Yesterday, I reviewed TOUCH
, Alexi Zentner’s
remarkable new novel on this blog
. The other day, I interviewed Zentner via email. His responses were fantastic, especially on the question of balancing realistic and fabulistic impulses. Magical elements, he says, can sometimes be a cop-out or crutch that prevents writers from delving deeper into the more human elements of their stories. I’ve been thinking a lot about this over the last couple of days.
So, without any further ado, here’s that interview: New writers often are told that they should “love their characters.” I see a tremendous amount of love lavished on just about all the characters in your novel, yet tragedy falls so many of them. Was it hard as a writer to write those tragedies?
I always love my characters. I know that there are some writers and readers who like to have dislikable characters, but I think that runs counter to who I am as a person. Another writer (one of my best friends) told me recently that I always expect people to be good and generous and kind, and end up disappointed more than she is, because she never has that expectation.
That being said, I think most of the people I write about are fundamentally flawed in one or multiple ways, and they have to be in order to be complicated, interesting characters. I had a story where the protagonist cheats on his wife—with her sister—while she's serving in Iraq, but I also think that readers feel sympathetic to him. I did.
In TOUCH, however, because it's narrated by Stephen, who was a child when so much of this happened, and because there is so much myth and memory wrapped around the novel, there is a certain luminous glow conferred by his own love towards his mother, his father, his grandfather, and I can't figure out if that came from me loving the characters, or if my love for the characters came from their love for each other.
But is it hard to write about their tragedies? No. It sounds cold, but no, as a writer, it's not hard to write about their tragedies because I never considered another alternative. There are plenty of families in Sawgamet that had lives filled with less sorrow, but they were also filled with less joy and wonder. Were you ever worried about straying too far into folklore & fable? As I said, I loved the realistic human drama. Despite all the Ijirait, Qallupilluit, and Mahaha creatures that terrorize the characters, TOUCH could never be described as a fantasy novel. How did you manage to balance fantasy & realism so well?
I think the heart of the story—in any story, really—is the interaction between characters, human dynamics, and I was concerned that by having these elements of myth and magic, the other stories might be overshadowed. The flipside can also be true, however. I've read enough stories and books where it felt like the author didn't really know how to end the story and just sort of said, "Well, maybe I'll throw in something sort of spectacular and magic, and that will work."
It's really important to make the magic, the myth, the supernatural, whatever it is, be worked cleanly into the story so that the reader accepts it as part of the world - as do the characters in the novel - without it feeling like a jarring change of pace. One of the things I've tried to do is weave the story in TOUCH with these myths so that the myths and magic are treated with the weight of reality, becoming an ongoing part of the characters' lives as opposed to single, solitary parlor tricks that are sprinkled through without purpose other than to raise amazement. Although, of course, I also hope to raise amazement.
I should say, by the way, that I think there are a number of authors—my contemporaries—who are doing this, who are writing work that I'd call mythical realism, who are reworking the "rules" of magic and literature, even if they aren't calling it as such. Ultimately though, while I’ve had a lot of people tell me how certain pieces of myth, of magic, certain images from the book have really stayed with them, I think that it’s really the people in stories that are the most magical, that without them, all you really end up with is a little sleight of hand. It's not that hard to write something that's beautiful on the surface if you don't mind it being emotional empty.
For me, the balance comes at least partially from your question about loving my characters: I do love the characters and the people around them, and while Sawgamet is place full of myths and legends and monsters and witches, first and foremost, it's a home for Stephen, for Jeannot, for their families. The novel is steeped in Inuit folklore. Might you briefly explain what you find most fascinating in these Inuit legends?
Touch has been compared to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE, but I don’t think what I’m writing is really magical realism. As much as I admire Gabriel Garcia Marquez—reading his work was one of those moments in my life as a reader that changed everything—and other writers of magical realism, I've been using the term mythical realism because I am, I hope, doing something new and different.
It might seem like I'm parsing a term, but the forms of magical realism—whether the central and south American versions or the European versions—are rooted firmly in their own place and traditions, and I think that taking those frameworks and just mapping them over our own landscape is problematic.
When you do that, you end up with a palimpsest, where the ghostly traces of what you have borrowed always show through your own writing. You can create terrific work that way, but I was born and raised in Canada by American parents, and I've lived in the USA since college, so my own history dictates that I take a sort of oblique angle in terms of the way I look at my own cultures: by reworking national mythologies, I am, I hope, creating new work.
The Inuit mythology is interesting to me because it's something that was rattling around the edges of the storytelling that I was aware of, and while I've always been fascinated by myth—I remember reading Greek and Roman and Norse myths over and over again as a child—I wanted to work with something that was both sort of familiar and brand new at the same time. Of course, some of it was simply dictated by the place and the time: it is set in northern Canada.
As a side note, in an early draft, I used the term Inuit instead of Indian or Eskimo, and had some strong reactions from readers who thought it read like I was trying to clean up the language. That was amusing to me since Inuit was in use at the time the novel was set (1870-1940's), but I thought it was a valid point: the word, “Inuit,” read wrong. I’m a big J. Robert Lennon fan, who teaches a “Reading for Writers: Weird Stories” class at Cornell where you earned your MFA. I’ve seen his 2007 syllabus, and the reading list was incredible— Kelly Link, Stanislaw Lem, Lynne Tillman, Stephen Dixon, Donald Barthelme, George Saunders and many other fantastic writers. Did you take his class? If so, did the course influence your approach to TOUCH?
I did take the weird stories class, but I don't think it influenced my approach to TOUCH. I actually started working on TOUCH before I even applied to graduate school—a good chunk of the first chapter was actually one of my application pieces for graduate school.
The weird stories class was really interesting, though I'd say that there were probably a bunch of works that I didn't actually like. One of the problems with experimental fiction is that, because you are experimenting, it tends to fail more often than not, which is not a problem, but I felt like some of the authors that we read privileged being weird over being good. Sort of like there would be a story where it was brilliant and amazing and there'd be a point where—at least to me—it seemed like some obvious choices could be made—the character should die or get married or whatever—and the author would instead just decide to throw in a magic talking octopus, because that would be different.
One of my favorite books by John is PIECES FOR THE LEFT HAND, and one of the things I like about it is that although the book could conceivable fall under that "weird stories" rubric—it’s about a hundred two page stories—they all stand and work on their own as stories.
The men floated the logs early, in September, a chain of headless trees jamming the river as far as I and the other children could see. My father, the foreman, stood at the top of the chute hollering at the men and shaking his mangled hand, urging them on. “That’s money in the water, boys,” he yelled, “push on, push on.” I was ten that summer, and remember him as a giant.
So begins Touch
, Alexi Zentner’s
remarkable first novel about the settlement of a Sawgamet, a town in the Canadian Northwest. I was hooked from the opening paragraph.
Jeannot, the novel’s focal character, discovers gold in the belly of a fish when he is seventeen years old and trekking through the woods alone with his dog. This takes place in 1869. He digs up another nugget: this one, the size of a dinner roll, weighs ten pounds. When word of his find spreads, people flock to the area, all of them hoping to stake claim on a fortune. Seemingly overnight, Sawgamet emerges as fully-formed boomtown with brothels, saloons and price-gouging merchants selling potatoes for eight dollars a pound.
The gold boom slowly turns to bust. Jeannot co-founds a lumber mill to take advantage of the timber in the surrounding woods. Lumberjacking is hard work; danger is ever present. Men I knew had been killed by falling trees, had bled to death when a dull ax bounced off a log and into their leg, had been crushed when logs rolled off carts, had drowned in the river during a float. Every year a man came back dead or maimed.
Sixty years after Jeannot first discovered gold, his grandson, Stephen, an Anglican priest, returns to Sawgamet on a church assignment. He arrives days before his mother dies, and it is through his narration that we meet Jeannot and the other finely drawn characters that populate this novel.
At its heart, Touch
is a gripping multi-generational family drama chronicling the loves, struggles, and tragedies that befall Sawgamet’s inhabitants. The ice on the river cracks while Marie, Stephen’s sister, is skating, claiming her. His father makes a desperate attempt to save her, and also perishes. Weeks later, their bodies are discovered in the frozen river: [A family friend] led us to the river, helping my mother down the snow-crusted steps cut into the hill next to the log chute, holding her arm as we walked across the ice to a small circle of men. The ice was smooth and clean after a month of scouring from the wind. The hands were not touching. Even through the place of frozen water covering them, we saw clearly that little more than the width of an ax blade separated my father’s two hands from my sister’s one. His mangled fingers on one hand, the smooth, alabaster fingers on the other hand, all stretched towards Marie’s small hand. The ice, like glass above their hands, thickened as we tried to look further out, to see the rest of their bodies and their faces.
As wrenching as moments like this are, the novel abounds in tender, human moments. Zentner is a writer who clearly loves his characters. Not only does he understand their sorrows, he revels in their joys.
Martine, the sister of Jeannot’s store-keeping business partner, Franklin, falls in love with Jeannot. She enlists Franklin’s help in arranging marriage. Finally, after a while, she locked the store and went back to the small cabin, where her brother slept with a wet cloth on his forehead. She woke him gently, and when he sat up, she said, “I think I’m ready to be married.” Franklin stared at her then held out his hand to reclaim the wet cloth. He lay back down and closed his eyes. “There’s a needle pushing into my head. Something sharp and burning.” “Yes,” [Martine] said, “that’s what it feels like. Will you talk to him?”
Stephen’s narration, Zentner’s crisp crystalline prose, and the novel’s ease of storytelling reminded me often of Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead
. When I mentioned this to Zentner in an email, he responded, “It's funny you mention Gilead
. Though I think the books are obviously dissimilar in many ways, I'd count Robinson—and Gilead
—in particular as an influence.”
Zentner’s Stephen, although also a man of the cloth, is not as prone to contextualizing the world through scripture like John Ames, the narrator of Robinson’s Gilead
. Both narrators provide considered, tonally equivalent reflections.
The most obvious difference however between the novels is Zentner’s use of mythology. Inuit folklore imbues Touch
with the kind of animating force that Robinson found chiefly through theological frictions. The surrounding woods are haunted by qallupilluit sea-witches and other baleful creatures of Inuit legend. Some, like the dim-witted mahaha who seek to tickle people to death, are funny but most of these monsters smell of spoiled meat. Perdition is their intention. They drag people to meet their demise in the bottoms of icy rivers, and cause them to lose their way home during blizzards.
Other fantastical moments occur. A snowstorm dumps thirty feet of snow on Sawgamet, providing some of the novel’s most compelling passages. Jeannot and Martine encounter a golden caribou. They track the animal through the forest, where it leads them to a boulder of solid gold.
As the novel deepens, readers gain the sense that almost anything can happen. Zentner plays with these heightened expectations for the fantastical, at times reminding readers that what at first glance appears to be fantastic can have real-world explanations.
Paddling downriver in a canoe with Martine during a snowstorm, an exhausted Jeannot thinks he has died. He sees angels all around their canoe. The muffled light began to fall away into darkness and the wind settled. Jeannot stopped paddling, letting the canoe drift through the clouds and curtains of snow… Each angel they passed seemed like it was dancing methodically, reaching down and then up, pushing and pulling, or swinging its arms in gentle circles. He could see such a short distance ahead of him, and the current caused the canoe to pass each angel so swiftly, that Jeannot was unable to make out more than a little detail: the way the angels’ robes seemed like they were made from snow, a lack of wings or halos, a preponderance of beards. It was only when the voices came through his wind-touched ears that Jeannot realized he was not seeing angels, but rather miners in rubber boots standing in the river, panning for gold despite the onset of snow.
Perhaps Zentner’s biggest accomplishment is that he never allows fantastical elements to overwhelm the human emotions and family relationships that he writes about. Even with the scary monsters and uncanny happenings, I’d still classify Touch as a realistic novel. Characters, rather than legends, are what fascinate Zentner—and this novel will continue to fascinate me for a long time.
Check out this blog again tomorrow—I’ll be posting an interview I conducted with Zentner.
George Harrison, January 1969
In January 1969, the Beatles gathered to rehearse material for what would eventually become their last released album, LET IT BE. A film of the same name documented these rehearsals, and although it might sound exciting--The Beatles rehearsing new songs!
—the movie is dreadful.
As the sessions start, the new material (including hits like “Get Back,” “Let It Be,” and “The Long and Winding Road”) is in very rough shape. Many of the filmed performances are, at best, rudimentary. In one excruciatingly painful sequence, Paul McCartney calls out the chord changes to his band mates as they slog through
perhaps their first pass at “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.”
To say the band lacked enthusiasm would be an understatement.
I’ve seen the film several times and have listened to countless hours of bootleg audio recordings from these sessions. Last night, watching it again, I was struck by how incredibly brave it was for the band to reveal their collaborative process. At times, the band appears disinterested in each other’s songs. During one heated moment
, Paul McCartney rejects George Harrison’s suggestions for the lead guitar part on “Two of Us.” The brow-beaten Harrison ends up telling the domineering McCartney that he’ll play Paul’s songs however Paul damn well wants them to be played.
Although not depicted in the film, Harrison briefly quit the band during these sessions. Upon hearing Harrison’s announcement, John Lennon immediately suggested that Eric Clapton become his replacement.
Still, there are brighter moments, including this bit documenting the creation of “Octopus’s Garden.”
Ringo Starr (piano), Harrison (guitar), and Lennon (drums) goof around with the nascent song, which was ostensibly written by Starr. Harrison takes over at the piano to provide ideas on how the song might be developed— lending the kind of generous suggestions that McCartney probably would not have countenanced.
Literary collaborations are far less common than musical collaborations, yet they can be just as messy. A few years ago, Julianna Baggott and Steve Almond wrote an epistolary novel together, WHICH BRINGS ME TO YOU
Almond, in a Poets & Writers interview
, said that “the collaborative process was more than we had banked on. As in: a lot more.”
He and Baggott argued a lot. Neither were particularly careful about each other’s feelings. Although they ended up with a published novel, the subtext of this article (and Baggott’s interviews) makes me wonder if it was worth it. What had been a friendship seems to have fractured.
Collaborations have been much on my mind lately. Earlier this year, “The Boy and The Palm Reader
,” a story I wrote with Jenniey Tallman
was published in The Collagist. As we said in an interview
, the process was phenomenal. We had none of the arguments that Almond & Baggott experienced, and—to the best of my knowledge—neither of us sought to have the other replaced by Eric Clapton.
Last week, another friend asked me to help write some poems with him. I’m very much looking forward to the process. Mind you, I’ve yet to send over my revision suggestions, which is when conflicts might arise. He’s a far better poet than me and it’s possible that all my eventual suggestions will be rejected. Still, I’m looking forward to seeing something gel together that neither of us could have created if left to our devices.
Lately, I’ve been searching for good pieces of collaborative literature. Here’s “Bone Letters,”
by Nicelle Davis and Peter Schwartz. And here’s “360,”
a poem written by Kevin McLellan and Steven DeMaio.
“The Fan Dancers,”
written by Molly Gaudry and Lily Hoang, is one of the best collaborative pieces I’ve read. At times sparse, at times lush, this amalgamation of poetry and prose startles. The jarring styles and images are nothing short of magical.
Although Gaudry and Hoang touched on their collaborative process in their PANK interview
, I asked them a few more questions via email and they were gracious to respond Why collaborate? Two heads are better than one? Or because Molly’s head is better than Lily’s, or Lily’s head is better than Molly’s, or because Lily has always wanted to be one half of a conjoined twin and it matters not what Molly wants. What are the risks in collaboration? One head might not like what the other head is doing. One head might move at a slower pace than the other head. One head might be brilliant and the other head might feel like a slug. The head that feels like a slug inevitably discharges liquid, which is gross and smells terrible, but these are the risks the brilliant head must out-maneuver. Why are there so few collaborative pieces? Oh, no. I think the definition of collaboration is too strict here. A book is a collaboration between the author, the publisher, the editor, the designer, and the list goes on. Movies are collaborations; theatre performances are collaborations; orchestral symphonies are collaborations. But if we’re talking about literature, about two or more authors coming together to make words, then I imagine the possible reasons are those that were mentioned above, in the answer to the “risks” question. Writers like to believe in originality, genius, self-aggrandized brilliance, all of which lead to depression. Better to collaborate and be happy, if you ask me.
Guadry and Hoang’s playful answers made me laugh.
Look again at that “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” video. I defy you to tell me that those four slugs (five, if you count roadie Mal Evans, who’s pounding the anvil) aren’t discharging something gross and terrible.
I also totally get what Guadry and Hoang say about writers clinging to the belief of “originality, genius, [and] self-aggrandized brilliance.” While we all hope to claim those traits, they trap us, making us resistant to the influence of others. To enter into collaboration can be a de facto
admission that, well, maybe we need
to latch onto another writer’s brilliance.
During those January 1969 rehearsals (though sadly not included in the LET IT BE FILM), George Harrison introduced his song, “Something,” to the other Beatles. Harrison was clearly influenced by James Taylor’s “Something in the Way She Moves,”
which was released the previous year by The Beatles’ Apple Records.
Harrison’s song was far from complete during these rehearsals. Though the melody is fully formed, the opening lyrics were “Something in the way she moves / attracts me like a pomegranate.”
As ugly as some of the placeholder lyrics were, there’s a beautiful recording of his rehearsal that’s partially embedded in this video
. What makes the recording beautiful is the loving care in which John Lennon is trying to help George write the song. Neither of these great songwriters are clinging to ideas of originality or self-aggrandizing brilliance. It’s nothing short of spectacular.
I wrote a friend earlier, confessing that I hoped for some good news to come out of Japan if only to reduce the urgency with which I feel compelled to refresh my browsers, which are set to a half-dozen news sites around the globe (NHK, Kyodo News Agency, The Guardian, BBC, WashPost, and NY Times).
Weeks like these make me hate the internet. In times of catastrophe and tumult, I can’t control myself from gobbling up all the information I can locate. Which is silly, because it’s not as if me learning about the current water levels of the spent nuclear fuel pools at reactor #3 that will help douse the radiation pulsing from those pools. None of this information helps ease my anxiety. I’m way behind on the work I had planned this week and I’ve lost track of the issues that I’d been most concerned about, like the anti-labor activities in Wisconsin.
I told my friend I was going to enforce a “moratorium” on myself. For five hours, I would close my browsers and finish the first draft of a short story that I started late last week.
Yet when I wrote this email, the word “moratorium” jumped out at me, bringing to mind “mortuary” and other such connotations. The word seemed downright cold-hearted. I felt guilty, as if my selfish desire to carve out time to complete a short story (God, does anyone even read those things anymore?) by turning my back on the news coming out of Japan might somehow foredoom the Japanese nation.
Which is silly, but silly notions are apparently all I’m capable of clinging onto nowadays.
Luckily, etymology came to my rescue. The words are entirely unrelated.
“Moratorium,” which is now the 16th most popular look-up on Merriam-Webster.com (rising sharply over the last seven days), is derived from the Latin word morari, meaning “to delay.” It’s also derived from the Latin morātōrius, meaning “to delay payment.”
“Mortuary” owes its derivation to a different set of root words: the Latin mortuus (“dead”) and the Late Latin mortuārius (“burial”).
This made me feel better. Or at least helped me to believe that I wasn’t being cold-hearted as I go to wrap up my short story. I’m still hopeful for some good news to come out of Japan though. My attention may be elsewhere today, but my heart’s still in the right place.
Like everyone else, I've been absolutely and frightfully absorbed all weekend by the news coming out of Japan. It's just horrible, the images and news. Here's a few paragraphs in today's New York Times
about the ongoing search and rescue mission:
"On Monday, across the field of black mud that used to be Natori, brightly clad searchers bent to their work — the police in navy blue, the handlers of sniffer dogs in orange, the military squads in digital camouflage.
"They made their way around marooned boats and collapsed houses, finding toys, torn bedding, tangled fishing nets, broken toilets, pieces of cars, pieces of pottery, all the mundane pieces of daily life, now broken. A wheelchair. A rubber ball.
"Occasionally, too, they found a body, sometimes already covered by a futon or a tarp.
"Off in the distance, a small cluster of buildings stood erect and undamaged on the sad expanse of the mud flats. Outlined against the afternoon sky, they seemed like tombstones."
Last night, just before the kids went to bed, we watched this video together. I hadn't seen it before but it came highly recommended. I just thought it was important for the kids to have some sense of what was happening at the other end of the world. Most of the weekend, Sebastian's been watching college basketball on tv. Like everyone in the Blacksburg area, we was bummed out that Virginia Tech was not selected for the NCAA Tournament. He was combing through their schedule, trying to figure out how many more games they would have needed to win to make the tournament.
Then the whole family crowded around my laptop. We watched the video. It depicts a fairly large town (city?) being absolutely washed away by the tsunami. We were absolutely stunned. Within six minutes, the town is destroyed. If I hadn't seen it for myself, I wouldn't have thought it possible. We all believed that disasters of biblical proportions just don't happen anymore.
Evelyn Somers, The Missouri Review
’s assistant editor, put up an interesting blog post
recently about that magazine’s current editorial preferences.
I’ve got great respect for TMR: along with New Letters
, it was the first journal I ever subscribed to—and I still maintain that subscription. Their stories consistently have some of the most elegant and compelling first sentences around. One story from their fall issue, Susan Ford’s “Of Questionable Provenance,” caused me to totally rethink my ongoing approach to realism, which I’ll probably blog about next week.
Somers mentioned a few things that mirror the impressions I posted
the other day, namely that quirky or absurd stories often lack emotional impact. She also upholds that characters which readers find familiar are more likely to engage reader sympathies:
“Readers respond to characters based on their own individual experience, so this is partly a matter of familiarity and opinions.”
[Which, I guess, is another way of saying: “Readers are not apt to emotionally identify with deformed characters.”]
I’m particularly curious about something else that Somers mentions:
“Finally, several pieces [we rejected] were imitating current or recent trends or writers: one in collective voice, one with footnotes that made up quite a bit of the story.”
I’m an editor at two magazines (Keyhole
and FutureCycle Flash
), so I read a fair amount o’ slush. TMR is older and more esteemed, so it probably draws submissions from a larger and perhaps entirely different body of writers, but those trends have yet to bubble down to us.
Occasionally I see stories which employ techniques that Somers mentioned (I also just read Hannah Pittard’s The Fates Will Find Their Way
, which is built around the collective “we” voice), but those stories aren’t coming to us in disproportionate numbers indicative of a larger “trend.”
In that blog piece, Somers stated that she doesn’t usually see a submission until after it’s been vetted by two or more of her readers. I wonder how this skews the selection of stories she sees. Could it be possible that her junior readers pass up to her a disproportionate amount of footnoted “we” stories?
Either way, her comments about “recent trends” make me curious about how these trends start. Marketplace success of similar material certainly plays a role—people see that boy wizard books are popular, so they rush off to pen Harry Potter
I’d like to think that trends in literary fiction owe something to the collective zeitgeist—that since we’re experiencing the same historical moment and rely on the same cultural makers, similarities in how we approach our material are inevitable. Jargon-laded Business-speak was especially popular for many years. Was that a trend? And has that trend crested?
The “we” voice (which actually seems especially poignant for this particular besieged moment that we now find ourselves in) dates back at least to Our Town
, Thornton Wilder’s 1938 drama. More recently, it was employed with awesome aplomb in Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides.
Eugenides’ novel is 18 years old. Can that be what sparked this resurgence? Or is there some newer model?
Rick Moody (photographed by Seamus Kearney)
The “trend” towards footnotes in short fiction can be carbon-dated back to the 1990s and came about largely because of a technological innovation: PCs and word processing programs. Prior to that, employing footnotes on manual typewriters would have been too laborious a task to enjoy much currency. At its peak, fueled by Rick Moody & David Foster Wallace, it was a powerful force.
Moody, in a wonderful old Powell’s interview
, talked about how much of his work from that era owed its existence to playing around with the typographical and formatting features in early versions of Word.
Responding to a question about the strange formatting and construction of “Wilkie Fahnstock, The Boxed Set," a story from his 2001 Demonology
collection, Moody says, “What happened was that after I wrote The Ice Storm I had a period where I was blocked for a little bit, before I wrote Purple America. I'd just gotten Microsoft Word, which enabled some strange new capabilities, for example italicizing, that I had not had before.
“In The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven, there's an annotated bibliography story called "Primary Sources" - that was the same thing. I figured out how to annotate, which I'd never been able to do before. This was before [David Foster Wallace’s] Infinite Jest, let us say in passing. I also figured out how to do this two-column thing, and I got really interested in What could you do with two columns?”
Returning to the question of trends, I can't extrapolate particular trends from the slush I read. If I did, I’d probably react violently against all stories exhibiting hallmarks of that trend. Reading slush can be tedious. My deepest wish is to be blindsided by something utterly fresh and powerful—which precludes it from being “like” anything else. I imagine other slush readers feel the same; we don’t want to read story after story after blessèd story, all of them self-consciously tarted up in the same trendy technique du jour
So how can trends exist if the moment we become cognizant of them, we stand on guard against them?
Andy Warhol, Heart, c. 1984
Occasionally, people complain that my fiction lacks emotional depth. Something about the way I write pushes at readers, making my work not as “accessible” as some would like. Mostly what I’ve been told is that I lack “heart.”
It’s hard, being told you lack “heart.” The terminology is off. We tend to equate “heart” with “human-ness.” Who wants to be told they lack human-ness?
It’s not like I go out of the way to create narratives and characters that lack emotional resonance. The stories I write come at me organically, incorporating all that I’m thinking about and feeling at a given moment. As whacked-out strange as some can be, they all ring “true” and honest to me.
And yes, I try to craft characters that readers might be able to connect with.
A dear friend tells me that every time she publishes one of her stories, she’s inundated with emails sent by total strangers telling her how much they responded to her words. It’s painful to admit how few times this has happened to me.
Sometimes I worry about myself. It’s maddening. What resonates for me is greeted with indifference by others. I wonder if I experience the world in a fundamentally different way from everyone else—meaning, maybe it’s impossible for me to ever display the kind of heart some readers seek.
Or, as John Lennon sang, "No one I think is in my tree."
Luckily, calmer moments fill most of my days.
I remind myself that emotional resonance and mimetic realism are not foremost on my list of objectives. Instead, I try to engage readers through humor and absurdist elements.
Still, it bothers me: everyone telling me that what they want to see is “heart.”
Shirley Hazzard, in her Believer interview
, said that, “People in power… become unreachable, unless through satire.” Although she doesn’t explain her reasoning, I understand her point.
Realism attempts to create a known world, one in which the reader has already learned to navigate in whole or part through their various belief systems and prejudices. Readers wade into these known worlds, positioning themselves morally and politically exactly as they might in their own “real” worlds.
Satire presents a slightly deformed world. Qualities and beliefs that the writer questions are brought to the foreground and accentuated. In this uncertain, slightly off-balanced world, readers become less sure about their moral and political postures. Ideally, the will to judge (i.e., the employment of belief systems and prejudices) becomes secondary to their desire to explore the satirized world and its ramifications.
Absurdism, which presents an even more deformed world, has the potential to raise deeper questions. While satire may question the particular beliefs of a particular government official on a particular policy, Absurdism questions the legitimacy of socioeconomic, political, and spiritual belief systems.
“Autonomy” from the strictly real, according to Milan Kundera
in The Art of The Novel, “allowed Franz Kafka to say things about our human condition… that no social or political thought could ever tell us.”
While good realistic fiction may prompt readers to question their beliefs by the time they finish a given work, good Absurdist fiction will prompt readers to suspend or question their beliefs in the opening pages.
No one however reads the Absurd for its emotional resonances.
The less recognizable “human” or “real” characters and situations become (i.e., the less familiar they are), the less emotionally invested readers become. Readers are not apt to emotionally identify with deformed characters.
While preparing my earlier post on reviews
, I stumbled upon John Updike’s “rules”
for writing book review. First on his list is, “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.”
It’s debatable, of course, whether a reviewer can rightly know an author’s intentions, but it’s safe to say that not every writer is primarily interested in “heart” (has anyone ever really defined this term?) and emotional resonance.
So why must everything still be judged by ♥?
Following the Nazi invasion and the collapse of the France's Third Republic in July 1940, one of the first acts of the pro-Nazi Vichy government undertook was to junk the national slogan.
Gone was Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.
In its place: Travail, Famille, Patrie
(Work, Family, Nation).
One needn’t perform doctoral work in semantics to understand that the two slogans represented radically different expectations of citizen involvement. Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité
emphasizes freedom and equal rights.
But Travail, Famille, Patrie?
It’s the cynical statement of a government that wishes to treat its subjects as if they were insects—it might work as the governing principle of an ant colony or a beehive, but not in a community that valued free thought and the rights of the individual.
If you add Dieu
to the mix, it also seems like the kind of order that right wingers wish to impose on this country. The Nation
recently published a translation of Stéphane Hessel’s Indignez-Vous!
, marking its first official US publication. Consider buying their March 7 issue or reading it at your local library—for now, at least, it’s available online only to subscribers. Another English translation is available here
, but of the two, I much prefer the one that appears in The Nation
In the time since I first wrote about
Hessel last month, his call for indignation has become especially relevant in this country.
What’s going on in Wisconsin scares me. Plus there’s the wealth gap to consider. Yesterday, Michael Moore wrote
that the nation’s richest 400 people have accumulated more wealth than half of the entire American population. Think of it—wealth has become so concentrated that 400 people have more money than 155 MILLION people.
Moore’s facts have been called into question sometimes—but even if he’s wrong by a factor of ten, the implications are enormous. Recent Supreme Court rulings have allowed wealthy activists to have more influence in elections than ever. Consider that virtually the entire Tea Party movement (i.e., a group of people who like to think of themselves as grassroots populists) was bankrolled by a handful of individuals and you’ll begin to understand the oversized splash that a well-orchestrated cadre of plutocrats can make.
A joke making its way around the internet goes: A public union employee, a tea party activist and a CEO are sitting at a table with a plate of a dozen cookies in the middle of it. The CEO takes 11 of the cookies, turns to the tea partier and says, "Watch out for that union guy. He wants a piece of your cookie."
More than anything I’ve heard, this joke epitomizes the class resentment strategies which the super-wealthy have put in play.
I have faith that things eventually will correct themselves. I mean, I just can’t believe that cynical entreatments to self-declared “populists” will always deliver the results that the plutos desire. Is my faith in my fellow citizens misguided?
In France, where academic freedom is apparently less stable than I imagined, Sarkozy fonctionnairies
have repeatedly prevented Hessel
from speaking to university audiences.
In this country, I’m puzzled that Hessel’s message hasn’t been more rapidly embraced. Then again, here ideas are only embraced during election years.
The steadfastly pro-Israeli The New Republic recently published a scathing article
about Hessel. Their line of attack was rather bizarre. They dislike how Hessel condemns Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. However, on other issues, they charge that he is a damaged messenger because he is silent about the horrors of Darfur, the wars in the Congo, Vladimir Putin’s oligarchical rule, and the behavior of the Chinese communist party.
[Mind you, the entire contents of Indignez-Vous!
were printed in just five pages of The Nation; it was never intended as an encyclopedic catalog of current political atrocities.]
The New Republic also faults Hessel for trying to highjack the spirit of the French Resistance, which they paint as an apolitical movement.
As The New Republic writes, “For what defined the years 1940 to1944 in France was, precisely, the absence of politics: a country under foreign occupation is deprived of the opportunity, and the responsibility, of self-government. This is a source of humiliation and suffering, but it can also, to those brave people who continue to engage in public life, be a source of exhilarating clarity.
I’m not going to equate today’s Űber-rich with yesteryear’s Nazis. As self-interested as they are, they’ve yet to encourage a kristallnacht, erect an Auschwitz, or hurl V-2s willy-nilly at civilian populations.
However, increasingly they’ve taken on the appearance of an occupying political force. They’ve perverted electoral laws, poisoned political debate, and marginalized the influence of average citizens in the political process. Chrystia Freeland writes convincingly
in The Atlantic Monthly that the wealthy no longer see themselves as bound by national laws; they’ve become an international élite.
When the plutocrats are seen as an invasive occupying force, Hessel’s employment of the Resistance legacy is valid—as is his thought that non-violent indignation is the best way to reign in the wealth and power imbalances.
As WWII dragged on, French indignation registered in how citizens satirized the Vichy-imposed slogan. Instead of Travail, Famille, Patrie
, most referred to it as Tracas, Famine, Patrouilles
(Bother, Hunger, Surveillance). Word play and satire (like the joke quoted above about the cookies) does not directly lead to political change, but it can prepare the way.
Odyssey of the Mind
This year, Sebastian, my 9-year-old son, has been participating in his elementary school’s Odyssey of the Mind
team. For those unfamiliar with the program, Odyssey of the Mind is an international educational program designed to spur creativity and problem-solving skills.
For his particular program, he and his six teammates produced a one-act play. Adult input was strictly forbidden, so they were responsible for everything—including writing the script, creating the props, costumes, and stage set. They’ve been working on the production at least once a week since October and the results have been fantastic. Their play was genuinely funny!
The picture above was taken of Sebastian during their dress rehearsal last Friday.
On Saturday, I drove Sebastian to the OM regional competition. Moments before taking the stage, calamity happened: one of the team’s props (a glass fishbowl) broke. Sebastian had two roles in the play—not only did he have an on-stage speaking role, he also provided the “voice” of the fish. If this had happened to me, I probably would have been totally unnerved. Instead, the team hatched an improvisational plan, saving the day.
His team placed third in the OM regional competition—but they also earned a special award for the quick, creative way they overcame this adversity.
I look at Sebastian as something of a super-hero: he’s extremely intelligent, but also creative, funny, sensitive and (most shockingly!) humble. He’s such a loving brother to his two siblings. He’s been playing organized soccer for years, but also plays the cello. He goes to twice-weekly orchestra rehearsals but still plays with toy cars and marbles whenever he’s not inventing some new and super-cool game of his own.
He’s spectacular—but so are all his OM teammates.
OM has been a fantastic experience. Through it, for the first time really, he’s had to work on a long-term project with other people. He’s learned far more than just introductory theater skills—he’s learned to better communicate his thoughts, listen and negotiate, and respect others. Hopefully, these things will stick with him for the rest of his life.
People say that team sports teach children how to get along with others in group situations. However, learning how to execute over-lapping runs on a soccer field or pass the ball to an open teammate just does not compare to the skills one learns when preparing something as complex as a theater production.
Hessel argues that “TO CREATE IS TO RESIST. TO RESIST IS TO CREATE.”
Sebastian and his teammates created their own reality—both offstage and onstage. I’m now starting to think that the world would be a lot better off if we pushed more of our kids into theater camps, and fewer of them into athletics. Addendum
: The photo of the Stéphane Hessel mural at the top of this entry comes from Theirry Ehrmann’s massive installation, Demeure du Chaos
(Abode of Chaos), located outside of Lyon, France. If you have some time, check out Étienne Perrone’s 999
, the 2008 documentary about Ehrmann’s installation.
I read a fair number of book reviews. Besides those in my local paper, The Roanoke Times
, I’ll go online and read The New York Times
and Washington Post
reviews. The New Republic
and The Nation
, two magazines I subscribe to, run excellent long-form reviews.
Often, I’ll buy books because of these reviews.
However, for books that I know I absolutely must read, I’ll resist the reviews until after I’ve read the book. For example, I’m not going to read reviews for the new Chris Bachelder novel, Abbott Awaits
, which I ordered last night through Amazon. Afterwards, I’ll hunt down reviews relentlessly, comparing my impressions against those reviews. It’s what I do for fun: reading reviews to books I’ve already read.
I’ve noticed an uptick recently in the number of articles and blog posts about the book reviewing process.
Over at Ward Six, Rhian Ellis wrote
“There's really no defending a negative review of a small press book by a non-famous writer -- ignoring that book, if you don't like it, is enough. Since so much of reviewing is a matter of taste, you risk sinking a person's nascent career because of your fickle whims. I don't approve.”
On the surface, this seems big-hearted. Even if one were predisposed to writing negative reviews, it’s kinda dinky to set your sights on small press books when so many utterly wretched books are being published by major houses.
Then I read this article
which suggested that bad reviews might actually be a good thing for small press books published by non-famous writers. Even bad reviews provide greater exposure for those books, thus increasing the likelihood of purchases.
However, when consumers are already familiar with the book or author, bad reviews will not only depress sales but also decrease the likelihood that the book will be reviewed elsewhere (“negative information usually cuts down the number of product reviews”).
Meanwhile, at The Millions, Emily St. John Mandel wrote
about what it’s like to receive bad reviews. She accepts them gracefully, showing more class than Alice Hoffman and Richard Ford, whose pathetically horrible reactions to bad reviews are chronicled within her essay.
The most problematic book review essay is Charles Baxter’s “Owl Criticism,”
which appeared last week in Fiction Writers Review.
Baxter has ideas about what a book review should accomplish, and how it ought to be accomplished.
“The marks of a trustworthy review, therefore, have a kind of doubleness: the reviewer manages to assert somehow that the book under discussion is of some importance for one reason or another; and second, a good review provides a formal description of the book’s properties, so that you could reconstruct it from the reviewer’s sketch of it.”
He adds that “a formal description” is “not the same as a plot summary, although a plot summary may figure into it.”
There’s nothing radical about this approach. Baxter’s saying that a good review ought to provide a contextual frame through which to view the book AND allow readers enough insight about the book to make their own judgment about its value.
These criteria are valid.
Establishing such criteria however is only half of Baxter’s project. Throughout much of the essay, he derides the surface-level this book is boring
criticism one finds in Amazon.com customer reviews.
“They are made up of what I call Owl Criticism. With Owl Criticism, you have statements like, ‘This book has an owl in it, and I don’t like owls.’”
Owl Criticism provides no understanding of the works in question. It is “pointless.”
Taking potshots at amateur Amazon reviews sounds like good fun, but Baxter goes a step further: he states that only those with “technical knowledge” about “how novels are constructed” ought to be writing reviews.
Setting exclusionary standards for participation in literary discussions is a dangerous practice. It’s not that hard to write a half-decent book review. Especially now, during the publishing industry’s moment of crisis, we ought to be encouraging as many people as possible to be debating the merits of the books they love, and the books they hate.
Book buyers are intelligent people. They know how to distinguish meaningful reviews from pointless Amazon chatter.
What makes Baxter’s faith in credentialed reviewers laughable is that, in the essay’s very next paragraph, he demonstrates that The New York Times
and The Atlantic Monthly
, two organs that rely on the credentialed reviewers he prefers, are also susceptible to practicing Owl Criticism.
There’s another troubling point that Baxter makes: he’d prefer to squelch further discussion about canonized classics like Madame Bovary
and Anna Karenina.
“I’d assert that all these [people who write comments about canonized books] …are reviewing … novels that don’t need reviews, partly because the jury is no longer out; the jury has returned a verdict on these books by now, and it’s just plain obtuse to pretend that it hasn’t.”
In effect, he’s saying that we ought not challenge the wisdom of past authorities; yesterday’s critics, he implies, know what’s best for us today.
This too is dangerous.
A constant and aggressive re-assessment of past masterpieces is necessary to sustain a thriving culture. Literature is, in part, a conversation. Our understanding of our literary heritage informs our understanding of contemporary writing. When one cuts debate of these past classics, rigidifying our understanding of them, contemporary literature’s potential to change will be hampered.
To a point, I understand why Baxter thinks it’s pointless to continue to re-evaluate someone whose reputation seems everlastingly secure. Take Shakespeare. My children’s children’s children will still read him in their English lit classes. I mean, it’s doubtful that Shakespeare will ever fall into neglect, right?
However, it’s conceivable that the Shakespearean works we prize most can change. At the present moment, we privilege his tragedies. But imagine what could happen if, over time, the comedies or histories gain ascendency. Such a re-evaluation would likely a huge impact on contemporary aesthetics.
Over time, reputations fall and rise. Cynthia Ozick, in her review
of Saul Bellow’s letters, notes an enormous list of mid-twentieth century writers who are fading fast into irrelevancy. No doubt, interest in some of those writers will undergo a resurgence, thus re-shaping contemporary writers’ understanding of their craft. Ars longa
, Hippocrates wrote.
But reviews need not be shorted. Addendum
I first heard about Baxter’s essay through Gabriel Blackwell
, The Collagist
’s Book Review editor who ably edits reviews that I’ve written
. Earlier this week, Mark Athitakis also discussed the essay
in his American Fiction Notes blog. Scroll through the comments and you’ll find John Updike’s thoughts about writing book reviews. Updike’s ideas seem about right, don’t they?