Wednesday, February 24, 2010

JRL in Boston tomorrow night, 2/25

If you live in the Boston area and are up for some lit or would just like to say hello, I'll be reading at The Suffolk University Poetry Center, in the Sawyer Library, on the Suffolk U. campus, tomorrow night at 7. I'm not totally sure yet, but I think I'll be reading some odds and ends, a few bits from Pieces For The Left Hand, and a new short story. Please come! I fear the Big Snow will keep my ostensible audience at home.

Saturday, February 20, 2010


I just finished reading Nabokov's first novel, Maschenka, which Nabokov chose to change, unnecessarily and rather jarringly, I think, to "Mary" for the English translation. Aside from this, however, the novel reads beautifully, and it is surprisingly excellent--a fairly straightforward story of a doomed youthful affair that we are made to hope can be rekindled. The book's protagonist, Lev Ganin, is a brusque, sometimes cruel figure, whose energy and impulsiveness are highly entertaining, as are the picaresque details with which Nabokov describes Ganin's apartment building and its other inhabitants.

What's amazing here, though, is not the agreeably suspenseful plot, nor the undeniably Nabakovian prose (which at times here is youthfully overwritten), but the strange, presciently modern motifs that run through the book. It opens, for instance, in a stalled elevator, in total darkness--and this is 1925! There's also a surprising sexual frankness, and, in a section that seems like nothing less than a prediction of Don DeLillo, a scene in which Ganin, watching a movie in a theater, remembers that he himself had served as a crowd scene extra in a movie once, and as he thinks it sees himself there on the screen. The scene in question features an opera prima donna collapsing on stage before an astonished audience:

Straining his eyes, with a deep shudder of shame he recognized himself among all those people clapping to order, and remembered how they had all had to look ahead at an imaginary stage where instead of a prima donna a fat, red-haired coatless man was standing on a platform between floodlights and yelling himself to insanity through a megaphone.

This same sleight of hand is later applied to the notion of love, as compared to the memory of love, in a deftly unsentimental and vexing conclusion. It's a delight to see Nabokov in this comparatively simple mode--considering it's a first book, very little is wasted.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Yeah no absolutely

I've always been fond of tracking the latest in weird public locutions, and here's one I can't quite wrap my head around. I first noticed it a few weeks ago while listening to a radio call-in show...the host had a something-or-other expert on the horn, and every time the host asked a question the expert would answer it beginning with the phrase "Yeah, no, absolutely."

Like for instance, "Mr. Lennon, do you ever dream of winning an important literary award?" "Yeah, no, absolutely, I fantasize daily about screaming boo-ya at Don DeLillo."

I have heard the phrase several times over the past month, the most recent being this morning, from the mouth of Sandra Bullock talking on NPR about her role in what sounds to me like it must be the worst movie ever made, but what do I know. The strange thing about this phrase is that I use it myself--at least I have from time to time. And I still don't quite understand what it means.

My son's theory is that the "no" is a cancellation of the "yeah," followed by an intensified replacement of same. As in, "Yeah, wait scratch that, what I really mean is absolutely." But I think it's actually something subtler, something more like, "Yes, you're right; no, don't be concerned that you have asked an impertinent question, because my answer is, in fact, absolutely."

What, then, is your theory on this phrase? And of all the times for it to surface, why now?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Kids today!

W6 reader Jay Livingston emailed me a link to this week's entry in the (really quite good) LA Times Books Blog, which is by the novelist and memoirist Dani Shapiro. The gist of the piece is that publishing, and the literary aims of the young, have changed. She helpfully tells us that she has had a successful career, then addresses the shallowness that has overtaken MFA programs in recent years (and allow me to quote this at length):

...the creative writing industry of the mid-1980s now seems like a few mom-and-pop shops scattered on a highway lined with strip malls and mega-stores. Today's young writers don't peruse the dusty shelves of previous generations. Instead, they are besotted with the latest success stories: The 18-year-old who receives a million dollars for his first novel; the blogger who stumbles into a book deal; the graduate student who sets out to write a bestselling thriller -- and did.

The 5,000 students graduating each year from creative writing programs (not to mention the thousands more who attend literary festivals and conferences) do not include insecurity, rejection and disappointment in their plans. I see it in their faces: the almost evangelical belief in the possibility of the instant score. And why not? They are, after all, the product of a moment that doesn't reward persistence, that doesn't see the value in delaying recognition, that doesn't trust in the process but only the outcome. As an acquaintance recently said to me: "So many crappy novels get published. Why not mine?"

The emphasis is on publishing, not on creating. On being a writer, not on writing itself. The publishing industry -- always the nerdy distant cousin of the rest of media -- has the same blockbuster-or-bust mentality of television networks and movie studios. There now exist only two possibilities: immediate and large-scale success, or none at all. There is no time to write in the cold, much less for 10 years.

Kids today!!!

Actually, there is plenty of time to write in the cold--that's what everyone is doing. Shapiro is looking at the thinnest possible slice of the writing public--a handful of graduate students--at the most volatile moment of their lives--during graduate school--and is drawing from this tiny sample a sweeping and incorrect assessment of what young writers care about.

"I see it in their faces." Seriously? You can look into the eyes of the annual 5,000 MFA grads and, you know, read their minds? She should perhaps ask them what they actually think. Would you rather have a big hit now, or a long and respected career? Let me posit that everyone will pick the latter. Students do care about writing well. That's the only thing they have any control over, and the only thing we're capable of reliably helping them with.

But of course they hope for the "big score." It appears to be doled out at random--why not throw their name into the pot? Fame and riches, however, are not the focus of their creative lives. Dani Shapiro hears about it from her students because she is successful. This is the students' only chance to work their connections--why begrudge them? If careerism annoys her, she should get out of the MFA biz.

Otherwise, humor the kids. They are exactly like you.

Monday, February 8, 2010

More with less, again

I've been obsessively thinking about that New York Times piece by Elmore Leonard that Pale Ramón posted in the comments a couple weeks back. In it, Leonard makes the case for spare prose, and offers up some basic rules to follow, summarizing it all with "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it."

A lot of it is stuff you've heard before (don't use adverbs). But there are a couple of really surprising things in this list, and they are "avoid detailed descriptions of characters," and "don't go into great detail describing places and things." When you think about it, these constitute fairly radical advice. He's telling you not to describe stuff, pretty much at all. Whatever faults Leonard's books may have, a lack of vividness is not among them. So how does he do it?

It's all about the power of suggestion. The more readers are forced to invent on their own, the more invested they become in the story. The key is to sketch the right lines, so that the detailed picture forms itself in the reader's mind. I am reminded of David Hockney's "greatest drawing ever made," a simple sketch by Rembrandt that has perhaps the largest meaning-to-content ratio of anything I've ever looked at.

I've spent the past week trying to get students to put fewer words on the page--by coincidence, this seems to be the #1 problem in my classes so far this semester. And as I embark on another new possible novel project, I am beginning to envision a slim volume, sketched out with the faintest of lines. I just finished Don Delillo's highly spare and stylized new book, and while I don't adore it, it makes me very excited. To write this way requires a leap of faith, and a level of judiciousness that, to be honest, I have never actually attempted to achieve.

As long as I'm demanding it of my students, I might as well give it a try.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Throwing in the towel

Well, after a long talk with my literary agent, I've decided to take grandpa off the respirator. Wait, no, not grandpa--the novel I've been working on for the past year. It's not awful, but it isn't all that great, either, and I think I'd be better off spending the next year working on something new, rather than trying to beat this thing into shape. As I said to my agent, I don't want to have produced the literary equivalent of the health care bill--I want to have written something that is obviously good.

I suspect this happens a lot more often, even to the best published writers, than is commonly known. It's happened to me before, in fact. But this time around, it took me about half an hour to decide to put it out of its misery, rather than the months it took last time.

So how is it that I could have expended that much energy on something so easy to condemn to the scrap heap? Well, it isn't all bad--parts of it were a blast to write, and even held up to repeated drafts. But some of it is certainly bad. I think that, as with personal relationships, we often make poor artistic decisions based on misguided notions of our strengths and weaknesses. And sometimes there's stuff that we need to write, for whatever reason, that is not really fit for outside consumption. This is why I get a little leery whenever I hear someone refer to a manuscript I'm about to read as "therapy."

This one wasn't therapy for me, but I suspect I'd end up needing some if I had to tease a successful narrative out of it. For now, though, I've got another idea, and an empty calendar, and the sense that a great weight has been lifted. It's hard to complain about that!