“Don’t bend; water it down; or make it logical; don’t edit your soul for fashion. Follow intense obsessions mercilessly.”
Spot-on advice for all artists from the writer Franz Kafka.
“A story . . . can become close, airless. You cannot stay shut up in your own head anymore; you need a break, some fresh air. Let’s go outside: We’ll take a walk, down a New York City side street. It’s 1944 . . . ’’
This line from Joan Wickersham’s new book, The News from Spain, could easily be a comment on the author’s own view of short stories. At recent readings in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Peterborough, New Hampshire, Wickersham explained her love/hate relationship with the genre. “Too often every word and sentence in a short story points to some pivotal ‘a-ha’ moment. Many stories lack the roominess and depth of novels, which is a quality I appreciate in long fiction.”
Henry James famously called novels “large loose baggy monsters,” a wonderful description of the genre as realized by Tolstoy and Thackeray if ever there was one. But frequently it’s this “bagginess” that gives us a sense of life beyond the pages of the book. Novels are splendid at conveying the whole sweep of history, whether it’s personal or geographic history. While we, as readers, are only privy to specific scenes, conversations, or memories, writers like Flaubert, Franzen, and Faulkner excel at providing clues to both future and past. There is life beyond the pages of the novel, and in the hands of a talented writer, we have no trouble imagining what that life might be like.
As a friend of mine once said after completing a novel whose title I can’t recall: “After I finished, I couldn’t stop worrying about the main character. What’s going to happen to her?” Such an emotional, concerned response is a sure sign that the writer has accomplished his or her task.
The brilliance of The News from Spain is that Joan Wickersham has ambitiously aimed for the scope and depth of a novel, but contained her writing within seven elegant “love” stories, each titled The News from Spain. How she has managed to squeeze so much insight, humor, and inventiveness into 208 pages astonishes me.
Wickersham understands that love comes in many forms and turns the traditional notion of “a love story” on its head. In The News from Spain we experience the rocky, but profound, love between mother and daughter, the discomfort of “settling” for a marriage partner, and the naivete of a young girl at boarding school being used.
As Wickersham poignantly demonstrates, love is a product not only of good and bad choices, but also of chance and timing that is beyond our control:
You meet someone, you fall in love, you marry. You meet someone, you fall in love, it turns into a disaster. You meet someone, you fall in love, but one of you is married, or both are: you have or don’t have an affair. You meet someone, you fall in love, but are never quite sure if your feelings are returned. You meet someone, you fall in love but you are able to keep your feelings mostly hidden; occasionally they cough, or break a dinner plate, or burn down the kitchen (accidentally? On purpose?), but mostly they stay out of sight when other people are around. At night they have the run of the house. It’s a creepy, even sinister, ménage.
Wickersham’s greatest strength is that her empathy for the human condition runs deep, and she is able to transport the reader into her characters’ lives with humor, precision, and (let’s just be honest) some damn fine writing. If you write fiction, brace yourself for some serious pangs of jealousy. This is some of the best fiction writing I’ve encountered in years. While reading, I couldn’t resist marking the sentences that stunned me–the passages that hit me like a splash of cold water on the face. By the time I finished Wickersham’s book, my review copy of The News from Spain was a mess of check marks, asterisks, underlines, and marginalia. That’s how good it is.
In one of my favorite stories, a biographer, his wife and young child visit a former actress named Alice, who is the widow of a race car driver the biographer is researching. Alice’s youthful, glamorous days in the spotlight, with its cocktail parties and world travels with her famous, handsome husband Denis, are long gone. Her alcoholism is luckily in check, but she now lives and works as a companion for a rich couple in order to make ends meet. There is affection and humor between Alice and her boss, Marjorie, but the class divide creates tension, as in this passage where Alice tries to say “No” when Marjorie asks her to go to town to pick up her library books:
So Alice had this perplexing, nuanced job, which had saved her life and which made saying even a rare “No” to Marjorie somewhat complicated and difficult. Alice thought it was a bit like a pinball machine, the “No” a little silver ball that you shot off as strategically as you could, but always with a sense of randomness, and then you stood and watched it ricocheting and bouncing off a series of moods and obligations and generous acts and small stored resentments and moments of gratitude and ingratitude, wondering curiously where it would come out. It might help to send another silver ball after it, to careen around and run into, perhaps altering its course: an explanation.
“It’s just that I have these young people coming to spend the day,” she told Marjorie. “A writer, in fact. He’s working on something about Denis.”
“Oh, how exciting,” Marjorie said, vexation apparently forgotten. “Now is this the same one who was here—let’s see, was it two years ago? Three?”
“No, that was a screenwriter,” Alice said
“And did anything ever happen about that? Do you hear from him?”
“He sent me a couple of Christmas cards, but not this past year. No, I’m sure I would have heard if a movie had actually been made.”
“Yes, we’d probably notice that, wouldn’t we?” Marjorie said laughing. “We’d notice if we were at the movies and it was the story of Alice. I think we’d notice.”
In each tale, Wickersham masterfully weaves in the phrase, “the news from Spain.” This is an idea that could be gimmicky, but in Wickerhsam’s deft hands it gives the collection an even greater sense of momentum and cohesion. In this comic scene the biographer, Charlie, questions Alice about the day her husband Denis died. Charlie is annoyed that his wife Liza has decided to tag along, but the two women quickly bond:
Alice Ann Laidlaw was born in the rural town of Wingham, Ontario, the daughter of a fox and mink farmer and a schoolteacher. While writing fiction and studying English at the University of Western Ontario she worked as a tobacco picker, a waitress, and library clerk.
“I had no chance to be anything else [but a writer] because I had no money,” Alice told The Paris Review many years later. “I knew I would only be at university two years because the scholarships available at that time lasted only two years…I had been in charge of the house at home when I was in my teens, so university was about the only time in my life that I haven’t had to do housework.”
In 1951, she left the university to marry James Munro. Alice Munro’s daughters Sheila, Catherine, and Jenny were born in 1953, 1955, and 1957 respectively; Catherine died just fifteen hours after her birth.
“I got married right after the second year,” Munro explains. “I was twenty. We went to Vancouver. That was the big thing about getting married—this huge adventure, moving. As far away as we could get and stay in the country. We were only twenty and twenty-two…We were thinking of getting a house and having a baby, and we promptly did these things. I had my first baby at twenty-one.”
“The Day of the Butterfly” (from the collection Dance of the Happy Shades) was one of Munro’s earliest stories. “That was probably written when I was about twenty-one. And I can remember very well writing ‘Thanks for the Ride’ because my first baby was lying in the crib beside me. So I was twenty-two.”
“I was writing desperately all the time I was pregnant because I thought I would never be able to write afterwards. Each pregnancy spurred me to get something big done before the baby was born. Actually I didn’t get anything big done.”
For almost two decades Munro juggled writing, motherhood, being a wife, and running a business with her husband:
When the kids were little, my time was as soon as they left for school. So I worked very hard in those years. My husband and I owned a bookstore, and even when I was working there, I stayed at home until noon. I was supposed to be doing housework, and I would also do my writing then. Later on, when I wasn’t working everyday in the store, I would write until everybody came home for lunch and then after they went back, probably till about two-thirty, and then I would have a quick cup of coffee and start doing the housework, trying to get it all done before late afternoon.
Two weeks ago, artists and art lovers converged on the quiet town of Peterborough, New Hampshire, for a chance to meet some of the most talented contemporary artists working today. Each August the famed MacDowell Colony opens its doors to the public and gives visitors from around the country an opportunity to tour its 32 studios, historic sites, 450 acres of forest, vegetable gardens, streams, orchards, and fields.
When composer Edward MacDowell and his wife Marian established an artist retreat in the New Hampshire woods in 1907, the idea seemed nothing less than ridiculous. Skeptics were quick to pounce, accusing Mrs. MacDowell of creating “a home for indigent bohemians.” But remarkably, the idea worked. The MacDowell Colony, the oldest artist retreat in the United States, has supported over 6000 writers, filmmakers, composers, visual artists, architects, and performers, and spawned hundreds of other programs based on its model. For two to eight weeks at a time, artists are given a private studio, three meals a day (lunch is delivered in the now-legendary picnic baskets), and quiet time to work on a creative project within a community of artistic peers.
What makes MacDowell’s Medal Day unique is the diverse range of artists, art lovers and supporters who are thrown together for a weekend of socializing, open studios, and conversations about the value and meaning of art—art on a personal level, but also a national one. Medal Day is like a family reunion of sorts, with the usual cast of crazy cousins and wise matriarchs mingling with all of those black sheep (and there are plenty of black sheep).
But regardless of your role in the MacDowell family—whether you’re a colony fellow, a local resident, an out-of-town visitor, a volunteer, a staff member, a friend, a supporter, or in my case, a former staff member turned press—there is always a sense of homecoming when you step onto the Colony property. From the moment that MacDowell fellow and board member Michael Chabon steps up to the microphone, you become hyperaware that in this oasis the value of art is not only assumed, but considered as essential as food, water, or air.
During this year’s ceremony, I appreciated Executive Director Cheryl Young’s thoughts on “bohemianism” and the financial struggles of working artists:
Luc [Sante] devotes a chapter to bohemia in New York in Low Life noting it was a state of mind more than a place. Therein he quotes a definition of the term by the author Ada Clare: “The Bohemian is by nature, if not by habit, a cosmopolite, with a general sympathy for the fine arts and for all things above and beyond convention. The Bohemian is not, like the creature of society, a victim of rules and customs… Above all others, the Bohemian must not be narrow-minded.”
She goes on to say that Bohemians do not strive to be poor. They are poor because they have eschewed more stable ways of earning a living to pursue life more freely. Bohemians like Walt Whitman and Stephen Crane were good examples of artists who embraced the idea of creative freedom, who eschewed the mainstream and remained on the fringe even after success.
Not all artists are bohemian, but they all-too-often share the common trait of being poor. For Edward MacDowell, who was employed as a professor and struggled to carve out time to make new work, creating a colony was a brilliant scheme to temporarily free artists from their everyday commitments to work and commerce. The Colony is a kind of sanctioned bohemia, one that works particularly well within a capitalist economy where the state only slimly supports artists. MacDowell provides opportunity for research and development for ideas that may or may not register in the commercial marketplace. And residency programs have proven their worth many times over and are today one of our country’s most copied ideas. In the past twenty years there has been an explosion of these sorts of programs internationally.
The Colony has been awarding the Edward MacDowell Medal, a prestigious lifetime achievement award, for 53 years. Past recipients include visual artists Robert Frank, Edward Hopper, Louise Bourgeois, and Georgia O’Keeffe; composers Leonard Bernstein and Sonny Rollins; architect I.M. Pei; filmmakers Chuck Jones and Stan Brakhage; interdisciplinary artist Merce Cunningham; writers Robert Frost, William Styron, Eudora Welty, and Joan Didion; and playwrights Thornton Wilder and Edward Albee.
Photographer Nan Goldin was the 2012 medal recipient. Goldin is known for her highly personal photographs of friends and lovers coping with AIDS, physical abuse, and addiction. Luc Sante, chairman of this year’s Medalist selection committee, said,“Nan Goldin’s photographs of her life, her friends, and her family—unflinchingly honest, nakedly emotional, sometimes brutal, but most often tender —redefined the autobiographical use of photography and influenced everyone who has come after her.” Sante, who introduced Goldin during the event, described the artist as a “visual diarist” who tries “to freeze time” by capturing her friends at the beach, at parties, in bed. “The moment is the subject,” Sante said. They are “emphatically not snapshots.”
A few weeks ago I had a chance to meet writers Matthew Zapruder and Amy Hempel for the first time. The event was part of a reading series at the Juniper Summer Writing Institute, an annual summer workshop at the University of Massachusetts that brings students and accomplished writers together to explore the craft of poetry, fiction, and memoir.
Zapruder and Hempel did not disappoint. Zapruder read a selection of new poems, including “Poem Without Intimacy,” which was a featured Sunday Poem here on Gwarlingo. His most recent book, Come on All You Ghosts, includes two of my favorite works, “Pocket” (also published on Gwarlingo) and “April Snow,” which Zapruder read at UMass.
Here is an excerpt from “April Snow” (courtesy Copper Canyon Press):
Zapruder’s poems are provocative, unexpected, and capture contemporary American life in an entirely original way. In “April Snow” it is the “scarred waitress who wears typewriter keys as a necklace” and the “mountain of cell phone chargers” that prevent the poem from lapsing into a conventional, snowy reverie. Amidst the emotional insights and vivid descriptions of place in Come on All You Ghosts are mentions of a Xerox machine, David Foster Wallace, the unemployment rate, Joni Mitchell, ESPN, and Diet Coke. Not every poet could make this combination work, but Zapruder does.
Zapruder came to poetry in his twenties while earning his PhD in Slavic languages and literature at UC Berkeley. He realized that compared to his fellow students he didn’t have the focus and dedication he needed to pursue his field of study professionally, so decided to follow his true passion instead: poetry. Zapruder went on to earn his MFA at the University of Massachusetts.
“There’s a lot of bullshit about MFAs, and people complaining about them,” he explained in an interview with Marissa Bell Toffoli, “but the fact of the matter is that I’m the perfect example of someone who really benefited from it. I would learn something in a day just by talking to someone, or by being in a bookstore when someone happened to be there, or having someone put a book in my hand that it might have taken me months or even years to run across on my own. It helped me start to become an artist; I had a long way to go, but it got me from being a complete ignoramus to beginning to have some sense of what was going on.”
When discussing his writing process on the Pen American Center blog, Zapruder explained that many of his most recent poems are the result of writing exercises, “either ones I have found or those I have generated myself, in order to move from the terror of the blank page into the actuality of language. As always, I then take this language and move it around as necessary, until I feel real, deep, human concerns are emerging.” His ultimate goal is to write poems that feel “close to a natural speech act, language an actual person might use when feeling emotionally and intellectually engaged and committed.”
“What intrigues and electrifies me is the possibility of beginning with total freedom, intuitive knowledge, instinct, even randomness, and building out of those states or qualities into a poem…I continue to try to find ways, whether it is through the processes mentioned above or through new ones such as writing exercises I find or invent, to move from the unformed chaos of free language to the formed poem.”
When I chatted with Matthew after the reading, he told me that he is working on a non-fiction book about poetry, as well as a new collection of poems, tentatively titled Sun Bear. In addition to being a talented writer, Zapruder is also a translator, teacher, and editor at Wave Books, a press that is as obsessed with the quality of its books as printed objecst, as it is with the quality of the writing itself.
“I think that people are most happy when they do things that are deeply connected and integrated with who they are,” Zapruder explained to Toffoli, “and that fulfills that need in themselves to feel connected to others and productive.”
Like Alice Munro, Amy Hempel is one of only a handful of contemporary writers who has built a career on the short story. I’ve read Hempel’s The Collected Stories three times now. I never tire of her wit, empathy, and ability to convey a range of powerful ideas and emotions in only a few words. Her story “Memoir,” which appears in The Collected Storiesis only one sentence long:
Just once in my life—oh, when have I ever wanted anything just once in my life?
Hempel shared three stories with us during her reading at the University of Massachusetts—”Moonbow,” a micro-fiction story called “Sing to It,” and her most recent published piece from the current issue of Tin House, a moving story about a high-kill animal shelter titled “A Full-Service Shelter.” Although the story was published as fiction, Hempel explained that everything she describes in the story is true: sometimes the wrong dogs are killed, shelter compliance records are inflated, and sedatives are judged too costly and eliminated during the euthanasia process with shocking results.
The point of view and structure of “A Full-Service Shelter,” which repeats the phrase, “They knew me as the one who…,” was inspired by Leonard Michaels’ story “In the Fifties.” It was this line by Michaels that caught Hempel’s attention:
“I had personal relationships with thirty-five rhesus monkeys in an experiment on monkey addiction to morphone. They knew me as one who shot reeking crap out of cages with a hose.”
Animals are a continual presence in Hempel’s life and fiction. She volunteers at a high-kill shelter in New York City, has trained seeing-eye dogs, and is co-founder of the Deja Foundation, a non-profit that offers direct assistance for care, training, recovery, and rehabilitation to dogs rescued from high-kill shelters. After the reading, Hempel told me that she started Deja in order to give death-row dogs a second chance. “Many of these dogs just need behavior training or vet care before they can become viable adoption candidates,” she said.
One of Hempel’s many volunteer duties is writing the biographies of dogs housed at a shelter in New York in an effort to get the animals adopted before they’re euthanized. She considers it some of her most important work since the end result can mean the difference between life and death for a dog.
In her 2003 interview with The Paris Review, Hempel told Paul Winner that during her childhood, “the two things that were always there were reading and animals. I wanted to be a veterinarian, but slipped up when I hit organic chemistry.” Words and animals continued to be a life-line for Hempel during a particularly difficult two-year stretch when her mother took her own life, her mother’s younger sister committed suicide, she was injured in two serious auto accidents, and her best friend died from leukemia.
It was at Gordon Lish’s workshop at Columbia that she began to transform these life tragedies into fiction. In one exercise, Lish told his writing students to reveal their own worst secret—”the thing we would never live down,” Hempel told The Paris Review, “the thing that, as Gordon put it, ‘dismantles your own sense of yourself.’” Hempel’s “worst secret”? “I failed my best friend when she was dying. It became the subject of the first story I wrote, ‘In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried.’” This short story masterpiece would become Hempel’s most anthologized piece of fiction.
In The Paris Review interview, Hempel credits her early training as a journalist and her study of stand-up comedy for her concise style and well-timed humor. “I don’t feel I have a particularly large imagination, but I do have some powers of observation.”
“Journalism taught me how to write a sentence that would make someone want to read the next one. You are trained to get rid of anything nonessential… You start writing your article, assuming a person’s going to stop reading the minute you give them a reason. So the trick is: don’t give them one. Frontload and cut out everything extraneous. That’s why I like short stories…Some writers feel that when they write, there are people out there who just can’t wait to hear everything they have to say. But I go in with the opposite attitude the expectation that they’re just dying to get away from me.”
“What does it mean to live in between?” writes novelist Andrea Barrett of Roger King’s latest book. “Not only between geographical locations, but between health and illness, commitment and freedom, love and loss?”
It is the promise of the American West and potential for a new career that lures the unnamed British narrator of Roger King’s new autobiographical novel, Love and Fatigue in America, from London, England, to Spokane, Washington. But after collapsing and being diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, the narrator and his dog Arthur suddenly find themselves wandering across the country searching for somewhere to settle. His travels take him from Washington, to New Mexico, to San Francisco, and eventually to Western Massachusetts. He endures doctor after ineffective doctor, anonymous motels, and the suspicion of coworkers (men in particular), as he struggles to discover who he is and what he’s to become at the age of 40.
When I first read Love and Fatigue, I was struck by its original blend of literary genres. While reminiscent of Sebald, the book weaves together a number of literary styles and traditions. There is the outsider’s view of American life (Dickens and Fanny Kemble), the American road trip (Kerouac, Steinbeck, and William Least Heat-Moon), and the question of what it means to be male in this culture (Hemingway, Richard Ford, Michael Chabon, and Fitzgerald), and the struggle to love and be loved (Updike, Miller, and Roth). But the author has woven all of these fascinations together into a literary work that is entirely unique. It would be easy for a book about illness to lapse into self-pity, but King avoids this trap by giving his narrator a succinct, removed voice (a voice, I must add, that is strikingly different from King’s real personality). It is a fictional device that serves the novel well.
What I admire most about King’s fiction is his ability to combine the personal with the political and to accomplish this task with an original and concise literary style. King’s first novel, Horizontal Hotel, was written while the author was working in international development in Africa and was published by British publisher André Deutsch, where King became close friends with the editor and writer Diana Athill. Sea Level and A Girl from Zanzibar remain two of my favorite contemporary novels and could easily hold their own against Graham Greene’s best fiction. Both books reveal so much about the inner life and its relationship to the larger political world we inhabit.
While the author’s novels have received interest from film producers and continued praise from the New York Times, The New Yorker, TLS, O Magazine, The Guardian, and Publisher’s Weekly, and have attracted a loyal audience of readers, they have never found the prestige or popularity in the American literary community that they deserve. In part, this could be a result of King remaining outside of the MFA system, and also a result of a literary style that is more European than American. As King says in his interview, many graduates of MFA programs “come ready-equipped with mentors and referrals to editors”–a luxury he has never had as a self-taught writer. Like the main characters in his novels, King hovers between two worlds–the UK and America without embracing (or being embraced) by either.
You’ll have a rare opportunity to hear King read on Thursday, June 14th at powerHouse Arena in Brooklyn, New York, and on Saturday, June 23rd at 3:30 p.m. at The Toadstool Bookshop in Peterborough, New Hampshire. (I’m planning to attend both events and would love to see some Gwarlingo readers there). King will also be appearing on NHPR’s Word of Mouth with Virginia Prescott between 12-1 on Thursday, June 21st, so tune in!
This week I had a chance to have an in-depth conversation with Roger about his his new book, his illness and writing routine, and the state of the novel today.
I’d been saying I would be a writer from the age of 9, when I decided that it was my sacred responsibility to describe the real nature of childhood before I was too old to understand it like all the grown-ups. There followed 25 years of sidetrack before my first novel was published. During the time that I was working at universities in Nigeria and England, finishing a PhD in agricultural economics and then traveling around the world for UN agencies, I was scribbling in notebooks in preparation for my real life. But working for the world’s rural poor seemed compellingly important, and exciting, as well as a living. I published my two West African novels with UK publishers – Horizontal Hotel and Written on a Stranger’s Map – before the need to choose between careers became inescapable.
There was really no choice, but I agonized anyway. By this time I had become exhausted by the difficulty of making international aid genuinely effective for the poor. The poor had no political power and other interests shaped the world. We all had a narrative about how we were doing good, but it was not the true narrative. I started writing about this, publishing “The Development Game,” a story set in northwest Pakistan, in Granta – under a pseudonym, so that I could return to my work. The need to pretend I was someone else in order to write was a final straw. I needed to choose, and I chose writing, moving to America to teach it. My next novel, Sea Level, was an exploration of the moral damage of international finance, which I published under my own name.
The deeper stream through this is that I always thought the novel, with it’s ability to show lives in their full emotional and social complexity was the best medium for understanding and illuminating the world. I thought it more important than any non-fiction I could write as an academic, or journalist, or “expert.” It seems an almost old-fashioned view, now the novel has lost its place at the moral center of our culture, but I still believe it. And I still hope to channel my nine year-old self one day, and write a childhood book that puts the grown-ups straight.
I treasure all novelists who dare to extend the range of what can be done successfully in novels. The license becomes broader all the time.
My wretched work method is mainly trial and error, trying to discover the voice, form and content that bears on the particular subject that is on my mind. I took some risks combining lyricism and cooler writing in earlier books, but this new book takes it further. Also I trust more and more that readers will connect disparate episodes in instinctive, creative ways without my leading them laboriously from place to place by the nose. Love and Fatigue expressed that trust. I have been surprised to be continually told that it’s a easy read. I thought I was probably asking a lot of readers
Even with the earlier books that have more conventional plots, I would not say they were plot driven. My plots tend to develop late in the writing process. I don’t have a plan, but explore my subject by trying this and that in writing, then later create a more definite plot as a way of organizing material and drawing the reader through the book. We all enjoy a story, but the story is not the real point. The plot is an offering to the rational brain so that it will let the writing enter somewhere deeper.
Love and Fatigue in America is about an immigrant very like myself making a home in America while suffering from a debilitating illness that affects both mind and body. It covers a decade, dozens of characters, and moves through much of the United States. My general subject was the resonance between our understandings of personal health, and social health – and what makes a healthy life. All this, and I wanted a short book. I was looking for elegant compression. Brevity also suited me because I was ill and writing was tiring.
The short chapters in different forms – story, memoir, essay, verse, lists, permitted a variety of takes on my subject – and the shifting tone also expresses the rollercoaster of a changeable illness that affects perception. The form is part of the content. It took a while to find the structure I wanted for this book, and at one point pinned up a hundred chapter headings on the walls of a studio at the VCCA artist colony and spun around in my chair drafting and ordering them by intuition.
Finally, I wanted the book to be entertaining, even funny. I was offering a book about chronic illness, along with social commentary, and with a subject like that, I owed the reader a good time. The short dissonant sections keep it lively and fend off anything resembling a misery memoir.
When I lived in the UK twenty years ago, I read more American writers than I do now that I live in America, so a measure of perversity may be involved. Or a wish for my reading to always take me into a bigger world. Or could it be that the American novel that has become less interesting?
But the main thing is that literature, like everything else, is becoming more and more international, so it’s natural to be reading mostly foreign books if you want to pick the best from everywhere. And the invigoration in fiction is coming from new places.
Everyone now knows Haruki Murakami – one of the world’s most universally loved novelists. But twenty years ago, when I was first bowled over by him, he was an entirely fresh voice in literature. He offered a take on being human quite different from anyone else’s. I can also vividly remember the grateful quieting of attention I experienced when I first started reading Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, and realized it was rich and true, and unlike anything I’d ever read before.
There are other European writers far from new, who I still find fresh. Two French women for example, Annie Ernoux and Marguerite Duras. Duras’ books still takes my breath away with sentences that – even in translation – are a delight beyond all reason. The list is long and I have not even touched on Latin American literature. I read British writers a lot, but my taste for them may be adulterated by nostalgia
I enjoy and admire a lot of American writers, so why do I rarely feel that special thrill of new vision, and when I do it’s often writing from immigrant writers? My favorite living American writer is probably James Salter, who’s in his eighties.
The world is opening out and American writers still tend to be looking inwards. What it is to be an American, and how hard it is, is still a central subject. Then there is the big book syndrome, with all that dialogue and detail ponderously spelled out – all that showing – while the world has grown far more nimble in its understanding.
At the other end of the scale from the bloated literary heavy hitters, there are the brilliant young writers of irreproachable prose, who have nothing much to say with it. These are writers who have never been in the world, and therefore have little to offer beyond style and fashion. Once American writers were typified by outsiders invading polite society after being knocked about in the big bad world. Now they are usually insiders, hatched in MFA programs. The anointed ones come ready-equipped with mentors and referrals to editors. It’s a ridiculous generalization of course, but I’m straining to work out why I am often disappointed these days.
As an old economist I can’t help seeing the literary industry in America, where writers mainly teach to live, having a lot in common with a Ponzi scheme. Callow writers attend writing programs taught by writers whose experience of life is teaching writing. When the young writers leave, many hope to also find work teaching writing in the ever-expanding empire of writing programs. Like any Ponzi scheme this will become unsustainable when the new investors – writing students – lose hope and stop increasing at which point the ability to reward old investors – all those MFA graduates – with employment will vanish, further discouraging new students – and so on in the classic cycle of collapse. Though much slower.
If I have a personal bias in reading, it is that I am drawn towards economy combined with reach. This requires a language of layered meaning where every word counts. I don’t want to chew my way through plotty tomes and feel I have gained little but a long distraction. I want a book that makes me want to read slowly. I want illumination, wit, seduction, daring, the fruits of a subtle mind, characters that are alive without lengthy construction.
But when you talk of literary communities, I never knew one in England. I finished my first novel before I met another writer, and my world was international economists and immigrant Londoners. America gave me my first experience of the richness of artistic community when I started to visit that brilliant American institution, the artist colony. In the UK, the dominant literary community of my generation was a clique of public school, Oxbridge men: Amis, Barnes, Rushdie, Hitchins, Boyd etc. A talented elite, but still an exclusive class-based elite.
That was my decision. It was also offered to publishers as a memoir in the belief that they would understand this more easily and know what shelf to put it on, but that never felt right to me. My publisher kindly let me choose. There are a number of reasons why I think “novel” is the best descriptor. The first is the general one that memories are in fact re- imaginations, and memoirs can never bear the burden of literal accuracy people want to put upon them. We don’t remember perfectly and we don’t know when we are remembering imperfectly. Added to that I was suffering from ME/CFS which involves brain damage affecting the formation of new memories and recall. More specifically, I deliberately changed some Identifying details to give protection to the people who’s confidences I use in the book. And the narrator’s voice is not quite my natural voice, so that he is also an invention in the novel. The noveI is the baggiest literary form and I felt most comfortable with that freedom.
At the same time the book is faithfully autobiographical – that is, I have tried to truly portray experience, even if it is not possible to offer complete and literal truth. This was important to me because otherwise the cumulative conclusions of the book would have no genuine basis. So, an autobiographical novel, but not the sort where the story is invented.
It has surprised me. I have received a lot of emails telling me that I have portrayed the writer’s own experience. Very often they express gratitude that there is now an entertaining book that will help others understand what it is like to live with the illness. I have been very touched by these and by the amount of pain and courage the stories represent. CFS, more properly called Myalgic Ecephalopathy (ME disease,) is widespread, very debilitating and frequently misunderstood. Estimates are between one and three million sufferers in the US alone. It’s a complicated illness that involves immune failure and viral brain damage affecting the regulation of autonomic body systems. There’s no cure yet. Sufferers are often not taken seriously because they look OK and usually don’t die – except from suicide. It was at one time insultingly called Yuppie flu, but it affects all sorts of people. They must struggle against both illness and prejudice.
I did not know that my coming out as a sick person – an identity I’ve done my best to avoid – would be so important to others. I tried not to think much about it when writing the book – I’m English and we’re not a confessional breed. But now I’m seeing what it means to others, it means at lot to me, and I’m glad. Activism was not my primary motivation. I wanted to use the perspective of illness as a way into more universal understandings. I was thinking more of a literary audience, and I thought the experimental nature of the book might put off more general readers. I’m delighted to be wrong.
“Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog,” says the writer E.B. White. “Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”
It’s been years since I’ve read White’s classic books Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. I had forgotten how funny the author could be until yesterday, when I nearly choked on my breakfast because I was laughing so hard at this letter written by White, currently posted on Shaun Usher’s wonderful site Letters of Note.
In 1951 the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals accused E.B. White of not paying his dog tax and “harboring” an unlicensed dog. White wrote the following letter in response to the ASPCA…
12 April 1951
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
York Avenue and East 92nd Street
New York, 28, NY
I have your letter, undated, saying that I am harboring an unlicensed dog in violation of the law. If by “harboring” you mean getting up two or three times every night to pull Minnie’s blanket up over her, I am harboring a dog all right. The blanket keeps slipping off. I suppose you are wondering by now why I don’t get her a sweater instead. That’s a joke on you. She has a knitted sweater, but she doesn’t like to wear it for sleeping; her legs are so short they work out of a sweater and her toenails get caught in the mesh, and this disturbs her rest. If Minnie doesn’t get her rest, she feels it right away. I do myself, and of course with this night duty of mine, the way the blanket slips and all, I haven’t had any real rest in years. Minnie is twelve.
In spite of what your inspector reported, she has a license. She is licensed in the State of Maine as an unspayed bitch, or what is more commonly called an “unspaded” bitch. She wears her metal license tag but I must say I don’t particularly care for it, as it is in the shape of a hydrant, which seems to me a feeble gag, besides being pointless in the case of a female. It is hard to believe that any state in the Union would circulate a gag like that and make people pay money for it, but Maine is always thinking of something. Maine puts up roadside crosses along the highways to mark the spots where people have lost their lives in motor accidents, so the highways are beginning to take on the appearance of a cemetery, and motoring in Maine has become a solemn experience, when one thinks mostly about death. I was driving along a road near Kittery the other day thinking about death and all of a sudden I heard the spring peepers. That changed me right away and I suddenly thought about life. It was the nicest feeling.
You asked about Minnie’s name, sex, breed, and phone number. She doesn’t answer the phone. She is a dachshund and can’t reach it, but she wouldn’t answer it even if she could, as she has no interest in outside calls. I did have a dachshund once, a male, who was interested in the telephone, and who got a great many calls, but Fred was an exceptional dog (his name was Fred) and I can’t think of anything offhand that he wasn’t interested in. The telephone was only one of a thousand things. He loved life — that is, he loved life if by “life” you mean “trouble,” and of course the phone is almost synonymous with trouble. Minnie loves life, too, but her idea of life is a warm bed, preferably with an electric pad, and a friend in bed with her, and plenty of shut-eye, night and days. She’s almost twelve. I guess I’ve already mentioned that. I got her from Dr. Clarence Little in 1939. He was using dachshunds in his cancer-research experiments (that was before Winchell was running the thing) and he had a couple of extra puppies, so I wheedled Minnie out of him. She later had puppies by her own father, at Dr. Little’s request. What do you think about that for a scandal? I know what Fred thought about it. He was some put out.
E. B. White
I Was Allergic to Platforms, and Still Am
Elwyn Brooks White grew up as one of six children in Mount Vernon, New York. As Michael Sims details in his article The Nature of E.B. White in the The Chronicle of Higher Education, the young Elwyn was passionate about animals from a young age. He “kept pigeons, chickens, a turkey, ducks, geese. He had a succession of beloved dogs. He helped with the horses, tended his rabbits in their hutch, watched the predatory antics of a stray cat that sometimes camped out under the stable. And sneaking around the stalls, as well as nesting under them, were thieving rats that crept into the subterranean pathways of his imagination as the embodiment of gluttonous dishonesty.”
In 1969 White told the Paris Review that his childhood “lacked for nothing except confidence.”
Self-doubt afflicted White throughout his career. As Sims says in his book, The Story of Charlotte’s Web: E. B. White’s Eccentric Life in Nature and the Birth of an American Classic, White was “afraid of commitment and romance and confrontation; he hid behind animals even in his early love poems and letters to his wife.”
“I was twenty-seven or twenty-eight before anything happened that gave me any assurance that I could make a go of writing,” he told the Paris Review. “I had done a great deal of writing, but I lacked confidence in my ability to put it to good use.”
But White persisted, and before long, he was receiving a regular stream of checks from The New Yorker. He went on to publish many books, including the widely-used English language style guide, The Elements of Style, also known as “Strunk & White”.
But even after several successful publications, White struggled with a sense of inadequacy, and a nagging feeling that he had seldom written anything worthwhile. ”When you consider that there are a thousand ways to express even the simplest idea, it is no wonder writers are under a great strain. Writers care greatly how a thing is said—it makes all the difference. So they are constantly faced with too many choices and must make too many decisions.”
Today marks the one-year anniversary of the Tucson shooting that killed six and injured Representative Gabrielle Giffords and twelve others.
In place of the usual Sunday Poem, I’m delighted to share with you a new work by Deanne Stillman called “Reflections in a D’Back’s Eye,” which is a literary meditation on the events in Tucson. Also exceptionally, the piece is preceded by an interview with the author that provides additional context.
Stillman is a highly acclaimed creative nonfiction writer who has written extensively about the American West, particularly its relationship to violence and the American dream. This unique prose poem is an experimental piece that weaves together disparate voices–some real, others imagined. Stillman and I had an opportunity to correspond about her new piece via email.
What inspired you to write about the shootings in Tucson?
A few things I guess… A lot of my work has to do with war and peace in our wide open spaces, and as I began to think about what happened, some things began to emerge. Of course, I started thinking about exactly who was this young man who mounted the attack? Some information suggests that one of the many things that agitated him was the question of 9/11 — was it an inside job? It seems he kept trying to get answers and may have been rebuffed by various authority figures.
Then it turned out that the little girl he killed, Christina-Taylor Green, was born on 9/11. She appears in a book about babies born that day. I was struck by the convergence of these things — that 9/11 was running through this incident. Bin-Laden said somewhere that after 9/11 the states would not be united. I doubt that he was talking about psychological states but he had to have known that he was stirring the American hive and some people would be tormented in inexplicable ways by what happened. But of course, this was just part of the murk in Jared Lougnher’s mind.
Another thing that resonated for me was that a little girl was killed. The murder of a child is as bad as it gets. I was struck by the fact that Christina-Taylor Green came from a baseball family and played on her Little League team — one of two girls. I love baseball and know how hard that was, having played ball with neighborhood boys myself — or tried to. Her mother had warned her that playing with the boys would be rough, but she wasn’t deterred. In fact she was a good second baseman and hitter, once refusing to walk when she had been hit by a ball and going on to hit a line drive. Another time she broke up a scuffle during a play at second base after someone tried to slide in. Then there was the time that her father called and said she couldn’t play because she was sick, but she showed up anyway and said she didn’t want to let down her team. The more I learned about her story, the more heartbreaking it became. She just wanted to play ball! That’s what she was doing on the day of the Tucson shootings – going to a meet and greet with Gabrielle Giffords, her representative. She wanted to run for Congress some day…she had just been elected to her student council. She was a team player — that’s what her coach said – and then she ends up colliding with the boy who played roughest of all.
Then of course there was Loughner’s own story. I started thinking about his final conversations and encounters… Who was he talking with and what did he say? One of them would have been with a Wal-Mart greeter before he bought a 30-round clip of ammunition; and then I learned that he liked jazz (!!!) — or used to — and he was evidently into Coltrane for awhile. Also his mother worked in a county park where people once went for the healing waters. One of the first things I did after the shootings was go there. I sat there for an afternoon and I started to wonder if his mother found any comfort among the old mesquites as her son was unraveling across town.
I had to write about all of this, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized it could not be conventional; there were too many rivers running through it, and they were not the sort that could be contained in a linear way, including the desert itself – often a character in my work — and Native American history and myth playing out here, which to me is everywhere, but we don’t pay attention and here we have a major incident in Arizona — the Grand Canyon State. The Hopi say that the Grand Canyon is a point of their emergence, and here is a troubled young man running around in the desert with a gun. There is this sort of thing all over the West amid all of the beauty and really this has been going on since day one in this country, and it’s America’s original sin. The seeds of this incident are very deep.
Why did you choose the memorable image of the diamondback as a central part of your piece?
There is a pedestrian bridge that runs over the freeway that passes through Tucson. It’s in the shape of a rattlesnake and you walk though its mouth and you can look through its skin in any direction and it has a goofy-sounding rattle when you reach the tail. Snakes are plentiful in Arizona — and around Tucson — and the Phoenix baseball team is the Diamondbacks, so there was the baseball reference, for those who might pick it up. The image just seemed to work on a lot of levels and sometimes I found myself looking at the story from the snake’s POV, and I spent a lot of time on the bridge while I was writing the story…I didn’t have all of the information but the snake did and what was it?
Can you talk more about the various voices and texts you’ve woven into this prose poem?
I’ve taken published statements from players in the incident, news reports, ancient myths, and press releases and combined them with my own texts (not text messages! — although that’s an idea for next time) in order to try to co-exist with this story. For instance, some of the Christina-Taylor Green passages are derived from comments of hers that have been reprinted in articles, interviews with her parents that were published after the shootings, and a book by her mother. The sources for other passages are often identified, but sometimes all of these sources are merged. Regarding news reports, I draw from a wide range of material, often things overlooked by others. I’ve followed up on some on my own.
You’ve written extensively about the American West, including books about the massacre of wild horses, two girls killed by a Marine after the Gulf War in the Twentynine Palms, Ca., and an infamous manhunt for a desert hermit who killed a town sheriff, then disappeared into the wilderness (a book coming out later this year). What characteristics of the desert West do you find particularly compelling?
As a child, I was influenced by the Edgar Allan Poe poem “Eldorado,” which my father used to read to me. It was my way out of early personal turmoil while growing up in Ohio, as I’ve written elsewhere, and opened up an escape route which I would later follow, with various detours. Once I began to wander the desert — the land of Eldorado — I molted, shedding a skin that had to do with reacting, always having an opinion, masking pain. As that happened, certain stories began calling me and I followed their trails for personal reasons… How has the American dream tricked or satisfied people? Where do individual stories merge with the promises we hear in third grade? The main thing I see is that geography informs and drives everything…the great mantra — “it’s a free country and I can do what I want” — is our promise and our curse and it came right out of the American West.
Today is the birthday of writer Grace Paley.
Although Paley’s writing output was modest during her 84 years — some four dozen stories in three volumes: The Little Disturbances of Man (Doubleday, 1959); Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1974); and Later the Same Day (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1985)–she was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, and continues to have a devoted following today.
In a 1992 interview with The Paris Review, the magazine made this observation about her brevity in both her fiction and in her conversation:
Occasionally she will admit that, though it is “not nice” of her to say so, she believes that she can accomplish as much in a few stories as her longer-winded colleagues do in a novel. And she points out that she has had many other important things to do with her time, such as raising children and participating in politics. “Art,” she explains, “is too long, and life is too short.” Paley is noticeably unaffected by the pressures of mortality which drive most writers to publish…
The oft-noted Paley paradox is the contrast between her grandmotherly appearance and her no-schmaltz personality. Paley says only what is necessary. Ask her a yes-or-no question, and she will answer yes or no. Ask her a foolish question, and she will kindly but clearly convey her impatience. Talking with her, one develops the impression that she listens and speaks in two different, sometimes conflicting capacities. As a person she is tolerant and easygoing, as a user of words, merciless.
Grace Goodside grew up speaking Russian and Yiddish at her home in the Bronx–her parents immigrated to New York 17 years before she was born. Writing was only one of Paley’s jobs. As The Paris Review observes, she spent a lot of time in playgrounds when her children were young, was very active in the feminist and peace movements, and taught courses at City College, Columbia University, Syracuse University, and Sarah Lawrence College. She was also a co-founder of the Teachers & Writers Collaborative in New York in 1967.
“Our idea,” Paley said at 1996 symposium on Educating the Imagination, ”was that children—by writing, by putting down words, by reading, by beginning to love literature, by the inventiveness of listening to one another—could begin to understand the world better and to make a better world for themselves. That always seemed to me such a natural idea that I’ve never understood why it took so much aggressiveness and so much time to get it started!”
Paley’s writing, which appeared in the latter-half of the timorous 50s, was radical for its time. As the New York Times noted in Paley’s obituary, “Ms. Paley was among the earliest American writers to explore the lives of women — mostly Jewish, mostly New Yorkers — in all their dailiness. She focused especially on single mothers, whose days were an exquisite mix of sexual yearning and pulverizing fatigue. In a sense, her work was about what happened to the women that Roth and Bellow and Malamud’s men had loved and left behind.”