The emergence of the New York Review of Books publishing arm has been a treasure. They have managed, with this line of books, to package the feeling of falling suddenly in love with a book that you only even opened on a whim, perhaps being drawn in by an intriguing cover or title. They have hand selected the most deserving of the unknown and the out of print and returned them to bookshelves. Among the hundred or so titles that they have put out in their four or fve years is the book that I will keep mentioning until everyone on the planet has read it: The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis. Thanks to the Book Expo’s being in town this weekend, I had the opportunity to talk to Edwin Frank the editor of the New York Review of Books series. We discussed Maqroll at length, of course, trading theories as to whether or not the Gaviero will appear in print again, or whether it is up to us readers to track down his further adventures on our own. (Read the book; you’ll understand). We also talked about uncovering lost treasures in used bookstores, at good will, and at sidewalk book stalls. We also discussed several of the other titles in the series. When I asked him for the hidden gem among the hidden gems, he passed this title my way: To Each His Own, a Sicilian mystery by Leonardo Sciascia. He rated this one among the very best of the series, and since he’s the one who picks the books, I can’t help but trust him.
Zoltán Abádi-Nagy: The Faustian pact with the devil is nothing but giving up originality, isn’t it? And vice versa, a painter, Wyatt, manipulated into selling his soul, giving up originality, is bound to be Faustian, besides being emblematic of the artist’s position in a corrupt, manipulative, counterfeit world. Is this a correct interpretation of Wyatt’s central function as a Faust figure?
William Gaddis: It is, yes, originality also being Satan’s “original sin” if you like. I think also, further, I tried to make clear that Wyatt was the very height of a talent but not a genius — quite a different thing. Which is why he shrinks from going ahead in, say, works of originality. He shrinks from this and takes refuge in what is already there, which he can handle, manipulate. He can do quite perfect forgeries, because the parameters of perfection are already there.
—“The Art of Fiction No. 101,” The Paris Review, Winter 1987
Writers, if you can call them that, are cowards. They are afraid of being too different from one another. Easily the most pernicious lie they tell themselves is that they have a calling — that they belong to a metaphysical caste with others like them in some ineffable way. This quality may not be something within their powers to describe, as they’d be the first to admit, but that won’t stop them, for they are writers. They will find the words. By an irritating logic, writers may be accidentally correct in this belief of a species-wide likeness, the likeness being that silly belief.
When there is no writing out there to speak for itself, the writer talks about writing. Maybe they write a story about it. Or an essay. Or they read a story/essay about writing, which is an elegant way of avoiding writing, because it provides a writerly fog that nearly simulates writing itself. It’s all very tiresome, because of course you can’t properly write about writing — you just drone on about “the process,” or your close attention to the texture of this world, or your drinking problem, or whether MFA programs destroyed the craft (as if there was anything to destroy). Leaving aside the obvious benefits of a good writing workshop — deadlines, clashing viewpoints, sex — it’s clear they feed the fantasy that writers can coexist at a single set of coordinates. They allow a frivolous, narrow habit to resemble a vocation.
This has already been written about, exhaustively, and writing about it further will only encourage more of that same writing. When a writer writes what we’ll call a book, that book is pitched and sold as a book in the model of other books that came before, and the writer is identified as a writer happily related to several successful writers. This is utilitarian shorthand after a fashion, but it also reinforces the fear of originality. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis blurbs its author as both “heir to the shredding wit and poignancy of Dorothy Parker and the shrewd surrealism of Donald Barthelme” (Donna Seaman, Booklist) and a writer whom there is “no one like” (Catherine Holmes, The Post and Courier). Well, which is it?
Admitting that language succeeds through contagion and mutability, it seems redundant to insist that no writer is truly original. But in despairing at that unattainable, likely unpublishable ideal, writers retreat too hastily into the traditional romans-á-clef, the same stunt journalism that a cycling of taste demands. The reasoning appears to be: if you can’t be a unique writer, have the markings of a generic. Glamorize your squalid room in the bohemian part of a bright metropolis. Peddle opinions on the books you read (if you read). Consort with other writers.
Except how friendly can two writers be? They are jealous of each other’s luck, scornful of each other’s methods. Slander flies thick behind backs. And because writers can focus on the business of books while overlooking books themselves, there is little need to have arguments about what has actually been written. Instead of Nabokov gleefully demolishing Dostoyevsky’s idea of the psyche, or David Markson noting mystic “bullshit” in the margins of DeLillo’s novels, it’s an unpacking of a critique of the hyperbole around Jonathan Franzen. This would be writing, not feeling.
What dark, original feelings writers have — and suppress in the interest of community — are purged as the calculated outbursts of token enfants terribles and bitter old cranks (the former smoothly becoming the latter, as Martin Amis can attest). To parse a book’s account of reality, consciousness, and time is to fly too close to the sun; the stakes are simply too high. Better to pigeonhole the prose style. To fetishize the small, lovely sentence. To address the writer’s eccentricities off the page, which he or she is transparently eager to name. Writers, assigned to write about other writing, skip over the gut reaction to nitpick, evading the biggest questions posed. Frightened of their problematic voices, they adopt synthetic tones, stripped of all that troublesome bias but saddled with its outcomes regardless. A century after William James, no one will confess to having a temperament.
You could have ignored the remarks above, and no harm would have befallen you. They are not especially provocative, in that there is nothing to provoke. It is unclear who should actually care what they mean. None of them are meant to suggest that things used to be different, or will soon change, because who knows how things used to or will be. Writing is just what some people do, whenever they stop writing about it. It is an art, as Gaddis had it, for which we can set the parameters of perfection. Why we should want to is, for the moment, beyond answering.
Image credit: design.mein/Flickr
“Calvin and Hobbes” has begun reappearing – in reruns – in newspaper funny pages around the country as a way to promote what will surely be among the big-ticket book gifts during the upcoming holiday season, The Complete Calvin and Hobbes. The 1440 page, 22 and a half pound, three volume, slipcased behemoth is an attempt by the publisher Andrews McNeel to recreate the success of its similarly mammoth offering from two years ago, The Complete Far Side. Judging from the current Amazon ranking of the Calvin and Hobbes book (81), it looks like another high-priced winner for the publisher. Meanwhile, Bill Watterson, the famously reclusive artist behind the strip, is still not speaking publicly, and newspapers around the country are notifying their readers of the beloved strip’s brief return with a palpable sense of disappointment. For example in the St. Petersburg Times:We announce their return with, shall we say, bridled joy. For starters, this is not permanent; Universal Press Syndicate is offering the feature only through Dec. 31. And the strips have been published before.Will Watterson ever make a comeback, as, I suspect, so many newspaper comics fans hope, or should we just shell out the dough for this voluminous shrine to the best strip to grace the funny pages, well, in my lifetime, anyway. (With apologies to “Bloom County.”)
The CS Monitor gives us some tidy capsule reviews of the finalists for the National Book Award in the fiction category. These should get us all up to speed. And also check out Dan Wickett’s interview with the book bloggers, and not just because I’m one of the interviewees. There’s some good stuff in there. Have a good weekend.
Lots to report… first in Max’s writing news, the new issue of period magazine has been posted. It features the little piece I posted here earlier about Dodger Stadium. I like it, but it sure seems awfully short up there on the page. At any rate, it’s a pretty neat little online mag, eclectic and just for fun. Now, on to more pressing matters. I had a full and eventful last 3 days. On Friday, I saw The Yeah Yeah Yeahs at the Henry Fonda Theater. It was the second time I’ve seen them, and I was more or less equally as disappointed as I was the first time I came to LA. I still enjoy the music, and I think the EP is great little chunk of rock and roll, but they don’t seem to have the heft to carry a show in venues as large as the theaters they’ve been playing in LA. In fact, in vast cavernous spaces like the Henry Fonda and the Palace (where they played their first LA gig) the rock energy sounds hollow. Plus, I’m not really into Karen O’s onstage antics…. I mean I love onstage antics as much as the next guy, but it seems like she’s just mugging for the camera.On Saturday, quite unexpectedly, I had a remarkable, unforgettable experience. While I was working the cash register Gabriel Garcia Marquez came into my bookstore. I was floored. He is absolutely one of my heroes, perhaps my favorite writer of all time (or as I have occasionally phrased it “the best writer of all time”). He wandered slowly around the store, taking his time, looking at various books. When he came up to the register, another, younger gentlemen joined him, and he translated for me as I talked to Marquez. It turns out that he speaks very little English. Mostly, I talked to him about Maqroll since Alvaro Mutis is one of his oldest friends, and since I love that book so much. Plus I felt a little strange about talking to him about his own books. He told me that there will be no more novellas about the Gaviero and his friends, but that Mutis continues to write poetry in which Maqroll plays a central role. He also signed some books for me, including the Spanish-language edition of his autobiography which he inscribed “Para Max, del amigo, Gabriel Garcia Marquez 2003”.How fucking cool is that! I also got some signed copies of his other books. They have quickly become some of my most prized possessions.Last night, Easter Sunday night, I went back to the Henry Fonda to see The Faint and Les Savy Fav. I had never really heard The Faint, but I’m really into Les Savy Fav, and I’ve been dying to see their legendary live show. They didn’t disappoint: lead singer Tim Harrington’s antics (remember: I love onstage antics as much as the next guy) had a charming easter motif to them, and he made good use of chocolate bunnies and jelly bean filled plastic eggs. For the last song, he brought a few dozen people on stage and everyone really rocked out. The Faint followed, and while I don’t really get their electro-goth sound, their video projection light show was impressive… plus the kids really seemed to dig it. Finally, if you haven’t checked it out already. Go to 3wk It’s the best internet radio in the world.