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Archive for June, 2007

Just What I Needed!

Please sing the title of this post as if you were Ric Ocasek.*

Thank you.

Anyway, we went to the library booksale this evening, where the blogger Hepzibah (who also happens to be one of my awesome students) works.  I got a bunch of great stuff.  Check it out:

  • The Ox-Bow Incident  by Walter Van Tilberg Clark
  • Casino Royale by Ian Fleming (The new Penguin edition with the cool pulp cover.)
  • The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte (awesome name)
  • By the Lake byJohn McGahern
  • Naked by David Sedaris
  • The Raven by Peter Landesman
  • Hell House by Richard Matheson
  • The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carre
  • Smiley’s People by John Le Carre

All that for less than twenty bucks.  Plus Hepzibah gave me Ethan Frome and The Age of Innocence.
*I had a friend in college who, when he heard that Ocasek had married Paulina Porizkova, got terribly depressed and got rid of all of his Cars tapes.  I’m not sure why–it’s not like he had any chance at Paulina.

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I am sorry to keep hitting this idea over and over again, but it is terribly complicated, terribly contentious, and it concerns me in a number of terrible ways.  I am speaking about the huge yawning chasm between “pulp” novels and “real” literature that, however artificially contrived, does cause a lot of people to fall headfirst into the depths.  A new article in the Atlantic has compelled me to think about this topic yet again (the link will open in a new window, so you can toggle back and forth if you like). EDIT:  I see now that to read the whole article, you have to subscribe–well, you can get the general idea.
In this article, Eric Konigsberg, an author of novels that do not reach the levels of sales that cause green-eyed admiration, discusses how he met Harlan Coben, an author of novels that do not reach levels of highfalutin’ praise that cause satisfied smirks.  At a book-signing event in Bryant Park, Coben’s line of fans stretches across the paths, while Konigsberg is finished with his signing duties after fewer than a dozen books.  He starts to wonder about the popularity of this other author and, after trading signed copies with Coben, decides to read him.

He finds that he simply can’t put the book down.  He reads it in a mad rush, eager to roar through the myriad plot twists and get to the dramatic ending.  Konigsberg’s language as he recounts his reading experience sounds a bit like Irvine Welsh describing a drug rush.

At this point, it would seem appropriate to start the typical fuss about how “literary” critics fail to recognize genre fiction (Coben writes “thrillers”), but Konigsberg is not going to take that easy path.  Instead, he thinks about the formulaic qualities of Coben’s works and concludes, somewhat distressingly, that readers like a familiar product, and the big-selling authors–Coben, Mary Higgins Clark, James Patterson–are producers of a consistent commodity.  I guess they are sort of the McDonald’s of literature–cheap, consistent, generally filling, but not gourmet.  But neither does Konigsberg simply lament the demise of literary fiction as the Philistine hordes gobble up junk.

I am torn by this.  On the one hand, I, too, love the rush of a fast-paced narrative that grabs me by the throat and will not let me go, but on the other, I worry about a steady diet of pulp.  I hate the elitist attitude such as the one that Jonathan Franzen may or may not have expressed in his dismissal of Oprah’s book club.  But–I also hate the sloppy “well, at least they are reading” attitude.

I am also not sure what to make of Coben.  He has a very solid, no-nonsense approach to his writing.  It is a job, and he works at it as if he were a plumber or something like that.  He is a writer so he writes–none of this Romantic weeping for the muse.  But at the same time, he is obsessed with his numbers, a trait that is more than a little off-putting.  His dearest wish, it seems is to reach the top spot on one of the important lists of book sales.  So far that goal has eluded him as he seems to be a perpetual runner-up (and at his distress over this, I have to say, “Yeah, pal, weep me a freaking river–2.7 million in sales a year?  I would commit murder for a number two spot.  Hell, for a top ten”).

His actual work ethic also seems to be at odds with his professed work ethic.  His publisher expects his latest draft (which is almost always a first draft with almost no revisions before publication) on October first.  He writes a good portion of that in the week previous, sometimes spending as much as 96 hours straight in some sort of nightmarishly colossal all-nighter.  It’s weird, but I guess if it works…

So the eternal conundrum goes on: popular or critical?  Pulp or literary?  The problem, as I see it, is that publishing is, unavoidably, a business, and it is driven by market forces, and, as long as that is true, there will be a distinction, however artificial, between the two.

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The latest New Yorker is the “Summer Fiction Edition,” and, though I haven’t read any of the stories yet, they do look interesting.  There is also a feature called “Summer Movies,” where a number of different authors write about their movie-going experiences.  My favorite of this bunch was Dave Eggers, who wrote about how he and his friends used to play in the woods with various boy-weapons (homemade shuriken and nunchakus, for example) and more or less beat the hell out of each other as they emulated their favorite action movies.  Somehow, that really hit home–Eggers and I are about the same age, and we had some of the same pop-culture experiences and attitudes.

One article that I found especially interesting describes the University of Texas at Austin’s Ransom center–a huge archive that houses the miscellaneous papers of scores of really big name authors.  You can find the article in question here.  The collection is stunning–hand-corrected proofs of Finnegan’s Wake, for example–and the head of the collection is an ambitious, if somewhat Machiavellian, collector.

To me, though, the most interesting part of the article (and, I think, to D. T. Max, the author) describes the DeLillo files, one hundred twenty-five boxes of papers.  It includes many letters, several from David Foster Wallace, and some very revealing drafts of DeLillo’s novels; Max pays close attention to some of the passages from two of the author’s best-known novels, White Noise and Underworld.  In one letter to Wallace, DeLillo says that he pays close attention to physical structure–he sees the paragraphs almost as architecture, and he has a “sensitivity to the actual appearance of words on a page, to letter shapes and letter-combinations.”  He also writes many paragraphs over and over again, sometimes on the same page, until he gets the complete effect that he is looking for.  He plays with word-combinations, writing and re-writing with slight changes in emphasis and tone, substituting florid words for bland ones and dropping back to some perfect position in between.

He writes to Wallace about his writing that he started off his career as a “semiconscious writer” but that he has developed his approach until the discipline has become so ingrained that “[i]t’s not even definable as discipline.”  I like DeLillo’s idea that you can work at the writing process like this.  You don’t need to start off at perfection, but you keep taking it seriously, keep working, keep focusing until it becomes who you are.  Since I am in the middle of my own revising process right now, it helps to hear how someone else has worked and worked at it.  My process is nowhere near as consuming as DeLillo’s, but then again, I’m not anywhere near as talented.  I’ll keep working, though, hammering away, concentrating, shaping.

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Art First?

We rented the movie Stranger than Fiction last night, and it is entertaining in the light metafictional mode of Adaptation, Being John Malkovitch, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, though it is not as smart or thoughtful as these other films.  The movie follows a very boring IRS auditor named Harold Crick, who one day hears a voice narrating his life.  With the help of a college English professor, he figures out that he is a character in a novel and that, furthermore, the author of the novel is planning to kill him off.  Crick must then determine who the author is, and then track her down to plead for his life.

The movie is funny, and any film that features a college English professor (played by Dustin Hoffman, no less) who helps solve a man’s metaphysical dilemmas must have something going for it.  The movie, though, did not seem to take full advantage of all of the literary possibilities that the set-up offers.  Hoffman makes a few little pronouncements about narrative and plot (which are not quite on the money, but nevermind), but I wanted to see more of this.  One scene in particular shows the potential.  The professor asks Crick a series of questions to determine what kind of story he is in and figures out that he is not Hamlet, Frankenstein’s monster, or a golem.  This is funny stuff, and I wanted more of it.

Crick finally tracks down the reclusive Karen Eiffel, a novelist known for her tragic endings–she figures at one point that she has killed off at least eight people in her books.  He reaches her just as she has overcome a terrible, decade-long attack of writer’s block and is about to write his demise.  He somehow convinces her to let him have the manuscript, which he takes to Professor Hilbert for analysis.  The verdict?  It is a masterpiece, and, unfortunately, Crick must die to maintain the coherence and artistic brilliance of the novel.

As she is typing the final paragraphs, however, Eiffel has second thoughts and decides to save Crick’s life.  She then takes the new manuscript to the professor, who dismisses the revision with, “It’s okay.  Not a masterpiece, but okay.”  Eiffel has not been true to her art, but has saved the life of a character, and we are supposed to see her act as large-hearted and generous.

I was annoyed.  Does this mean something is wrong with me?  I was annoyed that the novelist would sacrifice her art and save a character’s life, ruining the narrative for cheap sentimentality.  Would Hamlet be better if he survived?  Would Madame Bovary be better?  How about the New Testament?  I just couldn’t get past the demolition of artistic integrity–the guy needed to die to make the story work and then you go and ruin it?!  But then again, maybe I’m wrong; maybe she should have saved the character’s life.

No–I’m right.  If art requires that he die, then he has to die.

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