27 November 2012
The past couple of weeks has been quite the whirlwind. The launch of Bloom has been wonderful—lots of enthusiasm and support, not to mention some choice press from the New Yorker, the LA Times, Flavorwire, and The Atlantic (coming soon: a bloggy thing on Bloom at the HuffPo). Today I got a mini-orientation to the wonders of Twitter; which I sort of get, in theory, but only superficially at this point. At any rate, Bloom is at this point something between a magazine and a community, and it’s that community part that needs to engage at both Facebook and Twitter; and if you know me/have been reading my blog, you know that I’m, uh, not the best person to make that happen. But we’ll figure it out.
All this to say that with editorial plates spinning, a novel in-progress, teaching, continuing to write for The Millions, and basic life-care; writing here with any regularity is The Thing That Has to Go. I’ll be signing off for a little while; but I’ll be back. In some form or another. Things have a way of continuing, even as they cease…
(p.s. I’ll keep up my Reading List page, mostly for my own visual record.)
5 November 2012
It was Annie Dillard’s A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek that made me want to be writer. I mentioned this recently to a friend who studied with her at Wesleyan, and he confirmed two things I’ve often heard about her: she was a chain smoker most of her life, and she’s a generous person.
Revisiting The Maytrees, her last novel—”last” by Dillard’s own account, i.e. in an interview she said she was done with writing—I am reminded of what strikes me, again and again, about her writing: intelligence, humor, strangeness:
She was twenty-three. She could not imagine that a brave man could shrink from risking one woman’s refusal. She wanted only a lifelong look at his face and his long-legged, shambly self, broken by intervals of kissing. After a while she might even, between kisses, look into his eyes. No time soon.
The Maytrees is a beautiful story, well told. What a privilege to read it again.
26 October 2012
In his review of Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Dream of the Celt, John Banville writes:
The Dream of the Celt is, like its subject, stout-hearted, well-intentioned, tender, and somewhat naive. It is not in any real sense a novel, but is, rather, a biography overlaid with a light wash of novelistic speculation. It is an exoskeletal work, in that it wears its research on the outside. The author has read widely and diligently on his subject, but the material gathered, instead of being absorbed organically into the narrative, is presented to the reader in the form of raw data. The forays that Vargas Llosa makes into Casement’s thoughts and dreams, although warmly sympathetic, are less than inspired. The novelist has fallen in love with his subject, which is admirable, but his amatory approach does not help the novel.
Vargas Llosa would have done well to remember Henry James’s repeated injunction to himself in his notebooks: “Dramatize! Dramatize!” Yet Casement’s story is so absorbing, and the background against which it unfolds is so fascinating, that the reader will be swept along regardless of the novel’s flaws as a work of fiction. In The Dream of the Celt, for all its shortcomings, Mario Vargas Llosa has done an inestimable service to the memory of a great man.
I found this to be a strange conclusion to a review of a novel; Banville seems to forgive Llosa for writing an underwhelming novel, because he has delivered to us compelling historical information.
I was thinking about this in relation to ARGO, which I saw last week. I enjoyed it, I recommend it; but I was also left thinking that the film could have been so much better. The material was fascinating, and dramatic; the film delivered the action but gave us, I thought, very little character. Since it was conceived as a narrative feature, not a documentary, I wanted to see artistry and history working together to create for the viewer an experience. It sort of did that, but not fully.
I guess what I’m feeling is: if you’re going to work with the dramatic forms — narrative film, novels — then do it! Your material alone won’t carry you. A great concept is just half the hog.
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.
29 September 2012
I loved this piece by Michael Chabon in the NYRB on dreams—real and literary. I think a lot about dreams, my own and those of my fictional characters. And I love writing dreams; which is why I’m not sure I agree with Chabon in the end:
Worse still than real dreams, mine or yours—sandier mouthfuls, ranker lies—are the dreams of characters in books and movies. Nobody, not even Aunt Em, wants to hear about Dorothy’s dream when she wakes up at the end of The Wizard of Oz. As outright fantasy the journey to Oz is peerless, joyous, muscular with truth; to call it a dream (a low trick Baum never stooped to) is to demean it, to deny it, to lie; because nobody has dreams like that [...]
If art is a mirror, dreams are the back of the head. A work of art derives its effects from light, sound, and movement, but dreams unfurl in darkness, silence, paralysis. Like a recipe attempted in an ill-provisioned kitchen, “dreamlike” art relies on substitutions: dutch angles, forced perspective, absurdist juxtapositions, arbitrary transformations, and, as Peter Dinklage’s character points out in the film Living in Oblivion, a lamentable superabundance of dwarfs. Dreams in art either make sense, or they make no sense at all, but they never manage to do both at the same time, the way dreams do while we’re dreaming them. (my emphasis)
21 September 2012
Following is from Sue Halpern, editor of NYRB’s new ebook series. I am actually breathing a sigh of relief. The anxiety of being one these writers “whose first books had been critical successes [but] were unable to find publishers for their second” hovers; but it’s going to be okay. NYRB is publishing these writers, whose books are “loved” by editors who can’t publish them.
A few years ago, around the time I was writing a piece for The New York Review of Booksabout digital reading devices, I ran into a novelist who mentioned that many of his friends whose first books had been critical successes were unable to find publishers for their second. The economics of traditional publishing, he pointed out, did not favor non-commercial books, and when you added in the threat that digital technology posed to bookstores, the end result would be an ever-shrinking market for serious literary books.
The Water Theatre
by Lindsay Clarke
As a writer myself—my sixth book will be published next spring—I was sensitive to the novelist’s lament. I love books—not just their words, but their feel and smell and look; cracking the spine of a paperback is one of life’s great guilty pleasures. But to my surprise, I was finding in my hands-on research for The New York Review that a good story transcends its medium: I could get just as lost in an e-book as I could in a book bound between hard covers. By using the less-expensive e-book platform to introduce readers to writers they would not otherwise encounter, the digital “revolution,” as it was being called, could be harnessed to promote literary culture rather than undermine it.
What better place to launch this venture than New York Review Books, which was already leading discerning readers to great and often forgotten classics of literature? But unlike the NYRB Classics series, these books would be by contemporary authors, writers of depth and insight whose work was being bypassed by traditional American publishing because the economics did not favor them. If any audience would be receptive, I reasoned, it would be the adventurous NYRB crowd.
Sometime later I was sitting in the office of an editor at one of the Big Six publishing houses, a man of exquisite literary taste who had been in the business a long time, explaining the premise of this new venture, which we had named NYRB Lit. I was nervous—did he think it was nutty or misdirected or a waste of time? He turned away for a moment and reached for a pile of papers on his desk. “I love this book,” he said handing it to me, “but we are not going to be able to publish it here.” That word, “love,” is what animates how I want each book to come to me. I am looking for books that someone—an editor, an agent, a writer, a reader—is passionate about, a book that he or she believes must be read.
The Water Theatre, the book that was given to me that day, is now the inaugural book in the NYRB Lit series. Written by Lindsay Clarke…
This is kind of the best news I’ve heard in a while.