Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith is one of the few writers whose writing about writing I find as interesting as her fiction. And in one of the more personal essays in this book, she reveals that her father was the model for Archie, the central figure of her first novel, White Teeth. Smith famously published White Teeth when she was 24 and has since tried to distance herself from it--calling it something like a ginger-haired child tap-dancing manically. But I'm a big fan--then again I wouldn't mind seeing a ginger-haired child tap-dancing manically either. Now I wonder if she has distanced herself from the novel because it is partly borrowed from her father. It had never occurred to me that White Teeth was at all autobiographical, perhaps because it's so over-the-top; and honestly, I find it a relief to discover it has such true-to-life seeds. That makes the achievement seem less daunting--that this brilliant insanity was not entirely invented out of nothing.

Also included in this collection is an essay I like quite a lot, "That Crafty Feeling," about how when you're writing a novel suddenly everything that you come across seems to fit into your novel. Words pop into your life, theories, people...and they all seem to slide right into the novel. I don't so much believe in this as deliberately practice it. I don't believe the arrival of these notions is fate, but that they are tools I can use. I like the fun and challenge and randomness of seeing if I can fit the things that fall into my life into the thing I'm working on at the moment (because this is often a number of things perhaps it's not such a tough challenge). There's something about allowing the layered and coincidental nature of life into fiction that I think makes it feel more real--more layered itself. It also (I hope) breaks up my tendency to make everything in my fiction fit too neatly (or as Russell Banks once told me, the tendency to keep my hands too tight on the steering wheel) (Toni Morrison once almost hit me with her car in the university parking lot when I was an undergrad, so maybe Banks wasn't speaking metaphorically. Come to think of it in the same conversation he told me how as a teenager he once ran away from home in a stolen car. I'm not sure exactly what he was advising there.) (But I loved him.) (Still do.). Then again, maybe this practice is just more evidence of my need to organize everything; this time by fitting it into fiction. Either way, it makes writing a bit more of a game, and that appeals.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls by Alissa Nutting

This collection of short stories won the Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction, and I love the fearlessness of the author. The world herein is our world but wackier, as if the weirdest of our natives were the only ones to survive the nuclear blast and repopulated the earth. As a result, Nutting gets away with some of the wildest figurative language I've seen. Last semester I talked with my grad class about similes and metaphors and the conclusion I came to (whether or not I really convinced them) is figurative language is much more about setting tone than anything else. It may seem at first glance like it's meant to convey scents and touches and tastes, but really that's rarely the case. Literal language is pretty good at describing literal things. Figurative language is much more about describing feelings--how we feel when we see a sunset, not what we actually see. And so Nutting's figurative language is often about creating the mood..which is often uncomfortable and even a little scary. Case in point was the line Twitter wouldn't let me write all of: "I was like a turd inside of someone who'd accidentally swallowed an engagement ring: I was nothing, yet I carried something uniquely special." If that image doesn't make you deeply uncomfortable with the narrator's state of mind, well, you're not me.

My Los Angeles in Black & (Almost) White by Andrew Furman

Full Disclosure: You know that sitcom joke about having a work spouse? Well, Andy is my work big brother.

I confess when my friends write nonfiction it's hard not to be charmed by these visions of their childhood-selves (here it's young Andy and his homing pigeons!). But that aside... Andy's memoir is about playing high school basketball during the years of forced integration in Los Angeles, and what I found especially interesting was the way it blends memoir, history, and reflection. In his introduction, Andy acknowledges the hybrid nature of the book, specifically, chapters that detail the law cases relevant to desegregating the LA schools versus chapters that detail Andy's life as a child and teen. But I would add a third strand of hybridity--the reflective nature of the adult narrator who is trying to figure out how his life then fits into his life now, and how his belief in social justice is (and sometimes isn't) reflected in his life now. That third strand, for me, is probably what holds the hybridity together. It would be fine for the book to jump between an academic voice and a personal voice, readers can make those shifts when the content connects them, but it definitely mattered to me that there was an adult narrator who could reflect on both sections. The book then became not just a depiction of the narrator's past experiences but a quest to determine the significance of those experiences...and therefore it felt both more personal and more intellectually important. Andy has, more than once, said to me, how lucky we are to hold jobs that pay us enough to live on so that we don't have to worry about the marketability of our writing. We don't have to chase popular success, but can stick to our guns and write what we believe. And I have to agree--this book is made more original because Andy didn't have to answer to a trade publisher's fear of alienating their audience with academic talk...and as a result, this is a memoir that moves beyond navel-gazing and actually achieves social relevance.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Living Like a Writer

This fall I had intended to require my graduate students in the fiction workshop keep an artist's journal of some kind (physical, virtual, in words, in pictures...) but I never got around to it. Mostly because I wanted to try keeping one myself before requiring it of them and I never got around to that. I mean, I have notebooks for jotting things down willy-nilly, but I've never kept anything I'd call an artist's journal. But I'll be teaching a graduate workshop this summer, and I've decided to partially focus that class on inspiration's role in the writing process (I usually have an unannounced focus for my grad courses so that I don't just repeat the same old formulas every semester...I don't think the students ever notice, but so what? ... this past semester it was "avoiding the workshop story" in case you were wondering...). Now, anyone who's been in my physical presence within the past few days, knows I am about 48 hours worth of grading away from a semester-long sabbatical, so I figure I'll keep my artist's journal during my sabbatical as a prelude to the students' assignment. Which is all a way of saying, I'm refocusing, or perhaps unfocusing the blog, to include more than just my reading, and to be a part of, maybe all of, my artist's journal experiment.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Recommended Reading

My friend and colleague, Kate Schmitt has a really gorgeous essay in the current issue of Third Coast. No link, but if you're an FAU-er, I pinned it to my office door...

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

You Can Read... short-short, "Self-Portrait with Birds," in Pank 5, the latest print issue of Pank Magazine. For the time being, there is also a link to the story online. Pank publishes a print issue and a separate online issue, both chock-full of good things to read.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Recommended Reading

Sara Femenella, one of my former students (from almost ten years ago...good grief), has a terrific poem in the current issue of The Normal School. I like the Normal School not just for their great content but because each issue costs five dollars, which seems to me a rational price for a literary magazine. You should buy your issue now.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

On Book Collecting

I own a lot of books. But I've never really thought of this as collecting; it's just my version of living. But every now and then--like today when it occurred to me that I own signed copies of things by three Nobel Prize winners (Toni Morrison, Orhan Pamuk, and the latest Mario Vargas Llosa)--that I could have a focused collection. Maybe that would be fun. But maybe it would just be shopping. I don't know. Just thinking about it I'm suddenly regretting missed opportunities to get Doris Lessing, Seamus Heaney and Kenzaburo Oe to sign things for the collection I could have had. I think it would just give me anxiety. Do you collect?

Monday, September 27, 2010

Recommended Reading

My essay,"8 Questions You Would Ask Me If I Told You My Name" is in the current issue of Creative Nonfiction.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Car by Harry Crews

All the stories I've heard of Harry Crews suggest as a teacher he is brutally opinionated (which I consider slightly different than brutally honest), and he supposedly tells his undergrads if you get an A in this class you should keep writing, if you don't, you shouldn't. But this is all hearsay, so I take it with a grain of salt, and you should too. (He also has many former students who are devoted to him either despite or because of these things). But, all in all, the things I'd heard didn't exactly cause me to run out and read his work. But then I watched (via eleven five minute installments on YouTube) the Emmy-winning tv documentary "The Rough South of Harry Crews" and I found Crews to be more sympathetic and more compelling than I had imagined. So I finally got around to reading something.

And I found this novella (the publisher calls it novel but it runs about a hundred pages, so I suspect that's just a marketing decision) completely charming, and sweet, and extremely intelligent, and funny, to boot. It's about a guy who decides to eat a car and it stays centered on that plot--will he, can he, etc. But, as the title suggests, the thematic center of the novella is all things car. And all things car turns out to be a great metaphor for all things human. Everything that can happen in a car happens here (one of the funniest dialogue scenes I've read since White Noise's is-it-raining-or-isn't-it scene is between two characters who are having sex in the back of the car to be eaten). But what is most significant is the various ways these characters love cars (and they all do) reflects the various ways one can love. Herman, who dreams of doing something big, and so decides to eat a car, has a pure kind of love. He just wants to feel a part of the bigness of the world. His brother Mister loves money and so loves how cars can bring him money. His father, on the other hand, loves cars for what they are, machines he can understand. His sister loves cars for the excitement--the life--they represent. All in all, it's a short book with a big feel precisely because it takes on one subject in depth. The choice of subject matters, of course; cars are omnipresent in American life and therefore contain multitudes, but it seems to me so could butterflies or corn or ... you name it. Now if it weren't for the humor and the charm and the seriousness of the characters, the thematic center would not have held...but the two in combination (characters and theme) made for a really rich read.

Recommended Reading

My former student, MR Sheffield has a wonderful short-short in the latest issue of Spring Gun. Click on the e-book. The story is on page thirty-three. This mag is visually interesting but a bit of a challenge to negotiate!

Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow

In his wonderful soap opera-y novel Ragtime, Doctorow became one of the first writers to fully embrace writing fiction with real people in it. What’s interesting about this novel about the Collyer brothers—possibly the most famous of the famous hoarders (one brother died under a pile of his accumulated and booby-trapped stuff and the other subsequently starved to death)—is the way Doctorow uses public knowledge of the characters as part of his storytelling. (Though just to be clear Doctorow does fictionalize some of the facts).

The novel is narrated by Homer, the blind brother who essentially cannot escape his brother Langley who has been made crazy by exposure to mustard gas during WWI. And Homer, in part because of his physical limitations, in part because of his emotional limitations, is slow to pick up on the fact that his brother is completely mad. And only in glimpses does he reveal the physical state of their house. The temptation for many writers would have been to glory in detailing that house, but Homer can’t see…he can’t tell us what the house looked like. And really he doesn’t need to. Because most readers know that story—and can certainly imagine. So Doctorow chooses to make this a very interior novel. I suppose that’s the fun of taking real people and putting them in fiction. Seeing life through their eyes as opposed to seeing their life through our eyes, which biography already allows us to do.

And yes, the fact that he is a blind storyteller named Homer also brings an additional layer to the story. Most readers will get the reference to the author of the Odyssey and the Iliad and will understand that the allusion is meant to grant an epic status to small and confined lives.

Full disclosure: I received my copy for free from Good Reads First Reads.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Recommended Reading

One of my dear mentors, Jewell Parker Rhodes, who was really responsible for my choosing to get my MFA at Arizona State, was on the Today Show this morning talking about her children's book, Ninth Ward, a selection of Al Roker's Kid's Club. The kids are really cute in how seriously they ask her questions, but I confess it freaked me out that they all call her Jewell. This may explain why my undergrads have such a hard time remembering to not call authors by their first name. Can I have a little reverence in the house, please? If you watch the clip, don't think Jewell (I can call her that, I've known her nearly 15 years) is just being warm and fuzzy for tv, she always talks with that kind of love in her voice.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

Possibly the hardest thing about writing a novel is writing a middle that lives up to your beginning. Starting a novel isn't really so rough. Big Bang openings occur to writers all the time. And endings aren't so bad either. In short stories the end is where things either come together or fall apart, but with a novel, readers can be quite forgiving of a so-so finish. One of my favorite novels is Elizabeth McCracken's The Giant's House (about a librarian who falls in love with a teenage giant) and I don't like the last chapter one bit. (same with Bel Canto's crazy epilogue) Yet I still call it one of my favorite novels. Because I could happily live in the middle forever. With popular genre fiction, the middle tends to exist merely as a bridge to the end. It's the thing you get through as quickly as possible to find out what happened. But with literary fiction, the middle is the part where readers want to linger, where they don't want to reach the end... so, of course writing the middle is hard. Because if you have a Big Bang opening how do you write an even bigger middle?

I like to think of this as making a mystery of the middle. And in Geek Love, Katherine Dunn does it masterfully.

Her title, her table of contents, her epigraph, and the first two pages of her book all set up expectations for what's to come. It seems like this will be a quirky, probably humorous, tale of a family of carnies (including an albino dwarf, a set of Siamese Twins, and Arty the AquaBoy all born to a carnival ringleader and his chicken-head-eating wife). The parents seem like they will dominate, the family will be threatened by the outside world, and their bond will prevail. It will be an examination of darkness that shows how darkness is really lightness. What we think is dark is not. At least that's what I expect on reading the first couple of pages. And that's enough to make me read on...I'm interested in that book. But what I think really makes the novel a success is the way that the middle of the novel regularly subverts our expectations and gives us a much bigger, and more surprising, novel than we anticipated...

One of the novel's tricks is to use a fairly traditional frame in which there is a present tense story where the characters are grown older and readers can see how dramatically their circumstances have changed. This is one way to make a mystery of the middle--getting readers to ask how did our characters get from point a to point c, but I actually find it the least interesting of the tricks Dunn uses. Perhaps because it's the most expected. The real reason the frame is important, I think, is it demonstrates how Oly, the narrator, is impacted by everything that happened in the middle. She's not really the center of the plot in the middle. The frame lets her be the center of the plot in the end. So that's one unexpected aspect of the middle--the peripheral nature of the first person narrator.

Conventional wisdom says short stories are harder to write than novels, but don't you believe it. In a novel, as in a short story, you need the sense that a story is escalating and building, but you need to sustain that over such a long period that you run the risk of entering the absurd. (this is how tv shows jump the shark). Dunn takes her novel into really extreme territory in terms of character behavior, this is how she creates a novel that is bigger than her quite large opening. But she's very savvy about how she builds to that extreme. You realize on page seven (after the loving family scene that opens the novel) that these kids are "abnormal" because their parents bred them to be that way. This is pretty startling. But the extent of their parents science experiments is withheld until p. 53, when you see the many failed results. But just when the reader starts to see the parents as villainous, Doctor Phyllis, a crazed surgeon arrives and you see how she's even worse. And just when you think you can predict that Doctor P. will be the dark heart of the novel, you realize Arty, the Aqua-Boy, is the even bigger villain behind it all. So these other characters act as evolutionary steps on the way to Arty. This escalates the plot, surprises the reader, and makes the extreme actions of Arty more believable because they are worked up to gradually.

Yeah, this novel has an actual villain in it. But it's key that he's not a single villain in a world of good characters--he's a higher step on the ladder of bad. So it's surprising but not unbelievable...

A note on villains: this is one place the choice of Oly as narrator is very useful. Seeing Arty through Oly’s childish and sisterly eyes helps make him more palatable. The reader is never asked to love or forgive Arty—only to understand that Oly does

Another regular trick to making a mystery of the middle is to bring in and develop new characters while letting others fade to the background. Sometimes these faded characters come back into the center, sometimes not. Some of these new characters come in and you expect them to be more important than they are—it’s sort of like a murder mystery where there are multiple suspects and they each have their own mini-story, but they don't all factor in at the end. They do all factor in to the story somehow however. They change what can happen.

In Geek Love, a new son is born in the first third of the novel (new character enters) and he brings with him the first "magic" of the novel. Up until then everything has been true to our physical world as we know it. But Chick, who looks normal, has special metaphysical powers. Now in workshop I'd probably caution a writer against suddenly having a magical element enter a novel so late. Traditionally a novel would establish itself as fantastical very early on. But Geek Love works as an exception because this is such a heightened world--not quite real anyway--that it feels like a surprise, but not impossible. Like with Arty's villainy, it's an evolutionary step away from what came before, not a total shock. And again this takes the middle in directions the reader hadn't anticipated.

Dunn also uses conventional methods like foreshadowing and flash-forwards to heighten a reader's curiosity. But whereas in a novel where the middle is a bridge to cross, she does not withhold her answers to those mini-mysteries for very long. So questions are raised in the middle and they are answered in the middle. Then new questions are raised and answered. Sometimes on the same page, sometimes a few pages later, sometimes fifty pages can't predict what you'll learn when.

And finally, one last technique, that I don't think works so well actually, is introducing new voices into the text in the middle. In the novel's last third, a newspaperman enters the story, and so we get his notebooks and articles. This provides a break from Oly's first person voice and gives us information that she can't and a perspective outside hers. But personally, I didn't need it. It can work though, just in this case, it felt like it told me what I already knew.

I don't want to suggest these things are formulas you want to apply (the season six commentary on "Lost" persuaded me never to talk about the hero's journey in class again because the writers seemed so sure that merely hitting the steps on the "journey" would make their story work). The main reason Geek Love is such a classic is the ideas, the characters, the words...but structure helps too, it allows for all the rest to feel like it adds up to something.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Recommended Reading

Andrew Furman, my friend and colleague, has a great essay in the current issue of Oxford American.

And the new "Red" issue of the Fairy Tale Review is available. The Blue issue is available on their website as a free pdf, and other back issues are available for download at a very affordable price of 2.99 at Weightless Books ... My story "Once There Was, Once There Wasn't" is in the Green Issue. It used to be available for free online, but no more...

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Mentor: a memoir by Tom Grimes

I mention with possibly annoying frequency that I believe in mentors. And I think it's important to have mentors who are just above you in terms of your goals and aspirations, ones who are way above you in terms of your goals and aspirations, and even those who are unattainable (generally because they are fictional heroes). Right now, and I mean this without any irony whatsoever, my two biggest role models seem to be Coach Taylor from "Friday Night Lights" and Detective Chief Superintendent Foyle from "Foyle's War" (they're so decent! so honorable! so handsome!...oh wait...). But more particularly as relates to this blog, I've had the privilege and pleasure of a wealth of mentors who model the writing life for me (including some of my peers, my undergraduate and graduate professors, and some people who are just inexplicably generous with me). But lots of my role models or mentors are people I've never met or people I've worked with but not known well. Lives I've read or heard about, who give me an idea of how things are done, what can go wrong, and how much conscious effort it takes to live a satisfying and dignified life. Recently I was surprisingly affected by Haruki Murakami's nonfiction book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, which is mostly about marathon running but also novel writing. What came across most powerfully was just how much physical effort it takes to achieve a career like Murakami's. A viewing of the documentary "The Rough South of Larry Brown" in my grad workshop last night also reinforced the benefits of applying a working class work ethic to writing (sample Brown quote: "Based on the first fifty stories that I wrote you would have to believe that I had no talent. You would have no choice.")

But I've realized, too, that if you're not in the right space to receive the information, witnessing other people's writing lives can be pretty devastating. I mean it's hard out there. And there are very few models that suggest otherwise. I once showed one of my favorite documentaries, "Stone Reader" to a grad workshop and at the end of it they looked as if I'd spent the hour and a half kicking them in the gut whilst shouting, "stay down! stay down!" For the record, I view "Stone Reader" as a movie about how vital reading is for some students viewed it as a movie about an Iowa grad who writes a huge book, gets a glowing NYT review, goes crazy and never writes again. Still, I recommend it. Anyway, Tom Grimes's memoir, Mentor, ostensibly about his relationship to the late Frank Conroy, then program director at Iowa, but really about Grimes's whole writing life, is a book that I valued for its honesty about writing, certain writing workshops, and about mentor relationships. For the record, Grimes views Conroy as a pivotal figure for him; I, on the other hand, came out of the book thinking, I will never ever teach like Frank Conroy, and nobody else should either. Because Conroy's approach, as I understood it through the lens of the book, was pretty much to encourage the one or two students he felt had natural talent and ignore the rest. And I don't mean that he made a particular effort to work with the talented students or their writing, rather he told them keep going, keep going and helped them get an agent etc in the end. But Grimes's story makes clear that what Conroy could do in terms of getting him an agent and getting the book out in the world had only a limited effect. The book didn't make money, didn't go to paperback, and Grimes in the end had a, possiby related, nervous breakdown (as did Conroy for unrelated reasons). I don't think nervous breakdowns are more inherent to writers than anybody else or that writing causes them, I'm just saying that having a mentor who can give you professional contacts isn't going to save your life. Nor will it make or break your career. In fact my view of mentoring is the opposite. I'm here to encourage everybody to work hard at their writing, to advise them on that writing, to advise them on how to make their own contacts...but I genuinely believe my students are better off if they find agents and publishers who respond to their work rather than ones who respond to me (not that I have that kind of sway anyway). But to get to the point, a review of this book suggested that apprentice writers might want to steer clear because so much of Grimes's experience is negative. But I think the more apprentice writers have a rational view of what writing can and can't do for them, what mentors can and can't do for them, and how to best define success as a writer...the better. So I recommend it. Plus it makes clear that Iowa's MFA program is great for some, but really shouldn't be the number one choice for all MFA applicants--its practices would not suit most of them. A timely message given those silly MFA rankings in Poets and Writers this month.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Too big for Twitter

"It's such a loved picture--the alienated, isolated, individual writer, beleagured but fiercely alone. A loved picture, but a truly lethal one. Because if we buy it completely, it keeps us single, weak, disconnected, vulnerable." --Toni Morrison, "For a Heroic Writers Movement"

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

I'm back, I guess

So I know you've all been thinking I spent my summer watching "Mad Men" and punking my fellow faculty, but I didn't. I don't even like "Mad Men." (I know, that is surprising, isn't it? I was surprised.) People sometimes complain writing is invisible work, but I like it that way. If the folks at the coffee shop start to recognize me, I switch coffee shops. Really I'd prefer not to talk much about my writing or even necessarily my reading. But I do it for you, because I feel like talking about my process is part of what I signed on for when I became that semi-public figure known as a writing professor. So even if I was invisible for the summer, you should know, I wasn't doing nothing. Not most of the time anyway. Naturally I read quite a bit (including David Copperfield and the first two volumes of Proust, who I am in love love love with), I have a short-short coming out in Pank magazine, and an essay coming out in Creative Nonfiction, and I have seven stories in various states of dress. They all have openings at least and so here, for the time being anyway, are seven first sentences. Just so you know I'm still here.

"In the last years of the nineteenth century, the third strongest man in the world was said to be a Turk named Yusuf Ismail, known in his homeland as Yusuf the Great, or Yusuf the Large, and known everywhere else as the Terrible Turk, the first of a line of legendary, savage, monstrously large wrestlers all called, one after the other, the Terrible Turk."

"There were nearly 6,000 speeches given to 700,000 people."

"While we waited we were visited by the ghosts of the girls who had already died, those who were closest to the explosion, in the kitchen sneaking butter and bread when the gas ignited, the ones who died immediately, in a sense without injury, the girls who died explosively."

"It was the age of automatons and already there was a fly made of brass, a mechanical tiger, a peacock, a swan, an eight foot elephant, and a duck that swallowed a piece of grain and excreted a small pellet."

"His eyes were frequently inflamed and he feared going blind."

"Soon there will be a girl who will not eat."

"Most nights, Isabel could see, through the bedroom window of her Istanbul apartment, the writer James Baldwin at work at his kitchen table in his own apartment across the road."

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

I have decided to take ten of my older short stories, previously available only in hard copies of various hard-to-find literary magazines, and make them available as an e-book on Lulu. For a mere $5.99, you could have your very own download:

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Recommended Reading

I am really really liking this story by (admittedly one of my dear mentors) Melissa Pritchard: "Pelagia, Holy Fool".

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Recommended Reading

One of my graduate students has a short story (or prose poem, whatever) in Pindeldyboz. I like any story with a Ringo Starr reference.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Recommended Reading

One of my former FAU undergrads, Shaun Hutchinson, has published a young adult novel with Simon & Schuster:
Deathday Letter. A nice reminder that your best bet for a writing community is your classmates (not your teacher), and that CRW 3010 students are often serious business. And while I'm here, a shout out to the very first person I met in my first fiction workshop back when I was a college freshman, Alexander Woo, now an award-winning writer for the oh-so-popular True Blood.

p.s. In case you haven't noticed, the blog is pretty much on hiatus until further notice (read: when I feel like it).

Monday, June 07, 2010

Recommended Reading

One of my graduate students has a story published in the current Grey Sparrow Journal. Check it out.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Recommended Reading

My friend and colleague Becka McKay has translations in the latest issue of PEN America. Check it out.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Feed by M.T. Anderson

This futuristic young adult novel takes place in a world where anyone who nowadays would have an Internet connection at home essentially has it in their brains instead--this is called the feed. They can IM each other without talking, can look up any information they want, can share memories, and they stream ads pretty much continuously. They also have flying cars and party on the Moon and stuff like that, but the key to the novel is the feed. So introducing the feed to readers is not too hard and establishing its cool futuristic factor is not too hard. But what's interesting is Anderson chooses to have the feed malfunction for the narrator early in the novel and then come back. And that way the true value of the feed (and obvious negatives of the feed) are made very clear to readers. And so when the feed is at stake for another character, we get it... Most writers I think would have just established this cool (and horrifying) thing and then put it at risk. But Anderson establishes it, takes it away, gives it back, and then puts it at risk... kind of like the Turkish proverb that says if God wants you to appreciate soemthing he first takes it away and then gives it back to you. Philosophically sound and a good plot device.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Mr. Palomar by Italo Calvino

Content-wise, I wasn't as held by this short novel as much as by other Calvino works...but all the same it gave me new ideas about what can hold a novel together. Years ago in an nonfiction workshop one of my students, upon reading Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius said, it showed me new things writing can do... That feeling happens quite a bit when one first starts reading seriously as a writer... less so, the more you've read simply because you've been exposed to a lot more. But what I appreciated about this novel was how it's centered on a character's point of view--how he sees the world--more than on what happens to him. It reminded me in a few ways of The Mezzanine, perhaps it was an evolutionary step for Nicholson Baker. Anyway, my point is a lot of writers are wary of reading because they don't want to be influenced. But what I see in early classes is poorly read writers write really unimaginatively. In my experience, creativity is born of knowledge not of an absence of knowledge. So read on!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Siam by Lily Tuck

A slender novel that stays almost entirely in scene, covering the time that a young wife lives in "Siam" with her mysteriously employed husband during the Vietnam War... the novel is fairly episodic, rotating between moments of the wife taking language lessons, visiting tourist sites with other wives, going to the dressmaker, watching her husband swim, having conflicts with her staff... and while those events are all united by their impact on the protagonist (and on her central conflict, adjusting--or not--to her new home), Tuck interestingly uses an exterior storyline to act against the episodic nature of her plot. At the start of the novel, the wife meets a high society American who disappears days later. And while his disappearance is not of any direct impact on her, it becomes a main event that holds the whole novel together--and which she obsesses about. So it works as a kind of skeleton to the novel despite the fact that the drama of it (kidnapping! murder!) are exterior to the central events of the protagonist's plot. In this case, the skeleton does more to shade the novel's tone and theme than it does to actually change the protagonist.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

This nonfiction work has been all over the various media because the summary of the book is immediately interesting--the most famous cell line in all of science--the HeLa cells--they were used to create the polio vaccine, study cancer, and test the affects of the atom bomb--turn out to come from Henrietta Lacks, an impoverished black female tobacco farmer who died of cervical cancer in 1951. And her family never knew about the HeLa cells until scientists came calling wanting to study their DNA...and explaining their case so poorly that Henrietta's husband first thought she has been kept alive in a lab being studied for twenty some years...

Apparently Gordon Lish liked to tell fiction students that all you needed to structure a story was any three things which you would then braid together, alternating between the three. (a useful trick for when you get stuck). And one of the reasons this book is so good is because it tells not one story but three--the story of Henrietta, the story of her cells, and the story of her descendants. Structurally the braid moves you quickly along all three story lines, but most importantly each storyline is equally interesting. Her descendants are deeply deeply affected by the loss of their mother, and all the misunderstandings that follow their contact with researchers are tragi-comic, and most importantly, their belief that Henrietta is a kind of angel (her cells are called immortal and they believe her soul is in her cells) shows just how high the stakes are for them. But interestingly one of the most moving storylines for me was one that falls just outside the braid--the story of Henrietta's first daughter who was probably mentally disabled and died, unknown to her siblings, in a government home. It's a storyline that does not fit tidily in with the other three, and mainly seems to be there at the impetus of Henrietta's other daughter, who always thinks of her lost sister as a casualty of losing her mother, but it's a slightly messy addition that works to deepen the emotion of the narrative. A case for not keeping your structure or even your topic too clean and controlled.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Irresistible Henry House by Lisa Grunwald

This recent novel is about an orphan who starts life as the baby in a practice house (a fake home used to teach home economics on a college campus in the 1940s) and so, early on, is raised by the teacher of the home ec course and a rotating class of co-eds. The novel is well-written, just as many novels nowadays are well-written, but it is for sure that premise--practice house baby--that makes the whole thing original and interesting. So it turns out having an original idea--a topic that hasn't been covered much--can go an awful long way. Here's the picture of Bobby Domecon (Domecon for Domestic Economics) that apparently inspired the author.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Six Memos for the Next Millenium by Italo Calvino

Harvard's Charles Eliot Norton Lectures often yield some interesting books (I'm currently reading Eco's which is partially a response to this one). In this case, Calvino died before he could actually give the lectures or even write the last one, but for those who fear aging, these are good evidence that a sixty-year-old brain can work mighty well. The first two essays struck me as especially useful..."Lightness" on using (metaphoric and literal) lightness and heaviness as contrasts in fiction and "Quickness" on using (physical and intellectual) quickness and slowness... but my favorite quote is: "Overambitious projects may be objectionable in many fields, but not in literature."

Friday, April 23, 2010

My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley

This 1965 memoir of a man and his dog was one of the New York Review of Books early reissues and it has the humorous sensibility of Three Men and a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), just minus two of the men and the boat. But the great thing is rather than being a totally sentimental, life lessons learned from a dog kind of thing, it's really about Ackerley's obsession with giving Tulip, a pure-bred Alsatian, a chance at motherhood. Or rather what he seems to view as the important part of motherhood--giving birth. (you can tell he's not that concerned with her parenting skills as he seriously considers, but ultimately rejects, drowning all of the pupplies once they're born). And this obsession reveals a lot about what some men assume women need to feel fulfilled. And probably reveals a lot about Ackerley's own hang-ups.

Readers looking for Marley and Me moments would probably be horrified by the graphic and insanely funny descriptions of Ackerley's efforts to mate his dog with appropriate purebreds and even more graphic and insanely funny descriptions of his attempts to prevent inappropriate nonpurebreds from mating with her--capped off by the moment when he finally allows Tulip to make her own choice (let's just say it all ends with a small dog upside down being dragged across the yard while in congress).

Now it's well-known I'm a friend to dogs (also small children and hedgehogs), so naturally I enjoyed this book; and the general American love of dogs at least partially explains the overall popularity of dog books in their many forms. But reading this memoir made me ponder just why dog books are so consistently popular and what fiction writers can learn from that popularity...

I think part of it is we can attribute qualities to dogs that would be cartoony in people... heroism, blind loyalty, and intense romance all get projected into dogs without straining reader's credulity (I believe this also explains the popularity of Edward Cullen and Jacob Black)...also human characters are allowed to behave in ridiculous manners with their dogs (human devotion beyond sense is permitted because these animals never grow out of their dependent infancy)... so really it's the human-dog relationship that's interesting, more than the dog itself. Humans seem very loveable when they are loving their goofy, needy dogs. And similar types of overly-devoted, irrational relationships pop up in a lot of popular fiction (between humans and their pets, but also between humans, and between humans and vampires and werewolves...) but in literary fiction, they don't read believably. Literary readers get annoyed at characters who are blindly devoted or ridiculously foolish... so what can the literary writer learn from the popular reader's love of dog lit? Perhaps that relationships interest readers more than single characters do? I dunno, I'll have to think about it some more...

Friday, April 16, 2010

Recommended Reading

One of my beloved mentors, Melissa Pritchard, has an article in this month's O magazine on embedding with female soldiers in Afghanistan. I bought my copy at Tattered Cover, the great indie bookstore in Denver. Oh how I love a great indie bookstore.

Also, you can read my short-short "A Boy on the Back of His Mother's Bicycle" in the latest, and last issue, of Isotope. A lot of literary magazines that are dependent on university funding are in trouble...if there are journals you want to keep around (especially if you dream of publishing in them), put your money where your hopes are. Now.

And the 2010 fiction issue of the Atlantic is online.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

If you like...

...Charles Baxter's essays on craft, then you will surely like The Half-Known World: On Writing Fiction by Robert Boswell. In my opinion, Graywolf has become the go-to press for craft writing.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Recommended Reading

There is a good chance I won't be back to blog until May when my semester is over, so in the meanwhile, I thought I'd point you to two great new books of poetry:

A Metereorologist in the Promised Land by Becka Mara McKay


Requiem for the Orchard by Oliver de la Paz

Full disclosure: Becka is my new friend and colleague at FAU, and once, in a movie theater, when I said, "I'd be warm enough if only I was wearing socks," Oliver gave me his.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Swimming by Nicola Keegan

It often gets said (by me, even) that fiction writing should make the familiar unfamiliar or it should make the unfamiliar familiar...but this is a novel that makes a case for letting the unfamiliar remain unfamiliar. What I mean is the protagonist is extreme--an Olympic swimmer who is not just great but once-in-a-lifetime, super-great---and the impulse might be to take this character who gets to have experiences that most of us don't and normalize her (making her more familiar) in lots of other ways, like through her personal life. But no, her personal life is extreme (a lot of tragedy). So you might try to create a heavy dose of realism through style or other details--but no, the style is zany, sometimes "the" gets dropped in the weirdest places, and the way of describing feelings is comic and nutty and really great. If you ask ten people what makes good fiction, nine and a half of them will say relate-ability. They want to relate to the character. Well, there's some of that here--she is a really vulnerable character, and we can all relate to that, but mostly she's weird and her life is nothing like mine, and the novel does nothing to make me believe this could happen to me...and yet I was moved all the same. I didn't need her to remind me of me; I liked that I was meeting someone different and my empathy kicked in just fine...

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

For my young adult literature class in choosing texts I pretty much went with things that are on the line between adult and young adult so that there would be enough to analyze and discuss in a lit class, but the more I read around in the genre, the more I realize my favorite books are the ones that are on the line between children's lit and young adult lit. Let's call that a new category--books for twelve year olds. Those books often have the strong cadences of voice that children's books have but also the more high stakes plots that young adult books have. This weekend I read both this novel, the first in a very popular trilogy about kids forced to fight it out to the death and The Mysterious Benedict Society, a less carnivorous but still exciting mystery. And as much as I love literary fiction for adults and all its accompanying grey areas, these two books did make me appreciate the pull of a lives-at-stake plot. And it made me realize one of the reasons y.a. lit can get away with these plots is that the characters are children and therefore less likely to behave sensibly. One of the rules in writing for kids is to get rid of the parents as fast as possible (thus the prevalence of orphans), and that's ostensibly so that the kids can be at the center of the plot, responsible for themselves (and often the fate of the world). But really it's because if their parents were around they wouldn't let them do the things that drive the plot. This points out one of the problems with writing about grown-ups. If they behave sensibly they keep themselves out of trouble, if they don't behave sensibly--we question why they are acting like children. So in order to create a high stakes plot you often have to figure out a reason to have your adults behave without sense but for a sensible reason ... or you have to write about characters who aren't sensible. There's no way in a novel for adults to get the adults out of the there?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory by Peter Hessler

Full disclosure: I've known Pete since I was a freshman in college and he was a sophomore. He also once stopped me from being run over by a car with a timely "head's up."

As with his first two books, this is a great read--funny and informative and thoughtful. And as with his last book, Oracle Bones, it's interesting to see how he finds a way to take disparate magazine articles and turn them into a reasonably cohesive book. One of the things I noticed this time is how the book is being sold more as a Peter Hessler book than as a book about driving in China. His name is above the title and in red...And most interstingly, it's described as the last in the trilogy of Pete's books on China. I have to assume this is because he's ready to move on to new subjects (or even genres) and so is declaring early: the next book you see is going to be something different. It's not a strategy I've noticed before, but it makes sense: you can get pigeonholed by your success and this could be a way to build anticipation for whatever new thing Pete will do as well as a way to declare to his publisher and his public, this is it for the China stuff.

A couple of notes on the writing. One of the mistakes I see writers make when taking on cultures outside of their own is they are either too romantic or too condescending. Ah look at the poverty of Africa portrayed so lyrically and tragically. Or ah listen to how funny those wacky Vietnamese are. But this book uses humor really well without being condescending, and it definitely never romanticizes. (One reason is Pete lived in China for something like nine years, so naturally he's better able to convey the place than someone who just spent their junior year abroad). But, of course, Chinese bureaucracy can be funny and of course there are funny things that happen when an American journalist goes to live among Chinese peasants. So how does he convey that? Aside from the fact that Pete often positions himself as the object of humor, and that he fully characterizes the Chinese men and women in the book so that when they do something funny it's not a caricature, for the most part the book uses language as an object of humor as opposed to using people as an object of humor. My favorite examples are the quotes from the Chinese written driver's exam threaded throughout the opening section: "True/False: In a taxi, it's fine to carry a small amount of explosive material". And Pete's also very good at using his own quirks of language to add humor. Instead of holding out a thumb, Chinese hitchhikers bounce their hands up and down when looking for a ride, and to Pete this looks like they are petting an invisible dog. So throughout the book, he'll use that phrase "petting the dog" so that you see how the action is funny through his eyes-it reminds us that he's the foreign and strange one, not them. Another nice trick of language is that when referring to the car he rents and drives all over Mongolia he uses its brand name--the City Special--repeatedly so that the car itself gets a personality. Similarly when he gets lost due to the mismarkings on the Chinese maps--called Sinomaps--he says that he has been "Sinomapped" into sand or "Sinomapped" to a dry creek bed. It's a good reminder that attention to language--no matter your genre--is always going to be a good thing.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Art of Time in Fiction by Joan Silber

One of the reasons I like teaching writing is I like talking about craft. A lot of people, even teachers, don't really care for the idea of zooming in on various technical elements of writing and talking about them in prescriptive ways. They worry, justifiably, that doing so oversimplifies writing and makes it more mechanical. But I like it for two reasons--I like reading for craft (duh, whole blog about it) as a way of reading in and of itself, and I find it useful when brainstorming to actively think about how some of these craft elements could enter a new piece. I tend to let go of such distinct thoughts on craft once I'm actually drafting, but it helps me conceptualize. This would horrify some because it's a very self-conscious way to write, but hey, I get to do it any way I want. But also, and here's my point, I think it's fun to invent names for things that haven't been named. And Joan Silber, in this craft book from Graywolf's "The Art of" series edited by Charles Baxter, does a great job of naming different ways of depicting the passage of time: classic time, long time, switchback time, slowed time, fabulous time... And after giving these different practices names, she's able to dissect what they do and how they are created. It's a simplistic thought, but one of the ways we, as writers, can look more closely at craft is by first naming what's happening... name it so you can study it. Anyway, you'll have to read the book, which I recommend, to actually learn something about time...I'm just musing about craft writing in general.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

I Am the Cheese by Robert Cormier

This is a young adult novel that's been on my to-do list for a long time. But once I started it (about twenty years late) I zipped through. It's engagingly written, has very short chapters, and is very mysterious--all condusive to compulsive reading. Since I'm teaching adolescent literature this semester I've become increasingly aware of the fact that many college students are still in the stages of reading that I associate with being a teenager (quite a few college students of course still are teenagers or just barely beyond). And one of those stages of reading is taking a great deal of pleasure in solving puzzles. And so in the intro to creative writing class I tend to see quite a few pieces that are meant to be solved with one right answer. These pieces tend to fare well with the other students and much less well with, say, me. Because adult literary readers tend to want puzzles that don't have one right answer. Ambiguity can be great, a mystery with a solution feels a lot less complicated. And students in the lit classes get confused as well--they're still expecting their reading (especially poetry) to be a puzzle to be solved with one right answer. They're not so comfortable with the idea of multiple interpretations each of which has to be argued.

All of which is a long way of getting to my point...this novel is a puzzle to be solved with one right answer and it works; it's a classic. It's a really good puzzle, well executed, surprising in the end...a good example of what can be done with this kind of mystery. And it made me wonder if I am unfair in so regularly rejecting this kind of writing when it comes to literary fiction for adults. A lot of literary novels set up a mystery, gradually reveal clues so that the reader can be actively solving the mystery as they go, and then in the end...they solve the mystery and tell us just what did happen. A genre mystery doesn't really bear rereading because once you know the answer, the text isn't compelling. But a literary mystery can bear rereading because you care about the characters and the language and the ideas... so I guess it's fine to have a puzzle, as long as you also have the other stuff.

With that said, I still maintain my equally strong reaction against ironic endings. I just saw the film A Single Man and my reaction to the last five minutes was to wish I had closed my eyes and plugged my ears for that bit. Liked the movie a lot, but I reject its finish.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen

I reread this novel after picking up a one dollar copy at the Delray Beach Public Library, and I remembered admiring the voice, but I hadn't on my first reading read Hansen's novel The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and so I hadn't noticed how similar the voices are, except for the fact that Jesse James is a really long novel and Mariette in Ecstasy really short, and Jesse James is about outlaws and Mariette in Ecstasy about nuns. The voice is lyric and pretty and full of poetic lines arranged like lists--and oddly enough it works perfectly for both novels despite the differences. Probably because the prettiness is a nice surprise in Jesse James and while not surprising in a novel about a convent, it is a good fit. I don't really have a point except to say both the unexpected and the expected can work depending on what you do with them. And that an author might have a voice that carries between works (they're not an exact match, don't get me wrong) but that doesn't mean the works feel repetitive or even similar.

Monday, February 01, 2010

for New Yorkers

If you happen to live in or near Manhattan, my remarkably patient and supportive agent Priscilla Gilman is participating in this, surely informative, free event:

From the Writers' Institute at the Graduate Center of The City University of New York:


"Come hear Chris Cox from The Paris Review, Priscilla Gilman from Janklow & Nesbit, Hugo Lindgren from New York Magazine, David Propson from The Week Magazine, and Eben Shapiro from The Wall Street Journal discuss how to craft a great (and perfect) pitch. Feel free to bring along anyone interested as well as all the questions you’ve been dying to ask."

DATE: Wednesday, February 3rd from 5:30 to 7:30
PLACE: Segal Theater, at the Graduate Center, 365 Fifth Avenue (and 34th)

Friday, January 29, 2010

Recommended Reading upon the Death of J. D. Salinger

Catcher in the Rye gets most of the chatter, but when I was in high school Franny and Zooey was the book that put me under its spell. In the graduate workshop, we just read Nabokov's essay "Good Readers and Good Writers" and he ends with the idea that a writer should enchant... that novel for me was definitely an enchantment.

And then I went to college and my beloved thesis advisor, Russell Banks recommended Nine Stories...which was one of THE books that taught me to love short stories.

So post-mortem don't try to reread Catcher in the Rye, it won't be the book you remember because you're not that person now, try the other two...

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Interrogative Mood by Padgett Powell

Let me say first, the jacket design of this novel is great. I used to love looking at jacket covers and then so many started to look alike (photos of people whose heads are out of frame or photos of cityscapes or reprints of famous pieces of art)... but while this cover art is a photo, it's clever and just right for the text. It's a twisted up guy holding on to and staring at a backwards red question mark all on a white background without author name or novel title. It's curiousity raising and thematically appropriate. Kudos to the designer (the publisher Ecco is highbrow, so they do things right).

Anyway, the novel itself runs the risk of being too clever by ten--it's all questions, nothing but questions, questions questions questions--but it totally worked for me. It's an unidentified narrator asking 160some pages of questions of an unidentified "you". It seems to take its premise and voice from Whitman's "Song of Myself"--the epigraph is from the poem: "Do you take it I would astonish? Does the daylight astonish? or the early redstart twittering through the woods? Do I astonish more than they?" And ultimately it does read like a song of the self.

From start to finish the novel is like its opening paragraph:

"Are your emotions pure? Are your nerves adjustable? How do you stand in relation to the potato? Should it still be Constantinople? Does a nameless horse make you more nervous or less nervous than a named horse? In your view, do children smell good? If before you now, would you eat animal crackers? Could you lie down and take a rest on a sidewalk? Did you love your mother and father, and do Psalsms do it for you? If you are relegated to last place in every category, are you bothered enough to struggle up? Does your doorbell ever ring? Is there sand in your craw? Could Mendeleyev place you correctly in a square on a chart of periodic indentities, or would you resonate all over the board? How many push-ups can you do?"

The first effect was to make me think about me--I read it more like nonfiction, an examination of what defines the self. It made me want to write a book length series of answers: "Yes. Yes. Love the potato as long as it isn't sweet. Definitely not. Horses don't make me nervous. Depends on the child and the presence or nonpresence of a diaper. Yes. Yes. Yes, yes and no. Yes. My doorbell is broken. Always. I have no idea what Mendeleyev could or couldn't do. More than you'd expect by looking at me." In other words, it was a pretty narcissistic read for awhile, but like many narcissistic experiences, that was pleasurable.

But increasingly I found myself thinking about the choice to define this as a novel. I suppose that was partly due to the fact that Padgett Powell is known as a fiction writer and so it might not even occur to him to call this a nonfiction, but once you accept that it's a fiction, you have to wonder: are there two characters being created (the narrator and the "you") and is a relationship being implied? It's not too long before you notice the narrator has certain interests--bugs being pinned, a nostalgia for the way things were, a doubt in the way things are, a political lean to the left, a suspicion of religion...and it's interesting to notice that the posing of a question can reveal something about the beliefs of the questioner. For example: "I believe I asked you this before, but let me again if I did, because it is important to me: can you picture those old metal roller skates that had a metal shell or clamp up front under which you slid your shoe and a leather ankle strap in the rear to secure your ankle, the chief feature of which skates was that they had no flexibility or suspension and the wheels gained no traction whatsoever if you were on a surface smooth enough to pretend to skate on in the first place, and which, the wheels, since that surface was generally concrete, gradually wore down to sandblasted-looking remnants of themselves and became even more useless and treacherous than they had been new, so that the net effect of skating on these things was akin to ice skating on concrete? Weren't those old metal roller skates great?"

(as a writing exercise, you might write a conversation in which the person asking questions is actually revealing more about him(or her)self than he is learning about the other person)

Finally it starts to seem that the narrator is trying to find things out about the "you" but also to impress her (I read it as a her because she gets asked things like did your mother teach you to sew as opposed to did your father teach you to catch a football--for the record, my grad school colleague Howie Axelrod taught me how to catch a football and I immediately thereafter made a touchdown, which shows Howie's good heart because he wasn't even on my team)... Anyway in the long run it gets you thinking about how you define yourself, how you connect to other people, how you try to feel close to other people, how you judge them...

One of the interesting technical things is though the book is a series of questions that never build to any narrative (the last five pages don't read differently than the first five--which may be a flaw, I admit I started to skim at the very end). So every single question has to be good. Each question has to essentially stand alone as an interesting read, or the reader could pretty easily put the book down. But despite the lack of narrative, Powell uses paragraph and section breaks. And while there are some thematic groupings (often two or three questions in a row have to do with one thing) for the most part these paragraph and section breaks seem to operate more on the idea of the breath than anything else. You need a moment of silence not to jump in time/space (as in a traditional narrative) and not to jump in idea (as in essays) but just to rest a moment (perhaps while lying on the sidewalk). Without them the book would probably be too relentless--but I kind of wish he'd tried it just to see...

The final question is why not just do this as a short story. Why push it so far? Well, personally I would have made it 20-30 pages shorter so that it could be read in one longish sitting, but while it could have worked as a clever short story it's the very excess of it that makes it so interesting as a novel. That he could sustain it--it's pretty astonishing.