Wonder Boys

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Pop Lit: Literary Magazines in Film and Television

“Small Magazines,” Ezra Pound’s 1931 appreciation of literary magazines, contains a confident proclamation: “the history of contemporary letters has, to a very manifest extent, been written in such magazines.” Commercial publications “have been content and are still more than content to take derivative products ten or twenty years after the germ has appeared in the free magazines.” Pound bemoans that larger publications are unable to “deal in experiment.” Instead, these commercial magazines poach from “periodicals of small circulation,” those “cheaply produced” in the same way a “penniless inventor produces in his barn or his attic.” Thus was created a romantic refrain: modern American writing has its foundation in literary magazines.

Only one of Pound’s favorite magazines still publishes: Poetry. It might be difficult to call Harriet Monroe’s concern a “little magazine”: in 2002, philanthropist Ruth Lilly gave $100 million to the Modern Poetry Association, the publisher of Poetry. That organization has since become the Poetry Foundation, and, according to The New York Times, Lilly’s gift is “now estimated to be worth $200 million.” The gift has lead to an excellent website, interdisciplinary events and readings, television and radio promotion of poetry, and educational outreach programs. But how many readers outside of the traditional organs of American literature — aspiring and published poets, students in secondary classrooms and college campuses, and critics — know of, or read, Poetry?

That might not be a fair question to ask. Literary magazines, by form and function, might require narrow focus. Narrow does not mean niche. Literary magazines have consistently enhanced and reflected larger literary trends without being as noticeable as those wider trends. Experimental publications helped spread Modernist writing and thought. As Travis Kurowski writes in the introduction to Paper Dreams, his comprehensive anthology of literary magazine history and culture, Modernist literary magazines “gave people a tie-in to an imagined community of readers.” Kurowski does not use “imagined” in the pejorative sense. Rather, he speculates that “literary magazines, due to their subject matter and even the smallness of their production, create a somehow more significant and longer lasting community than larger circulation magazines and newspapers.” Note Kurowski’s valorization of community over circulation. I might add further qualification. Literary magazines are uniquely important in observing the ripples, fragments, and failures within trends. They give readers and researchers the ability to see the flash beyond the snapshot, and in doing so, document moments in American literary history with more nuance than what is gained by only cataloging single-author books. Take Granta: 8, Summer 1983: the “Dirty Realism” issue. I once argued at Luna Park that it was the best single-issue ever of a literary magazine. The process was a thankless exercise, but I was attempting to make the point that even an individual issue of a literary magazine offers a complex cultural sample. Editor Bill Buford explains his collection of a strand of American writing marked by concise prose, destructive relationships, and a particular pessimism. The single issue contained writing by Raymond Carver, Jayne Anne Phillips, Richard Ford, Frederick Barthelme, Tobias Wolff, Angela Carter, Carolyn Forché, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Elizabeth Tallent. Not a bad snapshot and flash.

But I’m writing these words as a lover of literary magazines, an affection that was instilled in me at Susquehanna University. The Blough-Weis Library subscribed to Poetry and The Missouri Review, but also gems like Beloit Poetry Journal, where I finally read a poem — “Trout Are Moving” by Harry Humes — that connected me to the genre. If I held a collection by Humes, my 19 year-old mind might have lost interest after a few of his Pennsylvania-tinged, domestic elegies. Instead, I bounded to work by Ander Monson and Albert Goldbarth. Literary magazines made writing manageable and approachable. Our workshop professors used those publications as part of the curriculum, and not because they thought we could publish there. At least not yet. The point was that an awareness of contemporary publishing is necessary, particularly for undergraduates who think the only words that matter are the ones that come from their own pens.

Now when I receive a review copy of a short story collection or purchase a new book of poetry, I immediately turn to the acknowledgments page. And this might be a personal quirk, but I try to find the original issues in which the pieces appeared, and read the work there tucked between writers both established and obscure. I loved Jamie Quatro’s debut, I Want to Show You More, and it yet it felt more personal to read “Demolition” in The Kenyon Review. Literary magazines are the legend to the map of American letters. Yet I worry that this appreciation reveals me for who I am: a writer who submits to these magazines, who uses them in the classroom. This cycle does speak to the insular world of small magazine publishing.

Does anybody outside of our circle care? What is the wider cultural influence of literary magazines? To be certain, I am not sure there needs to be one. An insular economic system will likely fail, as evidenced by the graveyards of defunct magazines, but that does not mean an insular artistic system is inherently bad. Nor should we assume more literary magazines fail than niche publications or commercial releases. Here’s a better question: if for those of us in the circle — writers, readers, editors, teachers, and professors — literary magazines are a mark of credibility and authenticity, what are they to those on the outside? Do these publications carry any particular signification or importance within popular culture?

It would be incorrect to simplify popular culture to film and television, but it is a useful place to begin this consideration. I recently wondered if and when literary magazines have been referenced or included in these visual mediums. I began with two examples that stuck in my mind. In the “Christmas Party” episode of The Office, Mindy Kaling’s character, Kelly Kapoor chooses a “book of short stories” during Michael Scott’s ill-advised game of Yankee Swap. At least to my eyes, that book is an issue of The Paris Review. A more direct literary magazine reference is in the 2007 film Juno, when the titular character says jocks really want girls who “play the cello and read McSweeney’s and want to be childrens’ librarians when they grow up.” The reference was probably lost on many, but on a small but aware crowd, it did its job. Even if that job was simplification.

I couldn’t think of any more examples, so I went to that pop culture land of crowdsourcing, Facebook, for help. My literary friends delivered. What follows is a sampling of some of the most interesting occurrences, with original contributor citation in parentheses, plus my own investigations.

1. In Cheers, Diane receives a form rejection from West Coast magazine ZYZZYVA. Sam writes a poem that is later published in the magazine (Martin Ott). This appears in the “Everyone Imitates Art” episode, which originally aired on December 4, 1986, during the show’s fifth season. Diane enters the bar, overly excited about a letter from ZYZZYVA. Sam asks: “Who’s ZYZZYVA?” Diane responds: it’s “not a who. It’s a new literary review. Dedicated to publishing the prose and the poetry that’s right on the cutting edge.” The magazine was founded in 1985 by Howard Junker. Diane has submitted a poem, and received an extremely swift two-week response. Frasier Crane takes a skeptical look at the letter, and concludes that it is a form rejection. Diane disagrees, saying that it is a “soon and inevitably to be accepted later,” reading that “your work is not entirely without promise.” She proudly says they are “almost begging for another submission.” Sam agrees that the response is a form letter, and boasts that he could submit a poem that would receive the same type of response. The episode breaks, and when it returns, Diane asks about Sam’s poem. He points to a magazine on the bar, and tells her to open to page 37 and read “Nocturne”: by Sam Malone. She drops the issue and screeches. Diane thinks Sam has plagiarized the poem. She vaguely recognizes the overwritten lines. Somehow, in the span of three weeks, ZYZZYVA has received Sam’s submission, responded, and published it in an issue. Writers everywhere roll their eyes. Frasier tries to console Diane: “this literary magazine’s circulation must be 600.” Diane delivers the ultimate literary magazine rejection rant: “The original 600 readers drop their copies in buses and taxicabs and doctor’s offices and another 600 people pick them up and take them to the airport where they go all over the country. Then they get taken on international flights: Tierra del Fuego, Sierra Leone. All the remotest parts of the world. Soon, I defy you to find a house, a hut, an igloo, or a wickiup that doesn’t have a copy on the coffee table. Then, then, everyone in the world, every living thing will be laughing at me because he got published and I did not!” More sting arrives later, when Woody sends in a poem of his own and receives the same form rejection as Diane. Dejected, Diane vents to Sam, who has created this mess. Sam finally admits that he copied the poem from Diane’s own love letters to him. She considers herself published and validated. In the words of Howard Junker himself, Onward!

2. The Paris Review is mentioned in the 2000 film, Wonder Boys (Neil Serven). Grady, a struggling novelist, talks about one of his students: “Hannah’s had two stories published in The Paris Review. You’d best dust off the ‘A’ material for her.” With no further explanation, the reference is an accepted barometer of literary quality. Yet for a magazine quite aware of its social status, the review’s cultural capital seems localized to the literary community. We might be stretching the parameters a bit too thin here, but co-founder George Plimpton appeared in the “I’m Spelling as Fast as I Can” episode of The Simpsons (Aaron Gilbreath).

3. We could spend years arguing whether The New Yorker should be considered a literary magazine proper, but it does regularly publish fiction and poetry, so it merits mention. The magazine appears in the film 42nd Street (1933). Dorothy Brock, played by Bebe Daniels, holds an issue of the magazine with Eustace Tilley on the cover (Win Bassett). In The Squid and the Whale (2005), Laura Linney’s character, Joan, is published in an unnamed literary magazine, and later appears in The New Yorker (Neil Serven). That more prestigious publication is revealed in a scene at a restaurant. Bernard, Joan’s estranged husband, is surprised to learn that an excerpt from her forthcoming novel appears in the magazine. Another character, Sophie, says the story “was kind of sad, but really good.” Bernard changes the subject. Later, their son Frank’s inappropriate behavior at school prompts a meeting with the principal, who, at the end of the conversation, says that she read and enjoyed Joan’s story in The New Yorker: “it was quite moving.” The magazine also appears often in Adaptation (2002), with the identifying “sprawling, New Yorker shit” (Alex Pruteanu). An early scene occurs at The New Yorker magazine office, where writer Susan Orlean — author of The Orchard Thief, which main character Charlie Kaufman is attempting to make into a film — discusses going to Florida to write an essay for the magazine. Kaufman is having trouble due to the “sprawling” nature of the book, hence the magazine reference as literary code. Kaufman first uses the word “stuff”; later, The New Yorker style is “sprawling…shit.” The magazine, with work by Orlean within, appears open and at a restaurant table in the film. Later, Kaufman watches Orlean, seated alone, reading another magazine. In Kaufman’s voiceover: “Reads Vanity Fair. Funny detail: New Yorker writer reads Vanity Fair. Use!” And the magazine’s cartoons were lampooned in “The Cartoon” episode during the final season of Seinfeld (Tim Horvath). The New Yorker’s Cartoon Editor Bob Mankoff had some fun analyzing the episode here and here.

4.  In Mad Men, the character Ken Cosgrove has a story published in The Atlantic Monthly (Brenda Shaughnessy). The publication occurs in episode “5G,” the fifth episode overall of the series. The story is titled “Tapping a Maple on a Cold Vermont Morning.” His contributor bio is as follows: “A graduate of Columbia University, Kenneth Cosgrove has lived in the New York area for most of his life. Working for the advertising firm of Sterling Cooper puts Mr. Cosgrove in a unique position to observe and study the trends that shape America today. This is his first story to appear in The Atlantic.” Pete Campbell, jealous, longs for his own fiction to appear in (you guessed it) The New Yorker, but is disappointed to learn that the piece only makes it into Boy’s Life Magazine (James Chesbro). The Missouri Review’s Managing Editor Michael Nye has a nice reflection on this episode, and the writer archetype in film, here.

Can you add to the list in the comments?

Image via Nigel Beale/Flickr

How to Write a Movie About a Writer

In the 2011 film Limitless, Bradley Cooper is Eddie Morra, a struggling novelist. His ponytail is greasy, his apartment is a mess, his girlfriend is fed up. Then he accepts a neural accelerator from a shady source, finishes his manuscript in four days, shoves it in his editor’s face and promptly moves on to day trading and sport fucking. In The Words, released this past Friday, Cooper again plays a writer (Rory Jansen) confronted with a Faustian dilemma. The Words is a mess of cinematic and literary clichés weighed down further by a vaguely meta-fictional plot, twin voiceovers, and an obsession with a sparkling brand of literary celebrity that no longer exists, but it does effectively illustrate the difficulties inherent in conveying the illusion of great art and it serves as the most recent example of Hollywood’s strange vision of writers and their creative process.

The Words traffics in Easy Bake literary shorthand (Brooklyn lofts, Paris cafes, tweed, pensive cigarette puffs) familiar to any pretentious ninth-grader. Occasionally the camera pans a computer screen or a yellow page just closely enough for the viewer to scan half a sentence. The voiceovers, provided by a smug Dennis Quaid and a raspy Jeremy Irons, suggest we’re not missing much. Let’s just say that Quaid’s Clayton Hammond — a wealthy and respected novelist — would probably take great professional delight in describing Olivia Wilde’s eyes as “almond” and Bradley Cooper’s as “an icy blue.”

While the film employs a mirrored plot device, audiences may be bothered by a nagging sense of unintentional déjà vu. Movies about writers can differ in a few key ways, but there is one near constant: literary fiction is exclusively male territory. Women serve as muses and dishwashers. “Why would a beautiful and intelligent young woman like you want to be a writer?” Hammond asks Wilde’s Daniella, a Columbia grad student, as he pins her against a beam in his cheesy duplex. Additionally, the plot hinges on an act of fraud that is, ironically, very similar to the plots of other films. I was reminded of A Murder of Crows for the first time in many years, in which aspiring writer Lawson Russell (Cuba Gooding Jr.) publishes his dead friend’s manuscript as his own and enjoys instant fame and fortune. Recent scandals have shown that this type of behavior continues to tempt even those at the pinnacle of the profession.

What feeds these temptations? The blank page, a fear of rejection, claustrophobia, philosophical questions of ownership. The darker elements of creation are excellent fodder for thrillers and effective platforms for comedies. These films take the work itself less seriously (often a lack of literary merit is part of the joke) and instead focus on the pitfalls of the creative life. They ignore the words for the work and all that can inspire and disrupt it: psycho fans, ex-wives, portals to the Underworld. These writers can be cynical hacks (As Good As It Gets), genre stars (Misery) or dislocated sportswriters (Funny Farm). In romantic comedies, the writer is often a witty Lothario or a good-natured wimp. Either way, the profession’s primary function is to provide the character with plenty of free time. A more successful genre is the Literary Young Man Coming of Age. In these cases (The Squid and the Whale, Orange County) the films succeed because the film is the novel and the focus is on the yearning for a fulfilling creative life rather than a specific written work. The most offensive depictions usually appear in melodramas (The Words, A Love Song for Bobby Long), which exploit a milieu in order to tell vapid stories that wish to be considered intelligent simply for acknowledging the existence of literary culture.

Better to make a biopic (Quills, Becoming Jane, Miss Potter). While these films are frequently dull, they can coast on borrowed esteem and there’s much less potential for embarrassment. Nobody has to do the extra work of creating a fake masterpiece. We are familiar with Capote’s ouevre and are free to judge it as we wish.

The only evidence we have of Clayton Hammond’s greatness is a few fawning autograph seekers and a fancy refrigerator. We are told that Sean Connery’s William Forrester is a Salinger-level genius in Finding Forrester. We are assured that Grady Tripp’s fiction makes up for his numerous personal failings in Wonder Boys. But even Chabon didn’t want to waste good writing by giving his protagonist a few juicy paragraphs. Instead these films rely on our familiarity with Hollywood-established Literary Personality tropes: needy yet reclusive, lecherous yet noble, wise yet drug-addled. You know, writers.

A Quick Guide to Writing a Movie About a Writer:

You are writing a movie about a writer. He is a great writer. He must be a great writer, the plot demands it. Here are a few necessary visual shortcuts.

1. Tweed, tattered sweaters, corduroy, maybe an old Army jacket.
2. Bouts of inopportune drunkenness.
3. A library with one of those sliding ladders or perilous stacks surrounding a stained mattress (throw in a dusty globe to suggest world-weariness).
4. Rub jaw or stroke beard.
5. Have writer tell a beautiful and supportive female character that she just doesn’t get it.

Publicity image via The Words

Book to Movie News: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

Michael Chabon provides an update on the progress of a movie version of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay on his Web site. Somewhat cryptically, he writes “The fate of this project–whether it will move at last from the nebulousness of pre-pre-production into really-truly pre-production, with a budget and cast and everything, will be decided on or around 12 July 2006.”He adds that Natalie Portman “is a strong likelihood” to play Rosa, and then provides some quick answers to what will and will not make it into the big-screen version of the book: “Golem: yes. Antarctica: yes. Gay love story: yes. Ruins of World’s Fair: no. Long Island: no. Orson Welles: no. Salvador Dali: yes. Loving reference to Betty and Veronica: no. Stan Lee: no.”Meanwhile, IMDb as of this writing has very few details about the film. Just that Stephen Daldry, director of Billy Elliot and The Hours is set to helm and Scott Rudin is the producer. Rudin was also behind the excellent big-screen version of Chabon’s novel Wonder Boys.On a somewhat related note, Chabon’s next novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is to come out in May of 2007.

Book to movie news

Scott Rudin the Hollywood producer known for bringing adaptations of contemporary literature to the silver screen – he was responsible for Wonder Boys and The Hours, for example – may be on his way out at Paramount. This means that several forthcoming literary adaptations could be in jeopardy, including big screen versions of three new books: Ian McEwan’s Saturday, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. Farther along in their development are The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon and, of course, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Though adaptations can be a risky proposition, I do hope that some of these end up getting made if only to satisfy my curiosity. Here’s the story from the Hollywood Reporter.

Surprise Me!

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