Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Jonathan Safran Foer

The fame monster

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John Updike on the cover of Time Magazine

“Celebrity,” John Updike famously wrote, “is a mask that eats into the face.” But celebrity among writers is a strange thing. We’re long past the point where a novelist can singlehandedly turn the temper of his or her time, as Norman Mailer and others of his generation once believed was possible, but a handful of authors do become celebrities of a certain limited kind. We see short news items, as James Parker notes of Martin Amis in The Atlantic, when they change agents or apartments, and their features become reasonably familiar to us from dust jacket photos or the staged shots from the New York Times Book Review. I’ve gone through countless author headshots while preparing my Quotes of the Day, and it’s a little funny how often the same props reappear: the desk, the bookshelf, the cigarette. Photographers seem eager to pose novelists among the tools of their trade, as if in response to how opaque a writer’s work can seem from the outside; Kanye West doesn’t need to stand in front of an 808 to remind us of what he does for a living, but with most authors, we need a visual cue to let us know why this pale, pasty person is looking out at us from a magazine.

The one good thing about becoming a famous writer is that you can exist as a figure of intense importance to a wide circle of readers without being harassed on the street. John Lahr’s recent New Yorker profile of Al Pacino emphasizes how grindingly strange a life of real fame can be: “I haven’t been in a grocery store or ridden the subway in fifty years,” Pacino says. For a serious actor, this kind of alienation from ordinary life can be a handicap; if every interaction is skewed from the start, it’s hard to remember when it was ever anything else. Writers, for the most part, can go shopping or ride public transportation incognito, and even an author whose work saturates airport bookstores probably has little trouble making it onto the plane. I’m not sure I could pick John Grisham out of a crowd. The number of Americans who have finished a novel by Stephen King pales in comparison to those who watch LeBron James play basketball on any given night. We tend to compare literary success to its peers, not to the larger culture, so it’s easy to forget that 100,000 copies in hardcover—which made a phenomenon out of Jonathan Safran Foer—amounts to 0.03% of this country’s population.

Jonathan Franzen in Time Magazine

Oddly, it’s the faces of literary novelists that we seem to see the most, even if their sales aren’t nearly at the level of their mainstream counterparts. More of us would recognize Jonathan Franzen at Zabar’s than James Patterson. This is partially because of the logic of a career in literary fiction, in which reviews, interviews, awards, and teaching serve to offset scanty sales, and partially thanks to the nature of that kind of writing itself, which turns the voice of the author into a selling point. I’m not particularly interested in who Thomas Harris or Frederick Forsyth “is,” as long as they write compelling stories in which the authorial viewpoint almost disappears; but the work of writers like Updike or Mailer or Bellow is inseparable from the personality it expresses. We’re more curious about the face behind a book like Infinite Jest than The Da Vinci Code, and if it’s true that we all end up with the faces we deserve, it’s no surprise that literary writers look a little more haggard and interesting. Even then, I don’t know how often they’re accosted by fans. I had my share of celebrity sightings in seven years in New York, but I don’t think I’ve ever randomly recognized an author I knew.

Yet the hunger for fame, even if it’s only within a select sliver of the reading world, still drives a lot of writers. We measure ourselves against the the outliers, forgetting all the while that we’ve only heard of them because they’re exceptional, and forget all the others toiling away in obscurity. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: writing is so punishing a profession in other ways that it takes a powerful immediate desire to carry an author with a realistic idea of his talents from one day to the next, whether it’s the promise of sexual conquest, revenge on imagined enemies, or even money. Celebrity is probably a healthier notion than most of these, especially because the version of it even a major author receives is so illusory.  As I’ve said before, writing any book, even a bad one, requires that the author think that he’s a little better and more exceptional than he really is, and if most of us end up somewhere in the middle, it’s only because we aimed at a high mark and fell short. Fame, for authors, doesn’t really exist in the same way it does in other fields; it may never have existed at all. But it’s a useful fiction, and without it, we might not have other kinds of fiction at all.

Tree of Codes and the power of constraints

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The more I think about Tree of Codes, the more I’m reminded of another Woody Allen observation, which also appears in Eric Lax’s book:

There’s no question that comedy is harder to do than serious stuff. There’s also no question in my mind that comedy is less valuable than serious stuff.

Similarly, it’s clear that Tree of Codes was much harder to write, at least in some ways, than most conventional novels, but in the end, it’s also probably less valuable. I’d much rather see Foer really tackle a genre piece, for example, after the fashion of Michael Chabon, although I don’t see this happening anytime soon.

Still, there’s something to be said for an artist willing to work under such serious constraints. Writers, in particular, stand to benefit from deliberate restrictions, much more than, say, filmmakers, who are already forced to deal with severe constraints—of time, budget, location—that don’t apply to fiction. (The history of film, unless you’re James Cameron, is a history of solving problems using limited resources.) A writer is limited only by talent, and perhaps by time, which means that most restrictions need to be imposed from the outside. Which is often a good idea.

So what form should these restrictions take? You could try writing under a set of challenging formal rules, as poets do, or within a massive symbolic architecture, like Dante and Joyce. But for ordinary mortals, the most productive constraint is a very different one, and it’s such an important point that I’m putting it in boldface:

For most writers, the best and most useful constraint is genre.

Genre is often seen as a crutch, allowing a writer to let established formulas take the place of invention—but ideally, the opposite is true. By pushing back against a genre’s conventions, and finding ways of telling fresh stories within those constraints, a writer is forced to be much more inventive than if he or she had complete narrative freedom. As P.D. James puts it in The Paris Review:

…I thought writing a detective story would be a wonderful apprenticeship for a “serious” novelist, because a detective story is very easy to write badly but difficult to write well. There is so much you have to fit into eighty or ninety-thousand words—not just creating a puzzle, but an atmosphere, a setting, characters…Then when the first one worked, I continued, and I came to believe that it is perfectly possible to remain within the constraints and conventions of the genre and be a serious writer, saying something true about men and women and their relationships and the society in which they live.

It’s even possible, she might have added, to discover things about men and women that wouldn’t have occurred to the author at all without the genre’s constraints. This is also one of the virtues of an intricate plot, which can test a writer’s ingenuity as much as any elaborate symbolic structure, and has the additional benefit of not being unreadable. Which, really, isn’t a bad place to start.

Written by nevalalee

December 2, 2010 at 7:26 pm

Tree of Codes and the slate piece

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Yesterday’s post about Ralph Rosenblum’s excavation of Annie Hall from the brilliant mess of Anhedonia reminds me, not quite randomly, of Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book, Twee of Codes. (Excuse me, I mean Tree of Codes—and I can’t believe that I’m the first to make that particular joke.) It certainly has an astonishing premise: Foer has literally carved a new story out of a larger novel, Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles, by selectively removing most of the text, leaving only a few scattered words on each page. The result, which uses elaborate die cuts to remove the deleted passages, looks amazing, even if Foer sounds oddly dissatisfied by the outcome. (“French flaps would have been nice.”) If nothing else, it’s a reminder of how important a book’s physical body can be.

I haven’t read Tree of Codes yet—among other things, I don’t have forty bucks to spend on it—and while I don’t think it absolves Foer from his obligation, as a major novelist, to write more conventional fiction, I’m impressed by its ambition. It’s worth noting, though, that this particular experiment isn’t so different from what every film editor is called upon to do: extracting a useful narrative out of an existing mass of intractable material. Annie Hall is only the most extreme example. Nearly every movie, for the sake of pacing and coherence, especially if it can’t afford reshoots, is forced to combine scenes that originally appeared in different parts of the film, say, or use a reaction shot from one scene to bridge an unrelated gap. David Mamet, in his otherwise disappointing Bambi vs. Godzilla, has a terrific passage about this, which is worth quoting in its entirety:

Stuck in a scene, in the editing room, sometimes the roof falls in: an actor has not picked up his cue, and the scene stops dead—there is no cutaway (no other actor to cut to, to “pace up” the sequence), and the movie grinds to a halt.

“If only,” the director or editor says, “if only the actor sitting there like a sphinx had looked to his left: if he’d looked to his left, instead of his right, I could intercut his close-up with a shot of the other actor and pace up the scene.”

But no, the actor never looked to his left, and the scene is doomed to death. But perhaps there is one hope.

The director says, “Check the slate piece.”

What is the slate piece?

Here’s how it goes: When the shot is set up, the actors are called in and placed. The sound guy calls “rolling,” the camera is turned on, the operator tells the camera assistant to “mark it,” the assistant puts the slate board (the once actual slate with chalk markings, now electronic) in front of the lens to record on film the shot’s number and take. The shot is thus “slated,” the director calls “action,” and the take begins.

But, we may note, there was a moment, when the camera was filming, before the shot was slated, when the actor was waiting for action to be called. In this moment he may have looked to his left, his right, up or down, frowned, or smiled or yawned or done any number of things that just might magically come to the aid of a stalled or otherwise doomed shot.

This accidental, extra, hidden piece of information is called the slate piece. And most of moviemaking, as a writer, a director, a designer, is the attempt not to invent but to discover that hidden information—the slate piece—that is already lurking in the film.

Which strikes me as very similar to what Foer has done here. His task was hugely complicated, of course, by the fact that not just the words themselves but their order was fixed and immovable. To create a workable narrative from this material, his ingenuity must have been pushed to its limits—which, in itself, is admirable, especially in a writer whose work can otherwise seem, er, a little undisciplined.

It’s unclear how useful his example is to the rest of us (I can’t imagine Tree of Codes as anything but an interesting experiment) but it does raise the question of how writers can selectively use constraints as a spur to creativity. I’ll be writing more about this later today.

Written by nevalalee

December 2, 2010 at 11:19 am

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