laws of Good Luck. It's about love: culture-crossing, weird-habit-forgiving, inexplicable love. Oh, yeah, it has a happy ending, too. I didn't think I had it in me to get all sentimental anymore, but there you go.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The final stretch

OK, I think I know where I'm going with the last 50 or 60 pages of this novel, before I go back and fill in all the stuff I forgot to include. I'm going with this time-honored literary formula:

1) Anti-climactic near-catastrophe, followed by...

2) Peculiar, rather depressing sex act, giving way to...

3) Deeply sentimental expression of personal generosity, which results in...

4) Replacement of expected denoument with much-diminished, but closely related and somehow, ultimately, superior denoument.

The thing about the ending is, it can't be what you were thinking it was going to be, but it has to be something. Is this going to be the right thing? I don't know. In the end, it might be the only thing. Anyway, it's a thing, and when I write it, I'll have declared draft 1 complete.

Thingward ho!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

What does reading do to your personality?

I just got back from a family vacation, where, despite my abiding love for my extended family, I found it kind of difficult to engage with others. Part of the problem was the absence of Rhian, who couldn't make it this year and on whom I've come to depend for smoothing out the edges of my sometimes, erm, imperfect personality, especially when there are a lot of other people around.

But sometimes I wonder if reading has sort of semi-ruined my relationship to the physical world, and the world of real people. Of course, reading and writing have long been my primary way of engaging with the world, and on balance, books have represented a positive influence. But I also fear that reading has turned me into an introvert, or at least allowed me to overindulge the part of me that is naturally introverted. I envision myself whiling away my declining years on an easy chair, with a big pile of Dickens on the table beside me, like some frightened pensioner in a Ruth Rendell novel. (There I go again, casting potential reality as a version of fiction!)

Needless to say, I wasn't the only one retreating into books over the past week--my parents, kids, cousins, uncle and aunt are all pretty dedicated readers as well. And everyone got along great. But for some reason I kept feeling a little guilty about my desire (often deep and intense) to withdraw into the imagination. And now that I'm home, I think about how completely the literary world has devoured my social life. I work with people who think about books all the time, I'm raising people who think about books all the time, I socialize with people in my reading group, and I find that half the conversations I have are about books and writing.

Of course, I love living like this--it's a blast. But aren't we supposed to strive to know all kinds of different people, with different perspectives? A writer likes to think he has a broader perspective than the average joe--we should be able to think our way (if not actually live our way) into different social and cultural groups.

And yet it's books themselves we end up talking to friends about--the writing of them, the reading of them, the publishing of them, the habits of their creators. Admit it, litpersons--the first thing you look for when you walk into the home of somebody you just met is the teetering piles of books. And when you don't see them, a little part of you starts writing off the relationship (so to speak).

Which is it? Have books made me, or have books ruined me?

Sunday, August 2, 2009

What Nicholson Baker Didn't Say

Nicholson Baker, author of The Mezzanine, Vox, Checkpoint, many other novels, and works of nonfiction, too -- Double Fold, U and I, and the mind-blowing Human Smoke, among them -- writes about the failures of the Kindle in this week's New Yorker.

Though JR has met the guy I have not; I have admired him from afar for many, many years, and sent him money when he started The American Newspaper Repository; at that point, he became my total hero! Some of the most pleasant moments of my life have been spent in library stacks, reading old magazines and newspapers, and I think it's necessary to preserve the actual paper and ink of these old publications -- even if it's only one copy in a warehouse somewhere.

So... forgive me for expecting something a little more, I dunno, LUDDITE when I picked up The New Yorker! The faults Baker finds with the Kindle are technical: not white enough, bright enough, slow page turning. Yeah, whatever. How about this: Hey, Kindle, YOU SUCK BIG TIME!

Yeah, that's right. You, your very essence, sucks. You know what you are? You are strawberry Qwik: a gross adulteration of a perfectly good beverage. Or maybe you're a wine cooler. Americans have all bought laptops, iPods, Cuisinarts, cars with GPS, chocolate fountains, shoes with WiFI, so now what? Sheesh, how about an ebook reader? Oprah has one; better get on the wagon!

Books are perfect; like wine, any "improvement" is actually a step backwards. They look good, they smell good, they feel good in your hands, they are part of the physical world. The Kindle apparently uses the same font for every book, and there are no page numbers. Dumb!

Oh, but they're so convenient. I can just sit on the beach now and wish I had a copy of, hm, Wuthering Heights, and there it is, magically spirited to my Kindle! How cool is that? Not anywhere near as cool as getting on my bike, riding down to the local Book Exchange and Ice Cream Parlor, getting waylaid by the books in the local section, finding a pile of books about shipwrecks and hauntings, and reading them while eating a black cherry cone.

Sometimes I feel like people are afraid to criticize technology, as if the robots will track us down and kill us if we do. Or maybe we'll suddenly become impossibly old and uncool, like those freaky people in their cat-filled apartments clinging to their vinyl records. But just because it's technology, just because it's the future, doesn't mean it's good.

Books are good.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Happy is the New Depressed

When things are slow at the book store, I walk around and try to find the new Trend in publishing. Lately, I have been struck by the number of books with the word "happy" or "happiness" in the title. There are lots of new novels:

A Happy Marriage, by Rafael Yglesias
I'm So Happy for You, by Lucinda Rosenfeld
Pharmakon, or the Story of a Happy Family, by Dirk Wittenborn
Happy Families, by Carlos Fuentes
Secrets to Happiness, by Sarah Dunn
Pieces of Happily Ever After, by Irene Zutell
Happy Trails to You, by Julie Hecht
Happiness Key, by Emilie Richards

And even more nonfiction. I'm not going to bother listing them.

What is it all about? Do we want to read about happy people, rather than depressed ones? Is it because we're happy, or because we're not? I've noticed, too, that more novels have happy endings; it used to be that romances and chick lit did that, but now everyone does. At first I was surprised and touched, but now I'm slightly creeped out.