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.