Though Elizabeth Crane’s All This Heavenly Glory is billed as a collection of stories, after just a few, I shifted into novel mode, which was easy to do, seeing as the whole collection is about one character viewed in many snapshots from the age of 6 to 40, Charlotte Anne Byers. Those who who have read Crane before will be familiar with her rambunctious, elbows-flailing prose, in which the dependent clauses become so laden that they at times break free into outlines and lists. The effect of this stylistic departure from standard convention is, miraculously, not at all gimmicky, because a) Crane manages to keep those piled up words from toppling over, and b) it is in keeping with the persona of the character that she has created to inhabit this book. Because All This Heavenly Glory, necessarily, touches upon many trials and tribulations of girlhood and womanhood, it seems likely that it will have the “chick lit” moniker attached to it at some point. So be it. But what this book really is is an unflinching character study of a complicated person. Charlotte Anne is raised on the Upper West Side, comes of age in the 1970s in a family branched by divorce and remarriage, and endures a decade of being lost in her 20’s – both geographically and spiritually. She is both foolish and clever, endearing and infuriating, hopelessly falling apart and really good at “having it together.” Not all at the same time, of course. Crane tells Byers’ story episodically, filled with details and discursions, and though the book threatens to come apart under the pressure of Crane’s furiously frantic stylings, she manages to pull together an overarching narrative that is telling and poignant, less – and therefore more meaningful – than the sum of its frenetic parts.
I finally read one of the essential books for foodies: Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain. Professionals in various fields that undertake writing and succeed always impress me. Bourdain is no exception.Kitchen Confidential comprises personal reflections, culinary information and the dos and don’ts of the restaurant business. Bourdain’s personal progression from rich kid to college dropout, Culinary Institute of America (CIA) student, junkie, cokehead, alcoholic, line cook, renegade chef, and finally the chef of the venerable Les Halles in New York is an interesting story all by itself. The personal accounts are frank and straightforward. Bourdain disparages and applauds, albeit silently, his actions at every turn. The reader sees that, like Bourdain, most kitchen crews are made up of misfits who chose the hard, chaotic and demanding life of working in a restaurant instead of holding down steady, predictable jobs.Kitchen Confidential provides tips on what kind of kitchenware to use, little tricks to improve your dinner parties, and – most importantly for me at least – what not to order in a restaurant (hollandaise sauce, it turns out, is a pit of bacteria; the fish specials are mostly the chef’s effort to unload old fish on you; if you order a steak well-done, chances are you will get the “tough, slightly skanky end of sirloin that’s been pushed repeatedly to the back of the pile”). The stories paint the kitchen as a machismo hell where all talk and jokes revolve around cock and balls, an endearing term is “motherfucker,” and women have to tough it out (or preferably give it right back to you, tenfold) to prove their worth.Bourdain also reflects on the politics and demographics of a kitchen, the importance of the sous-chef, gathering information about employees, keeping a good inventory, and dealing with distributors. Each topic is accompanied by funny and engaging anecdotes; the Bigfoot chapter, where Bourdain reflects on a West Village character who is famous among restaurant workers and suppliers alike, is full of them. Bourdain praises Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and Ecuadorians at length for their efficiency in the kitchen, dedication to work and stellar work ethics; all qualities that are of great help in busy kitchens. Bourdain openly states that he’ll take a Latino over a pompous white line cook any day and explains the reasons in detail. You’ll think twice about immigration politics after reading Kitchen Confidential.Towards the end of Kitchen Confidential the reader learns about Bourdain’s trip to Tokyo, where he had the hard task of improving Les Halles Tokyo’s kitchen. In the Mission to Tokyo chapter Bourdain’s enthusiasm for all kinds of food and his reasons for choosing the rough life of a chef become apparent: love of food and all the adventures and misadventures it presents.I was upset when I finished reading Kitchen Confidential, and now I’m hungry for more Bourdain stories. I briefly satisfied my appetite by reading his reflections on the latest Israel-Lebanon war, “Watching Beirut Die,” which he wrote for Salon.com. I enjoyed the piece and was glad to see that Bourdain’s writing skills apply to areas outside his kitchen as well. I am still, however, longing for the main dish, which I hope to have soon in the form of his new book The Nasty Bits.
Among its many other splendors, the Web has created a market for a strain of ancillary fiction that takes the characters and themes of an existing story – George Lucas’s Star Wars, say, or Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight – and creates a new story designed to shed light on the existing one. Fan fiction, it’s called. So far, fan fiction has focused mostly on genre stories, especially sci-fi and fantasy, but there’s no reason literary fiction can’t have its own fan fiction – and perhaps the quickest way to kick off the trend would be for literary authors to write a little fanfic of their own.
To a certain degree, this appears to be what has happened with the publication of Adelle Waldman’s “New Year’s,” a Kindle Single timed for the paperback release of her 2013 breakout novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. “New Year’s” is a fully rendered work of literary fiction, just short of novella length, but the story, helpfully subtitled, “Nathaniel P. as Seen Through the Eyes of his Friend Aurit,” almost certainly wouldn’t exist, at least not in this form, were it not for the paperback release of Nathaniel P. Genre writers have been releasing these add-on stories for some time now, but this is among the first I have seen from a literary author, and it’s illuminating, both in terms of the risks a talented writer takes in rushing out a story to meet an artificial deadline, and more broadly, as an object lesson in the risks writers face when the traditional obstacles to publishing a work of fiction fall away.
I am, for the record, an admirer of Waldman’s writing and of Nathaniel P., though I recognize it isn’t for everybody. Waldman’s characters live in certain self-consciously liberal neighborhoods in Brooklyn and are nearly all upper-middle-class, attractive, well-educated, and to some degree freakishly successful in the arts. There are people out there, one is given to understand, who are not quite so lucky in their intellectual capacities or their socio-economic circumstances – a phenomenon Waldman’s characters respond to by writing sympathetic essays, which they hope will land in prestigious magazines and further their careers.
Waldman’s fictive universe is, in short, a bit hard to take. But she possesses a rare gift for dramatizing psychological insight, and in Nathaniel P., her first novel, she focuses on Nate Piven, a thirty-year-old novelist, who like so many young Brooklyn artists, lives in mortal terror of having to one day grow up. In Nate’s case, this terror takes the form of an abiding fear of commitment in romantic relationships – which, after all, lead inevitably to marriage and children – and in the pages of the book, we watch Nate skillfully manipulate a girlfriend into breaking up with him.
It’s riveting in its way, especially since Waldman is so good at exploring the ways intelligent people can be so blind to their own monstrousness. In “New Year’s,” Waldman’s emotional radar remains quiveringly intact, but the story itself is as slack and shapeless as a Sunday morning at a Brooklyn coffee house. The plot, such as it is, turns on whether Nate and Aurit, an Israeli-born writer who was a minor character in the original novel, will become a couple. But Waldman seems only intermittently interested in this central narrative, and instead fills page after page with backstory about Aurit’s school years, which too often reads like one of those background histories actors write for themselves to help them get into character.
We learn, in excruciating detail, how after her family’s immigration from Israel, Aurit was desperate to fit in with the crowd at her suburban Boston middle school, but clueless about fashion and American pop culture, found herself passed over by her classmates who saw her as hopelessly “bespectacled, bookish, [and] brown-skinned.” Later, thanks to some savvy clothing and hair choices, Aurit pulls off a “punk-inspired asexual, alternative look,” and following a pre-college weight loss, she acquires an actual boyfriend. None of this is unconvincing as social detail, nor does it make Aurit seem less worthy a subject for fictional treatment, but it does make one hanker for the, um, story to begin.
When it finally does, it’s over before the reader has a chance to savor it. While hanging out together after a New Year’s party, Nate tells Aurit, “You give me feedback I don’t get anywhere else.” This is as close as a man like Nate comes to a statement of undying love, and it gives Aurit reason to think they might become more than friends. Then, all too quickly he returns to form, an overgrown man-child incapable of a mature relationship with a woman – and we’re done.
What’s most maddening about this is that, setting aside that long dry spell about Aurit’s teen angst, there is a kernel of a great story here about the difference between romantic love and the platonic kind. Everyone has had a close relationship that works better as a friendship than as a romance, and at some half-drunken moment of intimacy, everyone has wondered why. “New Year’s” seems a story poised to answer this very human question, and then, for some reason, it simply doesn’t.
Writing great fiction is a little like hitting Major League pitching – even the best in the game fail to get a hit seven times out of ten. But here one can’t help wondering if the ease of its publication may not have also played a role in the story’s failure to fully engage. In an analog world, Waldman might well have wanted to tell a story from the perspective of a minor character that provided insight into the protagonist of her recently published novel – to write a bit of self-initiated fan fiction, as it were – but she would have faced some thorny logistical problems.
For one thing, virtually no one publishes stand-alone novellas in print. Perhaps Waldman could have trimmed it to a more standard story length – pruned some of that backstory about Aurit’s formative years, say. But even then she would have had to find a literary journal willing to take the story on its own terms, not merely as an online add-on to a paperback release, or she would have had to wait until she had enough other publishable stories to make a full collection.
It is unwise, of course, to make too much of one misbegotten story. We are still in the experimentation phase with Web-only publication, and the point of experiments is that they don’t always work. One can only imagine what a restless mind like William Faulkner’s would make of a world in which an author wishing to fill in extra detail about an existing literary world need only write up the story, slap a title on it, and post it to the web.
At the same time, though, when it comes to literary fiction, perhaps we should be mindful of the special demands of print. The cost of printing and distributing physical books has never stopped bad books from being published, but it does raise the barrier to entry. It creates an intermediary rank of editors, agents, and publishers whose job it is to be rigorous with authors, forcing them to make their work as strong as it can possibly be. If the Web is the future of fiction – and how can it not be? – we don’t want to stifle innovation. Still, it’s a mistake to make it too easy for writers to reach readers, because part of what makes a story good is how many hurdles it has had to jump before it finds its way to a reader’s hands.
Whenever I work on a piece of writing more than a few days, I create a “dump file” where I can store my many false starts, failed scenes, and tin-eared snatches of dialogue in case I change my mind and decide to use them anyway. On longer projects, I also create a fresh file each month so I can track the progress of the project and raid old drafts for bits I wrote better the first time. This digital version of the overstuffed file cabinet has saved me more times than I care to count, but it is increasingly clear to me that if I ever have the misfortune to get famous, I will need to delete all these old files and throw my hard drive in a lake somewhere. If I don’t, and a work of mine achieves lasting value, then my children and grandchildren, abetted by scholars and editors with dollar signs in their eyes, may well spend the decades after my death boring the hell out of my readers with all my failed early drafts.
Something like this has recently happened to Ernest Hemingway, whose only living son, Patrick, and his grandson, Seán, have collaborated on a new edition of A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway’s great novel of World War I, that includes some of Hemingway’s early drafts as well as 47 versions of the book’s ending. This “Hemingway Library Edition” is, as these sorts of things go, relatively respectful and old-school. For one thing, unlike recent “book apps” of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, this edition has been published in an old-fashioned hardcover format. It also presents the full, original novel without intrusive footnotes or in-text commentary, leaving the variant versions for a series of appendices at the end of the book.
Thus, in of itself, this new edition, while not especially illuminating, is in no real way pernicious except perhaps in that it represents yet another effort to cash in on the Hemingway name, which has already given us three (lousy) posthumous novels, two (somewhat better) non-fiction books, and shelves full of lame compendia of Hemingwayiana with titles like Dateline: Toronto and Hemingway on Fishing. Papa himself said in a Paris Review interview, “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.” Hemingway, for all his faults, possessed a first-rate shit detector, and one wishes he had passed the apparatus on to his progeny.
What is a little disturbing about this new edition is how neatly it dovetails with the proliferation of literary ephemera now attached to almost any modern publishing enterprise. Look inside the original edition of most novels published before, say, World War II, and you will find a title page, some information on the publisher, perhaps a brief inscription or dedication, and a novel. Today, novels are sandwiched between pages of disingenuous blurbs, excerpted reviews, extended author bios, author interviews, reading group guides, lists of further reading, and, in some cases, whole chapters of the author’s next book. Acknowledgements pages, once brisk, business-like paragraphs noting some genuine debt of scholarship or financial assistance, have expanded to essay-length Oscar Night speeches listing everyone remotely associated with the book from the agent’s receptionist to the author’s childhood buddies and companion animals. This doesn’t even touch on the extra-literary ephemera of author webpages, book trailers, online Q&As, Facebook posts, how-I-wrote-that-book craft essays, radio appearances, book-group appearances, and reading tours.
There’s nothing truly new in all this – authors have been shilling for their own work since the early days of type – but as readers’ appetite for extended chunks of uninterrupted gray print declines, writers and publishers seem compelled to add ever noisier bells and whistles. For living writers this can mean anything from investing in a cool-looking website and writing mindless what-was-on-my-iPod-while-I-wrote-my-novel pieces for magazines to dressing up a back-cover bio with references to every quirky-sounding job they’ve ever held. For dead authors, this means remaking an old classic, either by asking some famous living person to write a new introduction arguing for the classic’s continued relevance or by providing “new” material to entice readers such as lists of rejected titles or rough drafts of well-known passages. Either way, the novel itself, the thing all the other stuff is supposed to be talking about, can get lost in all the salesmanship and curatorial noise.
Of course, the noise isn’t always incidental to the work itself. For a writing course I taught in the mid-1990s, I assigned two versions of a Raymond Carver story, one called “The Bath,” published in an early book of stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and the second, a much longer rewrite of the same story called “A Small Good Thing,” published years later in Cathedral. In both versions, a little boy is killed in a traffic accident just after his mother has ordered him a birthday cake, and the baker, enraged when the woman never picks up the cake, makes menacing calls to the mother about her son. The first story, however, ends with the baker’s last menacing call, while in the later, longer version the boy’s parents confront the baker, who comforts them with an offer of warm bread straight from the oven.
In class, I posited that the first version, written while Carver was still an active alcoholic, represented his bleak vision of a world of senseless evil while the later version represented his vision as a recovered alcoholic of a world in which one could confront evil, make sense of it, and even draw sustenance from it. I was pretty pleased with my critical acumen until a few years later when D.T. Max revealed in the New York Times Magazine that, in fact, “A Small Good Thing” was Carver’s original version of the story, which his editor Gordon Lish had radically revised and retitled, cutting the story by more than a third and eliminating entirely the redemptive confrontation with the baker.
Not only was my analysis of the two stories wrong, it represented a fundamental misunderstanding of Carver’s life and work. In 2007, when The New Yorker published online a version of Carver’s story “Beginners,” showing how Lish had bludgeoned it down to the much shorter story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” that wasn’t literary ephemera at all. The edited version of “Beginners,” with its strike-throughs and expurgated passages, was a heartbreaking work of art in of itself, giving voice not only to Carver’s artistry but to his poignant reliance on a powerful editor who, against Carver’s will, forcibly remade a great writer’s work into his own.
Though both men may have been depressive alcoholics, Ernest Hemingway was no Raymond Carver, and his editor, Max Perkins, thankfully suffered no Lish-like delusions of grandeur. Thus, while the Hemingway Library Edition of A Farewell to Arms offers an occasionally charming glance at the private scratch pad of a great writer as well as some mildly informative insight into how the book came into being, its revelations are several ticks on the Richter scale below earth-shaking. It is fun, for instance, to know that Hemingway, who thought about titles only after he finished a book, considered so many truly godawful ones in this case. Would you want to read a war novel called Love Is One Fervent Fire? Or Death Once Dead? Or, God forbid, One Event Happeneth to Them All? Evidently, Hemingway considered all these and many more even worse ones before making a note to himself, “Shitty titles,” and going with A Farewell to Arms.
In the case of the novel’s famously problematic ending, after plowing through all 47 fragments, I found myself preferring a slightly longer ending Hemingway used in the first published version, which was serialized in Scribner’s Magazine. That ending, which fills the reader in on the later lives of several of the main characters, struck me as being more in keeping with the elegiac poeticism of some of the book’s finest passages. But in the final analysis, who really cares? A Farewell to Arms, which I hadn’t read in years, is such a marvelous, eye-opening book about daring to love and be loved in the midst of senseless slaughter that it renders such critical quibbles pointless.
That’s the problem with all this literary ephemera, the websites and the “P.S.” sections, the critical editions and scholarly footnotes: they divert attention from the work itself. When the work isn’t very good, when it’s just so-so, the diversions can be welcome. For instance, a few years back, I enjoyed Sloane Crosley’s book of essays, I Was Told There Would Be Cake, but when things got slow, as they did for me a few times, it was fun to zip over to her website and check out the insanely great book trailer, featuring a man’s trousered fingers walking around a miniature apartment while a voice-over warbles, “Your fingers are just fingers, my fingers wear pants. They walk and they talk and they poop and they dance.” But when a book is as good as A Farewell to Arms, a wise editor should know when to get out of the way and let the work stand on its own.
So, do yourself a favor: skip the Hemingway Library Edition and find a cheap paperback of A Farewell to Arms. If you need some historical context, you can read John Keegan’s excellent history, The First World War, or Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory. There are a bunch of Hemingway biographies out there, but you can start with Carlos Baker’s classic Hemingway. Or, you could just skip all that and read the book.