Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Lionel Trilling: Fiction and Politics

Every fiction writer or critic has to eventually face the question, "Why write?"

Fiction, whether great or mediocre or downright bad, might be nothing more than entertainment for many, or a trophy on a book shelf for others (how many people read Infinite Jest is something I want to know).

And how many novels do we need, anyway? Couldn't there be a 20 year hiatus, or perhaps strict limitations on how many novels should be published each year? What would happen in such a case?

Perhaps nothing, but I just read an article on Lionel Trilling in the New Yorker that provided a good riposte to anyone who poses such questions.
The argument of “The Liberal Imagination” is that literature teaches that life is not so simple—for unfairness, snobbery, resentment, prejudice, neurosis, and tragedy happen to be literature’s particular subject matter. In Trilling’s celebrated statement: “To the carrying out of the job of criticizing the liberal imagination, literature has a unique relevance . . . because literature is the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty.” This is why literary criticism has something to say about politics.
The word variousness is key here. Perhaps no research can make a connection between reading and writing and the kind of conscience that holds possibility, complexity, and difficulty in a single thought, but this is the value I like to ascribe to writing and reading.

It's at once political, as Trilling notes, but something more: a matter of the soul. And the two are one.
People’s political opinions may be rigid; they are not necessarily rigorous. They tend to float up out of some mixture of sentiment, custom, moral aspiration, and aesthetic pleasingness. Trilling’s point was that this does not make those opinions any less potent politically. On the contrary, it’s the unexamined attitudes and assumptions—things that people take to be merely matters of manners or taste, and nothing so consequential as political positions—that need critical attention. “Unless we insist that politics is imagination and mind,” as Trilling put it, “we will learn that imagination and mind are politics, and of a kind we will not like.”
Trilling thought that people’s literary preferences tell us something about their conception of what he called “the sentiment of being”: about the kind of people they wish to be and about the way they wish others to be—that is, about their morality and their politics.

Trilling's viewpoint borders on using literary preferences not only as a window to the soul, but as a window to psychology and politics.

Which begs the question, why is Robert Jordan both Barack Obama and John McCain's favorite literary hero? Here's an essay in The New York Times to ponder.

And speaking of variousness, here's Trilling and Nabokov discussing Lolita:

Monday, November 10, 2008

Lit Folks, Don't Take Yourself Too Seriously

It's always good to make fun of even the most serious of matters, especially when they have to do with art.

Take a look at this contest of repackaged book covers highlighted on Book Ninja, of which the cover of Blood Meridian is one.

As much as I love Cormac McCarthy--and his overwrought prose--he deserves a good send up.

McCarthy almost lends himself to looking as cheap as the satirical cover in an interview with Oprah (clip enclosed below). For such a dignified, wise, and introverted man, I can't believe he gave one of his few interviews to Oprah. McCarthy is fine in the interview, but Oprah's sighs and planted questions and sentimental fade-aways cheapen a master like this.

Gosh, no wonder McCarthy prefers not to give interviews.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Buster Keaton: Go West Young Man

We saw Buster Keaton’s Go West at the Pacific Film Archive, and the movie was not only funny, but a surprising existential commentary on our capitalist life of supposed progress and survival that rings true today.

Buster Keaton, who plays the character Friendless, turns the convention of the lone, stoic Western hero on its head—remarkably before the advent of the genre of Westerns in Hollywood (Go West was made in 1925). It’s as if Keaton is already poking fun at the likes of Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin through his farcical follies.

Although Friendless possesses the traditional characteristics of the solitary man seeking fortune and self in the brutal West, he does so with a tiny, feminine gun that’s a wonderful recurring metaphor throughout the film. He can never find the gun in his six-shooter holster, so he has to tie a string to it to pull it out. Finding it isn’t really the problem, however; the gun is powerless to do harm in such a hard, brutish world, just as Friendless in incapable of exerting himself in any effective way.

He’s a man who would do no one any harm, a simple trait that defines his beauty and all of the comedy that befalls him—knocking him down relentlessly, in fact.

He tries his hand at bronco-busting, cattle wrangling, and dairy farming, eventually forming a bond with a cow named "Brown Eyes," who is an oddball among the cows and ostracized from the herd just as Friendless is. They form a touching bond, following each other around and helping each other in their gentle yet absurd ways. Friendless even tries to disguise Brown Eyes as a deer to save her from the slaughterhouse, but no one is tricked by the horns tied to her head.

Keaton tries to buy Brown Eyes from the hard-hearted rancher to save her from the slaughterhouse, but even his life savings come up short. Still, he ends up leading the herd of cattle through Los Angeles in what must certainly have established the chase scene in movies because he knows the rancher will be ruined if the cows don’t make it to the stockyards.

The scene in Los Angeles echoes a previous scene in New York, where Friendless tried to go before heading west. In New York, he’s unable to even walk down the sidewalk because so many people are walking in such a harried and hurried manner, like the white water rapids of a river, knocking him backward onto the rocks. The scene is hilarious, with people literally walking over Keaton as he squirms onto the street for refuge from the stampeding masses—only to be bumped by an oncoming car that also neglects to observe his existence.

You might say the movie is about stampedes, and our inability to avoid them. Interestingly, the cows and bulls seem even more sensitive and observant than the human stampede in this film--we are the mindless beasts! People are doomed in their march toward prosperity because they can’t see anything but their pocketbooks, and when they see an easy mark like Friendless, they take advantage of him as a predator kills its prey.

In the end, however, the rancher recognizes that he’d be nothing without Friendless. It’s the human bond, decency in the face of adversity, that proves most valuable. Friendless gets in the rancher’s car with Brown Eyes, both of them sitting comically in the back seat, hopefully off to a happy ending, but we can't trust that they'll be safe for long.

The wonderful thing about a Buster Keaton movie is the idea that haplessness is a trait that’s a treasure. His characters don’t possess guile, strength, or smarts, which make them victims in this world, but they do possess a strange yet unwavering sense of how one should live—in pursuit of the most rudimentary pleasures, without malice, trusting in a cow that’s a loyal friend of all things.

Friendship and loyalty matter after all--if only to save us from the slaughterhouses that await us.

Check out this montage from Go West accompanied by Tex Ritter:

Also, here's the first ten minutes of the movie:

Saturday, November 08, 2008

On the Subject of Plot: Marilynne Robinson

Since I wrote a bit about the monstrous subject of plot yesterday--and seem to always be wrangling with it in one way or another--I thought I'd follow up with a good quote from Marilynne Robinson that helps alleviate the plot pressure an author can feel, especially if he or she is an inadequate plotter like myself.

"I don't like plot very much--please contain your surprise. It becomes a big machine that carries everything after it," Robinson said in a recent reading/discussion at the Los Angeles Public Library.

It's true that plot is quite a brute. The kind of person that bullies into a room and takes over the conversation, interrupting the softer voices, the whispers, the telling pauses.

When plot becomes the absolute focus, all other elements serve it--but plot will never serve the other elements. It's too much of a king, a dictator, a despot, muscular and imperious and unabashed. It often won't suffer the time to hear the details, to allow a narrative transgression or even a little meandering.

And it's in the meandering that an author, and a reader, find so much of the meaning they're searching for. It's all a search, after all; life isn't meant to be contained in an outline.

So I suppose an inadequate plotter like myself should resign myself to that fate and focus on the things I can do better. Not every pitcher has a good fast ball.

Here's a shaky clip of Robinson reading at the event:

Friday, November 07, 2008

The Concept of Plot

It's difficult to know if the ability to plot a good story is something that is genetically endowed or whether it can be learned.

What's certain is that it's difficult to tell a good story.

Many can draw a compelling character, paint words into scenes that ring in your thoughts for days, or snap through the back and forth of expert dialogue.

But all of this still needs a storyline, even a loose one.

Take a look at this image from Norman Mailer's plot for Harlot's Ghost. It's not the details that a novelist needs to consider, but the connections. Perhaps it's worth plotting a story out before or during or even after writing, but what's most important is keeping the concept of the connections in mind.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Literary Genius: The Ugliness of It All

I recently read a good definition of literary genius.

Adam Kirsch refers to Proust's definition in a review of Roberto Bolano's Slouching Toward Santa Teresa. The irony is that our first reaction to a great contemporary work is that it doesn't strike us as beautiful, but as ugly. Only minor writers write beautifully, since they simply reflect back to us our preconceived notion of what beauty is; we have no problem understanding what they are up to, since we have seen it many times before.

This reminds me of Harold Bloom's definition that a truly great work has to startle and jar one's sensibilities. As he writes in The Anxiety of Influence, most writers are derivative of their precursors and live with the anxiety that they're not truly writing anything meaningfully different. The small minority of strong writers manage to create original work in spite of the pressure of influence--in other words, they have to wrestle with the startling, or perhaps ugly, qualities of an original vision.

Proust says that when a writer is truly original, this startling leap out of convention, makes us see him or her initially as "shapeless, awkward, or perverse." It's a shock to our system until we learn how to read the new work and find the unexpected beauty (or meaning) in the singular qualities of the work.

What's wrong about the work becomes what is right about it.

When I started Bolano's first novel, The Savage Detectives, I was swept away for a couple hundred pages. I didn't think he was brilliant, but he was daring in an awfully pleasing and entertaining way. And then the whole damn work became shapeless and awkward--and although not perverse, boring.

I admit I didn't have the energy to look for new patterns to emerge, and I quit reading the book. I was puzzled, however, given its critical raves. This is all to say that I've turned into a lazier and more conventional reader than I used to be--or that the book did suck. I'll have to return to the book again to figure out which scenario is true.

In the meantime, how to wrangle with the conventions my precursors have handed down? It is a lot more fun to write, well, with a bit of ugliness.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop: A Love Affair of Letters

I used to love to write letters.

I think letters were my genre. I wrote better letters than I wrote short stories or poems or novels or scripts or journal entries.

I thought of my friendships through letters. I dashed to the mailbox each day with anticipation. I wrote letters that passed through days and weeks--full of confessions, observations, pretensions, aspirations.

But I no longer write letters. I'd actually feel a bit foolish writing a letter these days, especially the sort of literary letter I used to write. I suppose I'd feel foolish because all of my friends are on email (or Facebook or Twitter!), and they wouldn't respond to my letter with a letter. They might not respond at all, in fact--unless I emailed them.

I've wondered for a while whether the advent of email would spell the demise of collections of letters between authors or lovers or great leaders--and all of the interesting insights they provide.

After reading the New York Times review of Words in Air, the letters that Robert Lowell and Elizabeth, I think the answer is yes. Email just doesn't quite encourage the kind of luxurious indulgence in self and relation to another like a letter does. There's something about the process of writing a letter, sending it, and waiting for a response--the time and geography of it all--that creates a dramatic tension. And then there is the pen on the paper, the personality of a letter, the pauses between thoughts and sentences, the need to express more than just a passing thought.

Words in Air presents 30 years of correspondence conducted across continents and oceans as their poetry drove them together and their lives kept them apart. What a lovely premise for a friendship of letters--except that their letters also formed a peculiar love affair, a lively collaboration, a critical treatise, a comfort.

“I think I must write entirely for you,” Lowell wrote to her. (Somehow, I think the phrase, "I think I must email entirely for you," seems less poingnant)

Eight years before he died, he wrote, “I seem to spend my life missing you!”

William Logan writes, "Their admiration even made them light fingered — they borrowed ideas or images the way a neighbor might steal a cup of sugar. Lowell was especially tempted by this lure of the forbidden, using one of Bishop’s dreams in a heartbreaking poem about their might-have-been affair, or rewriting in verse one of her short stories. They were literary friends in all the usual ways, providing practical advice (the forever dithery and procrastinating Bishop proved surprisingly pragmatic), trading blurbs, logrolling as shamelessly as pork-bellied senators (Lowell was adept at dropping the quiet word on her behalf). There was a refined lack of jealousy between them — that particular vice never found purchase, though in letters to friends they could afford the occasional peevish remark about each other. "

Sure, it could have all happened online. Except that it wouldn't have, or it would have all transpired differently--with the cursory comments, the tiny jousts and flirts and ha ha's that define email, perhaps even the occasional emoticon, links, tired jokes and YouTube clips.

I'm sure there will be fascinating collections of email, especially since email is so easily archived. Still, something will be different.