- Any John Keegan fans out there? Here’s a review of his latest book Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to Al-Qaeda from the New Zealand Herald. I’m looking forward to reading this one.
- The Brits have something called the WHSmith Book Award, which is basically a “people’s choice” award for books. If you are so inclined, you can vote now. Some interesting nominations include Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in the adult fiction category, former professional wrestler/current professional novelist Mick Foley‘s Tietam Brown in the debut novel category, and LA Weekly contributor Geoff Dyer‘s book Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It in the travel category. I wonder how something like this would go over in the States.
As reported at The Complete Review, FSG has announced a publication date for Roberto Bolaño’s massive final work, 2666. In both hardcover (912 pages!) and softcover (a three-paperback boxed set!), the book will hit shelves on November 11, just in time for the birthday of a certain Bolañophile I know. I’m picturing a more adult version of the Harry Potter release parties: customers queueing up outside their neighborhood bookstores at 11 p.m. the night before, wearing small round spectacles, smoking cigarettes and scribbling poetry on toilet paper. I suppose it’s time we started figuring out how to get blogger to accept tildes. [Ed note: We’ve got them this time, but it takes no small amount of HTML wrangling.]But seriously, folks: 2666 offers a bright spot at the end of what some observers believe will be a wrist-slittingly bad year for hardcover fiction sales. Not incidentally, it belies a number of pieties: that there’s no market for work in translation, that literary fiction is a tough sell… The New Directions and FSG publicity departments have been canny custodians of the Bolaño franchise, and the result has been an unmixed good: the introduction of an important Spanish-language writer to an American readership hungry for good books. I’ve had mixed reactions to some of Bolaño’s shorter works, translated by Chris Andrews (I’m currently working my way through Nazi Literature in the Americas), but Natasha Wimmer’s translation of The Savage Detectives was easily the best new novel I read last year.2666, which I’m surmising relates to The Savage Detectives somewhat in the way The Silmarillion relates to The Hobbit, was mentioned on our “Most Anticipated Books” list for 2008. There had recently been some speculation that it would appear again as a most anticipated book for 2009. It’s impressive that, amid what appears to have been lots of pressure to produce, Ms. Wimmer managed to deliver a manuscript in time for this year’s winter holidays. There’s something a little unnerving about the idea of translating under the gun, but in this case, Ms. Wimmer’s process may have mirrored Bolaño’s own; the author had to race to finish his magnum opus before liver failure took his life when he was fifty.Bonus links:Natasha Wimmer interviewed at The Quarterly ConversationFrancisco Goldman surveys the Bolaño canon
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.
If you haven’t seen the action in the comments of Garth’s reply to n+1’s column on litblogs, it’s worth a look, as the discussion has, shall we say, flowed onward. Mark, meanwhile, has begun posting “an irregular featurette” called “The n+1 Letters” in which he revisits the correspondence he has had with the magazine in question. Here at The Millions we tend to take a more dispassionate view the literary scuffles that crop up from time to time, but being in the middle of this one hasn’t been entirely unpleasant. It’s entertaining at the very least.Update: Scott has expressed his queasiness with the tack Mark is taking, and I’ll admit to sharing that discomfort. (I would not republish private correspondence without permission.) Also, n+1 editor Keith Gessen has now left a comment at the original post.
When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold and the ditch he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Not in a weird way. The nights dark beyond all reckoning of darkness, days endless gray. He rose from the reeking sleeprags and looked towards the east for a hint of light. Long ago snuffed by lowhanging dust, crusted and festering whoremouth. In the dream from which he’d wakened he and the child had wandered in a cave, scrounging for rotted batmeat. Shadows playing the walls like clownpuppets, the whitegloved fingers gnarled and ginshaken. Encircled by the dim, an abattoir lullaby. They came to a great stone room within which lay a longdead lake, its water stagnant and foul. And on the far shore a eunuch mime, naked save for a filthy gray cravat. Dead eyes milky and hollow. With a thin straw to its dirtscarred lips, it knelt, sipping from the brack. It heard their steps, craning its mimeneck to see what it could not. Skin translucent, ribs charbling and swortled, the heart beating tiredly. Facepaint smeared. It waved sadly in their direction, for it could not speak. Then it scuttled into the inky blackness. The man shook his head in the freezing predawn. No more peaches before bed.
With the first gray light he rose and walked out to the road and squatted and studied the country to the south. Godless and blasted. A madman’s timeshare. The trees dead, the grass dead, the shrubs dead also. The rivers dead. And the streams and reeds, the mosses and voles. Dead as well. He glassed the ruins, hoping for a shred of color, a wisp of smoke, a faroff Cracker Barrel. There was nothing but swirling gloom, a grasping murk. He sat with the binoculars and the gray, and thought: the child is my warrant. If he is not the word of God God never spoke, although he might have scribbled something on a paperscrap and passed it along. He bit hard on his blistered upperlip. If only I had thought to give him a name. If only.
An hour later they were on The Road, an Oprah’s Book Club selection. He pushed the cart and both he and the boy carried knapsacks in case they had to make a run for it. Cannibal rapists, roving bloodcults. Greenpeace volunteers. In the knapsacks were essential things: tins of food, metal utensils, a broken Slinky, a canopener, three bullets, a picture of ham. He looked out over the barren waste, the scorpled remain. The road was empty, as was its wont. Quiet, moveless. Are you okay? he said, quotation marks dead as the reeds. The boy nodded. Then they started down the road, humming a sprightly tune. The tune was silent, and unsprightly.
In time they had arrived at a roadside filling station. It was still and precise, a blaggard’s assbath. Ashcovered and freighted with doubt. They stood in the road and studied it. The windows were unbroken, the pumps intact. I think we should check it out, the man said. There might be snacks. Cheez-Its, maybe. The boy looked on as he entered an open door. The man, not the boy. Nothing in the service bay save for a standing metal toolbox, a trash-filled wastecan. Waterlogged tittymagazines. In the small office, ash and dust, soot and flumb. A cashregister, a telephonebook, a metal desk. He crossed to the desk, standing over the phone. He picked it up and punched at the numbers. Three three three, three three three, three three five three three. The boy stood at the door. What are you doing? he said. The man hung up the phone. Jingle Bells, the man said.
In the service bay he tipped over the trashdrum and sorted through the plastic oilbottles. Then they sat in the floor decanting them of their dregs, standing the bottles upside down to drain into a pan. This reminds me of ketchup, the man said as he watched the slowdraining oil. The boy brightened. Can you tell me about ketchup, Papa? the boy said. Please tell me. The man stared, remembering another world entire, a world of jellies and mustards, of condiments boundless. Perhaps later, he said. I’ll tell you about ketchup later. The boy watched the slowing oildrip, chin in his hand. Okay.
On the far side of the valley the road passed through a fearsome charswath. Blackened and limbless trees, ashblown and dead. On a distant rise, the heatscorched ruins of a farmhouse. Tilted roadside lightpoles. Faded billboards advertising motels, the use of irony. An abandoned Vespa. Are you having fun? he said. The boy hesitated, shook his head. Are you sure? Yes, the boy said. I’m sure. The man looked out over the blasted land, the pebblestrewn waste. Impressions? the man said. The boy kicked at a small black rock. No, said the boy. The man’s heart ached. The boy used to love his impressions.
That night they lay beneath their filthy plastic tarp as rain fell from a godless heaven. After stowing the cart in a jagged roadside scarp, they had found a spot a good distance from the road. A thick copse of deadburnt spruce. The dirt underhead was hard, and with the wind and the cold and the running viscous ash it was difficult to sleep. Can I ask you a question? the boy said after a time, his teeth chattering.
Yes. Of course.
Are we going to die?
Sometime. Not now.
Okay. Tomorrow maybe?
No. Not tomorrow. Not for a long, long time.
Oh. Why not?
Because we’re going to be okay.
The boy considered this. Okay, he said.
There was silence for a time. Then the boy spoke again. But could we maybe die the day after?
No. I will protect you. No matter what.
Okay. The boy paused. But what if we did? Or maybe just me? Could I maybe die?
The man laughed into the tarpgrit as thunder pealed across the wet, bleakened valley. And leave all this? he said.
I’m in the middle of the most recent National Book Award winner The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard. It’s an oppressive book both in style and content. Each description comes with an aside or a qualification. When one character, a young Australian soldier, relieves himself on the side of the road during a break in a drive across the Japanese countryside, Hazzard describes it this way: “The young driver, profiting from the hiatus, had meanwhile peed behind bushes.” Everywhere there are these odd little inclusions like “profiting from the hiatus.” The book is about the occupation of a shattered, destroyed, and conquered place, specifically the Allied occupation of post-war Japan. There is still everywhere the lingering hysteria of war, which Hazzard, like the occupiers she describes, tries to forget or ignore by imposing a false civility on the situation. The interplay of the conquered and the conquerors thus leads to dense language and curious juxtaposition. The Great Fire reminds me a lot of what was probably the first truly difficult book I ever read, Graham Greene‘s, The Power and the Glory. In that book, the “civilized” is a priest and the uncivilized is the tropical criminality of Mexico. Luis Bunuel once suggested to Alvaro Mutis, purveyor of his own brand of magical realism and author of the incomparable The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, that it is not possible to write a gothic novel that is set in the tropics. Mutis supposedly refuted this by writing The Mansion & Other Stories, though I can’t comment because (as of yet) I have been unable to lay my hands on that book. So, at this point, I would have to agree with Bunuel. In order to invoke the tropics one must also invoke the oppressiveness of the conditions there; content dictates style, which brings me back to The Great Fire. Though the book is not set in the tropics, its setting is oppressive, and thus so is the writing. And though I’m only a little ways into the book, it doesn’t seem like this is a bad thing.
Canada’s national airwaves took on a decidedly literary tone last week with the latest installment of Canada Reads. This annual, week-long competition began in 2002 when five celebrity readers went to bat for the Canadian book of their choice. The panel would convince and cajole each other and at the end of each day, they would vote one of the contenders off the literary island. At the end of the week, one book survives.The 2007 winner is Lullabies For Little Criminals, by Heather O’Neill, and championed by Winnipeg songwriter and poet John K. Samson.In O’Neill’s novel, the 12-year-old narrator, neglected by her junkie father, “collects and covets the small crumbs of happiness she finds as she navigates the streets of Montreal’s red-light district.”Lullabies beat out Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis, (championed by Barenaked Ladies singer Steven Page), The Song of Kahunsha by Anosh Irani, (pitched by writer Donna Morrissey), Children of My Heart by Gabrielle Roy (defended by journalist Denise Bombardier), and Timothy Taylor’s Stanley Park (whose praises were sung by Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy).This year’s contest was an all-star competition, as each of the panelists had successfully championed the previous five winners:Page’s pick in 2002, Michael Ondaatje’s wonderful In The Skin of The Lion, set in the immigrant communities of Toronto between the two world wars, won that year’s contest.In 2003, Bombardier’s pick Next Episode by Hubert Aquin, was victorious. Cuddy outsung the competition in 2004, giving victory to Guy Vanderhaeghe’s The Last Crossing. In 2005, the crown went to Rockbound by Frank Parker Day, and pitched by Donna Morrissey. And John Samson’s first taste of victory came last year with his winning defense of A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews.Note that these books (and their contenders) include novels, short fiction and poetry, and are as likely to be drawn from Canada’s rich literary tradition as from the latest offerings from publishers. I might quibble with some of the choices (that Leonard Cohen’s second novel Beautiful Losers lost in 2005 still irks me, and I sided with Scott Thompson in his pitch for Mordecai Richler’s Cocksure in 2006). Still, sour grapes aside, it’s tremendously healthy for a country to be occasionally reminded of its often-overlooked literary past.Those of you who have read my bio or my Millions contributions over the years know that I don’t shy away from slipping a mention of my favorite songwriters and musicians – past and present – wherever I can possibly fit them in. So with that in mind, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that this year’s and last year’s championing defender, John K. Samson is himself, one hell of a songwriter, and three albums by his band, The Weakerthans, sit proudly in my record collection. Samson is also a founding publisher of Arbeiter Ring Publishing, specializing in social and political works.