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 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

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."