Tuesday, December 28, 2010

2011 Reading Resolutions: I Aspire

Like most hopeful and ambitious readers, I always have a teetering stack of books that I'm either reading or planning to read. The stack operates as an ongoing reading resolution throughout the year—and a reminder that life is exciting with infinite possibilities that are damnably constricted by too little time.

That said, to echo the motto Truman Capote jotted in his boyhood journal, "I aspire," here's a brief rundown of my reading aspirations for 2011. Just because it's that time of year.

1) Desert, by J.M.G. LeClezio (because after reading two novels of his I'm doggedly trying to figure out why he won the Nobel)

2) Barthes by Barthes (and other Barthes because I like to revisit one thinker who's influenced me each year)

3) Sleepwalkers by Hermann Broch (because it's on my list every year and I know I'll never read it, so I want to be buried with the book in my hand)

4) Dusk by James Salter (Salter is one of those masters who is like a friend, so I have to get together with him regularly and relish his way of seeing the world)

5) Break It Down by Lydia Davis (as with Salter, I could read Lydia Davis for a lifetime just trying to figure out how to write the perfect short short story)

6) The Collected Poems of Kenneth Koch (I loved the Poetry Foundation's podcast on Koch featuring the brilliant, lively, spirted Dean Young)

7) Fear of Dreaming by Jim Carroll (because I have a strange affection for junkie literature)

8) 2666 by Roberto Bolano (Bolano, bien sur)

9) Just Kids by Patti Smith (two artists in NYC in the early '70s is irresistable)

10) Logicomix (a graphic novel with some serious thoughts at its core—I need cartoons to guide any intellectual endeavors)

11) Everyday Drinking by Kingsley Amis (essays about drinking meant to be read while drinking, which should be easy to accomodate)

12) The Curtain by Milan Kundera (just because I've read everything else by Kundera)

13) Nothing to Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes (death must be recognized, always)

I'll stop at 13--because of its fate as a number, and I'll be lucky to read even a book a month this year. Ah for the days of yore when I literally structured my daily life so that the best hours could be spent reading and writing. Then I turned 30.

One resolution that's not on my list is to explore a different literary magazine each week or so. I've discovered so many good new ones this year—all of them online mags, which seem more lively and interesting than the old standby print journals. Smokelong, Pank, Word Riot, Frigg, Used Furniture Review....

Let me know a few of your reading resolutions in the comments below.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Reading Camus: Falling into a Life of Contradictions

A friend of mine once told me that she read Camus because he made her happy.

I loved that statement because it’s not the obvious answer for reading a thinker known for plumbing the darkest of the dark states of human existence.

But reading Camus makes me happy as well—or if not happy, then reassured somehow—simply because he writes with such dead-on truth, unflinching and straightforward, without pretense or unnecessary contrivance, without aggrandizement yet with dramatic flair, nuance, and poetry—traits that many other writers from the existentialist all-star team don’t possess to such a degree.

For example, much of Sartre’s writing is fueled by a preening display of intellectual bravado, a showing off of labyrinthine reasoning made more obtuse by his predilection to write on amphetamines (some say Sartre started the tradition of philosophical obfuscation that culminated in the often impenetrable prose of postmodernists like Derrida).

Kierkegaard, despite the trembling depths of his passionate opposition to all conventions of group think, is still quite beholden to his God. And Nietzsche is wonderful in his “will to power,” “God is dead” way, but presents more of a call to arms than the life-long probing of truth and daily life that Camus offers.

When I was 16, my brother came home from college and gave me The Stranger for a Christmas present. In retrospect, it might have been one of the best Christmas presents I’ve ever received. I remember how exotic and confrontational the very title of the novel was. It immediately made me a bit of a stranger as a result.

As a 16-year-old it was easy to feel like a stranger. What I didn’t know was that the feeling would go through so many different modulations over the course of a lifetime. And that there would never be a way to quite ever not feel like a stranger.

But that’s the contradiction Camus writes so well within—one as stranger to oneself, one as stranger to others, one as stranger to institutions and culture. We’re inherently dual creatures (at minimum), forever estranged.

As he put it, “An intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself.” That’s a brilliant definition—akin to Fitzgerald’s famous quote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

The mere fact of watching ourselves think is a step into estrangement even as it is a step toward something like deliverance because estrangement is a necessary way to make meaning. Life is an attempt to reconcile contradictions, per Fitzgerald’s take, despite the knowledge that the contradictions might be irreconcilable.

You might say that’s the joy, although some have said that’s the damnation as well. It’s all in the execution.

“He who despairs of the human condition is a coward, but he who has hope for it is a fool,” Camus wrote.

So we’re caught in a tangled skein of cowardice and foolishness. There’s no way out. Even the very premise of our existence comes with an oppositional force, a question. As he says in The Myth of Sisyphus, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.”

Our very birth calls for a reckoning with our existence—not only how to exist, but whether to exist. We breathe the air of contradiction.

I recently read The Fall, which brought all of the above thoughts into dramatic relief. The novel is written in a manner that I rarely encounter today: a series of dramatic monologues, or confessions, by Jean-Baptiste Clamence, a “judge-penitent”—perhaps the crucial phrase of the novel.

It’s interesting to me that I can’t think of a contemporary novel that uses confession as a narrative device in such an acute manner—it’s a technique that seems to have gone out of style. I wonder if it’s because we live in an age where we’re covering up the truth or manipulating it rather than confronting it—that is, writers are more skilled in the craft of writing narratives, whether it’s the contrivances of plot or the fulsome lyricism of detail, but less skilled in writing something so basic and straightforward as an exploration of truth.

The art of publishing has trumped the art of writing.

One could make the argument that memoirs function as confessions, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Although we’re certainly living in an age dominated by memoir, contemporary memoirs function more as tell-all stories—confrontational only in the sense of revealing shocking behavior (which isn’t even truly shocking anymore since shock has been exhausted), but not confrontational in the manner of a simple confession of the truth of one’s soul.

The confession at the heart of The Fall is what makes it still compelling 54 years after it was published (it was Camus’s last novel before he died in a car crash).

For one, the confession in The Fall implicates the reader. In fact, in addressing an undescribed listener, the reader acts as the “confessor.”

“A guilty conscience needs to confess. A work of art is a confession,” Camus wrote.

All of Camus’s work operates as a confession, which is why his writing feels so much more honest than others to me. His guilt spawns his knowledge, his language.

However, in The Fall Clamence hasn’t done anything particularly bad. He’s a good man—or a man as good as most and better than many—but who because of his scrutiny, the power of his introspection, is stripped of action. The novel shows the self-damnation of thought in that we can’t escape our consciousness if we truly think about our actions. It’s a cautionary tale because Camus was above all a man of action—to read The Rebel is to be incited into action, in fact.

Clamence’s fall—evoking Adam’s fall—is that of knowledge, but a different kind of knowledge than Adam possessed from the simple disobedience of biting an apple. It is the knowledge of the fundamental nature of irreconcilable contradictions.

The story takes place in Amsterdam (below sea-level for a man who “never felt comfortable except in lofty places,” preferring buses to subways, open carriages to taxis, terraces to closed-in places, etc.) and in the red-light district, which used to be the Jewish quarter before World War II ("until our Hitlerian brethren spaced it out a bit. ... I am living on the site of one of the greatest crimes in history"). Clamence has fled from lofty Paris to search out a place to resemble the situation of his soul.

Yes, he's a dramatic one.

He has good manners, fine speech, and is well educated, “but frequents sailor bars.” It’s in such places that he can better recognize himself—a contrast to the more lofty places where he’s lived in mastery of life, a defense lawyer who admirably defends the poor, yet indulges in the advantages that his charm and station in life afford him, especially in matters of love.

He suffers three crucial moments of recognition in the novel: once as he strolls past a bridge and hears a splash in the Seine, but doesn’t deign to inconvenience himself to jump in and see if someone tried to commit suicide; later as he passes another bridge at night and hears laughter, which he momentarily thinks is directed at him as judgment; and finally in a moment of minor road rage where he almost resorts to violence.

In these three easily forgettable moments, Clamence realizes he’s not the pure do-gooder he thinks himself to be, and it’s the recognition of his hypocrisy that causes his fall. If only everyone in the world were such a hypocrite! After all, he’s nothing more than a classic limousine liberal. I can walk down to the North Berkeley Peet’s and yank out many more damnable sorts, myself included.

It’s the acute and crippling self-analysis that makes the novel, though—we should all grapple with the nature of our contradictions in such a manner. And this is what makes me happy and reassures me when I read Camus—the answers to our problems, whether political or personal, don’t lie in clear, intractable solutions (hint, hint Sartre, with your communist panegyrics), but in a continual confession, an exploration of the inherent and inescapable contradictions we find ourselves in.

We are all judges, after all, laying down a truth, expectations, and laws of behaviors for ourselves and others. Yet we are also all doomed to a sort of original sin different from Adam’s—we don’t fall from God’s law, but our own. We can’t not be hypocrites. We live inside of a double negative.

Most of us are unable to jump in the river to save the one who might have committed suicide because the water is too cold, or save those who are hungry and poor in the world—we like our lattes too much, our designer jeans, our international trips, our ability to gather in cozy places and discuss the problems of the world with other like-minded, smart (hypocritical) people.

We’re creatures of temptation, imperfection, and a certain kind of damnation. Deliverance doesn’t come through correction, but an immersement and recognition of the inherent contradictions that make us human. This type of penitence is the only thing that balances and adds a soft nuance to the harshness of judgment (hint, hint righteous Tea Partiers, righteous anybody).

So stand up and say you’re a judge-penitent for God’s sake.

We’ll all be the happier for it. It’s one path to a life of acceptance after all, no matter how troubled that acceptance might be.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Hallucinatory Effects: Jim Carroll and the Art of Purity

What constitutes truth and then how to express it are two of the most interesting, elusive—and too frequently ignored—problems that confront us. We prefer to think that truth is self-evident. Life is easier that way.

It goes beyond the structural blind spot we have in our eye where the optic nerves come together to carry messages to the brain where they’re assembled into “reality.” It’s more a matter of the fiction we live in, or the recognition that our lives are essentially fiction, that the cast of characters who fill our days—including ourselves (yes, in the plural)—are nothing more than a morphing vision, an interpretation, a shifting creation, bits of data assembled and reassembled.

I’m thinking of this especially because of Richard Hell’s review of Jim Carroll’s posthumous novel The Petting Zoo in The New York Times. (It’s so lovely when a rock star is also intelligent and articulate, and that’s not my fiction).

“There’s a parallel time and world inhabited by those who understand that all information is legend, that experience is show business,” Hell writes of Carroll. “He lived in his head. Doesn’t everyone? The difference is that he knew it.”

I’ll always have a tender spot in my heart for Carroll because when the angst of my teen years started forming, somehow his haunting song “People Who Died” made its way from the dark streets of New York City to Iowa radio stations and helped introduce me to a world that held quite different truths (indeed, images of New York City in the '70s still menace me). "Teddy sniffing glue he was 12 years old / Fell from the roof on east two-nine."

As a friend of mine said when she saw the album cover of Catholic Boy that showed Carroll, who looked like a gaunt, emaciated version of David Bowie, standing in a challenging pose with his very square parents, "That's too f#*cking rock star." His eyes held a threat to anyone who made even a gesture to a conventional life.

And then there’s Carroll’s Basketball Diaries, which has become a sort of companion piece to Kerouac’s On the Road for young aspiring writers (mainly men, it seems) who want to dash madly into the late night hours of the night to discover the nether worlds of all of the supposed glories of truths unseen.

Hell reminds us that the diaries contained a disclaimer, which was later removed by the publisher, that they were “as much fiction as biography. They were as much made up as they were lived out. It all happened. None of it happened. It was me. Now it’s you. ‘Nothing is true; everything is permitted.’”

It’s a stunning intro, a con man's taunt—and after reading David Shield’s Reality Hunger, a manifesto that essentially spends 150 pages riffing on fiction vs. memoir vs. appropriation—it’s a prescient take on our contemporary notion of "truth" in the way of a Rimbaud-like prodigy that Carroll was often characterized as.

“He lived among the poets of history, of life, not the accountants or the police officers. He was a con man, but all artists know that, significantly, they are bedazzlers, masters of illusion. Beautiful poetry isn’t life, but it’s pretty to think so.”

So then what is life, truth? How to describe it accurately? Scientists have their approach, but I trust the descriptions of artists more simply because I don't believe in accuracy in such matters. Perhaps it’s better to be content with something that feels like purity. “Carroll wanted to be pure, and poetry is the definition of purity,” Hell writes.

The New Yorker also just published an interesting review of The Petting Zoo, which seems to be just an atrocious novel. But the reviews of Carroll's life are worth reading.

Carroll, like most beautiful creatures, was punished in the end. His search for purity became an exercise in consequence, sequestered in poverty, confined to a small apartment, the blaze in his eyes smothered out by a failing liver. But at least he sensed the possibility of a more beautiful life and tried to imagine it, tried to put words to such a truth.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Used Furniture Review

As a genetically inclined junk collector and ragpicker—literally and literarily—I have to disclose that I was initially attracted to the new online journal Used Furniture Review simply because of its name.

Fortunately it lived up to what I expected of it—a journal that holds surprises, if only because unlike many print journals, it’s publishing a truly eclectic mix of authors who surprise me just as, well, a choice piece of junk/high art that I find in a thrift store might.

For example, read Kim Chinquee’s dreamy, distorted short I Wanted to Believe This Was My Life. She lyrically captures what might be called quotidian disorientation—sounds, movements, memories moving against and through each other without the possibility of focus or answers.

“I felt on the verge of things. My payments, student papers, that report. A journal, asking for an essay. My dad, a never-ending question. My guy’s head, thinking he felt pressured.”

But Used Furniture also publishes great interviews with the likes of Rick Moody, who discusses how he took refuge in the horrors of monster movies as refuge from the horrors of domestic drama as a child, his tastes in music, his current favorite books, and perspectives on his writing process, among other things.

Here’s a bit of Moody’s wisdom:

On his authorial stance: “The movement in and out of autobiography is something dialectical for me. I am always somewhere on a continuum between the completely imaginary and the completely accurate. Of course, there can be neither.”

On revision: “Over the life of a piece you usually alter it less radically, as you go on, and that’s how you know it’s getting better. But there’s no done. There’s no complete. There’s no exhaustion. There are only provisional versions of texts for particular purposes.”

Used Furniture also has published interviews with authors such as Tom Perotta and Luis Alberto Urrea.

One great thing about new online reviews like Used Furniture is their potential. For example, they’re taking ideas for columns. If were a young literary whippersnapper, I’d submit an idea.

So buy some used furniture for God’s sake. My experience is that most used furniture is better than the new stuff, if only because it has more character.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

C.P. Cavafy and His Histories of Desire

His mind has grown sick from lust.
The kisses have stayed on his mouth.
All his flesh suffers from the persistent desire.
The touch of that body is over him.
He longs for union with him again.

Naturally he tries not to betray himself.
But sometimes he is almost indifferent.
Besides, he knows to what he is exposing himself,
he has made up his mind. It is not unlikely that this life
of his may bring him to a disastrous scandal.

The overwhelming thing that you take away from the poetry of Constatine Cavafy, a part-time clerk and Greek poet of the early 20th century, is desire. It’s his sustenance, nurturing him in the dark alleyways of Alexandria, where he lived for most of his life.

The impulse of his needs, skin on skin, human connection, is greater than all of the expected punishments of inevitable scandals. Dishwashers, tailor’s assistants, grocery boys briefly and passionately interrupt the loneliness of Cavafy’s nocturnal landscape. They’re the air he breathes.

But in the mix of these drives of desire are historical poems that trace through the old histories of the Hellenic period. Cavafy viewed himself as a poet-historian, which meant that he viewed all human conduct, his own included, through the lens of recorded time.

The juxtaposition of such intense personal narratives alongside the probings of Greek history create a unique commentary on life, brief sexual trysts in the shadows mixing with the grand, tragic sweeps of Greek history.

Cavafy was a man who lived in the background—even preferred obscurity as a simple clerk—so it’s no surprise that he’s drawn to the stories of the insignificant and uses “insignificance” as a backdrop and counterpoint to “significance,” altering the traditional notion of history.

When reading a collection of Ptolemaic inscriptions he discovers “a tiny,/insignificant reference to King Caesarion”:

Ah, see, you came with your vague
fascination. In history only a few
lines are found about you,
and so I molded you more freely in my mind.
I molded you handsome and full of sentiment.
My art gives your features
a dreamy compassionate beauty.

It’s art, the ability to mold his desires, to transform life into something dreamy and compassionate, that saves Cavafy, even though its salvation is a lonely affair. Later in “Caesarion,” he imagines that Caesarion enters his room:

You seemed to stand before me as you must have been
In vanquished Alexandria,
Wan and weary, idealistic in your sorrow,
Still hoping that they would pity you,
The wicked—who murmured “Too many Caesars.”

As his desires wend through battles and conquests and downfalls, Cavafy almost celebrates human foibles in his recognition and identification of them. His poems force questions about the very record of history and how it so frequently leaves out the nuances of human imperfections and desires as a way to understand life.

Cavafy wrote unwaveringly about his homosexuality and embraced the possibility of scandal. It’s interesting how gay literature often puts our prim moral code in question these days—begging the question of why straight literature seems unable to do the same (there are no more Henry Millers, Charles Bukowskis, only middle-class domestic dramas).

Straight people, white straight people in particular, have to live vicariously through others’ decadence—truly “othering” such impulses—pretending, it seems so often, to possess no decadence of their own.

Shame on you Bill Clinton, shame on you Eliot Spitzer. It’s easy to bash our scandalous public figures, and although Clinton and Spitzer might not deserve any accolades for their transgressions, after reading Cavafy, I can imagine our contemporary history being written by a poet-historian in the far future, and perhaps the narrative will be of simple lost souls seeking a moment of tenderness, a connection between heart and life that’s forbidden—the part of the story left out of CNN's coverage.

Cavafy’s poetry has this effect of providing the subtext of history, of life, that all too often we don’t want to acknowledge or explore because it’s easier to damn (at least as a good American).

In his poem, “In a Famous Greek Colony, 200 B.C.,” Cavafy writes,

To be sure, and unfortunately, the Colony has many shortcomings.
However, is there anything human without imperfection?
And, after all, look, we are going forward.

In a culture that so often strives for perfection and chastises others for their “blemishes,” I wonder if we are going forward. Cavafy shows that a life lived within one’s imperfections instead of one’s perfections (if that’s the right way to put it) might be the more meaningful one.

Perfections tend to have a sharp, bright glare after all. There’s a peace to find with a life in the shadows. Nuances. A realization that we’re unable to see everything clearly. Humility. Even progress perhaps.

For in the end, our imperfections create a life of surprises, explorations, a life that is worth examining. In “Their Beginning,” Cavafy writes of two lovers rising from the mattress, walking furtively and uneasily on the street afterward, knowing that their “deviate, sensual delight/is done.”

But how the life of the artist has gained.
Tomorrow, the next day, years later, the vigorous verses
Will be composed that had their beginning here.

For more, check out Daniel Mendelsohn's new translation, C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Literary Magazines on the Make?

Writers tend to be a gullible, desperate lot. They’re easy to pinch for a few bucks even if they’re broke. At least when it comes to the prospect of getting published. Or finding out how to get published. Or paying for the idea that their work might, just might, be considered for publication.

Just look at the writing section in any bookstore. It seems as if everyone on the planet wants to be a writer and will spend ten bucks on a seemingly infinite number of how-to-write-fiction books written by previously unpublished authors (I’m currently working on book about how to buy how-to-write books…kidding, just in case some poor sob of an aspiring writer was getting ready to contact me for an advance copy).

(But if you did want to contact me about such a book, I’d love to talk with you about any number of ventures I have in mind, such as the funding I need for my “How to Write Like Grant Faulkner Workshop” that I have planned next summer in Paris.)

Don’t worry, this is all leading up to something….

Literary magazines have long been the tireless mules of publishing, except that unlike mules, lit mags breed like rabbits on Viagra. That’s a good thing (although they die like lemmings). Whether funded by universities or by grants or by love—or all three if they're lucky—lit journals have had the responsibility of slogging through submissions of every soon-to-be great author and every wanna-be poet. Thousands of them. Millions of them.

But really, who thanks them in the end? Answer: nobody.

So I don’t begrudge lit mags for trying to make ends meet or even to make a buck. But I’d like to see them do it in a legitimate way—e.g., people paying for the product they produce or the advertising in that product or the writing classes they put on or something that seems like a service.

Unfortunately, some lit mags are now focused on making a buck from the desperado writers (present company included) who keep the whole boat afloat by buying the how-to books, the novels, the lit magazines.

Take Narrative Magazine, which charges $20 for a prose submission, but for that fee you don’t know if they’ve read the first sentence, the first paragraph, or the first page. You don’t know that with any magazine, of course, but for $20, the magazine should include at least a single comment about one thing they’ve read. Otherwise, well, I’m not so sure that they’re just not publishing their friends or the writers they want to sleep with.

I’m sympathetic, yet suspicious.

Tin House has a much better approach. It requires “writers submitting unsolicited manuscripts to the magazine to include a receipt for a book purchased from a bookstore.” That’s a policy for the general good of publishing and doesn’t charge a writer for, well, writing.

Likewise many lit contests, such as the Missouri Review’s Editors’ Prize, give a one-year subscription to the mag for the entry fee. Fair enough.

But I’m worried about a trend where those writers who are without the lit connections, MFA degrees, etc., pay to have their submissions read. These are the people who are likely funding the whole shebang. They’re desperados, beautiful hopeful souls who are easily suckered because they have a dream or an urgent (likely self-destructive) need to put life to words.

I’m one of them. So please don’t charge me $$ just for wanting to be a writer. Or at least give me something in return. A mug? A t-shirt?

The New Pages blog has some good perspectives on this as well.

Good luck 'ye of much faith.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Invisible City Audio Tour: A Surreal Oakland Adventure

Want to go on a surreal geography tour of Oakland?

Check out Invisible City Audio Tours and its self-guided audio walking tour, Heliography, this Friday, Oct. 1, from 5 p.m. until dark.

Each tour is available as a free download along with a map and features emerging authors, curators, composers, musicians, performers, designers, cartographers, and artists local to the neighborhood explored.

What more do you want? Trapeze artists? I'll put in a vote for a ventriloquist and leave it at that.

Along with the audio component, the tour exhibits temporary, semi-temporary, and permanent visual art installations (I prefer semi-temporary installations to semi-permanent ones, although semi-absent ones are always the best, being so semi-ripe with semi-possibilities, but that's just me).

The event’s inspiration comes from Italo Calvino, who wrote in his book Invisible Cities, “And I hear, from your voice, the invisible reasons which make cities live, through which perhaps, once dead, they will come to life again.”

Here’s the skinny on how to hear the invisible reasons that Oakland lives and bring it to life again (if Jerry Brown had only known):

• Download the audio tour along with the map onto an MP3 player or onto a CD for walkman.
• Refrain from listening to the tour until the happening.
• Come to the MacArthur BART station, and push play (preferably right as you dismount the train in the platform).
• Walk the tour, stop at the landmarks and buy souvenirs from the visual artists (bring $$ or be square).
• Stop at the Murmur and say hello (or be square)
• Come grab a pint at the Commonwealth Cafe and Pub (or be square)

Invisible City Audio Tours was founded in 2010 by the whirling creative dervish Tavia Stewart-Streit (Watchword Press, National Novel Writing Month, and certainly much more).

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Emperor Franzen and the Jonathan Franzen Publicity Machine

As a white male author, perhaps I should be happy about the extravagant attention Jonathon Franzen has received for his novel Freedom. Perhaps I should take it as a sign that I too can receive the preferred treatment of yore--as if a sort of contemporary Mad Men scene is going on in the publishing industry, and I and other guy writers can still drink it up, expect to live a Hemingwayesque life of the glorious novelist.

The cover of Time magazine? Great American novelist? What era are we living in?

I’m not happy. I haven’t read Freedom, but I fell for the hoopla around The Corrections, and, well…I thought it was an adequate, but not great, novel (the proof point being that it's receding from my memory, except for a troubling, acidic aftertaste). The Corrections was like going on a date with the popular girl in high school, kissing her, and then realizing you'd rather hang out with your ne'er-do-well friends.

So, like others, I’m wondering what is so special about Freedom. And I’m wondering if Franzen’s publicist is what is special about Freedom. And I hope his publicist is getting a big, fat raise.

Seriously, how many people do you hear still talking about The Corrections—the novel itself, not the hype or the Oprah drama around it?

I hang around with writers of all sorts, and The Corrections is never mentioned. Alice Munro is mentioned. Denis Johnson is mentioned. Junot Diaz is mentioned. Jonathan Lethem is mentioned. Roberto Bolagno is mentioned. (Sorry for the male heavy list, but that’s who I am).

The Corrections is not a cultural touchstone. I'm betting Freedom won't be either. I'd say that I'm going to read Freedom, but since my first date with Franzen was less than inspiring, I'll probably pass (unless I get a meeting with his publicist).

But there are two good things that come out of this hype. First, at least fiction is being discussed (maybe once a decade a writer makes the cover of Time magazine?). Second, the behind-the-scenes satire starts to eclipse the publicity machine.

Just check out Emperor Franzen and his battle with the women writers who are trying to take him down. Hilarious stuff. A great image of Emperor Franzen donning an evil cloak.

The lesson of all of this is the same: The writing universe will never be fair. A gaggle of critics all seem to owe Franzen money. Maybe he's just a really good poker player. And perhaps Sam Tanenhaus from the Times is a gambling addict. Otherwise, I don't know how to explain it all.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Writerliness Gone Mad, the Fetishization of Detail

I don't like to bash writers (oh, there are plenty others who deserve bashing, but not poor writers making such noble, unheralded attempts to articulate this crazy world).

That said (sorry), one of my peeves with contemporary fiction (especially that of the critically esteemed ilk) is its tendency to use overly detailed description, description further crippled by forced lyricism, to assert what I call "writerliness"--a way of writing that seems akin to conversational bragging, the sort of unsubtle one upmanship that guarantees annoyance rather than accolades--and works against simple connection (which is what stories of any sort are for, right?).

Take this first paragraph from American Idol by Robert Baird, featured in the current edition of Narrative Magazine.

"On the far side of the footbridge, the sun threw stretched shadows across the mudflats. Karen lowered her backpack and sat down on the damp planks to wait for the bus back to Rio Canto. The breeze at her back fluttered the tongue of the handkerchief that held down her hair. She dropped her head, closed her eyes, and let her legs swing gently from the knees. As the blood worked its way back into her calves and heels she felt the stirrings of a valedictory ache. When she opened her eyes again they fell to a gray mutt who nosed among the pilings at her feet. She watched him chew several rotten banana peels down to the fibers before his attention turned to the sodden waste washed up under the bridgehead."

I'm fine with the sun throwing shadows, but the dribblings of excessive words begin with the breeze fluttering the tongue of the handkerchief that held down her hair (the tongue?). It culminates in the blood working its way back into her calves and heels and something called "the stirrings of a valedictory ache," which I assume happens in her capillaries.

I don't know if it's just me, but I rarely feel my blood working its way through my calves. Perhaps I'm sensorily deprived.

The first of Elmore Leonard's 10 Tricks for Good Writing is to never open a book with the weather. I think Baird's first paragraph--and so many others--is akin to opening a book with the weather. Over description, the assertion of writerliness, doesn't draw one into a story but toward the author and his or her dubious skills with high falutin' language.

It reminds me of F. Scott Fitzgerald's warning about vocabulary. As a writer, be careful of the vocabulary you learn because you'll end up using all of the words you know, and those words might ironically do the story a disservice.

It's what James Wood calls the “fetishization of detail” in How Fiction Works. “Nabokov and Updike at times freeze detail into a cult of itself. Aestheticism is the great risk here, and also an exaggeration of the noticing eye (There is so much detail in life that is not purely visual),” Wood writes.

I hope that contemporary fiction will start to fetishize dialogue, existential dilemmas, playfulness, anomalies, something else. I'd blame this tendency on MFA writing programs, but that just seems too easy.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Paul Strohm and the Art of the 100 Word Story

If you want to know about masculinity, music, and aging (and more), then Paul Strohm is the guy to turn to.

The Bay Area scholar, author, wit, and bon vivant has just published a series of exquisite shorts—stories of 100 words that perfectly capture the telling turns of his life, whether it’s styling his childhood friend Billy’s “carroty hair” or partying with the Pixies.

Each story acts as a snapshot, a pivot that defines the act of memory in dashes of details, episodes rising with cinematic and often ribald ironies. While there is a certain trendy novelty to genres such as the six-word novel/memoir or Twitter stories, I find that these forms often rely too much on a joke, a gimmick, or just make little sense (although I like Hemingway’s “For sale: baby shoes, never used.”)

With 100 words, Strohm manages to stretch out and truly evoke a moment, if not spin a yarn, while maintaining the nuanced hints that are crucial to such a short form.

Strohm is working on a series of 100 of the shorts, and having completed 99 of them, he published nine in the California College for the Arts lit journal Eleven Eleven.

Since the stories are short, I’ll quote the story “Meeting Girls” in its entirety:

My high school friends and I were afraid of girls but thought we should be meeting some. Wilbur (‘Stiff Sheet’) Coultis—a.k.a ‘Coitus’—claimed he knew how. Under his supervision, we went cruising every Friday night in Martin’s Nash Rambler. Seeing a girl walking, we’d slow the car so Coultis could roll down his window and shout ‘Yo, Snatch!’ before we sped away. Our friend Valentine pointed out after several weeks that this wasn’t working, and proposed ‘Hey, BeeBay!’ with no better results. Back at Martin’s we smoked cigarettes and complained about no luck. But that became Valentine’s nickname: ‘BeeBay.’”

Millions of words have been written about this topic, but what more do you need to know? Many a man has cherished such painful, anguished bonding (although mostly in retrospect), and we can only hope our techniques improve with age. But probably not much, as the story points out in the second, more tender, yet still misguided advance.

Strohm is most known for his scholarship. He’s Garbedian Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University and has published books such as Social Chaucer. But let’s hope we see the other ninety 100 word stories from him soon.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Writing Tip No. 647: Never Try to Please the Boss

I guess one can consult the Greek oracle on this one. Know thyself. Sounds easy, but most of us spend a lifetime reaching and dodging and jumping through hoops and doing deep breath exercises and throwing the occasional punch (if not tantrum) in pursuit of such solid ground.

Becoming a good writer is akin to becoming a good human being in so many ways, after all. So here's a good quote from Chuck Palahnuik, he of The Fight Club (because it's all a fight).

As a writer, I felt compelled to toe the publishing line until I realized I was flushing away all my free time. I was starting to really hate writing. It looked like just another f---ing job where I was trying to please some boss. There had to be a way for writing to be fun.

So he wrote The Fight Club.

It sounds so simple, huh? Be playful. Know thyself. Don't answer to anyone. Write like a kid, a madman, a dancer, a clown. Search for meaning on your own terms.

It doesn't matter if you're writing Moby Dick, Waiting for Godot, or Jack and Jill. It's the same tip. Never try to please the boss. Kick the boss out of the house.

Put up your dukes.

Click here to find  out more!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Writing tips. And more writing tips...

A while back I wrote a post about Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing. I also wrote a piece on How Not to Write About Sex.

For those still looking for more rules (how to and how not to), here are some more splendid writing tips from the Guardian from the likes of Richard Ford, Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Franzen, Anne Enright and more--because, seriously, who can get enough rules for writing?

Especially if one is avoiding writing by studying the rules for writing--and neglecting the first rule: just do it (apologies for the Nike tie-in).

Margaret Atwood on plot

Don't sit down in the middle of the woods. If you're lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.

Anne Enright on persistence

The first 12 years are the worst.

Richard Ford on the writing life

Don't have children.

Jonathan Franzen on the Web

It's doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.

Zadie Smith on revision

When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.

Jeannette Winterson on ambition

Be ambitious for the work and not for the reward.

Neil Gaman on readers' critiques

Remember: when people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.

These aren't the best excerpts. In fact, Anne Enright's are worth executing in their entirety. "Write whatever way you like. Fiction is made of words on a page; reality is made of something else. It doesn't matter how "real" your story is, or how "made up": what matters is its necessity."

And, as a final tip, be assured that you'll be able to return to this blog for more wrting tips. And even more tips after those.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Writing tip no. 3,046: Sam Shepherd and voices and cowboy mouths

Voice. How to hear it, how to speak it, how to write it?

Some are lucky in that voice or voices seem to possess them in such an overwhelming (yet perhaps unforgiving) way. Think Rimbaud, Kerouac, Virginia Wolf, William Faulkner, Malcolm Lowry—all of the mad caps of literature.

But whether voice possessed them like a poltergeist or not, they had to honor the voice, listen to it, give it form. The voice didn’t just speak itself.

This is all to say that I don’t think writers should be too mystical about voice. I don’t think Rimbaud’s “derangement of the senses” is the path, just a path. One might seize upon voice through prayer, or, I don’t know, jogging, crocheting, sipping tea.

Voice is a commitment. To hear it you simply have to privilege listening to it over the din of the other noises in your life.

I’m thinking about voice because I just read the profile of Sam Shepherd in the Feb. 8 New Yorker. It’s always interesting when someone like Shepherd emerges out of nowhere, literally stepping off a bus in New York City in 1963, unread, unschooled, unconnected, and then he writes such a tangle of compelling stories, seemingly without the tortured ambition and wrangling with revisions that others muscle through.

He’s one of those blessed (or cursed) naturals. Because he listened.

“I had a sense that a voice existed that needed expression, that there was a voice that wasn’t being voiced,” he said.

Is there any better definition of the first powerful impulse to be a writer?

“There were so many voices that I didn’t know where to start. I felt kind of like a weird stenographer….There were definitely things there, and I was just putting them down. I was fascinated by how they structured themselves.”

Shepherd’s plays grow out of a certain beat tradition, the words, characters, and structures spawning from his trust in the more intuitive forces of creation.

“You find all the rhythms and the melody and the harmonies and take them as they come,” he says.

Such a raw trust in voice seems absent in most of the stuff I read these days (with the exception of Roberto Bolano). I suppose the easy answer is that we’re living in the age of MFA programs and social networking and email. Authors are well-read and schooled and connected. Our age of writing is very practiced, very intentioned. Stories tend to be neat, not messy. It takes a very brave writer to trust in the voice more than the structure, the sale, the marketing, etc.

I don’t know if that’s right or wrong.

The article includes so many of Shepherds voices as he chronicles “the whacked out corridors of broken-off America.”

People want a street angel. They want a saint with a cowboy mouth.”

Shepherd also provides a nice angle on characterization: “I preferred a character that was constantly unidentifiable.”

An author shouldn’t answer for a character’s behavior, in other words, or at least not entirely. These are the people we’re compelled by in real life—the ones that don’t fit into our expectations. The ones who trouble us.

It fits with a quote I remember reading from Shepherd over 20 years ago: “Always write within a contradiction.”

Voices colliding…

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Literary Drunks and Addicts and Scourges

What do William Burroughs, Ayn Rand, James Baldwin, Jim Carroll, and Louisa May Alcott have in common? They all enjoyed substances, whether alcohol, amphetamines, or absinthe (or all of the above).

LIFE Magazine has put together a slideshow collecting portraits of some of history’s most notorious literary dabblers in all varieties of substances (and some of the photos are even for sale, for those who like to hang drunken authors on their walls).

We love our literary addicts, don't we? It's almost a shame the tradition is dying. I certainly don't want to be an advocate for addiction, but there's something a bit dismaying about the image of contemporary writers at 24 Hour Fitness, keeping a calorie count on the elliptical, dallying over organic salads afterward, turning down a second glass of wine at the weekend's dinner party.

There's a magnificent photo of Dorothy Parker (one of my favorite artistes of the drunken barb), as she bangs away at a typewriter, her eyes and jowels all full of the bags of a weary, joyous life of revelry and damnation--and then there's a wonderful view of the countryside behind her, a man who looks like Rock Hudson lounging in the next room. But she's writing, writing and writing and writing.

James Baldwin's eyes pop out in the livliest, most electrified way.

Jean Cocteau is being lifted to heaven (or taking a roundabout way to hell).

You've gotta live, right? Or you've gotta die to write.

Consider thes quotes--which might be more magnificent (or downright disturbing) than the photos:

You just got to see that junk is just another nine-to-five gig in the end, only the hours are a bit more inclined toward shadows. -- Basketball Diaries

I'm Catholic and I can't commit suicide, but I plan to drink myself to death."

-- Jack Kerouac

To smoke opium is to get out of the train while it is still moving.

-- Jean Cocteau

Drinking is an emotional thing. It joggles you out of everyday life, out of everything being the same. It yanks you out of your body and your mind and throws you against the wall. I have the feeling that drinking is a form of suicide where you're allowed to return to life and begin all over the next day. It's like killing yourself, and then you're reborn. I guess I've lived about ten or fifteen thousand lives now."

--Charles Bukowski

I'm an alcoholic. I'm a drug addict. I'm homosexual. I'm a genius.

--Truman Capote

Alcohol is like love. The first kiss is magic, the second is intimate, the third is routine. After that you take the girl's clothes off.

--Raymond Chandler

We'll leave the drinking right there. With all of the clothes off. Drama shall ensue.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

The Strange Hours Travelers Keep by August Kleinzhaler

All reviews are a reckoning of expectations. In this case, my expectations were perhaps too high for The Strange Hours Travelers Keep by San Francisco poet August Kleinzhaler.

One, there’s Kleinzhaler, who was awarded the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry for Sleeping it Off in Rapid City—a must-read book for me after reading the reviews.

Then there’s his tantalizing title for the collection, The Strange Hours Travelers Keep, that promises a skewed, evanescent, shady vision of our lives in motion and a probing of what travel means.

And finally, and most importantly, there’s the gripping first poem that’s eponymous with the title of the collection.

The markets never rest

Always they are somewhere in agitation

Pork bellies, titanium, winter wheat

Electromagnetic ether peppered with photons

Treasure spewing from Unisys A-15 J mainframes

Across the firmament

Soundlessly among the thunderheads and passenger jets

As they make their nightlong journeys

Across the oceans and steppes

I might venture to say that this short stanza defines the movements and machinations of the world as accurately and evocatively as any 50 words could.

Kleinzhaler combines the words of commerce, capitalism, technology, and nature in such a criss-cross of restless movement that it makes me feel life as a strange force—both mechanistic and natural—beyond our understanding (and this was before the economic crisis of the last year—he easily could have sprinkled in “mortgage derivatives,” etc. to signal another wild weave of the pattern).

The poem goes on to relate the life of our strivings, our production, to nature itself in its metaphors— “Nebulae, incandescent frog spawn of information,” and “Like an enormous cloud of starlings”—while still evincing the essential loneliness one can experience in such a world through a simple image: “The lights of the airport pulse in the morning darkness.”

I wanted every poem in the collection to riff on these themes, to rise in a crescendo—or perhaps a swarm—of similar startling and telling images. Alas, I don’t think any of the rest of the poems in the collection are nearly as good, which isn’t to say that they aren’t good.

“The Old Poet, Dying,” touches on a different kind of travel—the fadings in and out of one leaning toward the grave. Fragments. Memories. Bodily functions. Strange TV shows. Stories and nurses.

Kleinzhaler is best when he’s focused as a witness, either to another’s story or as an observer of the world; his poems become less compelling the more personal they are.

In “Citronella and Yellow Wasps,” he’s fortunately on the road again, much as he is in “The Strange Hours Travelers Keep,” and he patches together images of I-35, Austin into a fragmented blur of the crazy yet sometimes disturbing beauty of the American road, whether it’s methamphetamine, NASCAR, or Jesus.

Before the heat and after

The little pink beeper ship and the flamingo

In the logo

Same color as the icing on the cookies inside

And the votive candles that heal bad sprains

Also, the billboards overhead

Through the dusty branches

Big square decals mounted against sky

A bit of nose here, some lettering

Jesus or barbecue

Exit 205

Cobalt blue background cut out of sky

Kleinzhaler writes without judgment; his poems are at once critique and appreciation. America’s kooky, yet sometimes menacing road images become totems of a traveler’s appreciation in “An Englishman Abroad.” Our talk radio hosts go with “coral pink” sunsets in a way that no other country can match.

In such travels, a placelessness can ensue. As he says in “On Waking in a Room and Not Knowing Where One Is,”

Cities each have a kind of light,

a color even,

or set of undertones

determined by the river or hills

as well as by the stone

of their countless buildings.

I cannot yet recall what city this is I’m in.

It must be close to dawn.

The book closes with a bang—or more than a bang actually. The definition of travel shifts to those marauding bands of yesteryear, “attached to their ponies like centaurs,” and the strange hours they keep are spent in a similar pattern as the opening poem, except they’re pillaging places, destroying buildings they never aspire to live in. It’s a vicious poem, full of “Ripping the ears off of hussars and pissing in the wounds.”

We’re born with an urge to pillage, to travel. Creative destruction. Destructive creation.

Perhaps I liked the book more than I thought I did.

Watch video of Kleinzhaler reading:

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Eternal Life of Holden Caulfield

Okay, since everyone is writing about J.D. Salinger, I have to as well.

Little known fact: The “J” stands for Jerome. Would anyone have read Catcher in the Rye if it had been written by Jerome Salinger? Sometimes it's all in a name.

But seriously, one thing that interests me is the literary legacy of Holden Caulfield. He’s like the strange alpha male of teen angst protagonists—characters just keep flowing and flowing from him as if he’s reproducing everywhere.

As Michiko Kakutani said in the Times, Catcher in the Rye is “a book that intimately articulates what it is to be young and sensitive and precociously existential.”

For one, consider the recent young adult novel King Dork, which is a ribald update of Catcher. How about James Dean in Rebel without a Cause. Timothy Hutton in Ordinary People. Heck, even Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver.

Salinger nailed the Holden type—the kind of teen that, well, practically every teen identifies with in some way. Even jocks. Even phonies. Reading Catcher was—and perhaps still is—a rite of passage. The struggle between phoniness and authenticity is a lifelong challenge, and it sadly always will be.

Which is why that Holden crosses generations: He can be a punk rocker, a hippie, a drama nerd, a skateboarder, hell, a skinny kid holding an iPhone and texting.

So here’s the challenge: Name all of the characters in literature, in pulp fiction, in movies, in song, etc., that owe a debt to Holden Caulfield.

Think Jesse Eisenberg as Walt Berkman in the Squid and the Whale. Think Juno in Juno. Think Belle and Sebastian’s "Le Pastie de la Bourgeoisie."

In the meantime, join the phonies mourning J.D. Salinger. Salinger wouldn't have it any other way--would he?

Friday, January 22, 2010

How Fiction Works by James Wood

I’m a sucker for each new, hyped book about how to write fiction. You’d think I was in my twenties, not my forties.

Several years ago it was Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. Then James Wood’s How Fiction Works came along.

Yesterday I wrote about the death of fiction (at least for literary journals). Conversely, the one thing that isn’t dying—and is thriving—is the publishing industry’s slew of how-to’s on the craft of writing fiction (perhaps this also explains the 822 MFA programs in the country).

Which all means that it’s difficult to differentiate yourself, either as how-to writer or a fiction writer. Even if you’re fancy pants James Wood who writes for the New Yorker and is married to the esteemed Claire Messud.

A lot of critics disparaged Wood’s book, but I won’t get into that because I thought it was a decent read. At this point, I don’t read these types of books for the originality of their tips, but for the reminders they include—and for the quotes from other authors, who always say things perfectly (Wood has a great penchant for Henry James).

So here are the eloquent reminders (tips) on the craft of writing fiction that Wood provided for me.

On Description—Or Becoming the Whole of Boredom
As a resister of the contemporary forces of description (or over-description), I appreciate Wood’s take on description in narratives:

“Auden frames the general problem well in his poem ‘The Novelist’: the poet can dash forward like a hussar, he writes, but the novelist must slow down, learn how to be ‘plain and awkward,’ and must ‘become the whole boredom.’”

It’s this notion of the “descriptive pause,” a phrase Wood takes from Gerard Genette, when “fiction slows down to draw our attention to a potentially neglected surface or texture.”

If there’s a modern master of the descriptive pause, I think it’s Ian McEwan—simply because he pauses in perfect balance to delve into the intricacies of the mundane while balancing that with the driving suspense of the overall narrative. Saturday might be the perfect example of this, and his thoughts on suspense certainly inform this approach.

It’s a tricky balance, the descriptive pause. Too much description tips into a “fetishization” of detail—a tendency that can cripple contemporary fiction according to Wood (and me—I even accuse his wife of such criminal acts, just as he takes on Nabokov and Updike).

“Nabokov and Updike at times freeze detail into a cult of itself. Aestheticism is the great risk here, and also an exaggeration of the noticing eye (There is so much detail in life that is not purely visual),” Wood writes.

To take on Nabokov is a risky endeavor for even the most erudite, but Wood bravely proceeds: “…Nabokov wants to tell us how important it is to notice. Nabokov’s fiction is always becoming propaganda on behalf of good noticing, hence on behalf of itself.”

What an efficient take on at least one aspect of Nabokov.

Most writers blind spot is the area they think is their strength: characterization. I think it’s because we often think that because we love people, indulge in observing them, have friends and lovers and family, etc., that we inherently bring an assorted cast to life on the page.

Wood quotes Iris Murdoch on this point: “How soon one discovers that, however much one is in the ordinary sense ‘interested in other people,’ this interest has left one far short of possessing the knowledge required to create a character who is not oneself.”

Writers tend to compensate by providing a lot of God awful character background, answering all of those questions they hear in their writing workshops.


It’s about mystery. Wood quotes from Stephen Greenblatt’s analysis of Shakespeare, how he minimized causal explanations and psychological rationales and “took out a key explanatory element, thereby occluding the rationale, motivation, or ethical principal that accounted for the action that was to unfold. The principle was not the making of a riddle to be solved, but the creation of a strategic opacity.”

In other words, E.M. Forrester’s notions of “flat” and “round” characters don’t matter as much as the intrinsic intrigue of a character.

As Virginia Wolf writes after reading Crime and Punishment and The Idiot, “These are characters without any features at all. We go into them as we descend into some enormous cavern.”

There’s much more, of course, but in the end these things come down to an author’s quote. For this one, I’ll conclude with Wood’s selection for his opening quote.

“There is only one recipe—to care a great deal for the cookery.” –Henry James

What more do you need to know?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The death of fiction...one more time

As much as I loath "death of fiction" articles, I'm compelled by them. I guess it's the watching a train wreck thing. Except that it's watching the wreck of the train I'm traveling in.


The "death of fiction" is actually a new and thriving genre. By the time fiction actually dies, each and every reputable journal, magazine, and newspaper (and, um, blog and website and wiki and other doodads) will have predicted and analyzed its demise. Roll over Tolstoy, Augusten Burroughs is singing the blues.

Mother Jones just published a keenly insightful reckoning of lit mags, those subsidized tomes that usually make their homes at the nation's finer universities, and have carried the torch of publishing challenging and emerging authors for a good century or so. The article is penned by Ted Genoways, the editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, who's seen by parents he meets at his children's activities as practicing an "arcane craft they assumed was kept alive only by a lost order of nuns in a remote mountain convent or by the Amish in some print shop in Pennsylvania Dutch Country."

Not only does Genoways provide the mathematical analysis of the doomed (the number of creative writing programs multiplied by the number of graduates each year, etc.--which tallies somewhere in the millions, or it might as well), but he provides an interesting angle into how we got into this vicious circle of storytelling demise (not that it could have been avoided) after commercial mags started dropping fiction.

One would think that the rapid eviction of literature from the pages of commercial magazines would have come as a tremendous boon to lit mags, especially at the schools that have become safe harbors for (and de facto patrons of) writers whose works don't sell enough to generate an income. You would expect that the loyal readers of established writers would have provided a boost in circulation to these little magazines and that universities would have seen themselves in a new light—not just promoting the enjoyment of literature but promulgating a new era of socially conscious writing in the postcommercial age. But the less commercially viable fiction became, the less it seemed to concern itself with its audience, which in turn made it less commercial, until, like a dying star, it seems on the verge of implosion. Indeed, most American writers seem to have forgotten how to write about big issues—as if giving two shits about the world has gotten crushed under the boot sole of postmodernism.

I'm not sure if his analysis is entirely true--maybe readers just started watching TV or playing video games or doing drugs or reading blogs by jackasses, present company included. I don't know.

I remember reading that fiction was the number one reason people bought magazines in the '20s (hence paychecks of $3,000 to $5,000 for a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerad), but now it's the last reason anyone would buy a magazine--which is why even magazines with a literary heritage have quit publishing fiction.

Genoways lists several lit journals that have been around for ages (e.g., TriQuarterly, which never accepted one of my real world stories), but are losing their skin to the axe swipes of budget cuts (who's going to notice, or care, when the journals disappear is the argument of the administration). So, he says, like newspapers, lit journals have to think fast--go out there and get an audience.Now, dammit!!

So, in short, game over.

Still, this odd game of fiction persists--whether in online form or other rogue ways. Although the 822 MFA programs in the nation are like guppies on Viagra breeding out of control, they represent and produce a hungry reading and writing public.

To tell the truth, I read a lot of books--short story collections, poetry, novels, literary criticism, etc.--but I never really read literary journals, despite buying them regularly. There was always something a bit unappealing about them.They were often just overly serious tomes, prohibiting by design. Obdurately opaque. Of the tower, not the street.

Maybe, as Genoways writes, I just never saw myself in them even though I, like every writer I know, submits to them.

Maybe this is a good chance to revisit some of the Bay Area's lit mags. ZZZYVAA, Fourteen Hills, Zoetrope, McSweeney's, to mention the obvious ones. And, oh yeah, The Three Penny Review and Narrative. Gosh, it suddenly doesn't feel like ficiton is dying. It feels like it's everywhere. Just check out this list of Bay Area lit orgs, publishers, magazines, etc.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

How Not to Write about Sex

Since Katie Roiphe's recent article in the Times a couple of weeks ago has sparked conversations among the lit set about sex scenes (or the absence thereof) in novels past and present, I thought I'd pass on this list of how not to write about sex--cribbed from Sonya Chung's thoughtful response to Roiphe on the www.themillions.com

It's a list that every MFA program should consider distributing--day one of the first semester (because as a former MFA student, I know how young writers grapple with sex scenes....but not me, of course).

And by the way, here are a couple of my thoughts on Roiphe's essay The Naked and the Conflicted.

Here are Sonya's five commandments on writing sex scenes....

In 1993, Auberon Waugh (son of Evelyn) established The Literary Review’s “Bad Sex in Fiction Award” – “with the aim of gently dissuading authors and publishers from including unconvincing, perfunctory, embarrassing, or redundant passages of a sexual nature in otherwise sound literary novels.” Reading through passages from this year’s “Bad Sex Awards” shortlist, along with an all-time bad sex passages list published by Flavorpill, it becomes clear the minefield one braves when crafting a linguistic experience of sex for a contemporary literary reader. If one were to develop a “Don’ts” list for fiction writers suiting up for the challenge, it might look like this (warning: graphic language to follow):

1. Beware of sensory descriptions which include food analogies – “honeydew breasts” (Styron), “like a spoon scraping the inside of a soft-boiled egg” (Littell), “the oysterish intricacy of her” (Anthony Quinn), “he felt his cashew become a banana, and then a rippled yam” (Updike) – or “wet” verbs like smear, suck, lick, slither, slide.

2. Be sparing with anatomical terminology for sexual organs, whether scientific or slang; and if your passage does contain such words, beware of mixing and matching high diction and low diction, i.e. it’s nearly impossible to get away with raunchy lyricism. (Here I will spare the reader specific examples, but suffice it to say that sex-organ diction, both high and low, is apparently like neon paisley; it doesn’t go with anything.)

3. Avoid spiritual-religious metaphors – “salvation” (Palahniuk), “rapture” (Ayn Rand), “magical composite / weird totem” (Roth), “on the edge of a precipice beyond which can be glimpsed a dark-green distance in a reeking mist and something shining out at them, a pulsing point of light” (Banville), “my licking a primitive form of language in a simple prayer” (Theroux) – or any language that gestures toward the grand or the epic: “weeping orifice” (Ann Allestree), “Imperial pint of semen” (Neal Stephenson), “Defile her” (Roth), “like a torero…trailing his cape in the dust before the baffled bull,” “gravid tremulousness of her breasts” (Banville).
4. Be hyper-vigilant about clichéd metaphors and similes, particularly oceanic ones: “like a tide determined to crash against those ancient rocks” (Simon Van Booy), “it was as if he were splashing about helplessly on the shore of some great ocean, waiting for a current, or the right swimming stroke to sweep him effortlessly out to sea” (Sanjida O’Connell).
5. Avoid machinistic metaphors: “with his fingers, now experienced and even inspired, he starts to steer her enjoyment like a ship towards its home port” (Amos Oz), “I’m going to pull the lever, I’m going to let the blade drop” (Littell), “he enters her like a f*cking pile driver” (Nick Cave).
I am here reminded of a word that, throughout grade school, never ceased to elicit mouth-covering giggles: rubber. We could be talking about the elastic things you shoot across the classroom at your nemesis, or the soles of your shoes, and yet still we couldn’t hold back the laughter. It was nervous laughter, of course, because at the age of 10, a condom – the danger, excitement, and illicitness that object conjured – was taboo, mysterious, unknown. We snickered out of anxious, uncomfortable curiosity; and, of course, to be cool.
Is it possible that our fun with “Bad Sex” lists – rooted, I’d argue, in our ambivalence about whether sex on the page, in all its linguistic sensory sloppiness and spiritual-existential achingness, is comedy or bathos or misogyny – reflects (along with our sound aesthetic judgment, of course) a devolving anxiety and discomfort about our core physical sensuality? Why do we scoff at all things exuberantly, epically sensual? Are sexual relationships really so blasé, so measured, in our modern lives? Is this how we now define “mature love,” i.e. as relationships in which an appetite for sex—the force of sex—is considered unevolved or juvenile; in which sex “doesn’t matter,” or, perhaps, shouldn’t matter?

There you have it folks. Start writing your sex scenes.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Naked and the Conflicted by Katie Roiphe

Roiphe's Sexual Continuum: A Phallic Narrative

The great thing about Katie Roiphe’s recent essay in the Times, The Naked and the Conflicted, a historical analysis of male authors' approach to sex scenes (or lack thereof in the case of contemporary authors) is that it got everyone talking. No matter what your take might be, Roiphe hit upon a cultural nerve, something that any lit reader must reckon with.

It's the kind of essay that people will refer to years from now. In fact, it's the kind of essay written to be the kind of essay that people will refer to years from now.

And it all began with a friend of Roiphe’s throwing away a Philip Roth novel (The Humbling of all books) in a New York subway because she was revolted by his sex scenes—the “disgusting, dated, redundant” nature of them.

“But why, I kept wondering, did she have to throw it out?” Roiphe asks. “Did it perhaps retain a little of the provocative fire its author might have hoped for?”

Roiphe eloquently provides a literary history of male authors' (all white and straight) embrace and indulgence in provocative sex scenes as a way to explore life and assert an existential stance of dare and virile conquest—at least those authors who came of age in the ‘50s.

In short, she’s validating the efforts of writers who have been maligned for their sexism, giving a long overdue shout-out for the nuances of their carnal endeavors. After all these years, she sees that their writing is about sexual connection and what that means to human connection. (To think that anyone could have maligned them as immature sex pots, traffickers in lit porn, specialists in the male gaze!?!—which they're guilty of, of course.)

“After the sweep of the last half-century, our bookshelves look different than they did to the young Kate Millett, drinking her nightly martini in her downtown apartment, shoring up her courage to take great writers to task in Sexual Politics for the ways in which their sex scenes demeaned, insulted or oppressed women,” Roiphe writes.

But Roiphe’s challenge isn’t so much in taking on Millett’s narrow view. It’s questioning the "heirs" of Roth, Updike, and Mailer—those emasculated, sensitive souls such as David Eggers, Michael Chabon, and Jonathon Franzen (who all probably read Millett in college, talked with their female friends about feminist theory, and did their damndest to be upstanding gentlemen of this new world in their behavior and their writing—only to end up being chastised for not slinging their dicks more in their prose—ouch!).

She describes today’s straight male authors as “cautious, entangled, ambivalent, endlessly ironic,” while the old guard is “almost romantic”: “it has a mystery and a power, at least. It makes things happen.”

“Our new batch of young or youngish male novelists are not dreaming up Portnoys or Rabbits. The current sexual style is more childlike; innocence is more fashionable than virility, the cuddle preferable to sex,” writes Roiphe.

Roiphe recounts a scene in Egger’s road trip novel, “You Shall Know Our Velocity,” where the hero leaves a disco with a woman and she undresses and climbs on top of him, and they just lie there: “Her weight was the ideal weight and I was warm and wanted her to be warm.”

Contrast that with a passage from Mailer’s “controversial obsession” of the “violence in sex, the urge toward domination in its extreme.” A sampling: “I wounded her, I knew it, she thrashed beneath me like a trapped little animal, making not a sound.” “He must subdue her, absorb her, rip her apart and consume her.”

While Roiphe’s points are compelling and worth a great deal of pondering—and Eggers' scene of warmth might be a tad laughable—she misses something. Perhaps it’s in her insistence that Eggers, Chabon, and Franzen are Mailer, Updike, and Roth’s heirs. They’re not.

Even as Roiphe's post-feminist feminism is reclaiming the male maestros of the sex scene, men have moved on. The above passages from Mailer sound utterly ridiculous now to a man exploring sexual attraction—or even conquest. If you’re a straight white man writing today (and for the first time in literary history, this is actually a fairly problematic endeavor, as Roiphe’s essay certainly demonstrates), a sex scene like Mailer’s has not only been ridiculously overdone, it’s become absurd in the past thirty or so years (let's call it game over with Bukowski).

Such writing is often only a few lyrical phrases above a Penthouse Forum column, and the contemporary male writers that Roiphe chastises for being, um, not man enough to write a sex scene, are man enough to plumb other nuances of male/female relationships that Mailer, Updike, and Roth are only scarcely aware of at best.

And who is to say that Eggers’ “cuddling” isn’t a different sort of commentary on the human connection that Roiphe claims to value?

In other words, the sex scene doesn’t make the man. And it’s a bit insulting to value an author’s work in such a scanty, narrow way. These contemporary authors haven’t posited sex as their subject like Mailer, Updike, and Roth did, so Roiphe’s comparisons aren’t truly relevant (i.e., she calls them “heirs” relentlessly, just because they are white, male, straight, and critically celebrated, not because they’ve patterned themselves after this old guard—in fact, they’ve disregarded the old guard).

One has to feel sorry for poor David Eggers and Benjamin Kunkel on Roiphe’s chart, doomed to reside on the “snuggling” end of the sexual continuum while Roth and Updike are celebrated with a long (gosh, even penile!) bar on the other end for their “outrageous behavior.” It's as if Eggers and Kunkel are the nerdy, bookish boys in high school being teased for not having muscles.

Isn’t Roiphe's graphic strangely phallic, but without irony? Suddenly the old, leering, lascivious professor seems to be back in vogue.

Still, Roiphe says that the “crusading feminist critics” who objected to the likes of Mailer “might be tempted to take this new sensitivity or softness or indifference to sexual adventuring as a sign of progress.”

But, no, this isn’t progress, Roiphe says. “The sexism in the work of the heirs apparent is simply wilier and shrewder and harder to smoke out. What comes to mind is Franzen’s description of one of his female characters in The Corrections: “Denise at 32 was still beautiful.”

Is that all of the sexism she can come up with. Is that wilier and shrewder and harder to smoke out?

Gosh, a guy can’t win for losing. A youngish male author has to feel somewhat doomed. Most of one’s young adult years spent hearing about how that “outrageous behavior” was, well, outrageous. Now it’s as if Katie Roiphe is hanging around Jack Nicholson, chuckling and winking with him, calling him “Uncle Jack.”

She seems to think that sexism is inherent in men, so they might as well embrace it in a Maileresque way, to spear rather than cuddle? In this sense, she posits such a ridiculous either/or of masculinity that her arguments become adolescent despite their erudite veneer. She reduces straight men to a single, highly limited sexuality. It’s a view that’s as reductive as, well, pornography.

I applaud Roiphe for revisiting these authors’ "outrageous behavior" and saving them from the politically incorrect graveyard. But I think she needs to rethink her position on the likes of Eggers and Chabon and grant them their own existential pursuits, their conquests—not as heirs, but as independent creators.

Journeys and battles and conquests don’t all have to happen in the bedroom, after all. Isn’t this one of the great benefits of feminism? Feminism didn't only unshackle women; it set some men free as well.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Elmore Leornard's writing tips

I just stumbled across this article of Elmore Leonard's "10 tricks for good writing." As fun and interesting as the series of Paris Review author interviews is, I don't think one needs to go much further than this, at least for starters.

1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said”…he admonished gravely.
5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two
or three per 100,000 words of prose.
6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

On the other hand, here's an excerpt from a Paris Review interview with Philip Roth, so the interviews do deepen a list of tips--just a bit:

"Beginning a book is unpleasant. I’m entirely uncertain about the character and the predicament, and a character in his predicament is what I have to begin with. Worse than not knowing your subject is not knowing how to treat it, because that’s finally everything. I type out beginnings and they’re awful, more of an unconscious parody of my previous book than the breakaway from it that I want. I need something driving down the center of a book, a magnet to draw everything to it—that’s what I look for during the first months of writing something new. I often have to write a hundred pages or more before there’s a paragraph that’s alive. OK, I say to myself, that’s your beginning, start there; that’s the first paragraph of the book. I’ll go over the first six months of work and underline in red a paragraph, a sentence, sometimes no more than a phrase, that has some life in it, and then I’ll type all these out on one page. Usually it doesn’t come to more than one page, but if I’m lucky, that’s the start of page one. I look for the liveliness to set the tone. After the awful beginning come the months of freewheeling play, and after the play comes the crises, turning against your material and hating the book"

I'm sure Elmore Leonard might have a snappy retort for Roth, like, never open a book with weather, which is a sort of literary koan if you think about it.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Reading Resolutions

This is about the time of the month where New Year's resolutions start to tail off, right?

After struggling through the first 10 pages, or perhaps the first 10 sentences, of Finnegan's Wake, you decide to read the cloaks and daggers and symbology of the latest Dan Brown novel instead. Your salad first turns into a chicken salad, and then into a cheeseburger.

So, here's a fresh look at resolutions, at least reading resolutions--and perhaps a more inspiring guide than my last post on reading resolutions. This one comes from the Times, and recounts notable 2009 best seller's take on the subject of reading goals, flagellations, and joys.

One of my favorites is Alexander McCall Smith (“The Lost Art of Gratitude”), who has carried Vikram Seth’s 1,400-page novel A Suitable Boy with him through airports for years. It's like that resolution to lose five pounds each year. You might as well just enjoy your cupcakes. But I love his intention (my equivalent is Hermann Broch's Sleepwalkers--it will be such a shame if I die before completing the heavy slab).

On the opposite end of wrangling with the tomes of our times is a resolution much more do-able, and perhaps more meaningful. Doug Stanton, the author of Horse Soldiers, aims to "reread side by side the last lines of Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ and the last lines of the first paragraph in Cormac McCarthy’s novel All the Pretty Horses. They both end by repeating a last line, and it’s in the white space, or pause, between these lines that art is made. They are like an eerily silent magic trick.”

What a beautiful resolution. To return to white space where art is made. If I can achieve that, then who cares about the five pounds--or Hermann Broch's Sleepwalkers.

But I'll keep trudging around with Sleepwalkers. For what would the joy of reading be without lugging around such strivings. To think that my last words might be, "I wish I would have read Sleepwalkers."