14 October 2012
We’ve just finished watching Season One of Homeland (so don’t tell me what happens in Season Two if you’ve got cable). If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I’ve usually got some TV series obsession going on, and that I’m always a season behind (unless it’s a network TV show). It’s been interesting to me how much TV has been a part of my life over the past few years, ever since (like so many others of my “cultural class”) The Wire rocked my world.
In particular, I learn a lot from all these intense drama series about plot and suspense. No surprise there. But the best ones also show us how to build complex characters—often exasperatingly flawed, and yet at the same time utterly compelling.
One thing I’m thinking about in terms of Homeland‘s strengths and weaknesses is its failure to build a convincing, dimensional, intricately-developed world—something that the very best of the TV dramas do extremely well (The Wire, Mad Men, The West Wing, Breaking Bad). While both Carrie Mathison’s and Nicholas Brody’s characters are well-developed, and the acting is stellar, I find myself frustrated by the limited scope of the world in which they exist. The political universe, for example, feels thin and sparsely populated: it is as if the Vice President is the only locus of power, which is both unsatisfying and unlikely. The same goes for the CIA. One would imagine that there is just one guy (the character named David Estes) calling shots, one room in which counter-terrorism happens, one lone bi-polar gal (Carrie/Claire Danes) going after the bad guys. I remember having this discussion with a student of mine, who is writing a novel about a megachurch: how to give the impression/feel of thousands of people while only focusing on 4 or 5? The example I gave, in fact, was from The West Wing—how, when shooting the Democratic National Convention, they had about 100 extras to shoot scenes intended to give the feeling of a packed arena of thousands. They used lights, low camera angles, dubbed-in noise. What are the literary analogies?
On the level of plot and suspense, too, Homeland is just a little loose and flabby. The key to effective suspense, it seems to me, is planting nagging questions in the viewer’s mind and revealing shades of answers at just the right pacing. In Homeland, that pacing is just slightly off: the questions pile up and remain unanswered for too long, which is to say that the characters themselves would not wait as long as the viewer is asked to for answers. An example: there is a murky mystery around the supposed death of Sergeant Brody’s co-POW Tom Walker by his own hands. Why doesn’t Carrie wonder about this earlier? Why doesn’t anyone? In other words, the writers have developed characters so razor-sharp that the viewer can’t buy their ignorance, or delayed intelligence, for as long as we’re asked to. Another example: Brody’s daughter, who sees/notices everything about him, sees him put the suicide-bomb vest in the trunk of the car. She knows something is odd about it when her father insists it’s “nothing.” He leaves it there overnight. She never goes back to the car to investigate. We’re thinking, no way, she’s too smart to let that go.
All that said, I’ll be watching Season Two as soon as it’s out on DVD. Which tells me that, for this viewer/reader, character is king.
13 September 2012
A wonderfully written double-review in this week’s NYRB of the summer’s two best movies — Benh Zeitlin‘s BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD and Wes Anderson‘s MOONRISE KINGDOM. I wish Geoffrey O’Brien‘s piece was not pay-walled, though. Perhaps one can register with the NYRB for free? I hope so…
I feel stronger about BEASTS than about MOONRISE; I am reminded of an interview with U.S. Open Champion Andy Murray on Charlie Rose the other night, where the phrase “complete game” kept coming up. Murray’s opponent, Novac Djokovic, has power, athleticism, consistency; but Murray has variety, nimbleness, the full array of skills. BEASTS is sprawling and intense, fantastical and hyper-real, equally emotional and physical in its approach to the spectacular; the film’s action, for me, feels integral — both cause and effect in relation to the characters and the world Zeitlin conjures. The action in MOONRISE feels at times (especially at the end) like a mere vehicle to showcase Anderson’s imaginative reach, as manifest in visual and verbal style. Both films, at any rate, well worth seeing.
I am teaching a course of the literature of childhood this term; and writing/thinking constantly about “sense of place,” as an editor at The Common. So both these films, and O’Brien’s review, hit all kinds of chords. Will be writing more about all of the above soon…
29 August 2012
On the occasion of summer’s almost-end, and of preparing to give a short “what I did this summer” presentation at student orientation this evening, I give you: “What I Did (and Did Not Do) This Summer”:
I did not blog here very often. I took an official hiatus while at MacDowell for four weeks, and upon return decided that A Limited-Internet Life is A High-Quality Life, when one is trying to write a book, read many books, write short essays, etc. And to some degree when one is trying to nourish human relationships. My brain, I’ve learned, is very porous/permeable; screen time takes over/muddles/fatigues mental capacity significantly. Emotional capacity, too. Some people really do seem to get smarter and more vital via the Internet (see my post about Ai Wei Wei, which is one reason I will continue to keep this blog at all); I seem to get dumber/less human. Whenever possible, I’ve stayed off the Internet/away from email before 1pm. Thus, less blogging.
I shelved the book that I was originally hoping to finish writing this summer. This is hard to even talk/write about. I will say that my lunch meeting with my agent, where I broke the news, went very well, and I’m thankful that she is the sort of agent who is a human being first (I’m told not all agents are.) Despite this hard reality…
I started and made sustained progress on a new work of fiction that feels good, and alive, and about which I feel hopeful and more clear-headed. That’s all I’ll say about that for now.
I made good use of the mornings. My undisclosed, favorite library carrel saw my a** mornings at 8, and I recommend this, writer-friends. Carpe diem. Blah blah blah.
I reunited with my mountain bike. I loved riding around in Peterborough, NH, and getting some exercise to boot. The bike had been in storage for, I don’t know, 10 years? Back in the city, I’ve been riding it regularly in Central Park and along the Westside path. One of these days you may see me huffing and pedaling past you on the street.
I reunited with yoga. God bless the Harlem Yoga Studio.
I taught a fantastic summer fiction workshop. The students were fantastic, that is. Summer is especially fun, because you tend to get a very diverse group – age, life experience, literary interests. We had more males than females – unheard of! We had gritty sex-and-drugs stories, 19th century-esque novels of manners, experimental collage prose, YA fantasy, science fiction. We had someone Skype in from Peru. We read George Eliot and Garcia Marquez. The students dug in and respected each others’ work, even when it was clear that they did not “like” each others’ work. Only in the classroom, I sometimes think (with gratitude) can this kind of fruitful, unlikely-bedfellow magic happen.
I dipped my toe, then my foot, then got waist-deep in an editorial role with The Best New Literary Journal That You Should Know About, i.e. The Common. I blinked, and now I’m an Editor. More on that soon. Issue 04 (print version – a gorgeous thing to behold) forthcoming in October, and the launch of a super-enhanced online magazine component kicking off in mid-September. The Common publishes work that engages/features significantly “a sense of place.” Props to Jen Acker, Founding Editor and colleague extraordinaire, along with editors John Hennessey, Hannah Gersen, Liz Byrne, and Amy Sande-Friedman. Contact me if you have work you’d like to submit, for print or online, fiction or nonfiction.
I continued as a staff writer for The Millions, and to develop the Post-40 Bloomers series there. “Post-40 Bloomers” celebrates One Year! We’ve featured 12 authors whose first major work debuted when they were 40 years of age or older, including Walker Percy, Harriet Doerr, Giuseppe di Lampedusa, Anna Keesey, William Gay, Daniel Orozco, and others. Some exciting things are on the horizon for the series in 2012-13; stay tuned, and do get in touch if you’d like to be involved in said exciting prospects. In addition to the Post-40 series, I wrote an essay on loneliness, and did a Q&A with James Salter.
We went to Berlin. Last year it was Buenos Aires. We continue on our low-cost-of-living-cities tour. In Berlin I discovered that I like beer – good beer – a lot. German Schwarzbier (black lager) especially. We learned about bokashi (for our compost bin) from our friend Shu-lea Cheang, whose multi-media installation on composting opened while we were there (a mail-order bag is on the way!). I ate way too much pork (in a good way). I turned the corner on coffee vs espresso (espresso!). I learned how to hand-roll cigarettes. We saw a lot of great contemporary art – at Documenta13 in Kassel and the many museums in Berlin. I met the lovely, talented writer Madeleine Thien (thanks, Manju, for introducing us), who inspired me in so many ways. Oh, and we did lots of touristy things, too.
I started, and am continuing to prepare for my Voices/Visions of Childhood & Youth seminar. And I’m pretty excited. The reading list is even better this year than last year. (Will post here once it’s final-finalized.)
I did not garden very much. Between MacDowell, and teaching, and travel, it didn’t happen. Green beans and lettuces, yes. Tomatoes, not so much. Not yet, anyway.
I watched all of Season Four of Breaking Bad. In one week.
It was a good summer. I’m pretty tired, though. Deep breath as school gears up and we teachers and students all turn into pumpkins.
19 August 2012
I have more to learn about Walter Gropius’s/Mies van der Rohe’s Bauhaus School of Art, but this visit to the Bauhaus Archives Museum in Berlin has piqued my interest. A commitment to functional beauty — a school devoted to it — is something we probably consider overly idealistic, and past its time now. But is it? As both a writer and teacher, I hope not.
An excellent exhibit and amazing building/gallery space.
21 April 2012
A lot’s been happening in the publishing world, it seems — with the DOJ going after Apple and the corporate conglomerates over e-book price points and whatnot. It occurs to me that I am really in denial — and out of touch — when I start to feel frustrated that no one ever speaks to how e-book pricing affects authors. The author’s voice or stake in this is, apparently, so WAY off the radar. The cost of a book once seemed to mean something for whether an author got paid; now it’s more a matter of whether corporate publishers can stay in business, keep from laying off half their employees, etc.
Case in point: this week’s “On the Media” program at NPR is called, “Publishing: Adapt or Die.” I was pretty blue after listening to it. It actually poked holes in my sense of purpose re: finishing my second novel. It wasn’t because of the money issue, but more the readership issue, the declaration that “no one reads literary fiction” anymore.
I started this blog in 2009, a year before my (first) book came out. A lot happens in three years; publishing years are like dog years these days. I was reminded of how much has changed when I co-moderated a panel at Columbia last week on “Current Landscapes in Publishing.” One of the questions I asked was whether the panelists felt optimistic or troubled by what’s happening in their corner of the publishing world, and every one of them was optimistic, excited, energized, etc. Five out of the six were writers themselves in addition to being editors; the publications/organizations with which they were involved ranged from mainstream/corporate to super-indie/startup, and a few in between. None of them seemed concerned about the fact that they might never see monetary compensation for their own work. They were all happy that content was booming, that literary culture (online) was thriving, that it’s “a reader’s market” now.
Two of the publications represented — The New Yorker and Electric Literature — do in fact compensate writers significantly for their work. I wonder how sustainable each model is into the future. (The co-creators of EL do not get paid, which is the standard for editors of most new and online literary publications.)
I’m slow to this adjustment (but that’s not surprising, I’m generally slow about most things). Hopefully I’ll get there. Or maybe not. Does anyone else think we should be mad — more mad, a little mad — that it is becoming increasingly difficult to make a living as a writer? To me, there is actually a significant difference between no compensation and modest compensation: it’s the difference between having to devote full-time to non-writing work versus part-time. It’s the difference between getting a book written and not getting a book written. I’m not talking about six-figure advances, I’m talking about any advances at all. I’m talking about piecing together bits of income to live a simple, low-overhead life.
Ugh. I’m devolving here. Ok, let me turn this around and give a shout-out to all those literary publications and institutions who are scraping up money for writers. Thank you thank you thank you.
p.s. Of course my blind spot here in this rant is that the consumer has to be willing to pay for the content. One of our panelists was wise to say so. I’ve been trying to be more mindful/faithful about myself as a literary consumer, about subscriptions, about paying for what I possibly can. At the risk of sounding corny, every little bit counts!
5 March 2012
I’ve seen it three times now — once on the big screen, once on my laptop, and once in a classroom with 15 undergraduate students (a seminar on literature of childhood). It holds up every time, which is remarkable (in the second and third instances) given how patiently the story and its characters unfold, and how little speech there is in the film. Victor Erice‘s THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE moves from philosophical to morbid to lighthearted to melancholy via the simplest filmic gestures; and, of course, there is Ana Torrent‘s stunning little face, which moves through these registers and emotions with the same seamlessness and beauty. Definitely among my top 5 of all time.
Criterion‘s film notes tell us that the film’s artful spareness is in good part due to Franco-era censorship (the film was made in 1940, the year after Franco took power). There were more overt political references in an earlier version, as well as a reflective voiceover from an adult Ana. I am no proponent of censorship; but as a teacher, I feel affirmed in my imposition of parameters and limitations on students (word counts, prompts, etc) as they work on craft; so often we see that Less is More.
23 February 2012
Suppose that the world’s author put the case to you before creation, saying: “I am going to make a world not certan to be saved, a world the perfection of which shall be conditional merely, the condition being that each several agent does its own “level best.” I offer you the chance of taking part in such a world. Its safety, you see, is unwarranted. It is a real adventure, with real danger, yet it may win through. It is a social scheme of co-operative work genuinely to be done. Will you join the procession? Will you trust yourself and trust the other agents enough to face the risk?
Should you in all seriousness, if participation in such a world were proposed to you, feel bound to reject it as not safe enough? [...]
In the end it is our faith and not our logic that decides such questions, and I deny the right of any pretended logic to veto my own faith. I find myself willing to take the universe to be really dangerous and adventurous, without therefore backing out and crying ‘no play.’ I am willing to think that the prodigal-son attitude, open to us as it is in many vicissitudes, is not the right and final attitude towards the whole of life. I am willing that there should be real losses and real losers, and no total preservation of all that is. I can believe in the ideal as an ultimate, not as an origin, and as an extract, not the whole. When the cup is poured off, the dregs are left behind for ever, but the possibility of what is poured off is sweet enough to accept.
-from “Pragmatism and Religion”
12 November 2011
Teaching has forced me to re-read a number of books and stories – not just twice, but three and four times. It’s a fortunate convergence of necessity and pleasure. I suppose the re-reading experience depends highly upon what sort of reader you are the first time around: I consider myself a pretty close, slow reader (as opposed to a skimmer or page-turner), and yet still, re-reading is invariably rewarding and illuminating. That sounds cliche and predictable, like saying you’ll feel better if you exercise and eat vegetables, but both are still profoundly true. As a writer, re-reading almost always yields a richer reading experience; I find my admiration for the author deepens as the layers and textures reveal themselves. Wow, I missed that and that the first time around. Only occasionally does a book not hold up upon re-reading — which of course makes sense, i.e. we tend to select our re-reads carefully.
I do find it surprising that the further along I am in my reading and writing life (in my life in general is I guess what I ultimately mean), the more open and generous I seem to be as a reader; which is to say that — within a subset of recognized published books — I go in as a student of writing who wants to learn from what other writers are doing and trying (the varying levels of success all equally instructive), and as a person who wants to meet interesting, complex characters who feel, for those x-hundred pages, like real human beings to me. On the one hand, it’s not much to ask; on the other, if you think about it, and if you’re working at writing yourself, it’s a whole lot.
Is it a “luxury” or an “indulgence” to re-read? Not an easy question in an era of economic recession, multitasking, and information overload; but the question feels related to that of whether art itself is an indulgent luxury.
My previous thoughts on re-reading here.
14 October 2011
A convergence of things: reading/teaching Susan Choi‘s American Woman, watching Sidney Lumet‘s Running on Empty, listening to Ben Marcus read Kazuo Ishiguro‘s “A Village After Dark” on the New Yorker podcast. The title of this post is taken from the Ishiguro story, a dream-surrealist sort of story where a man revisits his past, is reminded of the (unspecified) activism of his youth, and confronts those whom he harmed or disregarded in those days.
Both Choi and Lumet also look at youthful activism – that is, an activism that embraced violence (in the 60s). The characters look back on what they did, who they were, how they justified their actions; consider whether they stand by their acts of “conscientious violence.” They consider, in short, whether they can be held accountable for what they did when they were very young.
Most of us haven’t planted bombs, but maybe we’ve naively or unknowingly – like Ishiguro’s Fletcher – ruined people’s lives. It’s a bit terrifying to think about how earnestly we move through each day, each season of our lives, deciding and acting (and not acting) and intuiting. I suppose that’s why it makes for such good literary/cinematic material…
8 October 2011
This is one of those long-form pieces accessible online that I think is worth your while. At Triquarterly, poet Michael Anania describes the sometimes-absurd ways in which academic institutions attempt to assess the “value” of a potential faculty member’s publications, based on who is publishing their work and how:
At one absurdly comic point, an administrator at my own university drew up a long list of literary magazines and presses which he sent out to people he thought of as experts in the field. He asked that they review the list and assign numerical values to each of the magazines and presses based on literary merit and stature. His plan was to multiply the number of poems, stories, lines or words—I was never quite sure which—by the “quality rating number,” then add the results and get a number that would represent the writer’s achievement. The plan was never put into effect because the chosen experts, those, at least, who didn’t simply laugh and throw his letter and list in the trash, sent their letters and lists to me, either as a not-so-gentle jab at my department or with the presumably flattering suggestion that I would be the person most qualified to assign the ratings.
Anania focuses on the perspective of academic hiring committees, and on scholarly and poetry publishing, but I think his discussion here pertains to an “at-large” view on a writer’s “value” and “success” as well:
Fiction that makes its way into quality paperbacks or Penguin paperbacks can retain its commercially conferred value, while fiction that moves into mass-market paperback tends to lose value. In this strange form of what might otherwise be called thought, some commerce is good but too much commerce is bad or at least less good. Lingering here is the notion that the more commercial something looks, the more valuable it is, unless that look is wholly commercial and thus lowbrow, all of which is more than a bit distressing since universities are supposedly places where ideas of value are hashed out independent of corporate influence [...]
In regards to the publication of scholarly monographs, i.e. the economic evolution in this area of publishing:
The question is: are these drab, expensive monographs less good than their fancied-up predecessors? And now that scholarly, as well as literary, publishing is moving to electronic, rather than paper, media, will it be less valuable? Less tenurable? [...]
(The word “tenurable” here is, I think, rather brilliant and somewhat chilling.)
Anania also celebrates the excellence of small indie presses and debunks the notion that small and nimble means of lesser merit or value.
The increase in the numbers and variety of poets writing and publishing has been met by an increase in the number of small poetry presses. This essentially positive literary development creates new areas for the kinds of misunderstanding that are generated in tenure and promotions committees. Is a press with a name that is unfamiliar to committee members or located far away from Manhattan respectable? That is to say, does it represent a judgment a committee can rely on? Does it represent any editorial judgment at all? [...]
Here are some of the tangles you get into if you confuse commercial publishing with literary value. For years Marvin Bell had Atheneum as his publisher. He changed to Copper Canyon, a non-profit small press. Did his value as a poet decrease? Charles Wright went from Wesleyan, where he published for twenty years, to Farrar Straus, so presumably he became a better, more consequential poet [...] Lucille Clifton went from Random House to BOA. A similar decline? Gwendolyn Brooks left her New York publishers for Broadside in Detroit, though with that change her career seems to have soared [...] (Anania goes on in this vein to cite many other poets whose publishing trajectories have shifted with the times, nimbly, and for the ultimate good/value of the poet’s career.)
In regards to the flux-y moment we are in, where we can’t quite decide if print is still at the peak of the prestige pyramid, Anania writes:
To choose one combination of technical adaptations over another as having a lock on literary value is simply silly.
And finally — here, here:
One last thing—and it’s the darkest recess of the “publisher” question. There is, if only implicitly, an invasion of academic and aesthetic freedom involved here. Large, commercial publishers and glossy magazines do not necessarily represent higher judgments of literary merit. In the short term, they might offer access to larger audiences. What they do represent—you could argue “enforce”—is a fairly limited set of social and aesthetic choices. Saying that you should publish in the New Yorker is not merely a wish for greater success for you but an insistence that you become a different kind of poet, that you change your subject matter, your poetics, and your voice in order to find a shiny place among the hotel and jewelry ads. Saying that you should publish with Knopf has the same effect. I would be happy if on your own terms you were swooped up by either or both, but not if you tried to remodel yourself and your work to suit what you imagine they want.
I myself get excited about more indie presses popping up; smart and creative folks reclaiming literary publishing as a vocation, a passion, a deep commitment to the life of each book that is acquired and launched into a reading world that truly needs these books. Every business must survive, yes; and I hope all the new small presses sit down and study the economics of the thing and consider how everyone can make a decent living in the long run, how each project has the potential for profit and growth. I also hope that perceptions and judgments about literary value and success evolve in stride.
7 July 2011
Thank goodness for the university library.
I was surprised how difficult it is to find the Thomas Carlyle translation of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister. I’m also surprised the library is allowing this copy out for circulation, given its tattered-binding condition, though it does come with a handy book protector/case:
Penelope Fitzgerald‘s The Blue Flower has me down the path of must-read German romanticism. (It is apparently also not easy to track down a good translation of Novalis’s Hymns to the Night.)