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No Superheroes Here: Nine Upcoming Book-to-Film Adaptations

Hollywood has always looked to the literary world for stories, and 2018 has already seen a number of big screen adaptations, including Annihilation, A Wrinkle in Time, Ready Player One, and On Chesil Beach. Here’s a look ahead to the summer’s offerings, so if you’re the type of person who prefers to read the book before the movie—and we know you are, Millions readers!—you’ll have time to prepare.

Eating Animals is Jonathan Safran Foer’s memoir about becoming vegan. Now it’s a documentary narrated by Natalie Portman. Make sure to eat a good meal before watching it, because it’s one of those documentaries, like Food, Inc., that’s sure to make you lose your appetite (in theaters June 15).

Leave No Trace is an adaptation of Peter Rock’s My Abandonment, the story of a father and daughter who live secretly in a public urban park in Portland, Ore.—until they are accidentally discovered by a jogger. It’s written and directed by Debra Granik, who also directed Winter’s Bone (in theaters June 29).

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot is based on the memoir of John Callahan, whose wickedly funny cartoons are the kind that make you say, “I really shouldn’t be laughing at this.” At 21, Callahan was involved in a bad car crash that left him a quadriplegic. After years of therapy, he learned to hold a pen again and started drawing. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Callahan, with Gus Van Sant directing (in theaters July 13).

Far from the Tree is a documentary based on Andrew Solomon’s nonfiction book about parents whose children are very different from them, e.g., hearing parents whose children are deaf, the parents of children with autism, the parents of child prodigies, the parents of children with dwarfism—to name just a few of the many people Solomon interviews. I loved this doorstopper of a book when it was first published and am curious to see how Solomon’s in-depth reporting and research translates to the screen (in theaters July 20).

The Wife will star Glenn Close as the titular wife of Meg Wolitzer’s 2003 novel, which is narrated by the self-sacrificing wife of a famous novelist. It’s a bitterly comic novel, one that the 2003 Publisher’s Weekly review notes has “no cheap, gratifying Hollywood ending to make it all better.” Let’s see if the movie stays true to form (in theaters Aug. 3).

Juliet, Naked is based on Nick Hornby’s 2009 novel about the girlfriend of a fanboy who begins a correspondence with the object of her boyfriend’s obsession, a singer-songwriter called Tucker Crowe. Hornby has had success with previous adaptations of his novels, including High Fidelity and About a Boy, and this latest book-to-screen transition looks like a smooth one. Starring Ethan Hawke as Tucker Crowe (in theaters Aug. 13).

Crazy Rich Asians looks like it’s going to be just as much fun as Kevin Kwan’s novel, a romantic comedy about an NYU student, Rachel Chu, who travels with her boyfriend, Nick Young, to Singapore to meet his family—who turn out to be ridiculously wealthy. Also, Nick is the sole heir to the family fortune! This spells trouble for Rachel, who is just a naive, middle-class girl from California. Kwan’s novel, the first of the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy, was a bestseller in 2013. So maybe this isn’t the last film adaptation we’ll see (in theaters Aug. 13).

The Bookshop adapts Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel by the same name. It’s a tragicomedy about a bookstore trying to thrive in a small fishing village in 1959. Today’s bookstore owners might relate? Originally published in 1978 in the U.K., it didn’t make it to the U.S. until the late 1990s. Now it’s a film starring Emily Mortimer, Bill Nighy, and Patricia Clarkson, written and directed by Isabel Coixet (in theaters Aug. 24).

The Little Stranger is based on Sarah Waters’s bestselling haunted house thriller. Set in postwar England, it tells the story of a country doctor, Farady, who is called to the estate of Hundreds Hall to treat a servant. The house is one he knows from childhood, because his mother used to work there as a maid. He soon becomes entangled with the family. With Domhnall Gleeson as Farady and Charlotte Rampling as the lady of the house, and directed by Lenny Abrahamson, who directed the 2015 adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s Room (in theaters Aug. 31).

And the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay Goes to…

It turns out the novel is alive and well and living in, of all places, Hollywood. Who would have thought? As recently as 1998, all five finalists for the Oscar for Adapted Screenplay drew on novels for their source material, but by 2014 not a single Oscar nomination went to a screenplay adapted from a novel. Last year, Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice was the lone work of fiction in a field of sources dominated by biography, autobiography, and, weirdly, a short film.

This trend sent me into Mr. Gloomy mode last year when I wrote:
(T)he novel is now in retreat — and not only in Hollywood — as screenwriters and moviegoers turn their gaze to movies based on established franchises, comic books, graphic novels, musicals, non-fiction books and magazine articles, TV shows, memoirs, and biographies. There’s nothing inherently wrong, or particularly new, about such source material. Screenwriters have been adapting scripts from comic books at least since 1930, and filmmakers have always favored a “true” story (or, better yet, something “based on a true story”) over fictional stories. That’s because “true” stories are easier to write, make, and sell. I would argue that they’re also less likely to amaze than stories that come from a gifted novelist’s imagination.
What a difference a year makes. This year, for some unknowable reason, Hollywood screenwriters mined novels — from the shamelessly commercial to the highly literary — for four of the five adapted screenplays that garnered Oscar nominations. (The fifth nomination went to the team of Adam McKay and Charles Randolph for their adaptation of Michael Lewis’s non-fiction book, The Big Short.)

What happened? Did some pixie slip a vial of smart powder into the L.A drinking water? Did someone in Hollywood start a book club for screenwriters? Since there’s no way to parse the reading habits of Tinseltown, let’s cut straight to the nominees. Here, in chronological order of their release dates, are the four movies with scripts based on novels that are up for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar on Feb. 28:

1. Brooklyn

It seems that the Irish writer Colm Tóibín (pronounced Col-um toe-BEAN) wrote this 2009 novel with sepia ink — and without a worry that his pacing and hushed tone might put some readers to sleep. But readers who stick with the novel will be rewarded by a story that accumulates a fierce power. It’s the story of Eilis (pronounced AY-lish) Lacey, a plain Irish girl who leaves her mother and sister in the provincial Irish town of Enniscorthy and emigrates to Brooklyn in the early 1950s, a world of shocking sights and sounds and customs, where she overcomes crippling homesickness and haltingly makes her way toward financial independence and even manages to find a decent man who loves her. But a return trip to Ireland after her sister’s sudden death will threaten to rip apart Eilis’s fragile chance at happiness. This is no potboiler, obviously. The drama takes place inside Eilis’s head and heart.

How to turn such interiority into a compelling movie? Mainly by hiring talented actors who can convey deep emotions through the slightest facial gesture or body movement. Saoirse Ronan (pronounced Sur-sha Row-nin) was an inspired choice to play Eilis, and her portrayal of a plain young woman’s blossoming has justly won a nomination for the Best Actress Oscar.

Equally important to the movie’s success was the choice of screenwriter. The mission of a writer who sets out to transport words from page to screen is both simple and devilishly difficult: be always faithful to the spirit of the novel without ever being slavish to it. For this reason, it’s usually better for a novelist to stay in the wings when the screenwriting assignment gets doled out. Most novelists are too close to their own material not to be enslaved by it.

Tóibín never considered adapting his own novel, instead suggesting to the producer, Finola Dwyer, that she hire Nick Hornby, who is both an accomplished novelist (High Fidelity, About a Boy) and screenwriter (An Education, Wild).

“And I soon realized that nobody wanted me around,” Tóibín told The New York Times. “Nick was doing it. He didn’t ask any questions, never even got in touch. And I thought that was perfectly reasonable. It was the only way it could work. He took the central spine of the novel — the romantic story and the immigration, the two things that really matter — and left other things off to the side. But he wasn’t trying to tell a new story. He was faithful to the book within the constraints of film.”

And that’s why the movie works every bit as well as the novel.

2. Carol

In adapting Patricia Highsmith’s second novel, The Price of Salt, screenwriter Phyllis Nagy remained faithful to the book within the constraints of film. The result is a spellbinding script for a movie that was renamed Carol — just one of numerous instances when the movie strays from the letter of the novel without betraying its spirit.

Like Hornby, Nagy left out some things and changed others but preserved the central spine of the novel — the story of forbidden love between a radiant but unfulfilled suburban housewife named Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and a plain New York City shop girl named Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara). Nagy has changed Therese from an aspiring theatrical set designer into an aspiring photographer, and she has cleverly jumbled time sequences. But what she left intact, most crucially, is Highsmith’s unhurried unfolding of the romantic love between the two women, a story that plays out against a backdrop of impeccable 1950s period details, from cars and fashions to interiors and even the way women move.

Nagy’s writing has certainly benefited from the high quality of the production it serves. The movie is up for six Oscars, including Blanchett for Best Actress, Mara for Best Supporting Actress, and the cinematographer Edward Lachman, who gives an appropriately gauzy look to a story about infatuation amid fuzzy moral boundaries.

3. Room

This movie is proof that most novelists should follow Tóibín’s lead and leave it to others to adapt their work for the screen. In adapting her own novel, Room, Emma Donoghue made the mistake of following the text almost to the letter — then leaving out the wrong parts, the very parts that would have given the movie heft and drama. Both novel and movie open with an enthralling setup — a woman has been imprisoned in an 11-foot-by-11-foot shed for seven years, where she gave birth five years ago to a boy named Jack. The revelation that this loving, seemingly happy pair are actually being held prisoners by a monster named Nick is handled, in novel and movie, with supreme assurance. It’s perfectly horrible.

The trouble begins when Ma (Brie Larson) helps Jack (Jacob Tremblay) escape, and suddenly they’re thrust into the outside world that’s utterly foreign to the boy — and far from welcoming to his traumatized mother. In the novel, they’re hounded by the ravenous news media and by medical professionals who are less than sympathetic to their ordeal and its lingering effects. This tension is gone from the movie, and instead we get Ma coming unglued and fighting with her own mother (Joan Allen), while her father (William H. Macy) puts in a pointless cameo. Jack, meanwhile, wanders through something that passes for healing. It’s all drift. I have a hunch that a screenwriter who wasn’t so close to the source material would not have made these missteps. Just a hunch. 

4. The Martian

Andy Weir went to work as a computer programmer for a national laboratory at the age of 15 and has been working as a software engineer ever since. He’s also a self-proclaimed space nerd who’s into relativistic physics, astronomy, orbital mechanics, and the history of manned spaceflight. How do you spell geek? In this case, you spell it n-o-v-e-l-i-s-t.

Weir’s first novel, The Martian, became a bestseller and fodder for a big-budget Hollywood production with Matt Damon in the lead role of Mark Watney, a botanist on a Mars mission who gets abandoned by his crew when a freak storm blows up and they mistakenly believe he’s dead. And voilà, we have a high concept: Robinson Crusoe stranded on the Red Planet.

Actually, Weir’s book is less a novel than a blueprint for a movie. Just as no one will question Weir’s scientific bona fides — he wrote his own software to make the physics of space travel as accurate as possible — no one will accuse him of being a graceful writer. The novel is full of junior high prose like this: “They gathered. Everywhere on Earth they gathered. In Trafalgar Square and Tiananmen Square and Times Square, they watched on giant screens. In offices, they huddled around computer monitors. In bars, they stared silently at the TV in the corner. In homes, they sat breathlessly on their couches, their eyes glued to the story playing out.” But people don’t read books like this for the artful prose; they read them for the ingenious setup and the brisk storytelling.

Screenwriter Drew Goddard has connected the dots from Weir’s novel to create a script that’s seamless and irresistible. The movie winds up being superior to the novel because it’s comfortable being what it is — a thriller that manipulates the audience without shame, an entertainment that wants nothing more than to please its audience at all times. You can hear Goddard pulling the levers — or is that the sound of him painting by numbers? — but you’re having too much fun to care. This is partly due to the deft direction of Ridley Scott, who is most at home in outer space, and strong performances by Damon and a supporting cast that includes Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Weir’s book is a novel that wants to be a movie. The movie is content to be a big, fat, satisfying, popcorn thrill-fest. What’s wrong with being comfortable inside your own skin?

And the Oscar For Best Adapted Screenplay Goes to…

Phyllis Nagy for CAROL!!!

Now that justice has been served, for once, I’m hoping that when Nagy gets up onstage and finishes thanking her agent and her producer and her mom and Todd and Cate and Rooney and her Jack Russell terrier, she’ll have the decency to hoist her statue to the heavens and give a shout-out to the novelist who made this terrific movie possible — that princess of darkness, the diabolically great Patricia Highsmith.

Image Credit: Flickr/Dave_B_.

Confessions of a Rock Snob

If a lifetime of listening to pop music has taught me anything, it’s that there is no incompatibility between intellectual aspiration and a passion for rock ‘n’ roll. You can love T S. Eliot and the New York Dolls. In fact, there’s no snob like a rock snob. I should know. I am one.

There’s an amusing scene in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity in which a potential girlfriend is trying to pass the audition of one of the rock snob friends of the rock snob narrator:
“Richard Thompson,” [Dick] explains to Anna. “It’s a song off a Richard Thompson album. ‘I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight,’ isn’t it, Rob?”

“Richard Thompson,” Anna repeats, in a voice which suggests that over the last few days she has had to absorb a lot of information very quickly. “Now, which one was he? Dick’s been trying to educate me …“

“Anna’s a Simple Minds fan,” Dick confides, emboldened by his Richard Thompson success.

“Oh, right.” I don’t know what to say. This, in our universe, is a staggering piece of information…

“But I think she’s beginning to understand why she shouldn’t be. Aren’t you?”

“Maybe. A bit.”
Go ahead and play that Simple Minds record. I won’t bite. But I vastly prefer Richard Thompson, and I’ll tell you why: because sometimes in its deferred gratifications and the demands it makes on the listener, his music achieves a richness beyond the scope of the wholly proficient and likeable Simple Minds. Sometimes, in fact, his music sounds very much like — oh, what’s the word I’m looking for? — art.

The glorious thing about rock ‘n’ roll, of course, is that you can have it both ways. The spectrum of pop music runs from “Surfin’ Bird” by The Trashmen to Björk’s Medulla, and maybe the best of it is smack in the middle – The Beatles’ “Nowhere Man,” for instance, ostensibly another one of their melodic toe tappers but in truth a performance of such overwhelming majesty and pathos as to render all categorization meaningless. My truth, however, isn’t necessarily your truth, especially in matters as fundamentally subjective as personal taste. Nevertheless, I think there are a few things we can all agree on: that however much it may be abused and misused, music can penetrate to states of consciousness beyond the reach of words; that music deepens, enriches, and nourishes our lives; and that The Remains were the greatest garage band of the mid ’60s.

What — you haven’t heard of The Remains! I’ll try not to sound like a Nick Hornby character, but I must explain that their one and only album, released just before they broke up in 1966, is an apotheosis of garage rock, with sneering vocals, jagged guitar breaks, and irresistible hooks. What’s not to like? Well, some people didn’t and don’t like it. There will always be those who sneer at pop music as infantile pabulum for the masses. Might I have become such a stiff? Given my highbrow predispositions, that nightmare version of myself is scarily conceivable. While I don’t expect to pass the time with strangers in the airport lounge talking about poetry or cubism, I can more than hold my own if the conversation turns to Michael Jackson or Metallica — or could until about 15 years ago, when I finally abandoned all efforts to keep up with the current playlist. And if this egalitarianism sounds slightly patronizing (yes, I too enjoy the music of the common folk), I can assure you, I really don’t understand Mahler.

How in a few short years pop music got from “Da do ron-ron-ron, da do ron-ron” to “Half of what I say is meaningless / But I say it just to reach you, Julia” is a question I can’t begin to answer. All I know is that when the change came (around the time when I was beginning high school), I was ready for it. That’s partly because much of the lyric writing preceding all this self-conscious Poetry was pretty good too. Smokey Robinson’s elegant and ingeniously constructed conceits, Chuck Berry’s marvelous wordplay and delight in the vernacular: I grew up with these words in my ears and learned from them (without realizing I was learning anything at all) to appreciate language as something precious in itself. “Jubilee,” “jamboree,” “home brew,” “wooden cup,” to cite a few choice idioms from Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music:” these words summoned multiple meanings and sounded like poems in themselves. Anyway, when John Lennon started writing songs about his dead mother, I was sufficiently sensitized to language to follow him to places where pop music had rarely gone before.

One of those places was my own consciousness. “Nowhere Man” and “Eleanor Rigby” and “Waterloo Sunset” by The Kinks and “Runnin’ Away” by Sly and the Family Stone: these songs spoke so directly to my loneliness and fear and insecurity that talking about them with my friends (it was safer to talk about guitar heroes) risked revealing the dark secret at the heart of every teenage life: I’m not as cool as I pretend to be. In truth, I was even uncooler than most, and in my increasing unhappiness and isolation, I found myself drawn to the moody lyrics as much as to the flashy fretwork. Unbeknown to me as a hapless high school geek, things were going to get a lot worse before they got better. I had four and a half years of intense undergraduate misery and a lot of Joni Mitchell songs still to come.

My parents thought the songs we listened to were barbarous, and by the standards of Rodgers and Hart and Cole Porter and the Gershwins — the pop songwriters of their day — many of them were. What the best rock lyricists offered in place of the playfulness and teasing indirection of the great American show tunes were audacious explorations of the self and the permutations of consciousness. I’d call that a pretty fair trade off. Soul music, it’s true, seemed more outer-directed than white pop and rock, maybe because black people just had too much shit to deal with in the real world. But even Marvin Gaye and Sly Stone’s songs of social import shared the undisguised subjectivity that was the lingua franca of the period. What they didn’t share was the outright narcissism of songwriters like Laura Nyro and John Lennon and Peter Townshend. I preferred the narcissists.

Frank Zappa said somewhere that singer songwriters who bared their innermost souls in songs intended for complete strangers were in desperate need of psychiatric intervention. Well, Zappa was a remarkable composer, arranger, and guitarist, and Hot Rats is an extraordinary achievement. (Real rock snobs, however, will always prefer Trout Mask Replica by his erstwhile collaborator, Captain Beefheart.) Yet if Zappa had bared his soul a little more, his music might have had some of the warmth it so entirely lacks. It wasn’t the coldly brilliant Hot Rats that got me through my first god-awful years at college; it was the equally brilliant and madly introspective Court and Spark by Joni Mitchell that did that.

Aside from “Raised on Robbery,” which featured a sizzling guitar solo by Robbie Robertson, Court and Spark didn’t exactly kick ass. That was okay. I had plenty of other kick-ass records to listen to, but they couldn’t do for me what Court and Spark did: help me to know myself, and others, a little bit more. It wasn’t that the songs contained extractable “meanings,” which inhered at least as much in the beautiful arrangements, with their odd tunings and jazzy inflections, as in the lyrics. Line by line readings of pop songs generally fail for the obvious reason that a song lyric depends on its compositional setting. A song lyric is less like a poem than a play, the text of which awaits the interpretive skills of particular actors to bring it fully to life. Which is only to say that as fine as Joni Mitchell’s lyrics are, they pale in the glare of the printed page. But I wasn’t reading her lyrics, which didn’t have and didn’t need consistent rhyme schemes and stanzaic forms; I was hearing them through her ululating vocals and dramatic piano stylings. The totality of this experience, come to think of it, was not unlike that of coming to a great and complex poem — the song (or poem) changed slightly each time I encountered it, and maybe I changed with it. My critical faculties, whether applied to a complex poem or a far simpler pop song lyric, had a long way to go, but I knew enough to understand that parsing Mitchell’s brave and brazen lyrics wouldn’t get me very far. The heavy duty analytical stuff I could save for my term papers on Hart Crane, who did not write poems as simple and touching as Mitchell’s “People’s Parties:”
Cry for us all, Beauty
Cry for Eddie in the corner
Thinking he’s nobody
And Jack behind his joker
And stone-cold Grace behind her fan
And me in my frightened silence
Thinking I don’t understand
There wasn’t much to analyze here, but there was a lot to feel. Real feeling, the kind evoked by these songs, required a little effort. If I could open myself to the exquisite vulnerability that seemed to be Joni Mitchell’s raison d’etre, I would be living my life more fully, wouldn’t I? Not only that — I’d be entering more fully into the lives of others. Such was the paradox of artistic creation; the further Mitchell delved into her own psyche, the more she revealed about everybody else’s. Stone cold Grace and Jack behind his joker were putting on a good front, but they were as lost as the frightened songwriter and all the other carriers of Mitchell’s introspection. I didn’t even mind being Eddie in the corner thinking he’s nobody, except that I couldn’t get invited to a party in the first place.

It wasn’t all oceanic subjectivity, even on Court and Spark. In “Raised on Robbery,” a rocker about a floozy coming on to a drunk in a hotel bar, Mitchell indulged her Chuck Berry side. It’s the one song on the album openly and gleefully about people who don’t sound remotely like Joni Mitchell. (“First he bought a ’57 Biscayne / He put it in a ditch / He drunk up all the rest / That son of a bitch.”) Satire and social observation are part of the rock and pop tradition too and likewise furnished a part of my education. If Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On didn’t nail the zeitgeist as much as anything by Norman Mailer or James Baldwin, I don’t know what did.

Randy Newman composed songs in this more impersonal tradition, and in 1974 he performed some of them at Glassboro State College, the lowly teachers’ school in southwestern New Jersey where I was honing my misery and discovering — thanks to some excellent professors — that I had the rudiments of a mind and might enjoy using it. But while many of my professors were inspiring, my fellow students — except for the girls I pined for and a few deviants manifestly more intelligent than I — were rather less so. At any rate, a clutch of scholars shuffling out of the Student Union with me and passing by the artist’s waiting limousine, had not relished that night’s performance.

“That asshole gets a limousine for sitting at a piano and playing those dumbass songs?” one of them said. “Why can’t we get somebody really good, like Argent?”

We did get Argent, who performed, if memory serves, the next semester. While I’ll always love “Hold Your Head Up” and “God Gave Rock and Roll to You,” I love them less than Randy Newman’s off-center, piano-based compositions that do occasionally rock the house but have other things — things like wit, irony, and chromatic shading — on their minds. I wouldn’t have had a lot to say to the student who bitterly regretted spending his five or six dollars on the sorely disappointing Randy Newman (who was wonderful, by the way). Did that make me a snob? Plenty of people would have said so, and would say so now. Truthfully, compared to the real rock snobs I’ve known, I’m a peasant. In the first place, that disgruntled student and I could have found some common ground in Argent. He might not have agreed that Rod Argent’s first band, the soulful, jazzy pop balladeers known as The Zombies, outclassed the eponymous arena rockers known as Argent, but I’ll bet he got just as hopped up as I did during the shout along chorus of “Hold Your Head Up.” Anyway, I wasn’t telling him or anyone that he must make room in his life for progressive Britpop as the expense of the crap he really liked. I’ve been tempted, admittedly. For example, I emphatically believe that P.J. Harvey is “better” in every meaningful sense than Hall & Oates, but listening to her doesn’t make me feel superior. It makes me feel alive. Which, no doubt, is exactly the way Hall & Oates fans feel when they listen to their guys.

David Hume wrote, “We are apt to call barbarous whatever departs widely from our own taste and apprehension; but soon find the epithet of reproach retorted on us.” In other words, think twice about sneering at someone’s taste, because someone else can just as easily sneer at yours. I repent of my past as a rock ideologue in the late ’80s and early 90s, when I was “apt to call barbarous” anything to the right of Richard Hell and the Voidoids. Not all that music holds up so well. Nevertheless, the punk and new wave bands of that period remain my touchstones, partly because I associate them with the gradual termination of my protracted adolescent misery and the beginning of a new life in New York, party because they were kinda, well, snobbish. What Talking Heads and R.E.M. and the Patti Smith Group and The Smiths and The Clash gave me was the best of both worlds. They rocked, all right, some more than others, but they also composed thoughtful, lyrical, mysterious, acerbic, furious, and funny songs that engaged me emotionally and intellectually. I was still pretty raw in my 20s. If Patti Smith could teach me something about spiritual experience in “Easter” or David Byrne something about media-saturated discourse in “Don’t Worry About the Government,” who was I not to listen? Mostly I learned by osmosis. (Osmosis: if that’s not the name of a band, it should be.) A lifetime of listening to relatively smart pop music might make you a relatively smarter person. And so it has gone on through the decades. Though I love meaningless, head banging rock ‘n’ roll as much as the next person, I’ve gravitated towards arty indie bands with pop sensibilities: XTC, The Replacements, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol. Naturally, I became a dinosaur ages ago, but I figured I’d embarrass myself less by not pretending to care about rap or rave or whatever variants of grunge obtain at the moment. Except for The Feelies, for whom I make regular, devoted, and fanatical exception, the only live performances I attend anymore are at the Metropolitan Opera House. How’s that for creeping conservatism?

And yet I don’t find the experience of opera to be so very different from that of rock ‘n’ roll. In the former case, I might shed a few discreet tears from the privacy of my nosebleed seat in the Family Circle, in the latter case I might jump up and down a bit in front of the stage. In either case, I’m listening pretty hard. It’s never background music, even when chopping vegetables for that night’s dinner, with Mozart or The Supremes on my iPod to keep me company. How does that aria grow so subtly out of the recitative and is that a fretted or a fretless bass guitar I’m hearing on this song? Do non-snobs ask themselves these sorts of questions when they listen to music? No, they probably ask themselves better ones. I’ve never been one to let my ignorance stand in the way of a deeply personal involvement with the music. If you can’t listen closely, what’s the point?

Maybe I’ve always missed the point. Looking back on all those nights in clubland in the 1980s, I sometimes think I was the only person on the floor not expecting to get stoned or laid. I was there to hear the music, and truthfully, sometimes the music sounded better at home. But on the good nights there was something approaching communal ecstasy, and the inhuman decibel levels never failed to pump me up. Once at a show featuring X or Graham Parker or Public Image Ltd. (sorry, can’t remember who or where), some girls, noticing my aberrant dance style, asked my regular concert going companion and cousin John “Rotten” Akey what fabulous drugs I was on and where they could get some.

“What’s he on?” John replied. “He’s not ‘on’ anything. He’s never on anything. He’s just into the music.”

Image Credit: Flickr/Alex W.

The Rules: A Brief Instruction Manual for Writing Classes

The creative writing class is a beautiful thing. The longest journeys begin with a single step, and (I’m sure) just like countless colleges and writers’ centers throughout the world, the classes I attended at The Irish Writers’ Centre were safe, exciting places to put one figurative foot in front of the other. Though clearly my metaphors need a little work…

The established rules are pretty clear to anyone who’s attended school: do your assignments, listen to the other students, respect your teacher. But of course, society is also filled with unwritten rules, observed by most and flouted by others. Don’t sip your drink too loudly at the movies; don’t answer your phone during a gig; and, if you’re attending a writing class, don’t do any of the things described below.

1. “I didn’t know we could do that!”
Lesson number one begins with a writing exercise that I love. Students are asked to turn to their nearest classmate and ask three questions about their life, then take 10 minutes writing the opening paragraph of a story using some of these details. For example, if someone mentions that they travel a lot, tan easily, and like the ocean, you could (if you’re a genius) use it as the opening to a story like John Steinbeck’s The Pearl.

It’s a great warm up if there’s a big enough group, and a chance for people to express themselves to a new class in a safe way. That is until people show resentment for classmate’s use of imagination.

To illustrate: One student was told of a classmate’s insomnia, love for travelling, and fondness of Latin America. This gave birth to a Latin variation on The Hulk (or Jekyll and Hyde, if you’re feeling even more generous). It was a lively, pulpy little piece and the closing line “when he slept, he became Rodrigo, and Rodrigo was not a nice person to know” evoked gasps and a few knowing chuckles: This young man had taken some bare facts and built the foundations of a fun — if slightly derivative short story. There were backslaps all round, at first.

“I didn’t know you could do that!” one student spluttered, so outraged she could barely get the words out fast enough. “He…he used supernatural elements. That’s not allowed! Is it?”

What was the real issue? That he didn’t follow her imagined parameters of the assignment? Or that her story was a literal shopping list of what she’d just been told? She had broken the first unwritten rule of creative writing classes: Don’t get sore if someone else has a better idea.

2. “Oh, I haven’t read it.”
Early in one beginner’s class, we were assigned to bring in a book we wished we’d written. I resisted the urge to bring in something classy like Ulysses, or indeed Slash’s autobiography, and instead opted for High Fidelity by Nick Hornby. Another classmate brought in A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe. She praised it eloquently, saying how the fall of a tycoon was relevant, how Wolfe writes with the authority of a gifted investigative journalist, and how it echoes Wolfe’s idol, Charles Dickens. “What do you like most about it?” asked the teacher.

“Oh I haven’t read it,” she breezed, without a hint of embarrassment or contrition. She later went on to correct other people’s assertions and interpretation of Wolfe’s opus, utterly oblivious to the inconvenient fact that they had read it and she had not.

You would think it doesn’t need clarification, but apparently it does: When told to talk about a book you admire, it’s best to choose one you’ve already at least opened.

3. “I thought it was sentimental.”
Outside of medicine and pharmaceuticals, which profession do you imagine is most affected by the existence of incurable diseases? I imagine it’s creative writing teachers. In the first class I attended, the writing-about-terminal-illness cases were approaching 50 percent. Terminal illness is obviously a serious subject, but even the most powerful subject’s impact can be dulled with repetition, or when it’s used as a narrative short cut.

You’ll be surprised how callous you become when numerous consecutive students read aloud their story about the elderly neighbor (kindly or cranky), known only for one hobby (gardening or withholding children’s Frisbees) who succumbs to a disease that reveals their true colors (humor and/or courage). Making someone cry is as hard as making someone laugh, and, in both comedy and tragedy, it’s painful to endure a piece of fiction that tries and fails.

This brings us to a student we’ll call “Anna” and rule number 3: Appreciate it when classmates are being polite. Her short story was about a precocious and grating young child who didn’t like her aunt. The twist is (you’re way ahead of me) that it turns out the aunt is fighting a serious disease. It was a mawkish, deadly serious piece of work, and the 4the illness-themed piece in one class. After she read it aloud, everyone gave polite, vague, and very gentle criticisms. Many tongues seemed to be held and bitten.

Then it came time to read my debut opus, in which a boy realizes he’s getting too old for stunts on his BMX. It was a little rough around the edges, but not the bike-crash I thought it was before Anna piped up. “I thought it was sentimental,” she snipped, oblivious to the fact that she had just read out a piece that Nicholas Sparks would have deleted and re-drafted. “Yeah, it was mawkish,” she continued, louder this time, “I didn’t get it”.

“Hey listen, lady!” I didn’t say. “The only reason you’re taking such liberties is because you wrongly think your story is nuanced and insightful.”

“And if we weren’t so polite during this fragile and important learning phase, you’d know how leaden and syrupy your misery mope fest really was,” I didn’t continue.

“Thanks, Anna, that’s really helpful,” I actually said, meekly and sadly combing over my every word to look for manipulative or sentimental passages I could re-write.

Image Credit: Flickr/Elvert Barnes

Dispatch from the Borders-Land

The literary world, and I speak here primarily of its online incarnation, does some things really well. We chew on abstract issues like why literature matters, what counts as art, and how to navigate the writing life. What we don’t do as well is consider “average” or “real” readers, the people who subsidize most of the book production in the country. This wouldn’t be a big deal if we simply left them alone. (Not that I’m advocating this strategy.) But these people come up all the time, if only by proxy: we chuckle at Dan Brown’s unit sales or snipe at HarperCollins’s “It” imprint, all without necessarily engaging with the readers behind these trends.

So, late on a late December Friday, I decided to try something different: I headed to a mall-bound Borders and asked 37 customers about their relationship to books. I realize my approach has its own problems (sample size, anyone?), but it offers something others can’t—readers speaking in their own voices.

Don’t be fooled by the Seattle’s Best Coffee and all those overstuffed chairs: Borders is not a great place to talk books, mostly because, in my experience, doing so requires weeks of answering machines and unrequited emails—all to secure the Borders Group’s tepid “yes” and a two-hour time limit.

At least I didn’t have much territory to canvass. In the last year, especially, Borders has flailed about for a business model—like Barnes & Noble, it’s now looking to lose its mall locations—and one new initiative has been Borders Ink, a teen-themed sub-store. If the Borders I visited were laid out like the back of a paperback book, the bar code would be checkout area; the author photo would be the coffee shop; and the three blurbs would be music, movies, and Borders Ink and its mass of Twilight merchandise. (Does any celebrity look more like his plastic figurines than Robert Pattinson?) The paperback’s plot summary—maybe 30 percent of the space—would be the tables and shelves of books.

My first interview ended up being my favorite. Mary Anne, an older woman with red clogs and a kind face, tells me that “reading is a real passion of mine.” Her favorite author is Diana Gabaldon, and Mary Anne likes to let the TV hum in the background as she reads (or rereads) 10 to 12 books of historical fiction per week. “Books put me right in the moment,” she says. “The story, the characters, the period stuff.” (Dan Brown elicits an “eh”—he’s “outlandishly far-fetched,” in her nice phrase.)

I start every interview by asking people what they read, coming across all the names the bestseller lists would suggest: Clive Cussler, Robert Ludlum, Mitch Albom, Steve Berry and James Rollins, Stephen King (“The cheeseburger of American lit,” as one Borders employee puts it), Janet Evanovich, James Patterson, and plenty more I hadn’t heard of. (I confess to writing Diane Gabeldern? in my notes.) Bob, an older man in a grubby New York Giants hat, gives the same one-word answer to “What do you read?” and “Why do you read?”: “mystery.” Another guy admits he reads “whatever’s in the airport.”

Most people, though, classify their reading tastes as “eclectic.” Kelly, a young English major, reads Shakespeare and Jane Austen for “inspiration” and “this stuff” (she gestures at the Borders Ink sign) for “relaxation.” But where Kelly seems genuinely eclectic, others invoke the descriptor simply because they aren’t in the habit of talking about books. “I’ll read anything” is the easiest answer to questions you don’t regularly think about, and, when pressed for specifics, most of the people I talked to either reaffirmed their eclecticism or settled on a sub-category—yes, romance, that’s it. All of them lacked a ready vocabulary for stuff like style, technique, or genre.

People were more articulate on why they read, which is also, of course, a genre-inflected question. Beth, a mom loading up on chapter books, reads to learn something. “I didn’t pay too much attention in school,” she says, “so I like to read about our nation’s history.” Ted, who sticks to sports, demands books on current events—ideally someone “with a checkered past.” Tom relied on Ian Fleming to survive his New York City commute; he’s got a different job, now, and “it’s been harder to find the time.”

Renee, a bubbly twentysomething, says she reads “all kinds of stuff”—David Sedaris is a favorite—but also cops to a Twilight addiction. Just don’t ask her about the movies: “The books are so much more horrifying. With movies, you can only feel by seeing. With a book, your imagination does the work.”

This is an idea I hear again and again—the idea that, more than any other medium, books let you “put your own spin on things” and “escape from the real world,” in the words of Stephanie, a college student. Leah and Tammy, two moms in the Nicholas Sparks section who don’t appear to know each other but immediately begin swapping stories about reading after their kids fall asleep, agree that books offer a unique, imaginative escape. Cheryl, a middle-aged woman, enjoys novels steeped in “criminology and anthropology.” Books provide her with “details and depth that the TV shows just can’t match.”

Cheryl also stresses that she tries to remain faithful to her favorite authors. “I just love the way she writes,” she says of Patricia Cromwell*. Most of my conversations were similarly author-centric. (At least as it pertained to novelists; not a single person named a journalist or historian.) When I asked people if they attend author readings, though, I got the weirdest stares. I think you could make a pretty solid argument that these readers have a healthier connection to their authors (and to their art) than do more literary audiences.

But this brings up another question: How else do the people I talked to interact with the book world? Renee subscribes to Entertainment Weekly and reads its page of book reviews. Beth, a fan of “mysteries and romances,” reads the New York Times Book Review “religiously.” And… that’s it. Mary Anne watches the bookish segments on CBS’s Sunday Morning, but she distrusts professional critics because “they don’t look at the story, which matters to me. Besides, they’re too worried about trends.”

No one else seeks out any more extensive book coverage, online or off. Those who do surf the web stick to authors’ official sites or to those of Borders or Barnes & Noble. Only one woman mentions Amazon; a couple of people bring up used-book stores or warehouse club chains. When I ask how they learn about new books or authors, people point to browsing book stores and seeking out “if you like X, you’ll really like Y” recommendations from the staff. (I should add that the Borders staff I talked to, while universally helpful and kind, were not exactly the literary equivalent to the cast of High Fidelity.) The biggest driver of book sales seems to be word-of-mouth. Stephanie is currently reading Gregory Maguire’s Wicked because her sister gave it to her. And let’s give the last word to Mary Anne: “I always buy books for everyone for Christmas—especially for my six grandchildren.”

On one of the sinks in the Borders’ bathroom, I found someone’s forgotten Christmas list, printed out and water-stained:

Urban Outfitters gift card
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
Where the Wild Things Are Stuff
indie rock CDs

The list went on for a full page. It even included two books: Chuck Palahniuk’s Pygmy and Charles Bukowski’s Dangling in the Tournefortia. Point is, the people I talked to might not live for books, but they still live with and through them.

*Update: Paul Constant, the estimable Books Editor at The Stranger, emailed to let me know that Cheryl was almost certainly speaking of Patricia Cornwell, the bestselling crime writer, and not Patricia Cromwell, whom I appear to have invented. Sigh. I hope it’s clear that my heart was always in the right place.

[Image credit: Kevin Dooley]

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