In other book news, I happened to catch a reading of a very interesting book on the radio last night. Here in DC we have C-SPAN radio, and they occasionally air the audio from their “Book TV” broadcasts (Yes, radio in DC is pretty bad, and that’s why I end up listening to C-SPAN radio). The book was The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime by William Langewiesche and his account of the sinking of the ferry Estonia in the Baltic Sea was riveting. Also in the book: modern day pirates in Indonesia and the Department of Homeland Security’s attempts to secure 95,000 miles of American coastline.
In an item posted last weekend, we wrote, "Senator Arlen Specter realizes that there's no way to endear yourself to Republican primary voters like writing for The New York Review of Books." The item should have read: "Democratic primary voters." We apologize for the error.
Last night Derek and I went to a party at a squat on Western in a no-man's-land area of LA. Apparently, the kids who were squatting there are about to be kicked out, so this was one last bash. We went because the Sharp Ease were playing. Several other bands were playing as well, and throughout the show people were sporadically destroying the place, a set of abandoned apartments above a non-descript furniture store. The place was already very trashed from months of parties. The doors to many of the rooms had been ripped off the hinges and the graffiti-covered walls were pockmarked with holes and dents. The Sharp Ease played their usual, drunken, high-energy set, and the crowd got pretty rowdy. By the time they finished singing, people were tearing down the walls and launching things - cans of paint, small appliances, cinder blocks - through the windows and leaving a litter of glass and debris all over Western Ave. Derek and I, sensing that it would get worse before it got better, drunkenly headed back to our homes.
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
Jonathan Yardley is probably my favorite book critic. Since I'm from Washington DC, and he is the elder statesmen of book reviewing for the Washington Post, my affinity for Yardley probably is at least in part due to home town bias. But Yardley also manages to go beyond the simple grading of new books that so many crics engage in. He also delights in guiding his readers to the myriad great books that are out there yet somehow hidden from view, be they long forgotten or merely obscure. Having such a trusted guide to the literary world can prove invaluable. His assesment of the year 2002 in books alone is enough to provide a plentiful pile of great new books to work through. State of the Art is a truly enlightening assesment of the last 125 years of American literature, and a must read for anyone who thinks they've covered all the classics. Finally, his occasional series, Second Reading, "reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past." The latest installment is a look at The Autumn of the Patriarch, the most overlooked of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's. As a big fan of Marquez, this article is really a treat for me, especially since I have never gotten around to reading Patriarch. By the way, did I ever mention that I once met Marquez.More Leonard MichaelsFolks must have really dug the fantastic Leonard Michaels story in the New Yorker this week, because many of this week's visitors arrived here by searching for his name.
Not too long ago, on a book finding expedition, I found a whole cache of old Granta magazines. Granta is very cool journal devoted to both short fiction and on the ground reporting of international conflicts and events. It attracts fantastic writers who tend to be relatively unknown to Americans, and so it tends to deliver angles on stories that you don't see in the American press. Case in point: the other day I was, briefly, between books, and I picked up one of the old Grantas that I have lying around (this one was Autumn 1989). One of the stories I read was a first hand account of the Tiananmen Square massacre by a BBC journalist named John Simpson. I have always found first-hand accounts of these sorts of events to be the most fascinating type of news reporting. (The best I read this year were John Lee Anderson's "Letters From Baghdad" in the New Yorker.) Simpson's story on Tiananmen Square was both enthralling and terrifying, he captures a brutality that most of the Western world did not see. Immediately after I finished the article I wondered: is this piece in a book somewhere and has this guy written anything else like this? This answer to both questions is yes. Simpson's World: Tales from a Veteran War Correspondent came out in August and it's filled with close encounters with dictators and on the scene dispatches from all the major world conflicts from the last couple of decades.