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Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

You’ve Been Fictionalized!

July 28, 2014 | by

Or, Is this really what you think of me?

The shock of recognition.

Twenty-odd years ago, T. C. Boyle asked me about the artists’ colonies I’d been to—he was writing a novel. I described the lunches dropped off on the residents’ porches, the nightly readings and revels. When his book, East Is East, came out, I read a few chapters, then stopped, gut-socked and mortified. Yes, there, sprinkled in, was the material I’d given him, along with an added surprise—Wasn’t that me in those pages, and cast in a none-too-flattering light?

In real life, T. C. called me La Huneven, and here he called his heroine, Ruth Dershowitz, La Dershowitz. Ruth was a talentless writer who aspired to literary fiction while writing restaurant reviews and articles for Cosmo. Hey! I wrote restaurant reviews! And I’d once written an article for Cosmo! Was this, then, what Tom really thought of me? That I was a talentless airhead poseur trying to break into the hallowed world of literature?

This was my first experience of being fictionalized. I still recall the yellow-white flash of queasiness, the mortification: a sense of powerlessness and an utter lack of recourse. Read More »

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The Best Medicine

July 25, 2014 | by

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Gerard van Honthorst, The Merry Fiddler, 1623

“He knew everything there was to know about literature, except how to enjoy it.” —Catch-22

Can a reader and a character be simultaneously amused? I’m sure plenty of really smart people have written about this—and maybe even answered it authoritatively—but I can’t find any such answer myself. I suppose the question also holds true for movies and TV—although arguably the blooper reel changes the entire conversation—but I’m chiefly interested in the question as it pertains to writing. I really want to know!

So far as I can tell, accounts of people being amused are never amusing. (In my opinion, this also holds true for most stories involving drug-induced antics—a scourge of modern storytelling—but I’m willing to admit this might be one of my “things.”) When a character “laughs,” “jokes,” “kids around,” “cracks up,” et cetera, it is not funny, even in an otherwise funny piece of writing. (Although, I think you’ll find in the funniest, characters don’t go around guffawing much.)

I’m not saying a character can’t laugh within something funny, but, rather, that their amusement is wholly divorced from the reader’s. It’s not just that human beings are sadists who, famously, enjoy watching the misfortunes of others; we all like to see beloved protagonists find love, get redeemed, generally achieve happy endings. Emotion is communicable. Laughter, maybe, isn’t. Or at any rate, the necessary distance imposed by narration makes the communication tricky.

Nothing is deadlier than writing about the workings of humor, so I’ll keep this short. If you can think of an exception to this, won’t you let me know? Am I just reading the wrong books? Has some author cracked this code? Or is this, maybe, just one of my “things?” Inquiring minds want to know.

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Under the Volcano

July 21, 2014 | by

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John Gardner in 1979. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

I think that the difference right now between good art and bad art is that the good artists are the people who are, in one way or another, creating, out of deep and honest concern, a vision of life in the twentieth century that is worth pursuing. And the bad artists, of whom there are many, are whining or moaning or staring, because it’s fashionable, into the dark abyss. If you believe that life is fundamentally a volcano full of baby skulls, you’ve got two main choices as an artist: You can either stare into the volcano and count the skulls for the thousandth time and tell everybody, “There are the skulls; that’s your baby, Mrs. Miller.” Or you can try to build walls so that fewer baby skulls go in. It seems to me that the artist ought to hunt for positive ways of surviving, of living.

That’s John Gardner, from his Art of Fiction interview, which The Paris Review published in 1979—three years before Gardner died in a motorcycle accident. As far as lines in the literary sand go, this one seems defensible enough: make salutary art, wall off the volcano, protect the crania of your babies, et cetera. But here Gardner has given us the distillate of what had been, a few years earlier, a very controversial opinion; he’s paraphrasing his thesis from On Moral Fiction, a polemical book of criticism in which he took to task nearly every prominent American writer, pissing off a good number of them in the process. As Dwight Garner wrote a few years ago, “It wasn’t Gardner’s thesis, exactly, that made him enemies. It was the way he indiscriminately fired buckshot in the direction of many of American literature’s biggest names.”

Pynchon? Too inclined to “winking, mugging despair.”

Updike? “He brings out books that don’t say what he means them to say. And you can’t tell his women apart.”

Barthelme? Merely a disciple of “newfangledness.”

And the whole New Yorker crowd? Too into “that cold, ironic stuff … I think it’s just wrapping for their Steuben glass.”

If you’re thinking that picking fights is a pretty poor way of seeding one’s literary philosophy, you’re completely correct. As Per Winther, the author of The Art of John Gardner, has written, “One cannot help but think that Gardner’s cause would have benefited from less stridency of tone … What Gardner risked in couching his arguments in such bellicose terms was a hasty dismissal of his book and all its views.” Read More »

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The Golden West: An Interview with Daniel Fuchs

July 16, 2014 | by

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Doris Day and James Cagney in Love Me or Leave Me, for which Daniel Fuchs wrote the screenplay.

In early 1989, I telephoned Daniel Fuchs (1909–93), then in his eightieth year, in Los Angeles to ask about the possibility of interviewing him for The Paris Review. The novelist and screenwriter—heralded for his Williamsburg Trilogy of the 1930s (Summer in Williamsburg, Homage to Blenholt, and Low Company) and Love Me or Leave Me, for which he won an Academy Award—was cordial and open, but stipulated that he preferred to have the questions sent to him; he would mail back his answers. I sent the questions, twenty-seven of them, to Fuchs that February, and at first there appeared to be clear sailing—the writer said he would soon have something.

At the same time, Fuchs expressed a concern about the handling of the copyright when the interview was printed, and over the next several weeks it became increasingly difficult to allay or understand his fears. Although I’d assured him the rights would revert immediately to him upon publication, he remained concerned, asking for a signed warranty from George Plimpton. When this wasn’t quickly sent—owing to office delays rather than any disinclination—the writer grew vehement, and then abusive. Reluctantly I let go of the idea of seeing through an interview with Fuchs, whose work remains too much of a secret to this day.

A year or so after Fuch’s death in 1995, having been informed that the writer’s papers were in Special Collections at the Mugar Memorial Library at Boston University, I phoned Dr. Howard Gotlieb, the Special Collections librarian, to ask if, by any chance, there was an interview circa 1989 among the papers. Indeed there was. Fuchs had constructed an interview that, while based on my questions, departs from them in unexpected and telling ways. It amounts to a late work by the distinguished, if unexpectedly irascible, “magician,” as John Updike once pronounced him.

You have been identified by Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, and others as one of three Jewish novelists of the 1930s whose work has survived a half century now, the other two being Henry Roth and Nathanael West. Would you comment on the literary climate of the thirties?

Survived, rediscovered—a peculiar occurrence. A man sits in a room writing novels. Nothing happens. The books don’t sell—four hundred apiece, the last one a few more. There are scattered reviews. Then thirty years later, suddenly, the books are brought out, again and again, acclaimed. A small-sized mystery. Of course, I’m talking only of my own books. Call It Sleep and Nathanael West’s work attracted attention from the start and were well known all along.

Did you read Call It Sleep when it came out?

With pleasure and pangs of jealousy.

Nathaniel West went to Hollywood and wrote B movies and worked on his last novel, The Day of the Locust, which in its final sentence seems to indicate that the protagonist has succumbed to the furies around him in Hollywood and gone mad. Henry Roth moved to rural Maine and hasn’t, as of now, published another novel. You gave up a literary career for several decades to write movies. Is there a common thread in all this?

No, I don’t think so. West kept working on his own material up to the end, while he was doing the pictures at Republic. Roth had his own reasons. I liked it in Hollywood and stayed on. I found the life most agreeable. Mordecai Richler went out of his way, in a book review, to say I bragged about the money I made in Hollywood. Actually, I never made a great deal of money in the movies. Sixty thousand dollars a year was about the best I could do, if Richler doesn’t mind my saying so. In fact, I went nearly broke, had to sell my house, and then an amazing thing happened, another one of those mysteries. A benefactor, a character out of a Molnár play—I can’t say his name, he once asked me never to bother him or intrude—stepped forward. He’s been watching out for us over the past number of years and we’re quite comfortable. I guess I mention all this to get a rise out of Richler. Hollywood strikes a nerve in some people. Read More »

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Nadine Gordimer, 1923–2014

July 14, 2014 | by

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Nadine Gordimer died yesterday in Johannesburg; she was ninety. Jannika Hurwitt described her, in an Art of Fiction interview published in our Summer 1983 issue, as “a petite, birdlike, soft-spoken woman”:

Gordimer manages to combine a fluidity and gentleness with the seemingly restrained and highly structured workings of her mind. It was as if the forty-odd years that she had devoted to writing had trained her to distill passion—and as a South African writer she is necessarily aware of being surrounded by passion on all sides—into form, whether of the written or spoken word.

As the Times obituary notes, Gordimer’s oeuvre constitutes “a social history as told through finely drawn portraits of the characters who peopled it … But some critics saw in her fiction a theme of personal as well as political liberation, reflecting her struggles growing up under the possessive, controlling watch of a mother trapped in an unhappy marriage.”

The Paris Review published three of Gordimer’s stories. The first, from 1956, is “Face from Atlantis” which appeared in our thirteenth issue, revealing her striking gifts as a portraitist:

Eileen had a favorite among the photographs of her, too … The photograph was taken in Austria, on one of Waldeck’s skiing holidays. It was a clear print and the snow was blindingly white. In the middle of the whiteness stood a young girl, laughing away from the camera in the direction of something or someone outside the picture. Her little face, burnished by the sun, shone dark against the snow. There was a highlight on each firm, round cheekbone, accentuated in laughter.

Children with the House to Themselves” appeared in 1986, as part of our hundredth issue, and “Across the Veld,” from our Winter 1989 issue, is full of the carefully observed, intricately drawn tensions that animate Gordimer’s work—as in this paragraph below, in which Hannah, the protagonist, ventures, in a bus full of whites, through a black township:

An avenue of black faces looked into the windows, pressing close, so that the combis had to slow to these people’s walking pace in order not to crush them under the wheels. No picnic party; the whites surrounded by, gazed at, gazing into the faces of these blacks who had stoned white drivers on a main road, who had taken control of this township out of the hands of white authority, who had refused to pay for the right to exist in the decaying ruins of the war against their presence too close across the veld; these people who killed police collaborators in their impotence to stop the police killing their children. One thing to read about these people, empathize with them, across the veld. Hannah, in her hide, felt the fear in her companions like a rise in temperature inside the vehicle. She slid open the window beside her. Instead of stones, black hands reached in, met and touched first hers and then those of all inside who reached out to them. The passengers jostled one another for the blessing of the hands, the healing touch. Some never saw the faces of those whose fingers they held for a moment before the combi’s progress broke the grasp. From the crush outside there were the cries “AMANDLA! VIVA!,” and joy when these were taken up by the whites. In the smiling haze of weekend drunks this procession of white people was part of the illusions that softened the realities of the week’s labour and made the improbable appear possible. The crowd began to sing, of course, and toi-toi in a half-dance, half-procession alongside the convoy, bringing, among the raised fists of some in the combis, a kind of embarrassed papal or royal weighing-of-air-in-the-hand as a gracious response from some others.

“I would like to say something about how I feel in general about what a novel, or any story, ought to be,” Gordimer said to end her Art of Fiction interview. “It’s a quotation from Kafka. He said, ‘A book ought to be an ax to break up the frozen sea within us.’ ”

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Red Giant: An Interview with Shane Jones

June 18, 2014 | by

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I met Shane Jones in 2009, in Chicago, during the annual AWP conference. Amid the crowded fluorescent labyrinth, I happened upon him manning the Publishing Genius Press table, projecting an aura of calm that seemed delightfully out of step with the usual huckster energy of the book fair. I bought his novel Light Boxes and read it on the plane home, where I was so transported by the world Shane had created that I forgot all about the smells and turbulence of travel by air. I remember tucking the book into my bag and thinking, Whatever this person does next, I’ll read it. Shane and I have stayed in touch ever since.

Crystal Eaters is full of the fabulist inventions that often mark Shane’s fiction—a ravenous sun and “crystal counts,” the idea that we’re born with a hundred crystals inside us, a supply that dwindles until, at the end of our lives, it’s exhausted—but at the core of the novel is a family’s struggle to turn toward one another in the face of unbearable loss. Shane conjures a world that is, in ways large and small, melting down.

Shane and I spoke via e-mail—I was in Andover, Massachusetts, and Shane in Albany, New York—about the new book, fatherhood, death, and therapy.

There are many layers of mythology in Crystal Eaters—surrounding, to name a few, the black crystals, people in the city versus people in the village, the beliefs of Brothers Feast and the Sky Father Gang. “Everyone is eventually fooled into believing in something that doesn’t exist,” you write.

Religion, spirituality, cults—Brothers Feast and the Sky Father Gang are cults—prayer, crystals, myths, folktales, the universe as a system of life and destruction—I’m attracted to these things, and they are players in the book. The idea of choosing something—a value system—and believing in it is very beautiful, even if it’s absurd in the face of death. I’m always surprised when writers say they don’t believe in a god or religion but they believe in creating a world on two hundred pages using symbols. We’re all worshiping something. The city worships things like hospitals and fast food and phones and constant consumption, and I’d say those things are a dangerous kind of worship. I’m more interested in the dirt dwellers, who believe, here, that they have a number of crystals inside their stomachs. I very desperately want to believe in something, and I think writing is a way to dig at this wall. There doesn’t have to be an answer, really. Just the movement. 

As far as being fooled into believing in something that doesn’t exist—as a kid, you’re constantly being sold one fantasy or another. Santa Claus, Sesame Street, the police are the good guys, parents know what they’re doing, doctors will help you with medicine, men protect women, et cetera. These concepts slowly dissolve, or are at least kind of remolded, as you get older. Read More »

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