30 December 2009

On impulse, I’ve just re-read Marilynne Robinson‘s Housekeeping.  It’s my third reading, the first about a decade ago.

This time around, I am struck by the complexity of the novel’s theology.  Or maybe what I mean to say is that I am struck by just how theological the novel is.  In the past I might have described the novel as “beautiful.”  This time around, I felt its brutality.  Ruthie Stone is the embodiment of a loneliness so deep and utter:  when she crosses that bridge, that harrowing journey at the end, both away from nothingness and toward nothingness, it seems to me that she crosses from loneliness as a constant companion to loneliness as her essence.  Darkness, cold, estrangement — she is swallowed whole.

Memory is the sense of loss, and loss pulls us after it.  God Himself was pulled after us into the vortex we made when we fell, or so the story goes… Being man He felt the pull of death, and being God He must have wondered more than we do what it would be like…

…when I think back to the crossing of the bridge, one moment bulges like the belly of a lens and all the others are at the peripheries and diminished.  Was it only that the wind rose suddenly, so that we had to cower and lean against it like blind women groping their way along a wall? or did we really hear some sound too loud to be heard, some word so true we did not understand it, but merely felt it pour through our nerves like darkness or water?

I don’t know what to do with Housekeeping on this third read.  I am shaken by it.  There is a feeling that Robinson wrote the book in a kind of visionary trance; and her vision rivals Rilke’s in its terrifying (beautiful?) understanding of what it is to be a stark, lone soul in the universe.

28 December 2009

I can’t seem to stop listening to poet Frederick Seidel reading his work at this New York Review of Books podcast.

The corresponding blog post by Charles Simic here.

27 December 2009

I found this December 24 segment from NPR’s “Tell Me More” on micro-sculptor Willard Wigan rather moving.  Wigan makes figurative sculptures the size of the eye of a needle.

…there’s an old saying: Just because you cannot see something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. So I wanted to show people how big nothing can become…

22 December 2009

A wonderful piece in the Wall Street Journal by James Collins about reading Jane Austen for moral content.

The word “moral” has a bad rap in modern intellectual life.  I like how Collins is reclaiming and endowing it with the nuances it requires.

Here’s a snippet about Austen and Romanticism:

Austen lived on the cusp of the 18th-century Augustan and 19th-century Romantic ages. In our own time, nearly every song, advertisement and movie is based on Romantic principles. No matter how much we may enjoy the “felicities of domestic life,” as Austen put it in “Persuasion,” we still feel the enormous Romantic pull to do something more heroic and intense. Rather than digesting a good dinner while conversing with friends, we should be out forging the consciousness of our race in the smithy of our soul, or some damn thing. I don’t really want to forge the consciousness of my race, but at the same time I don’t want to miss out on all that Romanticism offers. This is where Austen comes in, for she is an Augustan familiar with Romanticism, which makes her more useful than a modern writer in helping us face the Romantic challenge. Only she can so credibly show us that it is possible to have moderation and deep feeling, good dinners and good poetry.

And here, Collins further shows us that Austen is a consummate “both/and” artist, not “either/or” — something I care about and worry over more persistently than probably anything else in life.

How can morals, sentiments and manners help one live in the world? What should one’s relations to the world be? Should one reject the world entirely as corrupt and mercenary and hypocritical and shallow? Or is there some other way, where one can keep one’s integrity and sensitivity, but live in the world too? W. H. Auden stated the problem well when he wrote:

“Does Life only offer two alternatives: ‘You shall be happy, healthy, attractive, a good mixer, a good lover and parent, but on the condition that you are not overcurious about life. On the other hand you shall be sensitive, conscious of what is happening round you, but in that case you must not expect to be happy, or successful in love or at home in any company. There are two worlds and you cannot belong to them both.'”

In effect, Auden is asking if life offers only the two alternatives of “Sense and Sensibility,” and one can sympathize with his cry of despair, for when the dilemma is put the way he puts it, the two seem hopelessly irreconcilable.

Austen comes to our rescue, though, for she does manage to modulate between “Sense and Sensibility,” rejecting the excesses of both. Her attitude appeals because the combination of morals, sentiments, and manners provides a way of living that allows one both to be in the world and to enjoy the sweets of sensitivity as well. Austen does not write about bohemians and rebels; she doesn’t want to change her world—”she would not alter a hair on anyone’s head or move one brick,” as Virginia Woolf wrote. Her sympathetic characters participate fully in their society and accept its conventions, yet they have exquisitely well-tuned minds and hearts. Good sense does not have to be at war with sensibility.

Enjoy the whole article, and, I say, let reading — all reading — shape you in every way, including your moral education.

19 December 2009

In April, I’m looking forward to a spin around my old ‘hood , and the city I consider my “literary birthplace” — Seattle.

On April 6, I’ll read with the talented graduate students in the writing program at the University of WA, my alma mater, as part of their monthly Castalia Reading Series.  (8pm at Hugo House)

On April 7, I’ll read at the brand new Elliott Bay Book Co. — a legendary independent bookstore where I browsed and shopped and attended readings and wondered if I’d ever write a novel, back in the day.  The store has just announced that it will be moving to a new location on Capitol Hill — which I’m thinking is good news overall, economically speaking, despite the loss of that beautiful, historical space in Pioneer Square.

And on April 5, perhaps, hopefully, something very cool and groovy will be happening at Street Bean Espresso, in which I hope to take part.

Emerald City, here I come!

17 December 2009

David Foster Wallace referred to the three male writers who “dominated postwar American fiction” — Roth, Updike, Mailer — as the GMNs: the Great Male Narcissists.

I have managed to not read any of them.  Until now.  Just finished Roth’s Everyman – a recommendation from a trusted (female) friend — which I enjoyed, and I’ve also just received American Pastoral as a gift.  I’m looking forward to it. Actually, it all started with Roth’s short story, “The Conversion of the Jews,” brought in to class by a student. Slowly, slowly, I dip my toe into the abyss of great male narcissism.

Why?  (shrug)  I’ll have a better answer to that, perhaps, a few books down the road.

Updike is probably up next — stories first, then maybe a Rabbit novel.

14 December 2009

In light of the recent announcement that Kirkus Reviews will close down, some wonder whether the pre-pub review is even useful or relevant anymore. Here’s a post at publishingperspectives.com.

According to the writer, Kirkus was known as “the mean one,” relative to Booklist, Library Journal and Publisher’s Weekly.  I suppose those of us awaiting pre-pub reviews might breathe a sigh of relief (though no disrespect meant for those losing their jobs over at Kirkus).  Someone asked me recently what I would honestly “want” to see in a review, specifically.  Hmm… I think perhaps it’s like porn, i.e. you know it when you see it.

10 December 2009

Readings and events around the March 2 release of Long for This World are starting to slot into place.  Check out my new “Readings & Events” page, which I’ll be updating regularly.

If you’re in a city that ‘s not listed and you have some ideas on how to change that, I’m all ears.  Ditto if you’re in a city that is listed, and you know of book groups or college classrooms that might be interested in an author visit.

Hey, and neat-o, notice that the book’s cover image is up at Amazon!  Two-and-a-half months to release, and my current Amazon ranking is #1,261,404.  I have no idea why, but somehow that makes me a little happy.  Maybe it’s (unfortunately) like the federal deficit: the number is so outlandish, it feels like it can’t touch you!

7 December 2009

At The Guardian, writer and funny lady AL Kennedy feels our pain. “Us” being emerging writers, that is:

…Like other small (very small) businesses, many authors have noticed that those tiny and yet important cheques have started to arrive two or three months late, or not at all. I have even experienced haggling over fees when I turn up for gigs – and as negotiators go, I’m as resilient as a damp biscuit.

Please don’t misunderstand me – I know I’m in a very fortunate position – none of this is as bad as not being published, not being able to find work, being fired in a recession, having my house repossessed, or kids to worry about. If I need more money, I can do more work. And sleep less. I mainly worry for the coming generations of writers. If my next advance is smaller than the last – and it will be – I can try to diversify even more, I can tour more, I can try to ginger up work abroad. I have no idea what a new writer would do now – attempting to burrow into a market that’s in free fall and a literary “culture” that drastically limits the numbers of books that are published or that will ever be visible in major bookshop chains, reviews or the media generally. Publishers are beyond risk-averse and are currently decision-averse. It is possible that published writers will no longer ever leave whatever other employment they use to subsidise themselves. Meanwhile, the increase in poorly conceived and exploitative creative writing courses will continue, and increasingly the writers who teach on them will end up training potential writers to teach other potential writers to teach on other courses and round and round they all will go – never knowing how good they might be, or what they’re missing.

But she also sees that active, inquisitive readers are alive and well:

I keep meeting readers – intelligent, passionate readers who go out of their way to support books. Over the last few years there has been an explosion in literary festivals, readers’ groups and reading series. When the range in your local book shop collapses, your library dumps its stock and your media barely acknowledge your interests, it seems that you don’t, as a reader, give up and stop reading, or just buy the Fast Seller you’re peddled by the only part of the UK’s publishing machinery that’s still functioning – you fight back, you get organised, you dig about for books that you’ll genuinely love, you reach out to others of your kind. Which – as a reader and a writer – I find wonderful and promising.

Which makes me think about a rather obvious, though not always acknowledged, connection between these two things — the teaching of writing and intelligent, passionate reading.

I have written here before that I generally believe in “the wide road” when it comes to writing — that if a person has the desire, focus, and discipline to write and to work at writing, who am I — or any other writing teacher — to deem him hopeless?  Why not teach the craft of writing, to as many as would give themselves over to the experience and the work, if you happen to know a little bit about it?

But the only would-be writer I ever feel truly hopeless about is she who reads lazily.  This is not about volume, but about engagement.  Whole-being engagement, no less.  There is nothing at all wrong with reading for entertainment or emotional escape; but it’s not enough.  Not if one desires to be a good writer.  One must read actively, widely, with intellect-emotion-soul.  All cylinders firing.  One must come to reading expecting, seeking, to be changed, to get smarter and better as a human being.  One must read for one’s life.  Anyone who reads in this way is a promising student, in my mind and in my experience.  When I come across sentences and ideas that are truly terrible it’s obvious to me that the fundamental problem is not writing talent primarily; it’s that this person has not yet learned to read — both what to read, and how.  This is the student who reads primarily for entertainment, who doesn’t “listen” to language on multiple levels, and who has not understood yet the difference between words slapped together between covers to get you from some Point A to some Point B, and literature.  If the student is content with her reading life, then there’s not much I can do for her; if she is hungry, if she is inquisitive, if she wants to know what this different kind of reading is all about, then, as they say, we’re in business.

I’ll leave you with this bit of wisdom, from Sam Lipsyte, about what can or can’t be taught:

I think maybe you can’t teach touch. You can help people improve their sensitivity to language, but at a certain point it’s about the ear they’ve always had, even if they’ve never really let it do its work before. And you can’t teach people to be fearless (and sometimes shameless), though you can exhort them to be so. Most everything else, it seems to me, benefits from some sort of mentorship or collaborative effort. I do subscribe to the idea that you get what you need much faster with other people around. You’ll reach the same place by yourself, but it will take a lot longer.

4 December 2009

I feel more overwhelmed than ever about the length of my reading list, as I make my way through the recs over at the YEAR IN READING series at The Millions. So much good stuff there.

I keep track of my “to-read” list over at goodreads.com, then transfer titles over to The Reading List page here periodically.  I put off the latter for as long as I can, because all those jacket thumbnails become so visually mountainous.

Was watching Jim Lehrer or some such the other night, Arnie Duncan was on, or someone else high up in education policy, can’t quite remember.  The talk was of reading skills, testing of reading, making sure 4th graders can read.  I try to remember how/when I learned to read and can’t recall a lick.  It doesn’t seem like there was a process at all, just one day, boom, I was reading.  It wasn’t “environment,” because there wasn’t a lot of reading going on at home, as far as I can remember.  (Both parents read English, but it’s their second language, so literature wasn’t abounding.)  That’s weird to me, that I have no recollection of not being able to read, or only being able to read certain things.

But I didn’t really learn to read until my mid-20s.  Meaning, for most of my life, I read to Complete The Assignment; to Write the Term Paper; to Get to The End of the Book.  I started to read actively (with my whole self) and to write fiction at about the same time.

Sadly, and frustratingly, I feel like I’ve been losing ground lately in my reading skills.  Two steps back when it comes to deep reading. Big Books stress my mind these days, when in the past they’ve seized it.  I’m about 1/4 into Of Human Bondage, a 600-pager.  I’m using reading muscles I haven’t used in a little while.  This one’s going to take me some time, and mostly what I have to do right now is be patient with myself.  To recognize, and accept, that with all the noise and media and book promotions and teaching I’m doing, I have to learn to read again. I have to stay in the sentence, as opposed to shooting for the end of it.  Does this sound ridiculous?  It does, doesn’t it.  I am a novelist and a writing teacher, learning how to read.

3 December 2009

The YEAR IN READING is underway at The Millions: friends of The Millions share the best books they read this year, which is fun, because each writer comes at it personally and passionately.  Better and much more inspiring (I think) than the lists in major publications where the same 20 books are recycled over and over.

Although, Padgett Powell‘s book — the every-sentence-is-a-question book — keeps coming up, everywhere I look.  Gimmick or brilliance?  Definitely seems browseworthy at the least.  I’m also looking forward to reading something by Kate Christensen.


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