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.)