Archive for the 'Writing' Category
Tags: Javier Calvo, my reviews, Quarterly Conversation, Wonderful World
Tags: book reviewing, Books, online book reviewing, print book sections, Washington Post Book World
The persistent rumors have now been confirmed: the NY Times reported today that the Washington Post Book World will soon cease to be a separate entity in print. Book World will continue its independent existence online, but otherwise Post book coverage will be folded into other sections. As the Times story notes, publishers tend to pony up very little money for ad space in newspapers, and so folks in the newspaper business have had an increasingly hard time justifying turning over all those column inches to book coverage, especially in the midst of a financial crisis.
As a fledgling book critic, I’m never happy to hear news of newspaper book sections suffering cuts. But the news hardly comes as a surprise, and it’s possible to take at least some consolation in the fact that no one at the Post lost their jobs this time. It’s also encouraging that the paper plans to continue covering books in a dedicated and coherent fashion online.
Many of the early commentators on this matter seem to share the point of view of National Book Critics Circle president Jane Ciabatti, who the Times quotes as lamenting the death of the print edition because “it carried an authority that has not yet its parallel, online or off.” I find this comment very telling. Ciabatti is right on about one thing: there isn’t yet any site on the web that can boast of the kind of concentrated audience and authority that stand-alone print sections like Book World have enjoyed in the past. But, as the fairly widely-read book blog Elegant Variation put it today, “The future of book reviewing will not be found in print dailies…it’s online.” Sooner or later, a book reviewing website will become sufficiently popular and widely-read to achieve a position of substantial influence among dedicated readers. It’s possible that the site will be the online incarnation of an old newspaper books section—but it strikes me as more likely that it will be a new and independent operation, something born on the web and better suited to exploiting the advantages of the online environment. A good model for this would be the indie rock website Pitchfork, which started out as an amateur project, and in less than a decade became the most influential single voice within the indie rock subculture. With old models of distribution rapidly decaying, the time is ripe for an ambitious editor to bring a book site of similar importance into being.
But it’s also important to note that, despite its influence, Pitchfork is far from the only game in town when it comes to shaping indie rock opinion. Pitchfork makes and breaks bands on a regular basis, but so do music bloggers, and there are now any number of other paths by which a band or musician can come to the attention of fans. And like it or not, serious book lovers, much like indie rock fans, now constitute nothing more than another subculture. When it comes to the fate of the Book World, I think it’s not really the demise of the print section itself that Ciabatti and many others are mourning; rather, it’s the death of a world in which mainstream publications like the Washington Post could serve the role of cultural gatekeeper for a broad audience of readers. But today’s audiences are fragmented and diverse, and most consumers of books, music, and the arts are not particularly interested in being treated as an indistinguishable part of an undistinguished mass. And why should they be, when there’s a whole world of diverse and fascinating critical voices already out there on the web for readers to turn to?
Tags: blogging, Facebook, Twitter, Wired, writing for the web
When I was a teenager in Decatur, Illinois, in the early-to-mid 1990s, I thought Wired was just about the coolest thing ever. Having grown up on science fiction novels, it was easy for me to get caught up in the magazine’s relentless, starry-eyed cheerleading for the wondrous technological future. I also thrilled at being part of the in-group: nobody else I knew read or had even heard of Wired, and according to the writers and editors of the magazine, the fact that I (unlike my peers) was hip to their message meant that I was bound to be a part of the nascent techno-geek aristocracy.
These days I have a hard time with Wired: the problems with the magazine’s techno-libertarian politics are obvious to me now in ways that I failed to understand at fifteen, and its continued breathless cheerleading for what’s new and what’s next sometimes reaches absurd proportions. A case in point: a column by Paul Boutin published in Wired last month, which recently came to my attention via Bookninja. According to Boutin, the fact that professional bloggers associated with major websites draw more readers than amateur bloggers means that there’s no point in anyone else continuing blogging. “Thinking about launching your own blog?” Boutin writes. “Here’s some friendly advice: Don’t. And if you’ve already got one, pull the plug.” He suggests that because amateurs lack the skill and/or the time to write blog posts of the same quantity and quality as the blogging pros, they really shouldn’t bother blogging at all. The real action, he claims, is in brief message updates via Twitter or Facebook, and argues that the enforced brevity of the messages (a mere 140 characters for Twitter) “puts everyone back on equal footing.” As an amateur blogger, “it’s almost impossible to get noticed,” and therefore you ought to just throw in the towel.
I think it’s telling that Boutin equates a lack of recognition by the broadest mainstream readership with failure and pointlessness. In his article, he says nothing at all about the content of blog posts (amateur or professional); rather, he’s obsessed by matters of popularity and style. No doubt it’s true that many bloggers start out in the hope of having the whole world listen to them; and no doubt it’s also true that more than 99.9% of folks who go into it with that attitude eventually give up in failure. But I don’t think getting noticed is the sole point of blogging—not by any means. Personally, I’m happy when a post gets a (relatively) large number of hits, but even if I didn’t get any traffic at all, I’d keep posting all the same. I use my blog as a means for recording and expressing my thoughts on what I’m reading, listening to, watching, and thinking about. It’s also a great means for interacting with an informal community of bloggers, readers, and writers who are interested in the same kinds of things I am.
And this is the more fundamental and important point that Boutin misses here: even blogs that reach very small audiences perform real and powerful social and cultural functions—and in ways that mainstream blogs (or, for that matter, mass media) generally can’t. Though the most popular book bloggers have readerships in the thousands, rather than the millions, they’ve all the same part of a lively and deeply engaged subcultural community. Because of book blogs, I’m able to keep track of what’s going on in the world of literary writing, criticism, and publishing in an in-depth, instantaneous fashion. I’m never going to get anything like that from a mainstream blog; nor am I going to get it from the television, Facebook, or Twitter. Maud Newton may never draw enough readers to meet Boutin’s standards, but my life is better because she’s out there blogging about books. The same is no doubt true for any number of interest groups and subcultures—I’m sure there are similar corners of the blogosphere dedicated to fly fishing, showtunes, actuarial science, and many other things that I don’t particularly care about, and it’s wonderful that blogs have made those kinds of discussions and communities possible.
I’m also bothered by Boutin’s assertion that amateur bloggers are always necessarily outclassed by professionals. This isn’t true; there are many perfectly fine writers and commentators out there who don’t get paid for their work. But even as he asserts that the pros do better work, Boutin also expresses a longing for the days when posts by amateur bloggers would top the search engine results. He writes:
Today, a search for, say, Barack Obama’s latest speech will deliver a Wikipedia page, a Fox News article, and a few entries from professionally run sites like Politico.com. The odds of your clever entry appearing high on the list? Basically zero.
First off, Wikipedia is written by anonymous amateurs, so it’s an exceedingly poor example of the professionalization of the web. Second: it seems perfectly reasonable to me that professional news content would rise to the top of the search engine results on a topic like a presidential candidate. Professional journalists are the ones who are out there doing the reporting; bloggers add value to their work by linking to it and offering commentary and opinion from diverse viewpoints and for specific audiences. There’s nothing wrong with this pattern, and nothing wrong with the news sources getting the most hits. And besides, there’s little doubt that blogs continue to have a powerful influence over the way that news is reported: sites like DailyKos (with its mix of professional and amateur writing) really do get heard in the mainstream, and others, like FiveThirtyEight, have only recently succeeded in catapulting themselves from blogging obscurity and into the mainstream spotlight. In other words: not only is Boutin wrong about the implications of the supposed decreased importance of amateur blogging, he’s also wrong that new blogs can no longer reach the attention of the mainstream.
What bothers me more than anything about Boutin’s essay, though, is something else entirely: the absolute absurdity of the idea that a blog entry is somehow too long and cumbersome to be an effective means of communication—or that the 140 characters of a Twitter message could possibly be adequate for anything and everything that a would-be blogger might want to communicate. Even Boutin’s own article is well over that limit—3,198 characters, according to the word count feature in MS Word. As if to answer this objection, Boutin offers a Twitter-sized precis of his essay: “@WiredReader: Kill yr blog. 2004 over. Google won’t find you. Too much cruft from HuffPo, NYT. Commenters are tards. C u on Facebook?” And I suppose Boutin’s right at least in his own case: there’s just about as much substance in his 140-character Twitter message as in the whole of his article for Wired. But that doesn’t mean that the rest of us don’t have better things to say on our blogs (and at whatever length we please).
You should stop reading my blog and go vote (or even better, volunteer) for Barack Obama.
(There won’t be any new posts for a few days anyway, as I’ll be out knocking on doors.)
Tags: freelance writing, higher education, term paper mills, Writing
Nick Mamatas has written a funny and fascinating post on The Smart Set about his lucrative former career as a writer for a term paper mill. In the piece, he describes his typical clients (generally clueless and/or lazy college students), as well as his methods for churning out two or three term papers per day:
You have to make your own fun. In business papers, I’d often cite Marxist sources. When given an open topic assignment on ethics, I’d write on the ethics of buying term papers, and even include the broker’s Web site as a source. My own novels and short stories were the topic of many papers — several DUMB CLIENTS rate me as their favorite author and they’ve never even read me, or anyone else. Whenever papers needed to refer to a client’s own life experiences, I’d give the student various sexual hang-ups.
Mamatas says that the gig has not only helped his other, more substantial writing pursuits, but has also given him insight into why so many students struggle with writing a term paper in the first place:
It’s because students have never read term papers. Imagine trying to write a novel, for a grade, under a tight deadline, without ever having read a novel. Instead, you meet once or twice a week with someone who is an expert in describing what novels are like. Novels are long stories, you see, that depict a “slice of life” featuring a middle-class protagonist. Psychological realism is prized in novels. Moral instruction was once fairly common in novels, but is now considered gauche. Novels end when the protagonist has an epiphany, such as “I am not happy. Also, neither is anybody else.” Further, many long fictions are called novels even though they are really adventures, and these ersatz novels may take place in a fantastical setting and often depict wild criminal behaviors and simplified versions of international intrigues instead of middle-class quandaries. Sometimes there are pirates, but only so that a female character may swoon at their well-developed abdominal muscles. That’s a novel. What are you waiting for? Start writing! Underline your epiphany.
There’s some solid advice there for all you first-year composition teachers out there: please, please be extremely clear in your expectations, and give your students some examples of successful papers to work from. As a librarian, I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve had a reference interaction with a student who simply didn’t understand what a research paper was. They’d come to me with a vague idea that they were supposed to copy some things from journals and then type them up in Microsoft Word, and would often show signs of bafflement and fright when I’d explain to them that they were actually expected to do things like construct their own original argument while marshaling support from the works of scholars and other experts. The whole concept was often foreign to them: most first-year college students have never seen an academic journal before, and many have barely read anything at all. And a good proportion of them have never been asked to build an argument or analyze a text: generally they’ve summarized things in book reports and answered “objective” multiple choice questions, but that’s about it. The task of writing a research paper, then, can seem truly daunting—but as Mamatas points out, it would no doubt go a long way if more instructors would simply give beginning students examples of successful papers, and talk about how and why they work.
Mamatas goes on to argue that he’s no more of a “cheat” than the colleges and universities that happily cash tuition checks from students who can’t really be gaining much of anything from their classes. This is an insightful observation. But all the same, I think Mamatas lets himself off a little too easily: certainly profiting off of students and educational institutions makes him complicit in their failures. It’s kind of like condemning an angry mob of looting rioters, but then reaching into a smashed store window to grab a TV set anyway.
Tags: art and age, Ben Fountain, Books, Cezanne, creativity, David Galenson, Jonathan Safran Foer, Malcolm Gladwell, Marnie Stern, Music, Philip Roth, Picasso
Since the days of the Romantics, youthful inspiration has long been associated with artistic genius and the production of great work. Talented young artists are seen as iconoclasts rebelling against the idols of generations past, and are expected to produce their greatest and most significant work early in their careers. Older artists seen as wedded to the ideas and aesthetics of generations past, and it is often assumed that their best work is behind them.
In a recent article in The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell draws on the work of the University of Chicago economist David Galenson on the question of the relationship between age and the production of great artistic work. In his book Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity, Galenson offers a comparative discussion of Picasso (an early bloomer) and Cezanne (whose artistic success only came much later in life), and concludes that Picasso’s path to greatness is by no means the only way for an artist to get there.
With Gladwell’s article in mind, I was also struck by a recent Pitchfork interviewwith the guitarist and songwriter Marnie Stern, in which she discusses the significance of the fact that she didn’t put out a debut album until after the age of thirty. In the world of popular music, that’s nearly a decade behind schedule for a recording debut—most musicians and bands get their start by their early twenties at the latest. Even more than in most fields, there’s a very strong expectation in popular music that only the young will produce great work, and that aging only reduces the power and relevance of a musician’s output. Young bands have the greatest energy and freshest ideas, and tend to create their masterworks only three or four albums into their careers (if not sooner). After that, many musicians settle in for years or even decades of comfortably retreading the same ground, never again recapturing the fire of their earlier innovations and accomplishments.
The case of Marnie Stern, then, is certainly unusual in popular music—especially given that her new sophomore release, the verbosely titled This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That, only confirms her status as a unique and dazzling talent. Her first album, 2007′s In Advance of the Broken Arm, succeeds largely on the strength of Stern’s idiosyncratic and head-spinning fretwork: on song after song, she unleashes avalanches of notes, while all the same sounding very little like guitar gods past. On This Is It…., the adventurous guitar playing, harsh sonics, and rhythmic complexity of her previous album remain, but this time she adds a healthy dose of tunefulness to the mix. Stern has arrived on the indie rock scene as a fully-formed talent with a unique and compelling vision—an achievement that, by her own account, she simply could not have managed when she was younger.
When asked by the Pitchfork interviewer if she felt “there was an advantage to having your first record come that late,” Stern answered:
Of course. I don’t know about for other people, but I know for me, I mean, I had material for all those years and certainly wasn’t anywhere near up to par. I think it takes a long time to find your voice. A really long fucking time to figure it out. And plus, I don’t know, I guess it’s different for everyone, but it’d be hard to tap into a really honest place when you’re really young….And how brave you are. Because that’s the other thing. The only things I like to listen to are things where risks are being taken. I think that’s the only thing that pushes you to the next place, when you do things that are out of your comfort zone.
Stern didn’t emerge out of nowhere at the age of 30; instead, she devoted countless hours over a period of years to an intense and serious exploration of who she was as a guitarist, songwriter, and creative person. She was unsatisfied with the the work she was producing when she was younger, and also felt that she hadn’t yet “found her voice.” If she’d attempted to make a go at a music career in her early twenties, she would have lacked both the self-knowledge and the technical skill that play significant roles in making her music so successful now that she’s in her thirties.
In popular music, the norm is for an artist to follow a pattern of development that matches David Galenson’s description of a “Young Genius”—someone who, like Picasso, bursts onto the scene early in their 20s, and produces their greatest and most significant work in the years immediately following. Marnie Stern, on the other hand, would seem to be a closer match for Galenson’s “Old Master” category: artists who labor for years or decades to find their voices, and rarely enjoy their greatest accomplishments until much later in life.
For Galenson and Gladwell, it’s not just that “Old Masters” bloom later; rather, their entire approach to creativity is fundamentally different. In his New Yorker article, Gladwell establishes a contrast between the fiction writers Jonathan Safran Foer—who wrote his highly successful first novel, Everything Is Illuminated, at the age of 19—and Ben Fountain, whose debut story collection, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, was published when he was 48. According to Gladwell, Foer writes quickly and passionately when inspiration takes him, and finds it difficult to comprehend how a writer could work doggedly at researching and re-working a piece of writing over a long period of time. Fountain, on the other hand, worked on his fiction for 18 years before he saw publication and success, and sees writing as a slow and laborious process of careful thought and self-discovery. Fountain, in fact, will sometimes write as much as 500 pages of drafts in order to produce a single short-story. Much like Stern, Fountain’s success did not depend on a burst of youthful energy, but instead on many years of devoted research, reading, exploration, and hard work.
Quoted in Gladwell, Galenson notes that, for artists like Cezanne (or Fountain, or Stern), creativity takes a very different form than it does for a Picasso:
They consider the production of a painting as a process of searching, in which they aim to discover the image in the course of making it; they typically believe that learning is a more important goal than making finished paintings.
On a personal level, I find it much easier to identify with Fountain, Stern, and Cezanne than with Picasso or Safran Foer. When I read about Fountain’s 500 pages of work for a single short story, I sighed in recognition: I tend to write at least ten or fifteen thousand words for every thousand that actually make it into a completed draft of a short story. Also like Cezanne or Fountain (and perhaps like Stern), I don’t tend to view my creative work in conceptual terms—my creative energy instead comes from the process of exploring themes, language, and characters in the hope of coming to some kind of greater understanding of the world and of fiction itself.
That said, Galenson’s categories do seem like something of an oversimplification. No doubt there are many artists who fail to fit into either the “Young Genius” or “Old Master” mold. One example that comes immediately to mind is Philip Roth: his debut short story collection Goodbye, Columbus (1959) earned him widespread critical acclaim, and positioned him as a young rising literary star. But his next few novels were far less successful, and he seemed to struggle to find his voice until the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint (1969). And Roth wouldn’t write several of his best novels until the 1990s. The pattern of his career doesn’t match either of Galenson’s categories. (Though he is a good fit for one of the Galenson’s characteristics of an “Old Master”: Roth has consistently, even obsessively, revisited similar themes, ideas, settings, and characters throughout his career.)
Gladwell’s article also alludes to another factor in artistic development without fully engaging it: questions of class and financial support. While Ben Fountain struggled for the better part of two decades to produce his first good fiction, his wife, a successful lawyer, offered him both financial and moral support. And as Gladwell does point out, Cezanne had a string of famous patrons during his very long artistic apprenticeship. Not all artists are nearly so fortunate: in fact, it would seem likely that many people who might have one day created great works instead end up unable to practice their art in any kind of sustained manner because they simply don’t have the kind of support that would free them to devote the necessary time and energy. It’s hard to labor through years and years of disappointment when you have to pay the bills, take care of the kids, mow the lawn, and put dinner on the table every night. Very few artists will be so lucky as to find themselves a good patron.
Gladwell didn’t address the class and gender issues underlying the economic realities of artistic production. In music, for example, no doubt part of why the “Young Genius” model has taken such hold is because the demands of establishing a music career are easiest for young men of a middle-class (or better) background to manage. It’s hard to (for example) raise a family while you’re broke all the time and need to devote your time to the exhausting grind of touring, as well as to the late-night partying and socializing that’s necessary for networking your way into the music scene. Older musicians are bound to have a harder time living up to these kinds of expectations. And it’s far easier to choose to place yourself into poverty for a few years if you know that you can always get a “real” job someday (thanks to your college degree), and that if you really get in trouble, your middle-class (or richer) parents will always be there to bale you out.
Tags: book reviews, Books, Joyce Carol Oates, My Love, my reviews, My Sister
(I’ll be writing more substantive blog entries again soon–it’s been a busy couple of weeks, and most of my writing time has been dedicated to working on an essay for the Virginia Quarterly Review‘s Young Reviewers Contest, which I’ve now completed and submitted.)
Tags: Books, Farah Jasmine Griffin, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, my reviews, PopMatters, reviews, Salim Washington
Tags: Books, Robert Olen Butler, Writing
In a column in the Washington Post, Robert Olen Butler discusses the first and entirely failed decade of his writing life, during which he produced (by his own account) around “a million words of dreck” before finally stumbling upon an approach that made his fiction far more successful. For Butler, it came (oddly enough) in a dream about Richard Nixon, which demonstrated to him the importance of trusting the impulses of the unconscious, while also teaching him a lesson in compassion. Butler writes:
Moreover, the insight itself, as in any work of art, was imbedded not in ideas or abstractions — of which there were far too many in early works — but in the moment-to-moment sensual details: a man dressed in a conservative business suit, sobbing; a pair of socks fallen down at the ankle. Perhaps most important, I understood that an artist has to be compassionate. We create characters — virtual souls — and ask our readers to see them as true reflections of some aspect of the human condition. And we place those characters in situations where they must make choices that inescapably imply a universe of values and standards. In essence, we writers act out the role of God. And if we’re going to do that, then it is incumbent on us to be a loving God.
The God bit is a little grandiose for my taste, but all the same, I think Butler basically right here: writers need to feel compassion for the characters in their stories—even if they’re as unlikable and deeply flawed as Richard Nixon. When a reader feels nothing for a character, there’s little reason to care about the results when that character is put to some kind of ethical or personal test. But when a writer reveals the human in characters who are otherwise repulsive or even evil, those characters’ struggles and choices become meaningful in human terms.
Tags: Charlie Kaufman, directing, Movies, screenwriting
CBC News (link via Bookninja) has an interview with Charlie Kaufman, in which he discusses the relationship between his work as a screenwriter and his new role as a director. Kaufman’s latest project, Synecdoche, New York, was originally intended to be another Kaufman / Spike Jonze collaboration, but Jonze had to step aside due to his commitments to work on Where the Wild Things Are.
In the interview, Kaufman discusses his fears that the experience of directing might re-shape how he approaches his writing, because he now knows more about the practical challenges faced by a director, and thus might choose to discard some ideas in a screenplay-in-progress out of fear they might be too impractical or expensive to actually film. I typically think of writing as being a process limited only by your own imagination and personal discipline—so I can imagine that it would be a little disorienting and frustrating, in creative terms, to suddenly find yourself limited by the constraints of the special effects budget or the number of hours of good light in a day.
In any case: this is definitely a film I’m eager to see.
Tags: Books, personality types, Scott McCloud, Writing
The Guardian reports that Scott McCloud (author of Understanding Comics) has devised a scheme for classifying writers, comic book authors, and other artistic types into one of four “tribes.” The Guardian writer’s article presents a handy chart, displaying the characteristics of these groups (formalist, animist, classicist, iconoclast) in relationship to one another. It reminds me of the kind of classifications you’ll find in the Myers-Briggs personality test, or the Kolb Learning Style Inventory: useful in that it makes you think somewhat systematically about the way you approach the world (or art), but never really able to fulfill the promise of placing you neatly into a predefined category (as people rarely fit neatly into any kind of predefined category).
Interestingly enough, Scott McCloud himself has left a comment on the Guardian article, in which he points out ways in which the writer failed to accurately reproduce his classification scheme, and then also distances himself from it a little bit. “It’s a fun party game,” he writes, but not much more.
I suppose most of us would always like to believe that it’s possible to be so easily understood—that all it takes is some clever person to describe exactly what we already know about ourselves but haven’t been able to fully communicate to the outside world. But identity is far more complicated than that—we all know this, but we’re all the same disappointed whenever a theory like this once again reveals the gaps in understanding that we have about ourselves and our relationships with others.
Tags: grammar and usage, New York Times, Writing
For those of you fascinated by things like the official difference between “premiere” and “premier” and the original meaning of the phrase “begs the question,” I’d like to recommend After Deadline, a Times Topics blog to which deputy news editor Philip B. Corbett makes weekly posts about the varied and numerous stylistic errors that slip by the New York Times copyeditors and make it into print. In this space, Corbett (who maintains the paper’s official style manual) points out not only plain and simple mistakes (such as “parking break” for “parking brake,” or “G.I. track exam” for “G.I. tract exam”), but also tracks incidences of cliche, colloquialism, and many other kinds of stylistic sloppiness. Writers and grammar geeks would be well-advised to check it out.
Tags: Aspects of the Novel, Books, E.M. Forster, fiction, novels, Writing
I’ve long had an aversion to reading writing manuals. It’s not that I feel I have nothing to learn as a writer (far from it), nor that I believe that writing can’t be taught (it can). But when I stand before the wide and crowded shelves of writing books at a chain store, I always feel a twinge of disgust and guilt, as if I’ve been caught gaping at the site of an accident. There’s something uncomfortably exploitative about most commercial writing manuals: they prey on people’s desperate hopes in much the same fashion as self-help books and get-rich-quick guides, promising to reveal simple, surefire, step-by-step secrets to achieving dreams that in reality require loads of talent, hard work, and luck. What’s being sold is the idea that achieving your dreams can be easy; that knowledge of a few simple rules contained within a writing manual will inevitably lead you to bestsellers and critical acclaim. But of course most people don’t get rich quick, and their grief and loneliness can’t be healed by reading a book by Dr. Phil. It’s the self-conscious manipulation here that leaves me a bit queasy: writers and publishers of writing manuals are too often little better than snake oil salesmen, hawking miracle cures by encouraging people to fully believe in their wildest fantasies.
So, I tend to avoid setting foot in the writing books aisle altogether. No doubt that’s part of why it’s taken me so long to get around to reading E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel—not because I have anything against Forster or the idea of this book in particular, but instead because I have a hard time bringing myself to read books on writing in general. But Forster’s book—taken from a series of lectures he delivered at Trinity College, Cambridge, and published in 1927— is far from a commercial writing manual in any case (though the edition I bought is certainly packaged as if that’s exactly what it is). Forster doesn’t offer writing advice per se; instead, he sets out to describe the novel and explain its function. This is a work of criticism, but it’s instructive for critics and writers both; I think it fully deserves its famous reputation, as well as its perennial place on writing workshop syllabi. I really should have picked it up sooner.
Several of the ideas in Forster’s book have become such commonplaces of fiction scholarship that they’re likely to be familiar to anyone who’s taken a college-level English class. I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve read about or heard a lecture on the concept of round and flat characters—though much of the complexity of Forster’s original idea seems to have been lost in the retelling. Typical writing advice identifies round characters as “good,” and denigrates flat characters as being underdeveloped or insufficiently realistic. But this isn’t Forster’s point; instead, he argues that both types of characters have their uses, and further that a book that attempts to balance too many three-dimensional characters is bound to collapse under their excessive weight.
But Forster’s greatest strength here isn’t in creating neat, insightful distinctions (round vs. flat; story vs. plot; etc.), but rather in his ability to articulate what it is he finds most powerful and compelling in a novel. In a chapter entitled “Prophecy,” Forster takes a close look at Dostoevsky and Melville (among others) in order to get at the feeling created in a reader by the experience of reading a great novel:
Dostoevsky’s characters ask us to share something deeper about their experiences. They convey to us a sensation that is partly physical–the sensation of sinking into a translucent globe and seeing our experience floating far above us on its surface, tiny, remote, yet ours.
For Forster, “prophetic” novelists like Dostoevsky can serve as a kind of transcendent conduit: they have the power to transport us to higher levels of consciousness, while also keeping close to recognizably human experience. Prophetic novels convey “the sensation of a song or a sound,” Forster writes, even as they might also “be patiently accurate about a trial or the appearance of a staircase.” The prophetic writer’s “song” is effective in part because it has the shock of being odd and new; but its success depends on the ways in which it “combine[s] with the furniture of common sense.” Prophetic writers take the real and infuse it with art and emotion that reach beyond the merely realistic.
Reading this kind of work can be a rough business: “While they pass under our eyes they are full of dents and grooves and lumps and spikes which draw from us little cries of approval and disapproval.” A prophetic novel can never be overly neat; it needs to be infused with both the uneven texture of the real world and the madness of a prophet. Such a novel can only be approached with “humility,” Forster suggests; we have to open ourselves up to writers like Dostoevsky, Melville, and Lawrence, and let them transport us where they will.
Here Forster has articulated exactly the kind of experience that I most want out of art—and I suppose it’s the kind of experience I’d like to create through writing fiction, too. So, if I’ve taken any writing advice from Aspects of the Novel, I suppose it’s that I just need to write like Dostoevsky. That sounds simple enough—no doubt the secret is to break it down into a few simple steps….
Good Readings is on temporary hiatus. Between an out-of-state move, a job hunt, and a wedding, I’ve been short on time lately.
I intend to return to posting regularly early in August.
Tags: Books, Hanif Kureishi, literary writing, MFA programs, teaching writing, Writing, writing classes
The Guardian reports that the playwright, novelist, and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi recently made a caustic public attack on creative writing courses and programs, describing them as “mental hospitals” in which students are misled into believing that the academic study of writing will “inevitably” result in successful literary careers. No doubt Kureishi is correct that many writing students begin their coursework with unrealistic expectations—and it’s definitely also true that some writing programs are happy to nurture students’ fantasies of bestsellers and Nobel Prizes beyond all reason, just so long as the tuition checks continue to clear.
That said, the sheer vitriol with which Kureishi delivered his assault fascinates me. Not that Kureishi is doing anything unusual here—writers and commentators frequently mount attacks on writing programs and students along these lines, and very often using a similarly abrasive and contemptuous tone. But why is it, exactly, that the idea of creative writing as an academic pursuit brings on this kind of harshly negative response? Very few people seem troubled by the existence of university programs in film and the fine arts—which aren’t any more likely to produce the next Picasso or Hitchcock than a writing program is to nurture a 21st-century Shakespeare. Film, art, and writing programs all graduate their fair share of mediocre (and outright bad) practitioners—as well as the occasional master. So why, then, do creative writing programs get singled out?
I wonder sometimes if underlying this kind of attack there might be some anxiety about the value of literary writing itself. Film is still seen mostly as a mass medium; its extreme popularity guarantees its cultural importance (at least for now). And visual art, in contrast, has long been viewed as belonging almost exclusively in the realm of high culture—it’s supposed to be abstruse and remote, something to be appreciated primarily in museums, in the academy, or on the walls of the homes of the extremely wealthy. Lliterary writing seems to be on its way to a cultural position less like that of film, and more like that of visual art: it’s slowly fading out of the broader popular consciousness and into a the hands of predominately academic and subcultural audiences. An instructive comparison might be the fate of jazz in recent decades: the music still has its core of dedicated fans, as well as some truly remarkable present-day practitioners—but it’s now rarely given any attention at all in the mainstream media, while at the same time it’s become the focus of more and more scholarship and academic programs. Jazz is by no means dead, and neither is literary writing—there’s still vital (even great) work being done in both, and there are still niche audiences that appreciate them.
But if literary fiction is headed for the retirement home of academia and subculture, then it becomes somewhat unclear what its cultural role might (or should) be. Literary writing sets out to be “important,” and its finest practitioners are supposed to be “great.” But if no one’s paying it any attention, it’s understandable that writers and commentators might get a little nervous about their continued claims for the significance and relevance of literary writing. Phenomena like MFA programs and creative writing courses just serve as reminders of how difficult it is for a literary writer to make a living without institutional support; and that institutional support itself suggests that literary writing’s vitality has weakened.
Of course, the nature of the contemporary cultural environment—with its infinite array of forms, genres, styles, and media to choose from—encourages niche-based cultural engagement over mass popularity in any case. Whatever the value of literary writing—or of any kind of artistic expression—it seems increasingly unlikely that it can achieve a truly broad popularity or cultural importance now. If writers and commentators on literary writing continue to hold it to those expectations, they’re bound to be disappointed.
There’s perhaps another (but related) reason why some folks dislike writing programs so intensely: viewing literary writing as embattled, some of its proponents would like to circle the wagons in order to defend its purity and superiority against outside cultural invaders. Literary writing is unpopular, but writing courses, on the other hand, are anything but: MFA programs routinely receive hundreds or even thousands of applications from aspiring writers, and undergraduate creative writing courses tend to fill up quickly. Some of those students aren’t particularly well-read, and have no particular literary ability; others are very knowledgeable and/or talented, but are predominately interested in modes like genre fiction or inspirational poetry. But they do all want to write—much to the frustration of the sometimes narrowly literary-minded writers who teach them. The fact that so many of these hopeful scribblers aren’t particularly interested in literary aesthetics is no doubt galling to many literary writers— and of course if you hold the narrow-minded (and also very much outmoded) idea that the only kind of writing of value is literary writing, then you’re very likely to see much of your students’ work as worthless.
But: so what if writing classes don’t produce many literary greats? Why should that be the point of writing classes? What’s wrong with ordinary people getting a chance to learn how to be better writers and storytellers in some small way? Who cares if, by literary standards, their work is wretched? Isn’t it better to have at least engaged even the worst writer in the process of writing—to have made them think about writing and literature? And isn’t it good to give everyone a chance to raise their voice, knowing that at least a handful of people in a workshop will listen to them? Is there any reason on earth why a writing workshop (or even an MFA program) should be considered a failure if it doesn’t produce a literary master?
The other side of the coin here is that even if most writing students have no particular literary ability, there’s all the same actually a great surfeit of literary talent out there. The literary world tends to elevate a handful of writers to greatness: only so many books can win the National Book Award, and there’s only enough space in The New Yorker or The Paris Review to publish a very small percentage of the good stories and poems that are being written. Even tiny literary journals read by a couple hundred people typically receive thousands of submissions annually—and though no doubt a great deal of that writing isn’t very good, it’s no doubt also true that there’s more worthy work in the slushpile than there will ever be room to print.
The fact of the existence of all of this talent is no doubt also troubling to some writers, editors, critics, and commentators of a particularly elitist bent. An elitist might wonder: who are all these people who think they can write? These masses of uncredentialed unknowns, people who don’t live in New York and don’t know anybody in literary publishing and don’t have an Ivy League degree and don’t have any kind of recognizable pedigree—how dare they put on such airs! The presence of so much talent and good work threatens ideas about canonicity, or about the central importance of a handful of successful contemporary literary stars. It’s hard to do your job as a cultural gatekeeper if you have to admit that there are a dozen or a hundred great stories out there for every one you decide to anoint with your approval.
Tags: 1960s, Paul Auster, protest movements, Writing
It’s a well-written piece throughout, but I think it’s interesting primarily for the conclusion he offers:
What did we accomplish? Not much of anything….We at Columbia were powerless, and our little revolution was no more than a symbolic gesture. But symbolic gestures are not empty gestures, and given the nature of those times, we did what we could.
I hesitate to draw any comparisons with the present — and therefore will not end this memory-piece with the word “Iraq.” I am 61 now, but my thinking has not changed much since that year of fire and blood, and as I sit alone in this room with a pen in my hand, I realize that I am still crazy, perhaps crazier than ever.
I’ve attended a number of anti-war protests in recent years, including some enormous ones, and (rather obviously) none of them brought about an end to the war. Nor did any of the petitions I’ve signed, or any of the letters I’ve sent to my representatives. But all the same, I do have my voice, however ineffectual it ultimately may be. And as Auster points out, the creation of art is much the same. A book isn’t likely to change the world, and the gesture of writing one is largely symbolic. Your voice probably won’t be heard at all, and even if it is, it almost certainly won’t change anything. But all the same, you must not be silent: it’s important to speak out, and to struggle to speak the truth as you understand it, because to do otherwise is to cede whatever small powers you may have.
And though Auster doesn’t discuss this, it’s probably worth noting that the student protests of the 60s did ultimately help to bring about change—they even helped hasten the end of the Vietnam War. Perhaps the siege of Columbia University accomplished little; but at the same time, it was part of a much larger movement, involving many sieges, and many protesting voices, that did, in fact, make a difference. And again, it’s much the same for the creation of art: all you have to offer is your one small voice, but many voices together make a culture, and do, indeed, shape the ways in which people act and think.
Or at least I hope so. I think the romantic and the cynic in me do battle on this kind of question—as to what real power, if any, art and political protest might have. Though I can tell you that making art and participating in protests for a just causes are both things that make me feel more alive, and more deeply connected to other people.