Monthly Archives: November 2011

Noted: William T. Vollmann

I believe in the American myth that it is both admirable and even possible to devote one’s life to a private dream. The probability of failing oneself, either through laziness, incompetence or bad luck, or else, worse yet, through dreaming what one only imagined one desired, is terrifying. All the same, you had no more obligation to public dreams which dreamed you wrongly.—William T. Vollmann, Riding Toward Everywhere

W.T. Volmann

I believe Vollmann is some kind of genius, as well as being brave and incredibly hard working. Recently I added to my reading stack his first book, An Afghanistan Picture Show: Or How I Saved the World, written about going to Afghanistan in 1982, at age twenty-three, to help the Afghanis fight the Soviets, and his historical novel The Rifles, and Riding Toward Everywhere, about riding the rails with hoboes.

Publishers Weekly called Volmann “a kind of rogue innocent, a Candide with a supply of condoms and a girl in every port.” Booklist said “differentiating between a Vollmann novel and a collection of his stories is often difficult, because, in his hands, the two forms share a similar structure—are surrealistic, sordid, sensational, and terrific.”

Tony DuShane interviewed for Bookslut the prolific journalist, story writer, and novelist Volmann—author of twenty books totaling many thousands of pages—who won the 2005 National Book Award for his novel Europe Central.

An excerpt of Volmann’s comments to DuShane:

I would say, don’t fixate on getting published because that’s really the least important concern. If you really care about writing, you should do it because it makes you happy and you should be just as happy if you can write something that you think is beautiful and you can keep it in a drawer and show it to a few people and they’re thrilled. That’s just as important. If you can have that attitude, then no one can take the pleasure of it away from you. So often there are beginning writers who put “copyright by” on every page of the manuscript, and they’re so anxious to get an agent and do this and do that. That stuff is irrelevant. That’s like asking a photographer, which is the best equipment, and all that matters is the image. With writing, all that matters is the word.

You have to think of the sad lives and commercial failures, which so many great writers have experienced. Look at somebody like Melville. If you’re an aspiring writer, do you want to write Moby Dick? Sure. Well, if you’re going to do that, that means you’re willing to accept not just no success, but poverty and even a certain measure of disgrace for the rest of your life. Can you proudly accept that? If so, you may still not be a good writer, but you’re on the right track. If your thing is getting recognition as quick as possible, then I would say why, why do you want that, and is writing going to help you do that? And are you going to be a happier person by having that recognition?

Madison Smartt Bell interviewed Volmann for The Paris Review. In it, Vollmann discussed the effects of his sister’s death on him and on his relationship with his parents. He was nine when she drowned, at age six, while he was supposed to be watching her and momentarily daydreamed. Vollmann has typed so much that he suffers from carpal tunnel inflammation and chronically sore hands, and speculates he may have to give up the keyboard for writing by hand in notebooks.

Excerpts of Volmann’s comments to Bell:

When I was writing the first few books, what I would do is write a bunch of sentences and then go back and expand and explode those sentences, pack as much into them as I could, so they’d kind of be like popcorn kernels popping . . . all this stuff in there to make the writing dense, and beautiful for its density. I still do that from time to time, but I’m getting increasingly interested in taking things out as I write. It’s fun for me to try to write concise, compact things. It’s a very good exercise for me. And I think it’s important to try to do different things—change what I write about, and also the way I write. Otherwise, I’d just be repeating myself, which wouldn’t be good for me, or fair to my readers. . . .

The computer really does help. One good thing about having had a job as a programmer is that I learned to look at things on the screen. I don’t really need to hold a piece of paper in my hands to see if the thing works or not. When it’s alive and volatile on the screen, that’s just as good for me. . . . But I think a crucial part to writing, always, is letting it sit; a greater efficiency on the computer can’t really address that problem. Once you’ve finished typing and moving text around and everything else, you have to leave it alone for a while. You do that to see if it stands up, to see if all the loose edges have been trimmed, if it makes sense, if it’s consistent, what shape it really has. You can’t tell that while you’re working on it. The computer also helps in that I work on a lot of books at once—as many as six or seven. . . .

Visual aids are very important to me in my writing. I like to see places that I’m writing about, experience things that I’m writing about. So throughout my career I’ve taken photographs of things, which I can then study. The whole business in Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads, when he talks about the spontaneous overflow of emotion recollected in tranquility—a photograph can help you do that. . . . For me, at least, it’s easier to create coherence and beauty on a small scale. Organize a block, reread and rewrite from beginning to end. Afterward, the blocks can be arranged in a narrative or architectonic way, rejiggered accordingly. . . .

I figure some people are watching, but I really don’t care what anybody thinks. All I want to do is be able to have my freedom and do the things in life that I have always wanted to do. I want to see all of these unknown places, walk on the frozen sea as often as I can, and see the jungles. I want to fall in love with beautiful women of all races. Rescue somebody every now and then, improve my painting, and improve my sentence structure. If I can make a living doing that stuff, that’s great, and I will keep doing it, and they can do whatever they want with my image. I couldn’t care less.

 

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Filed under fiction, journalism, NOTED, syntax, working method

Nina Hamberg’s memoir ‘Grip’

After being assaulted in her own bedroom by a masked intruder when she was a teen, Hamberg found her relationships with men complicated, to say the least. In this thoughtful memoir, she shares the victories and defeats that shaped those relationships in vivid detail. Introspective without lapsing into solipsism . . .Soundly edited, focused and well-crafted, Hamburg’s memoir is an examination of what it means to be a strong, independent woman, and how we often manage to lead ourselves astray despite the best intentions.—Publishers Weekly

Grip: A Memoir of Fierce Attractions by Nina Hamburg. Route One Press, 276 pages

“Well, thanks for the lift,” I said, stepping into the center of the room. My footsteps echoed in the open space.

 “Sure thing.”

I expected him to turn and leave but he just stood there, slouching against the door jamb. He was even taller than I realized in the bar, maybe six feet two inches. I barely came up to his armpits.

He stood up straighter, letting his fingers run up and down the zipper on his open bomber jacket. He seemed to be considering something. Whatever it was made him smile; at least the corners of his mouth turned up.  He took several long strides toward me, stopping a few feet away.

“Listen. I need some money. I’m running short,” he said in a low, slow voice.

Yellow flicks glowed in the pupils of his eyes. I felt a knot form in my gut.

“Money? I don’t have any money.”

“Come on,” he said, stretching out the words. “I’m sure you can spare a twenty.”

“No. I really can’t.” My voice came out a whine.

He looked down, shifting his weight between his feet. For what seemed like minutes, he didn’t move. Finally he said, “I’ll bet they don’t show you how to deal with this in karate.”

And in one quick motion, he lunged straight at me.

In an instant, I ducked beneath his outstretched arm and darted in, close. My hand shot up, seizing his throat just over his bony Adam’s apple and clamping down on his windpipe.

I love the detail and honesty here, his fingers on the zipper of his jacket, the “yellow flicks” in his eyes, the whine in her voice.

Published in July, this book is an account of a woman’s attempt to grow and to empower herself—while always falling for the “worst guy in the room,” as PW put it. Grip won the Maui Writers Conference Rupert Hughes Award and the Bay Area Independent Publishers Association Award for “Best Memoir.”

The author has launched a blog, The Memoir Café, devoted to the art and craft of memoir, including conferences and tips on publishing.

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Filed under memoir, NOTED, scene

Rampant use of the term ‘narrative’

I want to raise the question of what the world thinks “narrative” means, what educated media commentators and writers mean by it, and what relationship does the widespread use of “narrative” have to do with the use of the term narrative journalism?—Gerald Grow, “The Invasion of the Term ‘Narrative’ “

Gerald Grow, now retired, a Shakespeare scholar who ended up teaching journalism at Florida A & M University, keeps an eclectic and useful web site about writing and teaching. It brims with neat stuff, including journalism and magazine-writing teaching strategies, ideas about visual art, AP and APA style guides, and thoughts on Eastern spirituality, to name a few categories. His beef about narrative’s proliferation is lodged in his annex of article ideas for “anyone who wants to take them, develop them, use them, disprove them—in the interest of continuing the conversation on journalism education.”

Grow gives examples from reviews and news stories of what he considers misuse of the term, and says:

I am puzzled by what looks like a tendency to reduce events in the world that can mean life or death (e.g., men with guns, big storm, food shortage, job lost, clash of cultures, core beliefs) to the terms of literary criticism (narrative, story, margin). In many cases, I would expect some term like theory, explanation, understanding, picture, biography, motive, version, alibi, etc.

What is going on? What does it mean to conflate so many useful and content-filled distinctions into the vague theoretical term “narrative”? Calling so many types of discourse “narratives” is rather like referring to both wood pulp and voters as “biomass.” Where did this reductionistic use of the term “narrative” come from? Who is promoting it? Who benefits from it? Why do so many articulate, educated people so easily slip into using it when they are trying explain something? To question this devil in its own terminology: What is lost when the term “narrative” colonizes public discourse?

So, reading this, one begins to wonder. I admit I’m a prime offender—Exhibit A: this blog—but I love the richness and connotations of “narrative,” even if Grow’s got a point that the word’s rampant usage appears trendy and mindless. (A clothing section of a department store in my town is labeled Narrative, big letters up on the wall above the racks.) The other day, reading about the Penn State scandal in The New York Times, I saw this usage in a story about Coach Joe Paterno meeting with President Graham Spanier:

In 2004, Mr. Spanier, Mr. Curley and select board members twice went to his house in efforts to get him to retire. Mr. Paterno declined, and the moment was looked at in the narrative of Paterno’s career as an instance of his overcoming adversity.

Something else may have sufficed, but here “narrative” embodies ongoing and mythic overtones that seem just right.

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Filed under diction or vocabulary, journalism, narrative, teaching, education

David Foster Wallace’s fancy style

Below is an excerpt from John Jeremiah Sullivan’s interesting review in GQ of David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel The Pale King (actually a review of DFW himself). When he speaks of “plain” writing, Sullivan apparently is alluding to Annie Dillard’s distinction, in her book Living by Fiction (reviewed on this blog), between “fine” and “plain” writing. She admires both but seems to prefer plain, the category into which her own lyric style falls, and to consider it the appropriate modern and postmodern response to a senseless, fractured world.

Sullivan on Wallace:

 The “plain style” is about erasing yourself as a writer and laying claim to a kind of invisible narrative authority, the idea being that the writer’s mind and personality are manifest in every line, without the vulgarity of having to tell the reader it’s happening. But Wallace’s relentlessly first-person strategies didn’t proceed from narcissism, far from it—they were signs of philosophical stubbornness. (His father, a professional philosopher, studied with Wittgenstein’s last assistant; Wallace himself as an undergraduate made an actual intervening contribution—recently published as Fate, Time, and Language—to the debate over free will.) He looked at the plain style and saw that the impetus of it, in the end, is to sell the reader something. Not in a crass sense, but in a rhetorical sense. The well-tempered magazine feature, for all its pleasures, is a kind of fascist wedge that seeks to make you forget its problems, half-truths, and arbitrary decisions, and swallow its nonexistent imprimatur. Wallace could never exempt himself or his reporting from the range of things that would be subject to scrutiny.

Sullivan resumes:

His voice was regional in more than one sense—the fastidiousness about usage, for instance. Only midwesterners will waste time over the grammar of small talk with you; nowhere else, when you ask, “Can I get an iced tea?,” does anyone ever say, “I don’t know…can you?” And Wallace did think of himself as in some ways a regional writer—else he’d never have let the über-author photographer Marion Ettlinger take the well-known trench-coat-lion shot of him smiling wryly beside a waving cornfield. He knew that he came, as he said in the essay he read that night, from a landscape “whose emptiness is both physical and spiritual.” The very “maximalism” of his style, which his detractors claimed to find self-indulgent, suggests an environment with space to fill. . . .

He’s maybe the only notoriously “difficult” writer who almost never wrote a page that wasn’t enjoyable, or at least diverting, to read. Yet it was the theme of loneliness, a particular kind of postmodern, information-saturated loneliness, that, more than anything, drew crowds to his readings who looked in size and excitement level more like what you’d see at an in-store for a new band. Many of Wallace’s readers (this is apparent now that every single one of them has written an appreciation of him somewhere on the Internet) believed that he was speaking to them in his work—that he was one of the few people alive who could help them navigate a new spiritual wilderness, in which every possible source of consolation had been nullified.

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Filed under modernism/postmodernism, NOTED, style, syntax

Lane redux: ‘Tower Heist’ & VOD

The wit of Anthony Lane, like the sex life of Grace Kelly, is one of those refined but rustic matters that we can admire readily, and dissect in detail, but never really hope to understand.

Or emulate, alas.

But he’s fun to imitate.

Here’s the lead of Prince Anthony’s review of Tower Heist in this week’s New Yorker (November 7):

At the risk of invoking Freud, you have to wonder why movie stars are attracted to big, long films about towers. “The Towering Inferno” had Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway, and William Holden; it also had Fred Astaire and O. J. Simpson, a pairing so exquisite that Luis Buñuel must have wished he’d thought of it first. Now we have “Tower Heist,” which features Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Alan Alda, Casey Affleck, Téa Leoni, Matthew Broderick, and Judd Hirsch. None of these, I concede, are up there with Fred Astaire, but, then, who is? What counts is safety in numbers—actors mustering together to lend bulk and momentum to a tale that they know to be dumb. The difference is that in 1974 they got away with it.

Lane does credit Tower Heist with one “pleasingly brazen image”—of a car dangling off the high rise—and concedes that “this cruddy movie” has one perfect moment: Mathew Broderick’s scene after he’s lost his job at Merrill Lynch, and his apartment, and ends up, in a cheap motel, pondering becoming a male prostitute. The director, Brett Ratner, late of the Rush Hour trilogy, has a style, Lane writes, in which “early Fellini is less easy to detect than that of Cuisinart.”

He’s a bit arch, I’ll give you that. But Lane gets as sincere as he gets, and as passionate, when he next takes on the spectre of video on demand (VOD). In an experiment, Tower Heist is being offered to half a million households weeks after its theatrical debut—for a mere $59.99 each.

Lane:

One’s immediate reaction to this news was: sixty bucks! For a Brett Ratner movie! It’s like one of those cafés in Weimar Germany where a glass of beer cost you four billion marks. The stakes were raised considerably by reports that NATO was incensed by this latest move in the battle of VOD. For one heady morning, I was under the impression that air strikes would be launched on Universal. Only then was it explained to me that NATO stands for the National Association of Theatre Owners, who regard the “Tower Heist” experiment, and similar ventures, as the thin end of a deadening wedge. Download a Ben Stiller movie in Atlanta, and you wind up, a few years later, with a nation of vacant auditoriums. Moviegoers will still watch movies; they just won’t go.

Lane agrees: VOD is the death of cinema, and he explains what will be lost. Were I in my old haunts I’d surely mourn with him. For years I’d leave our farm and drive twenty minutes to our small town’s Cineplex beside the mall, or even more cheerfully shoot downtown to a cozy boutique theatre. What was wunderbar was to teach and then amble across campus and catch an early movie and then wing back to our hilltop. My experience of watching Charlie Kaufman’s Jungian masterpiece Synechdoche, New York owes everything to seeing it, two or three times, in that little art house.

But now I’m in the city, actually somewhere amidst hundreds of acres, maybe thousands, of suburban sprawl, and haven’t got my bearings yet. There’s a Rave16 fifteen minutes away, but the heavy, fast-moving traffic often gives me pause.

So I cocoon, happily.

Because for once this late adopter, thanks to our daughter, suddenly possesses a “smart TV,” not only with high def flat-screen but capable of streaming from Netflix and Amazon, plus CinemaNow, whomever that is. And I can listen to Beatles Radio, or Dylan Radio, or Alison Krauss Radio, whatever’s my whim to create, on Pandora. So I’m consuming lots of movies, and while it isn’t cinema, Tony, it beats a couple years of scarce moviegoing while this country mouse adjusts to the city.

Yet, I know, by the time I join Anthony Lane in his VOD boycott, cinema will have shrunk—actually I don’t think it will die completely—knocked off its loop by the aimless bombardment of streaming digital technology.

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Filed under film/photography, humor, Lane—Prince Anthony, metaphor, MY LIFE