Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Lev Grossman

The primordial monkeys

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Robert, Charles, and Maxon Crumb

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What pop culture did your cooler siblings introduce you to?”

I’ve been thinking a lot about siblings recently. My wife and I have just the one daughter, but when I watch her interacting with other children at the library, at the store, or at the pediatrician’s office, I can’t help but get a glimpse of what it would be like for her to be someone’s sister. Our niece has a little sister of her own coming soon, and we’re reaching the age when the initial surge of babies among our friends is reaching its second cycle. In short, there are a lot of little kids in our lives now, and it’s fascinating to watch them interact. For the first twelve months or so, babies don’t seem all that interested in one another: they’re still preoccupied with their own little worlds, and if you set two babies side by side, they’re just as likely to look past each other on their way to the next chewable object. Somewhere around the first year, though, they latch on intensely to other kids, whether real or representative—my daughter is obsessed with the baby on the Gerber jar—and rudimentary social interactions start to take place. They’ll hold hands, trade toys, assert or yield their personal space. And as soon as they’re able to find words to express themselves, that interaction, especially between older and younger siblings, takes the form of telling stories.

I don’t have any hard data to back this up, but I suspect that many writers were the oldest siblings in a house with one or more children. A younger brother or sister is a ready audience for whatever the older sibling wants to say—especially if adults seem frustratingly uninterested—and in the years when playtime shades naturally into narrative and the stories we find in books, kids have a lot to tell anyone who seems willing to listen. When I think back to my own childhood, one of the first things I recall are the stories I told my brother, who is four years younger than I am. As far as I can remember, these stories started out as detailed retellings of whatever Roald Dahl book I was reading at the time, and these blow-by-blow narratives could take weeks on end to finish, often in the bathtub. (The life of a kid who can absorb and regurgitate huge amounts of story without even being conscious of it gives us a glimpse of what it must have been like to live in an oral culture.) These later expanded into lengthy serial adventures starring my brother as himself, with me playing most of the other parts using whatever stuffed toys were lying around the house. I can’t speak for him, but I’ve never forgotten any of it, and I’ve recently started to revisit some of those stories with my daughter and her Ernie doll.

Ernie on Green Day's Dookie

When I think of the works of art that manage to capture the intimate huddle that exists between siblings, the first that comes to mind, weirdly enough, is Crumb. Robert Crumb’s family, at least as depicted in Terry Zwigoff’s astonishing documentary, isn’t one that most of us would have wanted to be a part of, and two out of the three brothers emerged from that experience with irreparable damage. Yet when Max Crumb refers to Charles, Robert, and himself as “three primordial monkeys working it out in the trees,” I know exactly what he means. The fantasy life created by Charles Crumb—which centered on a game of Treasure Island that evidently played out over many years—is only an extreme version of the intricate, intense stories that come into existence between any siblings around the same age. Robert, for one, never seems to have entirely emerged from that shadow, which consumed his brothers to an even greater extent, and much of his work feels like an attempt to come to terms with those twisted early adventures. (That said, there’s obviously a lot more going on in Robert’s inner life, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Zwigoff deliberately emphasized this particular thread in his interpretation of the material, if only because Charles Crumb himself is such an unforgettable figure.)

Ultimately, of course, my brother and I grew up, and in many ways, he’s a cooler and more interesting person than I am, at least in his ability to shape his life according to his own values. And although he’s exposed me to a lot of culture in his own right, particularly music, if I’ve been shaped by him in any fundamental way, it was in the years when we were active collaborators, conspirators, and dreamers. If I’ve said before that my ideal reader is myself at age twelve, my ideal self as a writer comes from those early stories in the bathtub. There was no distinction between the telling and the listening; we did it because we couldn’t imagine any other way of living, with one foot in reality and the other in an equally vivid imaginary world. Maintaining that connection into adulthood lies at the heart of what writers do, and achieving the proper balance isn’t easy. But I don’t think it’s an accident that so many writers, from Lev Grossman to Stephen King, trace their full understanding of themselves and their craft from their engagement with their children. When I look at my daughter, there are times when she seems eerily like my brother, and when we’re playing together, I often feel that I’ve managed to recreate those moments. And I’m grateful for it. Because it was only when my brother and I began to share in those stories that I discovered who I really was.

Written by nevalalee

March 21, 2014 at 9:56 am

The seasons of a writer’s life

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The view from my office

One of the most difficult truths that we all have to face sooner or later is that every human life tends to take the same shape. When we’re young, we’re all convinced that we’re exceptional, and that our lives will be qualitatively different from the ones we see around us. Eventually, though, we come to recognize that as unique or unusual we may be in other ways, when you stand back, every life is strikingly similar in its overall structure, however much it may differ in the particulars. We all tend to pass through the same phases at roughly the same intervals, and that’s as true in our thirties, forties, and beyond as it was when we were children. It’s a realization that has inspired some fascinating academic research—notably the work examined in the classic book The Seasons of a Man’s Life and the epic Grant Study of men from Harvard and Boston—and some great works of art, from John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom to Michael Apted’s Up series and the trilogy of films by Richard Linklater recently crowned by Before Midnight. And although the process may not be more any striking for writers than it is for anyone else, we’re certainly more likely to muse and obsess about it in print.

Recently, I was talking this over with a friend of mine who is also a writer around my own age. We bonded over the fact that we’re both trying to figure out a balance between work, life, and family, and that all of these elements tend to reach a period of peak intensity, inconveniently, at around the same time. Like most writers, we spent our twenties learning the craft and slowly building up a body of work, published or not, until we finally began to see the results of our efforts. At the same time, we’ve gotten married and settled down after years of moving from one city to another, and are either starting families or preparing to do so. And these aspects of life don’t always comfortably coexist. As a writer, I’ve reached a curious point where I’m the only one responsible for my own success or failure: I’m surrounded by people who are dying to see me do good work, and if I don’t achieve the goals I’ve set for myself, it’s solely because I haven’t been able to live up to those expectations. Under other circumstances, this would be a time at which I’d be focusing on writing to the exclusion of all else. As usual, though, the reality is a little more complicated.

The view from my office

But that’s also probably how it should be. Last year, Lev Grossman, the senior book critic at Time and author of the novel The Magicians, posted an essay on writing and fatherhood that I’ve thought about frequently since. Here’s the money quote:

I personally needed to have kids to become the person and the writer I wanted to be. This is not a universal thing; I’m not recommending having children as a writing tip. I think it only applies to people who even as adults are the emotional equivalent of frozen cavemen, and who need somebody to thaw them out and seriously kick the shit out of them, emotionally speaking, before they have any idea who they are or what they’re doing. I was one of those people. Having children did that for me…

I bitch and moan a lot about how I’m always changing diapers and giving baths and making school lunches and strapping and unstrapping little people into and out of car seats while I could be writing books…But it’s also true that I never wrote a book I was proud of till I had children.

And while I wouldn’t quite put myself into the frozen caveman category, I absolutely agree that it’s only by going through the radical changes brought about by life’s major transitions that a writer can grow, both as an artist and as a human being. I may not write as much or as quickly as I once did, and it’s going to take a lot of trial and error to figure out a mode of living that brings both sides of my life into balance. But that’s what it means to enter a new phase: we don’t evolve into something new as much as we have it happen to us, whether we’re ready or not, and it’s up to us to become the sort of person who can integrate all these conflicting pieces into a harmonious whole—or at least to come close enough to it on a daily basis to remain reasonably sane and happy. The result, whatever form it takes, can’t help but be good for craft, which consists in its own way of an endless series of rebalancings, compromises, and improvisations. Like everything else in life, it takes time, flexibility, and a willingness to accept the things we can’t change. And if we’re lucky, when the next phase arrives, we’ll be ready for whatever it brings.

Written by nevalalee

June 17, 2013 at 8:47 am

My other little project

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On December 4, City of Exiles, my second novel, will hit store shelves. The following week, my wife and I are scheduled to deliver our first baby. In some ways, the timing is perfect, since our due date falls at a point when I was already planning to take a natural break from writing—assuming, of course, that this baby comes on schedule. All the same, the prospect of balancing a newborn with my already hectic writing life promises to be one of the greatest challenges I’ve ever faced, and I’m not entirely sure how it will look. Still, I couldn’t be more excited, and look forward to sharing some of this journey with you over the coming months, as well as introducing you further to the little person I think of as Ponyo. (In the meantime, Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians, has expressed his thoughts on writing and fatherhood better than I ever could.)

Written by nevalalee

September 21, 2012 at 12:04 pm

Posted in Writing

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The truth about literary fiction

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Last month, the critic Arthur Krystal published a piece in The New Yorker titled “Easy Writers: Guilty Pleasures Without Guilt.” I’ve held off on talking about this essay until now because even after two readings, I’m not quite sure what Krystal’s point is—he seems to be saying that we think of certain novels as guilty pleasures, but we really shouldn’t, unless perhaps we should—and because Lev Grossman has already done such a fine job of responding in Time. Yet the fact that Krystal felt capable of weighing in on such an ancient debate makes me inclined to share a few of my own disorganized thoughts. (Krystal, incidentally, commits a basic gaffe when he writes: “Preferring Ken Follett’s On Wings of Eagles to Henry James’s Wings of the Dove is not a negligible bias.” This neglects the fact that the Follett book is actually a work of nonfiction that has no place in his discussion of the novel, guilty pleasure or otherwise.)

There are three points I’d like to make. First is the obvious fact, which nonetheless bears repeating, that while our very best novels are properly defined as literary fiction, simply stating that one book, or even a group of books, is “literary” and another is “genre” gives no indication of their relative quality. A literary novel like The Magic Mountain—which, incidentally, cares a great deal about story and suspense—clearly stands head and shoulders above most other novels of any kind, even as paperback smut stands more or less clearly at the bottom. But in the middle is a vast gray area of novels of varying quality, including very great genre fiction and rather trashy literary fiction, and a lot of books that fall somewhere between the two extremes. “Literary” and “genre” aren’t statements of quality, but of intent. And if, by literary fiction, we tend to mean contemporary realism, then we’re talking about a genre with its own formulas and rules, as James Wood has accurately, if smugly, pointed out.

My second point is that these classifications are unfairly skewed, because whenever a genre novelist shows signs of exceptional quality, we immediately promote him into the literary sphere, creating a kind of reverse survivorship bias. My favorite example is Ian McEwan, a great suspense novelist who has been embraced by the literary camp because of the quality of his prose and ideas. Atonement aside, most of McEwan’s books are essentially thrillers—they often end with a home invasion or a man wielding a knife—that happen to be written with impeccable style and intelligence. The same is true of Borges, who writes fantasy and mystery fiction on a higher level than any author in history. To say that they aren’t really part of the genre because they’re so good is to impoverish the genre label, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we automatically exclude all great writers from the category in which they belong, it’s no surprise that the category will start to look a little thin—but that’s only because we’ve defined it that way.

And my last point is that if literary fiction tends to receive certain kinds of recognition that genre fiction does not, this is less out of its inherent quality than a case of simple economics. If we agree that it’s a good thing, in general, to have a steady supply of both genre and literary novels, we need to find nonmonetary ways of encouraging the latter. Genre or mainstream fiction sells better, on the whole, than literary fiction, so a separate, noncommercial system of incentives needs to be set up for the literary side. These include prizes, fellowships, and reviews in prestigious publications. If these were portioned out equally to both sides, the attraction of the literary novel would disappear—which is why giving a National Book Foundation medal to Stephen King was perceived as such a threat. Literary novelists need to feel special, and to be treated as such, because otherwise, there wouldn’t be any at all. And if classifying all other books as guilty pleasures is what literary novels need to survive, well, that’s a price we should be willing to pay.

Written by nevalalee

June 12, 2012 at 10:12 am

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