My travels to the East coast last weekend swept away any doubt about the importance of the current wave of bestselling books about the Bush administration. In airport lounges, on planes, and in the New York City subways people everywhere are getting their news, not from the Times or from the weekly newsmagazines, but from a handful of books by people who enjoyed unfettered access to the current administration. I especially noticed an abundance of copies of Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack as well as a handful of copies of Richard Clarke’s Against All Enemies, (which, at the moment, come in at number one and number six respectively on Amazon’s Top 100). The content of these books is interesting, but so is the phenomenon behind them. According to many who have been following this trend, we are in uncharted territory. In the Times, David K. Kirkpatrick explains why all of this is unprecedented and suggests that the administration’s vigilance over the information that ends up in newspapers and magazines has caused a spillover into books. Here is the article.
The plight of the literary magazine and the demise of the short story are often bemoaned here in the US, but compared to the state of things in Britain, America is paradise for short story writers and readers. So says a recent essay in the Guardian, which hopes that a newly announced short story prize – worth 15,000 pounds, the world’s richest – will ignite a passion for short fiction in that part of the world. According to Aida Edemariam, who penned the essay, in Britain, size matters: The British attitude to the short story – that it is somehow lesser, a practice space for the real thing, which is, of course, the novel; that you can perhaps start out writing a collection of stories, but you have somehow failed if you don’t graduate to a minimum of 200 pages – has always baffled me. I cannot comprehend the underlying assumption that a particular kind of stamina is somehow better, of more value. It’s like privileging the marathon, or the 1,500m, over the 100m.After citing several examples of the form, Edemariam goes on to write: “I know these are North American examples, but it is there where, as (Dave) Eggers points out in his introduction to The Best of McSweeney’s Volume I, there ‘are probably over a hundred high-quality literary journals,’ that the short story is truly alive; disdain for the form is a British phenomenon.”Who knew we had it so good?
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.
Millions contributor Rodger Jacobs sent me a note about Hard Case Crime, an imprint that resurrects the pulp fiction format for “the best in hardboiled crime fiction, ranging from lost noir masterpieces to new novels by today’s most powerful writers, featuring stunning original cover art in the grand pulp style.” Among those powerful writers is Stephen King whose previously unpublished book Colorado Kid will join new titles by Ed McBain and Donald E. Westlake in headlining their 2005-06 lineup. Here’s Hard Case’s writeup on the new King book and here’s a sample chapter.
Spotted today under the arm of a student at a New York college: Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. I’ve written here about the speed of this author’s induction into the pantheon. Nonetheless, it was remarkable – to me, anyway – to learn from this student that TSD had popped up on an English class syllabus. For the record, the student reports that he likes the book so far. (Me, too, kid. Raciest required reading this side of The Kama Sutra. Comparative religion rules!) His other classmates? Not so much. I guess in our world – unlike Bolaño’s – youth is sometimes wasted on the young.
I got a free cd through work the other day. It’s called Stars and it’s by Kazufumi Kodama. I’ve been trying to track down more info on this guy, but so far I haven’t uncovered much. The music, though, is wonderful. It has a dub base to it, but it’s skeletal with computerized beats and the spare plinking of steel drums and xylophones. Over top of all that is a soaring layer of trumpet. At times it reminds me of the background music to video games back before they had their own soundtracks full of real songs. It is a very interesting listen though. I haven’t heard much else like it.
Mark at TEV has posted the first installment of his interview with John Banville, whose book The Sea has recently been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. This is the first of four installments that will appear weekly. Mark did a great job on this interview and I highly recommend it – it’s interviews like this, thoughtful and unpretentious, that show the true promise of book blogs.
Josh Ferris, who continues to do an admirable job filling in at TEV, noted today that Junot Diaz’s long-awaited novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao finally has a street date.The reason I’m so excited about this is that Diaz’s story by the same title in the New Yorker’s 2000 end-of-year fiction issue was one of the best stories that’s appeared in the magazine in the ten years I’ve been reading it. It is a story so good that I still remember talking to various people about in my then home city of Los Angeles, people with whom I never before or after talked fiction. It was a story that got around. And now, finally, it has blossomed into a book.Unfortunately, since the story dates from the NYer’s stone age era, it’s not available online, but a brief excerpt is available. In addition, Ferris at TEV has pointed to an audio interview of Diaz.Separately, (and also not available online), The Economist has a short but fairly glowing review of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, the debut novel of Paul Torday. “Every so often,” the review begins,a novel comes along that is quite original; think of Yann Martel’s enchanting Life of Pi, for instance. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is another oddball piece of fiction that – despite being told through dry diary extracts, e-mails and reports – is an amusing satire on the tensions between the West and the Middle East, and a commentary on the value of belief to mankind.