Friday, December 16, 2011

The author as enforcer

How about another Franzen Friday? Well, why not? I mean, the poor guy hardly gets any attention anymore. Having finished Freedom, and mostly* enjoyed it immensely, I moseyed over to the Paris Review to read the interview with Franzen from last winter.

What I find comforting about this interview is that Franzen's concerns about fiction seem closely aligned to my own, which means that I, too, will someday reach the same pinnacle of fame and success on which he is now ambivalently ensconced! OK, probably not. But I can learn from his trajectory. For instance, like my own, a lot of Franzen's early works grew out of his engagement with science fiction. And this fondness for big ideas, or "systems," to use his term, meant that his characters were created to serve the system. Now, he says, it's the other way around: any "system" that's apparent in the novel is there to serve the characters. However, he still has to remind himself every time to start with character; his tendency, even now, is to start with the system, and he has to learn "the hard way" not to do that.

Yet. I myself am not ready entirely to jettison "systems," and one reason is this nagging suspicion I have of realism as a genre. Helpfully, Franzen addresses that in a way I hadn't thought of before:

You know, enchantment has a positive connotation, but even in fairy tales it’s not a good thing, usually. When you’re under enchantment, you’re lost to the world. And the realist writer can play a useful and entertaining role in violently breaking the spell. But something about the position this puts the writer in, as a possessor of truth, as an epistemological enforcer, has come to make me uncomfortable. I’ve become more interested in joining the characters in their dream, and experiencing it with them, and less interested in the mere fact that it’s a dream.

This "enforcer" role--the author as stripper-away-of-enchantment--is, I think, part of my problem with realism. I like a sense of enchantment in novels, even if there's no actual magic or flying cars or mind-reading; that is, even as I'm absorbed in the story, I like dimly realizing the whole time that I am elsewhere--emphatically not in the real world. Authors who are obviously striving to make that sense impossible (*ahem* Carver) tend to irritate me. You don't have to be some po-mo riff artist, gleefully calling attention to the constructedness of all texts, and to the fact that all is text, to create a pleasant sense of artifice within your work. I don't like the concept of art as spell-breaking; I prefer spell-creating, which is not the same thing as bewitching or misleading. In this view, the author can be a guide to this slightly different reality, not an enforcer.

*I still think it's a little too sadistic to certain characters, and--like The Corrections--features a lengthy, detailed investigation of human feces. I dunno, is that supposed to be a sign of fearless confrontation with life's realities? I guess it's meant as that stark blend of comedy and horror that can work sublimely in fiction...but to me it just seems juvenile.

Friday, December 09, 2011

On finally finding Franzen's Freedom

So there's this book out? It's called Freedom? Jonathan Franzen wrote it and it's all the rage! Oh, wait, this isn't 2010. Heck, it's hardly even 2011 anymore. However, never let it be said that I don't follow literary trends. I just don't follow them at the same time as everyone else.

All this is to say that I am finally reading Freedom, an activity I'd actually been dreading. Having read the excerpt in the New Yorker, and then the zillions of sugar-and-or-bile-coated reviews, I had formed certain expectations, the most notable being that Franzen would be condescending to his characters, especially his female characters. As much as I loved The Corrections, I sensed this condescension, even contempt, and the New Yorker excerpt of Freedom seemed to have the same whiff about it, only in spades.

Well, this does turn out to be true in Freedom. With the caveat that I have not finished the book, I would say that the portrayal of Patty does seem to come from an on-high, nose-wrinkled perch. Her "autobiography" in particular is puzzling in its language. It's supposedly her own work, and seems to show an intentional lack of familiarity with the finer cultural attainments , but it also contains numerous Franzenian displays of wit and acuity that a character like this would, by the author's own definition, not be capable of.

And yet the damn thing is riveting. I cannot wait to sit down with the book at the end of the day, and as soon as I open it, I am absorbed. Why? How? First off, although the author seems unable to directly overcome his condescension, it also seems he has found a way to work with it, so that it becomes an integral part of the story rather than working against it. The novel so far is starting to look like the author's battle with his own schadenfreude toward bourgeois mediocrity. And I think that's a battle more of us are fighting than we might like to admit. Everyone, truly, knows about jealousy and the joy of discovering that one's seemingly perfect neighbors or coworkers or whomever don't have it all, after all.

But what are we to do with this embarrassing recognition of our own failings to be sympathetic and good and decent? A lesser author might revel in it, but Franzen does not. He seems to use this discomfort with his authorial stance to drive himself to find deeper compassion for his characters. Whatever schadenfreude he and we are experiencing does not reduce the characters to cartoons: quite the opposite. Patty and the other characters are portrayed with such careful detail, such nuance, such understandable ambivalence and contradiction, that I, at least, have ended up rooting for them more than I might have in a less overdetermined portrait.

Also, let's face it, the book is something of a soap opera. Neighborhood spats, filial dynamics gone terribly wrong, guilt-ridden yet passionate love affairs...Plus it's quite funny.

So, hey, check out this new book by this budding young talent. Remember, you heard it here last.

Shop Indie Bookstores

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Burying the verb in a noun

I've been coming across a certain stylistic problem, both in the nonfiction I've been editing, and also in, ahem, some fiction. Here's an example:

A flood of relief came over me.

Let us not dwell on where this sentence came from; that is not important. Nor, for our purposes, is the fact that it's a cliche. The problem is that there are actually two verbs in the sentence: a strong, vivid one, which is disguised as a noun ("flood"), and the weak, bland, actual verb ("came"). The overall effect is a wordy and mushy sentence. The fix:

Relief flooded over me.

OK, there is still the problem of the cliche. But now that we have one specific verb, "flooded," we can start tweaking it: Relief poured over me. Relief trickled through my veins. Relief poured over my shoulders like a hot shower. Or maybe we should just leave well enough alone for now...

The point is, I've suddenly become very aware of this problem, so it seems to be everywhere. There may even be a fancy rhetorical name for it. What's nice is that it's easy to fix: just look for weak, flabby verbs like "came" and then search the rest of the sentence for the real verb, which is likely present, but disguised as a noun.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

What is writer's block?

I've told people that I never get writer's block. I always seem to be able to write *something,* if not something interesting or good or important. This is what blogs are for, writing *something.* And now that I am in revision mode with novel 2, getting *something* done is even easier. All that is required is staring at the printed (not blank!) page and making some sort of change. Or not! Because maybe I'll just keep what's already there, and keeping counts as revision! I am thinking! I am deciding! This is real work!

However. I am beginning to get a hint of what classic, cigarettes-bathrobe-wild-haired-baggy-eyed-cocaine-haunted-hotel-ax-murder-type writer's block is like. I have been trying to come up with "ideas" for some new short stories, which I hope to start on when this next round of revision is over. I have done about three pages on two different stories, and finished a full draft of another. But all of them just seem hollow. That's the best word I can use to describe them. They are words wrapped around a nonexistent core. I don't enjoy reading them or thinking about them. They feel like imitations of stories.

Well, Robert Olen Butler would say that having "ideas" for stories is my first problem. It means I'm coming at the problem intellectually rather than "from where I dream." And I suspect that is an issue. I'm writing about things I don't really care about. That is, I'm working from "concepts" that I think are "interesting" rather than from emotions that I don't fully understand (or accept). Even though some of my more successful stories have always seemed to me rather aloof, even arch, I'm starting to realize that there's some strangled cry of personal anguish within them. You can't fake that shit. You can't borrow someone else's personal anguish or conjure it up out of abstractions. In other words, at some point, you have to--metaphorically!--open a vein. Find an untapped agony mine, and then, maybe, make it funny.

The holiday season will probably help with this.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The new issue of Crazyhorse is out--with my novel excerpt

Just in time for the holidays! The new Crazyhorse is out, including "Origin," an excerpt from my novel Christmastown Lost. Hey, the e-book is only $5.00...

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Would you self-publish?

Busy with work today, so I'll hand this post off to these guys, who have a lot to say in favor of self-publishing. Personally I can't let go of the traditionalist dream...not yet, anyway.
(Via Nathan Bransford, as it so often is.)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

On being a rereading chicken

Lisa Levy's post on The Millions about rereading reminds me of a class I taught at Stanford called "Does Literature Matter?" One of the assignments was to reread a story, book, or poem that meant something to you in the past, and write about how you and the story had both changed. This assignment always seemed to produce the best papers. As Levy suggests, I think that's because rereading generated multiple layers of reflection: yourself then, yourself now, yourself now seeing yourself then. And somewhere in the middle, the "text itself," which is always changing as its readers change. To reread is to consciously experience the fluidity of yourself, and all the things that surround and bolster your "self."

That all sounds great and important. And yet I, myself, am not that much for rereading. I suspect I'm afraid of being sucked into the past, and/or former selves, many aspects of which I would rather not dwell on or in. When I do reread, I tend to do it for some purpose other than pure pleasure: for the Borrowed Fire experiment, or to study techniques of a writer I admire (which is really the point of BF anyway). Those are partly the hazards of being a semi-professional reader.

What do I reread purely for pleasure? Popular science books mostly. Maybe that's because my own emotional history isn't bound up in them. There aren't a lot of places in them to deposit one's hopes, fears, and dreams for later--possibly blindsiding--retrieval.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

On responding to reviewers

I'm intrigued by Jonathan Lethem's essay, "My Disappointment Critic," which responds to James Wood's negative review of The Fortress of Solitude. For those not closely following Lethem's career (why not?), Fortress and the review were published eight years ago. But, Lethem admits, he couldn't stop thinking about Wood's misrepresentations of his work:

I’d have taken a much worse evaluation from Wood than I got, if it had seemed precise and upstanding. I wanted to learn something about my work. Instead I learned about Wood. The letdown startled me. I hadn’t realized until Wood was off my pedestal that I’d built one. That I’d sunk stock in the myth of a great critic. Was this how Rushdie or DeLillo felt — not savaged, in fact, but harassed, by a knight only they could tell was armorless?

Lethem's points are interesting, subtle, and also humorous, so it would be better for you to read the piece rather than for me to try to summarize his objections. The upshot is that Wood, in Lethem's view, simply wanted to read a different book than Fortress turned out to be: he did not evaluate it on its own terms. Moreover, Wood's terms are unnecessarily snobbish.

Now, I'm quite fond of the work of both Lethem and Wood, so I feel a little sad that they apparently don't see eye to eye. As far as I know, I am also yet to have the experience of a critic reviewing my own work. My general sense, though, is that one must resist the urge to respond to either good or bad reviews, to avoid looking overly needy ("Thank you for that great review! It made my day!") or bitter and pompous ("You are obviously too dumb to discern the subtleties of my prose."). But clearly writers violate this tenet all the time: witness the Letters section of the NYT Book Review. It does seem that, especially when hemmed in by tight deadlines and multiple obligations, critics can miss key points; or they can start out with fixed expectations and then, in the interests of time and simplicity, judge the book according to those. And writers can fail to get their intended points across. This is a slipperier business in fiction, though; I think readers should be free to see what they see in a story, even if the author didn't consciously put it there. Otherwise, what are book clubs and lit discussion sections for?*

Lethem makes a careful and convincing argument on his own behalf; I have no doubt Wood, if he so chooses, could do the same. What I like most about this piece, though, is how it reveals the humanity of both author and critic. Both are flawed, as writers and as people, even though their positions in this dynamic require that both pretend not to be. ("Here is my perfect book." "Here is my meticulous, objective judgment of that book." "Your judgment affects me not at all." "Your judgment of my judgment means nothing.") These formal rituals are built up to conceal very basic human questions: Do you like me? Am I good? Do I know anything for certain? It's worth remembering that both reviewer and reviewee have these questions.

In writing this piece, Lethem took the risk of seeming whiny, petty, needy, etc. But in bringing out the subtle, human dynamics of the writer's life, I think he did the right thing.

*This reminds me of another post I ought to do sometime, on the depiction of English/literature classes in film and TV. Unlike the vast majority of my experience, as a student and a teacher, classes in these shows invariably have a Socratic-style professor dragging the "correct" meaning of a passage out of the students: What does Romeo mean when he says...? Right you are, Billy! Or: Nnooo, that's not quite what he's saying; how about a hint? The students are occasionally inspired, if the teacher is passionate and/or colorful, but more often they are bored, and rightly so. This is bad publicity for the literary profession, and something really should be done about it!

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Too much light!

Maybe it's the time change and the whole darkness-at-five-thirty-p.m. thing. Maybe it was our recent trip to Tahoe, when I woke up in the middle of the night enveloped in darkness--I couldn't tell whether my eyelids were open or closed--and felt utterly calm. Maybe I've developed some modern-day proto-vampiric ailment, exacerbated by staring at glowing screens for the majority of my waking hours. (God, that's insane.)

At any rate, I seem to have become deeply averse to artificial light, especially the uniform lighting one finds in office buildings and to some extent on our living-room ceiling. (My husband is very fond of this light and thinks it's sun-like, whereas I find it sickening. Light must be a personal thing to some extent.) I posted this TED talk awhile ago about uniform lighting in offices. We're not wired, so to speak, to handle it. We need shadows in the sea of light, and office design should take that into account.

Also there's a street light outside our bedroom window that nothing short of blackout curtains can snuff out. I suppose I could wear one of those masks that you used to see on neurasthenic starlets in the 50s, except that is a recipe for getting my face clawed by a cat in the middle of the night. On a larger scale, light pollution is a huge problem for astronomers, nocturnal animals, crime fighting (really bright lights create darker shadows that are easier to hide in), and, I would argue, life in general. The International Dark Sky Association is doing something about that--and homeowners can, too.

Now, if I can just get through the next four months of standard time...

Friday, November 04, 2011

Peter Cook

For some reason, for the past few weeks I've been oddly obsessed with the late British comedian Peter Cook. Maybe it has something to do with the holidays, which make me think of my parents, which brings to mind their senses of humor, which derived in part from their record of Beyond the Fringe, which we listened to often when I was little. ("Then, unavoidably, came peace.")

Anyhow, watching Cook in Not Only...But Also recently, I was struck by his presence--the combination of his rather delicate features with a total, fearless comic spirit. This is not to say he was an over-the-top performer. On the contrary, there's a quietness about him that you don't see much in contemporary comedy. I think Stephen Fry put it well in his statement about Cook a few days after his death in 1995: "He had funniness in the same way that beautiful people have beauty."

Here is that commentary by Fry, who was objecting to the media's laments about Cook's "unrealized potential" and "flawed" personal life. It includes some useful thoughts on the meanings of ambition and success.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

What you need to start writing a novel: a voice

Just in time for NaNoWriMo, Nathan Bransford offers this very helpful post on how to start writing a novel. Yes, I know: just start. Today of all days, just start. That's probably the best advice of all. But Bransford points out the two elements you need in order for the novel to take shape: voice and plot.

In particular, I can't overemphasize the importance of finding the voice--which, as Bransford says, is the novel's sensibility. (Be sure to read his post on the elements of a successful voice.) Here's my two bitcoins on the matter: Voice is close to tone and is reflected in tone, but it's more the stance toward the story. The stance is personified as some form of narrator or narrative presence, and is evident in the narrator's word choice, pace, tone--the whole stylistic kit and kaboodle. Now, you may not think there's an actual narrator in your novel, at least not akin to Thackeray's or even Austen's convivial, sardonic "I." But it's worth deciding there is always a narrator, even if he or she stays far behind the scenes, pretending she doesn't actually exist. Thinking this way allows you to distance yourself at least a tiny bit from the voice that is telling your story, which then allows you to make conscious decisions about what the narrator--again, not necessarily you--thinks and feels about what's going on. In fact, it's been my experience that a certain productive tension can result when I decide that the narrator of a particular story is going to feel somewhat different about its events than I, personally, would feel. This curtails the temptation to turn the story into a self-pity wallow or a soapbox, and it allows for unexpected experiences of empathy--which are the best kind.

Plot, for me, is even tougher to tease out--but I think that, too, has a relationship to voice. What your narrator chooses to tell, how she chooses to tell it, and why she tells it all are all aspects of plot. You have a sensibility that's picking and choosing, so understanding that sensibility is key to making those choices.

Of course, like everything else in novel writing, your voice for the novel will probably not spring fully formed from your head. It will come out in the writing itself. It may gradually assert itself more and more as the draft moves forward, or it may pop out in odd little asides, where you least expect it. The point is to realize you need it, and to keep an eye and ear out for it, as you work through your early drafts.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The growth mindset

I heard this interview with Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck last weekend on To the Best of Our Knowledge. The 10-minute recording is well worth a listen. She's talking about her new book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, which describes her research on factors leading to resilience and self-esteem in children.

The upshot is that parents seeking to raise resilient* kids should praise process, rather than end results or innate qualities. For example, "That's a really interesting mistake. What should we do now?" Or: "You chose a really difficult problem; you're going to learn a lot from that." The kinds of praise kids hear more often--"Good job!" or "You're so smart/talented!"--are actually detrimental, because they suggest an either/or situation. Either you did a good job or you didn't; either you're smart and talented, or you're not. This leads to a "fixed mindset," in which the child believes every problem is a test of his or her innate abilities, and becomes terrified to fail. He or she starts to avoid challenges, and has a harder time learning and growing.

With the alternative, the "growth mindset," kids see intelligence, athletic ability, etc. as things that can be developed over time. Not only do they not fear challenges, they enjoy them and seek them out, and their abilities improve accordingly.

The really good news, according to Dweck, is that this mindset can be learned at any age.

*The term the interviewer and Dweck both use here is "successful," but I am having trouble tossing that word around without extensive qualification. "Success" in this culture so often just means wealth and/or prominence. I would almost prefer the term "happy" here, or "fulfilled." Of course, the same mindset is necessary for any definition of "success."

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Is art too tiring?

So we got the first disk of Beckett on Film from Netflix (hooray, not Qwikster!) about two weeks ago. Today I sent it back unwatched. Instead of Waiting for Godot, we spent the last two weeks on a steady diet of Friday Night Lights alternating with Arrested Development.

Now, as middlebrow entertainments go, these two shows are near the top, critical-acclaim-wise. No Celebrity Liposuction for us!* And yet, compared to Beckett, neither can be called challenging. FNL has plenty of emotional drama, and often crosses the line into melodrama; I care about the characters and events, and am even strongly moved on occasion. So there's an emotional challenge, I guess--but I can't say the show makes me think or wonder, beyond "What's Tim Riggins going to do now?" And AD...well, it's just funny.

The thing is, I've always loved Beckett, or thought I did, so why didn't I want to watch the DVD? The answer seems to be that after a full day of writing and/or editing, I just didn't have the energy. I knew the Beckett was going to require something from me--even Godot would, and it's the least challenging of all his work. I want to be done working in the evening. Not that I want to turn my brain off, or have it bludgeoned into irredeemable stupidity by some reality show. I want to be engaged, but not asked to do too much; I'll row, but I don't want to be the one in front (or back, or whichever one does the most work).

But this is a worrisome realization. I think of myself as an advocate for high art--you know, literature and its ilk, the stuff you're supposed to need some sort of college-level training to enjoy. If I can't bring myself to pop in that Beckett DVD after a work day, what hope is there for people who have no stake in supporting the arts? What if most people just have too much going on mentally to devote any extra brainpower to the finer creations of humanity? Can we blame our overworked, overstressed populace if they pick their mental and emotional battles, and they don't pick art?

Maybe watching the Beckett would have refreshed and invigorated me with its greatness, whereas FNL and AD mostly soothed me. But at a certain point, soothing is what I want.

*I don't think this show actually exists.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Hope for writers

Via Nathan Bransford, a very thoughtful piece by author Natalie Whipple on the struggle to stay hopeful when your writing dreams don't seem to be coming true.

I would add that I think it's perfectly fine to feel like crap about your writing once in awhile. Even more than once in awhile. After all, we writers generally get a lot more bad news about our work than good news--and more often than that, we get no news. I am not a big fan of accelerated cheering up. If you need to sulk, sulk. Just be aware that's what you're doing, and be open to the good things, even little good things, that can crop up while you're in the midst of sulking. Maybe a solution to a plot problem that comes to you while you're muttering "fuck" to yourself in the car.

In short, here's another way to think about not giving up: you can still write when you feel like crap about writing. You still go to your job when you feel like crap about it, don't you? So you can write.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Revising in bits and pieces

After getting some *great* notes on the first chapter of my new novel (thanks, KS!), it occurs to me that perhaps a better way to revise a novel draft is by breaking the whole thing into separate, chapter-size files and treating each like a short story. This idea also comes after my husband's remark last night, to wit: "Isn't a novel just like a bunch of short stories strung together?" To which I replied, "No, Jesus Christ, it's nothing like a bunch of short stories strung together."

But the advantage of working with separate, story-sized files seems to be that it prevents one (or me, at least) from racing through the revision process, skimming along the surface of the whole giant thing in order to get to the end (second draft: done!). With these 25-page files, I'm more likely to come to the end of each, and then go back to the beginning of that same file again, polishing and shaping each section on a sentence level--as I would when revising a story.

I'm a little leery of dealing with all these separate files, but I can already see that it slows me down and forces much closer and deeper attention.

Have I once again stated the obvious with a sense of great discovery?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Teens and adult fiction

So I basically agree with Brian McGreevy's article on Salon today, for reasons I'll blather on about in a moment. First, though, there's the article's subheading, or the first part of it, which just,, read it:

Parents push young-adult fiction because it's safe. But protecting kids from sex, death and adult themes is wrong

Can I just say: what is this safe young-adult fiction? OK, I don't have kids, and haven't paid much attention to the YA fiction of today. But back in my day, when YA fiction was chiseled onto blocks and hauled into the agora by mules, a hell of a lot of it was not "safe" at all. In fact it was downright lurid in comparison to adult fiction. For example, I remember a book called Run [Drat, what was the protagonist's name? I can picture the book cover--a teen with long blond hair, wearing a black turtleneck and looking warily over her shoulder for reasons which became only too apparent], Run. That book was pure pornography. My mother evidently agreed, belatedly, as the book disappeared from my shelf at some point and was never seen or mentioned again. And that wasn't the only example. By comparison, the fiction of Joyce Carol Oates, or even Stephen King, is redemptive.

Though I was a rather sheltered child, I managed to read--either surreptitiously or in the amber light of my mother's weary approval--Jaws, The Exorcist, and Carrie, not to mention the subversive Judy Bloom, and a lot of other quite questionable stuff. Oh, and Dracula. I was, for the most part, not allowed to watch movies of the same ilk (I got to read Jaws in exchange for not seeing the movie), and I pretty much agree with that decision now. There's something about the visual assault of violent movies that doesn't occur when you're reading, although imagination can sometimes make things worse, generating images and sensations that linger creepily in your system.

But I do take McGreevy's point: "perverse and puritanical an instinct as there is in this culture to prolong childhood, there is a far stronger counter-instinct in children to analyze, simulate, and as soon as humanly possible participate in the challenges of adulthood." And: "They are entitled to learn about it at exactly the rate it is appropriate to their individual moral development to do so." I think my own dark, semi-taboo reading experiences were somehow validating at a time when I needed validation. I was not the chirpiest, chipperest kid (unlike now!), and these books told me I was not alone in sensing something was seriously wrong out there. The books were scary, but oddly reassuring.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Strangeness in fiction

From John Gardner's On Becoming a Novelist:

There can be no great art, according to the poet Coleridge, without a certain strangeness. Most readers will recognize at once that he's right. There come moments in every great novel when we are startled by some development that is at once perfectly fitting and completely unexpected [...], or those moments we experience in many novels when the ordinary and the extraordinary briefly interpenetrate, or things common suddenly show, if only for an instant, a different face. One has to be just a little crazy to write a great novel. One has to be capable of allowing the darkest, most ancient and shrewd parts of one's being to take over the work from time to time. Or be capable of cracking the door now and then to the deep craziness of life itself [...].

I've been thinking about this in the context of realistic vs. non-realistic fiction. From time to time I've implied a bias against "realist" fiction in favor of fabulist or magical realist fiction. But I'm not sure that's the right way to explain my preference. A novel like Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, not to mention The Brothers Karamazov, is perfectly realistic--the events depicted could literally happen on this earth. (BK does contain "The Grand Inquisitor," a story in which Jesus returns to earth during the Inquisition, but it's a story told by a character who's beginning to lose his mind.) Yet both of those books seem magical to me, and I think it has to do with Gardner's concept of strangeness.

Gardner doesn't do the best job here of explaining strangeness, but that's the point. It is one of those know-it-when-you-see-it things. He gets closest, I think, with the ordinary and the extraordinary briefly interpenetrating. The briefness is important. If you create a world in which the ordinary is always extraordinary, then you have a sort of bizarro world as your starting point, and have to do even more to generate some kind of informative strangeness. (I'm sure this can be done, and encourage all attempts.) But brief glimpses of deep craziness can suggest the power of that craziness more strongly. We spend most of our time on land, but 71% of the earth's surface is ocean, and every now and then we hear its roar, or we fall in.

So I guess what I object to is not realist fiction as such, but fiction that takes the representation of ordinary reality as its endpoint. That sort of work surely takes skill and dedication. However, like Gardner, I think art ought to aim higher, and deeper.

Shop Indie Bookstores

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Elegance and the everyday

I'm an Apple apostate. My first computer was a Macintosh 512K Enhanced. I worked that baby all the way through college *and* grad school, feeding it floppy disks like so many potato chips which I failed to properly label and lost. Then I went to work in the corporate world and everyone--except the graphic designers, those hippies--used PCs. There wasn't much of a choice back then, if you wanted to, you know, run software.

Over time one device intertwined with another, and I've been fully PC for over a decade. And it's been fine. Really. PCs work. It's only occasionally that I feel a twinge of envy as some Apple person breezes by in their architect eyeglasses, carrying some irresistible device that I really don't need. I console myself that my PC was cheaper and works just as well, and...

But PCs are the strip malls of personal computers. They are function without form. We need inexpensive groceries, quickly, and an easy place to park the car to get said groceries. Hence the giant parking lot in the center of town, ringed by bunker-like chain stores and anchored by the gigundous Safeway. You know, fine. It works. No one set out to build a temple here. But, Christ, it's ugly. And somehow a little disrespectful, as if consumers--which is all we are, in this mindset--really care about nothing besides saving money. We don't really care what our cities and towns and thoroughfares look like, just so they get us where we're going (which is where, exactly?).

I know, I know: meeting our basic needs as inexpensively as possible is important, especially in these times. You can't feed elegance to your kids. Also, it's not like Apple is a great roar of protest against the degradations of consumer culture. It is one of that culture's most potent sources of fuel, and waste--the lovely, pretty much unnecessary gizmo that causes you to toss your previous gizmo into the landfill.

Still. Steve Jobs and Apple insisted that the most utilitarian possible object, the computer, should be elegant. Using it should not just satisfy us, but please us. It seems like a small thing. After all, we can find beauty at the art museum, or on the mountaintop, or in the concert hall, if we need it, right? Why should everyday, functional objects also be beautiful? Well, because they pull us one step back from the abyss of what Russians call "poshlost'"--the depressing mix of banality and vulgarity for which there is no equivalent English word. Every ugly, purely functional, hastily slapped-together thing that catches our eye is another little poke in the eye: we don't need anything better; we don't deserve better; we aren't better. Not settling for everyday ugliness is a little rebellion.

So here's to Steve Jobs and the elegance of the everyday. I really do not need an iPad. But I really want one.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Would you read hypertext fiction?

Paul Lafarge has a very interesting piece in Salon today about hypertext fiction. Like Lafarge, I remember that moment in the 1990s when it seemed like hyptertext fiction was really the next big thing--as important an invention as the novel itself. But then, as Lafarge puts it, nothing happened. To his credit, Lafarge still thinks it's a form worth pursuing, and to his even greater credit, he is writing a hypertext story himself, Luminous Airplanes.

I took a look at the story. It's very well designed, and the craft, so far, looks lovely. But I have to admit that my overall feeling, as soon as I began clicking through, was anxiety. I followed a link, hit "back," and did not know where I was going back to. Was it the same "back" as if I had not followed the link? It didn't seem so. I stopped reading, becoming completely concerned with the question of "where I was." I wanted a flow chart.*

Now, presumably, the more experienced reader of hypertext is not only accustomed to the loss of a single main thread--the handrail of linearity, if you will--but embraces that loss. Non-linearity is the point. So maybe it is just a matter of experience, and of being willing to let myself be lost, not unlike the way one is "lost" in a good, absorbing novel. Perhaps I am like those audience members who ran screaming from the oncoming locomotive in an early example of another new art form, film.

After all, I have spent the past few months trying to read Pynchon's Against the Day (75% done!) and have been lost, as in disoriented, plenty of times. I go leafing back through the heap of pages I thought I had already read, trying to find out who the hell Cyprian is, because apparently I have been introduced to him, but danged if I remember. Lafarge makes the further point that many proto-hypertext novels already exist, such as Hopscotch, Pale Fire, etc., in which flipping back and forth and all over the place is a necessary part of the reading experience.

So what is the difference? Maybe the still-unpleasant aesthetic experience of reading on a computer, which is already being fixed by e-readers and the iPad. After reading Lafarge's article, I do feel I ought to give hypertext another try, as a reader if not as a writer (probably, definitely not as a writer). But it does feel like a lot of work.

*I should point out that there is one, and also a fair amount of help/orientation text, which I was too unsettled to poke around in on my first visit. 

Friday, September 30, 2011

Sing to a lizard

...because apparently lizards like to be sung to. From David Rains Wallace's Chuckwalla Land: The Riddle of California's Desert:
Lester Rountree, a prominent California botanist, was singing to herself while collecting plants one day when a lizard emerged from under a boulder, climbed on her knee, and "showed an enormous capacity for large doses of song, closing his eyes in absurd abandon and opening them whenever I shut up, his eyelids sliding back to reveal pleading orbs. This went on for some time till I finally...placed him, limp with emotion, on the boulder."
Couldn't hurt to try it.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Tips on tightening dialog

I've recently received notes from two editors on two different pieces. And the gist of both was: tighten your dialog.

I've always thought my dialog was particularly scintillating. Also, lately, I've gotten it into my head that if a character (other than the POV character) has a big idea to present, it's best to do it as an extended dialog so that the character can use his or her own voice. Turns out that's not true. In literature as in life, lots of talking can be boring. In order to make the talk sound realistic, the writer might also start throwing in lots of "wells" and "you knows" and "really?s"--which go unnoticed in speech but really clutter up the written page.

What's the solution? Paraphrase. As a former academic, I still shudder at the word. You want the unfiltered voice whenever possible, right? But in this case, you paraphrase through the perception of either the interlocutor, or the overall narrator, if the later has a distinctive voice. You don't just paraphrase neutrally, relaying what the speaker is saying like some objective reporter. You say what the other person actually hears, and thinks about what he or she's hearing, which will be colored by their personality and prejudices. The filter doesn't fuzz things up, but adds information and nuance. You can then spice up the dialog with brief, actual quotes from both speakers, just to give the flavor their individual voices.

Obviously this isn't an issue for short dialogs, or for fiction in which dialog plays an unusually important structural role. But I myself have been annoyed by page after page of dialog in fiction--especially if I sense that the dialog is actually just exposition that the author can't think of another way to bring out. And I especially don't like it when the speaker pauses just so the other character can say "really?"--which is a lame way to break up long paragraphs. I am looking through my own work now for those "really?s" and "tell me mores," so I can replace them with something revealing about the character saying them. If the character truly has nothing more to say than "really?" then he should remain silent. The presence of "really?," more often than not, means the speaker is going on too long, and it's probably time for another paraphrase.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Here be dragons, or something like dragons...

I never watch Jeopardy!, but I became a fan of Ken Jennings after that whole Watson thingie. Turns out Jennings has now written a book about maps, called Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks. 

I hate maps, personally. That is, I hate them as functional objects, because I can't read them. I'm the one in the Honda Fit, parked cockeyed and three feet from the curb, holding the map upside down and bordering on tears. However, as aesthetic objects, I like maps very much.

I particularly like map monsters, and Jennings has put together a delightful slide show thereof. Also, a fun fact (what else would you expect from the Jeopardy! champ?): the phrase "Here be dragons" is not common at all on old maps, and in fact seems to have only one recorded appearance. And that is probably a translation error.

Shop Indie Bookstores

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A non-fiction sentence I happen to like

Since we've been on the subject of sentences lately, I thought I'd say a few words about one I just came across. It's the first sentence in the opening chapter of David Rains Wallace's Chuckwalla Land: The Riddle of California's Desert:

The desert's stark reticence challenges comfortable notions that we humans occupy the apex of benign, reasonable processes that have unfolded especially to produce us.

At first glance, this is not an especially stunning sentence. It doesn't really start the book off with a bang (though there is a prologue that begins with a shorter, zippier line). It also contains some fairly abstract, generic terms like "challenges" and "notions" and "processes" that in other hands could have made the sentence deadly dry.

So why do I like it? First, the striking phrase "stark reticence" at the beginning creates a lot of goodwill for proceeding through the rest. The phrase personifies the desert, and it's always nice to have an active presence for the reader to attach to right off the bat. Moreover, it brings together two terms that I, at least, am not used to seeing together. It makes me think the writer is precise and inventive, without being overly showy about it. The vividness of that phrase spreads over the relatively dull words in the rest of the sentence, and the dull words, in turn, end up setting the phrase off more. The dull words keep the prose from becoming purple, an especial risk in nature writing.

Second, although it's a somewhat long sentence, there is only one comma. As a sort of Johnny Appleseed of commas myself, I appreciate this particularly. But it's not just a matter of leaving commas out. The sentence is constructed in such a way as to not need them. It's a sentence about qualification--in fact, the whole thing is one big qualification of humanity's sense of itself at the end of the evolutionary chain. Qualifications usually beget commas. However, Wallace has obviated this problem by correctly identifying the subject of the sentence as the desert, not humanity. In other words, the sentence mirrors its point: we're not at the apex after all--not in this book, anyway.

With the true subject properly named and situated, the rest of the sentence can unfold according to the book's overall argument. And it really does seem to unfold. As we move forward through its smooth, nearly comma-free terrain, complex ideas peel away and bring us--at last and ironically--to "us." Here we are, except we don't know where we are anymore. Now we are in position for a guided tour through the "enigma" of the California desert.

(No, I haven't finished the Pynchon cinder block yet; thanks for asking.)

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Plot is thought turned into action

Five years ago, I attended the Tin House Writers Workshop, where I worked with Aimee Bender. The rumors are true--she is an awesome teacher. One thing in particular that she told us has become so embedded in my thinking that it has never before occurred to me to comment on it. But I caught myself using it again today, so I thought I'd pass it along.

In a lecture on plot, Bender told us to try having our characters do what they are only thinking about doing.

Consider: I find my characters thinking about doing stuff all the time, only to brush aside the thoughts and continue on their (probably more boring) paths. He wanted to kiss her, but turned away and pretended to look at the dunes. Which is the kind of thing we do all the time in real life--turn away. But real life is not fiction. Fiction is precisely where we explore the paths we didn't take in life, where those discounted thoughts can and should become action. It's the road not taken. Perhaps we don't take it out of fear, and that might be a good enough reason in real life not to do something.

But in fiction, fear is no excuse. If anything fiction allows us to confront what we fear in relative safety, which means that succumbing to fear in fiction is a doubly missed opportunity. Not only will you never know what the road not taken might have been like, but your character won't know either. His life will be just like yours. Is that what you really want?

I don't. That means my characters have to do stuff I probably wouldn't. It also means that if I'm stuck for plot, or character, I could think of something I wouldn't do, and then create a character who's quite capable of doing it.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Of dorm-room philosophizing

There's this scene in my new novel where some characters--adults well over 40--are discussing whether the color blue that you see is the same as the one I see. And then I come across this very same question (same color even) on some blog or other, and it's being mocked as a "dorm-room" conversation.*

So, wait...did that question get answered, and I missed it? Was I out getting coffee or something? Is it the same color? Or is this just too dumb of a question to bother with, now that we're out of the dorm? I get the impression that there are those who believe that asking these kinds of (so far) unanswerable questions is a sign of immaturity. College is the place where they are explored, and contained; they have no place in the real world.

Why not? Is it because after college, one is (and is supposed to be) preoccupied solely with practical concerns? Is ordinary life so fast and furious that contemplating unanswerable questions is really a waste of one's limited time? Maybe so. And maybe the "blue" question is not particularly interesting, although I kind of think it is. What concerns me is this brusque dismissal of an act of wondering. This notion that certain questions aren't appropriate for adults--and not because we have the answers now. It's just time to stop wondering and get on with it, whatever "it" is.

Personally I'd rather be in a dorm room than a cube.

*I can't find that blog, but here's this, about the "dorm-room" conversations in Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City. In his book they may be meant as satire, and in my book, they aren't. Or at least I don't think so.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Forgetting about writing so you can write

Over at the Tin House blog, they're doing an occasional series called "The Art of the Sentence." In the current installment, Jaime Quatro sings the praises of a sentence by Denis Johnson. I won't reprint the sentence here, but, as Quatro points out, "Read the sentence aloud and you’ll hear the rhythm and pulse of the elevated tracks—structure informing content, music suited to subject matter."

Indeed. The sentence really does make you feel like you are right there in the train car, watching squalid snatches of other people's lives flicker by. And this makes me realize that Johnson, at some or possibly many times in his life, really paid attention while he was riding in such a car. That is to say, he wasn't sitting there thinking: I've got to pay attention to all this so I can write about it later. All right, maybe he thought that at some point during the experience. But in order to register this much sensory detail (sights, sounds, the physical sensations of rhythm), he had to be, as we say in California, fully present in the moment. He was not thinking (yet) about what he was going to write and how he was going to write it. He knew those answers would come later. He is a writer, after all; there should be no need to remind oneself of this fact constantly, if one is a real writer. In the train car, he was where he was, and experienced the experience. That's the only way this sentence could have happened.

So: while we are out and about, away from our machines and the actual physical process of writing, we need to be exactly where we are. We will do our writing a great favor by forgetting about it when we aren't doing it. If we are truly present where we are, we will absorb--and remember--the kinds of experiential detail that make sentences like Johnson's truly stand out.

Experience is craft.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Through amber-colored glasses (from the gas station)

The other day I bought an iced tea that came in a reusable drinking glass. Seemed like a pretty good idea. Except maybe in order to make the whole proposition affordable, perhaps the glass was made somewhere way overseas, by poorly paid workers, and then shipped thousands of miles over here. Who knows? The glass is quite nice, though.

The experience pleased me particularly because I am old enough to remember when gas stations gave away glassware. *Nice* glassware. I think you got one glass with every fill-up or something. My mom still uses the extensive set of distinctively 70s-style amber drinking glasses as part of her regular dinner setting. I am not sure what happened to the Cleveland Browns glasses, which were also nice, particularly once the Browns logo wore off. These came in two sizes, were vaguely ball-shaped and heavy-bottomed. I recall they were especially nice for serving eggnog, a staple beverage of Browns fans. We had a ton of those, too. Perhaps they vanished, along with the "real" Cleveland Browns, in 1995.

Anyway. What an odd thing, it now seems, to be getting your dinner glasses from Shell or wherever. But a wondrous thing, too! Why not bring back those days? And why stop at glasses? Why not china, silverware, pots and pans... Engaged couples could register at Chevron.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Mysteries of mystery writing

All right, real mystery writers: how do you do it?

By "it," I mean figuring out the plot--all the details of who did it, why, who knows what, and who believes what. Most of all, I'm wondering when you figure all that out. Do you map it all out at the beginning or do you figure it out in the course of the writing? Or does it vary from writer to writer (as do pretty much all aspects of writing)?

I ask because I think the culprit in my literary murder mystery is about to change for the third time. In this case it really seems like the story itself is pointing to this person, whom I, like my protagonist, had dismissed out of hand. It's been an interesting experience to observe this happening, as I had certain characters arguing for this person's guilt, and it's as if they finally convinced me. The change, should I choose to implement it, also allows my protagonist to be productively wrong, rather than just sadly misunderstood (fortunately he's not a heroic detective, just a sort of hapless bystander who decides to get involved).

However, questions remain: If the story itself is insisting on this particular culprit, maybe the culprit is too obvious. Maybe the reader will grow fed up with the protagonist's seemingly willful blindness early on. OR will the case the protagonist is building against someone else be enough to raise doubts in the reader's mind? Also, does the culprit always have to be a mystery until the end, or, in the manner of the old Columbo mysteries, can the interest lie less in who the person is than in how he or she is discovered? (The fact that Columbo is my touchstone for such questions should tell you that I know relatively little about the mystery genre, which is part of my problem.) And, also, in a novel that aims for literary interest, is the whodunnit aspect even that important?

I find that even in my "purely" literary writing I suffer from plot anxiety. I worry that the story is simply too boring, that nothing is happening, and so if anything I over-plot. In an actual mystery story, a convoluted plot can, I think, be satisfying, as long as it doesn't seem contrived. But there's a fine line between convoluted and contrived. And then there's the kind of story, which I'm ultimately working toward, in which we don't get a final answer. In the end, different characters are still going to believe different things, and there won't be enough evidence to convict the apparent killer. However, I still think I need to have a firm notion of the culprit in my mind in order to write this kind of story, and then think of ways he could be overlooked by others.

In a way, I suppose, all fiction writing is mystery writing of a sort: What's going to happen? What will be revealed? Who is this character, really?

So I guess the answer, as always, is to keep writing and then get someone honest to read it and tear it apart. Still, I would love to know how people who think up mystery stories for a living really do it.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

In praise of unlikable characters: Pete Campbell

So I blew through the fourth season of Mad Men on Netflix, and made a surprising discovery: Pete Campbell is my favorite character.

This discovery interests me because I have been harping off and on about the issue of likable characters in fiction. In fact I created a class around the topic at Stanford a few years ago. To recap, it always bugged me in fiction workshops when people would say something to the effect of, "I just don't like this character," meaning...well, I wasn't sure, exactly. The story wasn't working for these people, but was it because they felt the character was immoral? Or they couldn't "relate" to the character, meaning he/she didn't evoke sympathy in the reader? Do all characters have to be someone we would want to be friends with in real life? I thought not. But characters to have to engage us, and I have been at pains over the years to figure out how.

In the first few seasons of Mad Men, Pete was the character I loved to hate. I hated his pinched expression, his sense of entitlement, and his peevishness when that sense ran up against some real-world obstacle. (Also he was a jerk to Peggy, and his wife, and all women, but that of course doesn't make him anything special in the MM world.) He was like a little boy entering the grown-up world a little too soon, and finding out that it was not at all what he'd expected.

But who can't relate to that? Who hasn't felt, after a long day at some office, that "I was led to believe there would be cake" feeling, and wanting to whine about it? Where is the damn cake? And the freedom, and the knowledge, and the power that all adults were supposed to have, all of which I was supposed to have, too, once I grew up? It's all a big ruse, this adult thing? Now what am I supposed to do?

Also in this past season, I've noticed another quality in Pete that I admire: his commitment. Even as he sees (and complains about) the Don Drapers of the world trampling on the less handsome and less lucky and (so far) getting away with it, he still puts on his suit and shows up at work and does his god-damnedest to haul in new clients. We may not think much of the value of the work he does, but he does it extremely well. Despite all the problems he sees, Pete is not yet ready to give up on his dream. He signed up to be an ad man, and that's what he's going to do.

Lots of credit, of course, must go to the actor, Vincent Kartheiser, who plays Pete without a trace of vanity. He never winks at the audience, inviting us to mock Pete or to remind us that he isn't "really" this guy. The commitment we sense in Pete is the actor's commitment.

So what does this all mean for writers trying to create interesting characters? By which I mean, characters who are complex and engaging and challenging--not simply mirrors held up to flatter readers' (and our own) moral vanity? Well, the creator of characters must understand them. I may not like or admire Pete's peevishness, but I know where it comes from; I've felt it, too. In other words, Pete feels like a creation from within. He's not a cartoon, observed and imitated from outside, but grown out of common, if embarrassing, emotions.

All of which suggests that a great character might start out as some complex twinge in the heart, rather than as an image, or a type, or a role you need played in your story. And you need to commit to that twinge, not wish it away, or wink at it.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Is Pynchon overrated?

So here's that much-read Slate piece about famous books that are overrated. Or at least that these particular authors never liked. Gravity's Rainbow comes up a couple of times, and that's a book I actually love. I think I love it, that is.

I agree with Elif Batuman on this issue: a particular book has to reach you at a particular time. I read GR when my father and I were driving cross country from Ohio to Berkeley, where I was about to start grad school. I read the book in strange motels in Iowa, Nebraska, and Wyoming, while during the day we covered vast stretches of stark landscape and listened to Paul Simon's Graceland. I was on my way to immersing myself in an acid bath of literary theory, which at the the time I was looking forward to, in the same way I looked forward to living in a place with palm trees. Nothing seemed quite real, except being with my dad, and somehow the book brought all that real unreality together. This goes back to a thought I had awhile ago, that the context of reading really is important in making literature part of your life. Reading in a class, or a library cubicle, does not always allow for that kind of rich reading experience.

But I don't know if I'd enjoy reading GR now. And I am bogging down a bit in Against the Day, after my initial enthusiasm. It's just...very...long.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

On being decisive (in fiction)

So I'm not the world's most decisive person. (Maybe I shouldn't have said that.)

I recently received some comments from an editor on a short story, and I realized its biggest problem was my refusal to commit to...a story. I myself like stories with ambiguous endings, the did-it-really-happen or what-exactly-happened endings. Which is not to say I like endings the writer *messed up.* These things have to be done very carefully, so that the implications can be taken in two (or more) ways--but the reader has to be able to figure out what those ways are in the first place.

The mistake I made in this story was trying to keep all options open, when what I needed to do was commit myself, through my narrator, to one path. In reality, other options can and will remain open, but that openness is accomplished through the limitations of the characters, and through language. In other words, literature is a bit loose because language and characters are a bit loose. In fact literature creates a productive ambiguity if you're doing it right. But if you force ambiguity by refusing to commit, you create confusion, not art.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Review of Francisco Goldman's Say Her Name

I got assigned to write this review a few months ago, but due to a timing issue, the publication ended up not being able to use it. This is not a timely review, except that grief is in the air for me these days. And I liked the book, so here's what I had to say about it.


I am starting to believe that the greatest terror life has in store for us is not death, but grief. Death has an ending, after all; it is the ending. Grief, on the other hand, may subside, but will never truly end. And one of its most awful aspects (it’s a complicated, writhing thing) is helplessness. This is the condition of both the survivor, and—if she is aware of her circumstances—the dying. The loved one pulls away, like the tide withdrawing from the shore, and all anyone can really do is watch. Though sometimes, later, the survivor can also tell the story.

In 2007, Aura Estrada, a young writer and scholar, broke her neck while bodysurfing in Oaxaca and died the next day. Her husband, novelist and journalist Francisco Goldman, wrote Say Her Name in the aftermath of that personal disaster, which was also a loss for the world of letters. The book includes excerpts from Aura’s stories and diaries, which are funny, brightly inventive, and increasingly experimental in their language. In fact, Aura’s promise as a fiction writer is one reason Goldman wrote Say Her Name as a novel: to honor her imagination.

At first, I didn’t realize it was a novel. I found out only after finishing the book and skimming the dust jacket for a hint of how to start talking about it. This was the most brutal portrait of grief I had ever read, and to “review” it—as if there were anything more to say on the subject, especially in the form of critical judgment—seemed absurd. But instead of giving me the handhold I was looking for, the synopsis, puzzlingly, called Say Her Name “the novel of Aura.” Sure enough, the bookstore sticker on the back said it belonged in the fiction section, and so did the Grove/Atlantic Web site. The question should probably not have mattered to me, but it did. What was this terrifying, exhilarating place I’d just emerged from, shaking and desperate to call my husband?

I turned to the New Yorker’s interview with Goldman, in which he discusses the genre issue in some detail. Of course, he says, the extended sections describing Aura’s childhood are fictionalized; since he wasn’t there, how could they not be? More intriguingly, he says the account of his actions as the grieving widower are not (or not all) true. The “narrator” of Say Her Name does things in his anguish that the real Goldman did not. I was relieved to hear that, since much of the narrator’s behavior is reckless and at times cruel. And yet those sections, for me, raised the story far above the finely crafted, moderately touching expression of loss that I might have expected from a grief memoir.

In the novel the bereaved Goldman gets drunk night after night and frequents strip clubs. He hallucinates. He torments himself with accusations that he caused or even desired his wife’s death. He has affairs with Aura’s friends, including a young woman named Ana Eva, at whom he unleashes this twisted, blackly funny tirade:

So take that you fucking Sméagol, you and your Latino straw man marvelous quirkiness of love, go sodomize yourself with your fucking sock puppet, you idiot pendejo!

Ana Eva gaped at me. What had set this off? [….]

She was frightened. She’d drawn back into a corner of the bed. What’s the matter? Was it her? Why was I screaming at her about some Sméagol?

Oh Ana Eva, no, no, it has nothing to do with you. I’m sorry. Something Sméagol, a book critic wrote. He gave us the evil eye on the subway. He fucking killed Aura, not me.

Grief undoes the narrator from inside out, and watching this happen made me fully trust the experience as portrayed. Goldman rejects any redemptive, golden-light-infused “process” to lay bare the reality of his emotion: It’s monstrous. Now he tells me a good portion of the story isn’t true?

Then again, how does the griever himself know what is real? “No happy memory,” Goldman jarringly writes, having already recounted many of them, “that isn’t infected. A virus strain that has jumped from death to life, moving voraciously backward through all memories, obligating me to wish none of it, my own past, had ever happened.” Aura’s death has rewritten his life, making him wish his past—all that has made him who he is—were fiction. What can happiness mean now? What even happened? What’s one more revision of his life story, if grief is the ultimate fabulist?

In the New Yorker interview, Goldman explains how the fictionalized self-portrait reveals a different kind of truth. The man most people saw, in the months and years after Aura’s death, seemed to be doing pretty well. As he mourned he wrote; he taught; he established the Aura Estrada Prize. But all that felt like a lie, he says. In the book, the narrator’s actions reveal the raw, hidden, even shameful experience of grief. He gives it a face. Maybe Goldman also wanted, by writing the fiction, to separate the griever from the person walking the earth under the name “Francisco Goldman.” But it’s equally likely that others, and even he himself, will conflate them. The point is, it really doesn’t matter. The book is very much about Goldman, but also not.

When you get down to it, Say Her Name is about everything, where everything takes the form of Aura. We come to observe life through the lenses of her talent, ambition, astute critiques of academia, humor, Hello Kitty toaster, dresses, travels and culture shocks, and her deep and bracing loves: literature, her troubled mother, her husband. Lost in thought, she misses her subway stops. She loudly recites George Herbert, of all possible poets, when drunk. She wants to have children. She worries that her much older husband will leave her a widow too soon. She adores the beaches of Oaxaca. She wants to learn to bodysurf, but is afraid, so Goldman, who’s been doing it since childhood, shows her how.

Like everyone, and not like anyone, she’s ordinary and extraordinary. She changes Goldman, as he does her, both during her life and after; in the end, her power to transform is just as strong as grief’s. Say Her Name proves how wonderful it is to love someone so much that losing her is so completely devastating. As Goldman puts it:

One of the most common tropes and complaints in the grief books I’ve read is about the loneliness of the deep griever, because people and society seem unable, for the various reasons always listed in those books, to accommodate such pain. But what could anybody possibly do or say to help? Inconsolable does not mean that you are sometimes consolable. The way things are has seemed right to me; it’s all been as it should be, or as if it could not be any other way.

So the helplessness of grief cannot be helped. That makes sense, even if Aura’s strange and awful death does not. The rightness is a kind of consolation.

Still, we wouldn’t want to trade places with Goldman (or Aura) for even one second. Or would we?

Shop Indie Bookstores

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Vacant lots in Cleveland

There's a very interesting piece in today's New York Times about the vacant lots in Cleveland, my hometown. (OK, my hometown was actually a suburb, but I still identify, for better or worse, with the "metropolis.") Anyway, there are enough of these lots now to constitute an actual ecosystem, and naturalists are studying it.

The article and the photographs convey the sadness of the city's long, probably permanent decay. But you can also see the charm: the brick buildings, the old broad-leaf trees, the mugginess--not always awful--of the summer air.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Werner Herzog (again)

Missed my Tuesday blog post. Swamped. Fortunately The Millions has a great post up about Werner Herzog, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and that wild, wacky, Herzogian method of magic. Enjoy...

Thursday, July 28, 2011

How to fix the humanities (again)

Articles about how to reform humanities education have been coming out for probably thirty years now. This one from Slate is particularly scathing. But it does at least offer some concrete suggestions. The following struck me particularly: "They [humanities programs] should cultivate new ways for people with humanities sensibilities to build entrepreneurial projects outside of traditional academe, and make these alternative paths the norm, without shame."

When I first decided to leave academia, I attended an alternative career seminar on campus, the focus of which turned out to be entrepreneurship. "Just think of a need that's out there!" the seminar leader chirped. "Go on, you! What's a need you could fulfill?" I said something about looking for parking spaces for people, for which I was praised. I was in fact being sarcastic at a deep level that I rarely descend to. Suffice it to say I thought the seminar was beyond useless. People were talking about opening bakeries, for God's sake. What was that ten years' worth of critical theory for, again? Now I'm supposed to learn how to bake, and run a business besides?

But more than a decade has passed, and "entrepreneurship" seems to mean something different to me now. After all, I've become a freelancer. I do have my own business, and I like it a lot. I found a need and started filling it.

The thing is, lots of us humanists are square pegs to begin with. That's why we read and mope and moon about, and end up in grad school because we just can't see ourselves hammered into a cubicle for the rest of our lives. (Maybe I should have said we are round pegs, because cubicles are square...well, never mind. We are blobs, really: wherever we try to fit in, something squiggles out.) Anyway: for people like this, learning how to make a space for yourself really does seem valuable. What could a large, loose network of independent humanities "businesses" do for the nation?

The part about getting rid of the "shame" would also be key.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The 2011 Bulwer-Lytton Prize

If you haven't heard of it, the Bulwer-Lytton prize is given annually for *intentionally* bad writing--specifically for the "opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels."

This year's winner is Sue Fondrie, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh. The judges note that at 26 words, hers is the shortest winner in the history of the contest, "proving that bad writing need not be prolix, or even very wordy."

Thursday, July 21, 2011

What we write when we write reviews

By way of reviewing the worst book review(er) ever, Robert Pinsky says that when he first started writing reviews, one newspaper gave him the following set of guidelines:

1. The review must tell what the book is about.
2. The review must tell what the book's author says about that thing the book is about.
3. The review must tell what the reviewer thinks about what the book's author says about that thing the book is about.

Pinsky then goes on to point out that hardly any reviews these days do all three things. At most they do one or two of them. Also, those who prefer Rule 1 tend to avoid Rule 3, and vice versa.

Which raises, for me, larger questions: What are book reviews for, anyway? Are they a "Consumer Reports"-style report, as Pinsky puts it? (To buy or not to buy?) Are they criticism, and if so, what does that mean?

I like to read book reviews and have written a few in my day...but I honestly don't know the answers to these questions.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Self-promotion for introverts

Nathan Bransford pretty much says it all on the subject: Yes, it sucks. Yes, you have to do it.

But if you suck at it? Won't that make things worse? Isn't it better not to have self-promoted at all, than to have, for example, broken out in hives and blurted an obscenity at a prominent editor while attempting to introduce yourself at the washroom sink?

It appears there is no answer to this question. However, Shrinking Violet Productions can offer assistance, for instance in yesterday's post. Here's a particularly good excerpt:
Make it worth their while. I feel more comfortable putting myself out there if I’m giving the people listening to me something for their time. And what I can give is information, so that’s what I do give...
If only there were a way to self-promote while being convinced I was being completely taken advantage of...that would work for me.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The showing never stops, nor does the telling

In the endless quest to make sense of the "show, don't tell" dictum--which I would actually love to bury, except that, once under the earth, its bones begin to glow mysteriously, and the earth above them to rumble, until the monster bursts forth, more powerful and threatening and unhelpful than ever--

Start again. Recently, Alan Rinzler made an excellent point about "show, don't tell." Although he doesn't actually use that phrase, which is probably all to the good. The point is, writers have to consider the reader's experience:

Have you ever been to a movie where there’s an annoying voiceover narration that keeps commenting without adding anything to what you’re seeing on the screen?

That’s equivalent to an excessive explanation that an author inserts unnecessarily.

Yeah, that unnecessary voiceover narration. Hello, Blade Runner Not-the-Director's-Cut. The voiceover blatantly tells the audience that the filmmaker does not trust it. Either we are too dumb to figure out what's happening on our own, or someone thought the film itself was too dumb to get the points across. Neither generates good vibes.

Even worse, this kind of explaining shuts down any nuance or variety in interpretation, which is part of the pleasure of viewing or reading art. This is the meaning, the voiceover tells us, nothing else, so stop thinking that other thing you were thinking, you're just wrong. So why are we reading this novel anyway? Why not read a diatribe on The Topic at Hand? Because the diatribe would probably be boring. We're making fiction because we want nuance and ambiguity (which is not, however, the same as obscurity and confusion). We want the reader to participate in an imaginative dialog, not be bludgeoned into submission. That's what I want as a reader, anyway.

I find I do a lot of over-explaining in first drafts, because I myself am trying to figure out what's going on. How does this character feel about his father at this moment? What conflicting emotions are going on inside him? How does he--according to his personality--express or conceal those feelings? And so forth. But after I've finished the draft, presumably I know the answers, and if I don't, I have to find them. So during revisions, I can take the over-explanation out.

Of course, it is exceptionally hard for an author to determine on her own if any aspect of her intention is coming across--or, conversely, if her writing is sufficiently nuanced to allow an interesting range of responses. That's why we all need our good, critical readers.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The early reviews are in

There is now cat vomit on my revision notes for novel #2. I suppose that's better than having it on the completed manuscript. I will tell the archivists it's coffee.

In related news, Zee appears to be on the mend at last. But the process has not been without...hiccups. And four visits to the vet.