Last fall, a student at Academy of Art University in San Francisco was expelled for writing an extremely violent short story for a creative writing class. In the fallout, the instructor was dismissed after it was revealed that she had assigned the class to read a somewhat graphic story by David Foster Wallace prior to the incident. At the end of March the San Francisco Chronicle broke the story and incited a furor among a number of the country’s literary luminaries. I first heard about this at Scott McCloud’s blog (scroll down to 4/4). McCloud had heard about the scandal from Neil Gaiman (author of American Gods and many others), who had been the recipient of an email sent out by Daniel Handler AKA Lemony Snicket, the children’s author, after Handler was barred from speaking at the Art Academy. Handler’s forceful ejection was recounted here, where we also see that Dave Eggers and Michael Chabon are going on the attack. All of which brings us to today’s opinion piece in the New York Times, in which Pulitzer prizewinner (for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) Chabon muses in a pleasantly obscure way about being a teenager under a headline that, rather oddly, references Jonathan Lethem’s most recent novel. So, what does this all mean? Here’s my prediction: Team American Contemporary Writers will place enough pressure on the Academy of Art that it will be forced to issue a public apology. The fired instructor will get hired at another liberal-leaning university, and the expelled student will sign a lucrative book deal on his way to becoming the next Bret Easton Ellis. Most folks who are commenting on this believe that it is indicative the American fear of the teenager that lingers from Columbine. That is most definitely true, but it is also indicative of the fact that the Academy of Art University in San Francisco faculty and administration don’t seem to be very adept at handling a minor crisis, nor are they particularly well-read. Gaiman mentions this on his blog: “according to Daniel Handler they got a letter of remonstrance from Salman Rushdie, and didn’t recognize the name,” and according to the Chronicle story, “[the Academy of Art administration was] none too pleased that the instructor was teaching Wallace’s story. “Nobody had ever heard of him,” [the instructor] said. “In fact, they kept calling him George Foster Wallace.” (Thanks to my friend Brian for forwarding the Times op-ed to me this morning.)
Humans have at least one really redeeming quality. We are loath to abandon a good story. In light of cold, hard facts, our imagination, an engine fired by hope and curiosity, suspicion and fear, will and wish and programmed for storytelling, pushes back. For the last week of December, on Twitter, the Central Intelligence Agency rounded up #Bestof2014 — its ten most-read blog posts and declassified documents from the past year. Number one was a somewhat gently redacted 272-page PDF about an overhead reconnaissance program tested outside of Las Vegas, at a site the agency acknowledges by name as Area 51. “Reports of unusual activity in the skies in the ’50s?” the CIA tweeted. “It was us.” Lockheed spy planes flying at the then unheard altitudes of 60,000 feet and above, sure, but not extraterrestrials casing the planet in saucers. By simply cross-referencing UFO sightings with flight logs, the agency said it was able to rule out more than half of the reports. The reaction? To the bureaucratic dispelling of Area 51, one of the great American wonderlands?
“@CIA Nope, I am still going with aliens from outer-space.”
“@CIA Sorry, but this is STUPID! The USAF began investigations in the late 40s, and #UFOs were seen in abundance all over the US.”
“@CIA with all those redactions 64 years later… who could deny Aliens.”
Squinting into the night, thinking we are not alone…even believing we have routinely been visited upon by a greater intelligence, is one thing. But then there are the creatures presumed indigenous to Earth. From diehard mythos (vampires) to diversions in cryptozoology (the Skunk Ape). In November, BBC published news of an 18-month period in Scotland, which, for the first time since 1925, had failed to produce any confirmed sightings of the lake monster initially reported 1,500 years ago by the Irish abbot and missionary Saint Columba. (By the father’s account, Nessie roared and tore a man “with a most savage bite,” but was driven away by the sign of the cross.) “It’s very upsetting news,” an accountant who apparently moonlights as the registrar of sightings said of Nessie’s recent disappearance, “and we don’t know where she’s gone.” Fresh witnesses came forth shortly thereafter, but then so did a local forest conservation group, which had the bad taste to offer a reasonable explanation: the rivers were washing woodland deadfall into Lake Loch Ness, logs and branches, they suggested, which could look an awful lot like a brontosaurus-style neck on the water’s foggy stage. For believers this was, as one commentator put it, “profoundly unsatisfying.” (A more satisfying explanation, which the BBC noted, is the fact that circus elephants were sometimes exercised in that lake.)
These episodes recall what happened in 2012, when Animal Planet broadcast Mermaids: The Body Found. The faux documentary blended some real science — such as the aquatic ape hypothesis — and legitimate mysteries — such as an unexplained sound recorded during Navy sonar tests — with the sexiest writing and editing television has to offer. It was a narrative feat of speculative biology that claimed merfolk actually exist, and here the proof. “As if we didn’t have enough probably fictitious but possibly real beings to worry about,” The New York Times pooh-poohed. But Mermaids became the station’s most-watched telecast since the Steve Irwin memorial special aired in September 2006. Indeed, it scored the highest ratings of any Animal Planet program, ever, and with so much of the public convinced, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration felt compelled to issue a statement. The official federal position was (is): “No evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found.” Tumblr, a mood board, erupted — “95% of the ocean is undiscovered. You can’t tell me mermaids don’t exist yet.”
There are, of course, deep, necessary reasons for all of the above. Mythology, as Karen Russell often observes, speaks to perennial aspects of human nature. Half-human creatures are vehicles for reconciling our species on the continuum of other beasts. Monsters are projections of an atavistic unease — born of the sense that something bigger and badder is out to get us (because for the long course of mammalian history, something was). These stories get weird and totally out-of-hand, but they never end.
I’m thinking of the hilarious Victorian novel Cranford. I was just about finishing it, and noticing the CIA’s roundup in the periphery, when the modern new year rang in. Here was a corner of civilization awash, clinging to habits and opinions morbidly out of date. In the last chapter, Peter Jenkyns returns to entertain the village women with tales from afar. He tells them about the time he was up in the heights of Himalaya, hunting, when he accidentally felled an angel. The Honorable Mrs. Jamieson does not call bullshit. “But, Mr. Peter,” she howls, “shooting a cherubim — don’t you think — I am afraid that was sacrilege!”
Art by Ellis Rosen, illustrator of Woundabout by Lev Rosen, forthcoming from Little, Brown.
Garth gets interviewed about Brooklyn and various literary topics by Jessica Stockton Bagnulo at The Written Nerd.My ideal day would involve writing all morning, lunch, writing until about four, riding my bike to get coffee and sit outside and read, writing a little reaction to what I’ve read, and then, right at the edge of mental exhaustion, going to a bar with some friends. And dinner should be in there somewhere. Amazingly, I get to have my ideal day with some regularity, especially in the summer. That might be possible anywhere, but I still feel a debt of gratitude to Brooklyn for making it possible.He makes Brooklyn sound like paradise.
The book that sent the most people to this site this week via the search engines was Moneyball by Michael Lewis. This book and the flap surrounding it has been a huge story on sports radio so it’s no surprise that there are quite a few people looking for more info. The new books that have people talking this week are not a big surprise. An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963 by Robert Dallek a noted presidential biographer, revealed the news that JFK had an ongoing ralationship with an 19 year old intern codenamed “Mimi.” “Mimi” then broke her 40 year silence and went to the press. Don’t be surprised if her book shows up soon. The other book in the news is The Clinton Wars by Sidney Blumenthal which is, according to the reviews I’ve read unabashed in annointing the Clinton years as paradise on earth. The book I talked about most this week was The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis. It is by far the best book I have read in a long time, and now that several friends have read it, our new hobby seems to be speculating on the whereabouts of the mysterious Maqroll the Gaviero. Read it…Judge a book by its coverI have come to notice during my time at the bookstore that, compared to the Brits, American book cover design is pretty dull. It seems that publishers are convinced that the only way to sell books to Americans is to make the covers as bland and non-threatening as possible. Compare the American cover of Hunter S. Thompson’s new book to the British one and you’ll see what I mean.
Finishing a book is a great accomplishment, but does a writer revel in it? A rock star plays the last note and the crowd roars, a gymnast sticks a landing and thrusts her arms into the air, and an actor walks on the stage to take a bow. How about a writer?
As I embarked on the project of asking writers how it felt finish a book, I was reminded of what Kurt Vonnegut said about a reviewer who rages about a book, “He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.” Vonnegut speaks to the post-publication feeling of being reviewed, often hot and gooey, but also goes some way to describing the feel of publishing a book from writer’s perspective.
How did it feel to finish your book? I asked nine writers.
What I found was a group of people who seemed to have put on full armor — broadly acknowledged to be the minimum protective gear needed to get through a book length project — only to be tackled by a hot fudge sundae. They were in various states of recovery. Most had chocolate sauce still dripping from their chins.
Bream Gives Me Hiccups, actor Jesse Eisenberg’s book of stories, will be published September 8. As one who has stood under the lights, he might carry a sense of a finale into fiction. When I asked, though, he said, “I mainly write stage plays, so most of what I have written has been intended to be performed. In that way, finishing a book of short stories feels, by comparison, incomplete because there is no cathartic performance of it.”
Patrick deWitt might agree as catharsis remains elusive. His novel, Undermajordomo Minor, comes out on September 15 and he remains in a restless state, “I still find myself considering the galleys, almost daily, reviewing this or that section, thinking of little things I might tweak.” He made clear, however, that the book is actually finished, “I’m not prepared to say goodbye to it yet.”
How long will this continue for deWitt? Sonya Chung pointed out that the flaws in a published novel might be, “fundamental flaws of the self.” She went on to say, “like the self, a novel is never really finished: pencil markings abound throughout my copy of my first novel Long for This World, which has been in print and between covers since 2010.” There could be trouble.
I found small relief in Lori Lansens’s mix of emotions. The author of The Mountain Story said, “typing those final lines — doesn’t bring a sense of euphoria for me, but relief, supplanted by fear merging with pride, upended by grief.” She also acknowledged the personal connection, “I imagine I’ll feel exactly the same way when I send my son off to college.”
It could be that Nicholas Ripatrazone has already sent a kid to college in Texas or somewhere close, as he felt a release after finishing his novel Ember Days. For him, “place comes first in the genesis of a story.” As New Mexico and Texas dominated the narratives, now that the book is published it has freed him up, “to reach beyond the Southwest and allow new settings to guide my fiction.” When my kids leave the house, may I also fly free.
Hannah Gersen showed wisdom in allowing the finish of her as yet untitled novel to sneak up from behind, “I wrote the final sentence of my novel without knowing that it would be the last one.” Perhaps this is why she was able to find a quiet and peaceful place. “That was it. I was done. My mind got really clear and calm.”
I wouldn’t exactly describe Mark Schatzker, author of The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food and Flavor as clear and calm, but he was enthusiastic as he talked about the experience of writing non-fiction. He sold the book proposal first and then set out to write the story. “The world, as always, turns out to be stranger and more amazing than you imagined. And you lose yourself in a story — a true story — that has never been told before.” That sounded fantastic and couldn’t wait to hear what happened, was it a triumphant end? “Then I pressed send,” he said. “And it was over.”
I did find jubilance in Jonathan Evison who talked of his novel that will publish on September 8. “Finishing This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! felt triumphant.” But where there was a now party, there had once been pain: “The early drafts were a mess. They were stultifying in their linearity. I didn’t have my ‘aha’ moment until very late in the game. Once I re-imagined the structure, the final draft wrote itself in two weeks.”
Naomi Jackson said of finishing: “ending was also a beginning.” She described how triumph and pain came together, “I knew that finishing The Star Side of Bird Hill meant giving it over to readers, and allowing something that had been private for so long to enter the public sphere. This moment of opening myself and my book up to the world was thrilling and terrifying in equal measure.”
How does it feel to finish? The answers range from delicious to messy to many things in between. Schatzker, as a food expert, was able to precisely describe the sensation in a way that could double for the feeling of being tackled by a hot fudge sundae. “It’s relieving, it’s gratifying, it’s sad, but above all, it’s weird.”
Image Credit: Flickr/Official U.S. Navy Page.
I’m going away for the weekend. But just in case anyone is in dire need of a book recommendation while I’m gone, try The Count of Monte Cristo. Here’s what you’ll be getting: “Set against the turbulent years of the Napoleonic era, Alexandre Dumas’ thrilling adventure story is one of the most widely read romantic novels of all time. In it the dashing young hero, Edmond Dantes, is betrayed by enemies and thrown into a secret dungeon in the Chateau d’If — doomed to spend his life in a dank prison cell. The story of his long, intolerable years in captivity, his miraculous escape, and his carefully wrought revenge creates a dramatic tale of mystery and intrigue and paints a vision of France — a dazzling, exuberant France — that has become immortal.”Other NewsApparently Arthur Phillips will be following up his best-selling debut novel, Prague, with a thriller about an obsessive Egyptologist, called The Empty Chamber.
My favorite book critic, Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post, has put out his list of the year’s best books. He also takes the opportunity to make some comments about the National Book Awards controversy.My own view is that the literary judgment of the National Book Award panelists was clouded by their desire to Make a Statement (as, for that matter, was the judgment of their compatriots on the nonfiction panel), but it’s just my opinion and is worth no more than the paper it’s printed on, if that.He self-aware enough to note that books he has chosen are “by men, and mostly men of a certain age, which as it happens is an age pretty close to my own.” I’m not sure if the other litbloggers – who went to great lengths to defend the five NBA finalists – will jump on Yardley because he seems to say that the five women are not worthy, but my feeling is that he, at least, makes it clear that these choices are about opinions, and his opinion happens to differ from the opinions of the judges. Now, on to his book choices: An Unfinished Season by Ward Just, The Plot Against America by Philip Roth (excerpt), Nothing Lost by John Gregory Dunne (excerpt), Roads of the Heart by Christopher Tilghman (excerpt), and Human Capital by Stephen Amidon (excerpt). Yardley also lists his non-fiction picks in the column.Also out: 100 Notable Books of the Year from the New York Times.
The Millions numbers many excellent novelists among its staff. Today we reveal the cover of staffer Claire Cameron’s upcoming novel, The Last Neanderthal.
Following Cameron’s first novel, The Bear, which was long-listed for the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, The Last Neanderthal is the story of two women separated by millennia, linked by forces that will transform them both. Find it in stores May 2017.