Pulitzer winner Junot Díaz talks with his fellow “Year in Reading” contributor Meghan O’Rourke in the debut episode of the online video series Open Book, co-sponsored by Slate and my alma mater. I’m thrilled that the producers elected to keep the same zany voice-over guy who reads Slate’s audio podcasts. Future interviews, we’re told, will include John Ashbery, Charles Simic, and Jonathan Safran Foer.
Millions contributor Emily’s award-winning review of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective by Kate Summerscale has been posted by VQR. Check it out.
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
And just like that, my Los Angeles chapter has been brought to a quick and frenzied close. After a marathon of packing and a lot of time spent trying to make all of the junk we acquired over the last few years disappear, Ms. Millions and I set off east through the desert, nine and a half hours behind schedule but determined to make up the time. Unlike four years ago when we spent three weeks driving five thousand miles, pausing often, here and there, when we found a place that held our interest, this trip was a delirium of driving, hundreds of miles between stops, trying to keep the needle of the speedometer above 90 as we traversed desolate stretches of highway in New Mexico and Texas. But now I am in Washington, DC, which will be my base of sorts for the summer, leading up to and beyond my wedding until it is time to move to Chicago. I no longer have a fantastic book store at my disposal, but I am hoping to offer some insight, now purely as a reader, even though my bookselling days are behind me. Another thing I would like to do this summer, between wedding planning and hopefully a little traveling, is work. If anyone out there knows of or can offer me an internship for the summer, preferably in journalism, let me know. I don’t need to be paid much or at all, really; just looking for some experience and for something to do. Email me if you can help. But enough of that, on to some books.While on the road, I received an email from Steve from Virginia containing a couple of recommendations. First, noting my interest in the books of the British war historian, John Keegan, he suggested that I endeavor to read The Mask of Command as it is, in his opinion, Keegan’s best. Also of note: Keegan’s latest, The Iraq War, will be released soon. It will be interesting to see how a man of Keegan’s expertise analyses such a modern and non-traditional conflict. Steve also wrote in suggesting that I take a look at Nicholas Rankin’s Telegram from Guernica, a book about George Steer, the South African war correspondent who broke the story of the firebombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. Thanks for the recommendations, Steve!As I was packing up to go, I heard on the radio an interview with the author of a new book called, Hideous Absinthe: A History of the Devil in a Bottle. Jad Adams, the British journalist behind this book, wanted to explore the curious hold that this beverage had on generations of artists and writers who were looking for inspiration.Finally, I caught this amusing little story about the intersection of fiction, marketing, and copywrites. The cover of Tom Perotta’s Little Children will be switched from goldfish to cookies sometime soon.
The WGA writers’ strike (should that all be capitalized? has it been trademarked yet?) has hit the economy of Los Angeles in a big way, hurting everybody from the top down. Some idiot actually predicted that the strike would be over by Christmas (D’oh!). Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, and LA has really suffered. But will anyone actually benefit from the writers’ strike? It seems to me that Fox and the NFL might.With the Super Bowl looming this weekend, it would seem to me that Fox is in a position to demand record prices for its ad time, already the most expensive TV ad time of the year. Networks have been running reruns, game shows, and reality TV for the past three months, leaving TV advertisers with smaller and smaller audiences (or eyeballs, as they apparently say in the biz). The Super Bowl, already the launching pad for many national advertising campaigns, might be the only interesting programming on TV for some time, especially if the Academy Awards end up airing a watered-down version of its annual show (The Academy Awards are set to air on Sunday, February 24), as is planned unless the WGA and the studios reach an agreement by then. Couple this with the fact that there’s major national interest in the game, with the undefeated Patriots facing a team from the nation’s largest media market, the New York Giants. It has the makings of the proverbial perfect Super Bowl storm.On the subject of the writers’ strike, I recommend anyone interested in the history of screenwriting check out Marc Norman’s excellent book What Happens Next. His book provides terrific context for how the entertainment industry has dealt with previous technological changes (which, after all, is exactly what this strike is all about).
Some good new fiction paperbacks have come out in the past days and weeks. Today’s new arrival is Porno by Irvine Welsh. This one apparently resurrects the characters from Trainspotting and chronicles their foray into the world of adult films. I read Trainspotting while I was staying with my friend Derek and his folks at their house in Maine. I loved the book; I was thrilled when I found myself thinking in the thick Scottish accent of the book: bairn for baby, bird for girl, etc. It was the summer after my senior year in high school. I was of an age and at a moment for which Trainspotting was perfect, plus there is something special about a book read while vacationing, when huge chuncks are read at a time, and nothing that happens in between these reading sessions is weighty enough to detract from a full immersion in the story at hand. I became sufficiently attached to Renton, Sick Boy, and the rest that had Porno been around, I probably would have begun reading it the moment I set down its predecessor. Instead, with the intervening pause approaching ten years, I never mustered the interest to read Porno. Maybe if I ever read Trainspotting again, I will read Porno as well. Also out recently in paper: After the Quake by Haruki Murakami. Since Murakami’s stories appear frequently in the New Yorker, and since I read the New Yorker each week, by the time this earthquake-centered collection came out I had already read many of the stories. Once some time has passed, a decade perhaps, I will buy this book and read all the stories again. I feel confident that Murakami will remain in print. One day I would also like to reread his book Norwegian Wood. It is a favorite book of mine, in large part bacause it reminded me of that great feeling you get when you find one that’s really good. Life of Pi by Yann Martel, I suspect, may be able to deliver that same feeling. This one, since it came out, has had an ever-growing swell of support, cresting with it’s being awarded the Booker Prize. My grandmother, whose taste in books I trust considerably, found this book to be remarkable. Out of all the books I’m mentioning today, I’ll most likely read Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer soonest. I read an excerpt of the book many months ago in a “New Fiction” issue of the New Yorker. I was both surprised by and somewhat skeptical of its more daring stylistic flourishes. There is no denying that this is a good book though, unless I’m foolish enough to go against the recommendations of several of my trusted fellow readers.A Small but Important Poker AddendaIn my mention of Positively Fifth Street, I forget to mention a related book that, at the very least, I would like to have on the record so that I remember to read it one day. The Biggest Game in Town by A. Alvarez is another account of the World Series of Poker and is, from what I hear, a must read for all poker fans. Plus, Chronicle Books is the publisher, which is why it looks so cool.
Malcolm Gladwell and Adam Gopnik, both incisive, witty journalists, staff writers at the New Yorker, and expat Canadians, return to Toronto this weekend for a live debate Sunday afternoon at the University of Toronto’s Convocation Hall.The topic: Canada: Nation or Notion? (And as a proud and sometimes confused Canadian myself, I’m eager to learn the answer)If you happen to be in the Toronto area, tickets can be purchased here. And I believe there are plans to air the debate, down the road, on CBC Radio.