Monthly Archives: October 2011

Noted: Anthony Lane on reviewing

The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane, on the perils of reviewing:

On a broiling day, I ran to a screening of Contact, the Jodie Foster flick about messages from another galaxy. I made it for the opening credits, and, panting heavily—which, with all due respect, is not something that I find myself doing that often in Jodie Foster films—I started taking notes. These went “v. gloomy,” “odd noir look for sci-fi,” “creepy shadows in outdoor scene,” and so on. Only after three-quarters of an hour did I remember to remove my dark glasses.

Where's dat canary?

Lane began writing for The New Yorker in 1993, recruited from the “squalling pit of London journalism,” where “most newspapers are ideally read as a branch of experimental fiction,” by the magazine’s former editor, another Brit, Tina Brown. I feel sorry for his reviewing colleague, the excellent David Denby, because Lane is so funny he makes Denby’s smart reviews look turgid. Lane can provoke my helpless laughter (see his quip in another Noted about the sex life of Grace Kelly).

His highlighted bon mot and the quotes above come from his introduction to Nobody’s Perfect: Writings from The New Yorker. In it, he says, “movies deserve journalism.” His, anyway. In his corner of the pop culture merry-go-round, he poses any adult’s eternal question—how to take seriously Hollywood movies?—with the answer that, by and large, one of course doesn’t.

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The 10,000-hour rule of thumb

Listen, do you want to know a secret?

Do you promise not to tell?

Closer, let me whisper in your ear . . .

—“Do You Want to Know a Secret,” from Please Please Me, 1963

By the time the Beatles brought the “British Invasion” to America, in February 1964, and my family watched them on the Ed Sullivan Show, John Lennon and Paul McCartney had been playing together for seven years. By a fluke, in 1960, “when they were still just a struggling high school rock band,” notes Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers: The Story of Success, “they were invited to play in Hamburg, Germany.”

What was special about Hamburg was the sheer amount of time the teenagers were forced to play in the city’s sleazy bars—as long as eight hours at a stretch—seven nights a week. Gladwell explains:

M. Gladwell, not A. Garfunkel

 The Beatles ended up traveling to Hamburg five times between 1960 and the end of 1962. On the first trip, they played 106 nights, five or more hours a night. On their second trip, they played 92 times. On their third trip, they played 48 times, for a total of 172 hours on stage. The last two Hamburg gigs, in November and December of 1962, involved another 90 hours of performing. All told, they performed for 270 nights in just over a year and half. By the time they had their first burst of success in 1964, in fact, they had performed live an estimated twelve hundred times. Do you know how extraordinary that is? Most bands today don’t perform twelve hundred times in their entire careers. The Hamburg crucible is one of the things that set the Beatles apart.

They were getting better all the time. They covered every song and type of song and they improvised and they started writing their own material. They were still young men when, after ten years, they produced their greatest works, including “the white album,” Sgt. Pepper, and Abbey Road.

Gladwell’s relevant point from Outliers is that any mastery, regardless of talent, takes 10,000 hours of effort, or about ten years. Writers, artists, immerse! If you’re just starting your apprenticeship, you have ten years to learn to paint your masterpiece—as you make it. Sixty-, seventy-, and eighty-year-olds are doing it. I’m certain that it happens all the time.

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The Beatles were all about this

For Meg

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot—albeit a perfect one—to get an A. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work—and learning from their mistakes—the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.—Art & Fear

I found Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland by way of a British blog, The Beatles Songwriting Academy, devoted to learning to write songs by studying the Liverpool lads. It’s not just a worshipful fan site: blogmaster Matt Blick rebukes them for lame songs (his “Hall of Shame” includes “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”) and for some stinky rhymes that mar great songs. But Blick has a “Be-atltudes” page, too, in which he enumerates virtues, especially the prolificacy of Paul McCartney and John Lennon:

Between 1962 and 1970 Lennon & McCartney wrote close to 200 songs. Almost all were recorded and released. The majority were top 10 hits as singles or album tracks. Whereas most writers today would throw away a song that wasn’t good enough for their next album or didn’t fit stylistically, the boys always had a reason to finish that song. And because of their insane recording schedule they always had to come up with more songs.

Mates and rivals, who happened also to be gifted, Lennon and McCartney inspired and goaded each other to craft new work. What’s ranked as one of the greatest songs ever written, and their masterpiece, “A Day in the Life,” which concludes Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, showcases their separate gifts being expressed together under the pressure to come up another tune. They melded utterly separate lyrical fragments each had written.

There are many examples of collage in their work—the result of prolificacy and saving stuff—including the lovely sixteen-minute medley starting with “You Never Give Me Your Money” and including “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” “Golden Slumbers,” and “Carry that Weight” that climaxes their last album recorded, Abbey Road. As McCarthy says on the mini-documentary that came with my iTunes download of the album:

 We had all these bits and things. We hit upon the idea of medleying them all, which gave the second side of Abbey Road like an operatic structure. Which was quite nice because it got rid of all these songs, in a good way.

McCartney, especially, was known for fiddling with random licks for years. And The Beatles’ recording engineers were taught never to spike any session discards, since they might be folded in somewhere later or used as codas. On “A Day in the Life,” Lennon’s elegiac opening was inspired by newspaper headlines about the death of a friend; then comes McCartney’s upbeat bridge, a boyish flashback he hadn’t been able to finish; and finally the resonant close, haunted by Lennon’s surrealistic imagery about filling the Albert Hall with holes (its genesis in another newspaper story, about a pothole problem).

• • • 

In the past few years, I’ve returned to The Beatles with such delight. Their music is so joyously playful and creative. But then, I imprinted on them almost fifty years ago, listening to Meet The Beatles, sitting crosslegged on my big sister’s carpeted bedroom floor in our beach town—she had a stereo—and staring at the album cover, such a riveting artifact. Holding it, I saw four composed faces floating free in the blackness—Oh, I see, they wore black turtlenecks. That’s how they did it!—and, embedded in the spinning vinyl on Meg’s turntable, such romance.

What else could an adolescent girl and her nine-year-old kid brother want for in Satellite Beach, Florida, in 1964?

And then, in the summer of 1970, we listened to “Here Comes the Sun” beside our swimming pool on her boyfriend D.K.’s portable record player. Wow, high tech.

Splashing in the blue water a block from the Atlantic Ocean, we had no idea what a long cold lonely winter was. Or where Abbey Road was. Or that the coolest band on the planet had split after cutting this album named for a London Street. Or if, just maybe, Paul was dead—he was barefoot in the crosswalk, a sign of death, so someone said, and his cigarette was pointing down. John was dressed like a priest, or an angel, or something, all in white anyway, and George Harrison brought up the rear looking like a gravedigger in his blue denim.

But we agreed with George, busy celebrating the solar life force—and romantic love, of course, that other life force, the lads’ great theme. There in the sun, in the lee of the big ficus tree—Meg and D.K. in a corner of the pool deck, as far from annoying me as they could get—everything, little darlin’, was alright.

(Happy Birthday, Meg.)

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Review: Annie Dillard’s ‘The Maytrees’

By Olga Khotiashova

The golden rule of software engineering says that perfect code must be simple; it shyly omits though that one must be a professional to understand and appreciate such code. When I, a non-native English speaker, began reading The Maytrees by Annie Dillard, I was struck by a feeling, keen and simple like a death sentence: When will I understand American literature – NEVER. The crash of one more childish illusion. Then what made me keep reading? It was definitely not an urge to master unconventional grammar or sophisticated vocabulary. So what?

Nature. In one of Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, Crows, an art student steps into Van Gogh’s painting and wanders there, somewhere between a dream and reality. He even meets the master himself and talks to him. Something similar happens when you read The Maytrees. Cape Cod is one of the protagonists of the novel. It lives and breathes, you can feel its dry sand and smell its salty grass. Its bohemian inhabitants are the part of the landscape. Even their names – Deary Hightoe, Reevadare Weaver – sound like the names of exotic plants. And they are always in love.

Love. For centuries, writers and poets have been coming up with the definitions of love, none of them comprehensive. Annie Dillard explores the subject thoroughly disposing of everything but pure love. She distills it into a dried and odorless substance if there is any substance at all. It is probably more like a vacuum: the beloved are held together like the Magdeburg hemispheres in von Guericke experiment while the air is sucked out from inside of them. The construction is rather fragile, though. As John Banville wrote, “Love, as we call it, has a fickle tendency to transfer itself, by a heartless, sidewise shift, from one bright object to a brighter, in the most inappropriate of circumstances.”

Whatever love may be, Annie Dillard meticulously collects and sorts out its tokens: a twig, a feather, a seashell—and attaches them to the landscape by means of poetry.

Poetry. What else but poetry would you call those gnomic remarks both moving and undecipherable scattered over the novel? They are an inseparable component of the novel which weaves love, one of a few things distinguishing a human being from other creatures, into the Nature. If it were possible to distill pure poetry from the novel it might sound in tune with this Poem by Frank O’Hara:

Light clarity avocado salad in the morning

after all the terrible things I do how amazing it is

to find forgiveness and love, not even forgiveness

since what is done is done and forgiveness isn’t love

and love is love nothing can ever go wrong

though things can get irritating boring and dispensable

(in the imagination) but not really for love

though block away you feel distant the mere presence

changes everything like a chemical dropped on a paper

and all thoughts disappear in a strange quiet excitement

I am sure of nothing but this, intensified by breathing.

A piece of modern art composed of different materials is usually called an installation. In The Maytrees, nature and love connected by means of poetry make up an installation in the realm of which the whole story unfolds. The story itself is simple: 216 pages including prologue, three parts and epilogue. Three events: separation, loss and death, as Annie Dillard puts it in the prologue, happen one in each of the parts. Prologue and epilogue are all about love.

Annie Dillard

We cannot control love, we cannot even define it. It is beyond our power to start the flame of love and there is no harness to hold it. The only thing we can do is to keep the little flame on against all odds and be grateful. That is what I thought when I finished reading The Maytrees. Did I get it right? How much did I miss? I had a reliable tool to figure it out—translation. So I randomly picked a three-page chapter from somewhere in the middle and tried to translate it into my native Russian. The process went on surprisingly smoothly. Even so-called coded messages transformed into something moving if not completely meaningful. And the most reassuring was that the overall impression had not changed, it had become more strong and clear. I have almost learned the piece by heart and still recite it sometimes mixing English and Russian sentences and having unchanging pleasure and excitement.

I deliberately did not include any quotations in this review. It seemed impossible to tear out a piece without damaging the whole installation. The novel is like a book-length—life-length?— poem, it is everything but banal or sentimental, and with each new reading it gets better as real poetry always does.

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Flannery O’Connor’s scary scowl

While searching for something else entirely, I came across this remarkable interview on Vimeo with Flannery O’Connor’s good friend Louise Abbot, who discusses O’Connor’s disdain for fame, among other things.

The unusual, very occasional blog where I found the interview link is The Role of Imagination in Literary Nonfiction, worth a visit. This quiet blog is about, according to its author, Colin Foote Burch:

• About the value of the nonfiction narrator’s subjective internal experience: real events that happen in thought and/or feeling

• About questions the narrator asks

• About metaphors, similes, analogies, speculation, daydreams, and fantasies that interpret events in the narrator’s mind (Emily Birx’s reading)

• Not about inventing events

• Not about claims of divine revelation

Burch says he started the blog when he taught a class by the same name at Queens University, Charlotte, North Carolina. Burch also edits the online publication Liturgical Credo, focused on “contemporary stories of faith and doubt.”

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Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee, Walker Percy

My southern fiction orgy last summer started with Flannery O’Connor. Since I often dip into her stories, I bought and read the latest bio of her, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor by Brad Gooch. I hoped to learn how she got so wise, and so dark.

Apparently, her mother and their ouchy relationship. And Flannery’s imaginings: she seemingly nudged her own prickly ways a bit to depict sullen grown children like the nasty daughter-with-PhD in “Good Country People”; she showed in masterpieces like “Everything That Rises Must Converge” how such prideful offspring suffered when their mean or silly but always prideful mothers passed.

In her stories O’Connor killed off women like her mother, the most famous instance in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” But she told friends she was safe: her mother didn’t read her stories, found them too depressing. Flannery is a good biography but Gooch doesn’t tell enough about O’Connor’s able, assertive mother, a sharp businesswoman who, astoundingly enough, ran a successful farm by herself in backwater Georgia. And cared for her lupus-afflicted daughter, who couldn’t drive and whom she drove into town to Catholic Mass daily.

Flannery O’Connor never married and died at 39, but she did know romantic love, Gooch reveals: she had one boyfriend, a book salesman. But he’s quoted as saying that the time he kissed her passionately on the lips her lips collapsed and he found himself kissing her teeth. The experience felt like kissing a corpse to him—repulsed, he ran off to Sweden and married another woman.

The bio led me to reread some of her great stories. They’re such distilled parables that their similar plots are striking, and I wonder how she got away with it. On the other hand I marvel at how the differing surface details of her stories obscure the possible downside of the similarity of her plots. Did critics ever complain?

Even though there’s a lot of humor in her stories—they are funny as hell, so to speak—too much O’Connor depresses me.  But listen to her reading  “A Good Man is Hard to Find” in 1959 at Vanderbilt and you’ll enjoy the humor, some broad and some sly, especially if you’ve just read the story.

To cleanse my palate after Flannery and her stories, I read To Kill a Mockingbird, which drags a bit, to me. I enjoy better the movie, which compresses the novel’s three years into one. O’Connor famously dismissed Mockingbird as a children’s book. She has a point, but I disagree. O’Connor mistook Lee’s sunnier view of human nature for sentimentality, I think. Yet Lee’s vision of the human possibility of greatness rings true, as well as inspires, and it’s no more false or fantastic than O’Connor’s consistently bleak view of humanity.

Like O’Connnor, Lee hero-worshipped her father and had a difficult relationship with her mother—and of course Lee killed off the mother entirely in To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus is Alabama’s most eligible bachelor. I next read the recent bio of Lee, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, by Charles J. Shields, which was decent. The book is handicapped by Lee’s reticence and by her lack of authorial productivity, leaving Shields with scant material.

His best explanation of why she failed to complete another novel she worked on, as well as a true-crime account planned along the lines of her friend Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, was that she was overwhelmed by the success of Mockingbird and quit. Anyway, that’s supposedly what she told a waiter in New York, says Shields.

All this led me back to one of my all-time favorite authors, another southerner, Walker Percy, who knew O’Connor. I reread his second novel, The Last Gentleman, the followup to his National Book Award winner The Moviegoer. I hadn’t read it in thirty years but adored it again for its humor and its rollicking road-trip structure; I was surprised by the beauty of its descriptive passages and by how Percy achieves lyricism in a stripped syntax that uses rhythm to avoid commas:

Nights were the best. Then as the thick singing darkness settled about the little caboose which shed its cheerful square of light on the dark soil of old Carolina, they might debark and, with the pleasantest sense of stepping down from the zone of the possible to the zone of the realized, stroll to a service station or fishing camp or grocery store, where they’d have a beer or fill up the tank with spring water or lay in eggs and country butter and grits and slab bacon; then back to the camper, which they’d show off to the storekeeper, he ruminating a minute and: all got to say is, don’t walk off and leave the keys in it—and so on in the complex Southern tactic of assaying a sort of running start, a joke before the joke, ten assumptions shared and a common stance of rhetoric and a whole shared set of special ironies and opposites. He was home. Even though he was hundreds of miles from home and had never been here and it was not even the same here—it was older and more decorous, more tended to and a dream with the past—he was home.

Gooch says in Flannery that Percy based his character “Val,” a nun, on O’Connor. That was one of the reasons I reread The Last Gentleman—I wanted to understand his take on O’Connor—but I couldn’t see much resemblance between them. And in the novel, Val isn’t much developed.

Then I reread Percy’s revisiting of these characters some years later in The Second Coming. I was surprised that Percy seemed to have forgotten Val’s lineage; he slips in the book’s only reference to her and refers to her as the heroine’s sister instead of as her aunt. Percy, of withered Protestant roots and a ferocious convert to Catholicism, seems to view the fallen world in a much more kindly light than O’Connor did. Much of The Second Coming deals with Will Barrett’s attempt to understand his father’s suicide. Like Barrett, Percy’s father killed himself, and so did his mother. Cancer got Percy, and he was trying to correspond with Bruce Springsteen about the biblical imagery in Springsteen’s songs when he died.

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Four writers on their messy process

Bill Roorbach has instituted a new feature over at Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour, an author interview. The first, with John J. Clayton, marking the appearance of his new novel, Mitzvah Man, is remarkable for being done all in scene—Bill interviewed him at his home in Wellfleet, Massachusetts—and for Clayton’s thoughts on just what God truly is. Or may be.

On his laborious daily struggle to write:

 I do what I can to avoid writing fiction, because writing fiction is the hardest thing I do.  I answer emails; I fabricate the need to write emails; I read parts of The New York Times on line.  I lie down for five minutes.  Now I write.  When I’ve got something coming, I’m grateful.  I don’t listen to music—I put earplugs in my ears and write.  If nothing is coming or if what’s coming bores me, I take a walk with my cassette recorder and our dog and talk to myself.  Then I go home and jot down notes from what I’ve said.  It’s a good system, because then later or the next day I have something to start from.  I write from 8:30 to 12:30, then have lunch, then do all the secondary stuff like scrounging for readings, sending out old stories, etc.  And reading.  For six months I’ve been writing a novel and having a hard time.  There’s a lot of waste effort.  But I do have faith in my process—if I keep working, something will come.  I can’t make it come, but I’m convinced that it will come.

At Hippocampus Magazine, Amye Archer has a great interview with memoirist Beverly Donofrio, author of Riding in Cars with Boys and Looking for Mary. Donofrio lives in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where she founded and currently directs the San Miguel Workshops. Her thoughts on memoir as a form of imaginative literature—nonfiction but not journalism—are astute.

Her routine:

I get up, make coffee, read something spiritual, meditate, do yoga, then write. Some days I skip the yoga, some days I go for an early morning walk. All of the disciplines are in some way in service to the writing. To get me centered, able to focus, less stressed. I print out constantly and edit with a pencil. On the memoir I’m writing now, I rewrite and polish a chapter until I think it is good and it is finished. I pin it to the wall. Write the next chapter till I think it is good and finished, then go back to the previous chapter and sometimes the one or two before that one. Invariably I find that none are good enough or finished. But, by moving on to the next, I’ve gained enough distance to view it with a fresh eye. My first take on situations, my memories, the stories I want to tell is fairly superficial. I hate this about myself: I’m fairly superficial. Only through writing do I go deep, and each draft brings me deeper still. Perhaps if my default weren’t to be so shallow, it would take many less drafts to get to the good stuff: the truth.

At Catching Days Cynthia Newberry Martin catches up with New Orleans writer Barb Johnson, author of the short story collection More of This World or Maybe Another. As the latest writer featured in Cynthia’s smart series on writers at work, Johnson reflects on writing from the perspective of someone who spent twenty years busting her guts as a carpenter.

Her struggle with herself and against the pernicious Internet:

 I love revision. I love to edit. Those things come easily. But making up the new stuff can be scary. The carpenter part of my brain is always trying to find the most efficient way to do everything, but efficiency has no place in generating new material. It takes however long it takes, and the result is often too ugly for me to believe that one day it will be better, good even. So, as a way to keep myself going, I promise myself that I can do anything I want, anything at all, once I hit that thousand-word mark. I can get up and go hang out with friends or finish the book I’m reading or take a nap if I want to. That nap part of the bargaining is hilarious: I never, ever nap. But when I stare at a blank page, it makes me sleepy, so the promise of a nap always feels meaningful.

. . . It most certainly does not mean screwing around on the Internet. The Internet shortens your attention span. Because of its click-and-drag wizardry, it will leave you feeling impatient with the rather labor-intensive, single-focus nature of writing.  All that clickety-click quickly starves your creativity. Writing requires you to make a car out of cardboard box. The Internet gives you the car, complete with customization options applied by clicking a button. Once you contribute to your writerly stash for the day, then go ahead on, find out what your friends have been up to on Facebook while you’ve been cutting holes in cardboard boxes all day.

Franzen earned those whiskers, buddy

Terry Gross has rebroadcast a Fresh Air interview with Jonathan Franzen about his epic novel Freedom, on the occasion of its paperback edition. Franzen worked nine years on Freedom, producing a very good memoir and a neat essay collection in the meantime while enduring depression and doubt as he slogged through the novel. (He’s disabled the ability of his laptop to connect to the Internet.) I love his fiction and his nonfiction. I can’t join the Franzen haters, despite his recent infuriatingly obtuse and self-centered New Yorker essay about his late friend David Foster Wallace.

In this interview, Franzen talks about stripping his style down—he made a self-publicized shift toward traditional fiction some time ago—and what it cost him to go deeply into his characters:

 I don’t want to be a performer. I less and less want to be a performer. And I can’t seem to be a performer. If I’m just writing about something moderately interesting and using interesting, well-termed sentences, it just has no life. It has to come out of some issue that’s still hot in me, something that’s distressing me. And there are plenty of things to be distressed about and for a long time, I was able to get a lot of energy onto the page from certain kinds of political distress, environmentalist distress — even aesthetic distress. … And that kind of anger has become less interesting to me because it seems like a younger man’s game a little bit. …

I wanted to write long before I was in need of therapy. But having said that, much of the work on a novel for me consists in the kind of work you might do in a paid professional’s office of trying to walk back from your stuck, conflicted, miserable place to a point of a little bit more distance, from which you can begin to fashion some meaningful narrative of how you got to the stuck place. And the stuck-ness, for the working novelist — or at least for this one — has to do with not wanting to get into certain intensely fraught or private experiences… [but] feeling that it’s absolutely necessary to say things that are absolutely unsay-able.

And I keep trying — I kept trying, through much of the last decade — to access these subjects, these dreamlike relations with important people from my past in direct ways…. So there was a lot of self-psychoanalysis, certainly, that goes into the work. And, along the way, becoming depressed — although it certainly feels lousy — comes to be a key and important symptom. It’s a flag. And it’s almost as if, when I start to crash, I know I’m getting somewhere because it’s being pushed to a crisis.

 

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