What, if anything, does writing foreclose in life or between people?
Despite probably a million compelling counter examples, famous and anecdotal, to the Plath/Hughes model of artistic-romantic implosion, a master narrative about the impossibility of loving writers and loving while a writer simply…persists. It buttresses the imagined partition between needless fun and necessary sacrifice, as if what we do with our bodies is at once separate from and a threat to what we cultivate in our minds. Take, from my archive, three examples.
From its opening dissuasion—first, try to be something, anything, else—Lorrie Moore’s short story “How to Become a Writer” is a cheeky cautionary tale, a portrait of the aspiring artist as terminally antisocial. Though the story is episodic and elliptical, leaping months and years over the course of its “instructions,” it’s also structured by resurfacing motifs: repetitive similes for blankness, a fondness for explosions, and threaded among these, a quieter concern with the pained relation between writing and love.
We read that early failure is important “so that at fifteen you can write long haiku sequences about thwarted desire.” Later, the hypothetical writer steals her funny boyfriend’s jokes and uses her stories to malign his ex. Then an indeterminate era is condensed into the lines, “You now go out with men who, instead of whispering ‘I love you,’ shout: ‘Do it to me, baby.’ This is good for your writing.” To become a writer is to recuperate the letdown. Like earlier rejections at home and in school, questionable choices supply “the required pain and suffering.”Continue Reading
A life is divided into three parts: the time before you’re able to work, the time after you’re able to work, and the monstrous bulk of time between. After obedience to the law and some basic moral code, work is one of the great demands placed upon the able. It’s inherently traumatic, a sacrifice of one’s own desires to a larger set of aggregate social desires. Fiction gives us a way to cope with this arrangement, or at the very least a way to understand it.
In Sloane Crosley’s debut novel, The Clasp, three formerly close friends in their late twenties try to negotiate their first disillusionment with the world of work. Their jobs in tech, fashion, and television are a representative holy trinity of cool jobs. But even in these dream jobs young people deal with the same nonsense as anywhere else: long hours, pointless meetings, aggravating coworkers, and bosses with more money than sense. Most work is not fulfilling, and by the time we finally realize it all the friends we’d like to turn to for support have been scattered across the globe in pursuit of fulfilling work. This is something we can only discover after college when we’re saddled with enough debt to last us a decade or two. Crosley sends her main characters on a vacation together to give them a little perspective on their dwindling friendship and their respective vocational ruts. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether they make any significant progress on either front, but the question lingers even after the novel ends: once lost, is there any amount of perspective that can restore our love for work?Continue Reading
The age of media and internet is one of fractal, ephemeral bodies—well-curated images of the self from certain angles and frozen in time, dust-coated corpses at the aftermath of a quake that provide little context, statistics and numbers that break down how many and what ages and when, yet provide little to no feeling. The body in writing is a vessel to feeling—to empathy. Reading Lidia Yuknavitch, Maggie Nelson, Ta-Nehisi Coates, among others, is to feel.
At a recent lecture, Maggie Nelson said that a “ringing sense of mortality […] underscores everything we write.” The body, unlike the internet, is finite. It is deeply personal and universal—we all have one, but we only ever experience our own. Lidia Yuknavitch says, “we live by and through the body, and the body, is a walking contradiction.” Meaning, a body can be both beautiful and violent, and often fosters both simultaneously—new life and eventual death. Lidia Yuknavitch’s anti-memoir The Chronology of Water opens with a stillborn, rooting the reader in the author’s body at a certain place in time.Continue Reading
Used poorly, second-person reads like a trope; used well, second-person as a narrative device adds inclusivity to literature, raises questions of authorship, and helps an author communicate politically-charged topics like globalization, race, and gender.
Mohsin Hamid utilizes second-person in his novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, a tongue-in-cheek how-to for globalization. The unnamed narrator is born in an unnamed country and moves to an unnamed city for social mobility. “You” transcends preconceived notions of identity, and allows the reader to superimpose their own onto the narrator, which brings up questions of authorship—the writer has written the story, but the reader makes it their own. Hamid’s novel describes enough for the reader to remain grounded, but still vague enough, such as this description of the narrator’s move from the country to the city:
Dirt streets give way to paved ones, potholes grow less frequent and soon all but disappear, and the kamikaze rush of oncoming traffic vanishes, to be replaced by the enforced peace of the dual carriageway. Electricity makes its appearance, first in passing as you slip below a steel parade of high-voltage giants, then later in the form of wires running at bus-top eye level on either side of the road, and finally in streetlights and shop signs and glorious, magnificent billboards. Buildings go from mud to brick to concrete, then shoot up to an unimaginable four stories, even five.
“Craft” was a dirty word at art school, a subtle derogative. The college dropped “and Craft” from their name so recently that the signs on the highway still held those words. Once, in a class critique, a peer called a hand-painted map used to make a stop motion short “crafty,” and my face stung, as if slapped.
Now I deal with another kind of craft; not so much a dirty word but a kind of quiet discussion held among writers and readers. “Craft” is a fluid term; used in aeronautics and astronautics to speak of a single vessel, or the skill of deception, or a verb analogous to “make.” Craft in literature is comprised of narrative elements and literary devices: the nuts and bolts of what makes a story a story.
The first week in an MFA in creative writing, students were told they’d be studying craft and one student objected—said he couldn’t write a craft essay when the choices he made in a narrative were inherent.
They’re not, the professor argued; they’re studied and learned qualities, practiced until they become inherent, or second-nature. Craft in literature is the metaphorical and invisible toolbox you take with you. Like a filmmaker studies the nuances of cameras, microphones, and lighting to create a scene, a writer reads books for syntax, structure, theme, and studies the methods of employing devices like irony and metaphor as a way to point toward meaning, to elucidate a deeper truth. Jack Hart, author of Storycraft, said, “an awareness of all the different forms in which you can tell true stories using narrative techniques is important to succeeding with a broad variety of materials.” (Nieman Storyboard)Continue Reading
Placed after a mention of death or dying, Kurt Vonnegut’s “So it goes” refrain throughout Slaughterhouse Five utilizes repetition to explore the inevitability of death. Early on in the book, Billy Pilgrim writes a letter to a newspaper about his experiences with extra terrestrials, and explains the origin of the phrase:
When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes.’
The phrase simultaneously dismisses and accepts the inevitability of death. “So it goes” seems so detached as to be irreverent and inappropriate. An incredibly simple three word sentence—so informal it catches the reader off guard in its plainness—is striking in juxtaposition to death. The phrase is so casual, it smacks of false familiarity and dismissiveness. It feels unceremonious, yet becomes ceremonious through its repetition, like the refrain of a song. It is so much more complex than just those three simple words; it admits the inevitability of death and offers a pause for the reader to truly consider the weight of what is written.
Only the candles and the soap were of German origin. They had a ghostly, opalescent similarity. The British had no way of knowing it, but the candles and the soap were made from the fat of rendered Jews and Gypsies and fairies and communists, and other enemies of the State.
Removing the repetition of “so it goes” from the text alters the book—note how the omission of it from the above paragraph makes the sentence so dark and depressing it’s almost impossible to read. Stripping the informal refrain of “so it goes” makes the book too formal, too gloomy; it robs the deaths their due attention, their pause, and removes the carefree yet careful acceptance of the uncompromising inevitability of death. Nothing can be done about death, and Vonnegut’s cool acquiescence of it serves as deeper advice than at first glance—a mantra of sorts.Continue Reading
Fox’s Empire really wants you to know it’s so King Lear. In the pilot, Lucious Lyon—music mogul, owner of Empire Entertainment and father to three sons—gathers his kids in the board room to talk about how he won’t be able to run things forever. “What is this? We ‘King Lear’ now?” his son Jamal asks, obtusely. Empire equals Lear, or so we are told. But how Lear is it?
Lear works well as a framework for a contemporary story. It’s territory that’s been covered successfully before, notably in Jane Smiley’s 1991 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Thousand Acres. Smiley sets her novel on an Iowa farm, opening with a powerful father divvying up his land between three daughters. As with Empire, the tenets of Lear are obvious immediately: the overbearing patriarch, the refusal of one of the king’s heirs to play a game of sycophancy, the misinterpretation of actions and whispering about intentions, and the spiraling downfall of the family. The richness of Smiley’s novel is in how she plays against readers’ expectations about plot and perspective. Smiley uses Shakespeare’s five-act structure as a platform, not a hard-and-fast rule.
It isn’t totally clear yet if (or how) Empire will follow suit. What is clear is that it’s a compelling soap-opera of magnanimous, megalomaniac characters. Everyone is plotting, everyone has something to lose. The magnetism that we saw between Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard in Hustle & Flow is alive and well. Is Empire kind of Lear? Learish? Sure. Its classification as such lent Empire some gravitas before the premier. And the soapy-ness of it all isn’t out of line: Shakespeare wasn’t above the draw of baser scenes and jokes to fill seats—or more accurately, to fill the standing area for groundlings whose excitement would rouse the elites staring down from the balconies. Each time Empire pushes sex, innuendo, violence or scandal, it’s right in line with the Bard.Continue Reading
When my husband and I moved in together, one of the biggest challenges we faced was how to merge our TV-watching styles. For my husband, if the TV is on, you’re actively watching something. For me, if the TV is on, it means you’re home. (I need some kind of ambient noise, and why not have noise that includes narrative?) He’s more likely to suggest watching intense dramas like The Wire or Breaking Bad. I could easily throw on an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer I’ve already seen nine times.
Over the last few years, we’ve found a TV-watching schedule that works for us, including binge-watching a variety of shows with varied emotional content and stakes. One show we’ve been watching is Parks and Recreation with its cast of wacky characters trying to make a difference in Pawnee, Indiana.
Recently, I came across a quote by former Daily Show head writer Tim Carvell, who referred to Parks and Recreation as “criminally underrated and one of the best ensembles on TV. They figured out how to make comedy out of people who like things…Turns out passion can heighten things in the same way that conflict does.”Continue Reading
I’m a little disappointed in Jennifer Weiner. And not in the way you’d think. Certainly not in the same way as Jonathan Franzen. Rather, I’m disappointed that she’s seemingly buying into the genre vs. literary distinction while she (admirably and very hilariously) defends herself on Twitter against Franzen’s latest attacks.
One of the things Weiner recently wrote that left me shaking my head (rather than giving her the applause many of her other comments inspired) was this: “And yet, I end up saying it. Over and over and over again. Every. Single. Time. I should just get an I’M NOT LITERARY tattoo!” To me, that kind of statement, regardless of whether she actually believes it (and I hope the Princeton grad and prolific, bestselling author doesn’t), indicates that she’s upholding the binary belief that genre fiction is somehow less than literary fiction. I, for one, am over the genre vs. literary fiction debate, especially because it so often coincides with the discussion of the issue of gender imbalance in the literary world.
That said, I am monstrously upset at Franzen’s mansplain-y criticism of Weiner’s talent and simultaneous admission that he hasn’t actually read any of her books. He also clearly hasn’t read any of her many intelligent essays championing women’s issues–not just in publishing, but in health, image, and beauty (see one in the New York Times as recent as the Sunday after the Franzen interview broke). The more I read up on the Booth Franzen interview and its aftermath, the more annoyed I get—especially since, on one level, Franzen actually agrees with what Weiner has been trying to say all along.Continue Reading
Where and when do you make time to read? If your answer is “at Chipotle,” then you can leave now. This article isn’t for you. You should also just move along if your answer is “beside a crackling fire in my study.” I don’t know who you are. Why are you reading a blog? Isn’t there a hedge fund you should be managing?
No, for me there are only three acceptable, and interesting, answers to that question. The first is “in bed.” I can’t read in bed, but there are many who manage it with great success. A friend of mine says he read a whole J.G.A. Pocock book in bed, which must be a lie. I can’t even read about J.G.A. Pocock without at least my leg falling asleep. The second respectable answer is “while walking.” I actually do this pretty often when the weather is nice. There aren’t many of us who read books while walking. We’re a small group and quite proud of ourselves despite the fact we just banged our collective knee into a fire hydrant.
So that leaves the third, and I think most interesting, way to read: “on public transportation.”
Right now, no matter when you’re reading this, there are tens if not hundreds of thousands of commuters and travelers making time to read. Reading simply couldn’t have been done in this manner and on this scale in any other period in the world’s history. In the mid-nineteenth century, W.H. Smith & Son opened the first train station newsstands and bookshops, selling cheap paperbacks which were themselves a product of new industrialized manufacturing processes. They’re still the dominant model of English-language readership and bookselling, and none of them could exist without the affordable and rapid transit of people and goods via railway. That resulted in a new type of reading for a new type of reader.Continue Reading