3:am Magazine has published an interview with novelist Jason Schwartz. Schwartz’s latest, John the Posthumous, is my favorite book of 2013. In the interview, Jason Lucarelli talks with Schwartz about John the Posthumous, his experiences with Gordon Lish, and teaching writing. The final answer of the interview though is my favorite moment—it reads like a wonderful and bizarre microfiction. Here it is, sans context:
This comes to mind: long ago, in New York, I taught middle school for a year. Rough and tumble sort of place. Lots of mischief, and no textbooks, as these had all been lost or destroyed or thrown out into a courtyard, where—I may be revising the memory slightly—there was a great pile of books, a pile nearly one story high. So it was upon the teacher to scratch out lessons on the blackboard. This was transcription, the transcription of many items, all these chapters from the absent books. And once this had been accomplished, once the blackboard had been covered with words, first thing in the morning, it was upon the teacher to guard the blackboard all day. So what to do when the fistfight breaks out? You know how people gather around. The teacher now fears the press of bodies, and the tendency of bodies to smudge, or even erase, words. Stop the fight or protect the blackboard? This seemed to me, at the time, the central educational dilemma. If you’re lucky, the fracas is close by, and you might arrange things accordingly—one hand here and one hand there, finding yourself in various complicated postures. I never managed that to successful effect. And perhaps all this explains why, in the old country, contortionists were always thought the best schoolteachers. Anyway, Mr. O’Riley’s room has been set afire in the meantime, or Mrs. Wilson has been trampled in the stairwell. The day would pass in that fashion, and then I would go home and write about postage stamps and Judas Iscariot.
“Fiction” by Carl Shuker
So there was a US novelist, permanently relocated to the UK some years back for an MFA, now mid-list, mid-career and “between books”, thirty-mid-something, author of two well-received novels and a less-well-received book of short stories, product of a labor of ten years on and off, and thus at the quintessential time and place to stall, creatively, who was that kind of writer who worked from emotion thence into intellect and, if he was successful, back once again into emotion, “evoked.“
And he came to the Lebanon looking to be bitten by the dragonfly.
Emotion > intellect > emotion. From the dream to the text to the dream. In practice this meant the not-so-youngish writer knew his subject when it hurt his heart, when it obsessed him and seemed too painful and the hardest thing at which to look. Then the writer knew he would have the dark, acidic energy it took to compose, edit, destroy, recompose, re-edit, polish and eventually finish, after years, a novel something like the kind of novels he loved and aspired to create, the books that made him want to become a writer in the first place. This method, which he fell into rather than chose, in the messy process of finding one’s way as a writer in his twenties, meant that by his early thirties the writer had published first one deliberately thinly veiled book of first-person late-adolescent horror, which counted, for its relative success, on the frisson of a patchwork of à clef-ish links with his own life and on making his own weaknesses—inexperience and naiveté—part of the material, and had published second one semi-immense “follow-up” or “sophomore effort”, as critics who hadn’t read the first book always wrote, a terrific shambling thing that during the long three years of its composition veered in his imagination from being a bloated, confused, constant evasion of a real book, a shadow of the kind of book it aspired to be, to being sometimes briefly the most amazing thing he’d ever read, like, ever; structured, strong, urgent, inevitable; the writer being thrilled and dazzled it’d come out of himself, then brutally depressed and miserable at its derivativeness and the puniness of his talent and by extension his soul, his self. And so how he’d done it (coming back to the MO thing), how he’d surmounted the hugeness and endlessness of the task and this bipolar crippling self-doubt and corresponding occasional massively inflated sense of self-importance was with the choice of a subject so tough, so big and hard, so new, that he had a kind of duty to it; a duty that transcended his own comfort and his own ego. A duty to the world. A subject that humbled and steeled. The second book was published to polite notices but bigger papers and a year or so of peace for the writer, and then the award of a one-year fellowship slash residency at a red-brick university like the one he’d graduated from (in crea writ, natch; the MFA) wherein the writer was immediately expected to write again. Having drawn on his childhood and his adolescence, having spent most of his twenties writing or thinking about writing while not publishing anything, the writer was immediately wary of being seen, by imagined peers, by his remembered brutal adolescent reading self with its impossible but definitive demands, of having sold out or trying to be commercially big, not cool or hard or true or essential, so he carved out a book of singular and odd semifuturistic short stories and a novella that linked them all, in a hazy darkness of second-novel-hangover and fellowship-paid-for Scotch, a clutch of one-night-stands compared to the love affairs of the first books, and worked really hard while never really, really loving these new small strange things, never adoring them like he did the books he’d had to summon forth forces for that were old and presymbolic and frightening. He had an office and stuff, and people knew he was a writer. This hadn’t happened before.
And then he got a job teaching creative writing.
“A Note on Realism” by Robert Louis Stevenson
Style is the invariable mark of any master; and for the student who does not aspire so high as to be numbered with the giants, it is still the one quality in which he may improve himself at will. Passion, wisdom, creative force, the power of mystery or colour, are allotted in the hour of birth, and can be neither learned nor simulated. But the just and dexterous use of what qualities we have, the proportion of one part to another and to the whole, the elision of the useless, the accentuation of the important, and the preservation of a uniform character from end to end—these, which taken together constitute technical perfection, are to some degree within the reach of industry and intellectual courage. What to put in and what to leave out; whether some particular fact be organically necessary or purely ornamental; whether, if it be purely ornamental, it may not weaken or obscure the general design; and finally, whether, if we decide to use it, we should do so grossly and notably, or in some conventional disguise: are questions of plastic style continually rearising. And the sphinx that patrols the highways of executive art has no more unanswerable riddle to propound.
In literature (from which I must draw my instances) the great change of the past century has been effected by the admission of detail. It was inaugurated by the romantic Scott; and at length, by the semi-romantic Balzac and his more or less wholly unromantic followers, bound like a duty on the novelist. For some time it signified and expressed a more ample contemplation of the conditions of man’s life; but it has recently (at least in France) fallen into a merely technical and decorative stage, which it is, perhaps, still too harsh to call survival. With a movement of alarm, the wiser or more timid begin to fall a little back from these extremities; they begin to aspire after a more naked, narrative articulation; after the succinct, the dignified, and the poetic; and as a means to this, after a general lightening of this baggage of detail. After Scott we beheld the starveling story—once, in the hands of Voltaire, as abstract as a parable—begin to be pampered upon facts. The introduction of these details developed a particular ability of hand; and that ability, childishly indulged, has led to the works that now amaze us on a railway journey. A man of the unquestionable force of M. Zola spends himself on technical successes. To afford a popular flavour and attract the mob, he adds a steady current of what I may be allowed to call the rancid. That is exciting to the moralist; but what more particularly interests the artist is this tendency of the extreme of detail, when followed as a principle, to degenerate into merefeux-de-joie of literary tricking. The other day even M. Daudet was to be heard babbling of audible colours and visible sounds.
Yesterday on Twitter, Teju Cole shared a series of definitions—some ironic, some
hilarious funny, all perceptive.
SUNSET. Beautiful. Like a painting. Post on Instagram and hashtag "no filter."—
Teju Cole (@tejucole) August 27, 2013
The series of definitions immediately reminded me of Ambrose Bierce’s sardonic work The Devil’s Dictionary, but Cole later tweeted that he had Gustave Flaubert’s Le Dictionnaire des Idées Reçues (The Dictionary of Received Ideas) in mind as a model.
So, this has been more a matter of Flaubert's Dictionary of Received Ideas than Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary (or Johnson, or Twain).—
Teju Cole (@tejucole) August 27, 2013
Cole reiterated Flaubert’s influence again when he published the tweets today at The New Yorker under the title “In Place of Thought“—a little sample:
AMERICAN. With the prefix “all,” a blonde.
CHILDREN. The only justification for policy. Always say “our children.” The childless have no interest in improving society.
HILARIOUS. Never simply say “funny.”
HIP HOP. Old-school hip hop, i.e., whatever was popular when you were nineteen, is great. Everything since then is intolerable.
HIPSTER. One who has an irrational hatred of hipsters.
INTERNET. A waste of time. Have a long online argument with anyone who disagrees.
JAZZ. America’s classical music. The last album was released in 1965.
LITERALLY. Swear you’d rather die than use “literally” as an intensifier.
POET. Always preceded by “published.” Function unknown.
Bonus—from Flaubert’s Dictionnaire:
BLACK – Always preceded by “pitch”.
CHILDREN – Affect a lyric tenderness towards them, when people are about.
INTRODUCTION — Obscene word.
LITERATURE — Idle pastime.
METAPHORS — Always too many in poems. Always too many in anybody’s writing.
OPTIMIST — Synonym for imbecile.
POETRY — Entirely useless; out of date.
THINK (TO) — Painful. Things that compel us to think are generally neglected.
RIP Richard Matheson, 1926-2013
Thanks for so many great stories.
1. A hint of a story,–some incident which should bring on a general war; and the chief actor in the incident to have something corresponding to the mischief he had caused.
2. A sketch to be given of a modern reformer,–a type of the extreme doctrines on the subject of slaves, cold water, and other such topics. He goes about the streets haranguing most eloquently, and is on the point of making many converts, when his labors are suddenly interrupted by the appearance of the keeper of a mad-house, whence he has escaped. Much may be made of this idea.
3. A change from a gay young girl to an old woman; the melancholy events, the effects of which have clustered around her character, and gradually imbued it with their influence, till she becomes a lover of sick-chambers, taking pleasure in receiving dying breaths and in laying out the dead; also having her mind full of funeral reminiscences, and possessing more acquaintances beneath the burial turf than above it.
4. A well-concerted train of events to be thrown into confusion by some misplaced circumstance, unsuspected till the catastrophe, yet exerting its influence from beginning to end.
5. On the common, at dusk, after a salute from two field-pieces, the smoke lay long and heavily on the ground, without much spreading beyond the original space over which it had gushed from the guns. It was about the height of a man. The evening clear, but with an autumnal chill.
6. The world is so sad and solemn, that things meant in jest are liable, by an overpowering influence, to become dreadful earnest,–gayly dressed fantasies turning to ghostly and black-clad images of themselves.
7. A story, the hero of which is to be represented as naturally capable of deep and strong passion, and looking forward to the time when he shall feel passionate love, which is to be the great event of his existence. But it so chances that he never falls in love, and although he gives up the expectation of so doing, and marries calmly, yet it is somewhat sadly, with sentiments merely of esteem for his bride. The lady might be one who had loved him early in life, but whom then, in his expectation of passionate love, he had scorned.
8. The scene of a story or sketch to be laid within the light of a street-lantern; the time, when the lamp is near going out; and the catastrophe to be simultaneous with the last flickering gleam.
9. The peculiar weariness and depression of spirits which is felt after a day wasted in turning over a magazine or other light miscellany, different from the state of the mind after severe study; because there has been no excitement, no difficulties to be overcome, but the spirits have evaporated insensibly.
10. To represent the process by which sober truth gradually strips off all the beautiful draperies with which imagination has enveloped a beloved object, till from an angel she turns out to be a merely ordinary woman. This to be done without caricature, perhaps with a quiet humor interfused, but the prevailing impression to be a sad one. The story might consist of the various alterations in the feelings of the absent lover, caused by successive events that display the true character of his mistress; and the catastrophe should take place at their meeting, when he finds himself equally disappointed in her person; or the whole spirit of the thing may here be reproduced.
11. Two persons might be bitter enemies through life, and mutually cause the ruin of one another, and of all that were dear to them. Finally, meeting at the funeral of a grandchild, the offspring of a son and daughter married without their consent,–and who, as well as the child, had been the victims of their hatred,–they might discover that the supposed ground of the quarrel was altogether a mistake, and then be wofully reconciled.
12. Two persons, by mutual agreement, to make their wills in each other’s favor, then to wait impatiently for one another’s death, and both to be informed of the desired event at the same time. Both, in most joyous sorrow, hasten to be present at the funeral, meet, and find themselves both hoaxed.
13. The story of a man, cold and hard-hearted, and acknowledging no brotherhood with mankind. At his death they might try to dig him a grave, but, at a little space beneath the ground, strike upon a rock, as if the earth refused to receive the unnatural son into her bosom. Then they would put him into an old sepulchre, where the coffins and corpses were all turned to dust, and so he would be alone. Then the body would petrify; and he having died in some characteristic act and expression, he would seem, through endless ages of death, to repel society as in life, and no one would be buried in that tomb forever.
14. Canon transformed to church-bells.
15. A person, even before middle age, may become musty and faded among the people with whom he has grown up from childhood; but, by migrating to a new place, he appears fresh with the effect of youth, which may be communicated from the impressions of others to his own feelings.
16. In an old house, a mysterious knocking might be heard on the wall, where had formerly been a door-way, now bricked up.
17. It might be stated, as the closing circumstance of a tale, that the body of one of the characters had been petrified, and still existed in that state.
18. A young man to win the love of a girl, without any serious intentions, and to find that in that love, which might have been the greatest blessing of his life, he had conjured up a spirit of mischief which pursued him throughout his whole career,–and this without any revengeful purposes on the part of the deserted girl.
19. Two lovers, or other persons, on the most private business, to appoint a meeting in what they supposed to be a place of the utmost solitude, and to find it thronged with people.
20. Some treasure or other thing to be buried, and a tree planted directly over the spot, so as to embrace it with its roots.
From Nathaniel Hawthorne’s American Note-Books.