Monday, December 12, 2011

Not Just Another . . .

. . . 9/11 memoir, or is it? “The innocuous premise establishes There’s a Road to Everywhere Except Where You Came From, Bryan Charles’s atypical survivor memoir, is the classic struggle of a fledgling writer pursuing his dreams to New York City, and rife are the pains that accompany that pivotal confrontation with one’s future life of work. But there’s something more devastating in the memoir, told almost incidentally, in terse, and at times white-knuckle prose.” Read my full review in the latest Rain Taxi, available here.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

James Salter's Aesthetic Economy

Rodin, supposedly at wits end with the inquisitive Rilke, sent his young charge to the Jardin des Plantes to observe the animals there, expecting him to do so with such intensity until he’d be compelled to do nothing else but write. This is the romantic story behind the poems, anyway. At some point in a writer’s career, perhaps they can’t help but see and draw inspiration from less exotic animals. This might be the case for James Salter, whose short story collections (Dusk and other stories, and Last Night) embody sharp psychological observation translated into sleight of hand prose. To relate more clearly to Rilke, Salter evokes an aesthetic frisson that is hermetic like poetry. If ever there is an example of the sheer power of selective detail for compelling storytelling, Salter has embodied it.
Salter paints with a vivid yet economical palette and daubs in such broad strokes that his work betrays one of the secrets of short fiction: that what is left out is possibly more important than what is left in. This is the modernist approach to the short story that is a close cousin to minimalism. It’s not about the writer conveying a tidy story exactly; an initial disorientation and groundlessness forces the reader into acclimatization. The reader is on familiar ground, trying to establish the narrative’s priorities. Attentiveness rewards. The onus is on the reader to construct from what is there, and to ask the questions implicit in any good story. It is novelistic portraiture in as few words as possible. The omniscient narration suggests a sheen of artifice, since none of the actors in the frame of the story should be so clinically observant. It’s an aestheticizing of reality: the image becomes an ideal perspective on what it is portraying.
Form-wise, the stories disrupt convenient beginning, middle and end, or the multi-part rising action, denouement and satisfying conclusion. The reader gets a sense of looking in on the quotidian, however unusual, and different, that specific quotidian is--interloping. And therein is an artful photographic quality: capturing in a frame what has so far been unseen. Offering the authoritative take, in words that strike with the assurance of a shot bolt, is one of Salter’s uncanny gifts.
Salter abhors the grand statement--though his short stories’ brevity achieves a cumulative stylistic effect. He is a craftsman adding pieces to a formidable oeuvre. Salter’s is such a carefully wrought body of work that the writer’s engagement and commitment to each word, seems essential.
The stories seem to take place just after the war, or preceding it, in that romanticized time as so many writers of his generation have established, a rarified time of civilian life in gritty urban settings. The wide, sun-filled allees of a country village, or soot grimed cathedrals and diesel fogged streets. As in “Dirt” (from Dusk), a farm town in the Midwest:
“Billy lived near the Catholic church, in a room on the ground floor. It had a metal shower. He slept without sheets, in the morning he drank milk from the carton. He was going out with a girl name Alma who was a waitress at Daly’s. She had legs with hard calves. She didn’t say much, her complaisance drove him crazy [...]”
Reading these set pieces--what isn’t left out, essentially--is to become aware of their nostalgic weight.
This is as good as any example of lyricism from the hands of a master. It’s somewhere between the baroque prose of Nabokov, and the terseness of Hemingway--and Salter is an adept student of Papa with regard to tone. Ultimately, for Salter, melodrama is left unexposed; there is no prurient pay-off. In the tragi-comic story “Last Night,” (from Last Night) the protagonist begins fantasizing about life to come with his young mistress, the morning after he has administered euthanizing drugs to his ailing wife (note: I'm keeping with Salter's dialogue formatting, hence the dashes):
They sat at the table drinking coffee. They were complicit, not long risen, and not regarding one another too closely. Walter was admiring her, however. Without makeup she was even more appealing. Her long hair was not combed. She seemed very approachable. There were calls that would have to be made, but he was not thinking of them. It was still too early. He was thinking past this day. Mornings to come. At first he hardly heard the sound behind him. It was a footstep and then, slowly, another--Susanna turned white--as Marit came unsteadily down the stairs. The makeup on her face was stale, and her dark lipstick showed fissures. He stared in disbelief.
--Something went wrong, she said.
--Are you all right? he asked foolishly.
--No, you must have done it wrong.
--Oh, God, Walter murmured.
Just when the reader expects a clever turn, they are delivered the devastation of the wife’s apparent resurrection. The stories’ effects are cumulative as these self-assured characters maintain their dignity in the face of infidelity, accident, abandonment, or shame. Salter conveys their reactions to calamitous reversal with equanimity.
His writing is the art of understatement. The reader finds herself immersed, hanging on the words at service to themselves, to the point. Unadorned:
“If he was not great, he was following the path of greatness which is the same as disaster.”
“Great faces cannot be explained.”
“Her face was like a series of photographs, some of which ought to have been thrown away.”
They are characters on a stage:
“It was one of those evenings like the beginning of a marvelous performance in which everyone somehow had a role.”
“She moved with a kind of negligent grace, like a dancer whose career is ended.”
These are blunt, uncompromising and dispassionate assessments. An accounting of the writer emptying his pockets on the table, and the reader catching a glimpse of something they don’t expect to see.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Lethem's Fortress Fanboy

For all of my interest in difficult writers such as Beckett, Bernhard, or Barthes, pardon the alliteration--I can honestly say that my goal as a reader is to be thoroughly entertained. A lot of this turns into a negotiation with myself about whether I might be up to the task of writing the book I’m eagerly devouring. There’s often a reckoning that, maybe I can’t do it quite so effortlessly seeming as what I’m reading, but I’d like to imagine I can. Sometimes a book strikes those right notes and it restores my faith--even in the face of all the dire predictions for fiction’s posterity, let alone for any personal creative writing production--that there is some brave and talented soul doing the very thing I dream of.

So to be entertained. Though I was trained to pursue the careful and deep study of rhetoric, it’s usually not what I read for, or is only part of it. Though my entertainment does involve discovery: catching resonances, parsing well-turned sentences, discerning layers in fresh word choices and turns of phrase.

How many other writers are guilty of this behavior? Though you present your bold face, wary of giving undue praise, sometimes you conclude, hey, I could write this. I see I’ve said this--in regard to Jonathan Lethem, and here I'll admit to bad faith--before I’d ever read him. I’ll admit Lethem is one of those writers I truly thought was full o’crap. I even saw him at the JCC one year and didn’t give a lot of thought to what he was saying, just spent most of the time denying he had anything to say worthwhile to me. And now, approximately eight years after The Fortress of Solitude was published, I’m reading it and doing double and triple takes. For as imperfect as it is, I’m only halfway through the novel and realizing Lethem’s about as real the deal as there is. A writer to emulate, aspire to, kick myself about.

Lethem has dazzled me with the prose in Fortress. He’s made me jealous, doubtful of my own capacity to wrest such assured detail and scene for my own stories. How I ever doubted him!--I’m now a full convert. He takes a meandering, Dickensian stroll to even get to the key action of his novel; though you are flummoxed and enthralled, you are equally unsure: is this the novel I’m reading, really? For the ability to conjure in these pages feels effortless, that he could kind of go on forever and you’d probably keep reading just for the surprises. Granted, I didn’t even think I could be interested in the story of two kids, one white and one black, wanna-be superheroes and graffiti taggers growing up in Brooklyn in the seventies. Now I’m ready--I’m committed--to read every word Mr. Lethem wants to put to paper.

As if reading (and writing?) is to attain greater and greater highs, just when I’d almost given up on contemporary authors . . . but yet another bar has been set; I’d say it’s a crime this book didn’t win all the awards available. Such an effort reminds me of the dazzle of Augie March that can make a fiction writer wonder if they should rather take up surgery instead.

I always need a soft introduction anyway, unmediated by fashions or tastemakers (I know this can be argued re: Lethem), but I only wanted to read him based on the first story of his I’ve ever deigned to read, "The Empty Room", which is in issue #197 of Paris Review. I thought, I get it, clever, ah ha, I’ll have to check out . . . Like everyone else, I started following the dustup about Lethem’s take on critic James Wood’s take on this novel (credit to Wood, his review seems rather laudatory), and the analysis and growing comment thread at The Millions, I thought it might be time to delve deeper into the Lethem chronicles.

If past experience is any indication, I may find the rest of the oeuvre lacking. But with this novel, at least, Lethem broke the mold.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Reading Geoff Dyer

The essays in Otherwise Known as the Human Condition often seem fired off with the effortlessness of a pool shark making clever bank shots. Elusively show-offy, though also using a self-effacing sleight of hand, Geoff Dyer has made his own genre of personal essay, keeping the reader engaged the same way as someone very interesting at a party. This is a writer’s trick, a necessity, and a boon, to be continuously interesting. It’s hard not to find Dyer’s voice appealing.

Dyer’s style feels sprung in one sitting--and that’s not bad, if anything, you feel envious for how easily he cuts loose. In Dyer’s work, there is a feeling of the pre-emptive, that he’s writing in this manner for when someone decides to scrutinize it. Having what appears as a “loose” style might be an excuse for avoiding explaining that one is in fact more rigorous than they seem. There's something appealing about Dyer's attitude, which is a kind of hands off, You can't hold me accountable for being so freewheeling. But there is a danger with the encomium, which is what Dyer resorts to most often in his essays: too much praise can smell sickeningly sweet.

Does the ability to write whatever one wants, as breezily as it seems to flow from the pen, then become in danger of sacrificing rigor and putting the ego on display? It feels like Dyer toes this line where a certain amount of reigning oneself in is necessary. Yet if your writing is consistently entertaining, you must have an innate understanding of how far you are willing to go before you embarrass yourself. Sure, it's simple, leave those parts out. But Dyer might be the writer he is for the ability to leave those parts in.

Dyer claims a boredom with the quotidian, which is only doubted by his apparent enthusiasm and engagement with his material: literature, music, photographs. The collection is divided into five essay categories to reflect this broad range of everyman, John Berger-esque interest.

Dyer’s assessment of The Great Gatsby, for example “[...] the writing in these pages is strikingly inept”, may be the opinion of many who have gone back to reread that acclaimed classic, but only Dyer gets away with saying it, perhaps because his tone is good-natured--besides, how can he pick a fight with the dead? Dyer’s interpretation requires him to re-read Fitzgerald and assess from different periods of his life of reading him. This almost doesn’t seem worth the trouble with many beloved classics, because after awhile one loses interest in revisiting writers they’ve already spent more than their fair share of time in the attempt to disprove prejudiced negative opinions. But you can be glad Dyer makes the effort. That Dyer returns to a historical fiction is intriguing, and it makes one realize that Fitzgerald, who hasn’t yet fallen out of the canon, is surely teetering on the edge.

When it comes to writing about music, primarily jazz, Dyer the enthusiast can drown out the music with his history of listening, perhaps without adding anything substantial to our understanding. When Dyer mentions the same obscure ECM jazz recordings (in three separate pieces in the collection!), and attempts to answer the question, "Is jazz dead?", the reader suspects enthusiasm has trumped authority. So heavily larded is Dyer’s playlist with Keith Jarrett, that he stretches his credibility to the point where the reader is numbed to the praise. Also, there are Dyer’s silly statements, witty though they may have been in the composition: "The history of jazz has been the history of people picking themselves off the floor." What that means, I'm not sure, and the tone is Dyer imitating Amis, which happens intermittently, here.

Though you can see why Dyer is drawn to the photographers William Gedney, and Miroslav Tichy, artists who improvised and never quite finished what they started or were committed to it long enough to be taken as masters of their art. Tichy seems to have become an artist in spite of his intentions, which have more to do with satisfying prurient urges (he took stalker-ish telephoto shots of women on home made cameras). And he has the outsider position of a Henry Darger, without the discipline. Gedney was always starting a writing project, though it seems it was ultimately easier to mess around behind the camera than to write.

As for his interest in photography, I impatiently read this section (“Visuals”) and wondered why it’s one quarter of the book, and why it’s the front end. My sense is that Dyer is so enthusiastically drawn to photographs and their explication, but without a slew of examples, it isn’t always clear what he’s talking about. And thus, some of Dyer’s pronouncements seem unearned, even overstated. It might be a great niche for Dyer to be a student of photography, but his airy interpretations, no matter how much they are accurate and true for the author, they don’t add to my knowledge or interest as a reader.

Dyer is preoccupied with Americanness and specifically, with the fixation of American writers on the novel; though as a writer of novels, and an outsider, British, he obviously, also has the fixation. Dyer highlights the particularly American phenomenon of how writers aren't taken seriously unless they are heavy hitting novelists. He also works this idea into a discussion of Iraq war memoirs and a perception of the damning strait-jacket of British class distinctions for prose writing. And his critical, yet somehow still praising, take on Susan Sontag, in response to the proclamation she made for herself as a "storyteller", boils down to what discerning readers of Sontag may think: "To put the matter crassly, Sontag couldn't tell a story to save her life." Dyer has a penchant for going after the dead.

You often hear these arguments from a less than successful novelist (Dyer) who has made a name for himself as an essayist (I hesitate to say, critic). The novel is held up for canonization in the history of letters because fiction is the ultimate entertainment--soothing medicine--to make readers forget the pain of reality. Or it allows them the comfort of wallowing, from a safe distance, in someone else’s misery. Writers want to be in that canon--or it's the fastest way, one viable way, into possible posterity. No matter that the works there are often merely popular long before they would ever be praised as literature. Dyer gets this point, and rails about it a few times, and then you can sense he recognizes that he's established his foothold at least in the current readership of non-fiction.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Bob Dylan's Nobel

I’m not usually interested in speculation--or writing about it, rather--but I feel compelled to say that the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2011 will be Bob Dylan.
Initially, my pick was based on a hunch: Why not Bob Dylan? And then, when I saw how upset it was making the fellow at The Literary Saloon, and that the odds at Ladbroke’s had jumped in Dylan’s favor, pushing him to the top, it does seem the right choice.
Bob Dylan is a quirky pick for the Nobel Prize in Literature, and he’s as influential, in a culturally significant and altering way, as Mark Twain or William Wordsworth. And, he’s a poet.
He’s neither so obscure and forgotten as some past Nobel picks (Camilo Jose Cela, anyone? Or J. M. G. Le Clezio?) nor as obvious a choice as someone like Coetzee or Beckett, though he’s close when you compare him to his American counterparts.
From year to year, I sometimes scratch my head when they pick the Nobel in Literature. Often, the choice seems more puzzling as time goes on. Granted, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not as thoroughly steeped in world lit as some*, but I always check out the winners, eventually, at least in the last twenty years of Nobels.
Usually, when they select, you can see the baseline quality of the choice, in contrast and comparison to the other choices. In this way, Dylan has it hands down over any of his American rivals. Cormac McCarthy might be my next choice, but I still think Bob’s got it.
Now some have been angling for Philip Roth for years, as if he simply deserves it, but this kind of argument only goes so far. This is the Nobel, after all, and Roth feels like a long-shot. He’s probably not humble enough (and hasn’t he won enough prizes already?). His work is also distinctly self-centered and prurient enough to its own end that reinforces its exclusionary effect. All of which is to say Roth’s work precludes itself from embracing humanity in the way most Nobel winners have done.
I love Roth, don’t get me wrong, I just don’t think he’s a Nobel candidate. In fact, I think Joyce Carol Oates would be a more fitting choice than Roth.
Question is, regarding Bob Dylan, are they going to use his real name?
*Though I’m not trying to be exclusionary about it, either, disregarding those that don’t pass my snob test. Can you tell me why the fellow at The Complete Review is so proud of himself when he excludes writers such as Vollmann from the review?

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Editing's Not Torture

Sometimes in the heat of editing, I flash upon a feeling of utter despair and futility at the insurmountable task ahead of me. Maybe it’s the vestige of the memory of what I used to go through in the middle of two hundred plus pages of manuscript, long before I knew I would ever see a bit of my work (any work) in print. The feeling came out of wondering if I might be better off spending my time on something more useful and noble to the human cause than the current machinations of fictional characters who can’t possibly have that much impact (any impact) on what ails the world. Then I mentioned to a friend on the phone that I was editing, and I got a second whiff of my old feeling in his groan of sympathetic concern over the futility of my project. I almost wanted to say, don’t worry, it’s not that bad. . .but maybe his reaction came prior to mine and led to mine. Now I can’t remember. In any case, sometimes the intent is there, and the piece is not, and you have to make your peace with it, whether you are going to eventually try to flog it in one of the available marketplaces, or whether you are going to start over again. You are always starting over again, and it’s nice when you’ve worked the proper bit of alchemy and sent something over a transom, even if it means they want you to consider moving this bit here or there. In other words, don’t mess with it too much, but you have to mess with it enough so that someone will want to take it; you have to mess with it enough to allow them to want to mess with it just a bit.
So maybe I don’t really love editing, I just know it is a kind of tricky preparation for the real deal, getting published, that you can never be completely satisfied with.
I’ve never believed in writer’s block because there are so many parts of the writing process that one can be doing while not writing new material--such as editing--and if you don’t want to do them, a lot the time time, if you check yourself, you might just be being lazy. I’m often lazy, or resting on my laurels, but I know I can dig through a pile of papers and find something to edit. I usually carry drafts of pieces around in a one inch three ring binder and look at them fifteen percent of the time. You come to respect editing, I think, after you learn how to edit yourself, because editing is where you will make the piece come alive. Philip Roth said that here (interview on Daily Beast see at 1:14). Which is also why I’m wary and doubtful of writers who claim to not revise (There is a distinction between editing and revision, perhaps, but I’m not making a distinction; to revise is to edit).
In any case, some writers claim not to revise. Besides the fact that this sounds bogus, how can one write unless they revise and edit as if it were a religion? You edit to the point where you reveal the key (to yourself) of your piece, and then tighten it some more. Otherwise you are just proud of yourself for the ability to spew--but does anyone really want to read that?
Maybe they can get away with that, but it seems like if someone (publisher) is allowing that, they are not doing the reading world a favor--nor the writer--and I’d be surprised if any writer could sustain their work if they didn’t somehow have a rigorous self-editing process.
I used to think I could edit the life out of a story, but I’ve since learned that writing is like shaping with clay, or perhaps painting a canvas (and less so is is crafting a chair as I thought and said only a few years ago, unless you are carving the chair.) You take away, and add, and at some point, you might see it. You sort of know when you do.
But that is a lot of work, a lot or re-reading, and hearing it, not just looking at it on the page.
I find that at minimum, a piece needs to go through seven drafts before it’s gotten to the point where I’m not seriously worried about sending it out. As for seven drafts, I can go to more--I can even now, do less. In some situations, I’m onto draft 17 or 18 and I have lost most of what I set out to edit and/or revise in the first place. In which case, if you haven’t sussed out the ghost in the machinery of the piece by then, maybe it should be removed from life support.
One of my favorite quotes is from Marilynne Robinson on the editing and revision process sums up what I’m trying to get at:
“I try to make writers actually see what they have written, where the strength is. Usually in fiction there’s something that leaps out--an image or a moment that is strong enough to center the story. If they can see it, they can exploit it, enhance it, and build a fiction that is subtle and new.”
Robinson goes on further to say:
“What they have to do first is interact in a serious way with what they’re putting on a page. When people are fully engaged with what they’re writing, a striking change occurs, a discipline of language and imagination.”
I feel like I’ve learned how to edit mostly from reading and taking work apart. It’s still a surprise to me when I can reasonably string words together compellingly. Maybe this is the thing I’m not supposed to admit, but I’m pleased with myself for a.) knowing what I’m doing after all and b.) not being called on too many glaring missteps from editors when they take stuff. It’s amusing to be edited by writer peers who have standards that no legitimate (i.e., titled) editor who has seen the same work feels the need to mess with so extensively. But maybe as a fiction writer you’re allowed--even recognized--to be doing it your own way. It reminds me of my first workshop experience in 1997 where I eagerly and naïvely submitted my first short story to a group and received, to my estimation, an incredulous raking through the coals for work that had more feeling than sense, but I sure learned from the experience. (This is where I thank those people for helping me to open my eyes.)

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Moment Of Clarity

You can spend years learning how to write stories that someone will want to publish; you can analyze every story you read to the point where you draw the life out of it. One day you discover you are doing it--writing stories that someone wants to publish--and have done it.

In the process, you realize not only have you done it, you’ve done it your own way.

I don’t know if you can go so far and say you have a voice or something like that--maybe with enough work amassed you can see that, but one of the hardest things to do is to be objective about the work you’ve spent so many hours, days, and weeks on. So it’s always a surprise when someone does want it, though because you have done all the homework you shouldn’t be surprised.

The compulsion is still (for me) to go back again and look at what other writers are doing to see anew how it is done. I am always reading a lot of work, much that I am not always excited by, just to see if there is something I can learn from it (maybe, what not to do.) When you enter a dozen contests a year, the journals start arriving in the mail whether you want them or not. I usually don’t, but I paid my entry fee, and there they are. I read them anyway.

I’ve had this feeling on numerous occasions when I’m writing a story: that this one will get published. I don’t mean to sound arrogant or over-confident, but there is often a moment of clarity that seems to be the reward for the willingness to show up and do the work. That moment, out of nowhere, is sublime. And that moment isn’t exactly that certainty that it will be published, it is more a sense that “I know this story has the quality and the spark to be well-published.” Since it has happened a few times, I have to believe there is something to the notion.

In the best cases it’s when I’m writing the story, and I sense someone might connect with it; again, probably because you can recognize that quality when you read another writer (maybe 10 percent of the time) you begin to recognize that quality in your own work. Some might call this a voice and I suppose that’s what it is. I really believe this absorption in a wide variety of fiction makes finding one’s voice inevitable. You can learn and assimilate much by reading a lot and widely. It has less to do with reading “how to” books and more with reading good fiction.

On the other hand, I’ve spent months on stories that I’m quite sure will never see the light of day, but there is some reason I persevere with their doomed venture. I’ve come to learn to take my time. A story I started in May is only now shaping up, and I feel confident that it will resonate with someone. But that confidence is the best gift one gets for having written year after year when there was seemingly no one that was going to read your writing. That’s what the ten years on novel number two, forever relegated to a banker’s box of drafts in the closet, was for.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Antioch Review

Returning home from Maine this past weekend I received notice that The Antioch Review has selected "Under the Suns of a Million Everests" for publication in the Winter 2012 issue. I’m excited and immensely grateful to Editor Robert Fogarty for this honor. Talk about great company: over its seventy year history the Antioch Review has published Joyce Carol Oates, William Trevor, T. C. Boyle, Raymond Carver, Gordon Lish, David Means, Ben Percy and Ha Jin, just to name a few.
This also got me thinking about statistics, specifically my orphan statistics. It seems like you need to all but give up on a story before someone will finally take it. Initially I got reamed on this story when I workshopped it with a new group in Berkeley (a once and only workshop occasion--they dismissed me after that first meeting as “not a good fit”)--perhaps with cause, I don't remember--and it’s also kind of a funny vindication and a lesson to anyone who is in a similar situation: you don’t need to believe all the negative criticism you hear from strangers. Rather, take most of it lightly, because you may actually be onto something in your work. As I am reminded almost daily, you do have to trust your gut.
For awhile I’ve changed my strategy with the orphans, since in some cases I’d sent them out to over seventy markets. When have you reached saturation is always a question, though when very good (I’d call them top tier) journals give you a citation, it always seems like the story will eventually find a home. You think, justifiably so, that this can’t just be a fluke. A writer friend told me he just gets rejections, revises and sends out again, without thinking--for years. It takes years, in reality, but I’ve been cultivating patience for a long time, and it’s all part of deciding that this biz will make you or break you.
When these citations come back, it’s time to take seriously their advice and tighten up the story as necessary. I’d only sent this story out at the beginning of the year because I hadn’t sent it out in over a year, and in about three years, it had been to only 30 or so markets. Very slim numbers (ten a year?), however, it received a positive note once from StoryQuarterly which has stared at me every day since as I tacked it above my workspace. And, as I was reviewing some workshop notes on the story, one of my readers (Tim) had remarked that it was his favorite story of mine. I trust this groups’ opinions, singularly and collectively, so I decided to give it another chance, and on a lark sent it to Antioch Review. Voila.
As I mentioned here, it takes me an average of 35 markets to place a story (this is not counting the fluke stories that get sent out seventy plus times), and now this one is no exception. I think I liked the story so much that I somehow expected it to place sooner, perhaps, and sent it to fewer, more select markets.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Third Anniversary Toast

The most interesting writing projects, for me, have come about through experiment. It may spring from the thought: should I try this? But often that is enough to get the notes down on paper that will spark to life. The Literary, the blog you are reading which I started three years ago--begun before the first groans of the greatest recession of our era--was just such an occasion. I’d wanted a place to post reviews, news and thoughts about the one subject that never ceases to excite my enthusiasm and obsessions. Incidentally, for someone who used to start things he couldn’t finish, a blog is the ultimate tool for procrastination.
When I assess the writing on this blog, it isn’t necessarily a lot of work for a three year period, though it has accumulated to a decent book length draft. I may not post as frequently as I should, if I am thinking about numbers and getting hits. But since I haven’t been thinking only about numbers and hits, I’ve tried to be diligent, consistent and tactful in my writing. This process takes more time than I can usually anticipate, considering my ambition. Having a web presence is better than none, perhaps, and this blog has helped me land more work and place pieces that I might not have otherwise attempted. The Literary has kept me on my toes when I’ve detoured from fiction. In retrospect I’m pleased with the material in this blog, and can say that I set out to do exactly what I have done with it. Thanks to everyone who has commented or sent me a note over the years.
Since art is long, money expendable, and the economy is like an unfortunate roller coaster ride, for now I’m going to keep looking forward and offer a third anniversary toast.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Publication Trail

The paths a writer takes to publication can seem a unique combination of good luck, hard work and randomness. The following two items are from “22 Things I Learned from Submitting Writing” by Blake Butler at HTML Giant that resonated with me:

“9. If you really want to publish a book one day you will publish a book. The time that you spend getting there is kind of wonderful. Don’t cut it short. The emotional range is valuable.

22. No matter how far you get there are always going to be more people who don’t understand you than do. There are hundreds of thousands of books and all of them are important to somebody, and most of them most people have never heard of, and there’s a reason you’re related to those people.”

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Demystifying the Writing Workshop Ideal

When in the dark night of my literary soul I sometimes wonder, what if I had gotten into Iowa? I console myself with this thought: I might have gotten into Iowa if I had tried, later (in other words, if I applied now). I know I have the confidence for it now. But it’s a stupid question. Still, I often wonder what I’ve missed for opportunity for having not gone to a “better” school. Is all of my praise of my school something like the kid who is happy on Christmas morning with the particular shape of his lump of coal?

With these things it can seem like sour grapes. But I don’t think I’ve failed to exceed even my own initially meager expectations, so why look back with anything resembling regret now?

At Iowa, they must insistently focus on getting their writers’ work placed--a clear commercial approach that really had nothing to do with where I went for my MFA. There it was almost a defiantly anti-commercial, as if it was shameful to aspire to literary success.

In equal ways I’m resentful of my prior unsuccessful attempts to get into good MFA programs (by good I mean, perhaps the top ten on the US News listing), and yet glad I ended up with the experience I did. Likewise, with those Stegner people--I think about a former colleague applying every year and wonder when he’ll just start trying to write better and do what he can to get his work published. I don’t admire his blind persistence (to be a Stegner, or not to be, that is the question) because it assumes that lottery quality of it. Yet is the fact that a Fellow who has produced nothing but mediocre novels, and got in the year I last applied, make me wonder if in fact it isn’t unlike a lottery?

And yet if it is a lottery, I’d sometimes much prefer the odds of having gotten it; yet what does it say for all of the successful Iowa grads I admire I can think of an equal number whose work fails to excite (not only me, but the book world public,) and whom must have initially been greeted with the kind of bated breath and expectation befitting a Nobel candidate?

This all comes from someone who looks at himself as exceptional, of course, though probably not in ways that most people care. I consider that what I’ve been able to produce has been exceptional, and for whatever reason I didn’t have the grades, the pedigree, or the proper ass sniffing tolerance to get into an Iowa. I certainly dashed expectations of my imminent failure when I got accepted into the University of Michigan architecture program and became one of the sort of elect there--and I didn’t work nearly hard enough at what I should have then. And I’ve been floating on my U of M laurels ever since.

Maybe the question isn’t, is Iowa great? so much as, can Iowa open doors? Absolutely.

Just the tenor of these Kevin Brockmeier notes makes me believe Iowa is a cut above. The impression I have is that apparently all of these writers get publication contracts out the door--so it’s pure prestige to go to these programs. And knowing now what I do, I might have tried harder to get in. Because once you get in, that’s where you will forever be associated, besides all of the connections you will make in a good program, all of the opportunities to advance, and the name of the school you will forever talk about.

If someone says it doesn’t matter where you go to school, guess again.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Slow Thought Movement

Found this from the Aspen Ideas Festival website, a panel with Tobias Wolff, Jane Hirshfield and John Guare on "What happens to writing in the age of the internet." (I have concluded that I'm not worrying about it too much anymore.) Besides never having heard anything of John Guare, who seems like a fascinating playwright, what's really surprising, is at 72:32 when they pan back and you get a look at the size of the audience.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Spouting Edifying Brilliance

The work ethic is close to the one of craft. In the Midwest, where I’m from, it’s hard to escape the notion that you can't get anywhere unless you are willing to work hard at it. As much as I’d occasionally like to believe in innate genius, I no longer think there are so many of them walking around spouting edifying brilliance fully formed. If anything is lacking from the discussion of what makes for brilliant writers, it’s really about how hard they have had to work to get there. Craft, being tied to the notion of work and sweat, probably gets a sniff once in awhile from the unjustifiably entitled, and yet, at the risk of sounding utterly un-hip and downright backwater patriotic, I think hard work is one of the only true legacies of this country’s striving and success. (Granted, capitalism has thrived on this exploitation, but perhaps you get my drift.) Thus, it’s not surprising that an outsider would disdain this humble legacy that has helped foster the MFA program proliferation in the U.S. This is all a long way of saying that I really love and applaud Mark McGurl’s take down of Elif Batuman’s critique of his book, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

West of Here

My review of Jonathan Evison’s West of Here is due in the forthcoming issue of Rain Taxi: “Bearing the hallmarks of an epic yarn, the novel boasts frontier exploits, Native American mysticism, Bigfoot, and an environmental cause wound into its myriad character stories.” Further, the novel manages to ask if a group of industrious settlers can be a detriment to the well-being of their descendants. Sound like a stretch? Read my review of this engrossing and immensely entertaining epic.

The print issue of Rain Taxi (Vol. 16 No.2, Summer 2011 (#62)) is available now.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Writing Ad Infinitum

Writing, like any craft, is something you do because you have to, at least in its most rewarding manifestation. Or, more generously, because you want to. This has nothing to do with writing for pay, for there’s little of that to go around. Yet, regarding writing for pay, no matter how good you are at it, you’ve got to get to certain unlikely heights or unquantifiable hype before a wide audience will read you, but even then, you don’t necessarily have to be good at it. Although it might serve you, the aspiring writer, in the long run, to improve at it.

After you’ve come to terms with the reality that you have to do it, the struggle is to probably get noticed; all you can do is work to make the best writing possible, all that you have control over is to challenge yourself. As a writer writes to be read by a number of people, you confront the transition of private to public, then, and decide, I am a writer. You recognize you want to connect with other writers, and eventually, readers.

These are wonderful notions in themselves, but far too idealistic to get you to the next step.

For years, you will rework a manuscript that you are convinced is publishable; it is not. After yearly disinterment and brushes with hope, you will rechristen it with a pithy, though enigmatic title, say, “Messenger” or, “The Adjective Noun of Proper Name,” ultimately dropping the definite article because it makes the work sound more professional, more befitting a work of literary art. You will find an agent who reads said novel twice in two years. (She has it in her hands for that period--who knows if she actually reads it.) Once, you will stay after work and retype the entire manuscript late into the night because you don’t have a copy in a file format you can print out from your workplace. In this marathon session that could put Kerouac to shame, you will inadvertently riddle the MS with errors you don’t have time to catch. You will insist on sending out bound copies single spaced, of your manuscript, until a knowledgeable friend tells you that there is something called “industry standards.” You will learn these and stop sending out unprofessional formats of your writing.

You shouldn’t expect anyone to take notice. You hope someone will read you and connect with your work, and conceive of ingenious, though mind boggling and time consuming schemes to make this happen. This requires a degree of marketing and selling to rival a fortune 500’s advertising campaign. You will send your work out and receive enough rejections to save the rainforest, or at least to wallpaper every square inch of your walls in the theme of “rejection letter boogie.”

You will submit to contests so often that you don’t even remember what you sent where. You will put so much extra money into this that you could have funded a writing year abroad where you could forget too much about a “writing career”. You will establish a rigorous system of sending at least one hundred and forty submissions a month and maintain a byzantine excel spreadsheet to track them, and then you will abandon it because it takes up too much writing time. You will send stories out when you feel like it. You will send stories out when you absolutely do not feel like it. You will stop sending stories out so that you can work on your novel, which will take one year, then two years, and longer. You will keep focused on what’s important, the work. Nothing else will matter, really, but you won’t admit this to anyone. You will realize getting published is sort of a great thing, and yet not always as great as you imagine it will be.

Once editors acknowledge and publish your work, however, you’ll find that publishing a short story is not enough. Why? It just never is. You want bigger rewards, bigger pay-offs, more kudos. This, if you are not careful, can give you an assumed rewards expectation which can lead to violent attacks of hubris, mislaid entitlement, and an all around general boorishness that will garner you no respect whatsoever from your peers.

A little reward will sometimes mean a lot. You would not have stayed with writing if you hadn’t improved at it (though that seemed to take years due to a stubbornness and cluelessness about following basic grammatical rules, something to this day you are occasionally defiant about, when you are not outright dubious), and you probably wouldn’t have continued if no one published anything you’d written. On the other hand, this is difficult to say: you’d already been at it for years with nothing to show for it when you finally decided, for the third time, that you’d apply to several estimable creative writing programs and go back to school to pursue an MFA, much to your family and friends' pitying and doubtful looks.

You will finish your MFA, after two years of self-flagellation and hard work, and get annoyed when people knock MFA programs as worthless, saying they produce lackluster writers who have a cookie-cutter approach to fiction. After your many hundreds of pages of theses, fictions, and musings, you are convinced there isn’t anything such as cookie cutter writing. There are boring writers and there are interesting writers. There are great boring writers and great interesting writers. You will hope that you are in the latter category (G.I.W.) Writing isn’t easy.

Maybe there are people out there who have done it effortlessly, but you come to believe most success is ninety percent hard work. You will say that in a generous mood; in a bad one, you’ll say someone with a great success just got lucky, and you’ll inadvertently rip a few writers out of envy (but where on earth does that get you, really?). On some days, you will contend with watching a crop of younger writers who you see gliding along as if in an easy self-sustaining clique that publishes its members’ work regularly and widely while your work is disregarded, when, in fact, your writing is probably equally compelling, worthy of accolades, and accomplished, if not, dare you say it, more so. But you don’t for once feel luck with what you do. You feel grateful for your patience and perseverance.

Things change; you progress. You work at writing long enough and you become proficient. Barring that, technology arrives and you discover the blog, where you can write (and publish!) any old thing you like, though you recognize the thirty million other blogs you compete with, and that yours is not so timely. You choose not to care--it’s an outlet to write on your favorite subject. Nor do you post seventeen times a day and link to every conceivable blog post with the slightest reference to your insightful topic. An added bonus of your blog is that you can write during the off times when you are wrestling with whether to switch your four-hundred page novel from past to present tense, though you wonder if this spontaneous and possibly frivolous decision will destroy two years of work.

For enough times as you have stories published, you’ve not yet had a novel published, and it’s not been for a lack of trying. But what you realize is that your personal vision of your work, and any kind of outside acknowledgment must be compartmentalized in order to continue through the silent reception you believe you are receiving. In other words, you have to banish such thoughts about even having external rewards from your thinker like an ancient yogi master, if you want to continue. As well as a novel is or is not going, the frustrating struggle to find an agent, or drum up the enthusiasm to keep working on the novel, is often at odds with the desire to have a readership. It can be too easy to feel embittered or ambivalent at your colleagues’ successes, even though you should take their arrival as a measure of you own success, or at least your proximity to it. Though it’s almost easier to consider disparities: how much less time (you believe) they’ve had to struggle, how readily agent X must have responded to their query, whereas all you received from said agent was a fifteenth generation xerox of a rejection letter so badly faded that trying to read the return address is like trying to decipher the Maya codex.

You will even harbor doubt about attempting to state your situation in anything other than cynical terms, as if you’re not allowed optimism; it will become difficult to maintain hope when you feel what’s really more appropriate is gallows humor, and a measure of downright crabby cynicism.

You have to learn to see yourself outside of much of this, and take solace in your own path for it has allowed you to reach the point when others will have already given up. You will not know how to give up. You are like an ultra long distance runner: your work makes no sense to most who are not themselves, running, and for anyone else, your endurance, dedication, and discipline can seem crazy or ill-advised for the presumed meager rewards that you may or may not receive.

You have to believe in and rely on your writing community, however obscure, that supports you unconditionally. You will have learned, against what you believed, that you can sometimes get by and even thrive on such support. Because at some point you did go looking for a community, which is maybe what was missing from your efforts those first years.

All you can do, finally, is the work, the eternal return to the well, cultivating the satisfaction and the inspiration you always have been able to, maybe more than should be humanly expected. Inspiration is not a matter of frequency, it’s about courting the fickle muse, after all; you count yourself lucky when she responds at all.

And, sometimes, in the midst of these pep talks, you’ll think, “But do other writers grapple with these issues?” To which you will offer your own resounding “Of course not, they’re focusing on writing!” But something tells you it’s okay, you do it the way you want, you always have anyway.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Cheese Pizza Effect

Nothing is more disheartening to a fiction writer than a rejection letter with a carefully worded reasoning that interprets the entirety of their three hundred and seventy-five page novel based on thirteen percent of it. And yet this is the norm in the industry.
There is often talk of how if As I Lay Dying were submitted to a publisher today, it would never be published. Of course the assumption is of this being a first novel by an unknown writer (it was in fact the sixth novel of the, in 1930, not yet well-known William Faulkner), and that the narrative is just too formula defying and experimental so that no publisher with a tenuous bottom line would touch it. This may be true, but would Faulkner have written As I Lay Dying today if he was also reading “How to Get Published” books?
A formulaic approach can ruin a narrative, yet so often we are told that the “partial” (usually the first 50 pages), unless it hits the benchmark items on an idealized fiction checklist, will fail to be picked up. See any “How to get published” or “How to land an agent” books out there, for example, and invariably these suggestions, as specious and broad as they may be, are touted as “keys” to a novel’s success. If you have a narrative that evades these rules, you may begin to doubt your inspiration--as non-formulaic and deeply satisfying as was the writing of your novel--and may try to second guess your first fifty pages, as that is likely the first and only impression most agents and editors will have of your work.
The problem with formulas is that, beyond an MFA or years of trial and error writing several novels, they don’t assume a writer can trust their own voice. One needs to learn their own rhythms and patterns, and what it is they like, or, more emphatically, what they love. Ideally, one is better off writing a lot so that they come to know their own predilections (know thyself) and discover their own formula--rather than ascribing to one from without. Practice, not formula.
Publishing may try to play it safe, but too many rules and guidelines ignore the subjectivity of the creative act. The inspiration. In design we called this phenomenon the cheese pizza effect: since there are too many options to satisfy everyone, play it safe and order only cheese. I could stretch the metaphor and say you’re either lucky, or maybe boring, if you actually prefer cheese pizza.
For short stories, I wrote about placing emphasis on the opening sentence so that an unwitting reader will want to read further. I think similar narrative strategies can apply to longer fiction, and some rationale is better than none, but re-thinking the first fifty pages of a narrative that works can feel like self-sabotage. Yet, after repeated rejection, how can you say what you have works? As Stephen Elliot in The Daily Rumpus (e-mail newsletter) says: “If you write every day for a long time you should get to the point where you know when your story is working and when it isn't. Not that something is perfect, or can't be improved upon, but certainly if it's good at not [. . .] Otherwise, what have you learned?”
There are plenty of novels out there that wouldn’t have been published but for the singular connection an editor or agent made to it, and few of these novels can be reduced to the items on a checklist. Drawing in a reader is not ultimately only about the success of the first fifty pages screaming out the triumphant success of the novel, though it’s hard not to think about the possibility in preparation for when someone finally does request the manuscript.
That powerful transaction of writer to reader, and reader to writer, is more important, and completely unquantifiable, and completely non-formulaic. There are no shortcuts. Write a good novel first, and you will have a better chance of getting the wheels rolling.
I think as writers we should assume that our ideal reader is out there, someone who is interested in the art that we create. A great percentage of what we do is to rake through hot coals to find a compelling idea because it inspires us; an idea does have to motivate one enough to invest the time. The practice of writing fiction can’t be about filling in a checklist. The pursuit of the craft is private and unique, one shouldn’t try to out-wit an industry. Just make art, not cheese pizza.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Memorable Nonfiction 2010

Reading feeds the desire to write, and writing in itself is often an extension of reading. This explains why I read novels above most other works. Since I read so few biographies, memoirs, essay collections, and letters, I’m more selective, though maybe I ask of these works the same thing I ask of novels: that they feed my thinking and get me motivated to write. Three non-fiction books stood out for me this year.

The best biographers give you the life complete, baggage and all, written with no distracting bones to pick with their subject. The biographer takes on the self-erasing task of subsuming themselves in the life story, and sifting through the expected mundanity in order to reveal the exceptional. This could be difficult to accomplish for anyone compelled by their subject and trying to interpret the life, yet a degree of fandom is essential, as well as restraint. One of the best literary biographies for having covered this ground, and yet not shying away from either critical assessment, or candid and sometimes difficult judgment, is Blake Bailey’s Cheever: A Life. Though I was mostly a casual reader of Cheever’s well-known short stories before I picked this bio up, I came to admire the conflicted writer who, at heart, made a unique and solitary venture of his fictional output over a long and sometimes troubled life. This reading sent me to Cheever’s overshadowed novels.

David Shield’s Reality Hunger: A Manifesto had me riffing on its provocations. Like any good book of philosophy, this one forces a reader’s reaction. The numbered paragraphs are widely borrowed from attributed sources and compiled to construct a number of dubious arguments (the novel is dead, “sampling” is the future of literature, truth is more worthwhile than fiction). Nevertheless, the resulting compendium is provocative for the daring of the broad sampling ( a preponderance for several quotable essayists), often rewritten to make Shield’s points, which proves or at least validates that his de-contextualization experiment might just be a hybrid form of memoir-slash-manifesto. Though it also provides a convincing case that the novel is alive enough to provoke diatribes against it.

The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1929-1940, are almost too specific, direct and intimate, like catching one side of an eavesdropped conversation, that a guilty taste of voyeurism is unavoidable. What comes through the young Beckett’s missives is a hubristic certainty, a kind of unassailable arrogance, as well as an authority tempered by doubt and perseverance, as when he declaims to his cousin Morris Sinclair: “Here I strut about, I cannot and will not do otherwise, and have no idea if God helps me or not.” One would have been honored and maybe intimidated to have received from Beckett a multi-lingual letter laced with multiple literary references. But even a partially committed Beckett completist will be curious to thumb through this first of four projected volumes for prime examples of an endangered, if not yet extinct, form of writing from a modern master.