From the book I’m reading right now: “The black serpent of stung vanity had sucked all night at his heart.”
Last week, the internet buzzed about and puzzled over the newly unveiled cover of Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, forthcoming in September. While Franzen is sure to grab many headlines in the months to come, we’re also intrigued by Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, which also sports a cover with a blue and white color scheme. Along with the cover above, we have the book’s opening paragraphs below. Fates and Furies has so far been cryptically described as “an exhilarating novel about marriage, creativity, art, and perception,” and, as you’ll see, the book wastes no time, uh, introducing us to its protagonists.
Two people were coming up the beach. She was fair and sharp in a green bikini, though it was May in Maine and cold. He was tall, vivid; a light flickered in him that caught the eye and held it. Their names were Lotto and Mathilde.
For a minute they watched a tide pool full of spiny creatures that sent up curls of sand in vanishing. Then he took her face in his hands, kissed her pale lips. He could die right now of happiness. In a vision, he saw the sea rising up to suck them in, tonguing off their flesh and rolling their bones over its coral molars in the deep. If she were beside him, he thought, he would float out singing.
Well, he was young, twenty-two, and they had been married that morning in secret. Extravagance, under the circumstances, could be forgiven.
Her fingers down the back of his trunks seared his skin. She pushed him backward, walking him up a dune covered in beach-pea stalks, down again to where the wall of sand blocked the wind, where they felt warmer. Under the bikini top, her gooseflesh had taken on a lunar blue, and her nipples in the cold turned inward. On their knees, now, though the sand was rough and hurt. It didn’t matter. They were reduced to mouths and hands. He swept her legs to his hips, pressed her down, blanketed her with his heat until she stopped shivering, made a dune of his back. Her raw knees were raised to the sky.
He longed for something wordless and potent: what? To wear her. He imagined living in her warmth forever. People in his life had fallen away from him one by one like dominoes; every movement pinned her further so that she could not abandon him. He imagined a lifetime of screwing on the beach until they were one of those ancient pairs speed-walking in the morning, skin like lacquered walnut meat. Even old, he would waltz her into the dunes and have his way with her sexy frail bird bones, the plastic hips, and the bionic knee. Drone lifeguards looming up in the sky, flashing their lights, booming Fornicators! Fornicators! to roust them guiltily out. This, for eternity. He closed his eyes and wished. Her eyelashes on his cheek, her thighs on his waist, the first consummation of this terrifying thing they’d done.
It is of passing interest to me when a site like Gawker gets bookish. So they did on Saturday in a typically hard -to-peg post about Ben Kunkel’s piece in this weekend’s NY Times Book Review in which the “it-novelist” discussed the new Nirvana biography, Nirvana: The Biography, by Everett True. I often have no idea what is being said on Gawker. Are their writers simply sarcastic, or are they being cleverly sarcastic about their use of sarcasm?My best guess is that the gawkers generally dug the review. To the extent that this assessment is accurate, I concur. The new Nirvana book sounds a little lackluster. How many biographies of Nirvana can we as a culture absorb? I myself have read two, Michael Azerrad’s Come As You Are, and Christopher Sandford’s Kurt Cobain. What I have taken away from these books, and what Kunkel articulates in his review, is that Nirvana is a tough nut to crack: “What does ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ sound like when you’re in your 30s, as Kurt Cobain, dead at 27, of course will never be?” It sounds to me like the epitome of artistic-commercial conflict, but I’m only 29. To wit, Nirvana, the ferocious guitar-pulverizing punk band, sounded best on an unplugged album. Not surprisingly Ben Kunkel, who cut his literary teeth chewing on twenty-something angst, sounds pretty good discussing the band.
Some new books that are getting lots of praise, and some excerpts from those books:Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis — review, excerptLittle Black Book of Stories by A.S. Byatt — review, excerptYou Remind Me of Me by Dan Chaon — review, excerptCrossing California by Adam Langer — reviewAlso of note: the creation of the Man Booker International Prize has been announced. From the press release, “Worth £60,000 to the winner, the prize will be awarded once every two years to a living author who has published fiction either originally in English or whose work is generally available in translation in the English language. The first winner will be announced in mid 2005.” Now Americans will finally be able to get their hands on a Booker.
The bad news is that the intensity of my grad school program is forcing me to post links in lieu of more substantial efforts. The good news is that I have really good links to tell you about.Some of you may see yourselves in “Thomas H. Benton” an assistant professor whose book collecting is “more than a gentle madness.”A remarkable collection of the top 100 American speeches of all time. There’s a transcript available for each one, and, in many cases an mp3 of the audio.Do you remember diagramming sentences in elementary school grammar class? I sure do. If only there had been a computer to do it for me. (use “guest” for login and password so you don’t have to register.)As I was mentioning before, grad school is getting to be very time-consuming, and, since I want to keep The Millions viable, I am currently soliciting the services of guest posters. It could be a one time thing or you could be a regular. If you’re interested, email me and we’ll discuss.
Skimming through the CS Monitor book section I came upon a capsule review describing Because She Can by Bridie Clark as the latest example of “assistant lit.” I assume that this trend hit the big time with the success of The Devil Wears Prada, and the subsequent movie version. But just as some see Jane Austen as a precursor to so-called “chick lit,” I wonder if “assistant lit” has some historical antecedents.One fairly obvious example that comes to mind is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, perhaps the ur-assitant lit, in which the sympathetic Bob Cratchit is put upon by his terrible boss Ebenezer Scrooge, who has become something of a model for penny-pinching bosses ever since. But in that case, the action focuses on the boss, and we don’t get much of Cratchit being forced to do Scrooge’s laundry.Another, much more recent example – which actually came out after Prada – might be Rick Moody’s ambitious novel The Diviners, which offers a bleak (and not altogether successful) take on the humiliating plight of the assistant, while also, more or less, attempting to chronicle the downfall of our vacuous, celebrity-obsessed civilization.Then again, it might just be that the book that many consider to be the father of the novel, Don Quixote, also happens to be the very first example of “assistant lit.” Sancho Panza fits the bill as he is endlessly put upon by a boss who manages to both domineering and moronic. For those who have been assistants, as I once was, Don Quixote and his maddening whims will likely call up memories of capricious bosses.But certainly there must be other examples of assistant lit that long predate the current trend, or like The Diviners turn it on its head. Can anyone think of some other good examples? Share in the comments.
Eudora Welty edited her writing with scissors in hand to cut out and re-pin sections of text. Truman Capote fancied himself a horizontal writer: he would only work lying down, with a glass of sherry close at hand. Anthony Trollope maintained a rather more industrial regimen, beginning his day promptly at 5:30 a.m. and pacing himself with a watch to write 250 words every 15 minutes. Then there’s Friedrich Schiller, who occupies an idiosyncratic camp all his own. Schiller kept a drawer full of rotten apples in his desk. When Goethe found them, Charlotte Schiller explained that her husband couldn’t write without the putrid aroma wafting through his study.
In Odd Type Writers: From Joyce and Dickens to Wharton and Welty, the Obsessive Habits and Quirky Techniques of Great Authors, Celia Blue Johnson details the secret formulas and sources of creative inspiration. These bizarre minutiae of the writing process are an attempt at answering the age-old questions about artistic creation: where does inspiration come from? What conditions make masterpieces possible? How do great minds work? The ancients explained poetry and art in terms of the muses, which was not an explanation so much as an affirmation of the sacred mystery. In the age of how-to guides and do-it-yourself manuals, we’re eager to shed light on the intricacies of practice and method, to find the patterns in the big data. The irony of these juicy anecdotes is that in their attempt to get behind the mystery, they end up re-mythologizing the creative process all over again.
To be sure, there are some useful lessons to extract. For instance, a surprising number of writers took vigorous daily walks long before science had connected exercise to productivity and creative output. Some walked to get away from work, to clear the mind of words and embrace direct experience; others, to ruminate on their scribbled pages and return to the pen with renewed vigor. Wallace Stevens actually wrote while walking, composing poetry on slips of paper. Daily word quotas are also popular (1,000 for Jack London; 3,000 for Norman Mailer; and 1,800 for Thomas Wolfe), as are pets. Edgar Allan Poe granted his tabby, Catterina, the status of literary guardian, while Flannery O’Connor kept the company of domestic poultry and Colette studied the fur of her French bulldog, Souci, until she felt ready to write.
Daily Rituals: How Artists Work charts the schedules of visionaries from Mozart to Milton and Thomas Mann in order to figure how they found time to “do it all.” (The underlying promise is that by studying their schedules, maybe you can figure out how to do it all too.) Many worked for brief but intense blocks of time, either in the morning or late evening. Coffee seems to have been a popular creative stimulant, but so was alcohol and tobacco. In other words, our creative heroes did many of the same things that non-geniuses do. Artistic production is marked in equal parts by idiosyncrasy and mundane routine, but neither perspective gets much closer than the Greeks did to answering the question. If anything, the attempt to unveil THE PROCESS shows how fascinatingly—almost theologically—opaque the origins of art really are.
The close cousin of the great minds exposé is the artist’s self-help book—books like Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit or Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. They, too, are interested in process and how to cultivate the habits that make inspiration possible.
Tharp, a world-famous choreographer, tries to bust the myth of genius by insisting on practice and hard work, while Cameron, writer and ex-wife of Martin Scorsese, offers a comprehensive twelve-week program to recover your creativity. The books mean well, no doubt, but they’re made profane by their resemblance to, say, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. And they’re fraught with tension—the tension between discipline and creativity, between outlining a formula for artistic success and highlighting the many eccentricities of the successful.
Why try to engineer masterpieces anyway? The idea smacks of our tendency to make a science out of every imaginable pursuit—to break down creation into actionable insights, to imitate—with the help of models and charts—what is, by definition, inimitable. The Greeks got something right when they neglected to explain inspiration. They let art be art—the divine in man, not the data-crunching.