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Posts Tagged ‘novels’

Working on My Novel

July 28, 2014 | by

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From Cory Arcangel’s Working on My Novel.

I wonder whether there will ever be enough tranquility under modern circumstances to allow our contemporary Wordsworth to recollect anything. I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness that characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm. I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction. —Saul Bellow, the Art of Fiction No. 37, 1966

Cory Arcangel’s new book, Working on My Novel—based on the Twitter feed of the same name—is a compilation of tweets from people who are putatively at work on novels. No more, no less. On Twitter, this concept feels merely clever; printed and bound as a novel would be, though, it becomes a vexed look at novels’ position in the culture, and a sad monument to distraction. Or so it seems to me. Arcangel’s “elevator pitch” puts a brighter gloss on it:

Working on My Novel is about the act of creation and the gap between the different ways we express ourselves today. Exploring the extremes of making art, from satisfaction and even euphoria to those days or nights when nothing will come, it's the story of what it means to be a creative person, and why we keep on trying.

But the book piques my interest for the opposite reason: it’s the story of what it means to live in a cultural climate that stifles almost every creative impulse, and why it so often seems we should stop trying. Arcangel suggests there’s something inherently ennobling in trying to write, but his book is an aggregate of delusion, narcissism, procrastination, boredom, self-congratulation, confusion—every stumbling block, in other words, between here and art. Working captures the worrisome extent to which creative writing has been synonymized with therapy; nearly everyone quoted in it pursues novel writing as a kind of exercise regimen. (“I love my mind,” writes one aspirant novelist, as if he’s just done fifty reps with it and is admiring it all engorged with blood.)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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Our Office Plants, Ourselves, and Other News

July 22, 2014 | by

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Polly Brown photographs plants in offices. Photo via The New Yorker; plant also via The New Yorker.

  • Coming soon to the two-euro coin: Tove Jansson’s face. How can you get one? “ ‘Some collectors consider it important to obtain the coin from circulation, but it is easier to purchase the special coin in polished proof quality from numismatic shops or the Mint of Finland online shop,’ says Mint of Finland CEO Paul Gustafsson.”
  • Bertrand Russell: bright guy and all, but was his pacifism really so logically rigorous? “The peace agenda of Russell and his followers was always based on the assumption that war is simply a euphemism for the madness of state-sponsored mass murder, and that we could prevent it by standing up for moral and political sanity … But the paths to war are paved not with malice but with righteous self-certainty. People who choose to participate in military action are more likely to be altruists than egotists.”
  • How should you explain what your novel’s about? Not like this: “This was the story of a young guy, from a town, with a family, with a handful of familiar issues, going back to that town.”
  • The photographer Polly Brown “has spent the past year documenting the plants that bloom in the headquarters of Louis Vuitton, A.T. & T., Nike, Vogue, and even The New Yorker … Brown’s idea was to present the office plant as a representation [of] our ‘biophilic desires.’ ”
  • In 2002, radio producers interviewed “New Yorkers who were among the last—and in some cases, the very last—to hold jobs in industries that were dying … They came up with seven people—a Brooklyn fisherman, a water-tower builder, a cowbell maker, a knife-and-scissor grinder, a lighthouse keeper, an old-fashioned bra fitter, and a seltzer man.” The interviews are now online.

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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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To Be Enjoyed

July 15, 2014 | by

Happy birthday to Iris Murdoch, who would be ninety-five today. “A readable novel is a gift to humanity,” she said in her 1990 Art of Fiction interview:

It provides an innocent occupation. Any novel takes people away from their troubles and the television set; it may even stir them to reflect about human life, characters, morals. So I would like people to be able to read the stuff. I’d like it to be understood too; though some of the novels are not all that easy, I’d like them to be understood, and not grossly misunderstood. But literature is to be enjoyed, to be grasped by enjoyment. 

That interview with Murdoch was conducted by James Atlas as part of a collaboration between 92Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center and The Paris Review—it was recorded live at 92Y on February 22, 1990, and you can listen to an audio recording of it above.

As Atlas later remembered their encounter,

She was anything but forbidding. She was modest. When I asked her what she thought she had achieved—remember, she was over seventy at this point and had long been considered one of the most important writers in England—she answered, with complete sincerity, “I haven’t achieved anything yet.” She was profound without sounding that way, or, I suspect, even knowing that she was: “Live in the present. It’s what you think you can do next that matters.” And she was funny: “The thing about the theater is, why do people stay there? Why don’t they just get up and go?” But the most valuable thing I learned from Dame Iris Murdoch that evening was about the relationship between art and humility. “One is always discontented with what one has done,” she said. “One always hopes to do better.”

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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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