Persona, Voice, POV

Making life add up in art

December 28, 2016 | 17 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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The writing life’s mysteries

August 24, 2016 | 14 Comments

“Do what you love. Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still.”—Henry David Thoreau

Neat sentiment, Henry David, and it seems apt for writer Dani Shapiro, who has quoted it herself. Her love is writing, and especially chewing over the past in memoir. Recently in the New York Times Book Review, however, Shapiro discussed the dilemma of being a serial memoirist:

“When I write a book, I have no interest in telling all, the way I absolutely do long to while talking to a close friend. My interest is in telling precisely what the story requires. It is along the knife’s edge of this discipline that the story becomes larger, more likely to touch the “thread of the Universe,” Emerson’s beautiful phrase. In this way, a writer might spiral ever deeper into one or two themes throughout a lifetime —theme, after all, being a literary term for obsession—while illuminating something new and electrifying each time.

“But some readers of memoir are looking for secrets, for complete transparency on the part of the author, as if the point is confession, and the process of reading memoir, a voyeuristic one. This idea of transparency troubles me, and is, I think, at the root of the serial memoirist’s plight. My goal when I sit down to write out of my own circumstances is not to make myself transparent. In fact, I am building an edifice. Stone by stone, I am constructing a story. Brick by brick, I am learning what image, what memory belongs to what.”

Shapiro makes subtle and profound distinctions. Distinctions between publishing memoir and privately journaling. Between personal writing and mainstream journalism. Between life stories and idle gossip. Between settling scores and discovering deeper truths. This is invaluable in extending the conversation on memoir, and in helping refine understanding of the burgeoning genre.

I’m impressed by Shapiro’s frankness and depth. She addresses directly critics’ charges or anyone’s fear of wallowing, of having a different story than your siblings do, of inflicting on others your navel-gazing.

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The common touch

August 3, 2016 | 8 Comments

Ronnie Black is a real hothead—everyone knows it—and he’s unfaithful. When his estranged wife and three of her seven children die one night in a fire that engulfs their trailer home, suspicions point to Ronnie. The fire and a subsequent custody battle roil the small rural town, especially when the cause of the fire is ruled to be arson. Lee Martin’s new novel shines a light on human failings, such as gossip and lack of compassion, as well as on quiet daily heroism and the way mistakes and coincidences can combine to produce tragedy.

Reading Late One Night, I was struck by Martin’s compassion for his characters. Especially for those who, despite themselves, end up doing wrong. Having read his nonfiction, including his fine memoirs From Our House (reviewed) and Such a Life (reviewed) and his helpful ongoing craft blog, “The Least You Need to Know,” it’s clear he’s one of them. One of those farm and working folk from the hinterlands, from America’s faded provincial towns and threadbare rural backwaters.

One of them, that is, who left. Who took a different path, got out. Who got himself tons of education and made himself a writer, who turned himself into an artist. Whose subject, here, is so much them, those he left behind—yet hasn’t. The effect of Martin’s steady compassion grows throughout Late One Night until, as mysteries are revealed—as the true story of the fatal fire is finally told—the novel becomes deeply, surprisingly moving.

Maybe it’s that his characters, in turn, finally express compassion for each other. That rings true or at least possible. These are broken people, many of them, or guiltily carrying burdens, and their effort to forgive others in the face of their own failures feels heroic.

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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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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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