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.