Also: Link (=his most recent interview with Terry Gross, the last minute of which is heartbreakingly heartfelt).
I’ve read most of Jonathan Franzen’s essay collection “How to Be Alone” over the course of the past week, and one of the overarching themes of the book, aside from the rather obvious “reading teaches you how to be alone, dummy,” is a certain earnest sadness about the decline of the novel. It’s a sadness I share, even if my reading patterns have very much skewed nonfiction for the past decade. Franzen laments that when we haven’t turned to movies, teevees, iPhones, and Internet porn in place of the novel, we’ve turned to memoirs and personal essays. The “serious” novel — whose publication is seen as cultural event — is doomed. There won’t be another “Catch-22,” or another “Old Man and the Sea.” When an exception pops up (Franzen’s own, more recent “Freedom,” e.g.), it only cements the point: “serious” novels have been turned into novelties.
I work for a company that sells donated books on the Internet. I sift through book donations on the regular. I’ve seen and dealt with tens of thousands of books. Probably hundreds of thousands. No. Definitely hundreds of thousands. In that time, I’ve seen David Foster Wallace books precisely twice, and I brought them home both times (perk of the job). I’ve seen “Freedom” enough that I was able to get two different copies of its first printing and keep the nicer one for myself, while giving the lesser to my probable-future-brother-in-law (sorry, PFBIL!) for Christmas. Where was I going with this again?
Oh right. People don’t read “serious” novels anymore, says Franzen. They read James Patterson and Danielle Steel. And memoirs. Aside from the occasional breakout hit like “The Shipping News,” it’s memoirs and mass markets all the way down. Our collective imagination — the manifestation of our cultural capacity to be alone — is suffering as a result. Or so it’s argued, broadly speaking. Franzen wants us to learn to be alone again, and the key is to read more “serious” literature. “Of course he does,” you say, “He hawks ‘serious’ fiction. What novelist wouldn’t want a coordinated ICBM nuclear strike on Comcast and Verizon and DirecTV, and whoever else out there happens to be in the cable business?” (The
writer speaker admits to not having cable, and therefore being better than you.) “What novelist wouldn’t want the memoir to be banned? THEY’D SELL MORE FUCKING BOOKS THAT WAY! Bonanza! Domino, motherfucker!”
(I should be clear that I’m probably misremembering this rueful emphasis on the memoir replacing the “serious” novel and that I’m too lazy to look it up right now. I don’t think it’s as bad as I make it out to be, though. I kept reading the essays, anyway. They’re pretty good. [And yes, that was me covering my ass in case Jonathan Franzen's wife, following in the footsteps of Marjorie Walsh's Creeper Husband, has a Google News alert set up for her spouse, and is going to come into my comment section to defend her better half, guns blazing.])
At any rate.
Though I personally would blame Frank McCourt (or, hell, even Jack Kerouac) for the current preference for memoir over fiction in American literary sensibilities, there’s a really great essay over at The American Scholar that suggests that the real villain is our boy F. Scott Fitzgerald. Consider:
The publication of the “Crack-Up” essays looks now like a sharp pivot, marking a fundamental change in American consciousness and therefore in narrative voice, an evident moment when the center of authorial gravity shifted from the “omniscience” afforded by fiction’s third person to the presumption (accurate or not) of greater authenticity provided by the first-person voice with all its limitations.
Whitman had set American poetry on this road a few generations earlier: the voice of “Song of Myself” belongs to a lyric essayist, contending with himself and his time, using the personal self as the representative of the national type, fusing the individual to history. And the presence of faux memoirists as narrators in American fiction—including Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, Hemingway’s own Nick Adams, and before that the narrators of Huckleberry Finn and Moby-Dick—also betrays a preference for the first-person voice.
The “Crack-Up” essays are a similar poetic project. Fitzgerald’s strangled cry in them makes clear that a lyric impulse links the personal essay with poetry, even though essays are a prose form and seem to pose a chronic scourge (or companion) to their apparent kin—narrative fiction. In fact, the essay inhabits an intermediate territory between story and poem. That may be its fundamental appeal. Tell a story and then think about it—all in the same work.
And this is what I think Franzen fails to understand about the appeal of memoir. It’s strange that he wouldn’t: he creates characters for a living, and memoir is simply creating a believable character who also happens to be the narrator. Fundamentally, memoirs are fiction with a whiff of truth. Fundamentally, that is, they’re stories. The goal of a story is to speak to people truthfully, not to tell them the straight dope. I don’t care if James Frey pulled “A Million Little Pieces” out of thin air and then pretended it was true. I don’t feel violated, cheated, or dishonored when a writer elides over uncomfortable facts, or makes up entirely new ones, in the service of a story. A story that doesn’t lie is boring, a laundry list, the minutes of your meeting. Outside of journalism, when I read I want the reality to be tangible; I don’t care a bit about whether it’s verifiable.
Which is a long way of saying that “serious” literature, whether “based on a true story” or entirely fabricated, should probably be judged by a uniform standard, and we ought not worry so much about facts, when the matter at hand is truth.
Anyhow, go read this.
Michel Houellebecq, the French writer whose novels address sex tourism, sado-masochism and cloning, failed to show up for a scheduled reading tour of the Netherlands and Belgium and cannot be reached by his publishers.
“We really don’t know what is happening,” said Barbara Simons, a spokeswoman for Het Beschrijf, the literary organization that arranged the tour. “It’s bizarre. There has been no news and he hasn’t arrived.”
Simons said neither Houellebecq’s French publisher, nor his agent, nor his translator knows where the 53-year-old writer is.
(H-T to @SachikoMurakami)
I just got to the part in the Savage Detectives where (SPOILER ALERT) Ulises Lima (a writer and one of the two loci of the plot) turns up again in Mexico City two years after having disappeared from Managua. Seems a good omen, no? Counterpoint: Houellebecq is prone to psychotic depression and has the radical Islamist fringe in Europe pissed at him. Radical Islamists would sooner make a spectacle, I think, than disappear someone tho. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.
In the mean time, check out this LA Weekly interview from a few years back (I can’t remember how I came across it). Immediately after I first read it in the summer of 2005 I ran to the used book store near the apartment I was staying in at the time and found Atomized (“Les Particules élémentaires“) which upset me deeply and became my favourite book for a while. Not sure if I’d like it as much if I read it again.
“How are you feeling?” I asked.
“Well, uh, I am feeling, hmm . . . tired,”he replied softly.
He squinted at me vaguely, as if pained by the white glare of the enormous billboard across the street advertising a new Disney movie. Smoke drifted out of the side of his mouth, and an inch of drooping ash fell silently onto the sleeve of his old blue windbreaker, which was spotted with white paint. Though he was nominally the center of attention, his movements and speech were so minimal it took a certain amount of concentration to remember he was there.
It was the night before the French referendum on the new EU constitution. What did Houellebecq think? Everyone leaned forward to hear his opinion.
“Well, hmm . . . It’s complicated . . . I don’t know, really,” he said, his voice barely audible above the hum of traffic. “Maybe democracy is out of control? Maybe we need another kind of system? I don’t know, it’s interesting. Why not?”
With his virtuosic repertoire of “ums” and “ers” and “hmms” and long silent pauses accompanied by frequent puffs on his ever-present cigarette, Houellebecq can dramatize the process of thinking as few novelists can. But there were times when, at the conclusion of all that process, no discernible thought appeared to have resulted. Perhaps it had something to do with the amount of alcohol he had consumed, his shaky grasp of English and sly comic sensibility.
Update: I remembered another great interview with him — The Paris Review’s. Highlight:
The other thing I’ve noticed [about the Anglo-Saxon world] is that men and women are more separate. When you go into a restaurant, for example, you often see women eating out together. The French from that point of view are very Latin. A single-sex dinner would be considered boring. In a hotel in Ireland, I saw a group of men talking golf at the breakfast table. They left and were replaced by a group of women who were discussing something else. It’s as if they’re separate species who meet occasionally for reproduction. There was a line I really liked in a novel by Coetzee. One of the characters suspects that the only thing that really interests his lesbian daughter in life is prickly-pear jam. Lesbianism is a pretext. She and her partner don’t have sex anymore, they dedicate themselves to decoration and cooking.
Maybe there’s some potential truth there about women who, in the end, have always been more interested in jam and curtains.
And men? What do you think interests them?
Little asses. I like Coetzee. He says things brutally, too.
Maybe he’s been kidnapped for reeducation by radical humanist feminists.
My honest best guess is that he’s chosen a discreet suicide or he’s found a woman he really likes having sex with who really likes having sex with him and they’ve just been in some hotel room booked under her name having sex and getting room service for the past few days.
Update II: They might have found him! He apparently just forgot about the tour and wasn’t paying attention to his phone/e-mail.
Update III: They probably found him. Google Translate’s version:
The French writer Michel Houellebecq is the necessary actions after his French publisher Flammarion detected. The publisher announced that Arbeiderspers Thursday.Photo: ANPHe was unreachable for some time. Houellebecq was attending promotional days in the Netherlands and Belgium about a recently published translation of one of his books.In response tells the writer to have forgotten the appointment. Houellebecq as a time not had access to telephone and email, messages could not reach him.
I’m about a third of the way into the book and haven’t watched the below for fear of both tweeness and spoilers, but in case you’re interested …
Update by Tom: Ahem.
My dear friend Liz met me in front of her apartment two hours after I’d arrived in the city. We talked about our love lives–or lack thereof–over two beers at a swanky bar. We bought chicken and mushrooms and shallots and scallions, went back to her apartment, made risotto and green salad. It was the best meal I’d had since the Central Time Zone. She read me a poem by Frank O’Hara called something like “Having A Coke With You,” which made me feel wistful and regretful and envious and tired all at once. And then it was nine o’clock. I gave Liz a hug and drove to my brother’s apartment. We went to a bar called Moonshine to meet up with my dear friend Maura, and while there a man named Eric decided that he wanted to fight me. Apparently I had gotten in the way of his sister’s game of darts while en route to the bathroom. He seated himself at our table. He talked trash. I had my hand on my knife the whole time.
From my old spot. What can I say? It’s a good poem.
“I am the Emperor!” cried Harrison. “Do you hear? I am the Emperor! Everybody must do what I say at once!” He stamped his foot and the studio shook.
“Even as I stand here” he bellowed, “crippled, hobbled, sickened – I am a greater ruler than any man who ever lived! Now watch me become what I can become!”
Harrison tore the straps of his handicap harness like wet tissue paper, tore straps guaranteed to support five thousand pounds.
Harrison’s scrap-iron handicaps crashed to the floor.
Harrison thrust his thumbs under the bar of the padlock that secured his head harness. The bar snapped like celery. Harrison smashed his headphones and spectacles against the wall.
He flung away his rubber-ball nose, revealed a man that would have awed Thor, the god of thunder.
“I shall now select my Empress!” he said, looking down on the cowering people. “Let the first woman who dares rise to her feet claim her mate and her throne!”
A moment passed, and then a ballerina arose, swaying like a willow.
Harrison plucked the mental handicap from her ear, snapped off her physical handicaps with marvelous delicacy. Last of all he removed her mask.
She was blindingly beautiful.
In college, I had the chance to read it in a survey of Russian literature with Richard Pevear, renowned scholar and translator of Russian literature, and I blew it. The classroom was dark and musty with enormously high ceilings and a chipped crown molding of fleurs de lys. I took a seat at the front, read the syllabus, and spent the next hour shrinking against my chair as Pevear tossed around phrases like Pre-Soviet Literary Moral Anxiety and Tolstoyan Anarcho-Pacifist Christian Philosophy. At the end of his lecture, I shuffled out with the rest of the class, made a beeline for the Registrar, and dropped Russian lit. I never even opened a text.
If I had, and certainly if that text had been Anna Karenina, I would have taken the class. Instead, I spent the next four years suspiciously eyeballing words like “crime” and “punishment” and “war” and sometimes even (I’m not proud of this) “peace.” I was legitimately scared of Russian literature. I had Russian friends and would have eaten blinis with jam ‘til the serfs came home, but I couldn’t bring myself to read even one text from one of the most renowned bodies of world literature. And then one day, I did the intellectually honorable thing and judged a book by its cover.
I’ve been judging books by their covers since coming across Jamberry as a small child. I was probably three before I was conscious of the merits of this classic children’s book: before this, I’m assuming I left book selection to my parents or babysitters. But Jamberry — lord, with all those colors, the plumpness of the berries, the jolly smile on that bear…what a cover! I loved it. And because I loved it, I made my father read it to me. Again, and again, and again. Oh, that dancing bear with all his silly berry fêtes! I remember thinking, Wow, what a delicate canopy of sophisticated magical realism Bruce Degen has managed to drape across a narrative that is otherwise suffused with the kind of striking — if paradoxical — ebullient melancholy that so often abounds in children’s literature. Or something along those lines. Point is, Jamberry was a damn good book, and my three-year-old self might never have known it if the cover hadn’t been so eye-catching.
The cover-judging continued throughout my youth. There was the Boxcar Children series, with its book jackets of smiling, whitebread orphans; glossy Anne of Green Gables paperbacks tolling the majestic hills of Prince Edward Island; Bridge to Terabithia with its haunting, apocalyptic-looking tree. They were gems, all of them, and I was a happy reader well into my teens, even when the ending of Walk Two Moons (cover: die-cut Kentucky mountains crowned by two glowing orbs) left me sobbing in my darkened kitchen at 11:00 pm on a school night.
I’ll admit there was a time when I thought that things could be different. I began, around the age of 16, to consider myself A Liberal, and suddenly, the idea that “you can’t judge a book by its cover” became a whole lot less laughable. That’s right, I found myself thinking. You can’t! So I started to select my fiction based not on covers, but, rather, by the descriptions on the back.
It was a risky move, judging books by the content of their, well, content, and in the end it was an utter failure. The books with the good covers — I can remember reading The Great Gatsby and A Confederacy of Dunces at this time (both with excellent, albeit graphically different, cover art) — were a hit. But the books with the crappy covers just didn’t sit well. Take, for example, my relationship with J.D. Salinger. I had recently read Catcher in the Rye (great cover, the one with the billowing outline of a horse that looks like it could have been drawn by Alphonse Mucha, or a kindergarten prodigy), so I decided to move on to another work by the same author. I went to my high school library, picked up a copy of Franny and Zooey, and headed home to read.
It was, you can imagine, a disaster. First of all, the cover was terrible: a blank white expanse embellished only by the insulting diagonal rainbow and harsh black font trademarked by mass-market Little Brown paperbacks. And I just couldn’t get into the story. I felt bored, my attention un-tugged; I had expected the first page to exert the same magnetic force as had Catcher in the Rye, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t even make it to Zooey.
I’m not suggesting that Franny and Zooey is a bad work of literature. In fact, what’s most interesting about this anecdote is that I reread Franny and Zooey just a few years later and I actually liked it. The 1994 Penguin edition conforms to Salinger’s minimalist design ideals while still sporting a much more agreeable cover, what with the presence of the color green. Whether my final affection for Franny and Zooey has to do with me being a more mature reader at this later date I’d rather not dwell on, lest it disrupt my thesis that books with bad covers suck. Instead, I’d like to posit that good books with bad covers can deteriorate in quality just by visual association, much in the same way that attractive people with ugly friends never get laid.
But then along came Anna Karenina, the most layable cover I’ve met. I found it while thumbing through the collection of a book vendor in New York’s Washington Square, and ohh, what beauty. A vintage edition Airmont Classic: Anna stands regally in the foreground, her hair a mess of sketchy, coal-colored curls, while Vronsky looks on stormily behind her, his otherwise towering presence complicated by the sad figure of Karenina in the background. I saw that cover and I saw it all — the passion that would unfold beneath those snow-capped Russian roofs, the mortality of Anna’s delicate hand clutching its fur muff. I bought the book, read it in two days, and my relationship with Russian Literature hasn’t been the same since. Anna Karenina is an amazing book.
Tolstoy captures the complicated rift between our visceral and socialized selves like Vermeer captured the light over the rooftops at Delft — that is to say, prodigiously. As only a virtuoso can. And the cover adorning the Airmont Classic vintage edition of his masterpiece is probably the reason.
“Fuck,” “nigger,” and the Three-Fifths clause. Let’s jump right in, shall we?
Rule number one in Hollywood: if you speak in a British accent, you are a Very Serious Actor. Rule number two: if your movie is about the trials and tribulations of British people, it is a Very Serious Picture.
As such, few people (other than Tom) were surprised when The King’s Speech earned wins last Sunday in four of the Academy’s major-est categories: Best Picture, Best Actor (Colin Firth), Best Director (Tom Hooper), and Original Screenplay (David Seidler).
Having been recognized as a Very Serious Picture by so many entities (The Academy, Brutish&Short, etc.), you’d expect that the final product would be fairly safe from tampering, no?
Firth is perplexed by plans to release a curse-free version of The King’s Speech. He says he doesn’t know any viewer who has been offended by the movie’s colorful script.
In the film…Firth’s stuttering George VI is seen learning to overcome his speech issues by pronouncing profanities.
He tells The Associated Press, “I don’t take this stuff lightly, but in the context of this film, it could not be more edifying, more appropriate. It’s not vicious, it’s not an insult or it’s not in any of the contexts which might offend people. Really, it’s about a man who’s trying to free himself through the use of certain words. I still haven’t met the person who would object, so I think the film should stand as it is.”
Perhaps I haven’t been paying attention the last 100 years, but since I’ve finally come to believe that talkies are here to stay, this strikes me as a terrible idea — perhaps even unprecedented (maybe? counterexample?). It’s one thing for the most expensive pornographic film of all time to release an R-rated version (not a reasonable thing, by any means — I mean, where’d all the vaginas go, right? — but it’s still “one thing”). It’s another thing to cause an entire legion of Star Wars fans to remind you over and over again that, the first time around, Han shot first. But to take a Very Serious Picture with a quartet of Oscars to its name and revise one of its major (and historically accurate) plot points in order “to release a family-friendly version alongside the existing R-rated version” is drunkenly misguided.