Monthly Archives: October 2013

How To Make Yourself a Legend

“Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow is the undiscovered thousand-page 1955 sci-fi magnum opus of an obscure Düsseldorf-born writer named Jacob Wallenstein: Zionist, fan of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, longtime anonymous resident of the Ginosar Hotel on Rothschild Avenue in Tel Aviv—until his death, possibly of arson-suicide, on July 20, 1969. Wallenstein’s largely plotless novel, inspired by George Orwell and in which inhabitants of the futuristic developed world sit for hours in front of blinking screens, was originally titled A Blueprint for the World in the Year 2050. Among other prophetic ideas about technology and governance, it envisioned a “Telewriter,” part typewriter, part television screen, and part telephone that allows people to communicate and exchange written messages. Almost all copies of the work, published in five cheap paperback volumes with detailed drawings and charts by an Israeli tailor turned bookseller, were lost in a fire. Yet Wallenstein deserves a place of distinction in Israeli—if not world—literature as the author of the first and most ambitious work of science fiction ever written in Hebrew.”

If your appetite, like mine, is whetted at this point, get ready to go hungry, because it turns out that Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow is not actually a book, but a diabolically effective self-marketing campaign launched by Israeli author/burgeoning PR wizard Shay Azoulay. Read Tablet Editor Matthew Fishbane’s account of the elegant hoax here and then ask yourself, can a book deal be far behind?

Weaning Myself Off of Walter White

Ever since Breaking Bad came to an end, I’ve been casting around for a great, meaty novel to lose myself in. Because, as any self-respecting compulsive reader will tell you, there’s no cure for the anguish of an ending but a new beginning. So the announcement of the winner of the Booker Prize couldn’t have come at better time.

I’m a big fan of the Booker, which tends to favor ambitious novels that emphasize readability and craft over pure artistry. The Booker comes with plenty of gravitas, but it’s sexier than, say, the National Book Award–more intent on showcasing what writer Justine Jordan calls “the sensuous pleasures of reading.”

This year’s winner The Luminaries, by (ridiculously young) New Zealander Eleanor Catton, sounds like a prime Booker title. It’s an 800-page tome that follows the exploits of a cast of characters patterned after the 12 signs of the Zodiac, who “interact with each other according to the predetermined movement of the heavens.” See: fun. The Luminaries seems like a worthy follow up to Breaking Bad, and an especially fitting choice given that its (near prepubescent) author describes herself as being “very strongly influenced by long-form box-set TV drama.”

Lady Writers Need to Get Serious, says NYT

This week’s Bookends column offers up two surprisingly clear-headed responses to a question so tired and silly that running it at all seems like a calculated decision to get readers’ panties in a twist: “Where Is The Great American Novel By a Woman.” The answer: just past your nose, Mr. Editor.

Unraveled

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion famously wrote. So what happens when the story you tell yourself about who you are gets blasted to pieces by a betrayal that calls everything into question? According to Psychiatrist Ana Fels, it leads to a kind of prolonged and harrowing unraveling:

Insidiously, the [realization they have been profoundly misled] disrupts their sense of their own past, undermining the veracity of their personal history. Like a computer file corrupted by a virus, their life narrative has been invaded. Memories are now suspect: what was really going on that day? Why did the spouse suddenly buy a second phone “for work” several years ago? Did a friend know the truth even as they vacationed together? Compulsively going over past events in light of their recently acquired (and unwelcome) knowledge, such patients struggle to integrate the new version of reality. For many people, this discrediting of their experience is hard to accept. It’s as if they are constantly reviewing their past lives on a dual screen: the life they experienced on one side and the new “true” version on the other. But putting a story together about this kind of disjunctive past can be arduous.

This article is well worth the read: a powerful reminder of just how much the stories we tell ourselves define our lives.

VS

This week over on Twitter, the always fabulous and often voluble Elissa Schappel got into a skirmish with a few writerly folks over the age old question: short stories vs novels. Those who know Schappel, one of the founders of Tin House, won’t be surprised to hear that she is squarely in the short story camp.

If you ask me, it’s cruel to make people to choose. But we all have our preferences and mine happens to be for novels. I’m not making a value judgement here. I get it: short stories are tiny Rube Goldberg machines. To work, every piece of a story must be perfectly calibrated and polished to a high shine. There is no room for messiness or error. One misfire and the entire thing shudders to a halt. As a writer, I’m neither precise nor smart enough to pull this off with any kind of regularity, and I’m gobsmacked by people who can. The best short stories are feats are of technical wizardry. A great story does something a novel can’t: it pins down one moment in time, like a butterfly on a cork board, to reveal its true beauty and profundity.

All that said, I’d still rather have Middlemarch on my desert island. Why? Not because novels are better, certainly. Novels are inherently flawed things. The sheer space they offer guarantees that their authors will make missteps. They contain too many moving parts to be put together as neatly as a short story, but the breadth of the novel offers authors freedoms that a short story can’t. For me, art’s primary role is not to wow me or even to transport me, but “to give clear expression to half formed thoughts,” as Alain De Botton once wrote paraphrasing Alexander Pope. In my view, the novel does this better. Novels can take the time to evolve more organically, meandering down alleys of consciousness that might otherwise be ignored. They can give voice to a richer collection of half formed thoughts, because they can afford to be less choosy about what they include.

I also love the ambition of novels. Novel writing is a form a windmill tilting. The novelist is attempting to impose a framework on life, to lend it a sense of order and coherence that both they and their readers understand to be nonexistent, but that we all crave. They undertake this effort knowing from the start that their efforts are futile, but hoping that the attempt will be beautiful and true enough to offer their readers some relief from the chaos, a perch in the storm. As Roberto Bolano wrote: a big, meaty novel is a “great, imperfect, torrential [thing that] blaze[s] paths into the unknown.” Heading down these paths is one of the biggest satisfactions reading delivers.

Then again, you really shouldn’t have to choose.

Blind Spots

Meryl Streep on how men remain reluctant to immerse themselves in the mindset of women:

I watch movies and I don’t care who is the protagonist, I feel what that guy is feeling. You know, if it’s Tom Cruise leaping over a building I, I want to make it, you know? And I’m going to, yes, I made it. And yeah, so I get that.

And I’ve grown up, well, partly because there weren’t great girls’ literature. Nancy Drew maybe. But there weren’t things. So there was Huck Finn and Spin and Marty. The boys’ characters were interesting and you lived through them when you’re watching it. You know, you’re not aware of it but you’re following the action of the film through the body of the protagonist.

You know, you feel what he feels when he jumps, when he leaps, when he wins, when he loses. And I think I just took it for granted that, you know, we can all do that. But it became obvious to me that men don’t live through the female characters.

I’ve been thinking about this quote since reading about David Bowie’s Top 100 list of all-time favorite books–a list that includes a whopping 14 female writers. 14%, people. Okay, let’s bump it up to 15% since a couple of the titles listed are collections or magazines and we can assume they included the work of some female writers (though if VIDA has it right, probably a fairly small percentage). Still: 15%? Really? And this from a gender bending pioneer. Ugh.

Let’s set aside the gender politics here for a second, because there are smarter people than me addressing that stuff (again, see VIDA). I just want to consider this from an artistic perspective. We all read, presumably, to expand our empathetic imaginations. What I want to know from my male contemporaries–dedicated readers and writers–is why so many of them still seem so resistant to spending a significant amount of time in a female consciousness? Doesn’t a continued failure to do this suggest a woeful lack of curiosity?

No, you can’t mandate taste, but you can recognize your blind spots and learn to address them. In fact, this seems like part of the artistic job description, no?