How to Be Alone: Essays

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The Beautiful Afterlife of Dead Books

1.
A few weeks ago, I spent several afternoons at a book morgue, otherwise known as The Monkey’s Paw secondhand bookshop in Toronto. It was a refuge of sorts. I had been feeling slightly down about writing and wanted to linger in a place of pure bibliophilia. Like many novelists, I tend to experience an existential crisis every time I finish a book. Why bother? Why engage in such an intangible and self-involved vocation when I could be doing something more tangibly and socially useful? (i.e., stopping a pipeline, regrouting the bathroom.) Why write longform narrative in a world that prefers to live swiftly and episodically?

In the past, this soul searching has lodged itself in the personal-neurotic realm. But lately it has ballooned into a broader crisis about how much less novels matter to the mainstream than when I started writing.

I don’t want to sound self-pitying or ungrateful (I’ve been very fortunate) but the work of writing novels — literary fiction no less — just seems an increasingly weird and arcane thing to be doing with my time. It’s fairly obvious when I look around that fewer and fewer people I know and love are reading books. (And, here, I’m not referring to people who are opting to read books on screen over print — I’m talking about reading books period.) They don’t see the point. They’d rather be watching Downton Abbey or clicking through obscure indie news sites. They would prefer to be resting in Supta Baddhakonasana or sitting on a meditation cushion at their neighborhood Sangha. Or hanging out with circus friends in the park or blogging at their local coffee joint. You get the idea. They are drawn to culture, just not the culture of reading books. And to my dismay, this lack of books does not seem to have left a yawning void in their lives.

2.
So, I went to spend time at The Monkey’s Paw, feeling disgruntled about the ailing state of the literary novel; grieving somewhat for myself and my forthcoming effort (what a way for a new book to begin, intubated, on precious life support); and grieving for my children (what are the “soul effects” of choosing Angry Birds over Lewis Carroll?)

What compounded my disgruntlement and despair was the feeling that it needed to be borne stoically, in silence. Of course, I was silent. Any novelist with her head screwed on properly knows better than to announce publicly that the novel is doomed. As Jonathan Franzen cautions in his book How to Be Alone:
However sick with foreboding you feel inside, it’s best to radiate confidence and to hope that it’s infectious…In publishing circles, confessions of doubt are commonly referred to as “whining” — the idea being that cultural complaint is pathetic and self-serving in writers who don’t sell, ungracious in writers who do.
In other words, no unseemly griping, no joyless defenses of publishing, no intellectual shaming of non-readers, etc. No matter what misgivings may flicker beneath the surface, the smart writer knows to present herself as a polished and sanguine human.

This posture of dissimulation started me thinking about the tradition of non-disclosure in Japanese hospitals. I have had two uncles die without knowing they were terminally ill. One thought he had appendicitis. The other thought he had lower back pain. I began to wonder: What if the book was a patient in a Japanese hospital? What if it was actually doing more poorly than anyone would admit? I know what you’re thinking. We’ve heard people say that the “book is dead” forever and each time we’ve seen cultural attempts to make the book matter again. But what if it was really bad this time? What if the book was truly and irrevocably dead?

3.
Cue: Stephen Fowler, owner of The Monkey’s Paw. It was while chatting with Fowler in his beautiful shop that I had an epiphany. At any given time, his bookshop is packed with over 6,000 dead titles on everything ranging from terrestrial slugs to false hair. Rows of books rest in peaceful repose on tables: gorgeous idiosyncratic corpses that would excite any literary necrophile.

These books are unquestionably deceased. I don’t think a single title in Fowler’s collection would be considered commercially viable if published today. (Some are barely readable. One can only imagine the prose challenges of a book called Carp: How to Catch Them.) Yet, oddly, it’s one of the least depressing bookshops I know. Even the bad books are not bad in the usual — vapid, trite, cynically formulaic — way. They are uniquely, bizarrely, captivatingly bad. (e.g., Vans and The Truckin’ Life, The World of Clowns, The Problem of Being An Icelander: Past, Present and Future.) A sense of strange beauty and calm pervades the shop. Fowler who describes himself as “the youngest person to come out of the old book trade,” and who was recently invited to join the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers, has created a genuine Mecca for booklovers.

He has done this not by championing literature’s survival. Not at all. Fowler had accepted the book’s demise. In fact, having passed through the customary stages of grief, he may be the only person I know who can openly say, and with a smile on his face, that the book is dead. Dead as a doornail.

4.
I was there one afternoon when he had just returned from a buying trip in the Niagara area. Sitting there, I watched as he went through his newly acquired stack, thoughtfully penciling in a price and sometimes a word or two (“quaint,” “uncommon,” “macabre,” “obsessive!”)

A man browsed through the “Ego Annihilation” section (books on sex, drugs and death.) A woman flipped through an old copy of Creative Wood Craft (a store bestseller). These were not calls of condolence. These customers were not looking for scented candles, bath salts or other non-literary tchotchkes. They had come to engage in the primordial, timeworn practice of pulling books at random from bookshelves. Inspired by what I saw, I also browsed. I browsed through the slowly aged Penguin paperbacks and the bird book that cracked audibly when I opened it. I looked through the poetry and film sections. I bought a book by Igor Stravinsky and a copy of Amerika by Kafka exquisitely illustrated by Edward Gorey.

By the time I left, I felt buoyant. It dawned on me that this is what happens when you are done with mourning. This is what is left when you pass through denial, rage, wallowing, when you lose the desperate edge of your grief: you free yourself up for other emotions, including curiosity and love.

5.
I’ve heard some people say that as the publishing industry rapidly realigns to meet the digital age, antiquarian books and fine press books will thrive. I don’t know if The Monkey’s Paw is the bookstore of the future but, for me, on those cold February afternoons, it was a nice place to spend time; a place to befriend the dead.

As writers, perhaps the best we can hope for is that our books leave beautiful corpses, that they will be loved for what they are, visited occasionally, tenderly maintained.

I realize that this may not be your definition of a successful life but it’s enough for me.

 

Photo courtesy of Stephen Fowler

Pitons in the Monolith: Jonathan Franzen’s Despair and the Millennials’ Dream

“My despair about the American novel began in the winter of 1991, when I fled to Yaddo, the artists colony in upstate New York, to write the last two chapters of my second book.” So begins Jonathan Franzen’s famous essay, “Perchance to Dream,” which appeared in Harper’s fifteen years ago this month. The essay, subtitled “In the Age of Images, A Reason to Write Novels,” recounts Franzen’s struggle to write serious fiction in a culture that had lost its appetite for anything more nuanced than a Seinfeld joke:
Just as the camera drove a stake through the heart of serious portraiture and landscape painting, television has killed the novel of social reportage. Truly committed social novelists may still find cracks in the monolith to sink their pitons into. But they do so with the understanding that they can no longer depend on their material, as William Dean Howells and Upton Sinclair and Harriet Beecher Stowe did, but only on their own sensibilities, and with the expectation that no one will be reading them for news.
Within weeks of its publication, copies of Franzen’s essay were being passed hand to hand in my MFA program in San Francisco like samizdat in the old Eastern Bloc. This is less strange than it might sound. In San Francisco in the 1990s, where every third garage  housed some greasy-haired tech geek pounding out code, anyone wanting to be a poet or a novelist did feel a bit like a cultural dissident. No one had yet seen an e-reader, but there was among my writer friends a pervasive sense that the book, and the centuries-old culture that had grown up around it, were under assault. Franzen, then the author of two well-received but relatively little-known novels, captured this anxiety in his essay, asking aloud the question we were all quietly putting to ourselves: “Why am I bothering to write?”

I’m older now, my life choices pretty well settled, so it’s difficult for me to rekindle the revolutionary glow I felt reading “Perchance to Dream” in grad school. For one thing, as I recall, the guy who handed it to me surrendered to the Zeitgeist soon after turning in his thesis project and took a job as a “content strategist” at an Internet startup. For another, the third novel that Franzen was so painfully bringing into being during the writing of his essay turned out to be The Corrections, which won the National Book Award and made Franzen the most famous non-guest in the history of Oprah.

Still, the existential crisis Franzen describes in his essay would seem to be doubly urgent for today’s twentysomethings, the generation of so-called Millennials born after 1982. When “Perchance to Dream” was published, the Internet browser was just two years old. Few people used email, wireless was still an old-fashioned British word for radio, and you couldn’t download a movie to your computer, much less to a smart phone or iPad. Even TV was simpler. If you wanted to watch a show, you had to sit down in front of your set at the prescribed time and watch it. (Television, like much of mass culture in the pre-Internet era, was an authoritarian regime: you did what you were told, and maybe you’d get in a chuckle or two between the endless parade of ads.) In other words, novelists of Franzen’s generation stood at least a fighting chance of sinking their pitons into the monolith.

Today’s pop culture is a far trickier edifice. Not only are the distractions of movies, songs, YouTube videos and web memes ubiquitous and easily accessible; they now proliferate from the bottom up. In April 2007, to take one well-known example, a 16-year-old from Batesville, Mississippi named DeAndre Way posted a low-budget YouTube video of himself and some of his friends in an empty swimming pool demonstrating dance moves to his song “Crank That.” Within weeks, Way, under his stage name Soulja Boy, had signed a record contract, and by September the song had broken into the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100. How is an aspiring novelist intent on telling a quiet tale of romantic love supposed to compete with a home-grown rap tune whose signature line runs: “Superman that ho”? How does a young poet stand a chance against the AutoTuned novelty of a Rebecca Black?

 

But look closely and you’ll see that young writers are entering the arena in droves. The web is teeming these days with literary blogs and ’zines written by and for people under 30: The Rejectionist, HTMLGiant, and Full-Stop to name just a few. Two of the best novels of this year, Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife and Karen Russell’s Swamplandia, are by women in their twenties. According to blogger Seth Abramson, who tracks creative writing program rankings at The Suburban Ecstasies, the twenty most selective MFA programs are now harder to get into than Harvard Medical School. And you have to go down to No. 49 on the selectivity list – Georgia College & State University – before you find an MFA program that accepts a higher percentage of its applicants than Harvard Law. Maybe in 2011, the pertinent question is not “Why bother?” but “What gives?”

2.
If you are a Millennial feeling the urge to see what pre-Oprah-dustup Jonathan Franzen reads like, I can save you the trouble. The famed Harper’s essay hasn’t aged particularly well. It is 15,000 words long, and readers hoping to savor the morsels of wit and wisdom sprinkled liberally through the text must hack through a thick, fibrous membrane of authorial ego. In recent years, Franzen, now a successful author in his fifties, has made very public peace with Oprah and is capable of presenting himself on the page as a thoughtful, empathetic guy. (A considerably rewritten version of “Perchance to Dream,” now called “Why Bother,” appeared in his 2002 essay collection, How to Be Alone.) But this is not that Jonathan Franzen. This Jonathan Franzen is beset by stupidity on all sides. Politicians are stupid. Booksellers at Barnes & Noble are stupid. People who like to watch television are also stupid, but at least they aren’t as stupid as the people who make the shows they watch. The only people who aren’t stupid are serious novelists, and they are culturally irrelevant. One has the sense, in reading the piece, that the entire fin de siècle American world exists solely to give Jonathan Franzen agita.

In the end, he is rescued from this ocean of idiocy by Shirley Brice Heath, a professor of English and linguistics at Stanford who interviews him as part of her research into why people write and read what she calls “substantive works of fiction.” Serious readers, Heath tells him, come in two flavors: either their parents modeled serious reading for them as children, or, far less commonly, they were “social isolates” who found in books a profound connection with an imaginary world that supplanted a daily environment in which they felt they had no place. The latter description, apparently, fits Franzen to a T, and he is relieved to hear Heath tell him that readers who came to books to cure their social isolation are more likely than other kinds of readers to become writers. Soon afterward, his writer’s block is cured and his stalled third novel begins to click along.

Thus, we have Shirley Brice Heath and her eccentric research project to thank for the wonder that is The Corrections, along with the (to my mind) somewhat less wondrous Freedom. But this doesn’t help us much with our Millennials. One can imagine  a young social isolate like Franzen, who was born in 1959 and wrote two novels before you could browse the Internet, having no more promising portal for his imaginative  hunger than the stacks at the local public library. But surely this can’t be the case for Obreht, who was just nine when Netscape Navigator went online in 1994. And what of Tao Lin, who at age 27 has written two novels, a novella, a collection of stories, and two volumes of poetry? Or Joshua Cohen, who had published the 800-page Witz (his fifth book) by 30? What possible relevance can Heath’s model have for the legions of 22-year-olds who could have gone to film school next fall or sat in their parents’ garages smoking pot and making humorous little web videos about their talking cats, but instead chose to shell out thousands of dollars for a graduate degree in fiction or poetry?

3.
Apparently, this form of storytelling has a future. This isn’t because written language  is somehow better than visual imagery, or because it cures isolation, or even because reading books makes you smarter than watching TV, but because words on a page, as a delivery system for images and ideas, can do things the competition can’t. I would go so far as to say that serious fiction and poetry will survive because of their relative simplicity, not in spite of it. We live amid a constant high-tech, high-revenue din: ringtones, Lolcat calendars, Gawker postings, reality TV shows, all of it shiny and noisy and designed, with scientific precision, to sell us shit we don’t need. Next to that stands a poem. Or a book of stories. Ever seen paid product placement in a poem? Ever had to fast-forward through the ads to read a book? The Kindle may be young, but substantive works of fiction, whether on paper or a screen, stand as islands of commercial and mental quiet in a sea of cultural noise. Young writers aren’t applying to MFA programs and sending their work to tiny journals read by a few hundred people because they think they’re going to be rich and famous. They aren’t stupid. They’re writing and publishing because they know that only through words on a page can they reach an audience without having to be rich or famous – or else cozy up to those who are – in the first place.

The cost of entry into the world of writing is extremely low, and getting lower by the day. Novelists don’t even need traditional publishing houses any more. To write a novel, a talented writer needs a laptop and a lot of free time. Of course, you could say much the same about DeAndre Way. He didn’t need a record deal to make a hit record. But look what happened to him. After the first Soulja Boy video went viral, Way signed with Interscope Records and his first album went platinum, meaning it moved more than a million units. His second album, though it had some hit singles, didn’t do nearly as well. Granted, the kid was no Cab Calloway to begin with, but he’d caught something in that first video, and that something turned out to be commercially valuable. No more filming in empty swimming pools for Soulja Boy. But somewhere on the journey from DIY to Blingsville, he lost that magic connection with his teenage audience, and his third album, The DeAndre Way, sold only 56,000 copies.

Unlike pop music, the writing of “substantive works of fiction” starts out DIY and stays pretty much DIY until the end. Yes, if you sign with a traditional publisher, there will be agents and editors and publicity flacks to deal with and self-promoting blog posts to write, but even if you are Jonathan Franzen, when you sit down to write your fourth or fifth novel, it’s still going to be just you and that laptop. Serious literature is among the least commercially lucrative of all contemporary art forms. A novel never sells anything but itself, which means that the whole huge noisemaking machine we call popular culture leaves novelists more or less alone. Jonathan Franzen may see that as cultural irrelevance. I prefer to call it freedom.

But what of Franzen’s deeper complaint in his Harper’s essay, which is that even when a serious novelist does try to engage with the broader culture, no one is paying attention?
The novelist has more and more to say to readers who have less and less time to read: where to find the energy to engage with a culture in crisis when the crisis consists in the impossibility of engaging with the culture?
It is tempting to use Franzen’s own career in response to this question. The Corrections, born out of his years of frustration, went on to sell nearly a million copies in hardback, and his more recent novel, Freedom, put him on the cover of Time magazine, which called him a “Great American Novelist.” Jonathan Franzen, please meet Cultural Relevance.

But, okay, DeAndre Way, a teenager from Batesville, Mississippi, moved more units than Jonathan Franzen, a 51-year-old writer judged by many to be the foremost novelist of his era. Clearly, these are peculiar times. But when was serious fiction and poetry ever a mass taste? In his essay, Franzen mentions Harriet Beecher Stowe, who did indeed move a fair few units in her day, but Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for all its virtues, is an anti-slavery polemic written in the form of a three-hankie melodrama. Of Stowe’s contemporaries, the founding generation of American letters, Emerson, Melville, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Whitman, and Dickinson, only Emerson and Hawthorne found anything like a contemporary audience. Whitman self-published his first two editions of Leaves of Grass. Melville stopped writing fiction for almost thirty years in the wake of the failure of his magnum opus Moby Dick. Dickinson only made a few half-hearted efforts at finding a public forum for her poetry. And Thoreau, my personal hero, wrote in one of his letters after he bought the remaindered copies of his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers: “I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself.”

That is what true cultural irrelevance looks like. But it’s not difficult to suppose that Thoreau was thinking of this early failure when, in Walden, he tells the story of an Indian basket maker befuddled by the fact that his baskets aren’t making him rich. “I, too, had woven a kind of basket of a delicate texture,” Thoreau writes,
but I had not made it worth any one’s while to buy them. Yet not the less, in my case, did I think it worth my while to weave them, and instead of studying how to make it worth men’s while to buy my baskets, I studied rather how to avoid the necessity of selling them. The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind. Why should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of the others?
Piton, anyone? I hear Henry’s got a whole basket full of them in his cabin on Walden Pond.

(Image: Someone else’s holiday from technowannabe’s photostream)

What People Are Reading (Parts 2 & 3)

Next, non-fiction. People seem to be very excited about a new book by the French philosopher (and best-selling author in Europe) Bernard Henri Levy. Who Killed Daniel Pearl? is both a journalistic account of the kidnapping and brutal murder of the Wall Street Journal reporter and a deeper look at the rift between extremist Islam and the rest of the world. Imagine the musings of a philosopher detective retracing the final steps of a man he has never met. In other news, I proudly voted in an election that is sure to be a footnote in the history books. I did not vote for Arnold for personal reasons: I happen to be a rabid celebrity-ist, as in I discriminate against celebrities and, by law, I don’t think they should be allowed to hold public office. Just because someone appears regularly on television and movie screens, in magazines and on billboards does not mean they are qualified to do anything other than look pretty and pretend to be another person. But, of course, this is California and it is important to have leaders who are sufficiently glamorous representing the extremely glamorous populace. Needless to say, California is a peculiar and maddening place, progenitor and betrayer of national hopes and dreams, which, in so many words, is what Joan Didion is saying in her book, Where I Was from. My hope is that the reason this book continues to sell so well is that it is people’s way of taking this election with a grain of salt. Now I’m going to do something a bit hypocritical, watch as I go from celebrity-bashing to the Rolling Stones. But what can I say? The Rolling Stones, as The Beatles did a few years ago, have put together a beautiful and comprehensive coffee table book called According to the Rolling Stones, and people are buying it like crazy.Finally, a couple of paperbacks to mention: Dan Brown, like John Grisham before him, is using his huge breakthrough hit, The Da Vinci Code to sell his previous books which had, up until now, been ignored. Since everyone in the world seems to have read the Da Vinci Code by now, folks looking to keep the good times rolling have been buying an earlier book of his, Angels & Demons in droves. Also big in paperback is the recently released collection of essays by Jonathan Franzen called How to Be Alone. I seem to be one of the few who hold this opinion, but Franzen’s non-fiction bugs the heck out of me. The Corrections, however, is a must read.

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