Thursday, April 28, 2011

The new novel is napping

On Tuesday I finished the first draft of my second novel. In contrast to the first one, which took six-plus years, this one took less than a year.

One reason is that I had the voice for the new novel in my head right away. It's first person, alternating between past and present. Knowing this meant that a lot of point-of-view problems, as well as tone and mood problems, never arose. First person is quite limiting in other ways, and it didn't work for my first novel; but it seems that if you at least know who's talking and why, you can go a long way.

Another reason this one went relatively quickly is that I've learned to tolerate some remarkably egregious flaws in a first draft. These include:
  • A character who, Schrodinger's cat-like, is both alive and dead throughout the first half of the story. I couldn't decide which had to be the case, so I just kept writing till it became clear.

  • Another character who becomes three different people during the course of the story. When she first appeared I had one idea of the role she would play, but she evolved out of that. By the end became both the motive for the storytelling (the "narrative occasion," always an issue), and a fully worthy love interest for the narrator.

  • Not knowing who the killer was until the last paragraph. Maybe still not knowing.

  • The usual instances of overwriting, underwriting, and especially substituting summary for scene. God, why must there be scenes? Why can't everything be summary interspersed with occasional dialog?

  • Massive doubts as to whether the story even begins to make sense on any level.

What all this means, of course, is that revising is going to be a lot of work. But before that is the required cooling-off/baking/resting period, in which I ignore the novel for approximately two months so that I can tackle revisions with a new perspective. I'm shooting for July 1.

PROGRAMMING NOTE: During the next two weeks blogging may be lighter than usual, and/or unpredictable, due to work, travel, and family issues.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Of chicks and literature

I missed the initial dust-up in which Jennifer Egan, fresh off her Pulitzer win, described certain works of "chick lit" as "very derivative, banal stuff," prompting Jennifer Weiner, a noted author in that genre, to tweet, "And there goes my chance to be happy that a lady won the big prize." Floodgates have opened; Egan has been widely accused of attacking fellow women authors and setting the cause back 50 years.


Anyway, it's all spelled out in this Millions article by Deena Drewis, who pretty much has the same take on the fracas as I do. I've talked about this issue--expectations for women writers--in a slightly different context before. Bottom line, I think it's great that Egan advised "young female writers" to "shoot high and not cower." Although she may have steered them toward a life of relative poverty. Not, again, that there is anything wrong with chick-lit or women's lit (which I understand are not quite the same thing, inasmuch as I understand what either of these things really is). What's wrong is being shocked when some women say they don't want to write or read it.

In a related development, last Sunday, the "Riff" piece in the New York Times Magazine by Carina Chocano compared two movies that came out 20 (!) years ago, Thelma and Louise and Pretty Woman. Chocano points out that while the former was truly groundbreaking, the latter now seems more prescient and contemporary. Unfortunately.

I will just conclude with an update on my plea for complex portrayals of intellectuals in American fiction. How about complex portrayals of women intellectuals specifically? Of women for whom philosophical, artistic, and/or scientific concerns are central to life, not a misguided distraction or displacement of maternal energies?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Lyrical realism vs. the avant-garde

A recent piece by Garth Risk Hallberg revisits a 2008 Zadie Smith essay, in which she compares Joseph O'Neill's Netherland to Tom McCarthy's Remainder.* I was surprised to learn that Smith came out strongly against Netherland as the type of novel she'd like to see--and write--more of. But that's a testament to how unprepared I am to wade into this debate. Not only have I not read Smith's essay, I also have not read Remainder or any of McCarthy's work. This will not, of course, stop me from commenting.

Like Smith, I've grown tired of "lyrical Realism" in contemporary fiction, and suspect that it's holding fiction back from addressing Big Questions. I don't, however, have a strong argument at hand to prove this. It's more a feeling that all the time spent "showing" the raised, doily-like pattern on the china our heroine is setting on the rough-hewn dining room table leaves less time for "telling," or asking, what all this is for. Why are we here? What is our place in the universe? What are our obligations to it? Yes, I know: these questions are all there. They are embedded in the showing of the china, and a more subtle mind than mine would appreciate them that way. I just prefer it when characters and authors wrestle with big questions explicitly, at least from time to time. And some of that wrestling could well spill over into the novel's form, making it what is loosely called "avant-garde."

On the other hand, I really liked Netherland, and I believe it's because, as Hallberg puts it, "the potentially meaningless gets redeemed by fine writing." That's no minor distinction. When the writing is that fine, that important to the story, it becomes its own meta, its own avant-garde. Of course it's extremely hard to do this well; the attempt often results in too much milky light glinting off the aforementioned china, and/or tiresome nosedives into the past. Back to "lyrical Realism" of the most lamentable kind.

Anyway, Hallberg deftly undermines both the lyrical Realist and avant-garde categories, reminding us that the point, for both writers and readers, is not to choose a side. Instead, it's up to authors to rethink and revise form *every time* they sit down to write--not for the sake of form itself, but to properly accommodate the writer's "burning."

*We have now reached the third level of meta, criticizing criticism of criticism. There's probably a point at which this must stop.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

True stories about people's lives, and fiction

Still (for some reason) on the subject of David Foster Wallace, self-help, and literature, I very much enjoyed Jonathan Franzen's "Farther Away: 'Robinson Crusoe,' David Foster Wallace, and the island of solitude" in the recent New Yorker.

It strikes me yet again that this is a very different kind of literary criticism than I was trained to produce as a grad student. Back in my day, literary study was an utterly sterile environment, an ICU where we hooked books up to large, wheezing theory machines and then watched them slowly die. (I'm sorry. I guess I'm still a little sad about the whole business.) There was literally no place to discuss the work in the context of lived experience. You could, by way of disclosing the position from which you spoke (i.e. your implied authority and/or biases on the subject), mention your race, class, gender, and sexual orientation, but only in the manner in which you would check these off on a form: permission to speak, plus plausible deniability. Check.

Actual personal narratives, however, had no place; and there could certainly be no discussion of the role the work in question played in your own life. Why should there be? In fact, it played no role. It was an object of study. Study was not life. As to how one was supposed to navigate one's non-studying hours--well, those hours or minutes were so brief anyway, why even wonder? One thing was clear: you would never turn to the poems or novels or treatises you were working on for solace or advice or reflection. That would be misuse, and stupid besides.

But now I'm noticing, both inside the academy and outside, a real turn toward lived experience as a central aspect of criticism. Critics are not necessarily exposing their innermost secrets with every piece (and thank god), but there's a sense of literature as part of life, as a pattern of rich threads woven throughout life's fabric. Elif Batuman's The Possessed is one example. Franzen's article is another. What we see in this kind of writing is the process of literature and life enhancing each other. We look through one at the other, and then back again, gaining new insights with every turn. We take literature with us on our journeys, not to pass the time, but to make it.

Franzen does this literally in "Farther Away," traveling to remote Masafuera Island with a copy of Robinson Crusoe and a small box of Wallace's ashes. The resulting article touches on ecology (especially birdwatching), technology, the perils of hiking in fog and rain, the history of the novel, the resonance of Robinson Crusoe today, and Wallace's complex life and cruel death. This last entails the cruelty he showed to others in killing himself, especially at home, where those he loved most would find him. The suicide is not just the delicate artist bidding adieu to the harsh world he can't handle. He added to that harshness in a big way, and his survivors have to deal with that. No wonder the pull of isolation is as strong for those left behind as it was for Wallace.

Franzen's grief expands the meaning of Robinson Crusoe, instead of reducing it, as the hermetically trained critic might fear. And vice versa: Crusoe enhances (which does not mean "worsens") the grief. Pieces like this show the most illuminating way to read cannot be in a library cubicle, surrounded by white walls and buzzing lights and the unrelenting fear of failure. Instead, we could try reading a little, walking a little, nearly falling off a rock, building a campfire, reading some more, crying, sleeping, reading, scattering ashes. Now what does the book have to say to us--and vice versa?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

DFW's self-help library

Via Kate S., a really wonderful article by Maria Bustillos on David Foster Wallace's collection of self-help books, and his deep, furious engagement with them. Bustillos does us an enormous service by not just revealing Wallace's marginalia in books like Alice Miller's The Drama of the Gifted Child--although she does that extensively. She also takes on Wallace's thoughts about the books, offering her own deep engagement with his fraught self-image. I suspect he would have approved.

Bustillos, through Wallace, situates the powerful self-help streak in U.S. culture within the context of artistic creativity, by showing us the double-edged sword of individuality. The imperative to know and love and help oneself easily gives over to obsessing over and hating same. This makes creativity virtually impossible. As Bustillos puts it (referring to The Pale King),

The book Wallace was too stuck in himself to complete is one in which he was observing how we all ought to become unstuck, sadly. The realization that you have something of value to contribute to the greater world necessarily involves prying your mind off yourself for a minute. [....]

And yet our culture is obsessed with finding the causes, with talking things through, and with getting to the bottom of our problems by thinking and talking about them a lot. With solving the problem of depression. The book The Drama of the Gifted Child, suffers very much from that "self-help", inward-turned weakness. It is a good but flawed book that tells just a small part of the story of how to do family life. There is no blame to pin anywhere; there is a balance to try to achieve.

Anyway, I really recommend you read the whole article. This is one of those pieces of criticism that does full justice to a complex subject, while finding its larger implications for our cultural moment.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

True stories about people's lives

So I was in a bookstore this past weekend. While picking out a large, lavishly illustrated book on forensic science (something I never thought I'd own in my life, but the new novel requires it), I overheard a woman say to the clerk: "Can you recommend any autobiographies? I don't want fiction. I only read true stories about people's lives."

I felt like throwing down my lavishly illustrated forensic science book and pouncing on her. But as I rounded a row of shelves, I observed that she was about six feet tall, resplendent in animal skins and platform boots. So I reconfigured my imagined pounce as a verbal one:

Her: I only read true stories about people's lives.
Me: Obviously you don't realize that fiction, although it is not "true" in the "factual" sense, puts us in touch with larger "truths" that strictly "factual" narratives can't provide. Jeez.

In reality, I said nothing. Having received some recommendations, she clomped off happily, and I plunked down my forensic science book, along with an impulse buy: Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett, a true story about people's lives.

Specifically, it's about Patchett's friendship with the poet Lucy Grealy, who is best known for her nonfiction book, Autobiography of a Face. Grealy was hugely talented but hugely troubled, mostly by the aftereffects of the cancer she'd had as a child, which left her face disfigured. She'd since had dozens of reconstructive surgeries, all of which eventually failed, and which ravaged the rest of her body through tissue and bone grafts. While successful by any measure as a writer, and possessed of many friends as devoted as Patchett, she felt unloved. Despite her friends' heroic efforts to save her, Grealy died of a drug overdose in 2002.

As you can see, I have already finished the book. I inhaled it over the last two days. This total absorption is largely due to Patchett's writing. It's simply perfect, not an ill-chosen word or clumsy sentence in the entire book. To be able to write with such grace about traumatic experience is probably what defines the true artist.

However, I'm also convinced that knowing the story was true was part of the reason I could not put it down. I think it's because I was looking for answers in a way I don't look for them in fiction. In other words, I had a non-artistic purpose in reading, which was learning how Patchett got through this difficult experience. I don't like to think of art, which this book is, as self-help, and yet--isn't it always, on some level? Aren't we always seeking something better, new, different, in ourselves through the experience of art? Still, my goals were more practical: How did Patchett manage to love, and stick with, this very needy person right up to the end? How did she come away from it loving Grealy all the more, apparently without bitterness, only with gratitude? (It's true that bitterness can be edited out of a book, if not one's life, but I think Patchett is an honest enough writer that she would have allowed it to show if it were a significant part of her feelings toward Grealy.)

Did the ability to make art from the experience have something to do with the gratitude she now feels? I suspect so. Not that Patchett was thinking to herself the whole time: Well, this is hard as hell, but at least it's material. In the book, she explains it this way:

We were a pairing out of an Aesop's fable, the grasshopper and the ant, the tortoise and the hare. And sure, maybe the ant was warmer in the winter and the tortoise won the race, but everyone knows that the grasshopper and the hare were infinitely more appealing animals in all their leggy beauty, their music and interesting side trips. What the story didn't tell you is that the ant relented at the eleventh hour and took in the grasshopper when the weather was hard, fed him on his tenderest store of grass all winter. The tortoise, being uninterested in such things, gave over his medal to the hare. Grasshoppers and hares find the ants and tortoises. They need us to survive, but we need them as well. They were the ones who brought the truth and beauty to the party, which Lucy could tell you as she recited Keats over breakfast, was better than food any day.

So how did Patchett arrive at this understanding? Through art? Or is she just a more generous ant, by nature, than I? I will try to assume it's the former, and see what I can do.

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Friday, April 08, 2011

Thursday, April 07, 2011


Yesterday was windy.

Years ago I read a wonderful book called Wind: How the Flow of Air Has Shaped Life, Myth, and the Land by Jan DeBlieu. Naturally I can't find my copy now, but from the Amazon review: "Jan DeBlieu lives on North Carolina's Outer Banks, where 'wind is culture and heritage... Wind toughens us, moves mountains of sand as we watch, makes it difficult to sleepwalk through life.'" At one point, I remember, she says that she feels strange in places that aren't windy like the Outer Banks--not just breezy, but what many would probably call blustery.

I thought of this yesterday, watching the giant redwood at the top of a hill in our neighborhood swirling its branches like some multi-fronded sea creature. My life is largely a still affair, with lots of sitting at desks and staring at words, which may create imagined movements in my head but don't engage in a whole lot of activity on their own. I sit in cars or planes and watch the world pass alongside or beneath me. I am not buffeted, except by psychological currents. In other words, I tend to think of wind as something wrong--as in, it was a beautiful day, but windy.

Wind is strange to me. The air, which normally I just walk through and don't notice, is coming after me, insisting I feel and respond to its presence, affecting the way I move. But why should this be bad? Sure, no one wants to get hit with a trash can lid or a falling tree limb while out on one's daily stroll, but apart from certain hazards, wind's strangeness--for the suburban knowledge-worker, anyway--is psychological. It's a reminder that things are changing all the time. And not just changing all around us, but within us and through us. We're one of those things the wind blows around.

Since I've been immersed in cosmology books lately, the wind also reminds me that we are always in motion, whether we feel it or not. The earth is turning and revolving around the sun; we (the earth, the sun, our solar system) are riding roller-coaster like around the galaxy; we (now expanded to include our galaxy and its compatriots) are shooting along to who-knows-where on the constantly expanding fabric of space-time. That's relativity for you.

I'm not as anchored as I think. Or, rather, I must think of being anchored differently.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

The Killing, Twin Peaks, and how much we may or may not enjoy them

"The Killing," AMC's new limited-run series (too long to be a mini-, I guess) is getting rave reviews. This one from Matt Zoller Seitz delves into the new show's debt to "Twin Peaks," David Lynch's 1990-91 TV series, often referred to as "groundbreaking." It was also a "limited run," though in this case the limits were imposed by the network, which demanded that the central mystery be solved midway through the second season. Shortly thereafter, and rightly, viewers abandoned the show in droves.

By coincidence, I recently re-watched "Twin Peaks" on Hulu, up to the point where everyone stopped watching--when Laura Palmer's killer was revealed, and the series immediately disintegrated into full-on buffoonery. The show is actually a great study in characterization, presenting us with a collection of oddballs with exaggerated quirks; they don't seem quite like real people, but then again, maybe our definition of "real" in this case comes from other detective shows. What does make us think of characters on TV as real or not real? Aren't the heroic, daring detectives of TV and film mostly projections of our wishes? And don't we know some very strange people in our own lives, when we step back and think about them?

At any rate, the characters of "Twin Peaks" all fit quite naturally into the eerie Pacific Northwest setting; they are appropriate inhabitants of this place. Intriguingly, the main character, Special Agent Dale Cooper, played by Kyle MacLachlan, is from elsewhere--yet he is perfectly suited to the town of Twin Peaks. He fits in by not fitting. I would add that some of the minor characters, included apparently for comic relief, are cartoons, not convincing either as Twin Peaks inhabitants or as people. They exist to slip on banana peels, be hit in the face with rakes, get accidentally pregnant, and have other hilarious mishaps.

This gets at the heart of what I have to say about "Twin Peaks," which is that for all its inventiveness, it contains a cruel streak that seems to go beyond the needs of the story. This is especially true in its treatment of women, who are time and again victims of sadistic violence. Now, this is also true, in many cases, in the real world. I don't believe fiction has to go out of its way to show women as always powerful and free--as moral examples, in other words. Nor should it browbeat us with the plight of victims. Instead, tell us something new, unfamiliar, intriguing, disturbing about violence and its sources.

"Twin Peaks" doesn't do that. Instead, it revels in women's victimization, serving it up as aesthetic entertainment that makes no demands on the viewers' conscience. Again, the aestheticization of violence--and its conversion into entertainment--is part of real life. I'm not saying we should excise this issue from our stories. Instead, the story can ask interesting, uncomfortable questions that do implicate the viewer or reader: Why does this interest you? What are you seeking here? How does the search for justice bleed over into prurient curiosity? What purpose does this curiosity serve? These questions seem even more pertinent when real crimes (like JonBenet Ramsay's murder and many, many others) rather quickly turn into fun for the rest of us. Good fiction could help us understand how this happens, in a relatively safe practice zone. But on such points, "Twin Peaks" has nothing to say, other than check this out, man.

I'm hoping that "The Killing," with its unconventional female detective, will surpass "Twin Peaks" in asking, not exploiting, these hard questions.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Another good idea (or two) from Ta-Nehisi Coates

In this post, Ta-Nehisi Coates does two great things.

First, he once again demonstrates unbridled enthusiasm for great writing--in this case, King Lear. Let's all do more of this. Let's shove great writing under our friends' (or blog readers') noses, or read it to them aloud, without any comment other than our own obvious joy.

How often do we come upon a passage that just knocks us back on our heels? That makes us just want to sit there and let the words flicker around our heads like fireflies? Nabokov called this the "telltale tingle between the shoulder blades." That's a central aspect of the experience of art; and I think it actually happens pretty frequently. Unfortunately, too often, those of us who write or talk about art (semi-)professionally tend to brush that experience aside, so we can get down to the business of criticism. The feeling is hard to articulate, which makes it seem, I don't know, less than worthwhile, possibly even silly. Yet critics who adopt a purely sober, droning voice when discussing even works they love do a disservice to potential readers, not to mention students. If these guys who are supposed to love literature can't muster anything more than formal statements of approval, why should I bother? What am I going to get out of it? Dude, you can be ecstatic! Look! Listen!

Second, Coates makes this passing suggestion: "I think it might have been better for me to enroll in college at 35, instead of 17." Agreed. Or, rather than "instead of," why not "in addition to"? I bet they do this in countries like Sweden all the time! Every (say) fifteen years, the government pays you to leave your job and get a degree in anything that interests you at the time. Or you take a bunch of different classes, if you have lots of interests, but real, college-level classes, full-time. Then, after three or four years, you go back to your job, or to a different job, refreshed, enlightened, ready to innovate.

My own little fantasy is to go back and get an undergraduate math degree. You're laughing! I am the person with the recurring nightmare that I've signed up for some high-level college calculus class, but somehow forget to go all term, only to realize that I must now take the final. But that's the point. I want to learn math outside the stakes of high school and college, when you're under pressure to figure out the thing you're good at, asap, so you can major in that thing and be that thing for the rest of your life, climbing relentlessly higher on that thing's ladder of success till you die at the very tippy top, whence you are vacuumed into heaven--and yet your math scores are telling you that at age 18, it's already too late for any of this to happen to you. Your peers will climb that ladder, growing ever smaller in your tear-blurred vision, as you watch from your refrigerator box on Skid Row or your parents' treelawn. Now I just think math is cool and I want to learn it.

Still, I doubt I will really do this. At least not until I am rich and insane, and right now I am only one of those.

Blog note: With this post, I am going to end my brief experiment of posting every day, minus weekends, federal holidays, and travel days. I am going to aim for a more manageable schedule of twice a week, say, Tuesdays and Thursdays.