28 January 2010

I watched/listened to last night’s State of the Union with a flinchy face and tensed muscles.  The recent media/pundit turkey-shoot (the President is the turkey, in case you didn’t already know) has been painful to witness.

Junot Diaz thinks it’s about story-telling (lack thereof on the President’s part). I agree; but I also think that maybe we — voters, citizens, members of this democratic polity — need to grow up a little.  At some point, we need to start telling the stories, helping to get them out there, instead of waiting to be tucked into bed.  After all, the President’s schedule is a little, you know, busier than mine.

From Diaz’s New Yorker piece:

All year I’ve been waiting for Obama to flex his narrative muscles, to tell the story of his presidency, of his Administration, to tell the story of where our country is going and why we should help deliver it there. A coherent, accessible, compelling story—one that is narrow enough to be held in our minds and hearts and that nevertheless is roomy enough for us, the audience, to weave our own predilections, dreams, fears, experiences into its fabric. It should necessarily be a story eight years in duration, a story that no matter what our personal politics are will excite us enough to go out and reëlect the teller just so we can be there for the story’s end. But from where I sit our President has not even told a bad story; he, in my opinion, has told no story at all. I heard him talk healthcare to death but while he was elaborating ideas his opponents were telling stories. Sure they were bad ones, full of distortions and outright lies, but at least they were talking to the American people in the correct idiom: that of narrative. The President gave us a raft of information about why healthcare would be a swell idea; the Republicans gave us death panels. Ideas are wonderful things, but unless they’re couched in a good story they can do nothing.

The man has tried, of course; we’ve gotten patches of narrative around all the important issues—the economy, the war in Afghanistan, the war on terror (a.k.a. the Undiebomber)—but I’ve yet to hear anything that excites that part of my brain which loves, which craves the symmetries the pleasures of well-told tale. Just this past Tuesday we saw the consequences for the President of not having a real story to draw upon. In Massachusetts, the President was faced with an insurgent Republican candidate who was telling a story that should have been familiar to the Commander-in-Chief: the story of an upstart outsider with energy and ideas, who was going to shake things up, etc. The President tried to help Martha Coakely by campaigning, but since his Administration doesn’t seem to do story he couldn’t lend her one. He could only show up as himself, and that clearly was not enough. A man cannot withstand a story, even if the man is remarkable and the story is simple. The story always wins.

24 January 2010

A backlash against Emerson?  Say it isn’t so.  I reserve a great fondness for Ralph Waldo, great bard of Self-Trust.  I’ve always found his philosophy of how to read — widely, freely, somewhat predatorily, taking what you can, discarding the rest, not getting bogged down by reverence for a static canon but approaching the canon with an “active soul” — particularly helpful and relevant in this Age of Information.

Hence, instead of Man Thinking, we have the bookworm.  Hence the book-learned class, who value books, as such; not as related to nature and the human constitution, but as making a sort of Third Estate with the world and the soul…

Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst.  What is the right use?  What is the one end which all means go to effect?  They are for nothing but to inspire.  I had better never see a book than to be warped by its attraction clean out of my own orbit, and made a satellite instead of a system. The one thing in the world, of value, is the active soul.

-from “The American Scholar”

21 January 2010

I’m coming up on the one-year anniversary of this blog. (And I know this because WordPress reminds you that your annual fee is due).

If you’ve been reading from the beginning, you know how much angst I had about short-form blip writing. I still have it. Halfway through the year, I started writing for The Millions, where there’s a little more room for essayistic wandering, but the angst is still there; anything that gets written in a day, two days, always feels sub-standard to me. I read over what I’ve written both here and at The Millions and feel a certain kind of melancholy.

On the other hand, I’m finding that this space here is becoming a thinking place for the longer pieces at The Millions. For instance, this post is the thinking-out-loud stage for what I think will be an essay about struggling with short-form, and why (for now, anyway) I prefer the novel form. I am on deadline to complete a short story for publication, and as I work on the story, I already feel an onslaught of the writerly challenges that nudged me into writing a novel in the first place.

Is it useful to think out loud? Is it useful to witness someone thinking out loud? What is the value of all this fast-writing we do for public consumption? In other words, a year later, I seem to be asking pretty much the same questions I started out with…

I’ve been re-reading the masterful stories of Chekhov, who wrote quickly and voluminously.  It’s a good reminder.

20 January 2010

And then, apropos of my last post, I read this article about a hip young liberal Manhattanite coming out of the Christian closet.  Actually, I first heard it on NPR’s “Tell Me More,” which is even more interesting, i.e. that this topic got national radio play in addition to the piece at Salon.


I’m not sure how I feel about the author’s inclination toward the notion that it’s better just not to talk about religion:

Not long ago, I told a priest at my church that my friends equated religion with horrible things. I expected her to tell me I had some obligation to stop hiding my faith, but she said, pulling a scarf around her neck to hide her priest’s collar, “Those preachers on the subways make me cringe.” She said she prefers Saint Francis: “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.”[...]

But faith and religion are hard to talk about; maybe they’re not necessary to talk about.

Well, thank God for fiction as a way to “talk.”

18 January 2010

Is it just me, or is Christianity making a comeback as an au courant cultural topic?

At Bookforum’sOmnivore,” a sampling of reviews and articles about Christianity.  All of them nonfiction-related.  I’ve been beginning to think about my next project, and a collection of linked stories, in and around Christianity, is what seems to be rising to the surface.  Hmm…

Which is a backhand way of also saying that I can see the light at the end of the tunnel on Sebastian & Frederick (current word count ~84,000, projected word count  ~100,000).

14 January 2010

A new(ish) documentary on legendary soul singer Bill Withers, called “Still Bill,” is terrific.   I saw it at the Harlem Stage Theater — a gorgeous venue on the campus of City College — with a great crowd.

Special guests for Q&A were percussionist and Harlem native Ralph MacDonald (who also co-wrote “Just the Two of Us”) and filmmaker/producer Warrington Hudlin (HOUSE PARTY).

Mr. Withers is an engaging, complicated, and touching character, as documentary subjects go, and the filmmakers Damani Baker and Alex Vlack capture this well.  Performance and interview footage of Withers from the ’70’s and ’80’s is well-chosen.  Here’s a lil o’ Bill, performing his hit, “Ain’t No Sunshine.”

13 January 2010

Check out my essay at The Millions, “Sex, Seriously: James Salter Trumps the Great Male Novelists.

I suspect it’s not the most comfortable topic for most people; maybe even less so for “the younger generation” that Katie Roiphe refers to in “The Naked and the Conflicted”, the article to which the essay responds.

According to the blog stats, the essay (posted yesterday) was widely read (or at least clicked); and yet little commented on.  Hmm… I suppose this makes sense, i.e. in the essay I write that talking or writing “about” sex is like “dancing about architecture” (Elvis Costello said this, maybe).  Still, I’m curious how readers feel/think about this topic.   I did receive a few comments via personal email.

Thanks to Maud Newton for linking to the piece.

Update 1/18/10: comments rolled in, with some great reading suggestions.

12 January 2009

I found Jennifer Egan‘s story “Safari,” from last week’s New Yorker, so very good.  Both skillful and affecting.  Those are the two punches we’re always going for, yes?  I’d add a third: bold (i.e. risky), in both form and content.

Without over-analyzing too much… something about the story’s cerebral voice, coupled with child characters/perspectives, really works.  “Safari” is also I think a triumph of old-fashioned narrative omniscience, layered with contemporary characters and experience.

8 January 2010

A new addition to the book events schedule: I’ll be reading at The Corner Bookstore on Madison at 93rd Street in New York City, March 4th @ 6pm.

I’m excited about this, because I stop in at The Corner Bookstore often, and I’ve always loved it.  I also found this lovely “Spotlight on Bookstore” piece about it on a blog, wherein memoirist Nancy Bachrach writes :

Located on Madison Avenue on the upper east side of Manhattan, the Corner Bookstore is a small treasure in a historic neighborhood famous for its elegant townhouses.  The bookstore’s tin ceiling and speckled terrazzo floor date from the 1920s, along with the handcrafted wood cabinets.  Every detail has been lovingly restored by Ray, an architectural model maker.

This is a bookstore with a mission: to support the debuts of local writers… The Corner Bookstore is where Donna Tartt unveiled The Secret HistoryJhumpa Lahiri launched Interpreter of Maladies.  Lenny threw the book parties for Augusten BurroughsRunning With Scissors and Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle. Lauren Weisberger gave her first reading from The Devil Wears Prada.  Every one of these authors was invited long before their book reviews (or movie deals) – so either Lenny is clairvoyant, or she’s a genuine taste-maker.

Lenny and Ray’s most memorable party was the dazzling debut for Frank McCourt, who had been teaching in the New York school system for thirty years before he turned his miserable Irish childhood into Angela’s Ashes, the bestseller that kick-started the memoir genre.  The Corner Bookstore was so crowded that night that friends who couldn’t squeeze in gathered on the sidewalk, where Lenny and her staff served Guinness.

In good company, indeed.

7 January 2010

Katie Roiphe‘s piece in the NY Times Book Review on sex and the Great Male Narcissists (GMNs) — Roth, Mailer, Updike — is popping up on pretty much all the blogs I follow.  Worth reading, I agree.  The subject is endlessly fascinating — sex as “imaginative quest,” an existential bulwark against death (sans irony).  The younger generation of male writers is, according to Roiphe, “too cool for sex,” shaped by liberalism and the (internalized) archetype of the sensitive man.

I tend to share Roiphe’s sense of a “vanished grandeur” when it comes to the dissolution of ardent sexual conquest (“not just the triumphs…but also its loneliness, its failures of connection”) in male literature, maybe in all literature; and I don’t think Roiphe and I are alone (Exhibit A: the popularity of MAD MEN among the literary set).

As I wrote last week, I’m just dipping my toes in to the great narcissistic pool of Roth-Updike-Mailer; but James Salter‘s A Sport and a Pastime comes to mind  as an example of a powerful and haunting work of fiction that understands sex — in all its dimensions, including the physically and sensorially graphic — as an utterly serious human experience; on this side of life, dark and exuberant and mysterious.  Zadie Smith‘s On Beauty comes to mind as an example of a younger writer’s farcical notion — the flip side of the sublime — of male sexual conquest, sympathizing instead with an older woman’s eye-rolling fed-upness vis-a-vis the silly conquesting male.  Enough with the perpetual adolescence, the younger generation seems to be saying.  Our sexual relationships are going to emotionally grown-up.

Some movies come to mind as well: Bertolucci’s LAST TANGO IN PARIS, Ang Lee‘s LUST, CAUTION, Michael Winterbottom‘s 9 SONGS.

Other books and movies — sexually explicit — that you feel harken back to the “grandeur” of the GMNs, in a compelling way?  Me thinks an essay for The Millions is brewing…

5 January 2010

From Publisher’s Weekly, hot off the press!

“…elegant debut novel… Switching deftly between different characters’ points of view, Chung portrays with precision and grace each character’s struggle to find his or her place in the family and in the world.”

1 January 2010

I finished out the year by reading Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist.  This is a run-don’t-walk book, I’d say.  I bought it in hardcover (from McNally Jackson, where you should buy all your hardcovers, if you live in New York), and I’m so glad I did.  All I can think of to say about it is, “I laughed, I cried, it was better than… anything I read this year.”

It also goes down as one of those “books that inspired me to keep going.”  Right now, it’s full of post-it notes, i.e. scene  and character details for Sebastian & Frederick that came to me as I was reading.  A great book will often inspire me in this particular way.  It’s not that I read something and then think, “Oh, I should  have my character climb a ladder, too.”  It’s more labyrinthine than that — an idiosyncratic pathway from details and emotions that are effected by the book I’m reading, to ideas and images that drive what I’m writing.  But I am keeping the post-its on specific pages of The Anthologist, to remind me of how those pathways were working.

Among my favorite ruminations by narrator Paul Chowder is this: carpe diem, despite what Robin Williams may have led us all to believe, does not mean “Seize the Day.”  Rather, it means something more like, “Pluck the Day.”

What Horace had in mind was that you should gently pull on the day’s stem, as if it were, say, a wildflower or an olive, holding it with all the practiced care of your thumb and the side of your finger, which knows how to not crush easily crushed things — so that the day’s stalk or stem undergoes increasing tension and draws to a thinness, and a tightness, and then snaps softly away at its weakest point, perhaps leaking a little milky sap, and the flower, or the fruit, is released in your hand.  Pluck the cranberry or blueberry of the day tenderly free without damaging it, is what Horace meant — pick the day, harvest the day, reap the day, mow the day, forage the day.  Don’t freaking grab the day in your fist like a burger at a fairground and take a big chomping bite out of it.


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