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LETTER TO A FRIEND

I sent the following to a Sewanee writing buddy who was kind enough to read and comment on the draft of a story.

 

Hi,

You requested some response to your comments. What follows may be more than you wanted, but since you asked . . .

 

The most telling of your remarks referred to missing energy and the matter of heart, but before I get to those–I’ve been trying to find a short story voice, have been experimenting with the episodic, ellipses-like style of such as Jeannette Winterson, Lily Tuck, Diane Schutt. Undoubtedly, I’ve not chosen the right episodes or linked them poorly so that the stories come out disjointed and mystifying. I’ve written three now that have come out with roughly the same problems as the Bolivia and Dentist. Before that, I produced one that was much more successful. I’m shopping it around to print journals and getting some nibbles, though no bites yet. Seems I’ve regressed rather than progressed since that one.

I’m not sure what’s the source of my loser protagonists. I intend to create flawed creatures, but apparently I’m creating pitiable ones that aren’t even all that interesting. Bad doesn’t matter, I think. Boring does. May be some deeper psychological explanation that it would be better to leave unexplored. Anyhow, between the incomprehensible action and the weak protagonists, we’re left with not much of a story. I’m not quite sure what to do about these three.  Whether It’s best to shred and move on or to lay aside and return later, I don’t know. Certainly they need reimagining in the entire if they’re to ever work. However it turns out, you’ve been invaluable in diverting me from a wrong road.

The larger issues you mentioned, though, may be the real source of the problem. In my Sewanee packet I submitted a group of five flash-fiction pieces, each 500 words or less. One of them had been published on line and–in a unique format–on a coffee mug. It was a lot of fun sending the mug around for gifts, etc. We writers can’t do that the way painters can. The other four are supposed to come out in the same format this year if the proprietor gets his act together–a circumstance that seems unlikely at this point. The stories are structured pretty much like the one I sent you after I received your comments on James–A narrator relating to the audience a story told by Millard. Barry didn’t care too much for the way the stories were set up–said they were anecdotes that lacked story–but said that my authentic voice lay therein, the voice I should be working with to the exclusion of whatever I was doing with the Bolivia story. Between what he said and what you said I’m thinking that’s the direction I need to go. It wasn’t so much that my heart wasn’t in writing the other stories. Disappointed as I’ve been in the result, I did get involved in them, enjoyed creating them. However, I was undeniably working more from the head than the gut. Another contributing factor may be that I’m simply not a short story writer. I love the short-short fiction. I think my novel is good. Others agree, despite the lack of agent/publisher acceptance yet. I am full of energy as I begin the sequel. But I have trouble with that 3000-10, 000 word length for some reason. Well, Ray Carver could never write a novel either, eh? Nor Alice Munro, apparently.

In the end, I guess, the answer lies in continuing to read, write, get comments, then write some more. I’ve tried to stop writing in the past. It’s easier to give up bourbon–and that’s saying something for me. So I’ll just keep on till I can’t no more.

 

Cheers,

CARL

THE NUTS AND BOLTS OF CRAFT BOOKS

Writers, like other artists, generally need help to develop and refine their craft. Various “schools” of writers have formed around particular styles or ideas and inspired one another through communicating comments and observations on each other’s work. The collaborations–some loose, some close–of such communities as the English romantics, the Bloomsbury group, the German Expressionists and many others produced a quality and kind of work that would have been impossible had the likes of Shelley or Woolf labored in isolation. At least since Aristotle, critics have responded with treatises analyzing what makes the best art work. Only lately, I believe, have these analysts begun producing their treatises not only as critiques but as self-help manuals, and apparently they’re selling. The industry will certainly publish anything that sells, and writers will write whatever they’re paid to, and who can blame them? God knows, we write reams for which no one pays us a cent. The question is, who’s buying?

It’s hard to imagine Hemingway or Joyce trotting down to Barnes and Noble for the latest edition of Janice Burroway so they’d be sure the final manuscript of Portrait of the Artist or For Whom the Bell Tolls gets polished to a luster. Yet, I think that of us aspiring scribblers do just that. We’re almost none of us Faulkners or Steinbecks nor were meant to be, but we all want to get as close as possible, so we seek the help of those who say they can light a candle in the dark cave of the creative gods and show us what lies in the psychic depths of the masters.

But surely we’re not numerous enough to explain the whole of this craze. Or maybe we are. A friend commenting on the miles of print-filled shelves in a Borders the other day asked “Am I the only one in the world who hasn’t written a book?” He was surprised when I told him that while more people may be writing than ever before, that writers’ conferences were springing up like toadstools, and that the creative writing MFA had become a veritable industry, it was getting harder and harder to get into print and that readers are a diminishing audience. Despite the plethora of shiny covers and full-page promotions in the The New York Times, publishers are becoming conglomerates, so that ten houses might in fact feed the balance sheet of only three companies. As size of the audience shrinks, the number of manuscripts grows. I guess we’ll all be reading each other before long.

Perhaps some people read craft books for entertainment, but it’s hard for me to imagine that as a life. Others perhaps look to them for authority as they plan their next opus, but that seems strange also.  Should I give my character a dream? No, writer X warns against that. What about a murder? Uh-uh. Writer Y cautions about works that are too action-driven. Pretty soon there’s so much yellow tape strung around the scene you don’t dare set foot in your own creation. Perhaps craft books are a fad, like blackberries and ipods–seemingly useful and life-enriching, yet in reality devices for increasing speed and volume by which useless information circulates. Not to mention money.

Still, who am I to say that no good can come out of the prodigious labors of so many bright and skillful minds? But I feel queasy about using them. If I were a real writer, I wouldn’t, shouldn’t have the need. I could just show my manuscript to John Keats or perhaps Maxwell Perkins, who would make a few trenchant suggestions, and I’d be off to the presses. Romantic, delusional, self-destructive? Or maybe testosterone poisoning akin to the reluctance to ask for directions?

Most of the books use illustrations from high-quality writers. Nothing wrong with that. But the illustrations seldom apply specifically to my manuscripts, my characters, in the situations I’ve created. And too many of the authors love useless taxonomies, never better satirized than by Shakespeare in the words he gives Polonius trying to describe the work of the traveling players–tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical. Or they make up silly rules such as the ones I alluded to earlier. Or they carry good principles to absurd lengths. Aristotle proposed a theory of dramatic unities based on his look at Oedipus Rex. Some centuries later, scholars were arguing whether the day he spoke of should be twelve hours or twenty-four hours long. In the meantime, artists kept writing delightful stuff that paid little or no attention to the scholars. And that’s what I intend to do. With a little occasional help from:

 

Writing Fiction–Janice Burroway

Finding Your Voice–Les Edgerton

Revision–David Michael Kaplan

The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop–Stephen Koch

 

So there.

 

AND THE LIST GOES ON

I’m beginning 2007 with a correction of a 2006 mistake.  I omitted two important books from my ten best list, which will now number fourteen. Why they slipped my mind, who knows. Maybe I’ll actually keep a list this year rather than trying to pull things from the shadow of my memory, shadows which are deepening by the day. Probably not, though. If I did I might have a twenty-book list. Anyhow, the neglected authors and books are [drum rollllllllllllll]

Walking on Water by Randall Keenan

I already did a whole blog entry on this so I won’t get extensive. It’s an important and fascinating work on black culture in the twentieth century through the eyes of a huge cross section of black people. Well-written and documented by an extremely careful and keen observer.

Miracle at St. Anna, by James McBride

The Color of Water, his acclaimed memoir, is McBride‘s better known work, and i was in fact looking for that in the library when I ran across Miracle and settled for that when Water was not available. I’ll get to that in ’07, but this semi-historical based on a WWII incident involving a black platoon trapped behind enemy lines in an Italian village lifted me up and took me away. It’s simultaneously fantastical (the opening line is something like this: “Twain would never forget the first time he became invisible.”) and realistic. The encounters between the troops and their officers as well as their interactions with the villagers are as muddy and bloody as it gets. Yet, at the heart of the title and of McBride’s treatment of the story, is a miracle. 

 

 

TEN BEST OF 2006

My ten best are not the ten best new books. I may not even have read them all in 2006. I’m a lousy recordkeeper, and there’s no one, like a  literary IRS who cares enough to keep me honest. So here’s a list, not necessarily in order.

1. Passion by Jeannette Winterson. Enchanting story set in Napoleonic times. There’s so much poetic prose and sensuality in this story you almost forget about the blood and the pain of a soldier caught in the Little Emperor’s fateful Russian campaign. Get to it.

2. Love, Etc. by Julian Barnes. Barnes is a unique storyteller, and no book better illustrates his innovativeness than the form of Love, Etc. The story is told alternatively in monologue by different characters speaking to an unidentified audience. Probably, but not certainly, a counselor of some sort. It’s a complicated love triangle, and the story changes with each monologue, not just from character to character. Characters’ own versions change with each telling.

3. Arthur and George by Julian Barnes. The form here is much more conventional than Love, Etc., but it’s no less full of surprises and wonder.

4. Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes. Noticing a trend here? Parrot is a pretty old book, but I’m slow sometimes. I expected something much more fictional, but was unexpectedly delighted to find almost a treatise on Flaubert’s life and work written in the voice of a narrator whose life and attitude is so opposite the French sensualist you wonder at first why he’s attracted to him. You do find out and are glad for it.

5. The Power Book by Jeannette Winterson. Winterson’s theme of adultery and lost love is sometimes wearying, but here it is enchanting. The power book refers literally to the laptop the writer is using, and metaphorically becomes the mind of the writer writing. Not a new approach to a story, and something I generally steer away from as narcissistic. However, Winterson makes the whole enterprise more about how the human mind and heart works rather than just how the sacred creature the writer does the sacred act of creation.

6.The Devil’s Teeth by Susan Casey. Nothing literary about this one, except that it’s written in lively, vivid prose. It’s a story about shark-watching–research off the Farallone islands near San Francisco. The Great White is the particular species of shark under investigation, and Casey is a journalist who becomes obsessed with the project. There’s a healthy meal of history, privation, and adventure with a plate of suspense for dessert.

7. With Malice Toward None–The Life of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen B. Oates. The biography is about twenty years old now, but I’m just getting to it. I hadn’t read a life of Lincoln since I read Sandburg’s long ago. It deserves all its plaudits. Of note, I think, is that Lincoln’s arguments against the Mexican War when he was in congress sound remarkably similar to today’s arguments against the Iraq invasion–bogus justification for a preemptive strike into a sovereign nation. In 1846, it was for territorial gain. In our case, for oil. I guess.

8. Team of Rivals–The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin. This one is not old, and I found it a fascinating  look at how Lincoln pulled off the old adage about keeping your enemies close to you. Every one of his original cabinet members either despised him or wanted his job. And they took every opportunity to slip a knife into his or each others’ political ribs. His ability to balance their animosities and ambitions was a major reason for his success in prosecuting the Civil War.

9.  Tales of Burning Love by Louise Erdrich. If you’ve read my blog on Erdrich, you’ll know why this is on the list. Erdrich’s cast of characters in a Faulkner-like imaginary geographical setting has assumed mythic literary proportions. This one follows the fortunes and feelings of four wives of one man, all of whom end up snowbound with one another. Sounds almost like a sit-com setup, doesn’t it? But this is Louise Erdrich, so it’s no trivial T.V. half-hour.

10. The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich Easily the funniest book I’ve read in years. But not comical in the sense that it digs deep into the psyche. Little No Horse is a reservation. The report is the last in a series of letters the resident priest has been sending to the Vatican for decades. The book explores all the mysteries that surround the incidents that are the subject of the report.

11. Disgrace by Paul Coetzee I did a blog on this one, too. In conjunction with my reading of Rushdie’s Shame. No book ever deserved a prize more than this one deserved its Booker. Prose as spare and precise as Ishiguro’s, a presence in the protagonist’s psyche as complete as McEwen’s, action and suspense worthy of a glossy-covered thriller. This is my first go at Coetzee, and I’m off for more.

12. Saturday by Ian McEwen. McEwen does more than any other writer to inhabit the profession of his characters. In this cases, he’s chose brain surgery, and according to a medical man I know, he’s done it just right. Too, he’s playing to his strength here, which is to follow the intricate patterns and processes of human thought and feeling. My main complaint about him in other works I’ve read is that in his fascination with his characters’ psyche he often wanders away from the action. Not so here. I have some minor problems with the way the plot develops, but Saturday is overall a masterful performance by an author who is undoubtedly one of the finest of the age.

 

So my ten best have morphed into twelve. I told you I was a bad record  keeper. I’ve probably left off a few that should be there, but no reader can lose with any of these, so do yourself a favor and pick one up.

 

WHO KNOWS BARRY UNSWORTH?

Few authors are as versatile as Barry Unsworth, whose works range from the Booker-winning historical novel Sacred Hunger–a thick (though enormously entertaining)
philosophical and wide-ranging exploration of capitalism and the slave trade–to  Morality Play–a medieval murder mystery–to Pascali’s Island — a story of love and intrigue on a Greek Island during the waning days of the Ottoman Empire (1912). He’s equally at home inside the head of a mentally ill reclusive (Losing Nelson) and among the gods and heroes of ancient mythology (Songs of the Kings).  You want light and funny? try After Hannibal,  a very nice little piece about life among ex-pats of various countries in rural Umbria (the path Hannibal took to Rome). He’s also done a sort of history/travelogue on Crete. Called Crete.

Unsworth hasn’t been as celebrated as some other Booker winners such as Ian McEwen and Kazuo Ishiguro, possibly because his range makes him difficult to pigeonhole. If you’re looking for an Unsworth kind of book, you won’t find it. With McEwen and Ishiguro, you have a much better idea of what you’re going to get.

You might think movie credits would help. Pascali’s Island made a very nice little film with Ben Kingsley and Helen Mirren. Morality Play became The Reckoning (albeit with a less distinguished cast), but neither was a blockbuster which made a household name out of the writer. Films don’t do that for writers anyhow, just for actors and directors.

So we have the case of one of the most powerful writers of our time confined to–well, not obscurity, but at least to a lesser status–because his versatility makes him hard to market? Could be. It wouldn’t be the first time in this benighted age that logo beat out quality.

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