Commentary that pivots on a quiet act of co-creation.
These days, an author, especially an unknown author, must—in order to entice any readers to her work who aren’t blood relatives—write endless unpaid blogs, articles and responses for newspapers and magazines and random people creating things in basements. What results is the subsidising of publishers by outsourcing the marketing of the book to the writer, and now and again the subsidising of often giant media corporations, who in times gone by would have had to pay her.
—and builds to a powerful statement about the primacy of reading:
There seems to have been a shift from a reading culture to a writing culture, a diminishment of critical space for the contemplation of literature. Writing needs to be discussed and interrogated through reading. If you wish to write well, you need to read well, or at least widely. You certainly need to contemplate reading a book in translation, unlikely to be widely reviewed in newspapers, many of which are too busy wasting space on “how to write” tips and asking about an author’s personal fripperies. It’s a great deal more fulfilling to read and think about a fine book than to attempt to write one.
There is something wrong with how much of the media approaches authors and books. They seem to believe we no longer appear to value the labour that it takes to read. That we value most of all the status we imagine will come from publishing a book. Are they right? The only really useful status comes from reading and thinking.
Amen, sister. I may waver on my status as a writer, but I’m always proud to be, and to call myself, a reader.
The New York Times Book Review weighs in on Solnit
I wondered in my last post about where was The New York Times Book Review’s notice of Rebecca Solnit’s intriguing “anti-memoir,” as she’s called it, The Faraway Nearby, and the review’s judgment arrived Sunday. Memoirist Robin Romm’s thoughtful mixed review praises Solnit for creating links between disparate ideas but takes her to task for occasional obscurity of meaning:
In lieu of clarity, she offers a variety of complications. “Place is a story,” she writes, “and stories are geography, and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller’s art, and then a way of traveling from here to there.” Or she fuzzes the line between story and the many notions and experiences from which one is made: “Where does a story begin? The fiction is that they do, and end, rather than that the stuff of a story is just a cup of water scooped from the sea and poured back into it.” But is all of this true? I would argue that a story is a made thing — different from place, from lived experience, from abstraction. There are infinite ways of telling a story, but once it has a shape, it does begin.
Solnit’s personal story creates empathy and interest, Romm says, while functioning as scaffolding to hold up her “real passion”: ideas and subjects. But “her reliance on digressions and ellipses here, her lavish inclusivity and loose threads, prevent the reader from experiencing the ultimate joy of the form she celebrates . . . the magic of story itself.”
Romm says better and more clearly what I tried to explain in my review and subsequent discussion about the difficulty, at times, of reading this profound but diffuse book, a touchstone for readers and writers. One measure of an interesting book is that it spawns interesting reviews, and this one certainly has. Among many around the web, I especially admired one on the Bay-area radio KQED site by San Francisco writer Ingrid Rojas Contrearas.
Verlyn Klinkenborg favors hard copies
In a brief column for The New York Times, Verlyn Klinkenborg raises a unique objection about e-books, saying that physical books stay present in the mind, while digital editions vanish, out of sight and out of mind.
This may seem like a trivial difference, but that’s not how it feels. Reading is inherently ephemeral, but it feels less so when you’re making your way through a physical book, which persists when you’ve finished it. It is a monument to the activity of reading. It makes this imaginary activity entirely substantial. But the quiddity of e-reading is that it effaces itself.
He’s done a lot more e-reading than I, admitting to having read nearly 800 books on his iPad. I can’t help but agree with him, since I’ve bashfully ordered hard copies of books I’ve enjoyed on my Kindle. I was surprised and pleased when I immersed in my first digital book just as deeply as I always had reading hard copies, my only objection before this—somewhat akin to Klinkenborg’s lament—was that e-readers flatten the structure of books. You can’t see section breaks coming at you and can’t ponder at a glance a book’s act structure.
The structure of David Foster Wallace’s famous essay
In The New York Times series “Draft,” architect and writing teacher Matteo Pericoli explains how his students dissect the structure of stories and essays they love, including building scale models (!). This explication by two students concerns David Foster Wallace’s most famous essay:
“A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” by David Foster Wallace takes place on a cruise ship and is structured like parentheses within parentheses: small observations trigger larger facts about our base appetites for pleasure. The floors inside these brackets are made of glass to represent the clarity and truth Mr. Wallace encounters during his time at sea, and the curved parenthetical cuts made into them allow light to filter between the floors, illuminating invisible links and connecting seemingly disparate themes and digressions. The structure is penetrated by an elevator shaft, which is an explosion of creativity and continuity representing the author himself, who stubbornly refuses to be subdued even in the ostensibly lightest of occasions, like a vacation on the high seas.
—Elizabeth Greenwood, SOA Nonfiction
Partnered with Kevin Le, MSAUD ’13
Memoir or autobiography?
Beth Kephart, author of the new book on memoir writing Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir, always probes memoir in an interesting way on her blog, recently in a post on Edna O’Brien’s Country Girl:
Does it matter, then, that Country Girl is not truly a memoir? That Country Girl is, indeed, autobiography? Memoir requires a universal stance, a politics of readerly inclusion, a this happened to me, did it happen to you, and how, in the end, does this make us both human? Themes percolate, and not just events. In autobiography, there is a divide—the audience in its seats, the storyteller on the stage, no mingling in the aisles, no presumed need for thematic integrity. Memoir gathers others in. Autobiography says, See, this. And this. Two very differently readerly experiences. Two different kinds of books.
There’s a good short review of O’Brien’s memoir on Southern Bookman.
Writing with deep, patient rhythm
James Woods, in a review of David Gilbert’s novel & Sons in The New Yorker (August 5):
Virginia Woolf once said that novelists write not in sentences but in chapters. Novelistic form is, in some ways, the achievement of this deep, patient rhythm. Much contemporary fiction, like much contemporary life, has a restless flamboyance that preempts such wise shapeliness.
Amanda Knox analyzed, yet again
The Amanda Knox murder case is one I can’t help but knowing something about, though I’ve followed it mostly against my will. In Salon, Tom Dibblee, in a reprint of his Los Angeles Review of Books essay, analyzes the Knox case and the books it has spawned so far, including hers, and finds Knox innocent. He’s a careful reader, and he uses himself effectively in a breathtaking turn at the end.
Here’s a sample, including his artful use of the self:
There’s something about Amanda Knox that cuts through logic and taps a more primal lobe of the brain. She provokes intuitive reactions in people. For me, the YouTube video of Knox and Sollecito comforting each other outside 7 Via della Pergola isn’t disconcerting. But I can barely make eye contact with Knox’s photo on the cover of her memoir. Her expression comes across as a transparent plea for sympathy, one that looks like feigned pain to mask indignation, feigned girlhood to mask sexuality, even feigned pain to mask true pain. After four years of prison and international pillory, I have no doubt that Knox has suffered. But the photo feels somehow unbearably false. If somebody had just snapped an iPhone shot of her without her knowing it, she’d have been infinitely better off. But in posing, what’s sincere about her has become warped in such a way as to trigger my instinct to distance myself. . . .
What’s compelling to me about Amanda Knox is that it was her slight offness that did her in, the everyday offness to be found on every schoolyard and in every workplace. This is the slight sort of offness that rouses muttered suspicion and gossip, the slight sort of offness that courses through our daily lives and governs who we choose to affiliate ourselves with and who we choose to distance ourselves from. It’s an offness we detect instinctively. This slight sort of offness is a hint that triggers our instinct to go into Darwinian mode and define our pack. For zebras, it’s the slow and feeble who fall behind the harem. For us, it’s the people who behave inappropriately. . . .
[I] t doesn’t surprise me that Amanda Knox is a writer. When she first went to prison, she was certain that if she could just explain herself correctly, her captors would set her free; the problem was not her, but how she expressed herself. And I’m not locked up, but this is why I write, too: to repair the communicative breach that I think stands between me and a freer, better life.
Brilliant is an overused word. But, hey, here it fits—Dibblee’s essay exudes it.
English majors really major in becoming people
University of Virginia professor Mark Edmundson’s riff in The Chronicle of Higher Education has gone viral. At least in English departments. Here’s a taste:
All students—and I mean all—ought to think seriously about majoring in English. Becoming an English major means pursuing the most important subject of all—being a human being. . . .
The English major is, first of all, a reader. She’s got a book pup-tented in front of her nose many hours a day; her Kindle glows softly late into the night. But there are readers and there are readers. There are people who read to anesthetize themselves—they read to induce a vivid, continuous, and risk-free daydream. They read for the same reason that people grab a glass of chardonnay—to put a light buzz on. The English major reads because, as rich as the one life he has may be, one life is not enough. . . .
English majors want the joy of seeing the world through the eyes of people who—let us admit it—are more sensitive, more articulate, shrewder, sharper, more alive than they themselves are. The experience of merging minds and hearts with Proust or James or Austen makes you see that there is more to the world than you had ever imagined. You see that life is bigger, sweeter, more tragic and intense—more alive with meaning than you had thought. . . .
I love Wordsworth and Shakespeare and Donne. But I like it when a fellow pickup b-ball player points to a nervous guy skittering off to the bathroom just as the game’s about to start: “He’s taking a chicken pee.” Yup—hit it on the head. I like it when, in the incomparable song “Juicy,” Biggie Smalls describes coming up in life by letting us know that once “Birthdays was the worst days / Now we sip champagne when we thirs-tay.”
Edmundson’s new book, Why Teach? In Defense of a Real Education, has just been reviewed in The New York Times.
And . . . here’s Biggie Smalls with the tune in question: