Showing posts with label Writers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Writers. Show all posts

Friday, December 4, 2020

Maxing out Maximalism

 It's been one of those weeks when there's little else to do after the laundry is done than to stare for long periods at the bookshelves and make provisional decisions about to keep on hand and at the ready and what to box up or bag and take to the local used bookshop for trade credit, which means trading in old used books with all my dog eared ages and marginalia for new used books, with dog earing and marginalia rendered by people I've probably never met.Sometimes the mind seems like nothing less than a noisy circular file, a recycling bin of metaphors that are parted out and tweaked to meet new situations which one's brain has to accommodate, lest the world unhinge and roll down some celestial bowling lane. The "maximalist" writers, authors who cannot tell you the time without addressing what's amiss in our insular cosmologies, have not fared well in these separations. Where minimalist , spawned by Papa Hemingway's tight, skinflint style and buoyed by Raymond Carver's art of of making the convolutions of alcoholic despair crisp and lean as polished steel rods, sought the fewest possible words to express the smallest though deepest wounds to the psyche, maximalist are intent on exhausting every observation, each crazy idea, pursuing every tangent and tributary as it marginally relates to what would loosely be termed a plot. There are no story arcs in these tellings, only the literary equivalent of urban sprawl. It is often times genius untouched by a good editor's sane blue pencil. 

I exchanged the David Foster Wallace tome Infinite Jest last week for a half dozen John Updike and John Cheever used paperbacks, vainly staking my claim for writers of longish sentences who are actually revealing something hidden in human behavior rather than running away from it with the distractions rudderless prose potentially affords you. I prefer my shaggy dog stories confined to movies these days, which one can witness in The Big Lebowski , written and directed by Rob and Ethan Coen. Wallace has his uses, and at times hits pay dirt (Oblivion, his collection of stories, gives one hope that he has abandoned the Exhausting Novel and is ready, just maybe, to use shorter sentences), but his books over all tend to rob the room of the air I need to read better books. Each book he's written since Genius has been variations on a jet stream of language, a set of gasping, agitated sentences that are all jabber and no communication. Incredibly, his writing seems to mimic the way many characterize the way many in his generation actually talk, rapidly, long word ribbons filled with undiscerning details, asides and anecdotes, all uttered at a pace and high-strung pitch that attempts to make you think that something incredible is about to happen. 

Or, more on point, that a point is about to be made,all of this, virtually all (no exaggeration) presented with an unmerciful and even arrogant lack of emphasis.Experience is spoken of as if everything regarding storyline depended solely on the present tense, all memories, history, details, relegated to the same junk pile of references that are never gone through or made to construct a nuanced effect or make a scene that achieves emotional complexity. There is, however, clutter, an amassed set of things brought together indiscriminately, pack rat like. Clutter, however, isn't the same as complexity, and the sorry state of Egger's writing is that there is no inner life in his characters--Genius, being a memoir, is that rare exception in his body of work--that gives you a sense of inner life and struggle on the character's part. Theodore Dreiser was a less adroit stylist, perhaps,but An American Tragedy and Sister Carrie particularly made up for the lack of grace with massive amounts of humanity that made us think about nagging notions of Destiny, Free Will and Duty . Dreiser's topics remain with us, and what he offered us remains part of that discussion. Eggers The suggestion that he read Tom Wolfe, pre-Bonfire of the Vanities,is well taken, since Wolfe in his journalism showed away to adjust and mold his style around the subject matter. A more recent model for Eggers to go to school on is Esquire writer Mike Sager's collection of magazine pieces Scary Monsters and Super Freaks, where the writer brings a wonderfully subtle literary personality to his portraits of spectacular American failures at the margins of the mainstream. Eggers writes well enough in short bits, patches, a paragraph hither and yon, but he does so without shining any light, nor casting any shades of darkness for that matter; what the world doesn't need is a political satire that cannot convince you that it's an exaggeration of the real thing.

Jonathan Franzen, another mad bomber of the language whose weighty and over worded The Corrections won praise and best seller status for a turgid family comedy that everything going for it except the niceties of heart and editing, is presently at the top of the next stack of titles that will find their way to the used book dealer, to be either sold, traded in donated outright. Franzen, remember, isn't a bad writer, but he is an under edited one, since their are sentences and even whole paragraphs in The Corrections that just give up in the middle, or wrecked like speeding cars meeting head on as he tries to manage one metaphor after another with which he attempts, over and over, to contain the perversions and anomalies of American family life in as short a space as possible. Not graceful stuff, this, and an astute editor would have blue penciled the offending pages out of the final book, reducing its bulk by at least a fourth. How to Be Alone, a fine collection of essays he published two years ago about the reading life, fares better at sentence management and poise, but one wonders of what kind of writer Franzen turns out to be if what he composes remain congested fiction or essays essentially praising himself and those few like him for being introverted, geeky and bookish. It's an act that gets old, a voice that wears out. I intend to trade him in for some Tom Robbins, a novelist who can have fun with his convolutions, although he is not without risk. The cutie-pie , Zap Comix surrealism and the far flung similes (here's a writer still in competition with Raymond Chandler!) will often times crowd out development; as a friend once remarked about The Grateful Dead, sometimes his writing amounts to "what the fuck"? In one instance it can be something spiritual along the lines of uttering "let go and let God", meaning that one needs to pick their battles wisely, but on the other hand, the other hand being huge palm upraised as if asking for a five spot, is that it simply amounts to defeat by way of being too spaced out. Robbins likes to drive the car only so far, and is likely to take his hands off the wheel and listen to the radio with his eyes closed just as his vehicle is merging with freeway traffic. Not good.

Fellow maximalist David Eggers little better in the sorting and prioritizing. Out the books go . A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius , a memoir of his assuming the parenting role for his younger brother Toph after the back-to-back deaths of their parents, is a bit of masterpiece of the hurried voice; a stammering and rushing narrative of someone having to shed the remains of teenage slacker-tude and learn adult behavior in a hurry, Eggers' style was appropriate to the subject. Given circumstances that made his reality seem to collapse upon itself, Eggers could do nothing else except move forward, as if running up the hall from a burning house, instinctually moving toward the daylight coming from a door at the end. AHWOSG , breathless, impatient, agitated and at times staggering, as it were, in it's balancing act of grace and wit and awkward locutions and shotgunned transitions, remains a real document of a writer having to leave his cozy assumptions of living the bohemian life and take on the weight as family head.

The desperation was real, and was interesting for the way the author didn't assume the disguise of narrative know-it-all. Beguiling as that was, one would have thought he would have changed his style, suitable to idea and subject, but he has not. It's about the hurry, the haste, the speed of writing coming as quickly as the speed of perception. It is the speed of the Internet generation, and the result is broad banded mediocrity. Every book he's done up until now has been a set of gasping, agitated sentences that are all jabber and no communication. Incredibly, his writing seems to mimic the way many characterize of his generation actually talk, rapidly, long streams of sentences, filled with undiscerning details, asides and anecdotes, all uttered at a pace and high-strung pitch that attempts to make you think that something incredible is about to happen.


I still have huge respect for Carver's writing years after college; he is one of  few writers in the post-Hemingway generation who's minuscule language, always sharp, always exact, managed to achieve a profound effect despite the paucity of language. He equals Hemingway in large part (assuming, of course,that the stories that editor/writer Gordon Lish didn't in fact rewrite Carver's work to his own idea of style), and what I admire is that his effect was different that Hemingway's. There's a coarser grit that comes through Carver's prose, through all those closed conjunctions and truncated metaphors. The sentimentality, that of the lonely and brave man abiding by a personal code in a world where World Wars have made morality suspect; Hemingway still held out for the human capacity to find some goodness despite the convenient cynicism that would have made one's social graces easier to move around in. Carver's is that lonely cynicism filtered through Beckett; everything is broken, used up, deracinated compromised and prostituted so far as a protagonist's personal character and ethical strain is concerned. Carver's is the world of the already dead, blunted perception and bad faith all around. A little of him does go a long way, though I will say I think he's a better writer and poet than Bukowski. John Fante is better than Bukowski. 

I don't think Wallace is hollow, only that Infinite Jest was overrated and which operates as an experiment where one is attempting something analogous Keith Jarrett's prolix and lugubrious piano improvisations. The talent behind the book is obvious and sometimes impressive, but is weighed down by lack of focus--others claim that is well the point of IJ, that the narrative is decentered to the degree that it reflects a Bergsonian idea of perceived experience more as spread , like drops hitting hard ground , with it's essence cast over great , diffused distance, that rather than the linear line where the main river of plot dominates, with diversions and subplots being only minor points to bolster the main thesis and world view. I think it possible Wallace may have found himself in some competition with Thomas Pynchon. Anyway, the novel suffers for it. I have greatly enjoyed Wallace's other books , though, especially A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again ,Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and Oblivion. Wallace , contra Carver, seems set to make the sentence do things and hold clauses not normally associated with contemporary prose style, and given his knack of noticing everything, seemingly, in what he's writing about and including it in his flow, I would say that the shorter forms--short story, journalism, the essay, travel writing--are best suited to containing his very real ingenuity. 

I take your point about verbal skills more acute when one is actively disliking something they've read, seen or heard. Why something gives you pleasure is a subjective matter, with reasons undisclosed even to the reviewer, and I think one has to invent a rhetoric in order to make the approval one feels comprehensible to a reader. There is something to be said about reviewers and their positive critiques; they don't seem as surefooted as a well-turned negative notice. It may have something to do with the old adage that beauty might be in the eye of the beholder,but ugliness is universally recognized. I'm not nearly that reductionist, but among certain reader communities, a strong element of what's bad, awful, lame, pretentious and inept is shared, and it's easier, I think, to draw a fresh invective from the common stock. Negative reviews, let me not forget to mention, are more fun to write, and it's a struggle to resist writing them en masse. There is nothing more boring than a bored cynic, no>

Friday, March 16, 2018


Novelist Dianna Evans writes a fine essay regarding the late John Updike's decline in reputation as a novelist due, mostly, to his over all failure to create fully-formed women characters. Her response is ambivalent, understandably so, as Updike could be mean to his women characters, and yet he wrote so beautifully, lyrically, ingratiatingly. No surprise the late novelist John Updike isn't a favorite among younger readers in this era of "Me Too" and "Times Up". Indeed, the age of men being held accountable for their conduct has come and it's here to stay. A good thing.

Updike was not especially kind in his depictions of women in his fiction, and for that he needs to read critically, but one needs to admire his stated understanding of what his duty as an artist was,"“My duty as a writer is to make the best record I can of life as I understand it,and that duty takes precedence for me over all these other considerations.” The novelist and short story writer wrote elegantly, lyrically, poetically, he had , perhaps, the most perfect prose style of any American writer of his generation, and he created a fictional world of men, mostly heterosexual , fumbling through the lives full of small stakes ambition and fully licensed libidos that derailed their best natures with compromises of opportunism, affairs, self deception, an inability to see larger contexts beyond their perspectives.

The writer was , like many of his characters, unable to see further than his own vision, an aspect that might be called a great writer's failure of imagination,but what he did know he know--a straight , middle class male's world of materialism and lust rationalized into metaphysical permanence--he understood intimately, knowingly, and was aware of how the limits makes perfect plans, perfect plans, fall apart or produce results contrary to expectations. Updike wasn't, I don't think, quite so oblivious to his renderings of women in his tales, but I think his aim, over all, was to imaginatively construct the many scenarios of how the perfect worlds of his protagonists are at odds with a universe that will not obey good or bad intentions. That he wrote about this world so beautifully--there are those times when I pick up an Updike book, say "Rabbit Run" or "The Centaur" or "The Witches of Eastwick" just to have the language figuratively roll of the page as if the words , the sentences or the fleeting notes of a transcendent Clifford Brown solo-- might be a flaw in his art, one could argue.

He makes it attractive, the prose is a seduction of a kind. Fine, that makes him dangerous for both male and women writers, which makes him artist, a great one. That makes him a pleasure to read and a pleasure worth discussing critically, as a means of understanding our own responses to his increasingly problem-making, if still alluring works,

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Gritty, clammy, unresolved:Mailer vs Germaine Greer, Jill Johnson, Diana Trilling

Germaine Greer
There are perverse types who think that if one places a group of people in the same room who've sworn, metaphorically or literally, to destroy each other, the reflex to go for one's gun will subside and what will result is a frank exchange of opinion, insights and life stories. And after the participants have learned that they're not nearly as distant from each other as they had thought, they'll lock arms, brothers, and sisters all, and stroll down the beach into the fiery sun of a higher revolution. All eyes raised, shoulders broad, worker and intellectual, farmer, and chemist, all eyes upraised and looking to the top of the mountain we will climb, as one, united in cause and spirit. Anyone of us can, of course, say 'posh' to the .and know, ' smirking. that enemies remain antagonists to the bone despite the demands of decorum.  The results of these situations are inconclusive and crackling with uncertainty, a heap of hot laundry alive with static electricity,  neither side abjuring to the points made by an opponent. A lot of us like to watch a spat, a public argument of bright people trying to keep their personal views out of a heated grousing about matters that concern us all more so than the entertainment value of raised hackles and arched backs might otherwise indicate on first view. These are situations where otherwise reasonable people are reduced to the level of kids fighting over the use of a prized toy. As in hack-and-slash horror films, many of us get a cheap thrill over blood being drawn for no good purpose.  Or, one could postulate, no one looks good in a shouting match if that passes as a good purpose. That is a reminder to the rest of us to pick our battles and pick our venues in which to have them.

Norman Mailer
So was the case with the film Town Bloody Hall, a documentary in the cinema vertie mode by director D.A. Pennebaker,  a little view film I had the good luck to see at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art in the early 80s. Filmed in 1971, it is an account of a debate between writer Norman Mailer and an impressive panel of prominent feminist  polemicists  including Germaine Greer (author of The Female Eunuch), radical lesbian Jill Johnson, literary critic Diana Trilling and a representative from The National Organization of Women, whose name I am unable to recall. Pioneer 2nd Wave feminist writer and critic Kate Millet had viciously vilified Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence and Mailer himself in her tract Sexual Politics as outstanding representatives of an elitist male literary culture that has oppressed women by distorting their image so that the imaginations of male fictioneers might be better served. Mailer. whose pugnacious reputation has at times dwarfed his writings in the public mind, countered with The Prisoner 0f Sex, a scathing attack on Millet's lack of literary critical skills and her deliberate misreading~of the texts she was dealing with. It is also at turns a brilliant defense of Millet and Lawrence and a convoluted agonizing over the "existential" aesthetic in male/female relationships.

 Mailer's book sparked a fair amount of public debate, and some enterprising souls thought it would be a neat idea to have The Prisoner confront representatives from the opposition. To be expected, the event was hardly a shining example from a Kansas debate manual, but was rather a riot of rhetoric, name-calling, heckles from an unruly crowd and public spectacle. In other words, an intellectually worthless few hours, but, I'd say, a rousing good time. much like a TV wrestling match on a Saturday afternoon. With Mailer officiating, each speaker was to be given ten minutes to speak, after which Mailer would pose a question. Things got off to a proper start. First to talk was the NOW representative, who offered a list of moderate feminist proposals: housewives should draw a living wage, women should get equal pay for equal work and other less than incendiary ideas. Greer spoke next, eloquently attacking the premise of Mailer's literary heroisms and poetically called for an art of the collective, not of one voice but many. Then matters derailed and declined to the point where the night got permanently off-track. Reading from a text composed in the stream on conscious manner that has always sent me to pounding my head against the wall, Jill Johnson rhapsodized that all women are able to love all other women and until men are able to love all other men, the hopes of an all-embracing social revolution will be scuttled like pipe dreams. Mailer, poking a pencil through a cardboard coffee cup, his face a mass o( downturned lines, cut Johnson off at this point, saying that she'd done five minutes over the time limit. Johnson stands motionless while the audience heckles Mailer, demanding that he let her conclude. After an exchange of curses, he initiates an audience vote and concludes that the 'nays' have it. Someone heckles Mailer again. and Mailer, agitated. points to the crowd and says "If you think you can do a better job than me, then come up here (the stage) and take this microphone from me."Johnson effectively undercuts Mailer's angry-dad tantrum as she begins to make-out and grab as with a woman-friend on stage while Mailer demands that she "act like a lady." When the audience cheers the pair on, Mailer says "You people paid twenty-five dollars to see two pairs of dirty jeans wrestle on stage, which seems odd to me because you can ee all the cock and cunt you want down the street for four bucks." Johnson and friend leave the hall, not to return.

Picking up the pieces after Johnson's psycho-theatrics was hard, and for the rest of the debate the panel split hairs on Mailer's "poeticized" understanding of biology, whether vaginal orgasms were possible, Mailer's warnings that Women's Lib has the potential of becoming a leftwing totalitarianism, why the women's movement must concern themselves with their own lot over all other causes and a host of other feelings, all accompanied by the interjections of an audience. With that, the night was ended, with no one's mind changed and few friends gained. What fascinates me about Town Bloody Hall isn't how concisely it's members articulated their views - in the long run, everyone loses their cogency as tangent pin out faster than a car on a greased blacktop- but just how the women's movement will have to shore up their own politic. In 1971, when this film was made, the movement was just beginning to develop a coherent analysis of the society that was oppressing women. At this time of theoretical splendor,  a clumsy and clammy argument over vaginal orgasm, a pertinent citing of a housewife' right to draw a wage and a far-reaching critique of the culture and politics of art and literature were the order of the day. In the ten years since the debate, the right wing in the country has managed to shore up its own resources and have shown themselves to be astonishingly effective. The fact that Ronald Reagan won the presidency on a platform that opposes abortion and the ERA and holds a grab-bag of other. " Conservative sentiments means that the women's movement is faced with a crisis, a crisis that means that the advancements women have managed over the years could be handily wiped out, setting them back to square one. Town Bloody Hall quite unintentionally reveals what the women's movement must do: hipster bohemianism must be doffed and women must more than ever enter the gritty, un-scrubbed ruthlessness of mainstream electoral politics. And that will be the next test on the movement. If it's to have a lasting effect on the culture in which all of us live, it must be affirmed at the voting booth. A sudden, un-decorated realism is cast upon all of us.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

A dry well gets all the attention

Books by Fran Lebowitz, Steve Allen, and Shirley Jackson—one of which I didn’t throw away! - Slate Magazine:

Dan Kois has a blog entry in Slate where he sings the light praises of mass market books for their disposability; if a writer you've selected for your beach reading isn't keeping you enthralled, simply toss the offending book and go on to the next. He cites Fran Lebowitz, fabled New York humorist , and her collection of old magazine columns "Metropolitan Life" as example number one in paperbacks that wore out their welcome. I've watched Fran Lebowitz on a variety of talk  shows for near twenty years and thought she was witty and quotable and all that--she was refreshing in that she was genuinely funny and had no new book, movie or movie to plug--but I thought  she was above her pay grade as a writer. She was a joke teller who seemed to have been bullied by well meaning fans and reviewers into thinking that she was in the higher reaches of the American Pantheon of Funny Scribes. "Metropolitan Life", as described here, was a let down, of course, not enough laughs to justify all the words that came between the punchlines.

 I empathize with the columnists plight of having to write a certain number of words against a deadline pressure with the requirement of being literate, funny, easily editable by  pressed upon copy readers, but my sympathies are reserved for those who have by lines appearing two   or three times a week, plus feature stories, when required. Journalism and not literature you say, and fine, but this does fit my definition of a working writer.

 All those phone calls, all those notes, all those Google searches,  all  that research has to be constantly culled , updated, revised , vetted and finally written up in a timely manner, and be readable as well. Lebowitz had a monthly column, however, and though it's understandable that she may be one of these folks who can verbally sling choice bon mots, insults, quips and curses without the onset of migraines but found it difficult to face keyboard and produce, at will, a stream of words as a writer's job requires, she had very long lead times to develop a topic and create an interesting context for her punchlines; her prose need not have been merely a chatty delivery system for jokes of  inconsistent quality. 

Her reputation endures , which is fine, although I wonder if we are now able to refer to authors who no longer publish as being former-writers. "Write" is a verb, which connotes action , and for clarity's sake we would not be harmed by letting readers now what some celebrity authors used to for a living. A former boxer has no shame being referred to as an "ex-fighter". Why shouldn't writers be just as adult about the matter?

Friday, September 14, 2012

David Foster Wallace's grand failure

David Foster Wallace: the Death of the Author and the Birth of a ...David Foster Wallace was  sporadically,brilliant, verbose,an unrestrained word machine that seemed program to jump every rabbit hole and tar pit on his way to vaguely addressed Idea. His books could sometimes be the case of talking a subject to death;one might say that he wrote an alcoholic drank, which was compulsively, without any regard tot he consequences. An alcoholics consequences are the stuff of bad soap operas and the diseased thinking real people justify their illiberal behavior with; broken homes, broken promises,lost jobs, lies and more lies about the lies one has already put on the record,  isolation, pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization. Wallace's consequences were far less dramatic and, one says guardedly, less grandiose, but it's the results are  dire all the same, which would be a sheer missing the point of writing at all and treat it as mere process with no real need to regard a reader . Wallace's digressions are legend and his attitude seemed to be that readers cold let him drive this metaphorical vehicle down any and all side streets, blind alleys and dirt roads and be there for the ride while he maintained a monologue of increasing irrelevance, or they  could fuck themselves with their desire to be enthralled and remain at the equally metaphorical bus stop. He was   depressed and stressed, having made it his writer's mission to contain  the multitudes that swarm within him and without him; this was a quixotic task to notice everything about the universe he's chosen to parse, and in turn parse his own thinking about the characters he is giving a close inspection for. His was a virtuosity that couldn't end, as one item led to another item, a distracted description before a circuitous return to the scenario at hand , usually by way of another  round of  qualifications and self-doubt mongering about his chosen occupation of  being a writer , the one who creates a document readers far decades from now will refer to garner something of the verve of the moment in which he lived.We realize , to,that DFW tried to contain these things in  sentences, long sentences, many long, serpentine sentences that stretched , coiled, curled and eventually untied themselves by the time the author had exhausted, or more likely quit ,the tangent he was on. This was his problem in the longer books, the distractions, the digressions, Although I enjoyed large chunks of Infinite Jest ,, there was simply, plainly too much padding between the good parts; there have been especially intelligent discussion in many places of what traditions DFW falls in line with, and that his is a legacy that adds to the sprawling, decenter ed universe Thomas Pynchon has eviscerated   so splendidly. But even Pynchon had some control and was not prone to introduce himself as the self-doubting author attempting to inject a trace of irony with bloated  indecisiveness. Pynchon lectured at times, yes, gave us bounds of information about unexpected things and their history, but he trusted the scenes he created--his ruminations , his research, were the texture and color light in the crowded universes he chose to inspect. DFW , much of the time, was merely chattering all the while in his long novels , Infinite Jest and Broom of the System, and was, as often as not, tone deaf, not unlike one of those extended ,  unaccompanied Keith Jarrett piano impromptus where there is the inevitable and sad drift into artless noodling. DFW often made me think of the guy in back of you at a movie theater who kept talking during the movie; you had to deal with two soundtracks at the same time.
That, of course, might have been what he was attempting, something like a Robert Altman movie where the camera takes it all in and dwells on how inaction resonates among the furniture in is frame and where dialogues ,and city noise overlapped. It might be that Wallace's writing was an attempt to capture his own thought processes in action, as the notions occurred to him, in that proverbial stream of language and instinct where thinking about things are restless and fluid and nearly erotic in their intensity which can never quite be recorded in their abundance. Trying to get that on paper, in between book covers, obsessively , would be doomed to failure, with each book and short story judged by the author as inadequate to the mission. That would depress anyone, some much more severely than others. 

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Hunter S. Thompson: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 review by Matt Taibbi. - Slate Magazine

Hunter S. Thompson: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 review by Matt Taibbi. - Slate Magazine:

In celebration of the  40th Anniversary edition of Hunter Thompson's gonzo masterpiece of political writing "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail", Slate writer Matt Taibbi writes an extensive essay on  why  HST still matters in our  current climate of  dread and drudgery.It is a nice commemoration, but I'm not persuaded that we could have learned anything more than      we already have from the late writer; what newer readers would learn is what we did, after time, that HST  could be wildly entertaining and then dependably repetitive in his subjects, his insults, his tone.  Truthfully, Thompson's reputation as a writer is based on a very small body of quality  work. I am willing to cede that Hunter Thompson succeeded , momentarily, at being a Great Writer for a couple of books, but the bitter truth was that while he was long on rage , he was short on other elements that keep a writer interesting over a career. Those qualities are insight, nuance, a curiosity about people and their circumstances beyond what mere appearances. 

Mere appearence, though, sufficed too often for Thompson, as his conceit, dove-tailing tellingly with his appetite for high powered stimulants, was that he could walk into the room full of characters and size the situation quickly. His concern was pacing over all, the attempt to simulate the down hill careen of a waiter carrying too many hot dishes from the kitchen. For all the energy and paranoid genius Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas and his Campaign Trail book contained, it amounted to the best expression of the limited set of riffs Thompson. 

He was not especially engrossing as a political thinker--we read him for his vitriol. His attraction for invective , I imagine, was because it was easy and that it was a convenient means to get to the bottom of one typewritten page after another; the rhythm of the constructed persona of being the most wasted man alive bravely inveighing against the stupidities and inequities and the  utter  mendacity of the world in which he finds himself would go into hyperdrive. 

For some this suggested automatic writing, the idea that HST  was channeling some Truth hidden behind the barriers of bullshit and pretense, a voice greater than his own. Perhaps, but for me it was the writing of someone who was working what became a tired set of rhetorical ploys. Thompson plainly never had the chance to transcend his moment of transcendent genius, as had, say, Norman Mailer, himself an egotist with a certainity that only he could get to the disguised truth of things. Mailer settled in for the long haul, abandoned much of his writerly eccentricity and produced a series of brilliant books of fiction and nonfiction in his late career; there are other things to discuss about Mailer than his antics.

There are many who would like to consider Thompson our generations H.L.Mencken, but I would say the departed Hunter comes up short: even a writer as caustic as Mencken would , often enough, vary his tone and write about matters that didn't need to be vilified, crucified or witlessly mocked. Thompson never had the chance to try anything truly different.

Friday, August 26, 2011

David Foster Wallace

It was only a matter of time, I guess, before a trend emerged  critiquing the  late  David  Foster Wallace's prose style as wanting . Maud Newton takes him apart in a recent New York Times  dis-assembly,  stating that Wallace's  diffuse approach to the paragraph was  "...  mannered and limited in its own way, as manipulative in its recursive self-second-guessing as any more straightforward effort to persuade." Newton goes to lengths to connect Wallace to the decline in properly arranged prose on the internet, quite an accomplishment anyway you look at it.     Matt Kiebus in Death and Taxes comes to DFW's defense with equal force, opining that "Wallace’s slangy style somehow made cluttered passages filled with a rather pedestrian amount of “likes,” “ums,” “sort ofs,” “reallys” and “pretty muches” look beautiful. The sprinkling of such ordinary words by an extraordinary writer was extremely uncommon at the time. His style reflected his personality and humanized a man whose mind didn’t operate on our playing field. Wallace’s colloquialisms made him likeable. His talent made him revered."

Wallace's worst sin as a writer wasn't the slangy quality of his style or even the I-might-be-wrong qualifiers that dot his long paragraphs, but that his sentences lacked emphasis. Where other great writers specializing in long sentences achieve their ends with having a point they are unambiguously headed for, which is to say that they have direction and and drive, Wallace has only spread much of the time. In his shorter efforts, like his non fiction collection "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again", the approach works best ; his thinking and digressions are limited to what is actually in front of him . 

The fact that he cannot   transform something materially objective from his imagination is motivation for him, perhaps, to keep matters moving along. It works as well in his book of short fictions, "Oblivion". where is a bit more off-the-leash in his musing. But overall, you weary of his tone, his ambivalence, his diversions from a subject and realize that reading both his fiction and essays leaves the effect of trying to read a book while the pages are being flipped rapidly. Wallace has the dual characteristics of having a short attention span and being perpetually chatty.  What fans might think to be a masterful unraveling of the invisible links between unrelated subjects I find to be a rudderless drift. 

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Best American Writer of the 20th Century?

No protest against the greatness of Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne or Edgar Allen Poe, but really, their time is past, and this thread is about this century. Kurt Vonnegut easily matches Twain , I think, Updike, at his best, surpasses Hawthorne on the same range of issues, and for Poe, virtually everyone has been influenced by him, but the best of his students have found more graceful, lyrical ways to deliver their work.  

 Simply, one may yearn for the richness of a glorious past as a kind of Heaven to be aspired to, which is fine, if that is the way one learns to cope with the uncompromising pace of the current time, but our writers, truth told, tell a fine tale or two. Literature is also about where we're going, not just where we've been.  DeLillo,Toni  Morrison, William Gaddis, William Gass, Updike, David Foster Wallace, Mark Helprin, Joyce Carol Oates, Sontag, and dozens of others whose work, in varied respects, struggles to be about something larger than memoirs put forth under the name of fiction. Not that I like all the above: rather, just to say that not every novelist these days is hung by their own confessional rope. Ultimately, hindsight is everything, and I wish I could see , who of our scribes will be discussed at the end of the next century.  

The second half of this century produced a lot of major talent who have produced or are producing respective bodies of work that require the passionate reading and argument our already named personal bests have received. Harold Bloom notwithstanding, our canon is expanding with new and achingly good writers, and one would think that the male majority so far discussed will have relinquish room on their uppermost tier.  On the point, Fitzgerald will make the cut because so few writers, then or to the current time, have managed the breathless lyricism contained in the "The Great Gatsby" or "Tender Is The Night". Some have come close, and I'm thinking of the resonating sentences from Scott Spencer's "Endless Love" or some keenly rendered pages in Updikes "Rabbit" quartet, but Fitzgerald at best gave us small masterpieces that gave an sharp view of the time.  Hemingway, I thinks, merits a permanent place on any greatest list because his style, at best, was lean, and his sentences , constructed the way they are, convey pages of buried turmoil, lost hope, small idealism, bravery to pursue another day , to shoulder one's burden honorably. 

"In Our Time" and "The Sun Also Rises" accomplish this. At his worse, though, Hemingway was a boozing sentimentalist whose writing lapsed into repetitious self-parody, as we have in "Island In The Stream" or "A Movable Feast". But I am grateful for the good work he did.  Jack London, I'm afraid, pales for me personally. He was a lot of fun for me when I was growing up, yearning for adventure in Catholic School. But later, in college, closer and more seasoned readings had him sounding rushed, awkward. The mixture of Marx and Darwin that seasoned his writings seem showed a straining idealism that was not redeemed by a modifying style.I've just re-read "John Barleycorn" , and the book is ridiculous. It seemed like so much bluster and blarney toward the end , after vividly recalls his disastrous drinking career, that armed with this new self awareness, he would drink responsibly, that he was in fact only temporarily an alcoholic. He didn't cure himself, and his prose hasn't reminded me less of  piles of smashed concrete over the decades.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Twitter replaces literary criticism

Jonathan Franzen's problem is that he's been typecast as Jonathan Franzen, Serious Novelist, and the burden of having that media-installed millstone around your neck is that discussions about you generally cease to be about your actual work , nor even about your reputation. Rather, what people will talk about is your celebrity and whether you're worthy of possessing this dubious gift. Jodi Picoult has a real beef about the media's slant toward white male writers, but her response to the focus on Franzen is sour grapes --she , already a famous, best selling novelist-- is essentially complaining that  she is not famous enough.

One wonders how egregious Picoult considers the over-estimation of Franzen to be. In the not so distant past, critics and novelists between projects would vent their gripes against their fellow fabulators in long, detailed essays and cranky squibs--Mailer, Vidal, Dale Peck , et al, named names, staked their territory, and at least provided readers with a series of elegant resentments they could argue with.

 Picoult hadn't the time for a major essay , nor the patience  to write a half way literate blog post. Instead, she succumbed to instant gratification and communicated her resentment on Twitter. While she did create a buzz, her argument exists as a bumper sticker , not an indictment. It's a midcult expression of a very real inequity. She comes off as someone who is not so much against Franzen and male writers as much as books where the prose is a step above the diffuse, swooning  romances she prefers to construct. 

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The assassin left his bullets on the breakfast counter

Someone named Anis Shivani got some column space on the Huffington Post web site for one of those grousing name-writer round ups in which the erstwhile essayist attempts to consign his choices to the gaping dustbin of history. The piece on the 15 Most Overrated American Writers  has entertainment value, to be sure, and the intent is provoke an argument  with large number of readers. We are in time of of blogs and well written, if unexceptional views--some opinions, like some novels, are more interesting than others from the chorus. Shivani has standards, he has tastes, he has grievances. Welcome to the club.

An interesting read, although I have to say that the summaries of the respective writer's sins are hasty and owe much to what others have remarked; the comments on Vollman and Ashbery are evidence of contempt without much inspection of the work. As for Collins, Gluck, Grahame, more or less spot on; being easily understood or hard-to-get are successful only if you're a good writer with a surface quality that makes the respective obviousness or obliqueness worth the time to read them.Well, it is bullshit, and it's a practice that goes back aways in our contemporary literary history. Mailer wrote "Some Children of the Goddess" and "Quick and Expensive Comments on the Talent in the Room" where he spoke of his, Styron, Updike, Burroughs--in mostly dour terms, the main being, it seems, that they all, excepting Burroughs, liked genius. Gore Vidal opined on a host of PoMo writers like DeLillo and Pynchon in his essay "American Plastic", which had nothing nice to say about the youngsters taking up the pencil. Tom Wolfe wrote a manifesto after he published "Bonfire of the Vanities", saying we need a return to the Social Novel, and that He, Tom Wolfe, was the novelist to show everyone how. Jonathan Franzen, Dale Peck and a host of others have written minor key manifestos of their own to varying degrees of response.

What they have in common, this five decade self indulgence, is that no one, no where writes very well, and what gets said is an assemblage of straw arguments, points that once may have been salient at one time but are now so hackneyed and over repeated that the description is even more formula and stale than the writing their trying to be a corrective to. The targets are indeed too easy in this piece, with the intent seeming to be more to insult book sellers than to give a heads up to unsuspecting readers or to Speak Truth to Power. Shivani sounds like an addled bookseller himself, becoming ...uncorked at a store party after he's heard one more boilerplate praise for a so-so writer. It's a small world with a circuitous stock of conversation topics; the problem with being a bookseller , if Shivani did, in fact, ever happen to be one, is that one reads to keep pace of who's new on the scene; you tend to stop reading for pleasure.

This was my experience when I worked at Warwick's Bookstore in LaJolla, California, when I was reading up to four novels a week; power down, develop a sales pitch and a shelf-talker blurb, go on to the next book. After I left, I stopped reading fiction and read history and criticism instead, saying absolutely rude things about those I had previously praised, all these up and coming scribes. My remarks were, of course, unfair and bitter, and so I suspect that Shivani is a similar state of detox. It would have been more interesting if he'd gone after some recently deceased writers with big reputations--Norman Mailer, John Updike, David Foster Wallace--or had tackled living writers who are frequently mentioned in articles as naturals for the Nobel Prize for Literature, like DeLillo, Joyce Carole Oates, Philip Roth. The collective reps are a hornet's nest of contention, to which Shivani's remarks would have been more compelling , given the enormity of that suggested task.The Huffington Post squib, alas, was too easy to write, too, too easy to assemble. Something braver would have made the diversion more memorable.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Big Three

A number of us were tossing around lit/crit topics the other night  and , as usual with conversations dealing with the less tangible aspects of the writing life, we began a breathless exchange of  writer names, mostly dead, of who the Best Three American Writers were. Names, critical tropes and beer-fueled endorsements and denunciations flew like so much hair in a military induction barber line.Why stop with three greatest American Writers? Think what you may, but the second half of this century produced a lot of major talent who have produced or are producing respective bodies of work that require the passionate reading and argument our already named personal bests have received.

Harold Bloom not withstanding, our canon is expanding with new and achingly good writers, and one would think that the male majority so far discussed will have relinquish room on their uppermost tier. This conversation, though, settled grudgingly on a Final Three , those who survived the worst insults a number of us could heap on them; the rationale, slippery as it was under the conditions this chat took place, were that each had written books that not only survived their time, but also the author's egregious personalities and  styles that progressively degenerated the more they wrote beyond their respective career high points.

On the point, Fitzgerald will make the cut because so few writers , then or to the current time, have managed the breathless lyricism contained in the "The Great Gatsby" or "Tender Is The Night". Some have come close, and I'm thinking of the resonating sentences from Scott Spencer's "Endless Love" or some keenly rendered pages in Updike's "Rabbit" quartet, but Fitzgerald at best gave us small masterpieces that gave an sharp view of the time. Hemingway, I thinks, merits a permanent place on any greatest list because his style, at best, was lean, and his sentences , constructed the way they are, convey pages of buried turmoil, lost hope, small idealism, bravery to pursue another day , to shoulder one's burden honorably. "In Our Time" and "The Sun Also Rises" accomplish this. At his worse, though, Hemingway was a boozing sentimentalist whose writing lapsed into repetitious self-parody, as we have in "Island In The Stream" or "A Movable Feast". But I am grateful for the good work he did.

Jack London, I'm afraid, pales for me personally. He was a lot of fun for me when I was growing up, yearning for adventure in Catholic School. But later, in college, closer and more seasoned readings had him sounding rushed, awkward. The admixture of Marx and Darwin that seasoned his writings seem showed a straining idealism that was not redeemed by a modifying style.I've just re-read "John Barleycorn" , and the book is ridiculous, amounting to being an extended attempt by someone thinking they will not drink in excess again if they stay physically fit and on course with the projects they have planned. Stay committed, in other words, and reap the satisfactions of a series of tasks consistently well done. Terrific advice , of course, but there are limits to the therapeutic effect, and there is value to "John Barleycorn other than London's attempt to create a solution to his alcohol problem; it does offer up a grim and gritty view of the life the practicing alkie, a redundant habit of progressive degeneration. It manages to convey Truth even as the author tries to deny his basic ailment. It seemed like so much bluster and blarney toward the end , after he vividly recalls his disastrous drinking career, that armed with this new self awareness, he would drink responsibly, that he was in fact only temporarily an alcoholic. I doubt the record shows that London cured himself.  But he left us with a vivid testimony despite his short comings, and this leaves him on the shortest of all lists of quality reads.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The lop sided divide

Poet Amy King went to some effort to compile some discouraging statistics regarding women writers and the ratio of literary awards given between men and women. The survey, published here in Willa, show that for all the talk about the great distance women have come since the bad old days, the lion's share of the top prizes , with the attendant status and acclaim, still go to men.  For all the talk of progress in the task of leveling the playing field, not much distance has been gained.

A large part of the problem, perhaps intractable, is the nature of the awards themselves; most of the ones we think matter–the Nobel, The Pulitzer, The National Book Award, The PEN Awards– were founded by male editors , who created categories and criteria reflecting their aesthetic, which is male, straight and, for all they knew, the single standard by which other writers are to measured. Women writers have made gains in terms of critical reception and the receipt of awards, but the standards by which women are judged, I fear, is whether they write as well as a better known male.

Lorrie Moore is constantly compared to John Cheever, Nikki Giovanni cannot escape being contrasted against Amiri Baraka; well intentioned critics try to explain the inevitable alignments, but the enterprise of letting the girls into the boy’s domain seems a faithless affirmative action move. I am reminded that Dick Cavett had said to his guest Susan Sontag that her name is unavoidable linked to the term “intellectual”. Sontag responded that the journalists doubtlessly think they are doing her a favor by telling readers that she’s a smart woman, but noted that male writers don’t need their introductions so qualified. She said that no one felt compelled to say that Norman Mailer was an intellectual when his name came up. It was taken for granted. The sad truth is that I think this onerous habit of keeping women writers at the margins will continue until there is a new canon formation.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Some good words for Ray Bradbury

It was my good fortune to happen upon a Ray Bradbury panel at the 2009 ComicCon in San Diego,where the Master himself was taking and answering questions from a large, adoring crowd. It was , of course, a love fest for one the pioneers of fantasy and speculative fiction, an appreciation for a writer many of us have a lifetime's relationship with this imagination. For all his work in pre-Code horror comics, pulp fiction magazines and paperback books, considered for years to the be the Red Light District of Literature, his oeuvre is one those rare productions that have proven to be something everyone else, from critics to mainstream media, have had to catch up with. The callowest of lit-crit 101 pronouncements are applied here: does the  work have legs, and do you marvel at the style and techniques the writer used to move you along with the narrative . A good writer  is able to overcome a reader's objection to fantastic tales; the writer who's work remains current is the rare breed who's tales transcend the genre from which they originally sprang. So one learns how to get  adult" about those pulpy fantasies that gave you pleasure when you were a teen, someone still learning about the world through the stories one heard.You have to say that you did a fair and accurate summary of Bradbury's career and a fair estimation of his work. If you’re a good genre writer and you stick around long enough, you have a very good chance of having a host of recently minted book critics and biographers elevating you the higher ranks of Faulkner or Twain.
It's happened a dozen or so times , particularly in the mystery/crime arena with the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett. Sometimes the shoe actually fits, given that Chandler and Hammett were both innovators of form who had their lyric flights and coolly compressed melodramas informed by a tangible and subtle played romanticism.

Others have been less believable, as in the case of Jim Thompson, who is genuinely creepy and entertaining, but lacks music and wit, or James Ellroy, who mistakes intensity and encroaching unreadability as requirements of writerly worth. Elmore Leonard resists the temptation to let critics and upper echelon authors seduce him with praise and a general invitation to take his work more seriously; he is the kind of professional you most admire, someone who continues the work, writing one brilliantly middlebrow entertainment after another.Would that a few of our "serious" authors adopted the work ethic and wasted fewer pages and less of our time with their reputations.Some writers literally beg to be taken seriously; they implore us to read their novels deeply and let the philosophical conflicts resonate long and loudly.Has there been a John LeCarre novel that hasn't been compared to the world weary speculations of Graham Green's ambivalent attaches and minor couriers wrestling with the issue of Good versus Evil under a shadow of a silent Catholic God? Has there been a discussion among fans of James Lee Burke that didn't slip into a tangent about the American Southern tradition, with Faulkner's and Flannery O'Conner's names repeatedly dropped like greasy coins? It's not such a bad thing, though. LeCarre and Burke are fine writers and do manage to provide a complex settings where the moral battles take place in their work. Their presence in the high rankings needn't make anyone squeamish.

Stephen King, try as he might, will not remain on the top shelf no matter who places him there. He is the master of premise, one great and magnificent idea after another, but then he goes soft in the head and rushes through his novels with flights of illogical that even excusing them as part of a horror novel's delirious nature cannot excuse the slip shod execution. Bradbury? He is very good, sometimes even brilliant in all his amazing convolutions, and I think it would do everyone a great favor to not burden him with the weight of "literary importance". There are issues and morals and philosophies galore slithering through the paragraphs of his stories and novels, but Bradbury above all else is fun to read. I think it's enough that he be admired as craftsman with a slight touch of the poet. Bradbury, however sage we might wish him to be, never shed the basic rule of all professional writers go by; you need to be read by an audience that wants to be entertained.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Reading, etc

The lasting pleasure of owning a literature degree isn't, often time and sadly enough, financial, but emotional, spiritual, satisfactions achieved in the late hours or those morning commutes to work when you find yourself doing an extraordinary thing.One can feel intelligent for a moment without having to look over their shoulder to see if someone smarter is frowning at a conspicuous display of vanity. You're still talking to the novels you read and re-read years before, still interrogating the author for inconsistencies of style, chastising characters for lacking hindsight or being intuitively dumb. For a moment, you have your own version of the Borgesian library, but in this scenario the shelves are in your head and the books are an apartment building,not an institutional structure. So sometimes a strange smirk comes over my face on various bus routes. Odd, yes, but imagine thinking of something that you think is clever and having no one nearby to share it with. All you can do is smirk, take in a deep breath, bring the book back to eye level.
I have generally enjoyed and admired the Hemingway I've read, and I think the short stories in In Our Time are among the best by an American author in the 20th Century. That said, The Sun Also Rises was amazing and To Have and to Have Not equally so. THAHN, in my view a perfect example of Hemingway's skill at creating a visceral feeling of unspoken emotion, events and actions in a brief, concentrated syntax, contains another pleasure that contrasts with his signature brusqueness. In the center of the book, the story leaves the protagonist's plight for a time and takes the reader on a tour of the Marina, where a series of long, carpenter-crafted clauses seems to skim along the surface of the water and explore, in passing, a number of the boats docked there, wonderfully and credibly making the reality of this short novel more complex . You hardly know your reading a sentence that's untypical of Hemingway, ie long, until your done. The irony , one realizes, is that the master of the short sentence went for the long line as the best method to expand the social range of his novel without adding reams of undigested research, a malady that plagued the prolix James Michener his entire career.
At his best, Hemingway really could convey large emotions and subtle movements of mood with very few words. It was a reverse virtuosity that couldn't sustain itself, though, and left him with nothing but self parodied the more he was unwilling to change his style. Old Man in the Sea, among others, are relentlessly dull and full of the kind of self-pity that makes you want to smack him. Hemingway may have fallen short of the self-actualization, but his fictive attempts, at best, resonate and move, and achieve transcendence even when he did not. Perhaps it is a male thing, that these are matters that a reader might have to be intimate with in order to enlarge their appreciation of the work, but I think not. More, I think, it comes to personal taste, as in, if one does not care for the way Hemingway described his universe, fine. But I don't believe the ability to relate emotionally to a text need be restricted to gender, nor should it be limited to any other smoking gun criteria.The college professors who instructed me through his work were men and women, and the women, I have to say, win for inspired lectures, wedding appreciation with critique, understanding the poetry of the struggle, and why the struggle was futile. It would be good to note that in the course of the struggle to rise above one's demons through art, a good amount of good story telling was left for us to enjoy. I wish, at times, Hemingway had found some solace and continued to write stories that reflected a sane, balanced personality. But I am glad for the best of what's been left.

Prospecting for insight through Kerouacs' journals will be give scholars reason to devastate another section of prime forest, but his novels remain , inspite of it all, maddeningly inconsistent in their best forms, and progressively unreadable in later writing years. Kerouac had his moments of divine lyricism, I admit, but the cult around his grey, sotted visage is nearly as objectionable as the devotion many give to Ayn Rand: the matter is not how good the writing was, but what the author stood for. Once the chatter about writers drifts, or jumps desperately, from concerns with style in the service of great storytelling and lands in the odious camp that insists that a writers' primary task is only to reaffirm a readers' shaky self image of being a rugged and forward thinking individualist, I reach for a good book, or ponder taking a nap. Either option is more fruitful, and both are more interesting endeavors. It galls me that comparatively little attention was given to the passing of William Burroughs, the one true genius of the Beat group, while the easily assimilated rebellion of Ginsberg and Kerouac claims the top half of the Literary pages.

Purple America by Rick Moody was a novel that enraged me. He's been compared to one of my favorites, John Cheever, by many well-meaning critics, but rather than a young writer taking some cues from Cheever's careful and lightly applied poetry and sentiment as regards infidelity, alcoholism, insanity and lurking bi-sexuality, Moody is as effusive as busted water main. All of the previously described elements are there, but without Cheever's wit, irony or craft. None of his grace , either. Moody is one of these young novelists who is in a hurry to cram the world into each paragraph, with the goal being not to persuade the reader to go along with a story but rather to make the telling as intense as possible. This is the kind of ham handed narrative style that is a prose equivalent of an Oliver Stone movie, the uneasy work of a artist obsessed with keeping their "edge". Moody may have kept his edge, suggested by the jittery run-on disasters this rag of a novel lays out, but it's nothing worth sitting down for. Purple America, though, is worth throwing away.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Hemingway, the Prolix Dry Drunk has a story provocatively called "When Novelists Sober Up", luring the curious reader with a hint that laying down the bottle is not necessarily the best thing for the writer's art. We have instead a gutless amalgamation of the usual tropes about bards and scribes cursed with the hooch bug; it's a shuffle through the old cards..It is, in general, a bad thing for those who have it and for those around them, and hinders, erodes, destroys, with time, whatever talent or good graces a person might already have. That we still in large measure glorify booze as a needed ingredient to creative process is evidence of a sad business: we make it okay for certain social types to destroy themselves so they can fulfill our vague idea of what an artist needs to do in society. Considering that we have no consensus as to the role of the artist in our affairs reveals our muddled thinking on alcoholism even more.

An excellent book on the subject is "The Thirsty Muse:Alcohol and the American Writer" by Thomas Dardis. Though there were some writers in this study who remained productive and frequently good during their worst imbibing, they are exceptions, with the general scenario for the alcoholic being tragic and, worse, predictable. The talent that was already theirs to use was soon enough diminished by hoot ch, and careers were ended early.

What was especially irritating in this was author Tom Shone's occasional gaffes in describing a writer's style; he announces that writers of short sentences tend to fair better in sobriety than those more grandiose, opining that the "endless clauses" of Fitzgerald and Hemingway doomed them to unpleasant late careers. Hemingway? And I had thought that Papa, with his short sentences and stingy use of verbs, adjectives and metaphors was the prototypical minimalist, akin to Carver and Elmore Leonard later in the century.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Looking for a Useful Past

Guys like Pynchon and Barthelme are analogous to the Sex Pistols and the Ramones; we owe them a debt, but their art is no longer a relevant response to what is actually happening now.
--from a discussion at Salon,com's Table Talk forum

Some one you owe a stylistic debt to be always relevant to your current situation; how you respond to the precise writing problem you’re facing demands that you conjure up inspiration to solve the cul-de-sac you’ve written your way into, but that inspiration rarely happens in a vacuum.You rummage through those you’ve read, writers who’ve given you an idea or two about composing together that can get across the subtlety your thinking (the evidence of which might be, damn it all, that you haven’t the light touch after all), and forge something useful from the parts. You can also decide to forgo the effort to learn a lesson from your mentors and strike out with a new take, braving the unknown where none of your influences apply, but there we are again, in the area Harold Bloom mapped out in The Anxiety of Influence; even the most strikingly original art one can create is original precisely because younger artists is determined not to write, sculpt, paint in anyway resembling the work of the greats who’ve come before them. The irony is that is one refers to the past for inspiration even if rejection is the result. The shadow of the past and the power it contains still commands and commends us to try harder to emerge into one’s own light. This is the reason that we acknowledge what we owe.

Pynchon is certainly relevant to the current situation, and we should consider his novel Mason & Dixon: an original take on the historical novel that skews the moldy texts of mythology and history in a fresh, "made new" manner. Pynchon, along with DeLillo with his tour-de -force Underworld, are both at the center of American writing, ironic, one supposes, since we are in a time when the current fashion is to insists on the resolute lack of center, or a knowable, defining presence under the surface of things, under the disguises of material.
Pynchon and DeLillo are relevant to a that search for coherence, the unifying set of references, that might connect the world that's been made with the universe it's been constructed in. Both authors are relevant because, truthfully, the honor the notion of the Search, the Quest for defining, that is literature at it's most compelling, the books that bring generations back to the shelves looking for the titles.

The late work has only gotten stronger, broader, and more concise with the kind of rigor, style and humor; ultimately, it takes to write a literature that brings a digitized culture into the next hundred years. The things of the world we grow up quickly vanish; the language we learned to express the needs of the self in relation to another is supplanted by another species of cant, unrecognizable as to what psychic wire it's supposed to resonate with. Both writers are intrigued with systems, hierarchies of meanings, colliding matrixes of name-giving authority that makes the explicated terrain, the perfect sphere of a democratic society, a tag-team wrestling match.
is a novel of about the search by different characters for what's keen about the past, what rituals or artifacts were displaced in the rush of technology and capital flow that de-centered the world, the neighborhoods the characters grew up in. Thus, the metaphor: obsessions with throwing the used up away with the waste disposal company, the search for the symbolically Idyllic in the quest for the allegedly important baseball (along with the person-to-person myth making that accompanies it), the nun in the South Bronx searching for the intrinsic worth of the small child she sees amid the bombed out tenements she toils in, and the artist Klara in the desert trying to redefine the past by converting abandoned bombers into art objects precisely in an area when only a few are able to appreciate the redefinition.

Mao ll is DeLillo at the height of his powers, and is his best effort that confronts the fact that media saturation becomes a simulacrum of an actual environment that changes the way history is not only recorded, but simultaneously made. Potent writing, one of whose characters is a reclusive Pynchon (or DeLillo) stand in whose absence of new work or public appearance has created a presence larger than literary reputation alone could manage: if we talk about the speed at which disparate events suddenly seem to converge and become linked through the slimmest of resemblances, this is the novel to start with. Its themes and its power are echoed largely in Wallace's work. Libra, about Lee Harvey Oswald, is splendid as well, but the real masterpiece is Underworld, a complex work, a sprawl, if you must, but one with command of the extended metaphor. I think, anyway.

In all instances of this novel, there is one ultimate failure of quest after another as the characters strive to engage the recent past in someway that gives the passage some inferred meaning, a hint of sense that reduces the perceptible anxiety that the characters are all aware that they are yet another day nearer death, and finally alone in the dark, a cipher with no God to go home to. Underworld is less about what is found on the search than the reasons for the search itself: the comedy and the tragedy comes with the realization that the characters never understand that the process is what gives them definition, not the goal they seek.

Both authors wonder what went wrong, and seek the language, the metaphors, that can describe the loss, and perhaps give us pause to make sense again of the eviscerated cosmology. That both writers have stressed a quest, of sorts, at the heart of their post modern fictions nails their relevance in place. The search ultimately collapses, as it usually does in credible fictional stretches, but the relevance is that the language of the writers, of their characters in situ gives us ways to think about ourselves: it furnishes us with an imaginative vocabulary that is revitalized beyond the easy-street defeatism that lurks behind the present vogue for unearned irony

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Some good words for Duncan Shepard

No one in San Diego seems to like the Reader’s film critic Duncan Shepard but me.Well screw it all, I’ll come out and say it; he is the has the best prose style of any chronic writer of compound sentences I’ve come across, and still manages to make it all come out snappy as a towel snarling at the behinds exposed in a high school shower.Shepard's prose style is hardly boring, and he's in perfect control of every coma and subordinate clause he produces. Again, his absolute lack of cant and his unwillingness to produce hyperbolic word spasms that can be excised from the reviews to contribute to the pollution of empty-headed praise for bad product makes Shepard a supreme relief in film commentary. Shepard is possessed of a terrific writing style that needs no editor, and it's to his publisher's credit that they allow him the length to write essays rather than requiring him to keep his remarks bite -sized. Any critic worth paying attention to is didactic: you either believe that film is a popular art that merits a knowledgeable and detailed discussion, something more substantial than snack-line wise cracks, or you don't. In that case, wise cracks and reviewers, rather than critics will suffice. Shepard is unique, a wit, a wonder of film knowledge, a first rate sensibility. He is a critic I differ with on most films, but he brings to the table a depth of argument that requires one to reinforce and rethink their position: responding to his pieces requires better thinking.

That is what a critic is supposed to do. Wise cracks and didactic-ism are fine in a critics style, provided they do more than crack themselves up with each droll remark that happens to them, or drone on about some matter entirely estranged from the film under review. Shepard weaves skillfully between the extremes, and handles his points with a rare deftness and precision. Over everything else, though, he has the skill to piss people off, not with just the knee jerk button pushing oh-so-common among bloggers who’ve only a glancing familiarity with their art, but with background, aesthetic distinction, a grasp of art history over all, and an unwillingness to to put up the mob rule that makes up the sorry state of “critical consensus”. He is not a critic you’re likely to see blurbed in Sunday movie ads; there is too much he dislikes, and he takes great pains to tell you what irks him in a movie, and why.

The usual complaint is that he’s in love with the sound of his voice, and that what he does is more nattering than analysis. Interesting that these charges usually arise from readers, so called, who can’t wait to say little more than that he ought to fuck off.The "wall of noise" charge is irrelevant on the face of it, if only because the sound of a critic's prose, or what one imagines the prose to sound like, is a chief reason to read a particular writer to begin with. It's not as if I insist on those who insist on composing long sentences that creak with dependent clauses.I just insist on the skill to handle the style and manage the sounds one makes. Ideas about the subject at hand, an actual argument, does much to make the "noise" musical. You hear a traffic jam? I hear Coltrane. And a first rate sensibility he is, whose contrariness is far less obvious. He's got the chops to back up his pronouncements, and, again, redundantly, he forces you to come with a better case than you might have started off with.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Writers and the Books they Wrote that Irritated Me

On the Road by Jack Kerouac was a book I detested when I read in high school, and it remains the most overrated book by an American writer I've encountered. There are moments of real poetry here, yes, but the waxing and waning of dated and contrived hip argot was embarrassing to read through. 

Underworld was easily one of the best and most important American novels of the last fifty years, and the care and mastery of his writing is a quality the talented but frequently expulsive Jonathan Franzen should pay attention to. The Corrections, Franzen's most recent attempt to join William Gaddis as fabled practitioner of the Big Novel, is an epic that conspicuously hadn't completed the editing and revising process; some sentences, similes, and metaphors are so hamstrung and haphazardly constructed that you wonder if a blue pencil was taken to his manuscript at all. A shame because Franzen is a good prose writer, as you can witness in either Strong Motion, his previous novel, or in his collection of essays and journalism How to Be Alone

I have a great aversion to David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, an obese scale-breaker that ought to have been chopped into a series of novels, ala Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time. There's certainly the material. I have a sneaking suspicion that the book has been used more than either a weapon or varies kinds of braces and blocks than as a book to be read. The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand is the one book I would claim to be morally offensive; offensive for its wretchedness as a novel, offensive for the valorization of selfishness and insisting that the base quality is actually a virtue. 

American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis. I would be willing to accept the defense that Ellis’s quickie squib is, in fact, a satire of consumerism, a literary bit of photo realism, if there was compelling art here. There isn't, however, and the defense falls apart. Ellis writes as if he had to submit this against a deadline, and he'd wasted his considerable lead time by living off his hefty advance. Ellis does a good job of diagnosing the narcissism of the eighties, but that by itself does nothing for either our understanding or empathy. 

You Shall Know Our Velocity by David Eggers irritated me no end, a rapidly written novel about two young men trying to fly all over the world in a week's time to give away $32,000. A good idea for a screwball comedy, but as a novelist Eggers exhibits that same rhythm and pitch he showed A Heartbreaking of Staggering Genius, breathless and stammering. A bag of noise, essentially, not unlike watching a string of bad stand-up comics on pot luck night. 

I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe is another of that author's attempts to revive the Dickens/Anthony Trollope social novel, a college comedy, of sorts, where the bright but sheltered title character arrives at a modern college where the ways of the student body is anything but academic. I Am Charlotte Simmons is only the latest in Tom Wolfe's failing attempts to assert his relevance in American literature as a novelist. It's a lost cause, really, because the very talent that made his non-fiction work, for the most part, such wonderfully acidic and last portraits of a consumer culture are the same things that make his fiction elephantine bores. Supreme inspection of ticks and toilet can elevate personality pieces to the stage of writing art, but it produces flat characters, static situations, and rather desperate stretches of over writing to compensate for undeniable inertia. Wolfe seems to want to assume the position of the late William Gaddis in being America's greatest comic social novelist, but the distinction between the two writers is crucial; Gaddis was a virtuoso with language, dialogue and character, and was more than able to make use of copious research in his fiction in ways that made his fiction's famous complexity actually worth sussing through. Gaddis's The Recognitions is precisely the complex New York comic novel of art, commerce, greed and religion that Wolfe is incapable of writing Wolfe lost his punch years ago, producing two-dimensional door stoppers as novels and angry-dog rants as essays in his most recent efforts, and Simmons has the kind of over-writing found in once-hip writers trying to establish their relevance. He sounds shrill and angry here. Wolfe insists that he's culturally conservative, yet isn't ready to make like John Dos Passos and tone down his writing; something in him desires to remain "edgy", or at least wants to be thought of as beings so. On the one hand, he produces literary manifestos denouncing academic and experimental novelists who've forsaken their calling to produce moral fiction, and on the other he produces ham-handed vulgarity under the guise of satire with I Am Charlotte Simmons. He seems unaware that his novels are as bad as Brett Easton Ellis's, and his rationale for writing fiction the way he does is just as thin. 

Joyce Carol Oates is not my favorite writer, but for all the repetition of her themes of fragile women being imperiled by evil masculine forces they masochistically desire, she does occasionally publish something both compelling and well written. I detested "Beasts" and "The Falls" since she exercises her familiar dreads in contrasting lengths, the first book a slender novella, the latter a literal brick, both books sounding rushed, fevered, and breathless, as first drafts of novels usually do. Or a finished Oates novel, for that matter. She does get it right sometimes, as she did with "Black Water" and "Tattoo Girl"; with the right configuration, her usual wit's end prose style and fascination with fragile psyches and marginally psychotic psychologies get as intense as fiction is ever likely to get. Zombie is a rather potent little psychodrama, and it's the kind of writing Oates excels at. She gets to the heart of the fringe personality better than anyone I can think of. The Tattooed Girl, from 2003, is likewise a well shaped melodrama. She depicts the thinking of women who allow themselves to be beaten and killed with seemingly scary exactitude. Oates can also be a bore, evident in We Were Mulvaneys and The Falls. My fascination with her continues, though, since it's impossible to tell when she publishes another novel that will be gripping and unnerving. 

She merits a bit of respect, although you wish she'd stop trying to win the Nobel Prize so obviously with her tool-and-dye production and take longer to write a novel a reader didn't have to rationalize about. It's not just a matter of writers who write quickly getting away with redundant excess and awkward passages, such as Oates and Stephen King. Those who take their time also seem to avoid the more severe markings of the editor's blue pencil, as in the case with Jonathan Franzen. 
Even though I half way enjoyed The Corrections, I was embarrassed by many parts where the good, meticulously controlled prose just stopped as if it were exhausted after a long workout and suddenly went lax and slapdash and cliché glutted. This is a tendency in writers who feel that every sentence they compose is required to sum up the human condition. A good editor would have handed the work in progress in a conference with the author with a discussion about how to make the writing even better, punchier, and less hackneyed. I would love to see Infinite Jest broken up into a series of novels in the manner of Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell, a project that would force Wallace to rid the work of the twenty-page footnotes and furnish comprehensible arcs from one book to the next. It would make an interesting set of ideas about the nature of addiction readable to people other than fringe grad school sorts. 


It's been said that John Updike can write extremely well about nothing whatsoever, less to do with the sort of hyperrealism of Robbe-Grillet or the purposeful taxonomies of David Foster Wallace than the plain old conceit of being to love your voice. There is no theoretical edge to Updike's unceasing, albeit elegant wordiness. It's a habit formed from deadlines, I guess, having to write a long and coherently in short spurts. He has published a minimum of one book a year since his first book The Poorhouse Fair was published in 1958, and like any artists who are as prolific over a long period--Wood Allen and JC Oates fans take note--there will be the inevitable productions that are ambitious but under constructed, dull, repetitive of past success, what have you. 

Toward the End of Time was one of his occasional flings with science fiction, and it was dull beyond repair. Licks of Love was rather a quaint and grandiloquent selection of lately composed stories that don't add much to his reputation. The Rabbit quartet, though, is masterful, a genuine American Saga of a man who is the quintessential rudderless citizen who goes through an entire lifetime in which none of his experiences gives any clue to purposes beyond his disappointments and satisfactions. Updike is brilliant in this sequence, and for this alone I'd guess his reputation as a major writer is safe for generations to come. He's had his share of duds, but an unusually high proportion of his work is masterful, even brilliant. The Rabbit quartet, The Coup, Witches of Eastwick, Brazil, Beck: A Book, The Centaur, Roger's Version. I could go on. It's interesting as well to note the high incidence of experimentation with narrative form and subject. Rabbit placed him with this image of being someone comically dwelling on the lapsed virtues of middle-aged East Coasters, ala John Cheever, (another writer I prize), but he has been all over the map so far as what he's written about and how he wrote about it. Even though I've cooled on Updike lately--I've been reading him for thirty years--I can't dismiss him nor diminish his accomplishment. He is one of the untouchables. Besides, neurosis is character, and it's hardly a monochromatic shade. It's a trait that comes across in infinitely varied expressions, and we need someone who can artfully exploit their potential. 

I have generally enjoyed and admired the Hemingway I've read, and I think the short stories in In Our Time are among the best by an American author in the 20th Century. That said, The Sun Also Rises was spectacular and To Have and to Have Not equally so. At his best, Hemingway really could convey large emotions and subtle movements of mood with very few words. It was a reverse virtuosity that couldn't sustain itself, though, and left him with nothing but self parodied the more he was unwilling to change his style. Old Man in the Sea, among others, are relentlessly dull and full of the kind of self-pity that makes you want to smack him. 

Purple America by Rick Moody was a novel that enraged me. He's been compared to John Cheever by some critics. Moody, however, doesn't come to close to Cheever's achievement. Rather than a young writer taking some cues from Cheever's careful and lightly applied poetry and sentiment as regards infidelity, alcoholism, insanity and lurking bi-sexuality, Moody is as effusive as a busted water main. All the previously described elements are there, but without Cheever's wit, irony, or craft. None of his grace, either. Moody is one of these young novelists who are rushing to cram the world into each paragraph, with the goal being not to persuade the reader to go along with a story but rather to make the telling as intense as possible. This is the kind of ham handed narrative style that is a prose equivalent of an Oliver Stone movie, the uneasy work of an artist obsessed with keeping their "edge". Moody may have kept his edge, suggested by the jittery run-on disasters this rag of a novel lays out, but it's nothing worth sitting down for. Purple America, though, is worth throwing away. 

I've spent a reading lifetime berating Ayn Rand and her work, and I've been given the "it has some good ideas" counterargument, a response that makes me want to search for a brick wall to bash my head against. There's nothing like having a well-fed yuppie stockbroker or Pilate-addicted trophy mom go flat line on you with that kind of defense after you've delivered a passionate and well-tuned indictment of Rand and her pretensions of philosophical worth. She was, if nothing else, a marketing genius, and knew her audience well, the various "little men" of no particular talent or depth who imagine themselves betrayed by Statist boobery and see themselves as intellectual giants who are fated to rise above the rabble and make their rules. Perversions of Nietzsche, to be sure, but Rand understood that if she presented herself as the quintessential Übermensch she might well gather about her otherwise educated toadies whose need to be bossed about and humiliated in hopes of maybe someday gaining the kind of Roarkian moral imperative to bomb public housing projects because they offended his sense of propriety ( The Fountainhead). Rand was a greasy, amoral mind fucker whose basic concern was controlling her little world and its inhabitants with the ironic promise of that she might lead them to greater freedom. 

I rather like David Eggers in Theory, in so far that his McSweeney's publishing enterprise encourages new writers and marketing that fall outside the conventional corporate habits and style, but I, personally, am appalled by his writing. I cut him some slack for A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius, since it does tell a true story of a hard time in his life, where every bad thing that could happen did happen all the same time. The hastiness of the prose even added to the reading. His fiction, though, is fast talking affair that does not work on any level apart from demonstrating Egger's skill at filling monitors with words in short order. You Shall Know Our Velocity was a shaggy dog story told by a crack head. Not good, and singularly annoying.