It is now being reported that an article in the June issue of Vanity Fair will describe Clinton’s struggles to get his new memoir, My Life, completed on time. The reports also confirm fears that the memoir will not provide the deeper reflections that people were hoping for. As this Reuters report indicates, Clinton will have only spent about 5 or so months on the book by the time he is finished. And the AP is reporting “the book will include few mea culpas about Mr. Clinton’s role in the Monica Lewinsky scandal or other matters, Vanity Fair said.”I wanted to quickly thank four outstanding blogs that have linked to me in the last couple of weeks: beatrice.com, golden rule jones (who will be my competition in Chicago), LA Observed, and largehearted boy. Check them out.
This month the book club that I help run read and discussed Jamesland by Michelle Huneven. We had our usual raucous and meandering discussion for the first hour, but for the second hour we had a real treat: a visit from Huneven herself. Over the past couple of years I’ve had the opportunity to meet a number of authors, and I’ve also become well-versed in the sort of dynamic that occurs at a typical book reading and signing between author and reader. This was different and refreshing. She sat down with the 12 or 15 of us who were there and let us poke and prod her book and very much participated in the action. It almost reminded me of the various creative writing workshops that I took in college, except our writer was not a beshawled or behatted fellow student recounting the fictionalized tale of their high school relationships, this is a writer who is published by a highly reputable publishing house, the author of a book recently dubbed notable by the New York Times. Nonetheless, she graciously allowed us our comments and criticisms and had quite a bit to share about the book and herself. First: for those who read the book and wondered why, after Alice’s first dream-like experience with the deer in her house, when she was trying to figure out if it had been real or not, she didn’t look in her washing machine to see if the towels she used to clean up after it were there in the morning, that scene was in the original manuscript. She and her editor went back and forth trying to decide if she should leave it in or not, and then, months later, when the book came out, she had forgotten that they had removed the scene and was surprised to see it gone. Other tidbits: Huneven found that writing the character Pete came most easily, and the rest were a struggle. Jonathan Gold, author of the best LA restaurant guide there is, Counter Intelligence, was a big fan of the Helen character. Huneven is on page nine of her next book, which will include a character who is a scrapbooker. As a writer, it was heartening to meet a fellow writer who, though she is published and successful, still sees her work as a challenge and even a struggle, a fact that some writers might not admit in that situation. And, by the way, the book is a great read, and I encourage anyone out there who is looking for a good novel to pick it up.An Intriguing List or TwoMy good and old friend Hot Face has taken a cue from the New York Times and… People Magazine to compile his list of most intriguing books of the year. Since he asks for additions, I put forward Bangkok 8 by John Burdett and Gilligan’s Wake by Tom Carson, but he’s pretty much got everything else I could think of there already. Meanwhile, my buddy Andy emailed me a link to this, a new take on the year end book list.
Today at the bookstore I had the pleasure of meeting a young author named Felicia Luna Lemus. Her debut novel, published by FSG, is titled Trace Elements of Random Tea Parties. This book is about both “princess dykes” and the chicana life, a blend that could only occur in Los Angeles. She seemed almost giddy at seeing her book on the shelves, and understandably so. She is diligently at work on another novel which she foresees finishing in about five years, which is about how long the first one took. In the meantime, she is actively seeking a position teaching creative writing, which should be well within reach considering this first novel and her MFA from Cal Arts. If you want to hear more check out this review at the San Francisco Chronicle and here is a double interview with her and one of the original outlaws of queer fiction, John Rechy (City of Night is the book that made him famous), which appeared in The Advocate magazine.
I’m going to digress from the book talk here, if I may. I’ve been blogging for a couple of years now, and I really enjoy it. I post when I feel like it, I write about books, and a handful of people visit every day. Discussions ensue; it’s all very fun. But when I see folks blogging in Iraq and other dangerous locales, I wonder if I would join the fray in a situation where blogging is more than a diversion or a hobby – where blogging is an act of courage or defiance.Lately, I’ve been following the situation in Nepal. The king has dissolved the government and basically shut down the press. I was curious to see if any blogs in Nepal are defying the press ban, and I found this one: a group blog called United We Blog! The most recent post from the blog’s administrator concludes with this warning, “Do Not Blog About Political Matters for the time being,” but a previous post puts it this way, “Because of my basic human rights, like right to express, speak and writing, are suspended and I am in no position to express my feeling or opinion regarding the royal takeover. Here in Nepal, press freedom is being curtailed and, according to the government, our website can’t report on political issues.”He also says this about the ban: “For the first time in my life, I knew the importance of this site, a place to express myself, ourself… A great forum to share ideas.”Part of me wants to write to these guys to let them know that their words, despite the censorship, are reaching us, but at the same time, I would not want to encourage them to put themselves in danger by communicating with us. I think, perhaps, the larger point I’m trying to make is that – thanks to blogs – we can now peer behind walls of censorship to see the people oppressed by it. If anyone else stumbles onto any more Nepalese blogs, please let us know.
A friend of mine told me this story. He was sitting in a medical office waiting to get a CAT scan, trying to read Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pnin. He’d started the book some years before, then lost it, found it again, and started over. He didn’t like it all that much (it wasn’t as good as Lolita or Pale Fire, the novels that had driven him to pick it up in the first place), and as he sat there reading in the waiting room, he thought about the CAT scan he was about to undergo. I may have only a few months to live, he thought. Is this the book I want to spend my remaining hours on?
My friend is fine, it turns out. The CAT scan came back normal. But as he told me this story, I thought back to a recent evening when I lay in my bed reading The Pale King, David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel. Like Wallace’s oeuvre in general, the book has some absolutely stunning sections that command your attention and make you feel intensely alive and aware (see chapters 6, 19, 22, or 46, e.g.), along with some that drive you batty with their dullness and perseverating detail.
I was struggling with the long, tedious section in which “David Wallace” is caught in a traffic jam outside the Peoria IRS office. In the next room, my two daughters, five and seven, were not going to sleep. I was getting more and more irritated with them and their demands for water, etc., which kept interrupting me from concentrating on the book.
Underlying my irritation was another anxiety: my sense that here I was, yelling at my kids to go to sleep just so that I could finish reading something that I myself found incredibly boring, a book that I had no practical need to read, a book whose own author had committed suicide before he was able to finish. A precious, irreplaceable moment of my own life was slipping away. I was declining a chance to interact with my children in a more positive way. And why? To read something that might best have been left on the cutting room floor.
I’ve read a fair number of short story collections. In most of them, there’s at least one and usually several stories that seem so clearly inferior to the rest that I have to wonder, Why is this in here? Does the author know that this story is bad? Is it here merely to serve as filler?
These questions remind me of an old Kurt Vonnegut appearance on Charlie Rose in which Vonnegut explains that he has graded all of his own novels. Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five received A pluses. Slapstick got an F. The book he was on the show to plug at the time (I think it was Timequake) was a B minus.
Vonnegut’s admirable candor makes me think that writers must have a sense of the relative merits of their works. Indeed, the placement of mediocre stories in short story collections is usually a good indicator of the grade the writers would give them. Such stories tend to be buried in the middle of the second half of a collection, or sandwiched in between two more successful pieces.
But why publish them at all? Why not spare us readers that experience of feeling that we’re spending finite moments of our lives on something that is less than the best?
Zadie Smith wasn’t addressing these particular questions at the time, but she pointed nevertheless to one answer to them when she wrote that “writers do not write what they want, they write what they can.”
If Vonnegut could have written nothing but A pluses, he would have. He couldn’t, however. No writer can. Yet Vonnegut still had contracts to fulfill, bills to pay. He had to publish books. It was in his job description.
Moreover, I suspect that, for Vonnegut and for most writers, there comes a time when they just need to accept that a novel or a story or a song is as good as it’s going to get, even if it’s not an A plus. The book needs to come out. The collection of stories needs to be a certain length. The writer’s time has been spent on the piece, for good or ill. It might as well see the light of publication as long as someone is willing to publish it. Who knows: some reader or critic might actually like it. Even if no one does, the writer needs to move on to the next story, the next novel.
It’s a delicate calibration. When do we, as writers, accept that a piece is as good as it will ever be, even if it’s not that great? When do we decide that a piece will never be good enough to be published? As readers, when do we decide that a book or a story is simply not going to be worth reading? When do we decide to press on in the face of boredom?
The CAT scan might come back normal, but in the larger sense, we’re all dying anyway. Our lives as writers, as readers, as human beings, will come to an end. What we write, what we read, what we spend our time on—these are incredibly weighty choices, though we may fool ourselves into thinking otherwise.
There’s a danger in perfectionism, in the compulsive attempt to make every novel and story and essay an A plus, or to finish reading everything we start. Yet there’s also a danger in easy abandonment, in the lack of persistence needed to push through the slow parts of War and Peace or Infinite Jest, or in the lack of writerly belief in one’s powers of revision and discovery.
In this way, as in so many others, writing and reading are metaphors for living. In the end, you do the best you can, and then, in one way or another, you let it go and move on.
(Image: fading contrail from dnorman’s photostream)
Amar Bakshi was about five years behind me at my high school in Washington DC, but he has my dream job, traveling the world to author a blog for the Washington Post, taking on the charged topic, “How the World Sees America.” I started reading it because of the high school connection (Amar is a friend of my little brother’s), but I’ve become an avid reader of it over time as Amar follows in the footsteps of some of my favorite traveling journalists: Jon Lee Anderson, Paul Theroux, and, of course, Ryszard Kapuscinski. Unlike those masters of the form, Amar also carries a video camera with him to further chronicle his experiences. Since starting in May, he’s been to England and India, and now he’s back in the States hashing out plans to travel farther afield. It’s an interesting experiment from a young writer. Worth a read if you’re looking for another blog to follow.
You’ve probably heard the news, Blockbuster is no more. Honestly, I was surprised by my reaction to it. Not sadness per se, just an empty feeling. I hadn’t been inside a Blockbuster in many years. But when that soothing NPR voice announced the final nail in the coffin, I lost a moment or two staring off into the middle distance, wrapped in some sad or perhaps pathetic moment of nostalgia. I worked at a Blockbuster all the way through high school in the mid-to-late 90s when VHS still ruled the world and going to the video store was a popular activity.
I remember when my family got our first VCR in the mid-1980s. The first time we entered the florescent-lit jungle of a video store, I was instantly enamored. I zeroed in on Pinocchio and my father picked up Cocoon, or at least something like Cocoon. The mere fact that these memories are still rattling around my head nearly 30 years later must have some significance, right?
A few years later, after my parents divorced and my mom and I were living on our own in a mid-century apartment building, she called in and won a radio giveaway providing a year’s worth of unlimited movie rentals at another now-defunct store. To put it simply, I was in heaven. That summer my attempts to catch up on the entire cinematic canon commenced. Two, three, sometimes four films a day. No sweat.
Eventually my mom remarried and we moved out south, past the Tulsa city limits to a rural land of sod farms and recreational tractor rides. When I was old enough to get a job more interesting than mowing yards, the choices were few but obvious. While my friends toiled away in the greasy haze of fast food restaurants, I would make it a Blockbuster night, every night. Not only did I get paid, I could take home movies every single day. For free.
Sam Peckinpah might not have recognized it, but in our own way we were a wild bunch, the most senior employees usually clocking in at a mere 18 or 19 years old. The time not spent straightening the shelves or restocking the candy racks usually involved things like sitting in the return bin, waiting for customers to walk up, and tossing their videos back out at them when they turned around. You might think such a stupid and juvenile act would get old after a while. It didn’t. These were the days when the Internet was new, cell phones were for stockbrokers, and if you missed a movie in the theater, you had to wait six months or even a year or more to catch up. We don’t have to wait for anything now. I’m not sure that’s an entirely good thing.
A few months ago while my wife and I were in Austin, Texas, we popped into a quirky spot called Vulcan Video that still sells and rents out VHS tapes to the hipster masses of the Lone Star State’s capitol city. Cue The Cranberries music. Bust out the Hypercolor shirts. I felt as if I’d literally stepped back into the 90s. And I loved it. No irony. No shame. I’m not entirely sure why some of us find comfort in obsolete technology and relics of the past. I love the modern world. I embrace technology. I honestly believe that the world of tomorrow will be better than today. But when something that’s been part of my life for a long time goes away, all I want to do is push Rewind.
Photo Credit: Flickr/yapsnaps