Saturday, December 15, 2007

Bugs Bunny, Postmodernism, Sadism, Nabakov, Characterization--Duck Amuck

One of the benefits of parenthood is getting to revisit films, cartoons, and stories that have been long forgotten from childhood.

Today, we saw a matinee of Bugs Bunny cartoons, and I was struck by the variety of postmodern sensibility (that's a high falutin' word for this fare, and yet it's accurate).

There's an authorial consciousness and meta narrative that's noticeably at play in many of the Bugs Bunny cartoons. In fact, the opening of this film started out with the well-known ending, "That's All Folks!" which was then corrected by Bugs to say, "That's Not All Folks!"--a phrase that included copyediting marks. So we know from the start that the narrative is all a game, that beginnings and endings (or any traditional narrative arc) shouldn't be taken seriously, and that Bugs will always toy with our expectations.

One episode stood out spectacularly. In Duck Amuck (created in 1953), Daffy Duck is exquisitely tortured by his creator. In the course of the film the animator messes with and changes the scenery, interchanges props, replaces the soundtrack, mutes Daffy, and even erases and physically alters Daffy himself. For example, as Daffy strolls with a ukulele, singing a lazy, tropical song, he's tossed into a variety of climates, ending up in the snow (you can almost hear the animator laughing--at Daffy and in celebration of his artistic, cruel freedom). Daffy keeps trying to live--and entertain--but he can't maintain any constancy or control of his surroundings, or even his body.

The cartoon reminded me of Nabokov's approach to characterization--the way he kept his character under his, or rather God's, thumb. Torture them. Make them uncomfortable. Give them no joy. No freedom. Daffy kept attempting to liberate himself--to be a naturalistic, realistic character, in short, to serve the expectations of the audience--but he was ruthlessly denied such a life.

An interesting tension in the cartoon, in fact, is the audience's desire to see Daffy entertain in a straightforward way and the pleasure of seeing him thwarted and frustrated.

The cartoon brought up questions of identity as well. According to Wikipedia, Chuck Jones, the
director, is asking, "Who is Daffy Duck anyway? Would you recognize him if I did this to him? What if he didn't live in the woods? Didn't live anywhere? What if he had no voice? No face? What if he wasn't even a duck anymore?" He's always Daffy, of course, even without a body or voice. Except that he's also something else: a character, a fluid and malleable identity who, well, loses himself, as we all do, I suppose.

The cartoon ends by revealing the sadistic creator, Bugs Bunny, who appropriately says, "Ain't I a stinker?" Yes, he is a stinker--especially since he says this with no remorse. It's a funny little line that says so much. Many postmodern narratives could be summed up with this line, in fact. Yes, Bugs, you're a stinker.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Wes Anderson: Prop as Character

What interests me most about Wes Anderson is that his stories seem to originate from his props—the story serves the prop, in other words, instead of the prop serving the story, as is the usual tendency.

It’s an interesting place to begin a story. Kundera admired Broch’s definition of character through gesture, but this is entirely different: the definition of character through obsessive attachment to an object. Anderson is a fetishist, and all of his characters follow suit.

In the Darjeeling Limited, the prop that plays the starring role is an exquisite collection of suitcases (designed by Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton, with “suitcase wildlife drawings” by Eric Anderson). The luggage (and the baggage they represent) are the legacy of the three sons’ father. The supporting cast includes an expensive leather belt, ornate loafers, the father’s glasses, with a cameo by the dad’s razor.

As the main characters disembark the train for their first spiritual experience of the journey, they get sidetracked at the market to buy, well, props. Even the shoes they buy are more prop than footwear. Even the snake they buy--and later mourn when it's taken away, as a child mourns a lost toy--is nothing more than a prop, something to carry, something which their life flows into.

All of these objects are beautiful, works of art in their way, fanciful and surprising, as the story is—as the film is as well. Anderson’s frames are similar to his props in their preciousness and stylization. Everything is so well staged, even the unexpected—his characters move through life as if between a dressing room and a fashion ad. They’re conscious of always being watched, and watching themselves, which is why they need some damn good props.

As A.O. Scott wrote in the Times, Anderson’s “frames are, once again, stuffed with carefully placed curiosities, both human and inanimate; his story wanders from whimsy to melancholy; his taste in music, clothes, cars and accessories remains eccentric and impeccable.”

Of course, getting rid of the props, ditching the style, is the key to happiness (at least the Buddhists would say this), and the three brothers in the film, after their spiritual journey, their attempt to be “brothers like we used to be,” to “say yes to everything,” leave the prized suitcases behind in a dramatic ending that might be called a Buddhist chase scene.

I wish he’d make a sequel starring the luggage that has been left behind. As much as I enjoy his kooky, singular vision, I sometimes can’t help but think that the guy is too damn cool, even when he’s on a spiritual journey. He can’t take off his sunglasses. He doesn’t know how, or if, people can be people without their affectations, obsessions, and fetishes.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Edward Albee: Peter and Jerry

I just saw Edward Albee’s “Peter and Jerry at Second Stage in New York City. The play pairs “The Zoo Story,” his first play (written in 1958), with “Homelife,” a companion piece written six years ago.

Two phrases struck me from the New York Times review of the play. Albee chronicles “the feral soul beneath civilized skins,” and he is “a chronicler of life as erosion.” It’s the feral soul beneath civilized skins that is the most compelling theme—a theme that stabs most of us who are living professional, relatively conventional lives. What have we lost in our pursuit of happiness in this modern world?

The play excavates the soul of Peter, an executive with a textbook publishing house in Manhattan, who is a tweedy man of upper middle-class decency and complacency. He’s comfortable in his complacency, and is quite willing to sail through life without examining it, but both plays force him into the most uncomfortable territory.

In the opening act, “Homelife,” his wife Ann opens the play with the line,“We should talk.” Peter, immersed in a book, doesn’t hear her, immediately setting the frame for the play—people listen, and connect, very little to one another, despite the intensity of their loneliness.

Peter hasn’t realized this yet, however. He says to Ann during their meandering Sunday afternoon discussion/argument that he thought they made a bargain, to each other or even before they met, to live life as if it were “a smooth voyage on a safe ship ... a pleasant journey, all the way through.” A life without great joys, but without great disturbances either. Implicit in this statement is the belief that this life is possible.

Albee begs to disagree—for an animal lurks within all of us, and the animal’s appetite can leap out urgently and voraciously.

Sexual metaphors and dysfunction define the tradeoff both Peter and Ann have made to live this smooth life.

Ann announces she has been thinking of having both breasts prophylactically “hacked off”—a statement that could be read as an urge to shock, to get attention from a husband who tends to lose himself while reading or sleeping or being. She wants to get them hacked off in order to prevent getting breast cancer—a preventive treatment of sorts—as if cutting away at your body (and/or soul) in order to “live” is a worthwhile, logical bargain. At the same time, Peter worries that his penis is shrinking, or that he’s becoming “uncircumcised,” recounting observations of his dick as if it were something apart from him.

He’s so polite that he struggles to even say the word “penis” at times, so Ann interrupts him to impatiently blurt, “dick, cock,” as a reminder to him of less clinical, and perhaps more accurate, words.

In fact, Ann mentions that she wishes their lovemaking were more animalistic or just not quite so nice. She states it both as a random thought and something that’s been gnawing at her for years. Again, it’s the paradox of a comfortable life: sex is fine, even good, between them, but it’s not truly satisfying. Still, it doesn’t seem as if either of them, especially Peter, would truly know how to explore “not nice” lovemaking. A smooth passage gets boring after a while it seems—we need disturbances to feel alive.

With “The Zoo Story,” Albee challenges the carefully spoken Peter—and all he represents—to a duel, forcing him into confrontation with a social outcast, Jerry, whom he meets in Central Park.

Jerry is a teasing, mocking guy who won’t let Peter go until he faces the truth about himself—in other words, Peter is effectively tortured, both verbally and then physically.

In a different way than “Homelife,” “Zoo Story” probes the seemingly inherent separation we live in. As Jerry says about his trip to the zoo, the world is a zoo, “with everyone separated by bars from everyone else, the animals for the most part from each other, and always the people from the animals.” Again, people are dubiously separated from their baser animal instincts in a world made safe with bars and barriers and living spaces that resemble cubicles.

Dallas Roberts, who played Jerry, brought a fitful, spastic urgency to the quest to find some sort of connection. He literally spit his lines out, his face flushed with fury and his eyes ravaged by the violence (or the life) he feels within himself but can’t express.

Albee offers little hope, however. For example, it's hard to know whether living a life more closely attuned to our wild side would make us happy or simply unleash a rapacious appetite that has no bounds. His plays are meant to provide a shock of recognition that we are rather doomed to a life of erosion.

For more, check out this profile of Albee in the Times.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Denis Johnson--All the Writing Advice You Need

Denis Johnson says it all in this brief interview after being nominated for the National Book Award.

What a lovely way to describe his process--"I don't have much interest whether any of my books work or not." If only more writers wrote with such disregard toward their audience, and such regard for the truth of the material.

Here's an excerpt from the interview....

BAJ: Were there moments in your writing process where you worried the book wouldn’t work? If so, how did you press on?

DJ: Well, I've never thought about this before, but now that you ask, it occurs to me I don't have much interest whether any of my books work or not.

BAJ: If there is a common thread among this year’s fiction finalists, it might be that all of the books employ interesting narrative structures and scopes. Although Tree of Smoke moves, for the most part, chronologically through its storylines, you’ve given the reader a sweeping, multifaceted, and expansive narrative. Did you conceive of such scope before beginning the book, or did the symbiotic relationship between the subject and structure emerge more intuitively?

DJ: I'm fond of quoting T.S. Eliot, who somewhere said he was concerned, while writing, mainly "with decisions of a quasi-musical nature."

BAJ: Finally, when you were writing Tree of Smoke, did you have an audience or ideal reader in mind? If so, who?

DJ: I write for my wife, my agent, and my editor.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Writing without Passion

It seems that people have tired of writing about the death of the novel. Now they're picking on the poor, defenseless short story.

Stephen King has written the latest obituary in the September 30 New York Times Book Review. "The American short story is alive and well. Do you like the sound of that? Me too. I only wish it were true," he writes.

He first vividly makes the case that lit magazines have been relegated to the dusty corners of chain book stores, but that's no surprise. The chain book stores really don't want to sell lit mags, and very few consumers want to buy them, but, well, it's a book store, and one must keep up appearances.

Then King makes the piquant point that the only readers who read these damnable lit mags are writers who want to be published in them.

"What's not so good is that writers write for whatever audience is left. In too many cases, that audience happens to consist of other other writers and would-be writers who are reading the various literary magazines (and The New Yorker, of course, the holy grail of the young fiction writer) not to be entertained but to get an idea of what sells there."

That's not real reading, he says, and he's right. And I suppose you could say that these writers who aren't doing real reading, aren't doing real writing, because both are being done in a calculated, passionless way, and he's probably right again.

But this doesn't convince me the short story is dead. It convinces me that literary magazines are dead, or many should be dead. It convinces me that consumers would rather read memoirs and other nonfiction than short stories--if they want to read at all. But then consumers haven't really wanted to read short stories since the 1920's, before talkies and TV.

It's not that King doesn't have a point. Yes, I'm sure the cliche that MFA degrees have ironed the raw truth out of fiction is in part true. Yes, I'm sure that many writers write to succeed rather than write to live--but then hasn't that always been the case? And does this abject careerism mean that the short story is dead?

If the short story is dead now, when was it alive? That's the annoying thing about articles like this. They start with the premise the short story was once alive and well, but they don't tell you when this golden era was. And they insinuate that the death of the art form is because of the two things King harps on: people are stupid now (whine, whine, no one will buy true art) and/or writers (except for the author of the essay and his close friends) just don't have the right stuff any more (whine, whine, they don't make 'em like they used to).

Alice Munro. Denis Johnson. James Salter. Robert Stone. These are just several authors who have written great collections of stories in the last ten to twenty years, and there are many more. Why shouldn't they rank with Chekhov or Hemingway or Carver? I'll take Jesus's Son and five points any day.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Malcolm Lowry—Death by Misadventure

Since The Voyage That Never Ends, a collection of Malcolm Lowry’s writing just came out, I have to pause to pay a tribute to one of the best writers ever, and certainly the best alcoholic writer ever (Lowry’s drinking makes Fitzgerald or Hemingway seem like weekend party boys at best).

Here’s Lowry on alcoholism and writing: “With a bad hangover your thoughts are often incredibly brilliant but you can't put them down because you cannot believe yourself capable in such a state of doing a single constructive thing, least of all what your higher self wants to do. ... When you start putting your thoughts down again, that means you are getting over your hangover. But by this time the thoughts are no good.”

That’s a far cry from Fitzgerald’s insistence that he never wrote while drinking (he protested a bit too much to be believable, however).

Lowry’s quote is essentially a riff on Rimbaud’s belief that poets become seers by undergoing a complete derangement of the senses. I’ve placed a bit of belief in Lowry’s theory, or at least I did when I was younger. A hangover can be a wonderful place to write from because it can combine the elation—or the acute embarrassment—of the previous night with the abject pain and/or nervous excitement of the present. Two contradictory states exist simultaneously, which can be the perfect place to write a tragedy or comedy. A hangover jars you out of the mundane, and if conditions are perfect, you can indulge in your woozy, jabbing thoughts and make great art, full of nuance and complexity and counterpoint.

If conditions are right...I wouldn’t aspire to such a state now for anything. I prefer to write with a clear head and a good night’s sleep. Perhaps Lowry should have realized as much when he hit middle-age, but he stubbornly clung to alcohol in the most stubborn, self-destructive ways possible (read his biography for the sordid details of one of his treatments, locked into solitary confinement in a room with an endless supply of liquor and nothing else--most people beggeed to get out after a week or two, but Lowry lasted until the doctor's forced him out). Lowry’s method of writing probably limited him to one great book, but then few have more than one great book in them.

It’s so poetically perfect that Lowry’s death was ruled a “death by misadventure” by the coroner since he was unable to determine whether the lethal combination of alcohol and sleeping pills had been taken intentionally. I think Lowry would have appreciated the phrase. It has a grandiosity about it, a romanticism that he lived by and dispelled at the same time.

Consider this quote from one of his stories:

“I had been looking forward to something anxiously and I called this China, yet when I reached China I was still looking forward to it from exactly the same position. [...] Haven't you felt this too, that you know yourself so well that the ground you tread on is your ground: it is never China or Siberia or England or anywhere else ... It is always you.”

Lowry was so skillful in many ways, but since the subject is Lowry’s alcoholism, I’ll note his playful, alcoholic brilliance, as when he calls delirium tremens, “delowryum tremens.”


I should have trusted my instincts. When I first read the excerpt from Gilead in The New Yorker, I was bored out of my skull. Still, Marilynne Robinson was one of my favorites contemporary authors—I’ve probably bought more copies of Housekeeping for friends than any other book.

And then there were all of the rave reviews for Gilead. And then, of course, the Pulitzer. It’s pretty damn hard to argue with a Pulitzer, right?

So I bought the book. I was as bored after a few pages as I’d been when reading the excerpt in The New Yorker. I kept trudging on, however—how could this novel not deliver something astonishing?—and even up to the last few pages, I kept expecting something great, a final twist or turn of phrase or bit of wisdom that would make the whole drudgerous reading exercise redeeming. But no.

This is the sort of novel that makes one question literary prizes. Did Robinson essentially get this Pulitzer for Housekeeping (which is fine if that’s the case)? It reminds me of when Paul Newman received an Oscar for his performance in The Color of Money, a crappy film, especially when compared to his work in its predecessor, The Hustler, not to mention his other great films. The lesson: Never trust a book that’s received an award (especially if a great book preceded it).

I also question the reviewers and Robinson’s editors. James Wood said in his New York Times review, “Gilead is a beautiful work -- demanding, grave and lucid -- and is, if anything, more out of time than Robinson's book of essays, suffused as it is with a Protestant bareness.”

“Protestant bareness” is a nice way of saying the prose was flat, only faintly expressive at best. I didn’t glean any grave or demanding religious truths from the work. Worse, especially in literary terms, the novel’s characters were without dimension for the most part, in particular the narrator’s son, who the novel is supposedly written for (as one long, meandering letter). He’s a nice boy who likes to play—that’s about all of the characterization there is. I know plenty of five-year-old boys who beg for sharper, more nuanced portraits than Robinson gives this stereotypical little tyke.

The narrator’s wife is equally lacking in dimension—a shame since as a younger, less educated wife, she begs for so much more drama. And this is what the book is fundamentally lacking, drama.

I’m all for a quiet, meditative narrative, a religious novel, but despite some tender, evocative moments, Robinson doesn’t truly deliver this note. It reads as what it is in fiction: an old man’s letter, meant to be read by no one other than his son.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Lydia Davis: Break It Down

You might be tempted to read Lydia Davis's stories in passing, to treat them as quirky, funny entertainments. They are so short, after all, and you can page through one piece after another almost as if you're reading a joke book.

But the quirky facade is deceptive, and even the humor often causes a chill of tragic recognition.

Take "Break It Down," the story that gives the title to her 1976 collection of short stories. It's a simple story on the surface: the narrator is obsessively trying to quantify eight days of love, in which he spent approximately $800. In the process of evaluating the cost, he breaks down the love affair, and arrives at a surprising conclusion.

Initially, he figures that they had sex once a day, eight times total, so he spent $100 each time, or $50 an hour since they stayed in bed for two hours, an experience that he decides is expensive.

But he goes further--the cost must include the small moments as well. "You're with each other all day long and it keeps happening, the touches and smiles, and it all adds up...." Soon he breaks down the cost to $6 an hour as he tallies up all of those times when the lover is present or absent, because "you can't forget and it's all inside you all the time."

It's a laughable exercise to try to quantify such an experience, of course, but the narrator's project also begs many questions as he recounts the number of tendernesses, the beautiful and precious moments that add nothing to economic outcomes or better the world in any tangible way.

His tallies hit a wall when he reckons with the inevitable pain of the affair. Pain has to be part of the equation, but the recognition of it as inherent in the pleasures of relations--whether it's a pet, a child, or a lover--devastate the entire notion of trying to make this existential equation make sense.

"You can't measure it, because the pain comes after and it lasts longer. So the question is, Why doesn't that pain make you say, I won't do it again? When the pain is so bad that you have to say that, but you don't."

The story reaches this tragic epiphany, but then, to support the cliche that life is nothing but a cruel joke, Davis ends with this denoument. "So I'm just thinking about it, how you can go in with $600, more like $1,000, and how you can come out with an old shirt."

Another of my favorites in this collection is "The House Plans," an odd fable of sorts that also strives to arrive at a tangible value for a pursuit. In this case, the narrator wants to build the house of his dreams on a fairly abject piece of land that he sees beauty in.

The narrator sacrifices so much of his life to purchase the land, which has a ramshackle, practically uninhabitable house on it, and he proceeds to draw up extravagant blue prints--his work of art. By the time he finishes the blue prints, however, he doesn't have the money to build the house, so it becomes only a dream, one that he shares with a local hunter who randomly comes by--except that the narrator can't understand the hunter's country accent and the hunter can't understand the narrator's city accent.

It's a fable of the artist, who is unable to communicate with the world, or even his audience, except through his art or dreams. The hunter understands the blue prints, which become their only sustenance as other houses, cheap and gaudy and hastily built, start to crowd the landscape. They don't even have food at the end of the story, but they are happy.

Her stories read very much like she describes her process in an interview in Salon: "I don't write something unless I feel impelled to write it. In other words, I don't have a regular schedule and sit down every day and say, 'Well, what do I do today?' It's more that an idea or a sentence will come to me like 'What was he really feeling yesterday while he was walking through my yard and saying nice things about my flowers? Maybe underneath he was really distressed by the overgrown garden.' And that will make me go on from there."

In an interview with Francine Prose in Bomb, Davis talks about how she began "Break It Down." "I started doing these very short stories to break myself out of the rut of not writing or resisting writing. I told myself: You have to write two tiny stories every day. It didn’t matter how silly they were, I just had to finish two one-paragraph stories."

I just read the review of Davis's new book in the New York Times: Varieties of Disturbance. She might be best known for her translations of Proust (not her brief marriage to Paul Auster, with whom she had a son). McSweeney's provides a nice bibliography of her work, as well as links to reviews and interviews.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Steal This Plot

There are so many basic plots—ready to simply snatch as I’ve recently learned—but I’ll be damned if I can write a good one.

I’m not sure why I try. It’s a pity we’re not living in a more nouvelle roman era—since I specialize in what might be called the meandering existential novel, sans epiphany, sans much of anything but a lot of moping about—but we’re living in the age of increasingly short attention spans, data smog, and well, the overwhelming popularity of new narratives, such as video games, that are much more viscerally arresting. Let's be honest.

I should ask, “Who needs plot, not to mention text?” and be done with it. But I like plot. And I like text.

Despite the slipping and sloping and pausing, the attempted dipsy-do’s and dipsy-don’ts, the outright boring and embarrassing maudlin pitches of my writerly sensibilities, I relish a good plot. I envy writers who can write good plots like I envied guys who could get dates in high school (is there a connection between the two?).

I also hate writers who can write good plots, just as...yes, of course.

So, after all of these years of reading relatively serious fare (Roland Barthes anyone?) I picked up Steal This Plot, by June and William Noble, in a dog-eared, nearly bankrupt used book store, and it turned out to be one of the better "how-to-write" books I’ve read.

The caveat is that very few in the literary how-to genre have done me much good. Steal This Plot at the very least offers some archetypal plot structures to consider when writing any story. You don't have to steal the plot so much as you can think about the tendencies of your own storyline and consider the trajectory of other stories. If you're an undisciplined writer, and one who prefers to write without an outline, then Steal This Plot will surely help bring discipline to your storyline, and perhaps tame any wild tangents.

With its distinctions between plot spicers and plot motivators, it offers even experimental writers something to think about when constructing a narrative. I have to say that I think this book if more helpful than Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer.

Here are the plot motivators:
  • vengeance
  • catastrophe
  • love and hate
  • the chase
  • grief and loss
  • rebellion
  • betrayal
  • persecution
  • self-sacrifice
  • survival
  • rivalry
  • quest
  • ambition.
Here are the plot spicers (sub-plots of a sort):
  • mistaken identity
  • criminal actions
  • deception, honor
  • increase or decrease in material well-being
  • authority
  • making amends
  • conspiracy
  • rescue
  • unnatural affection
  • suspicion
  • suicide
  • searching.

Good plots can be told repeatedly in endless variations, I hear.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Death in Venice: Death in Expat Novels

I recently read Death in Venice because I’m interested in the reasons why it seems like all protagonists in travel/expat novels die.

The consul is murdered in Under the Volcano. Port dies of an illness in The Sheltering Sky. Kurtz dies in The Heart of Darkness, and you might even say that Marlow has died a kind of death as well. Although a character like Dick Diver isn't physically killed in Tender is the Night, he undergoes an equivalent psychological death.

I wonder if death is so pervasive in this genre of literature because travel causes an abandonment of routine, a loss of equilibrium or control, and an ironically threatening self-knowledge (but isn't self-knowledge supposed to provide salvation?). We travel to lose ourselves certainly, but I suppose we travel to die a certain kind of death as well--to kill off the self we live with but don't necessarily like or respect.

Or is it that when dislocated from home, one becomes vulnerable to fears—"the other," which can take so many forms, preys on one in any place that isn’t home? In fact, an “other” always functions as an antagonist in travel literature, whether it’s the protagonist’s true self, the threat of foreigners, real or imagined, or an invasive disease.

Aschenbach dies in Death in Venice--hardly a surprise, given the title--after letting his disciplined nature succumb to his hidden sensual and passionate side when he falls for the beauty of a young Polish boy, Tadzio.

He doesn't lose himself in just any place, however, but in Venice, which is a significant setting because of its history of moral corruption and decadence, its carnivals full of revelers wearing masks. Also, it stretches toward the East from the more controlled, orderly, and safe Western Europe. So, unlike, say, Strasbourg or Vienna or Prague, it's a fitting place for Aschenbach to abandon his restraint, to become more himself in effect.

Aschenbach's loss of reason, his disregard for the clench of disciplined will he's lived his life with, reaches a climax when he finds out that an Asiatic cholera epidemic is spreading in Venice. His love for Tadzio has such a pull that he doesn’t do the reasonable thing and leave Venice when the first signs of the epidemic occur.

Is the first genuine taste of passion worth the gamble of death--or does he tempt death simply because his mind has forfeited the hold of logic and will power? Both perhaps. It's interesting that only the powers of discipline, of reason, could have saved Aschenbach, and yet when he dies, it's not a sad death. He's died with himself, after all, in mental and physical peace.

For more, enotes provides a collection of critical essays.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Reading Like a Writer, by Francine Prose

“Can creative writing be taught?” That's the question Francine Prose starts with in her recent book, Reading Like a Writer.

The question, which is so often a taunt--a menace to the hundreds (thousands?) of creative writing programs across the nation--often looms in my mind. I suspect the answer is no. Talent can at best be refined and nurtured, but the true creative numen, that which startles, is revered or reviled, is ineffable, such a force unto itself that it can’t be explained or constructed by a classroom curriculum or any sort of regimen.

Still, some of us, the stubborn or the dumb, persist, hoping that we can teach ourselves something.

Prose’s recommendation is that we read more carefully, diagramming stories as we take pleasure in reading them, for only those who notice the techniques of the masters can possibly carry them off.

Reading Like a Writer is a solid book, if not particularly enlightening. I read it to attune my awareness more keenly to the finer narrative details, to shake myself up a bit, and the book delivered on that level. One would think that I’d pause more with age, carefully consider each book I read, but I find that as my hours for free reading get squeezed by what can only be called adulthood, I read with greater haste and sloppiness, deceiving myself that I can keep up the volume of reading I used to take for granted.

So now I remind myself to slow down, pay attention to the details. Here are a couple snippets I enjoyed from Prose’s book, and will try to teach myself:

On paragraphs
"The breaking up into paragraphs and the punctuation have to be done properly but only for the effect on the reader. A set of dead rules is no good. A new paragraph is a wonderful thing. It lets you quietly change the rhythm, and it can be like a flash of lightning that shows the same landscape from a different aspect." --Isaac Babel

Prose comments that paragraphs can be understood "as a sort of literary respiration, with each paragraph as an extended--in some cases, very extended--breath. Inhale at the beginning of the paragraph, exhale at the end. Inhale again at the start of the next."

On dialogue:
"When we humans speak, we are not merely communicating information but attempting to make an impression and achieve a goal. And sometimes we are hoping to prevent the listener from noticing what we are not saying, which is often not merely distracting but, we fear, as audible as what we are saying. As a result, dialogue usually contains as much or even more subtext than it does text. More is going on under the surface than on it. One mark of bad written dialogue is that it is only doing one thing, at most, at once."

Like good actors, who don't just act their part, but react to the actors and scene around them, Prose says, "a good writer understands that characters not only speak differently depending on whom they are speaking to, but also listen differently depending on who is speaking."

For more, read the New York Times fine review of the book.