Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘U & I

The excerpt opinion

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Norman Mailer

“It’s the rare writer who cannot have sentences lifted from his work,” Norman Mailer once wrote. What he meant is that if a reviewer is eager to find something to mock, dismiss, or pick apart, any interesting book will provide plenty of ammunition. On a simple level of craft, it’s hard for most authors to sustain a high pitch of technical proficiency in every line, and if you want to make a novelist seem boring or ordinary, you can just focus on the sentences that fall between the high points. In his famously savage takedown of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal, Martin Amis quotes another reviewer who raved: “There is not a single ugly or dead sentence.” Amis then acidly observes:

Hannibal is a genre novel, and all genre novels contain dead sentences—unless you feel the throb of life in such periods as “Tommaso put the lid back on the cooler” or “Eric Pickford answered” or “Pazzi worked like a man possessed” or “Margot laughed in spite of herself” or “Bob Sneed broke the silence.”

Amis knows that this is a cheap shot, and he glories in it. But it isn’t so different from what critics do when they list the awful sentences from a current bestseller or nominate lines for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. I laugh at this along with anyone else, but I also wince a little, because there are few authors alive who aren’t vulnerable to that sort of treatment. As G.K. Chesterton pointed out: “You could compile the worst book in the world entirely out of selected passages from the best writers in the world.”

This is even more true of authors who take considerable stylistic or thematic risks, which usually result in individual sentences that seem crazy or, worse, silly. The fear of seeming ridiculous is what prevents a lot of writers from taking chances, and it isn’t always unjustified. An ambitious novel opens itself up to savaging from all sides, precisely because it provides so much material that can be turned against the author when taken out of context. And it doesn’t need to be malicious, either: even objective or actively sympathetic critics can be seduced by the ease with which a writer can be excerpted to make a case. I’ve become increasingly daunted by the prospect of distilling the work of Robert A. Heinlein, for example, because his career was so long, varied, and often intentionally provocative that you can find sentences to support any argument about him that you want to make. (It doesn’t help that his politics evolved drastically over time, and they probably would have undergone several more transformations if he had lived for longer.) This isn’t to say that his opinions aren’t a fair target for criticism, but any reasonable understanding of who Heinlein was and what he believed—which I’m still trying to sort out for myself—can’t be conveyed by a handful of cherry-picked quotations. Literary biography is useful primarily to the extent that it can lay out a writer’s life in an orderly fashion, providing a frame that tells us something about the work that we wouldn’t know by encountering it out of order. But even that involves a process of selection, as does everything else about a biography. The biographer’s project isn’t essentially different from that of a working critic or reviewer: it just takes place on a larger scale.

John Updike

And it’s worth noting that prolific critics themselves are particularly susceptible to this kind of treatment. When Renata Adler described Pauline Kael’s output as “not simply, jarringly, piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless,” any devotee of Kael’s work had to disagree—but it was also impossible to deny that there was plenty of evidence for the prosecution. If you’re determined to hate Roger Ebert, you just have to search for the reviews in which his opinions, written on deadline, weren’t sufficiently in line with the conclusions reached by posterity, as when he unforgivably gave only three stars to The Godfather Part II. And there isn’t a single page in the work of David Thomson, who is probably the most interesting movie critic who ever lived, that couldn’t be mined for outrageous, idiotic, or infuriating statements. I still remember a review on The A.V. Club of How to Watch a Movie that quoted lines like this:

Tell me a story, we beg as children, while wanting so many other things. Story will put off sleep (or extinction) and the child’s organism hardly trusts the habit of waking yet.

And this:

You came into this book under deceptive promises (mine) and false hopes (yours). You believed we might make decisive progress in the matter of how to watch a movie. So be it, but this was a ruse to make you look at life.

The reviewer quoted these sentences as examples of the book’s deficiencies, and they were duly excoriated in the comments. But anyone who has really read Thomson knows that such statements are part of the package, and removing them would also deny most of what makes him so fun, perverse, and valuable.

So what’s a responsible reviewer to do? We could start, maybe, by quoting longer or complete sections, rather than sentences in isolation, and by providing more context when we offer up just a line or two. We can also respect an author’s feelings, explicit or otherwise, about what sections are actually important. In the passage I mentioned at the beginning of this post, which is about John Updike, Mailer goes on to quote a few sentences from Rabbit, Run, and he adds:

The first quotation is taken from the first five sentences of the book, the second is on the next-to-last page, and the third is nothing less than the last three sentences of the novel. The beginning and end of a novel are usually worked over. They are the index to taste in the writer.

That’s a pretty good rule, and it ensures that the critic is discussing something reasonably close to what the writer intended to say. Best of all, we can approach the problem of excerpting with a kind of joy in the hunt: the search for the slice of a work that will stand as a synecdoche of the whole. In the book U & I, which is also about Updike, Nicholson Baker writes about the “standardized ID phrase” and “the aphoristic consensus” and “the jingle we will have to fight past at some point in the future” to see a writer clearly again, just as fans of Joyce have to do their best to forget about “the ineluctable modality of the visible” and “yes I said yes I will Yes.” For a living author, that repository of familiar quotations is constantly in flux, and reviewers might approach their work with a greater sense of responsibility if they realized that they were playing a part in creating it—one tiny excerpt at a time.

Anthologies of interest

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The Astounding Science Fiction Anthology

If you really want to influence readers, don’t be an author—be an anthologist. Anthologies are among the earliest books that most of us read: the collections of fairy tales and poems we’re given as children, followed by the textbooks of stories we’re assigned in grade school, mark our first general exposure to literature of any kind, and all of those selections have been chosen for us by another human being, at least in theory. (These days, textbooks are more likely to be cobbled together by committee, drawing primarily on the work of their predecessors.) Later in life, when we pick up paperback anthologies for our own reading pleasure, it’s out of an unconscious desire to replicate or extend that education. The world of literature is so vast that it seems too large for any one reader to navigate alone. We depend on curators to cull it for us, singling out the essential nuggets from the disposable fluff that every healthy culture produces in such great quantities. The result, we hope, will be a sampling accurate enough to allow us to understand the whole, and for most of us, it comes to define it. But it’s really something else altogether. Even if we assume a perfect anthologist gifted enough to truly present us with “the best,” judging a culture or a genre from its masterpieces alone delivers a skewed picture. How much better was the best from the rest? Does it really reflect the experience of a reader at the time, who had to figure out what was good, bad, or mediocre without any assistance from the outside? As Nicholson Baker writes in his novel The Anthologist: “Anthology knowledge isn’t real knowledge. You have to read the unchosen poems to understand the chosen ones.”

I’ve been thinking about anthologies a lot recently, mostly because of the daunting amount of reading I need to do for Astounding. Obviously, I need to read as much as I can of the science fiction and fantasy that John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard wrote, and I expect to get pretty close to that goal by the time the book is finished. But what about the rest? I can’t make critical judgments about their work without a sense of what else was happening at the same time, and my reading up to this point in my life has been fannish but unsystematic, leaving me with considerable gaps in my understanding of the genre. As I’ve mentioned before, I have a complete collection of Astounding Science Fiction, but I can’t possibly read all of it, and it doesn’t even include what was going on in the other magazines. Predictably, then, I’ve turned to anthologies to fill in the blanks. Earlier this year, I put together a reading list for myself, drawing mostly on a shelf’s worth of classic short story collections. These include the three volumes of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame; The Astounding Science Fiction Anthology, which was edited by Campbell himself; The Astounding-Analog Reader; Analog’s Golden Anniversary Anthology; Analog Readers’ Choice; Adventures in Time and Space; The Road to Science Fiction; The Golden Age of Science Fiction; and various other “best of” lists and reader polls. The result is a list of nearly five hundred novels and stories, ranging in length from a few pages to massive tomes like Battlefield Earth, and at the moment, I’m about two thirds of the way through.

Nicholson Baker

Of course, this approach has obvious limitations. It ends up focusing mostly on Astounding, at least through the early fifties, so it doesn’t tell me much about what was going on in Amazing or Thrilling Wonder or the countless other pulp magazines that once flooded the newsstands. There’s very little from before the golden age. It’s almost exclusively in the English language, and particularly from American authors—although I’m willing to accept this shortcoming, since it reflects the milieu in which my four major figures emerged. Stories of limited aesthetic interest but considerable historical significance, like Cleve Cartmill’s “Deadline,” tend to fall through the cracks. And the result probably doesn’t have much in common with the experience of a reader who was buying these magazines from one month to the next. But it’s a beginning, and in some ways, it’s better than it sounds. In trying to read these stories more or less in the order in which they appeared, I’m creating an alternate version of myself who was born in, say, 1920, and was exposed to science fiction at the age when I was most likely to be influenced by it. In practice, what I end up with isn’t so much the inner life of that bright twelve year old, but the memories of that same reader thirty years down the line. Memory naturally filters what we read, leaving the stories that made the greatest impression on us at first glance, the ones that only gradually revealed their power, and a few that have stuck around for no discernible reason, aside from where we were in our lives when we first encountered them. And I’m hopeful that the subset of science fiction stories I’ve been reading will provide the same sort of background noise for the book I’m writing that my half-remembered reservoir of fiction does in my everyday life.

Needless to say, very little of what I’m reading now will end up explicitly in the book: given the nature of a work like this, I doubt I’ll have a chance to discuss more than a handful of stories that weren’t written by my central four authors. But I wouldn’t be doing this at all if I didn’t feel that the experience would change me, and how I think, in ways that will be reflected in every line. This is true even, or especially, if I forget much of what I read. In his story “Incest,” John Updike uses the phrase “vast, dying sea”—a description that Nicholson Baker quotes with approval in U & I—to evoke all the poetry that his main character has forgotten over the years. We all have a similar sea inside of us, collected and neglected by our internal anthologist, who operates when we aren’t aware of it. The anthologies we all carry in our brains differ markedly from one another, even more so than the tables of contents of the anthologies in print. (One of the nice things about the anthologies I’m reading is how little they overlap: only a few stories, like Asimov’s “Nightfall,” appear in more than two, which indicates how flexible, varied, and mutable the canon of science fiction really is.) An anthologist is the custodian of a genre’s past for the sake of the future: as time goes by, aside from a handful of books and authors that everyone is expected to read, anthologies are our only conduit for transmitting the memory of what a literature used to be, at least for the majority of readers. The same can be said of the reader’s own imperfect memory, which preserves, through a sort of memetic natural selection, the bits and pieces of the tradition that he or she needs. We can’t all be writers, or even perfect readers. But we’re all anthologists at heart.

Written by nevalalee

July 20, 2016 at 8:37 am

Trading places

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John Updike

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 topic: “What famous person’s life would you want to assume?”

“Celebrity,” John Updike once wrote, “is a mask that eats into the face.” And Updike would have known, having been one of the most famous—and the most envied—literary novelists of his generation, with a career that seemed to consist of nothing but the serene annual production of poems, stories, essays, and hardcovers that, with their dust jackets removed, turned out to have been bound and designed as a uniform edition. From the very beginning, Updike was already thinking about how his complete works would look on library shelves. That remarkable equanimity made an impression on the writer Nicholson Baker, who wrote in his book U & I:

I compared my awkward 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!

Plenty of writers, young or old, might have wanted to switch places with Updike, although the first rule of inhabiting someone else’s life is that you don’t want to be a writer. (The Updike we see in Adam Begley’s recent biography comes across as more unruffled than most, but all those extramarital affairs in Ipswich must have been exhausting.) Writing might seem like an attractive kind of celebrity: you can inspire fierce devotion in a small community of fans while remaining safely anonymous in a restaurant or airport. You don’t even need to go as far as Thomas Pynchon: how many of us could really pick Michael Chabon or Don DeLillo or Cormac McCarthy out of a crowd? Yet that kind of seclusion carries a psychological toll as well, and I suspect that the daily life of any author, no matter how rich or acclaimed, looks much the same as any other. If you want to know what it’s like to be old, Malcolm Cowley wrote: “Put cotton in your ears and pebbles in your shoes. Pull on rubber gloves. Smear Vaseline over your glasses, and there you have it: instant old age.” And if you want to know what it’s like to be a novelist, you can fill a room with books and papers, go inside, close the door, and stay there for as long as possible while doing absolutely nothing that an outside observer would find interesting. Ninety percent of a writer’s working life looks more or less like that.

Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe

What kind of celebrity, then, do you really want to be? If celebrity is a mask, as Updike says, it might be best to make it explicit. Being a member of Daft Punk, say, would allow you to bask in the adulation of a stadium show, then remove your helmet and take the bus back to your hotel without any risk of being recognized. The mask doesn’t need to be literal, either: I have a feeling that Lady Gaga could dress down in a hoodie and ponytail and order a latte at any Starbucks in the country without being mobbed. The trouble, of course, with taking on the identity of a total unknown—Banksy, for instance—is that you’re buying the equivalent of a pig in a poke: you just don’t know what you’re getting. Ideally, you’d switch places with a celebrity whose life has been exhaustively chronicled, either by himself or others, so that there aren’t any unpleasant surprises. It’s probably best to also go with someone slightly advanced in years: as Solon says in Herodotus, you don’t really know how happy someone’s life is until it’s over, and the next best thing would be a person whose legacy seems more or less fixed. (There are dangers there, too, as Bill Cosby knows.) And maybe you want someone with a rich trove of memories of a life spent courting risk and uncertainty, but who has since mellowed into something slightly more stable, with the aura of those past accomplishments still intact.

You also want someone with the kind of career that attracts devoted collaborators, which is the only kind of artistic wealth that really counts. But you don’t want too much fame or power, both of which can become traps in themselves. In many respects, then, what you’d want is something close to the life of half and half that Lin Yutang described so beautifully: “A man living in half-fame and semi-obscurity.” Take it too far, though, and you start to inch away from whatever we call celebrity these days. (Only in today’s world can an otherwise thoughtful profile of Brie Larson talk about her “relative anonymity.”) And there are times when a touch of recognition in public can be a welcome boost to your ego, like for Sally Field in Soapdish, as long as you’re accosted by people with the same basic mindset, rather than those who just recognize you from Istagram. You want, in short, to be someone who can do pretty much what he likes, but less because of material resources than because of a personality that makes the impossible happen. You want to be someone who can tell an interviewer: “Throughout my life I have been able to do what I truly love, which is more valuable than any cash you could throw at me…So long as I have a roof over my head, something to read and something to eat, all is fine…What makes me so rich is that I am welcomed almost everywhere.” You want to be Werner Herzog.

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