One more thing, I almost forgot. Oprah’s Book Club reappeared today with the odd selection of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. As always, there is a special new “Oprah” edition of the book. I think the cover for this one is by far her most self-aggrandizing yet, especially when you consider that this is a classic of American literature. Oprah’s cultish Book Club has, from the start, been offputting to real readers, and, despite the hiatus, it’s clear that little has changed. Maybe Oprah is trying to take the moral highground here by picking a book by a dead writer for whom winning the Oprah lottery could mean nothing (Steinbeck won’t be rocketing from obscurity to fame like some of Oprah’s previous annointed ones). Another plus: Steinbeck can’t pull a “Franzen” and complain about being selected. Furthermore by calling Steinbeck’s masterpiece “The book that brought back Oprah’s Book Club,” she can freely imply some kind of intellectual parity between the book and the Club. The phrasing of the blurb, as well as it’s huge font and placement on the cover, is just shocking, as though East of Eden. is some blockbuster of Oprah’s creation and not the staple of American fiction that most folks read in high school. It seems that Oprah is quite smug in her assumption that not only has the American public never read this great book, but we’d never even heard of it until Oprah was kind enough to bring it to our attention. Wonders never cease… Coming next week, another healthy dose of Harry Potter Mania. Open Wide.
I like to travel but flying makes me anxious. On a plane, I am cramped in a seat for hours, with little to do but to inhabit the abyss of my mind. I wish I could shut out the world and sleep, but the incessant chatter of fellow passengers, drone of engines, and upright seats keep me awake. When I was fifteen, on a fourteen-hour sojourn from Hong Kong to Vancouver, the legroom was so scarce that my knees hit the seat in front of me. Somewhere near the International Date Line, I began eyeing the emergency exit doors. I wanted to open them and jump into the sky.
These days I live in Denver, where most major American cities are two to four hours away by plane. I travel often, whether for work or for pleasure, and on these short flights I see the proverbial light at the end of the aluminum tunnel before we depart, as long as I have earplugs and something to keep me occupied. I cannot seem to work or write, though I wish I could — imagine how much I could get done. What I need, I have found, is a good book. But there is airplane reading and airplane reading.
I write poetry, but I cannot read poetry on a plane. I picked up Cynthia Cruz’s third collection Wunderkammer when it came out and brought it with me to San Francisco the next day. Wunderkammer is saturated with images of old world Europe — the cover is a sepia photograph of James Joyce’s daughter Lucia dancing at a Parisian ball — yet the book made me think of California. Cruz’s poems blend decadent imagery with tense, controlled lines she pushes to breaking; perhaps I saw in her style an antidote to California’s excess. In any case, I wanted to read the book. But after two or three poems, I needed to take a walk and the trip down the aisle to the bathroom was nowhere near enough. I needed space to dwell in the silences of the work.
I also remember trying to read Djuna Barnes’s modernist novel Nightwood on a return flight from Miami. Granted, after a madcap Halloween weekend of drinking and boating on Biscayne Bay, I probably would not have been able to read a grocery list, but as much as I loved the gorgeous rhythms of Barnes’s language, I could not follow the ellipses in the story. I have not picked up the book again. I keep looking at it on my shelf, wanting to get back into the thorny opulence of its world, but Nightwood strikes me as a book that demands all of our inner resources, which lately I have not been able to marshal in my everyday life, much less in the brain fog I get at 35,000 feet.
Oddly, it’s the personal essay collection that seems to soothe my nerves on the plane. I read Melissa Broder’s essay collection So Sad Today on a recent flight to Charlotte, beginning when we took off from Denver, taking a break in transit in Minneapolis, and finishing just as I saw the lights of my destination in the night sky. It was a dream: the world fell away and reassembled just as I returned to land. So Sad Today is not an easy read: Broder writes about her experiences with anxiety, depression, addiction, and abjection, among other things. I especially loved her meditations on her husband’s chronic illness, their open marriage, and the love that sustains a long relationship. I had to close my eyes after each essay, reassessing the stories I tell myself about my life, but I kept reading. There is a thematic unity to the collection, but each essay could stand by itself, a perfect capsule of intensity that engaged my restless mind on the plane.
Another good experience: reading Wendy C. Ortiz’s Hollywood Notebook while flying to Boston last summer, on the way to Provincetown for a writing workshop. The book, which Ortiz calls a “prose poemish memoir,” was born out of a blog Ortiz kept when she lived in Hollywood in her late twenties. The ninety short chapters range from a few lines to two or three pages, from meditations to lists and quotes, charting the banalities and epiphanies of a young woman trying to figure out who she is as a person and an artist. In the three hours I spent with Hollywood Notebook, I reflected on my own circuitous path to writing, the places I want to go in my own work. I did not find answers, or even questions; for a moment, I was content that my thoughts remained amorphous.
As much as I love reading personal essays, I rarely write explicitly from my life. At this point, it is not the genre that best channels the questions I am asking in my work. But I learn a lot from these writers who examine the interstices of life that we — or at least I — tend to overlook. I learn a language to describe the recesses of my mind that I would rather avoid. And on the plane, I can read personal essays without the anxiety of comparison.
Some years ago, I met Chloe Caldwell in Portland. Her book Legs Get Led Astray, which chronicles her early twenties in New York, had just appeared that year. I said that I had read it on a plane — I don’t remember which now, but it might have been that very flight to Oregon. She wrote in my copy of the book, “A book for airplane rides.” I still have it on my shelf. I look to it as a reminder that we can write from the idiosyncrasies of our experiences, whether in life or in the sky.
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
On day ten of our recent cross-country drive, it became clear that we had twenty hours left of driving and no more music and nothing to say to each other again, possibly ever. At one point we realized that we were fools and that for ten days we could have been listening to audio books instead of children’s programming on the Focus on the Family radio station, which is evidently the only radio station broadcasting in some portions of the country, which explains a lot of things about a lot of other things.We went to a Barnes and Noble in a strip mall in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and found that our audio options mostly consisted of self-help, Janet Evanovich, Sean Hannity, and six ponderous Classics. Moby Dick, at twenty-one hours, was the closest to our remaining driving time, so that was our pick. To my great shame, I have tried and failed to read that novel a number of times. It’s not the length, but the alarming density of it. The sentences, while exquisitely made, are exhausting, so many of them one after another like that. I had never listened to a book on tape, because the concept sounded too confusing, but I thought it might be an ideal format for this, my own white whale (if you will).And it was great! We were having such a fun time with Ahab and Queequeg and the gang, and during the parts which made my eyes glaze over in reading (like the whale classifications and whatnot), I could just look out the window and listen to the dulcet tones of Audie Award™ Winner Frank Muller!We had just finished disc six of eighteen, somewhere around chapter forty, and I went eagerly for the next one. Only to find that instead of discs 7-12, we had been given two sets of 13-18. There was a lot of suffering in the car at that moment. My traveling companion suggested, with choice words, that we call the company and have a representative read us those chapters over the phone. Unsurprisingly, however, their solution was to mail the missing discs. To our home, in which we will have no need for an audio book. It’s so obvious that I am never finishing Moby Dick.
Buzz Poole’s Madonna of the Toast documents the mysterious appearance of icons sacred and profane, in rock formations, housewares, and foodstuffs the world over. A potato chip shaped like Bob Hope? It’s here. Vladimir Lenin on a shower curtain? Likewise. And it wouldn’t very well be Madonna of the Toast without the titular grilled cheese, which – you guessed it – NEVER GOES BAD.Poole has launched a blog where observers of related paranormal phenomena can document their encounters. If you’ve recently run across a Charlotte Bronte-shaped underarm stain, or a puddle that looks like William Shatner, we can only suggest you head over to the blog and share your experience… Inquiring minds, after all, want to know.