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Master bashing

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Henry_James.jpgAn odd aspect of the writer's ego is that, despite the size, it's so, so, so easily bruised.  For reasons I don't quite understand, having another critique one's work can be excruciating - it feels a profoundly personal attack, despite all attempts at "creating distance" or remaining stoic.  And the experience can be debilitating beyond the immediate pain it causes: careless critiques can savage one's motivation to write.  A related problem is the bizarre frequency with which utter incompetents undertake to "offer their opinions" - as if the author should care - and (because of the aforementioned ready-bruising issue) cause damage disproportionate to their importance.

I was intrigued to see Colm Toíbín depict exactly such a scene (apparently, the temerity of incompetents is timeless) in The Master, his novel about Henry James.  Towards the end of The Master, Henry's brother William - an alpha-male with, nonetheless, probable good intentions (that mask probable unconscious jealousy or insecurity) - lashes into Henry about his style and his subjects:  "I believe that the English can never be your true subject.  And I believe that your style has suffered from the strain of constantly dramatizing social insipidity.  I think also that something cold and thin-blooded and oddly priggish has come to the fore in your content."  (p. 316.)  

William's prescription is for Henry to write an historical novel about the Puritan founding fathers of the United States, a project that, in William's eyes, is an appropriate antidote to the stuffy British subject matter that has hitherto occupied his brother.  In response, Henry does what all writers have to learn to do: he stands up for himself against William's incursion.  "'May I put an end to this conversation,' Henry said, 'by stating clearly to you that I view the historical novel as tainted by a fatal cheapness.'"  (p. 317.)
Gulp.  Historical novels tainted by a fatal cheapness?  But I'm in the midst of writing a historical novel.  Was it really necessary for Henry James to stand up for himself at the expense of putting me down?   How am I to carry on when as esteemed a critic as Henry James finds the endeavor "humbug"?  Wait, wait, not Henry James, but Colm Toíbín's depiction of Henry James . . . but still, Colm Toíbín is a pretty esteemed critic himself: what if he believes that historical novels are tainted by a fatal cheapness?  But, but, but Colm Toíbín wrote an historical novel: The Master!  Right.  But that doesn't mean that he doesn't think that his own historical novel isn't tainted by a fatal cheapness - authors can be tough on their own work, after all . . . merde alors: Henry James is dead; Portrait of a Lady was overwritten, Isabel's character was under-developed, and the plot was contrived; and The Master was slow, not to mention plotless.  Onward with my historical novel!

(Image of Henry James courtesy of The Guardian, image of Colm Toíbín also courtesy of The Guardian

What do women want (from an author)?

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In Self-Help, Lorrie Moore's first short story collection, she seems to know that plot is not her strong suit.  In the story "How to Become a Writer," the narrator's high school teacher comments, "you have no sense of plot."  (p. 119.)  In her college creative writing seminar, the narrator's teacher comments, "You have, however, a ludicrous notion of plot."  (p. 121.)  Later, her classmates urge her to "think about what is happening.  Where is the story here?"  (p. 123.)  

For my own part, I wish she would've taken their advice.  I read for plot, and I don't buy that "character is plot."  Character is character and plot is plot, and the two are no more interchangeable than a spark plug and a carburator.  Still, I accept authors as I find them:  if Self-Help is any example, Lorrie Moore isn't an author you read for plot.

And I wonder if this characteristic, too - like her lack of ideas - is part of the explanation of her popularity with readers, particularly women readers.  Plot = action = men, just as much as ideas = intellect = men (which is to say, those are false equations from my perspective, but mine may be the minority).  Could it be - this many years after universal education, feminism and Madeline Albright - that NO plot + NO ideas = massive popularity with women?

Penny for your . . . well, feelings?

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Lorrie_Moore.jpgI have a sinking feeling that Lorrie Moore's popularity is connected with her lack of ideas.

Maybe I'm being unfair.  I've only read Self-Help, her first story collection.  But it's a wasteland of ideas.

"How to Be an Other Woman," the opening story, contains some memorable writing, but in terms of ideas - being a mistress is a position short on dignity; the guy is in it for the sex - the story offers nothing new.

"The Kid's Guide to Divorce," the third story, isn't even well written (it's a pointless interlude included in the collection on the basis of deeply questionable judgment) and makes the entirely unenlightened point that talking to your mom about your visit with your dad and his girlfriend isn't easy.

"How to Talk to Your Mother (Notes)" doesn't even qualify as a story from my perspective.  A list of half-page recountings of significant events over the years (in reverse chronological order), "How to Talk to Your Mother" is animated by the idea that communication with your mom is a challenge, and that the inevitable failures on both sides will infiltrate your life in elliptical and poetic ways.

"How to Become a Writer" is a tiresome hit piece about the inanity of creative writing classes.  Hardly a fresh take on the process of training writers.

If this collection is any example, Lorrie Moore is a kind of anti-Joan Didion.  Whereas Joan Didion is a "brain in a box," Lorrie Moore is a body in search of a brain.  Her writing - which (although it's obviously not to my taste) is (equally) obviously good - focuses on the visceral: the creeping way a "cold man" can crater your enjoyment of life ("What Is Seized"), the persistence of sexual desire in the throes of cancer ("Go Like This"), the physical and emotional suffering caused by a husband's infidelity ("To Fill").  In Self-Help, Moore is interested in portraying a state or condition - if it's a familiar state or condition, easily recognizable and accessible for the reader, all the better.

For this reason, Lorrie Moore is a "serious" writer who is nonetheless easy to read.  Her prose can be enjoyed without any troubling cerebral engagement to spoil the escapism and, in light of the ubiquitous female protagonists, women can nod agreeably at the way Moore's scenarios resonate with their own experiences.  Female readers needn't appreciate the quality of Moore's writing to appreciate that the stories make them feel part of a community - "heard" - as if they'd been gossiping with a sympathetic friend.

This audience response doesn't diminish Moore's stature as a good writer.  But it reflects a poor use of a good writer by a reading public that probably doesn't know what to do with her.  Perhaps Moore should have written a story about "How to Become a Reader."

(Image courtesy of The Telegraph)

A literary version of the Surgeon General's warning

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Smoking_Kills.jpgJoan Didion's authorial voice is distinctive: compelling, direct, succinct . . . and not very likable.  Having now read The Year of Magical Thinking, A Book of Common Prayer and assorted book reviews in The New York Review of Books, I am confident that anything she's written is worth reading, thought-provoking and intelligent . . . but I'll never consider her a "favorite."

Her authorial voice is, I believe, at the root my withholding of affection.  She has the equivalent of "smoker's voice" for authors.  The content, style and command of language can all impress, but the sound is too thin and raspy to resonate.   

Damage not to her (metaphoric) lungs, but to her (actual) viscera may be the culprit underlying the lack of vibrancy to her authorial voice.  Didion reads like a "brain in a box": her writing is so top-heavy cerebral that "cold" and "distant" seem as inadequate descriptors as they would be of Pluto.

Ultimately, readers need a balance of cerebral and emotional in writing before an author's words-on-the-page manifest as the voice of a human with whom we can sympathize.  That transformation doesn't happen for me with Didion.  At the close of a piece by her, I always think, "Interesting," but any further interest I'll have in composition will be only the curiosity as to why I can't honestly say that I like the author.

(Image courtesy of Berkeley University Visualization CS294-10 Fall 08 wiki)   

Note to Self

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Having become excited about Henry James by Alan Hollinghurst's infectious enthusiasm for James in The Line of Beauty, I for some reason decided, instead of reading Henry James, to read Colm Toíbín's The Master, a biography of Henry James in novel form.

I cannot explain why this course of action seemed the logical expression of my interest in James' novels.  

I was disappointed by The Master, finding James the man less than his work.

Unfair, of course, to James; I cannot think of a single artist who isn't less than his or her work.

Unfair, as well, to Toíbín, whose achievement in The Master cannot credibly be criticized for not being one by Henry James.

No option, I'm afraid, but to pick up a novel by James.  I just wish Portrait of a Lady hadn't been so long and, I can't help thinking, contrived . . . .
Two major themes animate Joan Didion's A Book of Common Prayer: (1) the fine line between telling stories to rationalize our world and deluding ourselves, and (2) the way the personalities (and specifically the problem of ascertaining a person's motive) create ambiguities intolerable to a storyteller. 

Grace Strasser-Mendana, the narrator of A Book of Common Prayer, tells the story of Charlotte Amelia Douglas - a "delusional" woman (p. 1) who doesn't "make enough distinctions" (p. 1), who "dreams her life" (p. 21), whose life (dreamed or otherwise) is "unexamined" (p. 112).  Or so Grace begins the story thinking; by the end, she's not so sure:

All I know now is that when I think of Charlotte Douglas walking in the hot night wind toward the lights at the Capilla del Mar I am less and less certain that this story has been one of delusion.
p. 272. 

This doubt is courtesy of Grace's growing appreciation, as she tells Charlotte's story, of a crucial similarity between the women: their lack of success in dealing with the "personalities" in their lives.  "Personalities" in A Book of Common Prayer complicate the problem of determining motive and, therefore, the morality of action.  Grace is open about her inability to manage this ambiguity:

[As an anthropologist, I] did extensive and well-regarded studies on the rearing of female children in the Mato Grasso . . . and still I did not know why any one of these female children did or did not do anything at all.
Let me go further.
I did not know why I did or did not do anything at all.
As a result, I "retired" from that field . . . and took up the amateur study of biochemistry, a discipline in which demonstrable answers are commonplace and "personality" absent. 
(p. 12.) 

Secure in her biochemistry pursuits, having reduced the ambiguity factor in her life to acceptable levels, Grace looks down on Charlotte until she realizes that Charlotte's "delusions" serve the same role as Grace's biochemistry experiments: they cut down the ambiguity.  Charlotte's sentimental, inconsistent and childish "delusions" are neither more nor less than the stories Charlotte tells herself to make sense of the world, a process that - far from indicating mental illness - is sane, rational and universal. 

Indeed, Grace's own process of storytelling is no broader or less idiosyncratic than Charlotte's.  Where Charlotte favors sentiment, Grace favors science; the inconsistencies in Charlotte's stories find their twin in the doubts and unreliabilities that Grace flags in her own; the childish flavor to Charlotte's stories is occupied, in Grace's, by seriousness. 
On the surface of the text - although latent in Grace's conscious narration - is the fact that Grace has mistaken Charlotte's stories for delusions because Charlotte's stories tackle head-on a thorny issue that Grace has chosen to elide: maternal response to an unlovable, criminal child. 

Charlotte's daughter Marin is a Weather Underground-style revolutionary on the lam, while Grace's son Gerardo plays Latin American coup politics like backgammon and "is lost to" her. (p. 20.)  Grace has had "to learn how to make conversation by day and avoid it in the dark, how to pretend . . . that [her] indifference to [Gerardo's] presence derives from [her] being asleep, or in pain, or hallucinating."  (p. 55.)  Grace's son, like Charlotte's daughter, is a type of terrorist, and Grace's avoidance and suppression of her crushing disappointment and dissolution of maternal love encompasses a rejection and belittling of Charlotte's response to an entirely too similar predicament.

What Grace cannot deny, however, is Charlotte's heroism: performing a tracheotomy, standing up to a military official who stole cholera vaccine that she was administering, caring for her hydrocephalic baby girl until she died in Charlotte's arms, rescuing health-care workers in the aftermath of an clinic bombing.  These actions evince Charlotte's courage and willfulness and give her death a "hopeful" (p. 1) valence: Charlotte chose the death she wanted - at the end of a gun wielded by a guerrillero stand-in for Marin (this death being Charlotte's acceptance of Marin's unconditional rejection).

Grace would never make the same choice.  Nonetheless, without entirely understanding Charlotte, Grace is constrained to respect what she recognized as an unquestionably decisive, unambiguous - non-delusional - and final response to a "personality."  Reluctantly, Grace beings to release her judgment of Charlotte, as Grace gains an understanding that her own choices are only questionably - if that - superior to Charlotte's.  As Warren, Charlotte's tyrannical and destructive first husband (one of the book's many challenging male "personalities"), writes in a letter found on his dead body, "You were both wrong but it's all the same in the end."  (p. 259.) 

Although she doesn't come out and say it, Grace comes to agree: it's all the same in the end, scientific Grace and delusional Charlotte, choosing death (Charlotte) and accepting that it wastes you (Grace, who has pancreatic cancer).  The problem of reducing ambiguity to the point where moral action is possible does not admit of a single solution, and our defensiveness in the face different approaches is redeemed by our recognition of courageous conviction when it occurs, however abhorrent the circumstances to us. 

Without knowing that she would end with this acceptance, Grace instinctively begins A Book of Common Prayer by bearing witness - "I will be her witness" (p. 1) - a form of assent, of seconding, of agreement that these women are unable to find with the personalities in their lives.  That Grace concludes the novel saying, "I have not been the witness I wanted to be" (p. 272) is a finish as hopeful for Grace as Charlotte's was for her. 

(Photo of Joan Didion from Random House)

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