Archive for December 2011
I’m a failed playwright. I’m a failed short story writer. I was a second-class mystery writer…And all of a sudden my failures turn into great, great virtues and values. From my playwriting, I learned how to stage scenes under a proscenium with you not in the audience but up on the stage as a central character. From my detective stories I learned how to weave suspense. From the short stories I learned how to foreshorten. And I taught myself how to research…
I think this is the reason for any success that I have: I keep demanding to find things.
It’s safe to say that out of all the acknowledged masterpieces of twentieth-century literature, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain is the least inviting. Part of this is due to the fact that Mann’s reputation, or his snob chic, has suffered in comparison to Joyce and Proust, at least for the purposes of cocktail party conversation. The smooth surface of Mann’s prose offers fewer enticements to the casual browser: while a glance at the pages of Ulysses suggests a wealth of unexplored treasures, Mann presents only an unbroken succession of dense paragraphs. And there’s no denying that the plot of The Magic Mountain—a young engineer, Hans Castorp, visits a sanitarium in the Alps for a short visit and ends up staying for seven years—doesn’t quite promise nonstop delights, especially when spread across more than seven hundred pages. It may be true, as Mann says in the introduction, that only the exhaustive is truly interesting, but most of us are probably inclined to take him at his word.
And yet The Magic Mountain has always been on my short list of books to read, especially after I picked up the acclaimed John E. Woods translation at the Printer’s Row Lit Fest earlier this year. Finally, last month, I took my copy along with me to China, reasoning that I’d be more likely to finish it if it were the only book I had in my native language in a foreign country. (This wasn’t the first time I’d employed this trick: I’d read Gravity’s Rainbow in Rome and most of Proust in Finland using the same method, and it had always worked pretty well.) Still, I slid The Magic Mountain into my bag less with anticipation than out of a sense of obligation, and with a distinct sense that I was taking my medicine. Part of me suspected that I would regret the choice, which may have been why I also packed James Clavell’s Noble House—one of the great trashy popular novels—as a backup choice. And it was only when I was deep in China, in a bus headed to the mountains of Guilin, that I opened my copy of Mann and resignedly began to read.
Inevitably, I was blown away. It’s hard to convincingly describe the pleasures of this book, which seems so dry and forbidding at first glance, but here’s my attempt: this is a really great novel, fascinating, ingenious, and surprisingly dramatic and moving. Mann is clearly a writer who can do almost anything, and while the book is best known for its extended discussions of art, politics, science, religion, and every other topic of interest to turn-of-the-century modernism, Mann takes obvious delight in showing us that he also knows how to generate suspense. The Magic Mountain is a novel of ideas, but it’s also full of extraordinary set pieces—Walpurgis Night, Hans Castorp’s nearly fatal excursion in the snow, the séance, the duel between Naptha and Settembrini—that shamelessly offer all the satisfactions of classic fiction. There’s a reason why Mann, unlike Joyce and Proust, was a bestseller in his own land during his lifetime, and in The Magic Mountain, he does what David Foster Wallace struggled to accomplish in The Pale King: write a novel about boredom that is alive on every page.
It’s always difficult to predict the role that a given novel will play in one’s life. Some make a huge impression, then quickly fade; others grow in one’s imagination over time (as John Crowley’s Little, Big has begun to do with me). It’s safe to say that The Magic Mountain is the best novel I’ve read in at least five years, and it may be even more: a book that will ultimately play a central role in my understanding of the world. I’m in awe of its intelligence, its savage parody of the Bildungsroman, its astonishingly accurate depiction of romantic obsession, and, most surprisingly, its warmth and humor. And as often happens with great books, I seem to have discovered it at just the right moment. It’s hard for me, and I suspect for many readers, not to identify with Hans Castorp, who is twenty-three when the novel begins and thirty when he descends from the magic mountain to his own ironic destiny. Looking back at my twenties, I see more of Hans in myself than I’d like to admit. Where my own Bildungsroman will take me, or any of us, remains to be seen. But I can’t imagine a better guide for the journey than Mann.
How good it is that I managed to love not the priestly flame of the icon lamp but the little red flame of literary spite!
Earlier this week, in my post about revision, I wrote: “If you start revising a novel before you’ve completed a first draft, your chances of finishing it at all are essentially zero.” Later, in the comments, a reader quite reasonably asked if it wasn’t possible to take a slightly less rigid stance—that is, if there was some kind of sensible middle ground of interim revision. The answer, of course, is yes: there are as many approaches to writing as there are writers, and there are certainly some who can finish a novel while diligently revising along the way. The catch, as I see it, is that such writers will always be outnumbered by those who get stuck revising the first few chapters. In short, my warning may not apply to you, but it’s probably safest to assume that it does. Because like most writing advice, it’s really about playing the odds.
Here’s what I mean. Any rational observer would have to conclude that the odds are already stacked against any aspiring writer. I won’t go into the obstacles in detail—the difficulty of finding an agent, the questionable state of modern publishing, the uncertainty of success even after a novel has been released—but it’s safe to say that anyone’s chances of becoming a working writer are fairly slim. As a result, the determined writer is like a smart gambler playing against the house: it may be a losing game, but he still adjusts the odds in his favor whenever he can. Card counters (or even amateur video poker players like me) know that incremental advantages are what make the difference between breaking even and going home broke. The same holds true for writing. It’s such a ridiculously impractical pursuit that it’s necessary to be pragmatic about it whenever possible. And if the odds of our writing a publishable novel are increased by following a few basic rules, we’d be foolish not to consider adjusting our habits accordingly.
Playing the odds is also why I place such emphasis on craft. In her recent book The Possessed, which I’m reading now, writer Elif Batuman questions the whole premise of craft, as drilled into the heads of writers at a thousand workshops:
What did craft ever try to say about the world, the human condition, or the search for meaning? All it had were its negative dictates: “Show, don’t tell”; “Murder your darlings”; “Omit needless words.” As if writing were a matter of overcoming bad habits—of omitting needless words.
Regular readers of this blog can guess how sharply my own opinions differ from Bautman’s—among other things, I do think that a lot of what we call creative writing boils down to overcoming bad habits—and I hope to devote more time soon to the issues she raises. For now, though, I’ll restrict myself to pointing out the obvious, which is that while there’s no guarantee that a writer with good craft will produce great literature, the odds of a writer without craft producing anything readable are vanishingly small. Are there exceptions? Sure. But anyone who hopes to make a living from writing is already betting that he’s going to be the exception to the rule. To worsen the odds by neglecting craft is like blindly discarding your entire hand in hopes of drawing a royal flush. It could happen, but it isn’t likely.
So how do you improve the odds? You begin by working as intelligently as you can: you listen to Strunk and White, you do, in fact, omit needless words, and you don’t revise until the entire first draft is done. (You’ll probably need to make a few mistakes along the way, as I did, before you’re convinced of the wisdom of this approach: the rules of writing, like any kind of philosophy, are only acquired though experience.) Then, once you have enough craft at your disposal, and hopefully a few published credits, you can start to break the rules. After all, if you’re the exceptional writer you hope you are, a little bit of craft—which will adjust the odds in your favor far out of proportion to their actual cost—won’t keep you from finishing the novel you were born to write. So why take the chance?
An artist must approach his work in the spirit of the criminal about to commit a crime.
When you come right down to it, graffiti is the most fundamental form of self-publishing there is. Long before Twitter, WordPress, or Amazon’s digital publishing arm, street artists managed to express themselves on the sides of buildings, fences, and city curbs, and the raw materials couldn’t have been cheaper: paint, paper, wheatpaste. At its best, the anonymity and accessibility of the form encouraged experimentation, radicalism, and resourcefulness—as exhilaratingly documented in Banksy’s great Exit Through the Gift Shop—as well as a refreshing lack of inhibition. As Raffi Khatchadourian of the New Yorker puts it in a recent profile of the street artist JR:
He rarely expresses doubt about his art; paper and glue are cheap, and it is easy to experiment with them rather than to agonize before executing a judgment.
In some ways, then, street art stands as a rebuke to those of us who are always seeking perfection in our own work. There’s no such thing as a “finished” piece of street art: it’s a work in progress, defined as much by the riskiness of its execution as the visible result, and it’s only complete when it succeeds in arousing a reaction in its audience. Even more importantly, it’s a reminder of how little an artist really needs. No matter what your medium of choice, the basic tools are readily at hand, if you have enough ingenuity to use them. Paper, or its equivalent, is cheap for everyone. And the best street art recognizes this. In the most literal way possible, it’s about throwing something against the wall and seeing what sticks.
The trouble with street art, of course, is the trouble with all forms of self-publishing: the work of a few good artists can be hard to find in a sea of meaningless graffiti. Most graffiti, after all, is ugly; most self-published works, when you consider the full range of material both in print and online, are unreadable. At first glance, bad graffiti might seem like the greater eyesore, since there’s no way of looking away from it in your own neighborhood, but graffiti, at least, has certain barriers to entry—notably its illegality—that discourage most of us from risking it. No such barriers exist on the Internet, and I dare you to find a city wall as terrifying as the comments section of, say, Yahoo News, which is really just graffiti in digital form.
So what’s the lesson here? There’s bad street art and good street art; bad self-published novels and good self-published novels; and bad comment threads and, believe it or not, good comment threads. As Theodore Sturgeon famously pointed out, the bad will always outweigh the good, in similar proportions, no matter what the medium. That’s the price we pay for making any means of expression universally accessible—and rightly so. Graffiti is just the most visible form of a process that takes place in every form of communication: a vast amount of experimentation, imitation, and outright trash that somehow results in a handful of viable artists and communities, whether or not we know their names. So if you think you have something to contribute, you should. Because paper is cheap. And we need you.
As Toni Morrison reminded us yesterday, the act of revision can be a lot of fun. For me, it’s invariably the most satisfying part of the writing process. Instead of facing a blank page, you’ve written something that exists, for better or worse, and now your only obligation is to improve it. Revision is when all the old metaphors about writing as a manual craft, like carpentry, seem the most convincing: rather than willing something into existence, with its attendant emotional strain, you’re planing, sanding, and polishing a block of responsive raw material. It’s subtractive rather than additive. You feel less like a poet and more like a diligent hobbyist. In general, instead of the neurotic fever of the first draft, revision feels rational, calm, considered. As a result, it casts its own kind of narcotic spell, a sort of hypnosis, until you feel that you could happily go on revising the same few pages forever.
Which is why revision can be so dangerous. As important as it is—and in many ways, it’s the heart of what a real writer does—it’s less important than the primary act of creating a complete story for the first time. For some authors, it only generates the illusion of progress. I’ve known too many writers, including myself, who wrote one chapter of a novel, then kept polishing it to make it “perfect.” But there’s no such thing as a perfect chapter, at least not in isolation: a chapter succeeds or fails based on its place in the overall pattern. Without context, any standard of perfection is a mirage, and it retreats farther into the distance the more you revise. In the end, that one chapter is all you’ll ever have. Of all the rules for writing I once posted here, then, I’ve come to believe that #4 is the most pragmatically important: Write an entire first draft before going back to revise, and never edit an unfinished manuscript.
I’m going to put this as bluntly as possible: if you start revising a novel before you’ve completed a first draft, your chances of finishing it at all are essentially zero. This isn’t a value judgment, but an empirical observation, and it’s especially true if you haven’t been published. Right out of the gate, no writer is all that good, so the best thing to focus on is cultivating good habits—and the most important habit of all, the one on which all others depend, is finishing what you start. Revision is about coaxing a story into its strongest possible form, but it can too easily degenerate into its opposite, which prevents the story from existing at all. Compulsive revisers of unfinished work are only postponing the hard choices that come with pushing a project to its conclusion. And the worst part is that they don’t even grow as writers: technical proficiency doesn’t come from constantly revising the same handful of pages, but by applying your tools to as great a variety of scenes and circumstances as possible.
There’s only one solution: even if the first draft of a chapter seems terrible, and it probably is, write it, finish it, and move on. When you finally do get the chance to go back and revise the finished manuscript, you’ll find that much of your work has already been done for you. As I’ve said before, a problem that seems intractable in Chapter 1 is often solved by an unexpected inspiration while writing Chapter 20—but only after you’ve written nineteen other chapters first. There’s a world of difference between revising a paragraph with a hazy sense of the surrounding story and approaching it with the full weight of a finished novel pressing comfortably around you. You’ll understand the story more deeply than before, and you’ll have learned a few tricks along the way: no matter how experienced the author, there’s no project that leaves the writer’s craft entirely untouched. In the end, then, you must revise. But probably not yet.
Only writers in movies wait for inspiration. Real writers work on schedules.
—Evan Hunter, aka Ed McBain
I love that part; that’s the best part, revision. I do it even after the books are bound! Thinking about it before you write it is delicious. Writing it all out for the first time is painful because so much of the writing isn’t very good. I didn’t know in the beginning that I could go back and make it better; so I minded very much writing badly. But now I don’t mind at all because there’s that wonderful time in the future when I will make it better, when I can see better what I should have said and how to change it. I love that part!
There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three—storyteller, teacher, enchanter—but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer.
1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.
4. You must put it on the market.
5. You must keep it on the market until it is sold.
Yesterday, I wrote in great detail about my acquisition of a Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, but I didn’t tell the full story. Inside the dictionary’s slipcase, in the drawer that contained its accompanying magnifying glass, I discovered this card. And while I’ve found a lot of interesting things in used books over the years—a leaflet from the Famous Writers School, a notecard listing interesting facts about snails, a three-page letter to someone’s mother in a copy of Gravity’s Rainbow—this might be the most fascinating, and moving. For those who can’t make it out, it includes a photocopy of the dictionary’s entry on Love, which reads in part:
c. Love in a cottage: a euphemistic expression for marriage with insufficient means.
And written beneath it:
I’d not trade our Brooklyn “love in a cottage” for anything in the world. Much love,
Whoever R.D. is, or was, I’m sure this dictionary made a beautiful Christmas present twenty-six years ago, and I’m honored to have it in my own little cottage. Happy holidays to you and yours, and I look forward to seeing you in the New Year!
As I mentioned yesterday, the day after Thanksgiving, I found myself the proud new owner of the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. I was all set to sit down with my prize, but unfortunately, fate had other plans: the following day, I was on a plane to Hong Kong, and spent the next two weeks traveling there and in China. And while it was a wonderful trip, I have to admit that my thoughts occasionally strayed back home, where my dictionary was patiently waiting. Upon my return, then, I threw down my suitcase and all but tore into the dining room—the only place in the house with a table large enough to comfortably accommodate this kind of work—for some quality time with the OED. (My sister-in-law says that this serves as ample proof that I’m a huge nerd, which will surely come as a surprise to this blog’s regular readers.)
A few words about the Compact OED itself. As many of you probably know, the Compact Edition contains all the material of the twelve-volume Oxford English Dictionary, with the text photographically reduced so that four pages fit on each regular page of the two-volume version, to be read with an included magnifying glass. The copy I purchased is the second edition, not the third, which means that it lacks the supplements and updates that the dictionary has acquired since 1971. All the same, these updates comprise maybe five percent of the dictionary’s total length, and the older edition may actually be more useful for my purposes: with the four-up format, I can just about read the text even without the magnifying glass, while the latest edition is nine-up, making the type too small to browse conveniently.
And you need to be able to browse in this dictionary, which is a browser’s paradise. Opening it now at random, I’m at a loss as to where to begin: there’s Duumvirate, Dwale, and close to a whole page devoted to variations on Dwarf, with citations ranging from the year 1450 (“that wretchit dorche”) to 1846 (“If a dwarf on the shoulders of a giant can see further than the giant, he is no less a dwarf in comparison to the giant”). Turning to another page, we have Mithridatic, Mitraille (“Small missiles, as fragments of iron, heads of nails, etc. shot in masses from a cannon”), and Mitre (“A headband or fillet worn by ancient Greek women; also, a kind of head-dress common among Asiatics, the wearing of which by men was regarded by the Romans as a mark of effeminacy”). And these are just a few pages chosen randomly out of more than sixteen thousand. The result isn’t just a dictionary, but an entire world, at least the part described in English, and it offers a lifetime’s worth of exploration.
Clearly, I’m addicted: reading this dictionary makes me feel as if I’ll never need to do anything else. Steve Jobs once called the Whole Earth Catalog “Google in paperback form,” and the Compact OED, in this wonderfully browsable edition, gives me something of the same sensation: each page opens up onto new horizons, with one word leading to another, and to unexpected byways of etymology, history, and literature—as big as the Web, but richer and more nourishing. The result seems less like a book than a living being, vibrating with possibility even as it sits reassuringly on the shelf. Whether or not it will enhance my vocabulary remains to be seen, but it’s already had a fertilizing effect on my imagination. Perhaps it will for you as well, or for someone you love. After all, Christmas is coming. What better gift could there be?
The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.
If browsing in a bookshop is, as I’ve often said before, a kind of dreaming, sifting through the books in a large thrift store is like the lowest dream level in Inception, where the dreams of countless others end up jumbled together without rhyme or reason. (You can also end up stranded there for longer than you expect.) I’m always a little thrilled whenever I wander into a thrift store for the first time, never knowing if I’ll find the sad little collection of ’70s paperbacks at your average Goodwill or an awe-inspiring labyrinth like the one in the late, lamented Ark in Chicago. Browsing in used bookstores always involves some measure of serendipity, an openness to happy accidents, and a thrift store, in particular, is the opposite of a nicely curated experience like that at Barnes & Noble or Amazon: usually frustrating, but sometimes enlightening, both in terms of the specific books you find and for the art of browsing in general. And every now and then, you’ll find something that makes you want to shout: Eureka!
One fascinating thing about thrift stores is that you’ll often see patterns in the books on hand, titles that repeatedly appear there and nowhere else, giving you an uncanny glimpse into what our culture’s detritus will look like after we’re gone. Some are easy to understand: Reader’s Digest condensed book collections, obsolete technical manuals or Dummies books, the various editions of What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Then there the novels that large numbers of people bought and then decided, for one reason or another, to give away. Some are the difficult books that followed a big bestseller: I’ll almost always see a copy or two of A Maggot by John Fowles, for instance. Other books that seem to crop up frequently in thrift stores: Bag of Bones by Stephen King, The Bull From the Sea by Marie Renault, Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk. And there’s often an entire shelf’s worth of The Da Vinci Code, neatly lined up like the matching volumes of an exceptionally uninformative encyclopedia.
And then there are the unexpected treasures. Even a recent trip to Village Discount Outlet, by far the most chaotic of all Chicago thrift stores, resulted in a vintage copy of The Sesame Street Dictionary, which I’d nostalgically been meaning to pick up for a long time. Before the Ark closed, during a strange acquisitive phase, I picked up two shopping bags of old first editions, including a pristine hardcover copy of The Pillars of the Earth. (Originally, I’d intended to buy these first editions for a few dollars each, then resell them for a profit online. In the end, the math didn’t quite work out, so they’re still in a box at the back of my closet, awaiting their moment of glory.) I even once found a signed and inscribed copy of George S. Kaufman and His Friends by the legendary author and agent Scott Meredith—with a twenty-dollar bill inside. For a long time, this ranked as my most satisfying catch. A few weeks ago, however, I managed to top it.
One of the small pleasures of my recent move to Oak Park is that I’m now just a two-minute walk from a branch of the Brown Elephant, one of the Chicago area’s nicest thrift stores. I browse there idly from time to time, and last month, a few days before Thanksgiving, on a shelf near the front of the store, I saw a prize I’d been hoping to find for most of my life: the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, in two volumes, complete with magnifying glass. The price? Ninety dollars. But I also knew that the store would be slashing all prices in half on Black Friday. So I waited. And waited. And when the morning after Thanksgiving came, I dropped my parents off at the airport, drove home, lined up in front of the store with the other shoppers, and ran straight for the front shelf when the doors opened. The dictionary was there. Clutching it in my arms, I headed for the cash register, probably elbowing a few old ladies out of the way in the process. I’m looking at it now as I write this. Eureka.
We must be on our guard against that feverish state called inspiration, which is often a matter of nerves rather than muscle. Everything should be done coldly, with poise.
Twenty years ago today, Oliver Stone’s JFK was released in theaters, sparking a pop cultural phenomenon that seems all the more peculiar with the passage of time. It wasn’t merely the fact that such a dense, layered film was a big commercial hit, although it was—it grossed more than $70 million domestically, equivalent to over $130 million today—or that it had obviously been made with all the resources of a major studio. It’s that for a few months, even before its release, the movie seemed to occupy the center of the national conversation, inspiring magazine covers, a resurgence of interest in the Kennedy assassination that has never died down, and memorable parodies on Seinfeld and The Simpsons. In my own life, for better or worse, it’s had a curious but undeniable influence: many of my current literary and cultural obsessions can be traced back to three years in my early teens, when I saw JFK, read Foucault’s Pendulum, and became a fan of The X-Files. As a result, for several years, I may have been the only teenager in the world with a JFK poster on his bedroom wall.
Of course, none of this would have happened if the movie itself weren’t so ridiculously entertaining. Over the years, I’ve gone back and forth on the merits of JFK, but these days, I believe that it’s a genuinely great movie, one of the few recent Hollywood films—along with Stone’s equally fascinating but underrated Nixon—to advance and build upon what Orson Welles did with Citizen Kane. It’s hard to imagine this now, in the days of W and Wall Street 2, but there was a time when Oliver Stone was the most interesting director in America. At his peak, when he was in the zone, I don’t think anyone—not Scorsese, not Spielberg—could match Stone for sheer technical ability. JFK, his best movie, is one of the most expertly crafted films ever made, an incredibly detailed movie of over three hours that never allows the eye to wander. In particular, the cinematography and editing (at least in the original version, not the less focused director’s cut available on Blu-ray) set a standard that hasn’t been matched since, even as its use of multiple film stocks and documentary footage has become routine enough to be imitated by Transformers 3.
Watching it again earlier this year, I was newly dazzled by the riches on display. There’s the film’s effortless evocation of New Orleans, Dallas, and Washington in the sixties, with the local color of countless locations and neighborhoods picked up on the fly. There’s the compression of the marriage of Lee Harvey and Marina Oswald into five sad minutes—a compelling short film in itself. There’s Donald Sutherland’s loony, endless monologue as the mysterious X, which covers as much conspiracy material as a season’s worth of The X-Files. There’s the astounding supporting cast, which has proven so central to the Kevin Bacon game, and the mother of all courtroom speeches. And most unexpectedly, there’s Kevin Costner, at the height of his stardom, providing a calm center for all this visual, narrative, and textural complexity. It’s safe to say that JFK would never have been made without Costner, whose considerable charisma does more than anything else to turn Jim Garrison, one of the shiftier characters in recent memory, into something like Eliot Ness.
And that’s the problem. JFK is magnificent as cinema, but ludicrous as history. There’s something frightening about how Stone musters such vibrant craft to such questionable ends: in the years since, nearly every point that the movie makes has been systematically dismantled, and if Stephen King’s 11/22/63 is any indication of the cultural mood, it seems that many of us are finally coming around to the realization that, as unthinkable as it seems, Oswald probably acted alone. It’s perhaps only now, then, that we can watch this film with a cool head, as a great work of fiction that bears only superficial resemblance to actual events, and whose paranoid vision of history is actually less strange than the truth. JFK needs to be seen, studied, and appreciated, but first, one should watch Zodiac, or, even better, Errol Morris’s beguiling “The Umbrella Man,” posted earlier this month at the New York Times website. Morris is working on his own movie about the assassination, and if this sample is any indication, it’s the corrective that JFK, for all its brilliance, sorely needs. As subject Josiah “Tink” Thompson says:
What it means is, if you have any fact which you think is really sinister…Forget it, man. Because you can never, on your own, think up all the non-sinister, perfectly valid explanations for that fact. A cautionary tale!