My nominee for this season at the LBC, The Cottagers by Marshall N. Klimasewiski, is being discussed this week. I hope you’ll join the discussion over there. My first post is on suspense and the contemporary novel.
In the back of the winter issue of n+1, you'll find both a revised version of the defense of literary weblogs I posted here last spring and a response from Marco Roth. It speaks well of the magazine that it would publish dissent as well as invite it (which is also, of course, a hallmark of the "lit-blog.") And, as I'm still doing my best to puzzle out some of the pros and cons of this new and evolving medium, I thought I might call your attention to an object lesson: the debate over B.R. Myers' review, in The Atlantic Monthly, of Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke.It's often a blessing that comment-thread controversies blow over without getting wider notice. Ideas that seem vital one week may seem irrelevant the next. But in my view, the conversation developing around Myers and Johnson - at Rake's Progress, at The Beiderbecke Affair, and now at Ed's place - illustrates some of the positive critical capacities of the medium.That conversation began in the kind of intemperate name-calling n+1 might deride - "B.R. Myers is Satan"; "Who's the Wanker?" - but it has broadened to encompass a number of substantial controversies - the responsibilities of the reviewer; the state of American fiction; politics and the English language. And it has helped me better understand Denis Johnson's prose style.When I read, and enjoyed, Tree of Smoke in June, I felt that its style was both an asset and a liability. Certainly, Johnson is an unusual stylist. And yet, when the first reviews and blurbs began to appear, I was surprised at how little attention was paid to his diction and syntax. "Prose of amazing power and stylishness," Philip Roth said, without bothering to explain how or why. Jim Lewis' piece in The New York Times Book Review amounted to a bizarre kind of abdication. Only John Jeremiah Sullivan, writing in Harper's, engaged with Johnson at the level of the sentence.In my own review (which I'm embarrassed to note also references n+1; this is turning into a bad habit), I attempted to account for what I felt was Johnson's wide margin of error. "Though there are passages and even pages through which I itched to run my workshopper's pencil," I wrote, "I would trade a dozen finely calibrated domestic comedies for a single chapter of Tree of Smoke.[Johnson's] sentences and dialogue, flirting with the poetic, violate the canons of understatement. Like the sentences of D.H. Lawrence, they seem to depend on the supernatural for inspiration. They may not always find it, but they are alive to the possibilities of language.To his credit, B.R. Myers, too, would pay attention to Johnson's sentences. Regrettably, he would pay little attention to anything else (the context in which those sentences appear, for example). His review does make a couple of copy-editorial catches: Would Buddhists think of their own icons as "bric-a-brac?" Can "someone standing in [...] a noisy place hear even his heartbeat, let alone his pulse?" In never moving beyond fastidiousness, though, Myers' Atlantic review takes on the flavor of agenda-driven cherry-picking. It attempts to persuade us, by fiat, that a sentence such as the novel's first - "Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed." - is bad.Critiques of Myers' motivations and methods are abundant elsewhere; I won't rehearse them here. But I wanted to point out what lit-blogs managed to do with that last sentence, which hadn't been done elsewhere. In an anonymous comment at The Beiderbecke Affair (anonymous because overheated and not fully thought through), I wrote: I like the way that pluperfect "had," strategically ungrammatical, sets us up to expect something to happen in the imperfect. Something has happened, the sentence tells us. Yes, Kennedy has died, but something else...something, presumably, more personal. Thus does the book announce (quietly) its aspirations to be something more than the settled history Myers - a myopic literalist - seems to wish it was.Then a commenter named Alan (who disagreed with some of my bloviations), suggested, This is quite right. Kennedy died at 1 PM US Central Time, which would have been 1 AM in Vietnam. So the sentence "Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed" is not actually trying to say that Kennedy died (perfect tense) at that time. That wouldn't make sense. What the sentence is doing is evoking the experience of a character who is awoken in the middle of the night in Vietnam to the news that Kennedy HAD BEEN killed. This narrative immersion in a character's point of view can also be seen in the following passage... Alan's comment is, I think, a small but meaningful exemplar of the critical capacities of an interactive medium, and of what close-reading actually does. Were this a seminar (which, at its best, the comment-thread approximates), the instructor might be saying, "Yes. Yes!" Rather than dismiss an unusual sentence, Alan moves from a puzzle over its meaning (centered on the verb tense) to an intuition (we've been thrown, without comment, deep into a character's point of view) that illuminates an important part of the formal architecture of the whole work.One wants only to add that a serious literary essay has at least two possible registers of persuasion. It can persuade those who haven't read the book, and then it can persuade those who have. I often feel that Myers is addressing himself almost exclusively to an audience that hasn't read the work under review, and that his aim is to convince them not to bother. Like Myers, I've been disappointed by Annie Proulx and Rick Moody in the past. But, having read them, I'm troubled by the gap between my experience of their work and the experience of their work Myers constructs. A good-faith critic should aim to write an essay that can be revisited after one has read the work and that will not then seem to collapse into flatulence. I admire this about James Wood. His essays are attempts to understand, rather than attempts to seem in-the-know, and they challenge me even when I disagree with them. In this way, he, too, offers a model of what literary discourse on the web can be. On the other hand, the valuable lit-blog conversation about Tree of Smoke seems to have arisen despite, rather than because of, the merits of B.R. Myers' remarks in print.
● ● ●
The other day I threw myself across the bed and began lamenting my writing career (or lack thereof). This is one of my hobbies--if not my favorite one, then at least the one at which I most excel. My husband (and fellow Millions contributor), Patrick, said, "Oh be quiet. You just want a two-book deal and Marion Ettlinger to take your author photo." The nerve! I might have thrown a pillow at his face, and went on with my self-loathing. You see, Patrick and I love to make fun of Ms. Ettlinger. She is probably the most famous photographer of authors, (she even has a book of them), and her images of Raymond Carver, Truman Capote, and Joyce Carol Oates are burned in the cultural retina. Her photos are black and white, with an antiquated vibe, as if we'd only recently progressed beyond Daguerreotypes. Her subjects look distinguished, serious, old fashioned. Perhaps it's that last quality--old fashioned--that rubs me the wrong way. Looking at these photos, I get the sense that the writers (even the young ones) are long gone, lost to an era when people gazed longingly out of train windows, mailed handwritten letters, or actually read books. I can't imagine any of these writers alive, moving their mouths, checking their email, eating dinner. Maybe that's the point: we want our authors to be Authors, unreachable and removed from the world of the reader. But as we head towards 2010, that's more and more implausible. Newsflash: writers live in the world. There are a few of Ettlinger's photos I like. The full-body shots are better than the close-ups. Take the one, for instance, of David Foster Wallace; his plaid jacket, his downward gaze, and the sky above, create a lovely, even haunting, composition. Or the one, of James Ellroy: he's gone whole hog with the photo's anachronistic qualities, and it's fun. Other full body shots, however, are a disaster. Hey, Melissa Bank, did you learn that pose in yoga? If I were to title this picture, I'd call it, "The Failed Seduction." We've all been there, Ladies, haven't we? Some of the close-ups, particularly of the women, are just weird. I hate when authors cup their own head with their hands. What, will it fall off? Clearly, the writer is trying to appear thoughtful. Most of the time, though, they look like they're starring in a pain killer ad. Ann Patchett and Amy Hempel's pictures are the worst examples of this, although, to be fair, this is an epidemic in many author photos, not just ones by Ettlinger. Browsing through these pictures got me thinking about other author photos. Many bad examples abound. There's the "I love my dog!" variety, a la Dean Koontz and J.A. Jance--somehow Ellroy doesn't fall into this category, perhaps because the dog in his photo looks hired, just another old-timey prop. There's also the Trench Coat Club, which is usually reserved for mystery writers, but we see it here, with Adam Haslett. And there's the "I'm just a harmless debut author" Club, wherein the writer strikes a more casual pose, and smiles like a well-intentioned, but potentially useless, babysitter. Aimee Phan is a good example of this, but she is just one of many. Lastly, there's the "My spouse took this picture the night before it was due" Club. I won't even bother with an example--just imagine your least-flattering Facebook picture, and you'll understand. Let me be clear: I am not damning these writers, or their work--far from it. It's simply the photos I protest. But getting one's picture taken for a book jacket must be a daunting task. How do you decide how to represent yourself to the reading public? You want to look serious, but not too serious! You want to look attractive, but not too attractive! You want to look young, but not...you catch my drift. It can't be easy. I remember an author-friend telling me he wanted to forgo the photo altogether. I said he couldn't, or else people would assume he was ghastly. And that's true. Only Thomas Pynchon and J.D. Salinger can pull off real anonymity. I suppose that if Marion Ettlinger ever calls me, I'll do my hair, slap on some eyeshadow, and ready for my close-up. Perhaps Patrick is correct: it is my most embarrassing fantasy.
● ● ●
For those of us wondering whether David Foster Wallace will ever publish another novel, the February issue of Harper's seems to augur something good. The magazine's "Readings" section features an excerpt from a "work in progress" Wallace first read at last year's Le Conversazioni festival (heretofore notable mainly for its photo-ops of writers in short pants.) The excerpt itself concerns an Illinois-based IRS auditor, and, though it's not a radical semantic departure from the stories in Oblivion, DFW is always good on bureaucracies, and on Illinois. A crackerjack ending had me eager to read more.Video from the Le Conversazioni reading is available.
New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert, whose global warming opus Field Notes from a Catastrophe has been much excerpted in the magazine of late, is blogging for the week at the Powells.com blog. From her first entry:When you write about global warming, you start to feel that a lot of what we all spend our time worrying (or blogging) about isn't what we should be worrying (or blogging) about at all. (Which isn't to say you stop worrying about it - or, I suppose, blogging.)By blogging, Kolbert is briefly joining another New Yorker staff writer who has taken up more permanent digs in the blogosphere.
Writing at home can be distracting and discouraging. It's hard to concentrate when surrounded by all your stuff. There's TV to watch, chores to do, people to call on the phone, a dog to walk. Days can go by without a word ever being put on the page. So writers seek refuge outside their homes to write in more conducive settings, a local coffee shop or University library, for example. Writers of a certain stature might attend a writers' colony hoping for a stretch of forced productivity, while others will fashion their own writers' colonies by secluding themselves in a rented office to toil away.With this in mind, two enterprising former MFAs in New York City, noting the need so many writers have for a place to write, have created Paragraph Workspace for Writers. As they describe it:Paragraph is a membership organization dedicated to providing an affordable and tranquil working environment for writers of all genres. We are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.Paragraph was created by writers for writers, with an understanding that writers work best in a quiet, comfortable space away from the hurry and obligation of urban life.For between $80 and $132 a month (depending on length of commitment and level of access) writers can use the space - a decked out 3rd floor apartment on 14th Street - as their own little writing venue. The online application for membership includes space for references, presumably to weed out the crazies. I can think of a few other reasons why this may not work - the more members the group gets, the less worthwhile the space becomes for each individual member; there are hundreds of places in New York that provide the same environment (though perhaps not the 24 hour access), starting with libraries; a writer in need of such a space is not likely to have the disposable income to spend on it - but who knows, maybe it'll work.
For the President's brother, you would think it would be pretty easy to get your first novel published. Especially when that novel includes a thinly fictionalized account of life with the President's father. You'd be wrong, though. Such is the case of Obama's half-brother, Mark Okoth Obama Ndesandjo, who today announced the publication of his semi-autobiographical novel, Nairobi to Shenzhen. The book draws extensively on Ndesandjo's life in Kenya and China--where he currently lives and works as a consultant--and prominently features an account of his relationship with the President's father. But it wasn't released by a major publishing house, nor did it win Ndesandjo a hefty advance. Rather, Ndesandjo published the book himself, using Aventine Press, a POD self-publishing company. Until now, Ndesandjo has kept a remarkably low profile, avoiding both the spotlight and his brother's coattails. His greatest contribution to the 2008 election season was a statement that he was "proud of his brother." When approached by a New York Times columnist hungry for information about the President's family life, Ndesandjo stayed mum, commenting that he "had a limited interest in their father" and, “Life’s hard enough without all the excess baggage." A lot can change in a year, and it seems that Ndesandjo has decided to cash in. The popularity of Obama's autobiography Dreams of My Father in the lead-up to the 2008 election and the insanity of the birther movement have contributed to a public interest in the details of President Obama's paternity. Despite his insistence that some things are best left forgotten, Ndesandjo has stated that the novel explores his parents’ relationship in detail. In a Reuters report leading up to the novel's release, Ndesandjo described his father as abusive, a man who beat his wife and children, stating “I remember times in my house when I would hear screams and I would hear my mother’s pain.” Ndesandjo is clearly not afraid to take advantage of any residual Obamania (though he has said 15% of the profits from the book will go to support Chinese orphans). The book launch was scheduled for the one year anniversary of Obama's historic election (and several weeks before his inaugural trip to China this month), and the story was quickly picked up by virtually every major media source in the country. Nor did he forget to mention that he had another, autobiographical book in the works, this one dealing with his relationship with his brother. Looks like that hefty advance might be on the way after all.
but I hope you don't mind if I post about a couple of things that pertain to, well, me. The first is a fantastic and fantastic looking publication called Two Letters, which contains some very worthwhile writing and art, and for which I was the literary editor. I worked on this when I lived in Los Angeles. The selection process for the art and writing ended just before I moved to Chicago, so I wasn't involved in the production of the book. I had no idea what it would look like until it showed up at my doorstep a couple of weeks ago. It looks terrific - great art and a very distinctive layout. All the writing is illustrated with subtle but expressive line drawings. I am also very happy with the writers I helped select (two of them, Cem and Alexa happen to be bloggers). If you want to pick up a copy visit the website, or, if you are in LA, please consider attending the release party at the venerable Book Soup in West Hollywood. It's on Wednesday, January 26th at 7pm. It will be fun, and I would attend if I could.In other news about me: You may have noticed from my bio on the right that I'm currently a graduate student in the Medill school of Journalism at Northwestern, and today I reached a milestone that I felt I should share (because what else is a blog for, if not for moments like this.) Today, I got my very first byline in a daily newspaper, the Daily Herald. It's a 100,000+ circulation paper that serves the suburbs of Chicago. The story isn't about books. Since I'm studying business writing this quarter, it's a business story. You'll be happy to hear that I was able, if only just barely, to keep myself from nudging the news stand guy and saying, "I'm in this," when I bought the paper today.