Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘David Foster Wallace

A season of disenchantment

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A few days ago, Matt Groening announced that his new animated series, Disenchantment, will premiere in August on Netflix. Under other circumstances, I might have been pleased by the prospect of another show from the creator of The Simpsons and Futurama—not to mention producers Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein—and I expect that I’ll probably watch it. At the moment, however, it’s hard for me to think about Groening at all without recalling his recent reaction to the long overdue conversation around the character of Apu. When Bill Keveny of USA Today asked earlier this month if he had any thoughts on the subject, Groening replied: “Not really. I’m proud of what we do on the show. And I think it’s a time in our culture where people love to pretend they’re offended.” It was a profoundly disappointing statement, particularly after Hank Azaria himself had expressed his willingness to step aside from the role, and it was all the more disillusioning coming from a man whose work has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. As I noted in my earlier post, the show’s unfeeling response to this issue is painful because it contradicts everything that The Simpsons was once supposed to represent. It was the smartest show on television; it was simply right about everything; it offered its fans an entire metaphorical language. And as the passage of time reveals that it suffered from its own set of blinders, it doesn’t just cast doubt on the series and its creators, but on the viewers, like me, who used it for so long as an intellectual benchmark.

And it’s still an inescapable part of my personal lexicon. Last year, for instance, when Elon Musk defended his decision to serve on Trump’s economic advisory council, I thought immediately of what Homer says to Marge in “Whacking Day”: “Maybe if I’m part of that mob, I can help steer it in wise directions.” Yet it turns out that I might have been too quick to give Musk—who, revealingly, was the subject of an adulatory episode of The Simpsons—the benefit of the doubt. A few months later, in response to reports of discrimination at Tesla, he wrote an email to employees that included this remarkable paragraph:

If someone is a jerk to you, but sincerely apologizes, it is important to be thick-skinned and accept that apology. If you are part of a lesser represented group, you don’t get a free pass on being a jerk yourself. We have had a few cases at Tesla were someone in a less represented group was actually given a job or promoted over more qualified highly represented candidates and then decided to sue Tesla for millions of dollars because they felt they weren’t promoted enough. That is obviously not cool.

The last two lines, which were a clear reference to the case of A.J. Vandermeyden, tell us more about Musk’s idea of a “sincere apology” than he probably intended. And when Musk responded this week to criticism of Tesla’s safety and labor practices by accusing the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting of bias and proposing a site where users could provide a “credibility score” for individual journalists, he sounded a lot like the president whose circle of advisers he only reluctantly left.

Musk, who benefited from years of uncritical coverage from people who will forgive anything as long as you talk about space travel, seems genuinely wounded by any form of criticism or scrutiny, and he lashes out just as Trump does—by questioning the motives of ordinary reporters or sources, whom he accuses of being in the pocket of unions or oil companies. Yet he’s also right to be worried. We’re living in a time when public figures and institutions are going to be judged by their responses to questions that they would rather avoid, which isn’t likely to change. And the media itself is hardly exempt. For the last two weeks, I’ve been waiting for The New Yorker to respond to stories about the actions of two of its most prominent contributors, Junot Díaz and the late David Foster Wallace. I’m not even sure what I want the magazine to do, exactly, except make an honest effort to grapple with the situation, and maybe even offer a valuable perspective, which is why I read it in the first place. (In all honesty, it fills much the same role in my life these days as The Simpsons did in my teens. As Norman Mailer wrote back in the sixties: “Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people in the most established parts of the middle class kill their quickest impulses before they dare to act in such a way as to look ridiculous to the private eye of their taste whose style has been keyed by the eye of The New Yorker.”) As the days passed without any comment, I assumed that it was figuring out how to tackle an admittedly uncomfortable topic, and I didn’t expect it to rush. Now that we’ve reached the end of the month without any public engagement at all, however, I can only conclude that it’s deliberately ignoring the matter in hopes that it will go away. I hope that I’m wrong. But so far, it’s a discouraging omission from a magazine whose stories on Harvey Weinstein and Eric Schneiderman implicitly put it at the head of an entire movement.

The New Yorker has evidently discovered that it’s harder to take such stands when they affect people whom we know or care about— which only means that it can get in line. Our historical moment has forced some of our smartest individuals and organizations to learn how to take criticism as well as to give it, and it’s often those whose observations about others have been the sharpest who turn out to be singularly incapable, as Clarice Starling once put it, when it comes to pointing that high-powered perception on themselves. (In this list, which is constantly being updated, I include Groening, Musk, The New Yorker, and about half the cast of Arrested Development.) But I can sympathize with their predicament, because I feel it nearly every day. My opinion of Musk has always been rather mixed, but nothing can dislodge the affection and gratitude that I feel toward the first eight seasons of The Simpsons, and I expect to approvingly link to an article in The New Yorker this time next week. But if our disenchantment forces us to question the icons whose influence is fundamental to our conception of ourselves, then perhaps it will have been worth the pain. Separating our affection for the product from those who produced it is a problem that we all have to confront, and it isn’t going to get any easier. As I was thinking about this post yesterday, the news broke that Morgan Freeman had been accused by multiple women of inappropriate behavior. In response, he issued a statement that read in part: “I apologize to anyone who felt uncomfortable or disrespected.” It reminded me a little of another man who once grudgingly said of some remarks that were caught on tape: “I apologize if anyone was offended.” But it sounds a lot better when you imagine it in Morgan Freeman’s voice.

Written by nevalalee

May 25, 2018 at 9:21 am

The ghost story

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Back in March, I published a post here about the unpleasant personal life of Saul Bellow, whose most recent biographer, Zachary Leader, has amply documented the novelist’s physical violence toward his second wife Sondra Tschacbasov. After Bellow discovered the affair between Tschacbasov and his good friend Jack Ludwig, however, he contemplated something even worse, as James Atlas relates in his earlier biography: “At the Quadrangle Club in Chicago a few days later, Bellow talked wildly of getting a gun.” And I was reminded of this passage while reading an even more horrifying account in D.T. Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, about the writer’s obsession with the poet and memoirist Mary Karr:

Wallace’s literary rebirth [in the proposal for Infinite Jest] did not coincide with any calming of his convention that he had to be with Karr. Indeed, the opposite. In fact, one day in February, he thought briefly of committing murder for her. He called an ex-con he knew through his recovery program and tried to buy a gun. He had decided he would wait no longer for Karr to leave her husband; he planned to shoot him instead when he came into Cambridge to pick up the family dog. The ex-con called Larson, the head of [the addiction treatment center] Granada House, who told Karr. Wallace himself never showed up for the handover and thus ended what he would later call in a letter of apology “one of the scariest days in my life.” He wrote Larson in explanation, “I now know what obsession can make people capable of”—then added in longhand after—“at least of wanting to do.” To Karr at the time he insisted that the whole episode was an invention of the ex-con and she believed him.

Even at a glance, there are significant differences between these incidents. Bellow had treated Tschacbasov unforgivably, but his threat to buy a gun was part of an outburst of rage at a betrayal by his wife and close friend, and there’s no evidence that he ever tried to act on it—the only visible outcome was an episode in Herzog. Wallace, by contrast, not only contemplated murdering a man whose wife he wanted for himself, but he took serious steps to carry it out, and when Karr heard about it, he lied to her. By any measure, it’s the more frightening story. Yet they do have one striking point in common, which is the fact that they don’t seem to have inspired much in the way of comment or discussion. I only know about the Wallace episode because of a statement by Karr from earlier this week, in which she expressed her support for the women speaking out against Junot Díaz and noted that the violence that she experienced from Wallace was described as “alleged” by D.T. Max and The New Yorker. In his biography, Max writes without comment: “One night Wallace tried to push Karr from a moving car. Soon afterward, he got so mad at her that he threw her coffee table at her.” When shown these lines by a sympathetic reader on Twitter, Karr responded that Wallace also kicked her, climbed up the side of her house, and followed her five-year-old son home from school, and that she had to change her phone number twice to avoid him. Max, she said, “ignored” much of it, even though she showed him letters in Wallace’s handwriting confessing to his behavior. (In his original article in The New Yorker, Max merely writes: “One day, according to Karr, [Wallace] broke her coffee table.” And it wasn’t until years later that he revealed that Wallace had “broken” the table by throwing it at her.)

There’s obviously a lot to discuss here, but for reasons of my own, I’d like to approach it from the perspective of a biographer. I’ve just finished writing a biography about four men who were terrible husbands, in their own ways, to one or more wives, and I’m also keenly aware of how what seems like an omission can be the result of unseen pressures operating elsewhere in—or outside—the book. Yet Max has done himself no favors. In an interview with The Atlantic that has been widely shared, he speaks of Wallace’s actions with an aesthetic detachment that comes off now as slightly chilling:

One thing his letters make you feel is that he thought the word was God, and words were always worth putting down. Even in a letter to the head of his halfway house—where he apologizes for contemplating buying a gun to kill the writer Mary Karr’s husband—the craftsmanship of that letter is quite remarkable. You read it like a David Foster Wallace essay…I didn’t know that David had that [violence] in him. I was surprised, in general, with the intensity of violence in his personality. It was something I knew about him when I wrote the New Yorker piece, but it grew on me. It made me think harder about David and creativity and anger. But on the other end of the spectrum, he was also this open, emotional guy, who was able to cry, who intensely loved his dogs. He was all those things. That, in part, is why he’s a really fascinating guy and an honor to write about.

Max tops it off by quoting a “joke” from a note by Wallace: “Infinite Jest was just a means to Mary Karr’s end.” He helpfully adds: “A sexual pun.”

It’s no wonder that Karr is so furious, but if anything, I’m more impressed by her restraint. Karr is absurdly overqualified to talk about problems of biography, and there are times when you can feel her holding herself back. In her recent book The Art of Memoir, she writes in a chapter titled “The Truth Contract Twixt Writer and Reader”:

Forget how inventing stuff breaks a contract with the reader, it fences the memoirist off from the deeper truths that only surface in draft five or ten or twenty. Yes, you can misinterpret—happens all the time. “The truth ambushes you,” Geoffrey Wolff once said…But unless you’re looking at actual lived experience, the more profound meanings will remain forever shrouded. You’ll never unearth the more complex truths, the ones that counter that convenient first take on the past. A memoirist forging false tales to support his more comfortable notions—or to pump himself up for the audience—never learns who he is. He’s missing the personal liberation that comes from the examined life.

Replace “memoirist” with “biographer,” and you’re left with a sense of what was lost when Max concluded that Wallace’s violence only made him “a really fascinating guy and an honor to write about.” I won’t understate the difficulty of coming to terms with the worst aspects of one’s subject, and even Karr herself writes: “I still try to err on the side of generosity toward any character.” But it feels very much like a reluctance to deal honestly with facts that didn’t fit into the received notions of Wallace’s “complexity.” It can be hard to confront those ghosts. But not every ghost story has to be a love story.

The art of the bad review

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Mark Twain

Note: I’m taking a few days off for the holidays, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on September 7, 2016.

Every few years, whenever my spirits need a boost, I go back and read the famous smackdown that Martin Amis delivered to the novel Hannibal by Thomas Harris, just for the simple pleasure of it. It’s one of the great savage reviews of all time, and it checks off most of the boxes that this sort of shellacking requires. Amis begins by listing the hyperbolic claims made by other reviewers—“A momentous achievement,” “A plausible candidate for the Pulitzer Prize”—and then skewering them systematically. But he also goes after the novel, significantly, from a position of respect, calling himself “a Harris fan from way back.” Writing of the earlier books in the series, he says that Harris has achieved what every popular novelist hopes to accomplish: “He has created a parallel world, a terrible antiterra, airless and arcane but internally coherent.” When Amis quotes approvingly from the previous installments, it can only make Hannibal look worse by comparison, although Harris doesn’t do himself any favors. As Amis writes:

[Lecter] has no need of “need”: Given the choice, he—and Harris—prefer to say “require”…Out buying weapons—or, rather, out “purchasing” weapons—he tells the knife salesman, “I only require one.” Why, I haven’t felt such a frisson of sheer class since I last heard room service say “How may I assist you?’” And when Lecter is guilty of forgetfulness he says “Bother”—not “Shit” or “Fuck” like the rest of us. It’s all in the details.

Amis’s review falls squarely in the main line of epic takedowns that began with Mark Twain’s “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” This is a piece that was probably ruined for a lot of readers by being assigned in high school, but it deserves a fresh look: it’s one of the funniest and most valuable essays about writing that we have, and I revisit it on a regular basis. Like Amis, Twain begins by quoting some of the puffier encomiums offered by other critics: “[Cooper’s] five tales reveal an extraordinary fullness of invention…The craft of the woodsman, the tricks of the trapper, all the delicate art of the forest were familiar to Cooper from his youth up.” (Twain proposes the following rule in response: “Crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as ‘the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest’ by either the author or the people in the tale.”) Both Twain and Amis are eager to go after their subjects with a broadsword, but they’re also alert to the nuances of language. For Amis, it’s the subtle shading of pretension that creeps in when Harris writes “purchases” instead of “buys”; for Twain, it’s the distinction between “verbal” and “oral,” “precision” and “facility,” “phenomena” and “marvels,” “necessary” and “predetermined.” His eighteen rules of writing, deduced in negative fashion from Cooper’s novels, are still among the best ever assembled. He notes that one of the main requirements of storytelling is “that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.” Which, when you think about it, is even more relevant in Harris’s case—although that’s a subject for another post.

Martin Amis

I’ve learned a lot from these two essays, as I have with other bad reviews that have stuck in my head over the years. In general, a literary critic should err on the side of generosity, especially when it comes to his or her contemporaries, and a negative review of a first novel that nobody is likely to read is an expense of spirit in a waste of shame. But occasionally, a bad review can be just as valuable and memorable as any other form of criticism. I may not agree with James Wood’s feelings about John le Carré, but I’ll never forget how he sums up a passage from Smiley’s People as “a clever coffin of dead conventions.” Once a year or so, I’ll find myself remembering John Updike’s review of Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full, which notes the author’s obsession with muscular male bodies—“the latissimi dorsi,” “the trapezius muscles”—and catalogs his onomatopoetics, which are even harder to take seriously when you have to type them all out:

“Brannnnng! Brannnnng! Brannnnng!,” “Woooo-eeeeeee! Hegh-heggghhhhhh,” “Ahhhhhhhhhhh ahhhhhhhhhhhh ahhhhhhhhhhh,” “Su-puerflyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!,” “eye eye eye eye eye eye eye eye eye,” Scrack scrack scrack scraccckkk scraccccck,” “glug glug glug glugglugglug,” “Awriiighhhhhhhht!”

And half of my notions as a writer seem to have been shaped by a single essay by Norman Mailer, “Some Children of the Goddess,” in which he takes careful aim at most of his rivals from the early sixties. William Styron’s Set This House on Fire is “the magnum opus of a fat spoiled rich boy who could write like an angel about landscape and like an adolescent about people”; J.D. Salinger’s four novellas about the Glass family “seem to have been written for high-school girls”; and Updike himself writes “the sort of prose which would be admired in a writing course overseen by a fussy old nance.”

So what makes a certain kind of negative review linger in the memory for longer than the book it describes? It often involves one major writer taking aim at another, which is already more interesting than the sniping of a critic who knows the craft only from the outside. In most cases, it picks on a target worthy of the writer’s efforts. And there’s usually an undercurrent of wounded love: the best negative reviews, like the one David Foster Wallace delivered on Updike’s Toward the End of Time, or Renata Adler’s demolition of Pauline Kael, reflect a real disillusionment with a former idol. (Notice, too, how so many of the same names keep recurring, as if Mailer and Updike and Wolfe formed a closed circle that runs forever, in a perpetual motion machine of mixed feelings.) Even when there’s no love lost between the critic and his quarry, as with Twain and Cooper, there’s a sense of anger at the betrayal of storytelling by someone who should know better. To return to poor Thomas Harris, I’ll never forget the New Yorker review by Anthony Lane that juxtaposed a hard, clean excerpt from The Silence of the Lambs:

“Lieutenant, it looks like he’s got two six-shot .38s. We heard three rounds fired and the dump pouches on the gunbelts are still full, so he may just have nine left. Advise SWAT it’s +Ps jacketed hollowpoints. This guy favors the face.”

With this one from Hannibal Rising:

“I see you and the cricket sings in concert with my heart.”
“My heart hops at the sight of you, who taught my heart to sing.”

Lane reasonably responds: “What the hell is going on here?” And that’s what all these reviews have in common—an attempt by one smart, principled writer to figure out what the hell is going on with another.

The back matter

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“Annotation may seem a mindless and mechanical task,” Louis Menand wrote a few years ago in The New Yorker. “In fact, it calls both for superb fine-motor skills and for adherence to the most exiguous formal demands.” Like most other aspects of writing, it can be all these things at once: mindless and an exercise of meticulous skill, mechanical and formally challenging. I’ve been working on the notes for Astounding for the last week and a half, and although I was initially dreading it, the task has turned out to be weirdly absorbing, in the way that any activity that requires repetitive motion but also continuous mild engagement can amount to a kind of hypnotism. The current draft has about two thousand notes, and I’m roughly three quarters of the way through. So far, the process has been relatively painless, although I’ve naturally tended to postpone the tricker ones for later, which means that I’ll end up with a big stack of problem cases to work through at the end. (My plan is to focus on notes exclusively for two weeks, then address the leftovers at odd moments until the book is due in December.) In the meantime, I’m spending hours every day organizing notes, which feels like a temporary career change. They live in their own Word file, like an independent work in themselves, and the fact that they’ll be bundled together as endnotes, rather than footnotes, encourages me to see them as a kind of bonus volume attached to the first, like a vestigial twin that clings to the book like a withered but still vigorous version of its larger sibling.

When you spend weeks at a time on your notes, you end up with strong opinions about how they should be presented. I don’t like numbered endnotes, mostly because the numeric superscripts disrupt the text, and it can frustrating to match them up with the back matter when you’re looking for one in particular. (When I read Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise, I found myself distracted by his determination to provide a numbered footnote for seemingly every factual statement, from the date of the Industrial Revolution to the source of the phrase “nothing new under the sun,” and that’s just the first couple of pages. Part of the art of notation is knowing what information you can leave out, and no two writers will come to exactly the same conclusions.) I prefer the keyword system, in which notes are linked to their referent in the body of the book by the page number and a snippet of text. This can lead to a telegraphic, even poetic summary of the contents when you run your eye down the left margin of the page, as in the section of my book about L. Ron Hubbard in the early sixties: “Of course Scientology,” “If President Kennedy did grant me an audience,” “Things go well,” “[Hubbard] chases able people away,” “intellectual garbage,” “Some of [Hubbard’s] claims,” “It is carefully arranged,” “very space opera.” They don’t thrust themselves on your attention until you need them, but when you do, they’re right there. These days, it’s increasingly common for the notes to be provided online, and I can’t guarantee that mine won’t be. But I hope that they’ll take their proper place at the end, where they’ll live unnoticed until readers realize that their book includes the original bonus feature.

The notion that endnotes can take on a life of their own is one that novelists from Nabokov to David Foster Wallace have brilliantly exploited. When reading Wallace’s Infinite Jest, the first thing that strikes most readers, aside from its sheer size, is its back matter, which takes up close to a hundred pages of closely printed notes at the end of the book. Most of us probably wish that the notes were a little more accessible, as did Dave Eggers, who observes of his first experience reading it: “It was frustrating that the footnotes were at the end of the book, rather than at the bottom of the page.” Yet this wasn’t an accident. As D.T. Max recounts in his fascinating profile of Wallace:

In Bloomington, Wallace struggled with the size of his book. He hit upon the idea of endnotes to shorten it. In April, 1994, he presented the idea to [editor Michael] Pietsch…He explained that endnotes “allow…me to make the primary-text an easier read while at once 1) allowing a discursive, authorial intrusive style w/o Finneganizing the story, 2) mimic the information-flood and data-triage I expect’d be an even bigger part of US life 15 years hence. 3) have a lot more technical/medical verisimilitude 4) allow/make the reader go literally physically ‘back and forth’ in a way that perhaps cutely mimics some of the story’s thematic concerns…5) feel emotionally like I’m satisfying your request for compression of text without sacrificing enormous amounts of stuff.” He also said, “I pray this is nothing like hypertext, but it seems to be interesting and the best way to get the exfoliating curve-line plot I wanted.” Pietsch countered with an offer of footnotes, which readers would find less cumbersome, but eventually agreed.

What’s particularly interesting here is that the endnotes physically shrink the size of Infinite Jest—simply because they’re set in smaller type—while also increasing how long it takes the diligent reader to finish it. Notes allow a writer to play games not just with space, but with time. (This is true even of the most boring kind of scholarly note, which amounts to a form of postponement, allowing readers to engage with it at their leisure, or even never.) In a more recent piece in The New Yorker, Nathan Heller offers a defense of notes in their proper place at the end of the book:

Many readers, and perhaps some publishers, seem to view endnotes, indexes, and the like as gratuitous dressing—the literary equivalent of purple kale leaves at the edges of the crudités platter. You put them there to round out and dignify the main text, but they’re too raw to digest, and often stiff. That’s partly true…Still, the back matter is not simply a garnish. Indexes open a text up. Notes are often integral to meaning, and, occasionally, they’re beautiful, too.

An index turns the book into an object that can be read across multiple dimensions, while notes are a set of tendrils that bind the text to the world, in Robert Frost’s words, “by countless silken ties of love and thought.” As Heller writes of his youthful job at an academic press: “My first responsibility there was proofreading the back matter of books…The tasks were modest, but those of us who carried them out felt that we were doing holy work. We were taking something intricate and powerful and giving it a final polish. I still believe in that refinement.” And so should we.

The art of the bad review

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Mark Twain

Yesterday, while writing about the pitfalls of quotation in book reviews, I mentioned the famous smackdown that Martin Amis delivered to the novel Hannibal by Thomas Harris. When I went back to look up the lines I wanted to quote, I found myself reading the whole thing over again, just for the simple pleasure of it. It’s one of the great critical slams of all time, and it checks off most of the boxes that this kind of shellacking requires. Amis begins by listing a few hyperbolic claims made by other reviewers—“A momentous achievement,” “A plausible candidate for the Pulitzer Prize”—and then skewers them systematically. He comes at the novel, significantly, from a position of real respect: Amis calls himself “a Harris fan from way back.” Writing of the earlier books in the series, he says that Harris has achieved what every popular novelist hopes to accomplish: “He has created a parallel world, a terrible antiterra, airless and arcane but internally coherent.” When Amis quotes approvingly from these previous installments, it can only make Hannibal look worse by comparison, although Harris doesn’t do himself any favors:

[Lecter] has no need of “need”: Given the choice, he—and Harris—prefer to say “require”…Out buying weapons—or, rather, out “purchasing” weapons—he tells the knife salesman, “I only require one.” Why, I haven’t felt such a frisson of sheer class since I last heard room service say “How may I assist you?’” And when Lecter is guilty of forgetfulness he says “Bother”—not “Shit” or “Fuck” like the rest of us. It’s all in the details.

Reading the review again, I realized that it falls squarely in the main line of epic takedowns that begins with Mark Twain’s “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” This is a piece that was probably ruined for a lot of readers by being assigned to them in high school, but it deserves a fresh look: it really is one of the funniest and most valuable essays about writing we have, and I revisit it every couple of years. Like Amis, Twain begins by quoting some of his target’s puffier critical encomiums: “The five tales reveal an extraordinary fullness of invention…The craft of the woodsman, the tricks of the trapper, all the delicate art of the forest were familiar to Cooper from his youth up.” (In response, Twain proposes the following rule: “That crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as ‘the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest’ by either the author or the people in the tale.”) Both Twain and Amis are eager to go after their subjects with a broadsword, but they’re also alert to the nuances of language. For Amis, it’s the subtle shading of pretension that creeps in when Harris writes “purchases” instead of “buys”; for Twain, it’s the distinction between “verbal” and “oral,” “precision” and “facility,” “phenomena” and “marvels,” “necessary” and “predetermined.” His eighteen rules of writing, deduced in negative fashion from Cooper’s novels, are still among the best ever assembled. He notes that one of the main requirements of storytelling is “that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.” Which, when you think about it, is even more relevant in Harris’s case—although that’s a subject for another post.

Martin Amis

I’ve learned a lot from these two essays, and it made me reflect on the bad reviews that have stuck in my head over the years. In general, a literary critic should err on the side of generosity, especially when it comes to his or her contemporaries, and a negative review of a first novel that nobody is likely to read is an expense of spirit in a waste of shame. But occasionally, a bad review can be just as valuable and memorable as any other form of criticism. I may not agree with James Wood’s feelings about John le Carré, but I’ll never forget how he sums up a passage from Smiley’s People as “a clever coffin of dead conventions.” Once a year or so, I’ll find myself remembering John Updike’s review of Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full, which notes the author’s obsession with muscular male bodies—“the latissimi dorsi,” “the trapezius muscles”—and catalogs his onomatopoetics, which are even harder to take seriously when you have to type them all out:

“Brannnnng! Brannnnng! Brannnnng!,” “Woooo-eeeeeee! Hegh-heggghhhhhh,” “Ahhhhhhhhhhh ahhhhhhhhhhhh ahhhhhhhhhhh,” “Su-puerflyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!,” “eye eye eye eye eye eye eye eye eye,” Scrack scrack scrack scraccckkk scraccccck,” “glug glug glug glugglugglug,” “Awriiighhhhhhhht!”

And half of my notions as a writer seem to have been shaped by a single essay by Norman Mailer, “Some Children of the Goddess,” in which he takes careful aim at most of his rivals from the early sixties. William Styron’s Set This House on Fire is “the magnum opus of a fat spoiled rich boy who could write like an angel about landscape and like an adolescent about people”; J.D. Salinger’s four novellas about the Glass family “seem to have been written for high-school girls”; and Updike himself writes “the sort of prose which would be admired in a writing course overseen by a fussy old nance.”

So what makes a certain kind of negative review linger in the memory long after the book in question has been forgotten? It often involves one major writer taking aim at another, which is already more interesting than the sniping of a critic who knows the craft only from the outside. In most cases, it picks on a potential competitor, which is a target worthy of the writer’s efforts. And there’s usually an undercurrent of wounded love: the best negative reviews, like the one David Foster Wallace wrote on Updike’s Toward the End of Time, reflect a real disillusionment with a former idol. (Notice, too, how so many of the same names keep recurring, as if Mailer and Updike and Wolfe formed a closed circle that runs forever, like a perpetual motion machine of mixed feelings.) Even when there’s no love lost between the critic and his quarry, as with Twain and Cooper, there’s a sense of anger at the betrayal of storytelling by someone who should know better. To return to poor Thomas Harris, I’ll never forget the New Yorker review by Anthony Lane that juxtaposed a hard, clean excerpt from The Silence of the Lambs:

“Lieutenant, it looks like he’s got two six-shot .38s. We heard three rounds fired and the dump pouches on the gunbelts are still full, so he may just have nine left. Advise SWAT it’s +Ps jacketed hollowpoints. This guy favors the face.”

With this one from Hannibal Rising:

“I see you and the cricket sings in concert with my heart.”
“My heart hops at the sight of you, who taught my heart to sing.”

Lane reasonably responds: “What the hell is going on here?” And that’s what all these reviews have in common—an attempt by one smart, principled writer to figure out what the hell is going on with another.

Kubrick at the movies

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Stanley Kubrick

Earlier this week, to celebrate the eighty-fifth birthday of Stanley Kubrick, the BFI website published a list of the legendary director’s favorite movies, compiled primarily from the recollections of his family and friends. More than most such lists, this one needs to be taken with a grain of salt: there’s no distinction made between a film that Kubrick found enormously influential and one he happened to mention liking once, and it’s hard to know where The Earrings of Madame De… stands in relation to White Men Can’t Jump. Still, it’s a wonderful list, and for anyone interested in Kubrick—or the movies in general—it provides some fascinating avenues for further exploration. (I’m particularly interested in checking out The Terminal Man by Mike Hodges, after seeing that both Kubrick and Terrence Malick were fans. Kubrick called it “terrific,” and after its release, Malick wrote Hodges to say: “Your images make me understand what an image is.”)

Regular readers of this blog know how obsessed I am with Kubrick, and any insight into his tastes and methods is worth investigating. So what do we discover about Kubrick from this list? We find that he was reluctantly willing to concede that The Godfather was “possibly the greatest movie ever made and certainly the best cast.” We learn that he had a habit of unexpectedly phoning directors whose movies he admired, and that they’d occasionally hang up, suspecting a prank, when he told them who he was. We’re told that the three directors whose work he always felt automatically obliged to see were Fellini, Bergman, and David Lean, with Truffaut slightly further down the list, and that his tastes were broad enough to encompass Annie Hall, Roger and Me, and An American Werewolf in London. And we see that he was willing to take inspiration wherever he found it: “Some of the most spectacular examples of film art are in the best TV commercials.”

David Foster Wallace

Reading the article, I was reminded of a similar list that David Foster Wallace once put together of his ten favorite novels, including such initially surprising choices as The Stand, The Sum of All Fears, and two novels by Thomas Harris. Some readers have suspected that Wallace was playing a gentle prank, since he’s elsewhere named such authors as DeLillo, Bartheleme, and Pynchon among his formative influences, but I don’t think that’s the case. Making a list of this kind is a statement, and what I see in Wallace—and to a lesser extent in Kubrick, who wasn’t aware that his opinions were being recorded for posterity—is the list of a working artist. When a critic makes a list like this, he tends to write it with one eye toward the canon, and he’ll often weight his choices toward historically significant works that he also happens to love. A writer or director, by contrast, tends to honor books or movies that he’s found useful in the context of his own work.

And a real artist finds inspiration in places where most of us might never think to look. We know that Kubrick obsessively screened movies by directors he thought of as his peers—Spielberg, Coppola, Cameron—and that he was constantly on the lookout for innovations that would allow him to realize the stories he wanted to tell. Kubrick had as complete a set of technical resources and tools at his disposal as any director who ever lived, and after a certain point, a consummate artist comes to treasure small discoveries—a glance, an exchange of dialogue, a new way to scare or surprise the audience—as much as the big ones. I don’t doubt at all that Wallace knew that he had a lot to learn from Thomas Harris, or that Kubrick, who had thought so much about the portrayal of violence on film, would have responded strongly to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The greater the artist, the greater his appreciation of the new lessons he finds, no matter what the source. And to find them in the first place, you need to keep your eyes wide open.

Written by nevalalee

July 31, 2013 at 9:11 am

Turning pages both ways

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Infinite Jest

A physical book is a wonderful object, but one of its less appreciated features is the fact that you can easily turn pages in both directions. Most works of narrative art unfold in a fixed fashion—unless you pause and rewind, you can’t go back to an earlier scene of a television show or movie to clarify a point you missed, and you’re even more stuck if you’re watching a play—but printed books, while superficially linear, give you easy access to every page at once. In theory, so do electronic editions, but in practice, they’re less accessible than they seem, especially if, like me, you tend to remember where you read something earlier based on its physical location, and spend a minute or two scanning the bottom of every page on the left until you find the part you remember. Kindle books are great for a lot of things, but they aren’t especially good for skimming, and there’s something particularly satisfying about going back in a book to reread an earlier section while holding your current place with a finger.

Books weren’t always like this: the earliest extended works on parchment or papyrus were scrolls, which made it a little more difficult to skip back to the beginning. And the tangible properties of a conveniently bound volume are what make certain kinds of storytelling possible. When reading Infinite Jest, the first thing that strikes most readers, aside from its sheer size, is its back matter, which takes up close to a hundred pages of closely printed notes at the end of the book. Most of us probably wish that the notes were a little more accessible, as did Dave Eggers, who observes of his first experience reading it: “It was frustrating that the footnotes were at the end of the book, rather than at the bottom of the page.” Yet this wasn’t an accident. According to a New Yorker profile of the late author, Wallace’s editor, Michael Pietsch, suggested that readers might find footnotes less cumbersome, but Wallace was adamant, saying that endnotes would “allow/make the reader go literally physically ‘back and forth’ in a way that perhaps cutely mimics some of the story’s thematic concerns.”

A page from Dictionary of the Khazars

Well, it is cute, but it also works: the notes exist as a kind of parallel but separate entity, discursive and digressive, in a way that wouldn’t have worked nearly as well if Wallace has put them at the bottom of the page, as Nicholson Baker did in The Mezzanine. They also make the notion of the novel’s “end” deliberately unclear. And I don’t think it would have the same impact in electronic form, with each note provided with a convenient link: much of the meaning of Wallace’s notes comes from the act of departure, in which we temporarily escape from the main continent of the text to visit a nearby peninsula. Similarly, books like Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars, Nabokov’s Pale Fire, or Danielewski’s House of Leaves, which essentially demand constant nonlinear navigation through the text, would lose much of their power on Kindle. We’re so used to moving from one link to another online that any structural novelty the books possess would disappear, or be rendered invisible, if they were read on a tablet or screen.

In fact, it’s these weird, nonlinear antibooks that paradoxically make the strongest case for books as a physical medium. These stories push deliberately against the constraints of their form, but that doesn’t mean they want to be liberated: they gain their significance from the act of turning pages back and forth. And there’s a related point here that needs to be stressed. There’s been a lot of discussion about the future of the book, and of how novels and stories can fully utilize the act of reading online. But all of our great novels are hypertexts already. As far back as Dante, you had an author who was hoping to be read both vertically and horizontally—each canto in The Divine Comedy has thematic parallels with the canto of the same number in the two other sections—and any reader of Ulysses or Gravity’s Rainbow ends up confronting every part of the text in relation to any other. Which implies, at least to me, that the true future of the electronic novel is one that pushes the other way: toward an unnatural linearity that removes the possibility of going back. Of course, I have no idea how this would look. But it’s exciting to think about.

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