Friday, November 18, 2005

Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg

I tend to enjoy the history of publishing, and so found this bio of superstar Scribner's editor, Maxwell Perkins, quite interesting. Perkins is most famous for making famous F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe. He's also responsible for Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and a lot of other authors who were apparently mega-sellers in their day but are no longer known. I've known the facts about Perkins for quite sometime (he's famous in my family for being married to my grandfather's cousin--how's that for useless name-dropping?), but I had never before realized that he favored a certain kind of writing and a certain kind of writer. Apparently he liked larger-than-life people who wrote about their large lives. So while he had a keen eye for finding good stylists, what he was really looking for were writers with built in stories to tell. It was Perkins who pressed Rawlings to write a book about her childhood in the Everglades, a book that became The Yearling.

I myself have never been one for writing overtly autobiographical fiction (probably because I like a life that's smaller than life), and as I read this bio I started to wonder if I discourage (or discourage by omission) autobiographical fiction from my students. One of the factors of creative writing classes is the student-writers are often quite young. And so to suggest they should write autobiographical fiction seems sort of absurd. Yet I've found that the undergraduate workshops I've taught in creative nonfiction have generated some really good material. And the non-autobiographical fiction generated in workshop is often out of this world (I mean literally, not as a description of its qualities). Not that science fiction/fantasy writing is anything to be ashamed of, but it's not typically what I'm trying to teach. So maybe the key is to help students identify what of their autobiography actually makes for good writing. It's often the stuff you wouldn't want to admit to in a room full of near-strangers, so we wouldn't have to get into the details; yet I think it's worth at least talking more openly about using autobiography as source material, and talking too about how to transition it into fiction.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Parasites Like Us by Adam Johnson

This first novel is crazy in all the best ways. It's a perfect example of what I call exuberant writing: writing that is so wildly imagined, so much the creation of its author, that it seems as if it must have been written in a manic fit of inspiration. Now the reality, I suspect, is it was written in daily toil as most novels are--but like some books I mentioned previously--Eyre Affair, Lives of the Monster Dogs, Harry Potter--it is so imaginative that it seems like it must have been fun to write. What I'm really saying is it's fun to read. It's not a tour-de-force of character development or even plot, but every page is rich with observation and an incredible attention to detail. The premise is North American humans have largely gone extinct and one of the remaining survivors is going to tell us why. But instead of the tone being apocalyptic (as in Atwood's Oryx and Crake), it's satiric. Johnson was a student of Ron Carlson's (the beloved) as an undergraduate and the novel reads to me as if one of Carlson's narrators bred with the narrator of Don DeLillo's White Noise and they entered a setting by Vonnegut. But the novel is a good example of influence rather than imitation. These other authors show through, but the book feels entirely Johnson's own. Perhaps the key to this is the blending of several influences rather than following only one.