aesthetics

A story structured in shards

March 8, 2017 | 24 Comments

Survivor. Sufferer. Witness.

August 17, 2016 | 15 Comments

People yearn simply to be good. But that’s a hard wish because most people are good but they sure aren’t simple. Take the late Harry Crews (1935–2012), a prolific novelist and nonfiction writer who became infamous for his drinking, brawling, infidelity, and outrageous public behavior. When at last long-successful and revered, Crews consciously strove to alienate others. He wore grungy clothes, drove junker cars, sported a Mohawk hairstyle, and tattooed on his arm alarming words from a poem by E.E. Cummings:

“How do you like your blue-eyed boy, Mister Death?”

What kind of man believes himself to be a freak, declares writers freaks, writes solely about freaks and misfits—including, in his journalism, Hollywood celebrities, prostitutes, and dog fighters—and makes being a freakish outsider the core of his personal and aesthetic ethos?

Ted Geltner answers this conundrum in his absorbing Blood, Bone and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews. I hadn’t read a literary biography in a long time, and read this one because I’m writing a review of Crews’s classic memoir A Childhood: The Biography of a Place for River Teeth; A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative in the fall.

My interest also was kindled because I recently wrote a 15-page essay about my time at University of Florida when Harry Crews was there as the famous writing teacher. I’d had a near miss with a bad man when I was 19, working on a farm in Melbourne, and my essay is about that and my writing apprenticeship at UF and how the two connect.

Oh, the appeal and fear Harry Crews held for me. My father having sold our Georgia farm when I was a boy, I’d grown up in a Florida beach town and felt Crews, a true Georgia grit, would smell it on me.

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The joy of style

June 29, 2016 | 5 Comments

If free indirect style (close third-person narration) epitomizes the novel’s history, according to James Wood in How Fiction Works, so does what he calls “the rise of detail.” Details allow us to “enter a character” but refuse to explain him, giving readers the pleasure of mystery and of co-creation. Wood credits French novelist Gustave Flaubert (1821–1880) with uniting details, stylishness, and close third-person narration to launch the realist novel that has persisted. The modern novel “all begins with him,” says Wood.

Style begins with what the writer notices—or notices on behalf of her characters—and uses for calculated effect. And yet, in its particulars and overall effect, narrative art retains mystery. A pleasure of How Fiction Works for me was Wood’s joyous riff on one of Virginia Woolf’s lines from The Waves:

“The day waves yellow with all its crops.”

“I am consumed by this sentence,” Wood admits, “partly because I cannot explain why it moves me so much.” While Woolf’s diction and syntax are simple here, her brilliance resides in having the day wave instead of the crops, he says, and “the effect is suddenly that the day itself, the very fabric and temporality of the day, seems saturated in yellow.” But how can a day wave yellow? That’s the thing, Wood notes: yellowness has taken over even our verbs, has “conquered our agency.”

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Got perspective?

June 22, 2016 | 9 Comments

In How Fiction Works, James Woods argues for omniscience. He first contrasts the alleged barbarity of first-person against W.G. Sebald’s disgust for omniscient narration. Whereas the “uncertainty of the narrator himself” lends credence to first-person, Sebald believes, history has shattered the myth of cohesive worlds and all-seeing authors. To Sebald, omniscient third-person narration is a “kind of cheat,” Wood writes.

Not to Wood. How Fiction Works is a brief for, and a subtle analysis of, omniscience in fiction. Though ostensibly a godlike, distancing method, in practice third-person narration tends to “bend itself around” a point-of-view character.” Wood loves such “free indirect style,” also called close third-person, in which characters’ thoughts have been freed of “authorial flagging,” such as “he said to himself” or “he wondered.” The narrative, seemingly less mediated, becomes suffused with a point-of-view character instead of the novelist.

At the same time, this particularized outlook and diction blend with that of the “complicated presence of the author” to achieve a nuanced layering. Simply put, we enter a character’s head, savoring his thoughts and impressions, while also admiring the writer’s skill—and noting her “own” words or phrases. We enjoy signals of writerly perspective and commentary embedded among characters’ feelings. Sometimes we’re not entirely sure who owns a word, Wood points out, and we try to discern, say, whether the author is being sharp or kind toward a character. In any case, we’re aware of the gap between writer and character. And into that created and creative space, irony, the driest humor, flows.

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Practice, said the maestro

November 20, 2015 | 6 Comments

The classical pianist Seymour Bernstein says he didn’t feel comfortable on stage for most of his career. Terror and horror swept him, he fought blocks, felt inadequate. He increased his practicing from four hours daily to eight. This “integrated” him as a person and artist. As a result, at last he felt fine on stage, at age 50. He secretly arranged a farewell concert. Held at the 92nd Street YMCA in New York City, his last concert was in 1969. It was hailed as a triumph, and he exited public performance for good. He kept playing, practicing, and teaching. He simply quit the strain of the stage, and poured himself into his students.

This is the paradox and the man, now in his late eighties, explored in actor Ethan Hawke’s new documentary, Seymour: An Introduction. I streamed it on Netflix. In taking the title of a J.D. Salinger novella, Hawke alludes to Salinger’s decision to stop publishing, though Salinger lived on for fifty years as a recluse in a fenced compound. Bernstein has lived quietly but socially for 57 years in the same one-room apartment on the upper west side of Manhattan, sleeping in a hideaway bed. Like Salinger, Bernstein separates the practice of art from its public airing. There’s a lesson here for writers, loathe as most are to view any composition as mere practice or for its own sake. Publication is the thing!

Hawke, suffering a five-year bout of stage fright and a general artistic malaise, met Bernstein at a dinner party and adopted him as a mentor. “I have been struggling recently with finding why it is that I do what I do,” Hawke explains. “I knew that the superficial things—material wealth, the world thinking you are a big-shot—I kind of knew that that was phony. That that was inauthentic to build a career on. But I didn’t know what was authentic.”

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A seer of art

August 13, 2015 | 8 Comments

Almost everyone consumes art in some form—it’s hard not to. Which means almost everyone has an opinion. Then there’s Sister Wendy. A nun who spends her days in silent, ego-less contemplation and prayer, the former English major emerges to take in the occasional art gallery. She has a gift, it turns out, for seeing deeply into paintings and their painters.

In the YouTube clip with this post, Wendy discusses “Stanley Spencer, Self portrait with Patricia Preece,” 1936. She comments that the woman’s hair is “unconvincing” though her pubic hair is “lovely and fluffy.” So the novelty effect here is high, but Wendy is no joke. She focuses on how “his art understands—he doesn’t understand,” and she leaves “Feeling vaguely unsatisfied, though I’m not sure why I should be.”

Wendy intuits and appreciates the artist’s effort. At the same time, she is so sensitive that she senses and analyzes where he may have in some way failed. She is positive even in this. What she is saying is Art is a handmade thing and never perfect. I think we love any work of art for its perfection but also for its heightened quality, its attempt at perfection. Art is handmade and there will be flaws. Perhaps the critic must help her audience see places that might be uneven, especially if they’re either a fault of soul or the dark side of a virtue.

I love sister Wendy, a seer of art. She shows how creative criticism can be. Her ability to receive and to feel is amazing and inspiring.

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DFW on CNF

November 17, 2014 | 12 Comments

As a teacher and writer of nonfiction, I devoured the late David Foster Wallace’s recently released creative nonfiction syllabus. Salon, which published it, called the document “mind-blowing,” evidently referring to its tough-love language.

In this blueprint for a night class he taught at Pomona College once a week in Spring 2008—so roughly six months before his death, presumably when he was already suffering from deep depression—Wallace prosecutes a rigorous, distilled aesthetic. He builds toward it in his opening “Description of Class,” which notes that “nonfiction” means it corresponds to real affairs but that creative “signifies that some goal(s) other than sheer truthfulness motivates the writer and informs her work.”

This purpose may be “to interest readers, or to instruct them, or to entertain them, to move or persuade, to edify, to redeem, to amuse, to get readers to look more closely at or think more deeply about something that’s worth their attention. . . or some combination(s) of these.’’ He continues, going deeper:

“Creative also suggests that this kind of nonfiction tends to bear traces of its own artificing; the essay’s author usually wants us to see and understand her as the text’s maker. This does not, however, mean that an essayist’s main goal is simply to ‘share’ or ‘express herself’ or whatever feel-good term you might have got taught in high school. In the grown-up world, creative nonfiction is not expressive writing but rather communicative writing. And an axiom of communicative writing is that the reader does not automatically care about you (the writer), nor does she find you fascinating as a person, nor does she feel a deep natural interest in the same things that interest you. The reader, in fact, will feel about you, your subject, and your essay only what your written words themselves induce her to feel.”

The apparent acid that Salon responded to in “whatever feel-good term you might have got taught in high school,” I read, instead, as an attempt to emphasize his own hard-won understanding. It’s not just that along the line Wallace got his ears bored off by some undergraduates’ essays, though there’s a whiff of that. In the recent Quack This Way: David Foster Wallace and Bryan A. Garner Talk Language and Writing, Wallace discusses how in college he “snapped to it perhaps late,” thanks to his teachers, that the world “doesn’t care about you. You want it to? Make it. Make it care.”

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