Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘U and I

Updike’s ladder

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Note: I’m taking the day off, so I’m republishing a post that originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on September 13, 2017.

Last year, the author Anjali Enjeti published an article in The Atlantic titled “Why I’m Still Trying to Get a Book Deal After Ten Years.” If just reading those words makes your palms sweat and puts your heart through a few sympathy palpitations, congratulations—you’re a writer. No matter where you might be in your career, or what length of time you mentally insert into that headline, you can probably relate to what Enjeti writes:

Ten years ago, while sitting at my computer in my sparsely furnished office, I sent my first email to a literary agent. The message included a query letter—a brief synopsis describing the personal-essay collection I’d been working on for the past six years, as well as a short bio about myself. As my third child kicked from inside my pregnant belly, I fantasized about what would come next: a request from the agent to see my book proposal, followed by a dream phone call offering me representation. If all went well, I’d be on my way to becoming a published author by the time my oldest child started first grade.

“Things didn’t go as planned,” Enjeti says dryly, noting that after landing and leaving two agents, she’s been left with six unpublished manuscripts and little else to show for it. She goes on to share the stories of other writers in the same situation, including Michael Bourne of Poets & Writers, who accurately calls the submission process “a slow mauling of my psyche.” And Enjeti wonders: “So after sixteen years of writing books and ten years of failing to find a publisher, why do I keep trying? I ask myself this every day.”

It’s a good question. As it happens, I first encountered her article while reading the authoritative biography Updike by Adam Begley, which chronicles a literary career that amounts to the exact opposite of the ones described above. Begley’s account of John Updike’s first acceptance from The New Yorker—just months after his graduation from Harvard—is like lifestyle porn for writers:

He never forgot the moment when he retrieved the envelope from the mailbox at the end of the drive, the same mailbox that had yielded so many rejection slips, both his and his mother’s: “I felt, standing and reading the good news in the midsummer pink dusk of the stony road beside a field of waving weeds, born as a professional writer.” To extend the metaphor…the actual labor was brief and painless: he passed from unpublished college student to valued contributor in less than two months.

If you’re a writer of any kind, you’re probably biting your hand right now. And I haven’t even gotten to what happened to Updike shortly afterward:

A letter from Katharine White [of The New Yorker] dated September 15, 1954 and addressed to “John H. Updike, General Delivery, Oxford,” proposed that he sign a “first-reading agreement,” a scheme devised for the “most valued and most constant contributors.” Up to this point, he had only one story accepted, along with some light verse. White acknowledged that it was “rather unusual” for the magazine to make this kind of offer to a contributor “of such short standing,” but she and Maxwell and Shawn took into consideration the volume of his submissions…and their overall quality and suitability, and decided that this clever, hard-working young man showed exceptional promise.

Updike was twenty-two years old. Even now, more than half a century later and with his early promise more than fulfilled, it’s hard to read this account without hating him a little. Norman Mailer—whose debut novel, The Naked and the Dead, appeared when he was twenty-five—didn’t pull any punches in “Some Children of the Goddess,” an essay on his contemporaries that was published in Esquire in 1963: “[Updike’s] reputation has traveled in convoy up the Avenue of the Establishment, The New York Times Book Review, blowing sirens like a motorcycle caravan, the professional muse of The New Yorker sitting in the Cadillac, membership cards to the right Fellowships in his pocket.” Even Begley, his biographer, acknowledges the singular nature of his subject’s rise:

It’s worth pausing here to marvel at the unrelieved smoothness of his professional path…Among the other twentieth-century American writers who made a splash before their thirtieth birthday…none piled up accomplishments in as orderly a fashion as Updike, or with as little fuss…This frictionless success has sometimes been held against him. His vast oeuvre materialized with suspiciously little visible effort. Where there’s no struggle, can there be real art? The Romantic notion of the tortured poet has left us with a mild prejudice against the idea of art produced in a calm, rational, workmanlike manner (as he put it, “on a healthy basis of regularity and avoidance of strain”), but that’s precisely how Updike got his start.

Begley doesn’t mention that the phrase “regularity and avoidance of strain” is actually meant to evoke the act of defecation, but even this provides us with an odd picture of writerly contentment. As Dick Hallorann says in The Shining, the best movie about writing ever made: “You got to keep regular, if you want to be happy.”

If there’s a larger theme here, it’s that the sheer productivity and variety of Updike’s career—with its reliable production of uniform hardcover editions over the course of five decades—are inseparable from the “orderly” circumstances of his rise. Updike never lacked a prestigious venue for his talents, which allowed him to focus on being prolific. Writers whose publication history remains volatile and unpredictable, even after they’ve seen print, don’t always have the luxury of being so unruffled, and it can affect their work in ways that are almost subliminal. (A writer can’t survive ten years of chasing after a book deal without spending the entire time convinced that he or she is on the verge of a breakthrough, anticipating an ending that never comes, which may partially account for the prevalence in literary fiction of frustration and unresolved narratives. It also explains why it helps to be privileged enough to fail for years.) The short answer to Begley’s question is that struggle is good for a writer, but so is success, and you take what you can get, even as you’re transformed by it. I think on a monthly basis of what Nicholson Baker writes of Updike in his tribute U and I:

I compared my awkward public self-promotion too with a documentary about Updike that I saw in 1983, I believe, on public TV, in which, in one scene, as the camera follows his climb up a ladder at his mother’s house to put up or take down some storm windows, in the midst of this tricky physical act, he tosses down to us some startlingly lucid little felicity, something about “These small yearly duties which blah blah blah,” and I was stunned to recognize that in Updike we were dealing with a man so naturally verbal that he could write his fucking memoirs on a ladder!

We’re all on that ladder, including Enjeti, who I’m pleased to note finally scored her book deal—she has an essay collection in the works from the University of Georgia Press. Some are on their way up, some are headed down, and some are stuck for years on the same rung. But you never get anywhere if you don’t try to climb.

Updike’s ladder

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In the latest issue of The Atlantic, the author Anjali Enjeti has an article titled “Why I’m Still Trying to Get a Book Deal After Ten Years.” If just reading those words makes your palms sweat and puts your heart through a few sympathy palpitations, congratulations—you’re a writer. No matter where you might be in your career, or what length of time you can mentally insert into that headline, you can probably relate to Enjeti when she writes:

Ten years ago, while sitting at my computer in my sparsely furnished office, I sent my first email to a literary agent. The message included a query letter—a brief synopsis describing the personal-essay collection I’d been working on for the past six years, as well as a short bio about myself. As my third child kicked from inside my pregnant belly, I fantasized about what would come next: a request from the agent to see my book proposal, followed by a dream phone call offering me representation. If all went well, I’d be on my way to becoming a published author by the time my oldest child started first grade.

“Things didn’t go as planned,” Enjeti says drily, noting that after landing and leaving two agents, she’s been left with six unpublished manuscripts and little else to show for it. She goes on to share the stories of other writers in the same situation, including Michael Bourne of Poets & Writers, who accurately calls the submission process “a slow mauling of my psyche.” And Enjeti wonders: “So after sixteen years of writing books and ten years of failing to find a publisher, why do I keep trying? I ask myself this every day.”

It’s a good question. As it happens, I came across her article while reading the biography Updike by Adam Begley, which chronicles a literary career that amounts to the exact opposite of the ones described above. Begley’s account of John Updike’s first acceptance from The New Yorker—just months after his graduation from Harvard—is like lifestyle porn for writers:

He never forgot the moment when he retrieved the envelope from the mailbox at the end of the drive, the same mailbox that had yielded so many rejection slips, both his and his mother’s: “I felt, standing and reading the good news in the midsummer pink dusk of the stony road beside a field of waving weeds, born as a professional writer.” To extend the metaphor…the actual labor was brief and painless: he passed from unpublished college student to valued contributor in less than two months.

If you’re a writer of any kind, you’re probably biting your hand right now. And I haven’t even gotten to what happened to Updike shortly afterward:

A letter from Katharine White [of The New Yorker] dated September 15, 1954 and addressed to “John H. Updike, General Delivery, Oxford,” proposed that he sign a “first-reading agreement,” a scheme devised for the “most valued and most constant contributors.” Up to this point, he had only one story accepted, along with some light verse. White acknowledged that it was “rather unusual” for the magazine to make this kind of offer to a contributor “of such short standing,” but she and Maxwell and Shawn took into consideration the volume of his submissions…and their overall quality and suitability, and decided that this clever, hard-working young man showed exceptional promise.

Updike was twenty-two years old. Even now, more than half a century later and with his early promise more than fulfilled, it’s hard to read this account without hating him a little. Norman Mailer—whose debut novel, The Naked and the Dead, appeared when he was twenty-five—didn’t pull any punches in “Some Children of the Goddess,” an essay on his contemporaries that was published in Esquire in 1963: “[Updike’s] reputation has traveled in convoy up the Avenue of the Establishment, The New York Times Book Review, blowing sirens like a motorcycle caravan, the professional muse of The New Yorker sitting in the Cadillac, membership cards to the right Fellowships in his pocket.” And Begley, his biographer, acknowledges the singular nature of his subject’s rise:

It’s worth pausing here to marvel at the unrelieved smoothness of his professional path…Among the other twentieth-century American writers who made a splash before their thirtieth birthday…none piled up accomplishments in as orderly a fashion as Updike, or with as little fuss…This frictionless success has sometimes been held against him. His vast oeuvre materialized with suspiciously little visible effort. Where there’s no struggle, can there be real art? The Romantic notion of the tortured poet has left us with a mild prejudice against the idea of art produced in a calm, rational, workmanlike manner (as he put it, “on a healthy basis of regularity and avoidance of strain”), but that’s precisely how Updike got his start.

Begley doesn’t mention that the phrase “regularity and avoidance of strain” is actually meant to evoke the act of defecation, but even this provides us with an odd picture of writerly contentment. As Dick Hallorann says in The Shining, the best movie about writing ever made: “You got to keep regular, if you want to be happy.”

If there’s a larger theme here, it’s that the qualities that we associate with Updike’s career—with its reliable production of uniform hardcover editions over the course of five decades—are inseparable from the “orderly” circumstances of his rise. Updike never lacked a prestigious venue for his talents, which allowed him to focus on being productive. Writers whose publication history remains volatile and unpredictable, even after they’ve seen print, don’t always have the luxury of being so unruffled, and it can affect their work in ways that are almost subliminal. (A writer can’t survive ten years of waiting for a book deal without spending the entire time convinced that he or she is on the verge of a breakthrough, anticipating an ending that never comes, which may partially explain the literary world’s fondness for frustration and unresolved narratives.) The short answer to Begley’s question is that struggle is good for a writer, but so is success, and you take what you can get, even you’re transformed by it. I seem to think on a monthly basis of what Nicholson Baker writes of Updike in his tribute U and I:

I compared my awkward public self-promotion too with a documentary about Updike that I saw in 1983, I believe, on public TV, in which, in one scene, as the camera follows his climb up a ladder at his mother’s house to put up or take down some storm windows, in the midst of this tricky physical act, he tosses down to us some startlingly lucid little felicity, something about “These small yearly duties which blah blah blah,” and I was stunned to recognize that in Updike we were dealing with a man so naturally verbal that he could write his fucking memoirs on a ladder!

We’re all on that ladder. Some are on their way up, some are headed down, and some are stuck for years on the same rung. But you never get anywhere if you don’t try to climb.

A visit to the chainmaker

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In the landmark study The Symbolist Movement in Literature by the critic Arthur Symons, there’s a short chapter titled “A Note on Zola’s Method.” Even if you’ve never gotten around to reading Émile Zola—and I confess that I haven’t—it’s an essay that every writer should take to heart. After describing the research that Zola devoted to his novel L’Assommoir, Symons launches a brutal attack on the value of this kind of work:

[Zola] observes with immense persistence, but his observation, after all, is only that of the man in the street; it is simply carried into detail, deliberately…And so much of it all is purely unnecessary, has no interest in itself and no connection with the story: the precise details of Lorilleux’s chainmaking, bristling with technical terms…Goujet’s forge, and the machinery in the shed next door; and just how you cut out zinc with a large pair of scissors.

We’ve all read stories in which the writer feels obliged to include every last bit of research, and Symons’s judgment of this impulse is deservedly harsh:

To find out in a slang dictionary that a filthy idea can be expressed by an ingeniously filthy phrase…is not a great feat, or, on purely artistic grounds, altogether desirable. To go to a chainmaker and learn the trade name of the various kinds of chain which he manufactures, and of the instruments with which he manufactures them, is not an elaborate process, or one which can be said to pay you for the little trouble which it no doubt takes. And it is not well to be too certain after all that Zola is always perfectly accurate in his use of all this manifold knowledge.

And the most punishing comparison is yet to come: “My main contention is that Zola’s general use of words is, to be quite frank, somewhat ineffectual. He tries to do what Flaubert did, without Flaubert’s tools, and without the craftsman’s hand at the back of the tools. His fingers are too thick; they leave a blurred line. If you want merely weight, a certain kind of force, you get it; but no more.” It’s the difference, Symons observes, between the tedious accumulation of detail, in hopes that its sheer weight will somehow make the scene real, and the one perfect image that will ignite a reader’s imagination:

[Zola] cannot leave well alone; he cannot omit; he will not take the most obvious fact for granted…He tells us particularly that a room is composed of four walls, that a table stands on its four legs. And he does not appear to see the difference between doing that and doing as Flaubert does, namely, selecting precisely the detail out of all others which renders or consorts with the scene in hand, and giving that detail with an ingenious exactness.

By way of illustration, Symons quotes the moment in Madame Bovary in which Charles turns away at the exact moment that his first wife dies, which, he notes, “indicates to us, at the very opening of the book, just the character of the man about whom we are to read so much.” And he finishes with a devastating remark that deserves to be ranked alongside Mark Twain’s classic demolition of James Fenimore Cooper: “Zola would have taken at least two pages to say that, and, after all, he would not have said it.”

Flaubert, of course, is usually seen as the one shining example of a writer whose love of research enhanced his artistry, rather than diminishing it. In his takedown of a very different book, Allan Folsom’s thriller The Day After Tomorrow, the critic Anthony Lane cites one typical sentence—“Two hundred European cities have bus links with Frankfurt”—and adds:

When Flaubert studied ancient Carthage for Salammbô, or the particulars of medieval falconry for “The Legend of St. Julien Hospitalier,” he was furnishing and feathering a world that had already taken shape within his mind; when Allan Folsom looks at bus timetables, his book just gets a little longer.

Even Flaubert’s apparent mistakes, on closer examination, turn out to be controlled by an almost inhuman attentiveness. In his novel Flaubert’s Parrot, Julian Barnes quotes a line from the literary critic Enid Starkie: “Flaubert does not build up his characters, as did Balzac, by objective, external description; in fact, so careless is he of their outward appearance that on one occasion he gives Emma brown eyes; on another deep black eyes; and on another blue eyes.” When the narrator, who shouldn’t be confused with Barnes himself, goes back to the text, he finds that Flaubert, in fact, describes Emma’s eyes with meticulous precision. In their first appearance, he writes: “In so far as she was beautiful, this beauty lay in her eyes: although they were brown, they would appear black because of her lashes.” A little later on: “They were black when she was in shadow and dark blue in full daylight.” And just after her seduction, as Emma looks in the mirror: “Her eyes had never been so large, so black, nor contained such depth.” Barnes’s narrator concludes: “It would be interesting to compare the time spent by Flaubert making sure that his heroine had the rare and difficult eyes of a tragic adulteress with the time spent by Dr. Starkie in carelessly selling him short.”

This level of diligent observation is a universe apart from the mechanical gathering of detail, and there’s no question that writers should aim for one, not the other. But to some extent, we all pay visits to the chainmaker—that is, we conduct research aimed at furnishing our stories with material that we can’t get from personal experience. Sometimes we even get this information from books. (Tolstoy seems to have derived all of the information about the Freemasons in War and Peace from his reading, which scandalizes some critics, as if they’ve caught him in an embarrassing breach of etiquette.) If an author’s personality is strong enough, it can transmute it into something more. John Updike turned this into a calling card, moving methodically through a series of adulterous white male protagonists who were distinguished mostly by their different jobs. In U and I, Nicholson Baker tries to call this a flaw: “He gives each of his male characters a profession, and then he has him think in metaphors drawn from that profession. That’s not right.” But after approvingly quoting one of the metaphors that emerge from the process, Baker changes his mind:

Without Updike’s determination to get some measure of control over his constant instinct to fling outward with a simile by filtering his correspondences through the characters’ offstage fictional professions, he would probably not have come up with this nice little thing, dropped as it is into the middle of a paragraph.

I like that phrase “measure of control,” which gets at the real point of research. It isn’t to pad out the story, but to channel it along lines that wouldn’t have occurred to the author otherwise. Research can turn into a set of chains in itself. But after all the work is done, the writer should be able to say, like Dylan Thomas in “Fern Hill”: “I sang in my chains like the sea.”

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