“On the Art of Fiction” — Willa Cather

“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


W.G. Sebald’s Former Students Share His Writing Advice

In the fall of 2001—only a few months before his too-early death—W.G. Sebald taught a fiction workshop at the University of East Anglia. Two of the students from the workshop, David Lambert and Robert McGill have revisited their notes from that workshop and have compiled Sebald’s writing advice into a fascinating document, posted at Richard Skinner’s blog.

My favorite section:

On Reading and Intertextuality

  • Read books that have nothing to do with literature.
  • Get off the main thoroughfares; you’ll see nothing there. For example, Kant’s Critique is a yawn but his incidental writings are fascinating.
  • There has to be a libidinous delight in finding things and stuffing them in your pockets.
  • You must get the servants to work for you. You mustn’t do all the work yourself. That is, you should ask other people for information, and steal ruthlessly from what they provide.
  • None of the things you make up will be as hair-raising as the things people tell you.
  • I can only encourage you to steal as much as you can. No one will ever notice. You should keep a notebook of tidbits, but don’t write down the attributions, and then after a couple of years you can come back to the notebook and treat the stuff as your own without guilt.
  • Don’t be afraid to bring in strange, eloquent quotations and graft them into your story. It enriches the prose. Quotations are like yeast or some ingredient one adds.
  • Look in older encyclopaedias. They have a different eye. They attempt to be complete and structured but in fact are completely random collected things that are supposed to represent our world.
  • It’s very good that you write through another text, a foil, so that you write out of it and make your work a palimpsest. You don’t have to declare it or tell where it’s from.
  • A tight structural form opens possibilities. Take a pattern, an established model or sub-genre, and write to it. In writing, limitation gives freedom.
  • If you look carefully you can find problems in all writers. And that should give you great hope. And the better you get at identifying these problems, the better you will be at avoiding them.

(Via Conversational Reading; via Richard Skinner’s blog)


Does Bret Easton Ellis Consider Himself a Serious Novelist?


Do you not consider yourself a serious novelist?


I recently got into one of those weird, terrible fights writers can find themselves in with a friend who has for a long time been writing novels he can’t get published. For twenty-five years I’ve been trying to help him. He can’t rise to the occasion. He can’t write a novel because he doesn’t have the passion to write a novel. He’s writing a novel to make the money, get the film rights, become famous, whatever—all the wrong reasons. When he asked me to read the latest one, I told him, “Look, if this novel is superpassionate, and it really is about shit you’re going through, and pain, and it means the fucking world to you, by all means send it to me.” He said, “Yeah, it’s totally all those things,” and he sent it to me, and it was absolutely like all the others. I flipped out. I went ballistic on him. I said, “You never took this seriously! From the time you were twenty-three, it was always some kind of sterile exercise, like an imitation of a novel. And you never talk passionately about writers. I never hear you talk about books you’re reading. You just saw that a young writer in the eighties could make some cash from a literary novel. It was moneymaking to you.” And my friend was shocked, or pretended to be. “You know, it’s really amazing to hear you say that, Bret, because looking at your career and reading your books, I never thought you actually took it seriously. I saw your books as trendy knockoffs. I saw you as kind of a hack. I never thought you were really serious.” I mean, he’s not representative of the kind of person anyone should take seriously in literary matters, but when my friend said that, I’ll admit it gave me pause. I thought, What does it mean to be a “serious” novelist? Regardless of how my books have turned out, or how some people might have read them, I clearly don’t think I write trendy knockoffs. My books have all been very deeply felt. You don’t spend eight years of your life working on a trendy knockoff. In that sense I’ve been serious. But I don’t do lots of things that other serious ­writers do. I don’t write book reviews. I don’t sit on panels about the state of the novel. I don’t go to writer conferences. I don’t teach writing seminars. I don’t hang out at Yaddo or MacDowell. I’m not concerned with my reputation as a writer or where I stand relative to other writers. I’m not competitive or professionally ambitious. I don’t think about my work and my career in an overarching or systematic way. I don’t think about myself, as I think most writers do, as progressing toward some ideal of greatness. There’s no grand plan. All I know is that I write the books I want to write. All that other stuff is meaningless to me.

From Ellis’s Paris Review interview.

John Steinbeck on Work Habits

Mark Twain used to write in bed—so did our greatest poet. But I wonder how often they wrote in bed—or whether they did it twice and the story took hold. Such things happen. Also I would like to know what things they wrote in bed and what things they wrote sitting up. All of this has to do with comfort in writing and what its value is. I should think that a comfortable body would let the mind go freely to its gathering.

You know I always smoke a pipe when I work—at least I used to and now I have taken it up again. It is strange—as soon as a pipe begins to taste good, cigarettes become tasteless. I find I smoke fewer and fewer cigarettes. Maybe I can cut them out entirely for a while. This would be a very good thing. Even with this little change, my deep-seated and perennial cigarette cough is going away. A few months without that would be a real relief.

I have dawdled away a good part of my free time now carving vaguely on a scrap of mahogany, but I guess I have been thinking too. Who knows. I sit here in a kind of a stupor and call it thought.

Now I have taken the black off my desk again, clear down to the wood, and have put a green blotter down. I am never satisfied with my writing surface.

My choice of pencils lies between the black Calculator stolen from Fox Films and this Mongol 2 3/8 F which is quite black and holds its point well—much better in fact than the Fox pencils. I will get six more or maybe four more dozen of them for my pencil tray.

I have found a new kind of pencil—the best I have ever had. Of course it costs three times as much too but it is black and soft but doesn’t break off. I think I will always use these. They are called Blackwings and they really glide over the paper.

In the very early dawn, I felt a fiendish desire to take my electric pencil sharpener apart. It has not been working very well and besides I have always wanted to look at the inside of it. So I did and found that certain misadjustments had been made at the factory. I corrected them, cleaned the machine, oiled it and now it works perfectly for the first time since I have it. There is one reward for not sleeping.

Today is a dawdly day. They seem to alternate. I do a whole of a day’s work and then the next day, flushed with triumph, I dawdle. That’s today. The crazy thing is that I get about the same number of words down either way. This morning I am clutching the pencil very tight and this is not a good thing. It means I am not relaxed. And in this book I want to be just as relaxed as possible. Maybe that is another reason I am dawdling. I want that calmness to settle on me that feels so good—almost like a robe of cashmere it feels.

It has been a good day of work with no harm in it. I have sat long over the desk and the pencil has felt good in my hand. Outside the sun is very bright and warm and the buds are swelling to a popping size. I guess it is a good thing I became a writer. Perhaps I am too lazy for anything else.

On the third finger of my right hand I have a great callus just from using a pencil for so many hours every day. It has become a big lump by now and it doesn’t ever go away. Sometimes it is very rough and other times, as today, it is as shiny as glass. It is peculiar how touchy one can become about little things. Pencils must be round. A hexagonal pencil cuts my fingers after a long day. You see I hold a pencil for about six hours every day. This may seem strange but it is true. I am really a conditioned animal with a conditioned hand.

I am really dawdling today when what I want to write is in my head. It is said that many writers talk their books out and so do not write them. I think I am guilty of this to a large extent. I really talk too much about my work and to anyone who will listen. If I would limit my talk to inventions and keep my big mouth shut about work, there would probably be a good deal more work done.

The callus on my writing finger is very sore today. I may have to sandpaper it down. It is getting too big.

The silly truth is that I can take almost any amount of work but I have little tolerance for confusion.

From John Steinbeck’s 1969 interview in The Paris Review.

“On Getting Started” — John Steinbeck Shares Writing Tips

From John Steinbeck’s 1969 “interview” in The Paris Review (the piece reads more like a series of short writings than a conventional interview):


It is usual that the moment you write for publication—I mean one of course—one stiffens in exactly the same way one does when one is being photographed. The simplest way to overcome this is to write it to someone, like me. Write it as a letter aimed at one person. This removes the vague terror of addressing the large and faceless audience and it also, you will find, will give a sense of freedom and a lack of self-consciousness.

Now let me give you the benefit of my experience in facing 400 pages of blank stock—the appalling stuff that must be filled. I know that no one really wants the benefit of anyone’s experience which is probably why it is so freely offered. But the following are some of the things I have had to do to keep from going nuts.

1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.

2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.

3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.

4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.

5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.

6. If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.

RIP Harry Crews — A Rambling Riff on a Southern Great

Harry Crews died today at 76 in Gainesville, FL, where he lived and worked for years.

This isn’t an obituary—I’m sure  you can find them elsewhere (I haven’t looked yet, but they’ll be out there)—it’s more a riff about me than Crews. Solipsistic, narcissistic, sure. Let’s say I feel a sense of unearned pride for the man, a geographical kinship, as if some of his bloody bravura might splatter on me, anoint me, confer on me a glimpse of his strange powers. (And although I would feel this way in any case, I’ll point out that Crews and I shared the same birthday). Maybe I should wait to write, put together a detailed overview of his work, delineate a chronological progression of his life and work . . . But it’s a warm spring day in Florida, I’m three beers down, a small buzz behind my eyes, the whir of the cheap electric fans on my backporch goading me into dim golden memory . . .

I graduated high school in 1997 and went to the University of Florida in Gainesville that fall—just in time to learn that Crews had retired his position in the Creative Writing department (he was also a graduate of the university) that spring. It was disappointing for me.

I’d read a few of Crews’s blistering, blustering novels, dark comic rants about the dirty malfeasance backwood Cracker folk get into after dark, and he’d come to occupy a fabled place in my impressionable mind—a Southern answer to the Bukowski and Henry Miller books I devoured in kind.

I was 18 and dramatically naïve. I honestly thought that I was going to write a Really Great Novel, and I honestly thought that Crews was going to teach me how. In that first semester of college, the poor underpaid graduate student who led the Creative Writing class I took—a class that all but killed a desire to write creatively for years (I write “all but” because I took a second fiction writing class that was the metaphorical nail in the coffin) informed  me that Crews was no longer writer-in-residence (!), that some guy named Padgett Powell had taken up that mantle. This news dispirited me, took some of the wind out of my romantic illusions (without, y’know, properly killing them off). Maybe I’d have stuck it through the program if I thought it might end in a seminar with Crews, it’s hard to say. (I’ll also point out that it took me years to give Padgett Powell a fair read).

I won’t pretend to be sad at the death of Harry Crews: 76 is pretty old if you drank and fought and lived like that man did, and he’s already given more literature to the world than most of us could ever hope to. I was more sad at 18 to learn that I wouldn’t learn from him (not realizing at that age that reading is a way of learning). These statements seem in bad taste as I write them, but I assure you they’re not. You’re being too sensitive. But I do want to connote some reverence for the man, for his work at least, for his tales of rage and poverty, for the truth he sussed out of the swampy south.

Here’s a shift: Barry Hannah, another Southern boy whose work I’ve come to love, was not on my radar until his death in 2010. This isn’t to say I wouldn’t have found his stuff if he hadn’t died then, but I think that we all know what I’m pointing to here, the grand appraisals and reappraisals that we focus on our late writers, whose deaths might entail a second life, a life again in new readers. And Crews deserves readers: His writing is raw and jagged and ugly. It’s hard to imagine someone producing something like A Feast of Snakes or The Gypsy’s Curse today—I mean it would just be too politically incorrect I suppose. Crews is the kind of cult writer whose cult will likely grow a little now, after his death.

Starting places: The anthology Classic Crews collects Crews’s memoir Childhood, the novels Car and The  Gypsy’s Curse, as well as some essays. There’s also Florida Frenzy, an essay collection larded with sex and violence and animals. You can’t go wrong with his novel A Feast of Snakes. Well, maybe you can. It’s actually entirely possible that Crews isn’t for your faint heart or delicate sensibilities—and that’s fine. But for those intrigued, come and get the grit.

Biblioklept Interviews Novelist Lars Iyer

Lars Iyer’s first novel Spurious (Melville House) is by turns, witty, sad, and profound, and garnered serious acclaim on its release earlier this year. Spurious originated in a blog of the same name. There are two sequels on the way—Dogma should be on shelves in early 2012, and Exodus the year after. Lars teaches philosophy at Newcastle University (so it’s no wonder that Spurious reads like a discursive philosophy course by way of the Marx brothers). Lars was kind enough to talk to Biblioklept in depth about his work and writing. In addition to his teaching, writing, and blogging, you will also find Lars on Twitter.

Biblioklept: Your novel Spurious began as a blog and then was published by Melville House, a thriving indie publisher that also began life as a blog. At a recent talk you gave at the HowTheLightGetsIn philosophy and music festival, you discuss the freedom blogging allows for writers to develop their “legitimate strangeness.” Why is “legitimate strangeness” important for writers, and how does blogging help facilitate it?

Lars Iyer: Sometimes it is necessary to depart. Sometimes it is necessary to leave it all behind. That’s how I understood the act of blogging, back when I started Spurious, the blog which shares the same name as the novel.

As someone who had made some progress as an academic – a journey which implies valuable training as well as compromise and despair – I thought a kind of exodus was necessary, from existing forms of published writing. Leave it all behind!, I told myself. Leave the Egypt of introductory books and academic journals and edited collections behind. Leave the slave-drivers behind, and the sense you have of being a slave. Leave capitalism and capitalist relations behind. Leave behind any sense of the importance of career and advancement. Leave behind those relationships that are modelled on investment and return.

Sometimes a kind of solitude is necessary. You need to be alone, to regather your forces, to marshall your strength. But what is really necessary is a solitude in community. You’re on your own, depending on your own resources. But your solitude is lightened: because you know that there are others like you, who have likewise expelled themselves from captivity; because you know that others share your sense of disgust and self-disgust, that they too have gone out to the desert to do battle with the demons sent by capitalism into each of our souls; because there are others, like you, who see writing as both scourge and liberation, others who see it as a spiritual trial, others looking to destroy who they were and be reborn, and to keep themselves in rebirth.

In the end, the desert is paradise, and the world the blogger has left behind, with its whips and fleshpots, is the real desert.

Cultivate your legitimate strangeness: that was my mantra. ‘Cultivate’, because it is a struggle, a kind of asceticism. To drive the demons out, you have to know that they are there. A kind of self-knowledge is necessary – not the petty narcissism we find in the ‘misery memoir’, but a growing awareness of those forces that have constituted you, that have made you what you are. ‘Your legitimate strangeness’: ‘Your’, because it is yours, your space, the person you are, that you have become, even as you might alter this space, remake it. ‘Legitimate’ – that part of you that is not yet subsumed by capitalism, that free part of yourself that is not a slave. ‘Strangeness’ – because it must appear strange to the slaves and their masters, to everyone around you.

Why is this important to the writer? Some of us write because of our alienation. We have had no one to speak to, no friends, no conversations. There was no one around. Thoreau went to the woods to find himself. We went to our rooms. We went to literature, and philosophy, without knowing anything of literature and philosophy. We worked on our own.

There is something pathetic about this. Shouldn’t we have been fighting the world instead? Shouldn’t we have been ready on the barricades? But there were no barricades. There was no solidarity. We belonged to nothing, and had gone a little mad, a little reclusive, from belonging to nothing.

In one sense, since we lacked education, lacked culture, since our world was not one which valued the ideas and writers that we came to, our exodus was pathetic. We were imitators, play-pretending at being what we are not. We’d come too late; the party was over. We stood in the ruins, and the ruins mocked us. What could we have achieved, that had not been achieved to a much higher level before? What could we have made, that had not already been made, and much more competently, much more measuredly? We lacked the basic skills. We lacked the ability to write – even that. We lacked the breadth of culture, the breadth of scholarship.

But seen in another light, we discovered ourselves as outsiders, like those outsider artists who practiced their vocation outside of institutions. What we made was crude and simple, true — especially when compared to what went before – but it did have a certain power to affect. It had an urgency, a desperation, which might, perhaps, appeal to others. We were capable of only scraps and fragments, to be sure – dreck – but dreck marked by a moving sincerity.

I wondered – and this was the beginning of Spurious, the novel, and of its sequels – whether there was a way of folding this sense of posthumousness, of coming too late and lacking the old skills, into the practice of writing. Maybe it was time to come back from the desert, which had taught me only the extent and depth of my stupidity. Maybe it was time to write with a new kind of writing . . .

A Portrait of the Novelist as a Smiling Man

Biblioklept: That “sense of posthumousness, of coming too late” figures heavily in Spurious. Is Spurious the “new kind of writing” you are aiming for? While the book has a fragmentary, even elliptical quality, it also reminds me of novels in the picaresque tradition. What form does this new kind of writing you invoke take?

LI: Spurious is a book on its hands and knees. For me, it feels like the last book, the last burst of laughter before the world ends. But it also feels like the first one, because it has loosened the hold of the past. It says: a whole form of literary pretence is over.

Writing to a friend, in 1916, before the composition and publication of the work that would make him famous, the philosopher Franz Rosenzweig wrote, ‘My true book will appear only as an opus posthumum: I do not want to have to defend it or know about its “influence”’. He writes something similar, a year later, in another letter: ‘I will only truly speak after my death …, I place my entire life beneath the sign of that “posthumousness”’. Rosenzweig was confident that there would be a culture to evaluate his work. He was confident that there would be a place for his posthumous work among the greats – that there would still be greats, such that he might find his place among them. He was sure, in other words, that the old world would continue as it was; that there would still be master-works, still be the geniuses who wrote them, and still be the critics whose evaluations would be trusted by a general public.

A similar confidence in an author today would be a sign of delusion. Literature is one strand among many in our multi-braided culture. True, it retains something of its prestige; it is studied at universities, reviewed in serious newspapers — but it occupies an increasingly marginal role. The ‘great names’ are, for the most part, only cultural markers, ready for commercialisation (Kafka oven gloves in the tourist shop in Prague; the Brontë Balti House in Haworth; the Pride and Prejudice fully immersive interactive environment). But it is not only marginalisation that should be feared; recognition, too, should be. I think of the stupidity of documentary ‘infotainment’ on writers and artists, and rise of the vast, say-everything biography, that says nothing at all (as Mark Fisher has written, the biography is an end of history form, making the reassuring claim that ‘it was all about people’).

Literature continues. But it does so, in contemporary literary fiction, as a kind of empty form. As the anonymous blogger of Life Unfurnished has put it: contemporary literary fiction gives ‘the appearance alone of literature’; it is a genre ‘in which, for the writer, the sense of Writing Literature is dominant, and, for the reader, the sense of Reading Literature is dominant’.

Reviewing Jean-Luc Godard’s film Every Man For Himself, Pauline Kael writes, ‘I got the feeling that Godard doesn’t believe in anything anymore; he just wants to make movies, but maybe he doesn’t really believe in movies anymore, either’. Without agreeing with Kael’s assessment of Godard, I’d like to paraphrase her formulation: I think literary writers want to write literary fiction without believing in literature – without, indeed, believing in anything at all.

It seems to me that the literary gestures are worn out – the creation of character, plot, the contrivance of high-literary language and style as much as the avoidance of high-literary language and style, and the abandonment of most elements of the creation of character and plot. The ‘short, elliptical sentences’ of which the blogger of Life Unfurnished writes, the ‘absence of fulsome description’, the ‘signs of iconoclastic casualness’, the ‘colloquialisms’, the ‘lack of trajectory’, the ‘air of the incidental’: all are likewise exhausted.

What, then, is to be done? As writers, as readers, we are posthumous. We’ve come too late. We no longer believe in literature. Once you accept this non-belief, once you affirm it in a particular way, then something may be possible.

Witold Gombrowicz seems to advocating a return to older forms of literary insouciance: ‘Where are the good old days, when Rabelais wrote as a child might pee against a tree, to relieve himself? The old days when literature took a deep breath and created itself freely, among people, for people!’ But we cannot simply return to Rabelais, as Gombrowicz knew. Too much has happened! If a kind of self-consciousness is a distinguishing mark of the contemporary literary novelist, this is not something that can be relinquished altogether. The role of centuries of writing – of the rise of the nineteenth century bourgeois novel, of modernism and so on – must be marked.

But it can be marked by portraying our distance now from the conditions in which the great works of literature and philosophy were written. W. and Lars, the characters in Spurious, revere Rosenzweig. But this is also reverence for a culture that would deem Rosenzweig and his work important – a culture that is completely different from the one which W. and Lars occupy. True, they revere contemporary masters, too – the filmmaker Béla Tarr, for example – but Tarr lives far away, in very different conditions. W. and Lars occupy the world of the present, and the world that valued the ideas they value, the world that sustained those ideas and nurtured their production, has disappeared. Much of the humour of the book comes from the fact that its characters are men out of time – gasping in awe at Rosenzweig’s work at one moment, leafing through gossip magazines at another; proclaiming a great love of Kafka one minute, playing Doom on a mobile phone the next.

It is in this sense that there might appear to be an overlap between Spurious and novels in the picaresque tradition, which extends from sixteenth century Spain to the present day. Picaresque, it has been argued, appears as a result of a tension between an old world and a new one. The Spain of the first picaresque novels was in a period of difficult transition, from the stability of the medieval order to the age of a new, self-assertive individuality. Poverty and war were all around. The picaresque is produced in a world where human solidarity is lacking, and the individual no longer has a place in the world. The episodic journeys of the picaresque novel reflect the lack of coherence of its central characters, the lack of secure identity – a kind of cosmic loneliness.

Some picaresque features can be found in Spurious. The novel is episodic, and its characters lack a place in the world, even a place in history. W. and Lars play-pretend at various roles, trying on the mantle of the religious person or the philosophical thinker. W., in particular, yearns after friendship. But the characters are not roguish, as the picaro of a picaresque novel is supposed to be. W. is perfectly sincere. And picaros do not usually come in pairs.

Biblioklept: Speaking of your pair Lars and W., there’s a strong friendship there that strikes me as very realistic and actually quite moving. Reading Spurious I was reminded strongly of one of my own friendships, which is perhaps based on equal parts degradation and love. Lars and W. evoke both extreme pathos and a kind of deep existential anxiety that manifests in humor. Parts of Spurious read almost like verbal slapstick (if that metaphor can hold any water). How important is humor—what do you think the humor in Spurious is “doing”?

LI: Humour? I’m with Gilbert Sorrentino: ‘In a country such as ours we have reached a point at which there is hardly anything left to do but laugh or cry. It’s a kind of hysterical laughter, it’s strained and unreasoning laughter, or it is a morbid, bleak sobbing. I don’t think that anything is going to get changed in this country except that it’s going to become grimmer’.

Sorrentino’s referring to the USA, but he could just as well be referring to the UK. We lack the grounds for belief, for hope, for a future. There’s economic disaster — not simply the credit crunch, but neoliberalism in general: corporatisation, unemployment, job insecurity, casualisation, the privatisation of public utilities. Beyond this, there are the effects of climate change: drought and hunger, failure of whole nations, wars, migrants. The temptation of ‘morbid, bleak sobbing’ is extreme, as is the desire to drink oneself into oblivion like the barflies in Béla Tarr films.

Sometimes, it feels that there is an imposture in the very fact of being alive. It is as though getting out of bed in these terrible conditions were already an imposture, let alone trying to think or write. What can we do, really do, about the disaster? ‘To hope is to contradict the future’, Cioran says somewhere. Better to lie down and wait for the end. Better to give up before you begin.

‘I think joy is a lack of understanding of the situation in which we find ourselves’, Andrei Tarkovsky says, with marvellous ill-temper. And, on another occasion: ‘I accept happiness only in children and the elderly, with all others I am intolerant’. It’s true that joy and happiness seem ill-suited to our times, all the more in that joy and happiness are promoted in that ideology of positivity which is everywhere today. But perhaps there is a sense in which one might legitimately laugh at the apocalypse, albeit with what Sorrentino calls a ‘hysterical laughter’.

A sage in the Ramayana tells us that there are three things which are real: god, human folly, and laughter. ‘Since the first two surpass human comprehension’, he says, ‘we must do what we can with the third’. So we must laugh at folly, laugh at greed and smugness, opportunism and corruption, as eternal flaws in the human condition; laugh, and dream of a better world, knowing that it won’t come.

But this kind of laughter is too genial for me. It treats human folly as eternal, which I’m sure in many ways it is, but ignores suffering, dying, the real hell of our globalised world. And I worry that it also spares the one who laughs. True, you can laugh retrospectively at your own stupidities. What an idiot I was when I young!, you might say. But there is a broader sense in which we are, each of us, implicated in the present state of the world. It is our responsibility, in some important way. For me, to laugh sagely at one’s own foolishness is still too little.

What is the humour of Spurious doing, then? As many reviews of the novel have shown, the ‘verbal slapstick’ of the characters is part of a whole tradition of double acts and comic routines. I wanted W.’s insults of Lars to exhibit the same virtuosity as the physical humour of the Marx Brothers or Buster Keaton. I think there is a whole art of the insult. But I think something else is going in the novel, too.

Alenka Zupančič argues that comedies are never truly intersubjective. ‘[C]omedy is above all a dialogical genre’, she grants; but comic heroes are ‘extracted, by their passion, from the world of the normal intersubjective communication’. What they are really doing is seeking ‘to converse solely with their ‘it/id”’. Dialogues, in comedy, are really monologues; the hero is really only obsessed with his basic, chaos-ridden drives. As Zupančič suggests, ‘The comedy of such dialogues does not come from witty and clever exchanges between two subjects, or from local misunderstandings that make (comic) sense on another level of dialogue, but from the fact that the character is not really present in the dialogue he is engaged in’. On this account, the cruelty of the ‘verbal slapstick’ of the friendship in Spurious, which sees W. continually berating his poor friend, would actually be directed at W. himself. W., the only candidate for being the ‘comic hero’ of Spurious, would use Lars as merely the occasion for the continuation of his monologue.

But this interpretation doesn’t quite work for me, either. The ‘it’ that drives the exchanges of the characters is not only a feature of W.’s psychic makeup, of the chaos of his drives. Both characters are mesmerised by a real disaster. And both — particularly W. — are mesmerised by their partial responsibility for this disaster. The ‘strained and unreasoning’ laughter of Spurious is a response to the grimness of the world that is of our making.

Biblioklept: For me, that “strained and unreasoning” laughter is a big part of why I enjoyed the book—I identified with the characters. Spurious isn’t really, to borrow a phrase from David Shields, a “novelly-novel,” but it does have elements of a “novelly-novel” (including characters with whom some readers will strongly identify). At the same time, its short sections, fragmentary nature, and willingness to cite entire paragraphs of other texts point to a new kind of writing, one perhaps anchored in its origins as a blog. How did you compose Spurious? How does the novel differ from the blog?

LI: ‘A page is good only when we turn it and find life urging along …’, says one of Calvino’s characters in Our Ancestors. I hope that’s what a reader can find in Spurious: life urging along. I hope readers recognise something of their own friendships in that of W. and Lars. Spurious is not, I think, a ‘novelly-novel’. It’s new in some way – it has characters, some elements of plot, but it doesn’t resemble other books. And I think this is due to its origins. Blogging, and then combining different categories of posts, allowed me to discover, through editing, a new kind of novel.

Blogging demands immediacy. Telling the story of W. and Lars, I couldn’t rely on readers having followed it from the start. Every day, with my blog posts, I had to present these characters and their situation anew, and in a manner vivid enough to engage any potential reader. In doing so, I felt rather like the writer of a strip cartoon. Charles Schultz’s Peanuts had longer narrative arcs, but each sequence he published in daily newspapers had to stand on its own. Likewise with the posts at the blog. Each post had to have its own internal drama, a kind of ‘verbal slapstick’, even as it could be contained within a larger narrative arc.

My loyalty was, for a long time, to the readers of my blog, and I produced new material for them daily. But I thought some of the thematic strands developing at the blog – the trips to Freiburg and Dundee, for example, or the reflections on Kafka and on the Messiah – were being obscured by the quantity and disparateness of W. and Lars material. A selection had to be made. This is where the work of editing began, of the practice of literary montage that would lead to Spurious.

Tarkovsky, in his book about film, narrates the long process of assembling the various fragments that comprise the finished film, Mirror. ‘I am seeking a principle of montage which would permit me to show the subjective logic — the thought, the dream, the memory — instead of the logic of the subject’, he said. He was looking for a way to combine various elements – short narrative sequences, pieces of music and poetry, etc. – into a living whole.

I was doing the same thing, in my own way. Spurious is a hybrid of many elements of the blog. There was a story about W. and Lars, but also one about damp –– a real story, which I wrote about at the blog. I added quotations, too, as well as incorporating the narratives of the lives of various thinkers. And I edited until I felt that life was urging along.

Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?

LI: I have thousands of pages of photocopies, which I made, full of ardour, during my first jobs as an academic. I thought I’d never get a permanent job, and wanted to make my own library of knock-off books in my rented room. Perse, Trakl, Tsvetayeva, Duras, and so many others: no printed book could mean as much to me as my annotated duplicates.

Ezra Pound’s Composition Exercises for Young Writers

From Ezra Pound’s literary study, ABC of Reading

1. Let the pupil write the description of a tree.

2. Of a tree without mentioning the name of the tree (larch, pine, etc.) so that the reader will not mistake it for the description of some other kind of tree.

3. Try some object in the classroom.

4. Describe the light and shadow on the school-room clock or some other object.

5. If it can be done without breach of the peace, the pupil could write descriptions of some other pupil. The author suggests that the pupil should not describe the instructor, otherwise the description might become a vehicle of emotion, and subject to more complicated rules of composition than the class is ready to cope with.

In all these descriptions the test would be accuracy and vividness, the pupil receiving the other’s paper would be the gauge. He would recognize or not recognize the object or person described.

Rodolfo Agricola in an edition dating from fifteen hundred and something says one writes: ut doceat, ut moveat, ut delectet, to teach, to move or to delight.

A great deal of bad criticism is due to men not seeing which of these three motives underlies a given composition.

The converse processes, not considered by the pious teachers of antiquity, would be to obscure, to bamboozle or mislead, and to bore.

The reader or auditor is at liberty to remain passive and submit to these operations if he so choose.

“Writing Is Like a Struggle to Get Back to a Kind of Belated, Quite Impure Virginity” — Harold Brodkey on Writing

Harold Brodkey at the The Paris Review

Often writing is like a struggle to get back to a kind of belated, quite impure virginity where the issues are not entirely those of corruption and despair. Everything you know about language, writing, talking, holding an audience, everything you have theorized about what was wrong about the work of the generation before you and is wrong in your contemporaries’ work emerges in the performance stress of writing a final draft or the master draft in one sitting.

Sam Lipsyte on Teaching Creative Writing

Sam Lipsyte discusses teaching creative writing at Financial Times (yeah, Financial Times, I know).  A few excerpts–

When you teach creative writing, you are already on the defensive. People love to poke you in the chest and cry, “But you can’t teach writing!” This is precisely what I think about automobile driving but I let them rant while I rub the sore part where they poked me. I don’t know why people get so worked up about this subject. Nobody has asked them to teach creative writing or even to learn it. Apprenticeship, the sharing of history and technique, has always been a central feature of art-making. Yet people cling to a romantic idea of the self-made genius toiling away in a garret or napping undisturbed in a sleep module. . . .

You can teach sex, can’t you? Why can’t you teach writing? Most people need to be taught sex. That’s why there are books such as the Kama Sutra and The Joy of Sex, not to mention people, like your best friend’s older sister, or places, like the neighbour’s garage. Nothing’s more natural, and more dependent on natural talent for its most transcendent demonstrations, but sex is still best if taught properly. So, what’s so crazy about passing along a few literary tricks and reading tips?

Jon Lovitz’s Writing Tips

Jon Lovitz does AV Club’s Random Rules today. Here, he gives some pretty good writing advice. Context: he’s describing coming back as the host of the show in 1997, and going to the writer’s meeting on Monday. The “They” is the SNL writers–

They’d say, “We have an idea for a sketch. You’re a teacher, and the student brings you an apple.” I go, “Right.” “And then another comes in and another brings you an apple, and then another brings you an apple.” I go, “Then what happens?” They go, “No, that’s the sketch. They’re just all bringing you apples.” I said, “That’s not a sketch. That’s just a premise.” They didn’t know what I was talking about. I said, “A sketch is supposed to have a beginning, middle, and end. It’s like a movie. It’s supposed to have a story. You have a who, what, where—the beginning, and the conflict, and it builds and builds. That’s how you do improv. You’re filling in all those spots to make the scene work. It builds to a climax. Then there’s a resolution, which is the ending. It takes hours to write the ending. It’s hard to come up with them.” They just looked at me blankly.

I think the writers thought I was a jerk, because I was like, “Then what happens?” to all of it. They’d go, “That’s it.” Maybe they didn’t like that. They wrote a first draft, and, “Who are you to touch our brilliant first draft?” Writing is rewriting.