Friday, October 31, 2014

On having to explain one’s work (or that dumbing down logic)

There is the idea that, as an artist, you should not have to explain your work. If there’s any need to explain, it seems to highlight some idea of there being a flaw in the work. If I attempt to explain my work, which I often feel compelled to do, it is usually out of a sense that the work will be misunderstood. Or it is just as much to alert an unsuspecting reader that this may not be what you expect. And since I think I can assume a number of folks who will feel compelled or curious to read Impossible Lives of Basher Thomas don’t normally read novels to begin with, I feel as if I have to brace myself for the impact of their eventual failure to get it--if there’s anything to “get.”

Thus when I asked Ben Marcus that question (, it was because I wanted to know if he ever felt a need to explain his work. Do I note a bit of tetchy sarcasm in Mr. Marcus’s response, as if I’m acknowledging what he is all too aware of? A lot of casual readers will probably not understand his work. This will continue as he tries to become a more mainstream author. If you are notoriously difficult, you can get shuffled into that gray zone: the experimental folks don’t think you are that cutting edge, and the realist folks find you too abstruse. David Foster Wallace, who would seem to require a lot of explanation, often gets a pass, and gets picked up probably as fast as he’s eventually put down by those readers in search of something new to read. And I’m not sure his explanations were any easier to understand than the work itself.

Not to say my predicament is anywhere near what Beckett might have faced, but for him, the necessity to not have had to explain seems paramount. His writing is hardly accessible. Then there is the curiosity of those who hear you expound on this (favorite) difficult author. Inevitably they turn to you, seeking explanation; explication. And in such situations I feel the onus of literature’s great, myriad, plainly inexplicable project that, rather than having one easily consumed and digestible nugget, is rather a project for a lifetime’s study. But no one seems to know this, or thinks it, particularly when they find something not conforming to their preconceived, even received, notions of literature. I can’t help you, I often want to say, as if committing my approval of a difficult writer’s work then requires me to become the village explainer.

There have been moments of panic, while editing Impossible Lives, that I might need to dumb things down a bit, or at least go further to make explicit why I have written it the way I have. But this is not to say Impossible Lives is so difficult or esoteric that it won’t be understood. When I’ve accomplished anything worthwhile, it’s often because I realized I’ve not had to please anyone but myself. This seems to me the exact opposite of the impulse that the agents and editors of the mega-conglomorate publishing-opoly would require of me. I would never be happy with my work being turned into, essentially, the equivalent of a ken doll. 

This points to the wonderful freedom of writing short fiction, where that dumbing down by others doesn’t usually apply. I think that the nature of short work gives a creative writer wide latitude because, if any publisher wants to consider it, they can read it in a sitting and grasp the whole of it quite readily. Editors are rarely going to come back to you with a ridiculous list of what you could do to your 500 or 1000 or even 3000 word story so that they will consider it. Rather, they take it or they do not. And when it comes to submitting a story, no explanation is required. No synopsis. No handy comparisons to similar works. Try getting a novel read like that. After submitting a short story, you might get a few editing suggestions, but they’re never on the level of fundamentally rewriting what you’ve already written. You’d never bother, if you are wise, and neither would they. Whereas with a novel, in the dumbing down logic, and with considerations by the marketing machine of a large publishing house, where they are literally banking on you, you would have dozens of lame opinions geared toward marketing. I take this information from the piece in Poets & Writers, “A Day in the Life of a Publishing House” (Vol. 42, Issue 5). Who hasn’t read one of these novels that’s been generated from some humble author’s work and found it to be exactly what it reads like: a mess, a neutered hodgepodge?

In other words, the first thing that happens if your novel has been anointed for publishing by the biggies is a disrespect of your work, which, if you want it to be published, you will accept. I can’t think of anything I’m more fundamentally and violently opposed to.

I will continue to read books put out by the industry heavyweights, only too aware how often the quality is off base. Like many readers, I’m a sucker for the hype. I usually need to read the hyped novel for myself to find out what’s so great about the next big thing. I came to Knausgaard early, purely out of curiosity and before there was any hype; now of course, the speculation runs rampant about this work and its quality. I found it eminently compelling, while I cannot say the same of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. It was merely ok, even passable, but it’s hard not to feel like the hype is usually misplaced for so many name writers (add Murakami and Junot Diaz to the list). Much of what’s hyped in the mainstream feels steeped in a narrow mind-set and for me isn’t, in fact, strange enough.

As an avid reader, you know what you like and maybe even why, so invariably you take a chance on a hyped to death work, because you’ll never know unless you look into it. It’s easier to believe a lot of these established writers aren’t being guided by the editorial teams of their publishing houses, though the same probably can’t be said for the marketing department; you can be sure said author’s next work will be promoted as the “revolution of the novel” or whatever.

At least I can say, Impossible Lives is as pure a vision of its original intent as intended. I should not have to explain myself further.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Guerilla Marketing V 2.0

Almost without exception, everyone in publishing speaks of marketing and selling a book in terms that are, let’s be honest, anathema to most creative writers. The fact is, I doubt very much my fictional works are going to give you anything of value. I’ll go further and suggest that they are going to cost you time and maybe some small expenditure of money, and, in the worst extreme, if you despise the thing, I’ll have earned your wrath. You will only grow richer in terms of getting whatever value I might have imbued in the novel, however that is possible. I will go even further and say what most of the writers who attempt to heed sage marketing advice do not say, that my writing is basically a selfish endeavor. But I have always tried to write what I find interesting—and hope the reader also finds it worthwhile.

So it is that a writer pursues the dream, humbled by a bunch of publications under my belt, and almost always surprised when I can come up with something to say that I can put down with the ease and freedom I don’t take lightly, onto the web where possibly one or 1000 people might read it. At times I wonder, would Thoreau have had a blog? Tolstoy? Barthes? Most definitely. Ignoring the myriad technical questions such a thought implies.

Because of the ease and speed of the internet, the volume of written stuff must have grown exponentially each year in the last fifteen or so, to where I can now be reasonably assured that, because there are so many people attempting to put out their little darlings--which might be better off dying gentle suffocating deaths in file cabinets everywhere--that few, if any, will read mine. I have made some peace with it, possibly by having taken the matter into my own hands. Still, in the effort to drum up some old fashioned, even arcane technology for my own marketing campaign, I have produced a bookmark which I began distributing this past few weekends in a couple of bookstores in Los Angeles, and a bunch in the Bay Area. In L.A.: The Skylight Books staffer was kind enough to stick a stack on the gimme counter, among a variety of Xeroxed flyers and such—I’m relying on the appeal of the ubiquitous book mark presence—its utility, its necessity, its minor novelty. At Booksoup, I was told by the manager that “We have no room for them.” In most cases, booksellers were more than happy to allow me to leave a stack (which they may have left on the counter—though in some cases, I saw they were putting them in the gimme card section). Still, any visibility was good to me. Will this have any impact on the target audience for such a work of fiction as Impossible Lives of Basher Thomas? I’ll admit I have faith in my own ability to produce a graphically striking, hopefully iconic, book cover, because I couldn’t think of anything else, other than bombarding unsuspecting individuals in my e-mail address book and potentially wiping any good karma I might have established by resisting such “Ten things you must do to get your book sold,” tactics in the past. My method relies on a personal approach which I’m still not entirely at ease with, though I know I should be.

For anyone who wishes to purchase a copy of Impossible Lives of Basher Thomas, I am offering it at a discount of 25% ($12.64 after taxes and shipping). Just click on the buy button below the cover image at left. I will ship orders as soon as I receive them from the printer. Also, through Goodreads, I'm doing a giveaway campaign, also at the left.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Ben Marcus Responds to My Question on Goodreads

Ben Marcus answered your question
As a writer who writes in a great tradition of the more esoteric and experimental vein of fiction, how do you explain your work to people who probably will not understand it (when they read it), or to those that you can be certain will not understand it?
I don't. That way no one gets killed, no one is harmed, no one grows sad or uncomfortable. I don't think I can assist understanding, or enjoyment, with some magic sentence or two.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Girl with Curious Hair: On David Foster Wallace as Storyteller

David Foster Wallace never seemed to care if a reader engaged with his writing or not. So much of his work seemed to strive for clever performance at the expense of readability, shunning those willing to go along for the ride.

There’s a sense Wallace was writing for himself, and in retrospect, we now read his work and see in it the construction of the edifice of DFW. It is a façade: how much of the criticism of DFW is just cutting through to all of the talk that surrounds him now? It is difficult to remove the tragic writer from the work. There are hints of it, couched as often funny fabulist asides in, I’ll venture, nearly every story. This is the way a desperate act of negation casts its shadow over everything. As this piece on his copious book annotations makes explicit, it seems that, in our lifetimes, we’re never going to cease to see him as a Kurt Cobain of literature. We needed him. We need him. We read him because he’s become this figure.

So much of what’s in here now seems well assimilated into the fictional culture. The collection is now 25 years old—in writing terms, that’s barely enough to claim generational impact—but that we know the impact of mythic DFW. In fact, for so long, anything strange I had written could seem to have had a foreshadowing in Wallace’s work: where was I getting this influence if I had not even read him yet? Of course, there are collections I’ve liked which I could say indirectly crept into my “style” (Joshua Cohen’s Four New Messages, certain Ben Marcus stories, etc.) and certainly these writers were influenced by Wallace.

With a writer of this caliber, because of all of the mythos, the dissertations and symposia that will likely go on for some time, he will be read and scrutinized. This is what will make people return to his work. Yet, on the basis of hit or miss work, it makes you wonder why he’s so beloved. As if because of how he writes, or that there’s a sense that some esoteric fiction appeals to people who only claim to fully grasp it. It may be “how” he writes, but it’s not necessarily that engaging for what he writes.

I could have used a reading guide on the more arch and intricate stories in Girl with Curious Hair. I’ll even go so far as to say, much of the writing is tedious—in which there was nothing to grab hold of, nothing for a reader to feel compelled to read on. I suspect that what’s so amazing about Wallace’s talent is on display here, but overall, on the basis of this collection, this isn’t enough to elevate him into the stratosphere.

It’s clear that, from the basis of a handful of successful stories in Girl with Curious Hair, that Wallace could write an earnest and powerful story. Where he trips up is not caring enough about a reader’s experience. For as much of Girl with Curious Hair that is unbearable, there is an equivalent of writing that inspires awe, shock and surprise. There is immense readability, and riches, in the first four stories that make up Girl with Curious Hair.

It’s a relief, and a joy, really, to read much of Girl with Curious Hair. With its formal invention, sly gimmickry, one-upmanship, and wonderful characterizations (if a bit too unmercifully graphic) of Lyndon Johnson, et. al. The stories are well-formed, if however at times, elliptically. And what he achieves at times is sheer readability and comprehension, unlike much of what I’ve read from him (I stalled two thirds of the way through Infinite Jest, though I intend to finish it). When it works, he seems to have understood his mastery and control, and uses it to literature’s ends.

I found myself reading, and enjoying, these stories initially, with very little flagging. I was on a roll until “John Billy”, which trips up by its syntax and unrelieved monotone. As well, the stories occasionally veer into condescending portrayals of stereotypes. Is it still exceptional in some way—technically? Perhaps. Is it audacious? Undoubtedly so. It is just one story I could not read through to the end without feeling my eyeballs hurt.

The first four stories, and “Here and There”, carry their own ecosystems within them. In each there are passages that reveal a careful ear and eye; in “Lyndon”, I sensed that kind of transport of the alchemy of fiction, and this is enough to recommend the book  (“Lyndon” is about as perfect a short story as we’ll have from Wallace, along with “Forever Overhead”, the one story that doesn’t fit in the collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men), even if some felt to me confusing and hermetic—a hermeticism that I felt excluded from. Or perhaps that I’m seeing the workings of Wallace’s mind in those words, and it’s a place I’m not always certain I want to go, but for the fact that letting him take me there at other times has proven occasionally enlightening or entertaining.

And yet, this is the all too common register for Wallace. From it one gets the sense that he knew how to show off—and when you come to the end, the stories frequently feel less like literature and more like exercises. It’s as if all that writing that he admired and pronounced on, he could not take seriously within himself enough to treat of the material with equanimity. Even in “Lyndon” and parts of “Little Expressionless Animals”, he resorts to fabulism and absurdity. He might have made arguments endlessly about life in our television obsessed culture, but this doesn’t excuse that much of his story writing is unenjoyable. I’m not attempting to say that entertainment is the only end result of the fiction enterprise, but you get the sense the bombast was a default mode for Wallace, and it can get old fast. Maybe his preoccupations with pop culture/consumer/corporate culture, could be a little too much an obvious item to point one’s finger at (or maybe only in the quarter century retrospection). Sure, he could riff like a maniac in some of his characterizations, but it’s hard to take him seriously. Or rather, it’s difficult to always appreciate the workings, the greater goal of literature, because of the showy nature of it. Because, even though he tries to come off as an entertainer, his work is bogged down by an endless need to impress and perform. The performance only works when it is not self-conscious. This is what many critics of fiction would call being clever. The idea being that the writer only thinks they are clever, but no one else does.

What’s clear is that Wallace didn’t know—and maybe didn’t care—when he was boring. But this awareness is part of, I believe, being a successful fiction writer. It’s interesting that for someone who was such a perfectionist, this didn’t extend to making his work any more engaging. And it also makes me think of another writer who has been hyped to death posthumously, but whose work is equally hit or miss, Roberto Bolaño, though it seems fair to assume that Bolaño was less of a perfectionist.

Even as he nails a portrayal of David Letterman in “My Appearance” (another of the stories that work)—the reasons why are also obvious, I think, Letterman is a character in public consciousness—it feels less insightful and weird even than his Lyndon Johnson. Though in the portrayal of character, his Lyndon can seem like a cornpone caricature. For all that, the impact of the storytelling, its means and ends, gives “Lyndon” the greater depth and frisson as a piece of literary fiction.

In spite of all of this harsh criticism, I’ll admit there’s much bravura in this on—maybe half the time—collection.