humor, irony

Making Notting Hill’s long list

March 29, 2017 | 14 Comments

Politics & our narrative impulse

October 11, 2016 | 11 Comments

Many writers possess a visceral antipathy to politics, or at least to politicians. This may be because of politicians’ storied lack of integrity. But we know the constraints they face in our republic of laws, of soaring ideals, and of humanly selfish interests. Still, we’ve seen recently how shockingly low some can go. Yet what a politician does at her or his best is the same magic trick to which writers aspire. Which is channeling and kindling, through all America’s murk, our core truths flickering in overused platitudes. Those verities reflect historic and still-evolutionary ideals that are still evolving. Yes, America is exceptional. But our past is no guarantee. Hence our latent respect for our politicians who try to affirm and foster the best in us. Or in whom we intuit that, under the right circumstances, they will try.

Even though on that score this presidential contest should be a boring no-brainer, writers have nonetheless ascended right and left—well, mostly on left but some on the right—to great work. Roger Cohen, a former foreign correspondent who writes columns for the New York Times, wrote a stunning news feature back in early September, “We Need ‘Somebody Spectacular’: Views From Trump Country,” subtitled “Appalachian voters know perfectly well the candidate is dangerous. But they’re desperate for change.”

The author of a memoir about his mother, The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory in a Jewish Family, Cohen went into the rural mid-South and Appalachia to interview and portray Trump supporters. He talked to a woman in Paris, Kentucky—a burg in horse country, right across the river from Ohio, that you drive through to Lexington—who voted for Obama in 2008 but now supports Trump. She operates a boot shop. Cohen’s interview with her, as with others in these travels, was sensitive and searching.

Although now a columnist, here Cohen was functioning as an “objective” journalist. Which usually means in practice that the writer isn’t free to state his thesis as his own but has explored it, tested it. And here, the notion seems simply an honest question. To ask, on our behalf, How can decent, tax-paying, idealistic Americans vote for a man who is anything but? These folks may trend conservative, but they try to be good—they aspire to macro ethics—yet many have supported Trump, the ultimate micro ethicist.

In the exquisite calculus of mainstream objective journalism, Cohen’s writing so freely and drawing so clearly on his research crossed a line, however mildly he furrowed his brow. Lest readers not recognize his article as containing such cautious, informed opinion—and bending over backwards to be fair—editors met their objective format’s standard with an “Opinion” label.

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In dogged pursuit

September 14, 2016 | 17 Comments

“Endings are elusive, middles are nowhere to be found, but worst of all is to begin, to begin, to begin!”—Donald Barthelme

Lately I’ve been writing essays. I’m in the midst of one right now about Tess, the dog I had when I met Kathy, my wife. Tess took me from youth to middle age. It’s hard to say at this point what the essay is about. Love, I suppose. It’s not all about Tess. But as I feel my way through the story, Tess is the frame for what appears. She’s been dead now 22 years, so I’m dealing with the odd mystery of the past.

Which is interesting, and scary—my initial structure helps but provides scant guidance for what should or must or might appear. Every sentence feels like a gift, every paragraph a golden miracle. I could be making a mess. Well, it’s practice. And sometimes it takes my shelving an essay for two years to see how to salvage it.

Having written other essays, though, I know I better try to enjoy this process. Because essays come and go. Their comparatively quick turnaround is great. So is getting a few published here and there. What’s been hard, sometimes, is starting a new one. No basking in a book draft’s long narrative arc—it’s time for the next one. Already. Again.

“Tess” is structured, so far, in reverse chronological order, starting with her death. Thankfully, I’m past the opening and struggling through the middle, with part of the end drafted. Barthelme’s quote above seems to nail the issue of beginning: starting is hard because you’re starting. Nothing’s yet there. Such work is taxing; such labor is effortful.

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My dog tale published

July 6, 2016 | 26 Comments

At last I’ve documented our family dog’s epic weirdness—and, well, mine. My essay “Why I Hate My Dog” explains on Longreads. Bottom line and fair warning to the rescue-minded: every adult pound dog I’ve known or heard about has suffered from scorching separation anxiety. Belle’s is far from the worst—at least she doesn’t tear apart the house—but plenty bad. Her suffering, plus some truly odd behavior, affects her humans.

Briefly this essay has made me more tolerant of others’ bad dogs. This morning, Kathy and I passed a man on our walk being dragged along by a snarling dog. We sometimes see him, and I dread it. Though I hold that dog against him, Kathy greeted him. His response was slow and a tad sullen—we’d disturbed his peace, too, even though his dog was the one wanting to kill Belle and maybe us. Then we ran into him again on our loop. He was friendlier, saying by way of possibly ironic apology for his dog, “He loves everybody.”

“I guess he’s trying to be funny,” I said when he was out of earshot.

“I don’t think so.”

“Maybe that dog was his kid’s, who died,” I offered.

“Maybe it’s a rescue he got to keep himself company in his old age,” Kathy said.

By definition, almost everyone is doing his best, right? Sometimes that’s pretty pathetic. But it goes for me and my dog, too.

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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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Poetry & prose

June 15, 2016 | 12 Comments

I wonder how many prose writers unconsciously draw on the rhythms and content of the poems they read as children? The longer I write, mostly nonfiction in my case, the more poetry I read. Poetry’s distilled wisdom feeds me as a person, and its precise diction and careful phrasing nurture me as a writer. Poetry grows your literary intelligence and seeps into your sentences.

Formalist poetry—which employs meter and sometimes rhyme schemes—enchanted me during my nine years as book publicist and then marketing manager for Ohio University Press/Swallow Press. David Sanders was the director then, a poet and a publisher of poets who launched the Press’s esteemed Hollis Summers Poetry Prize. We didn’t publish only formalists, and poetry collections of any kind constituted a handful of our annual publications, but they were among our most interesting. I moved on, and later so did Sanders, but our old Press, now led by Gillian Berchowitz, has just published a new collection of his poetry, Compass and Clock. In it, Sanders mixes free-verse poems with those that employ formal elements. The book was elegantly designed in-house by Beth Pratt, using Jeff Kallet’s collage “Sunrise” as the cover’s striking image.

I’ve read Compass and Clock twice. There’s the strangeness of true art in odd little poems like “He Was Once,” about a man who drives a widow to a mountaintop to watch an incoming storm.

Along with his witty wordplay and his poetry showcasing, as poetry does, the power of metaphor, I was struck by Sanders’s spare, precise descriptions. The “thin curtains” in one poem seemed so perfect, telling, and sad.

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Annie Dillard surfaces

May 3, 2016 | 23 Comments

New Yorker editor David Remnick has scored a coup, or at least a scoop, by interviewing the reclusive Annie Dillard for the magazine’s radio show. The occasion is Dillard’s retrospective essay collection, The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New. The book has occasioned a flurry of speculation in the literary world about Dillard’s retirement, notably a strained essay, “Where Have You Gone, Annie Dillard?”, by William Deresiewicz in The Atlantic positing that Dillard somehow boxed herself in with her mystical interests.

So the key question Remnick asked was why did she retire from writing, some years ago now, to spend her days painting? She wrote by hand, she told him, and one day couldn’t remember where she was going with the start of a promising sentence she’d left the previous day on her legal pad. Short-term memory loss, in short, is her explanation for her retirement from writing. Dillard, now 71, does not sound, in this rare interview, to be a victim of Alzheimer’s, as has been rumored. She sounds sharp as a double-headed tack.

Of her books, she prizes most my favorite: For the Time Being (reviewed). She marvels, “Writers adore that book,” but then she’s always been a writer’s writer. In it, she said, she bites off a big chunk of her preoccupation with human existence. All I can say is it’s in my pantheon as one of the greatest books I’ve ever read. Remnick questions her about her spooky essay “Total Eclipse,” which she reads from and analyzes. She explains her goal was to invoke the eclipse in readers. But the challenge was keeping them reading—dense description of the long event and Dillard’s reaction would lose them, she felt. Hence her decision to keep returning to the eclipse, repeating, each time at a deeper level, her experience of the power and primeval horror of the light’s loss.

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