Wednesday, August 26, 2009

"Writing a Novel is Pathetic" and Essays from 6,000 B.C.

Packing up to return to Flint tomorrow, I'm reflecting on some of the pleasant reading my summer afforded me. There were afternoons when I got to read for three hours straight before heading out for my 4:30 walk to the Korean Bell -- it was a luxurious and restful daily ritual.

Above are two I particularly enjoyed: How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely, and the massive The Lost Origins of The Essay edited lovingly by John D'Agata.

Hely's rollicking account of a kid who sets out to trick the system by writing a best-selling novel (how hard could it be?), thereby getting even with his ex-girlfriend and humiliating her at her wedding, to which she has smarmily invited him, starts out farcical but despite itself, begins to move into what I'm going to say is actually a sneakily serious consideration of the state of literature, publishing and even the creative writing world of academia (his excruciating description of a "workshop" at a made-up college in Billings, Montana is so close to the mark I had to turn away in shame until I could wrestle myself back into denial and go back to laughing). There are many hilarious quotes. Here's one:

Sadly a memoir wasn't an option for me, because my youth had been tragically happy. Mom never had the foresight to hit me or set me to petty thieving or to enlist us in a survivalist cult. I wasn't even from the South, which wouldn've bought a few dozen pages. Lying wouldn't work; these days memoir police seem to emerge and make sure you truly had it bad. And the bar for bad is high -- reviewers have no patience for standrad-issue alcoholics and battered wives anymore.

And this, about a certain myth to which many of us succumb:
When you think of the great writers, penning a novel seems terribly romantic. You think of F. Scott Fitzgerald, a Riviera breeze billowing his curtains and the sounds of the Cap d'Antibes street cut by the tapping of his typewriter, as he lacerates the rich and dreams of the past. Or Hemingway, in a hotel in Palmplona in the heat of the afternoon, as bullfighters take their siesta and drops of water bead on a bottle of kirsch. Or Joyce, squinting his Irish bead-eyes as he lends his classical training and his Gaelic imagination to summon up allusie rhythms and language dense and unfolding.
Even lesser novelists seem glamorous. Some scribbler burning twigs in a boardinghouse in the second arrondissemet as he dips his quill pen into the ink. Or a slim and shoeless thirty-something, taking a year off from his job as an alternatie marketing onsultant to sit in a park in Vancouver to Park Slope and type into his PowerBook a wry yet soulful take on the paradozes of hypermoderity.
That is all delusion. Writing a novel is pathetic and boring. Anyone sensible hates it. it's all you can do to not play Snood all afternoon.

Despite his revulsion, the character's novel ends up on the best seller's list -- and then all the trouble begins. Interestingly, Hely's skewering satire has not made it to the best-seller's list -- at this writing he's at 5,191. Not bad really, for a novel about a novel whose smartassed author we like through it all.

Then, the huge essay collection -- which despite its avoirdupois seems quite approachable and readable. D'Agata, a creative writing teacher from the University of Iowa, has assembled with gusto and affection a collection of "creative non-fiction" going all the way back to fragments of prose uncovered from 6,000 years ago. After noting in his introduction that even the earliest pieces of prose were rooted in commerce, he queries, "Do we read nonfiction in order to receive information, or do we read it to experience art?" And his collections answers, "I am here in search of art. I am here to track the origins of an alternative to commerce....compelled by individual expression--by inquiry, by opinion, by wonder, by doubt."

In a season when all we read and hear about is failing banks, daunting and horrifying deficits, and rancorous arguments about how to pay for health care, this collection comes as a relief -- and reminder that there's another, more graceful side to human prose expression. Maybe, as in the last entry, a brilliantly concise piece by John Berger titled "What Reconciles Me," there is within us redemption.

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