May 24, 2013
“On the Art of Fiction” by Willa Cather
One is sometimes asked about the “obstacles” that confront young writers who are trying to do good work. I should say the greatest obstacles that writers today have to get over, are the dazzling journalistic successes of twenty years ago, stories that surprised and delighted by their sharp photographic detail and that were really nothing more than lively pieces of reporting. The whole aim of that school of writing was novelty—never a very important thing in art. They gave us, altogether, poor standards—taught us to multiply our ideas instead of to condense them. They tried to make a story out of every theme that occurred to them and to get returns on every situation that suggested itself. They got returns, of a kind. But their work, when one looks back on it, now that the novelty upon which they counted so much is gone, is journalistic and thin. The especial merit of a good reportorial story is that it shall be intensely interesting and pertinent today and shall have lost its point by tomorrow.
Art, it seems to me, should simplify. That, indeed, is very nearly the whole of the higher artistic process; finding what conventions of form and what detail one can do without and yet preserve the spirit of the whole—so that all that one has suppressed and cut away is there to the reader’s consciousness as much as if it were in type on the page. Millet had done hundreds of sketches of peasants sowing grain, some of them very complicated and interesting, but when he came to paint the spirit of them all into one picture, “The Sower,” the composition is so simple that it seems inevitable. All the discarded sketches that went before made the picture what it finally became, and the process was all the time one of simplifying, of sacrificing many conceptions good in themselves for one that was better and more universal.
Any first rate novel or story must have in it the strength of a dozen fairly good stories that have been sacrificed to it. A good workman can’t be a cheap workman; he can’t be stingy about wasting material, and he cannot compromise. Writing ought either to be the manufacture of stories for which there is a market demand—a business as safe and commendable as making soap or breakfast foods—or it should be an art, which is always a search for something for which there is no market demand, something new and untried, where the values are intrinsic and have nothing to do with standardized values. The courage to go on without compromise does not come to a writer all at once—nor, for that matter, does the ability. Both are phases of natural development. In the beginning the artist, like his public, is wedded to old forms, old ideals, and his vision is blurred by the memory of old delights he would like to recapture.
The Borzoi, 1920
April 27, 2013
“A Happy Wanderer” by Joseph Conrad
Converts are interesting people. Most of us, if you will pardon me for betraying the universal secret, have, at some time or other, discovered in ourselves a readiness to stray far, ever so far, on the wrong road. And what did we do in our pride and our cowardice? Casting fearful glances and waiting for a dark moment, we buried our discovery discreetly, and kept on in the old direction, on that old, beaten track we have not had courage enough to leave, and which we perceive now more clearly than before to be but the arid way of the grave.
The convert, the man capable of grace (I am speaking here in a secular sense), is not discreet. His pride is of another kind; he jumps gladly off the track—the touch of grace is mostly sudden—and facing about in a new direction may even attain the illusion of having turned his back on Death itself.
Some converts have, indeed, earned immortality by their exquisite indiscretion. The most illustrious example of a convert, that Flower of chivalry, Don Quixote de la Mancha, remains for all the world the only genuine immortal hidalgo. The delectable Knight of Spain became converted, as you know, from the ways of a small country squire to an imperative faith in a tender and sublime mission. Forthwith he was beaten with sticks and in due course shut up in a wooden cage by the Barber and the Priest, the fit ministers of a justly shocked social order. I do not know if it has occurred to anybody yet to shut up Mr. Luffmann in a wooden cage.I do not raise the point because I wish him any harm. Quite the contrary. I am a humane person. Let him take it as the highest praise—but I must say that he richly deserves that sort of attention.
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April 25, 2013
The paralleli of the achievements of Borges and Calvino are mostly obvious, the relevant anti-parallelino doubt likewise. To begin with, both writers, for all their great sophistication of mind, wrote in a clear, straightforward, unmannered, nonbaroque, but rigorously scrupulous style. ”. . . crystalline, sober, and airy . . . without the least congestion” is how Calvino himself describes Borges’s style (in the second of his Six Memos for the Next Millennium, the Norton lectures that Calvino died before he could deliver), and of course those adjectives describe his own as well, as do the titles of all six of his Norton lectures: “Lightness” (Leggerezza) and deftness of touch; “Quickness” (Rapidita) in the senses both of economy of means and of velocity in narrative profluence; “Exactitude” (Esatezza) both of formal design and of verbal expression; “Visibility” (Visibilita) in the senses both of striking detail and of vivid imagery, even (perhaps especially) in the mode of fantasy; “Multiplicity” (Molteplicita) in the senses both of an ars combinatoria and of addressing the infinite interconnectedness of things, whether in expansive, incompletable works such as Gadda’s Via Merulana and Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities or in vertiginous short stories like Borges’s “Garden of Forking Paths”—all cited in Calvino’s lecture on multiplicity; and “Consistency” in the sense that in their style, their formal concerns, and their other preoccupations we readily recognize the Borgesian and the Calvinoesque. So appealing a case does Calvino make for these particular half-dozen literary values, it’s important to remember that they aren’t the only ones; indeed, that their contraries have also something to be said for them. Calvino acknowledges as much in the “Quickness” lecture: ”. . . each value or virtue I chose as the subject for my lectures,” he writes, “does not exclude its opposite. Implicit in my tribute to lightness was my respect for weight, and so this apology for quickness does not presume to deny the pleasures of lingering,” etc. We literary lingerers—some might say malingerers—breathe a protracted sigh of relief.
Read the rest of John Barth’s essay “The Parallels!”.
March 16, 2013
I was happy to get an advance copy of Matt Bell’s forthcoming novel In the House upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, because I like titles with lots of prepositions. No, actually, Bell’s novella-in-vignette’s Cataclysm Baby was one of my favorite new books of 2012. Here’s the pub blurb for House:
In this epic, mythical debut novel, a newly-wed couple escapes the busy confusion of their homeland for a distant and almost-uninhabited lakeshore. They plan to live there simply, to fish the lake, to trap the nearby woods, and build a house upon the dirt between where they can raise a family. But as their every pregnancy fails, the child-obsessed husband begins to rage at this new world: the song-spun objects somehow created by his wife’s beautiful singing voice, the giant and sentient bear that rules the beasts of the woods, the second moon weighing down the fabric of their starless sky, and the labyrinth of memory dug into the earth beneath their house.
This novel, from one of our most exciting young writers, is a powerful exploration of the limits of parenthood and marriage—and of what happens when a marriage’s success is measured solely by the children it produces, or else the sorrow that marks their absence.
You can read my interview with Matt here and excerpts from House at Matt’s site.
January 5, 2013
I got a little lax with these “books acquired” posts at the end of last year—chalk it up to end of semester deadlines and meetings, family-oriented holiday stuff, and an awful illness. Anyway–
Mike Chasar’s Everyday Reading: Poetry and Popular Culture in Modern America, new from Columbia University Press is pretty cool: it’s kind of a dialogic study of how poetry evinces (or infiltrates or collides or emerges from or is bound by) a variety of popular media. Some of the most fascinating chapters dwell on scrapbooking. Here’s Columbia U of P’s blurb:
Exploring poetry scrapbooks, old-time radio show recordings, advertising verse, corporate archives, and Hallmark greeting cards, among other unconventional sources, Mike Chasar casts American poetry as an everyday phenomenon consumed and created by a vast range of readers. He shows how American poetry in the first half of the twentieth century and its reception helped set the stage for the dynamics of popular culture and mass media today.
Poetry was then part and parcel of American popular culture, spreading rapidly as the consumer economy expanded and companies exploited its profit-making potential. Poetry also offered ordinary Americans creative, emotional, political, and intellectual modes of expression, whether through scrapbooking, participation in radio programs, or poetry contests. Reenvisioning the uses of twentieth-century poetry, Chasar provides a richer understanding of the innovations of modernist and avant-garde poets and the American reading public’s sophisticated powers of feeling and perception.
A couple of snaps from the book—pics of pages from one of those scrapbooks—
September 15, 2012
“Clara,” a short story by Roberto Bolaño:
She had big breasts, slim legs, and blue eyes. That’s how I like to remember her. I don’t know why I fell madly in love with her, but I did, and at the start, I mean for the first days, the first hours, it all went fine; then Clara returned to the city where she lived, in the south of Spain (she’d been on vacation in Barcelona), and everything began to fall apart.
One night I dreamed of an angel: I walked into a huge, empty bar and saw him sitting in a corner with his elbows on the table and a cup of milky coffee in front of him. She’s the love of your life, he said, looking up at me, and the force of his gaze, the fire in his eyes, threw me right across the room. I started shouting, Waiter, waiter, then opened my eyes and escaped from that miserable dream. Other nights I didn’t dream of anyone, but I woke up in tears. Meanwhile, Clara and I were writing to each other. Her letters were brief. Hi, how are you, it’s raining, I love you, bye. At first, those letters scared me. It’s all over, I thought. Nevertheless, after inspecting them more carefully, I reached the conclusion that her epistolary concision was motivated by a desire to avoid grammatical errors. Clara was proud. She couldn’t write well, and she didn’t want to let it show, even if it meant hurting me by seeming cold.
(Read the rest at The New Yorker)
February 7, 2012
Haley Tanner’s acclaimed novel Vaclav & Lena is new in trade paperback (excellent cover on this one, by the bye). From Page Pulp’s review:
You could try to categorize this book as a love story or an immigrant story, but it is really simply a human story. Like life itself, it can be sometimes funny, sometimes awkward (like the scene where Vaclav’s father walks in on him getting out the tub and makes a wrong assumption about what Vaclav was doing), sometimes happy, sometimes sad, and yes, sometimes incredibly dark. It reflects the human experience so well, but never feels cliché. Tanner’s prose has a simplicity that mimics the characters’ imperfect English. She creates beauty with her words, but is never too flowery. This allows the story to shine through, unobscured. Her characters almost do not seem like characters; after awhile they start to feel wondrously real, like you could reach out and touch Lena’s messy black curls. Tanner is adept at shaping both the story and the characters so that they feel realistic.
December 18, 2010
“Welcome,” a short story by Deb Olin Unferth, published in Vice’s annual fiction issue. A sample–
I finally figured it out and I said it: You want me to leave?
I said this because I did have small evidences. The day before they had gotten a little meaner, one of them especially, the bigger one, the one who had earlier been my champion. But I didn’t understand. I had been having such a nice time. I was bewildered. Why did they suddenly not love me?
And then the next morning it happened again. The big one had a mean look on his face. The other figured she didn’t need to have an ugly look on her face because the big one was taking care of it, so she could just stand to the side and look on, bemused. But I was so stupid, I still didn’t understand. I looked at the littler one as if to say, Why is he acting this way?
November 2, 2010
Peter Lundren animates a sentence from Ben Stroud’s short story “Byzantium,” published in Electric Literature No. 4. Music by William “Lucky” Lee.
The sentence reads: “There I would watch others taking their pleasure—keeping to the shadows, my hand hidden, as I studied a chariot racer leaning into a prostitute, her leg wrapped round his torso, or libertines goading a gilded crocodile in the bearpit, their bodies slurred by powders from the east.”
October 4, 2010
Download The Chamber Four Fiction Anthology. From their website–
This anthology contains 25 of the best short stories published on the web in 2009 and 2010 as chosen by the editors of ChamberFour.com, a website dedicated to making reading more enjoyable and more rewarding.
In this collection, you’ll find traditional, Carver-esque stories alongside magical realist tales of teleportation, long pieces that slowly pull you in, and single-page punches to the solar plexus. Some of these authors you’ve heard of, others you’ll be discovering for the first time, and you can be sure you’ll see them all again.
There is no factor that unifies the pieces collected here beyond their availability online and that hard-to-define but unmistakable hallmark of quality. These stories are as diverse and as wide in scope as the Internet, but each is true to their shared subject: the attempt to reconcile our world to the struggles of the human soul.
This anthology is DRM-free and free to download. Anybody charging for it is ripping you off.