Tuesday, December 27, 2005
Editors, handwritten books, cabin fever
The editor has one of the toughest (and most pleasurable and rewarding) of jobs in publishing, keeping happy maybe a hundred wonderful, emotional, fractious, headstrong writers, people who are putting their lives and their careers on the line in their writing. That’s real management. Authors are not employees who can be whipped into line with a threatened P45; they are understandably demanding and anxious and life enhancing.Next up, the Islamic Republic of Iran. They've got nuclear capabilities, they've got a Holocaust denier for a president--and they've got more handwritten books than anybody else in the world. According to this piece on the IranMania site, the accumulated collections at the Iran National Library, Ayatollah Marashi Library and a number of other private libraries have now hit the 400,000 mark, beating out the previous contender (Turkey, with a meager 300,000 volumes.)
Opportunist, friend, champion, textual wizard; the editor has not diminished but on the contrary grown mightily. And there are many who achieve this complicated high-wire act magnificently.
Finally, a notable bargain on a prewar studio, with exposed beams and a working fireplace. Yes, according to Stephen Manning's AP article, Uncle Tom's cabin has been sold:
In the brisk Washington real estate market, the white colonial was an easy sale--three bedrooms, easy access to a major commuting route and an acre of land, a rarity in the tightly packed suburbs. However, the 18th-century house had one thing the McMansions could never claim--the original Uncle Tom's cabin.As you can see in the photo, the cabin, made of split oak beams, is attached to the side of the house. It was once occupied by Josiah Henson, the model for Harriet Beecher Stowe's character, although Henson displayed little of Uncle Tom's famous subservience: he escaped to Canada with his family via the Underground Railroad in 1830, and later founded a settlement for fugitive slaves in Dresden, Ontario. The entire property has been purchased by Maryland's Montgomery County, with an eye to preserving the historical landmark in a seemly fashion. "We don't want it to turn into a dentist's office," said Peggy Erickson, executive director of a local heritage agency.
The last year seemed to yield an especially strong and variegated crop of nonfiction. On the biographical front, there was Peter Guralnick's Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke (Little, Brown), as definitive a treatment as we're likely to see of the Thomas Edison of soul music. In his manic and marvelous Trawler: A Journey Through the North Atlantic (Knopf), Redmond O'Hanlon achieved the impossible: He made ichthyology funny. Equally amusing was William Logan's The Undiscovered Country: Poetry in the Age of Tin (Columbia University Press), in which our wittiest critic of contemporary verse let loose one lethal shaft after another ("like," to borrow his characterization of Randall Jarrell, "a cobra with manners"). New York City got the red-carpet treatment from two very different writers in Jed Perl's New Art City (Knopf) and Ian Frazier's Gone to New York (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), while Tom Piazza produced a no-less-ardent valentine to his adopted hometown in Why New Orleans Matters (Regan Books). And then there was The Letters of Robert Lowell (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), nearly 700 pages of suave, scintillating, gossipy, heartbreaking prose and portraiture. "I can see us all being written up in some huge book on the age," a weary Lowell wrote to Theodore Roethke in 1963--well, here it is.Needless to say, I overlooked several favorites. Let me now add Tom Bissell's God Lives In St. Petersburg, Marina Lewycka's A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, Aldo Buzzi's The Perfect Egg, Ismail Kadare's The Successor, and (because I'm extremely original) Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. And let me also suggest that visitors click through to the entire Newsday round-up, where they can read fave raves by the likes of Kerry Fried, Maud Newton, Samuel Freedman, Claire Dederer, and Scott McLemee.
As for fiction, I tended to steer clear of the familiar names and concentrated on new faces. I admired the snappy delivery of Elizabeth McKenzie's Stop That Girl (Random House) and the comic, campy overkill of Adrienne Miller's The Coast of Akron (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Alix Ohlin brought the desiccated landscape of Albuquerque to life in The Missing Person (Knopf), while Lisa Selin Davis performed a similar service for down-at-the-heels Saratoga in Belly (Little, Brown). And finally, there was one Old Master who compelled my awed attention: Richard Stern. His career-spanning Almonds to Zhoof (Triquarterly) is one long display of linguistic fireworks, exquisitely timed and endlessly illuminating.
Thursday, December 22, 2005
Dr. Kinsey, I presume
I liked it anyway. It also brought to mind this passage from Gore Vidal's Palimpsest (a book that reconciles the heroic and comic aspects of the author's life much more successfully than I would have expected). Vidal, as we all know, met every important American of the last century and bonked quite a few of them. When he encountered Kinsey, he was in the early phase of his career and may still have fallen short of the canonical mille-e-tre we keep hearing about in Don Giovanni. He certainly gets an A for effort, though. The year is 1948, and we're at the Astor Hotel:
I can now see Dr. Kinsey as he walks me to the steps that connected the mezzanine to lobby. He is a gray-faced man who always wears a polka-dot bow tie. He looks uncommonly tired and has not long to live. Yet he is only fifty-four. He never stops conducting his interviews, all questions and answers, in code. Mrs. Kinsey is concerned about his overworking. "Ever since he took up sex," she is quoted as saying, "I never see him."Mrs. Kinsey's quip appears in the movie, as does the perpetual bow tie. Kinsey himself had eight more years to live, but his incessant paddling in the ocean of eros may well have given him a look of exhaustion. Water, water, everywhere... (To read my 2000 interview with Vidal, which pretty much steers clear of the boudoir, click here.)
Dr. Kinsey was intrigued by my lack of sexual guilt. I told him that it was probably a matter of class. As far as I can tell, none of my family ever suffered from that sort of guilt, a middle-class disorder from which power people seem exempt. We did whatever we wanted to do and thought nothing of it. Kinsey told me that I was not "homosexual".... Even so, I was setting world records for encounters with anonymous youths, nicely matching busy Jack Kennedy's girl-a-day routine. I would not have had it otherwise, since, even then, I did not believe in fixed sexual categories; and finally, Kinsey appears not to have believed in them either. But one's primary attraction (for the other half?) is innate and immutable and hardly a "choice," as the ignorant pretend. Of course, secondary attractions are possible; hence the tradition, in patriarchal societies, of a conventional marriage for Jonathan as well as one for David, though their love for each other is the primary fact of their lives. I tried to tell Kinsey about Jimmie. But I had not yet read Plato; I had no theory. Kinsey gave me a copy of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, with an inscription, complimenting me on my "work in the field." Thanks, Doc. But it wasn't all work.
When Dr. Kinsey had finished with my history (he liked to question you twice, with an interval between, to catch any inconsistencies), I asked, "If you didn't know who I was--what--who would you say I was, according to my history?"
"I'd rate you as a lower-middle-class Jew, with more heterosexual than homosexual interests." Curiously, I have lived most of my life with such a person.
Wednesday, December 21, 2005
The Wharton school
The most expensive book put up for adoption will be Wharton's copy of The Decoration of Houses, her first published work. Others include a copy of Theodore Roosevelt's America and the World War in which he wrote, "To Edith Wharton from an American-American." There's also Henry James's The Golden Bowl, with this message by the author: "To Edith Wharton--in sympathy."Not sure what the Rough Rider meant by the hyphenated bit. Nor do I know exactly what was eliciting Henry James's sympathy, since his genuine affection for Wharton was leavened by a head-shaking perplexity at her sybaritic existence. Meanwhile, I wondered if there were any inscribed books by Morton Fullerton, the great love of Wharton's middle years. (If so, maybe I could adopt one of those.) Clearly he was an irresistible cad, cavorting with both guys and dolls and incessantly flipping back and forth through the erotic Rolodex. Elizabeth Hardwick said it best, in a memorably amusing paragraph from Sight-Readings:
Morton Fullerton, Harvard, son of a minister in Waltham, Massachusetts, became a political and cultural journalist, at one time the correspondent from France for the London Times. Fullerton seems to have been an attractive, perhaps we could say lovable, young man. In his love life, he is something like a telephone, always engaged, and even then with several on hold. Whether he wished so many rings on his line is hard to tell; perhaps he was one of those who would always, always answer. In any case, among his callers were, in youth, Ronald Gower, a homosexual and friend of Oscar Wilde; Margaret Brooke, the Ranee of Sarawak; his cousin, Katherine Fullerton Gerould; Victoria Chambert, whom he married and with whom he had a child while living with a Mme. Mirecourt--and Edith Wharton.
Friday, December 16, 2005
A pox on the Vox
There are probably more annoying things than being hectored about African development by a wealthy Irish rock star in a cowboy hat, but I can't think of one at the moment. If Christmas, season of sob stories, has turned me into Scrooge, I recognize the Dickensian counterpart of Paul Hewson--who calls himself "Bono"--as Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House. Harping incessantly on her adopted village of Borrioboola-Gha "on the left bank of the River Niger," Mrs. Jellyby tries to save the Africans by financing them in coffee growing and encouraging schemes "to turn pianoforte legs and establish an export trade," all the while badgering people for money.Turning pianoforte legs! You can't beat Dickens. But I have to say I was already piqued at Bono, having read about his chummy dinner last week with Jesse Helms. The 84-year-old ex-senator joined the rock star backstage for some surf-and-turf action before a U2 concert. I'm glad Helms has decided to fight against AIDS. I'm glad Bono has made friends all across the ideological spectrum. But he's an out-of-towner and may be unaware of his dinner companion's checkered resume as a humanitarian. In the unlikely event that Bono should ever visit this site, here's a quick summary (from a 1995 Mother Jones article, written at a time when Helms's chairmanship of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations had begun to obscure his prior emphasis on, uh, domestic issues):
Long after die-hard segregationists like George Wallace and Strom Thurmond began courting black voters, Helms fueled white fears by opposing a national holiday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whistling "Dixie" while standing next to Senator Carol Moseley-Braun, and supporting apartheid in South Africa.Let me say it again: in a civilized world, you can break bread with people whose political convictions you despise. And perhaps the compulsively race-baiting Helms has had a change of heart (although I doubt it.) But there is some truth to the old bromide about the company you keep--and Bono should know better.
"His racial politics are deeply held convictions, not simply politics of convenience," says Christopher Scott. "He has a view of a fundamentalist Christian society in which everyone is not welcome. If you could pick up the South Africa of 20 years ago and transplant it to America, that's what he would do."
Born in Monroe, N.C., in the fall of 1921, Helms grew up in a segregated world not unlike the one of apartheid. He dropped out of college to work full time as a reporter before discovering the two arenas that would shape his career: broadcasting and politics. He learned about radio as a Navy recruiter during World War II and stuck with the emerging medium as news director of a fledgling station in Raleigh. And he was an "unofficial" researcher for conservative Willis Smith, whose 1950 Senate campaign is still considered one of the meanest and most racially divisive in the country's history. (One of Smith's ads featured a doctored photo of the incumbent's wife dancing with a black man. Helms has denied any involvement, but a newspaper advertising manager later told Helms biographer Ernest Furgurson that Helms personally cut up the photos.)
Smith won, and Helms was rewarded with a job as staff administrative assistant. In 1953, Helms returned to North Carolina as executive director of the state's banking association, spending the next seven years fighting to enrich his bosses. He won a seat on the Raleigh City Council and, in 1960, took a job as a TV commentator. He spent the decade railing against King, "Negro hoodlums," the media, "sex perverts," and anyone on welfare. As he explained in one of his nightly five-minute broadcasts, "A lot of human beings have been born bums."
Tuesday, December 13, 2005
Beckett: It's a small world after all
In its corny, aerodynamic, New Frontier style, the World's Fair really did encompass some of the strangest sights a five-year-old could possibly imagine. No doubt my dreams are still teeming with visual footnotes from that era. Yet I might have stumbled across, and overlooked, one of the strangest spectacles of all: Samuel Beckett snoozing on a bench. The very thought produces a thunderclap of cognitive dissonance. (In the same way, I can hardly picture Gustav Mahler on the subway, although he reportedly loved to ride it during his tenure as conductor of the New York Philharmonic between 1909 and 1911.) But Beckett was there, according to this excellent bit I read earlier today in Anthony Cronin's Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist:
Barney Rosset had made a reservation for Beckett on an early-morning flight, so they went to bed early in the little brownstone on Houston Street, where Barney and his then wife, Christine, lived. When Barney and his wife awoke and saw the time, they found to their horror that they had probably missed the plane. When they opened the door of their bedroom they found Beckett sitting outside on the landing in his overcoat and with his suitcase. He had got up in time, but had been too polite to knock on their door and then had fallen asleep himself. Another reservation was made on a flight for that evening and Barney suggested that they might pay a visit to the World's Fair, which was in Flushing Meadows on the way to the airport. It was another very hot and humid New York day but Beckett was still wearing his overcoat as they walked through the exhibits at the fair, all three rapidly getting into a state of torpor and exhaustion. When Barney and Christine were sampling some food at an exhibit they suddenly discovered that Sam was nowhere to be seen. In a panic they went back the way they had come, looking to left and right. It took them about half an hour to find him, sleeping again, this time on a bench, where he had sat down to rest while they investigated another exhibit. After he had been woken and somewhat revived, he was driven to the airport and caught his plane. This ended Beckett's only visit to the United States.
Friday, December 09, 2005
Smashing the block with Robert Sheckley
Technically speaking, I don't have a writer's block. In recent months, I've cranked out prose of every length and coloration, including a social studies textbook for fourth-graders, articles about a hardcore klezmer trio and a satanic conspiracy, and an interview with an aluminum-smelting magnate. I do, however, have what a clinician might describe as a partial sclerosis of the imaginative faculties. That is, I can't seem to make headway with more personal projects, such as stories or memoirs. So when I spied a newspaper advertisement for a workshop with the promising title "Smash Your Writer's Block," I was quick to sign up.
I'm usually wary of such events. But this one had two points in its favor. One was the location, in the city hall of a nearby town. This gilt-edged venue suggested a large crowd, and the idea of an auditorium crammed with writer's block victims had a perverse fascination. Also, there was the instructor, an eminent science-fiction writer with 50-odd books under his belt. Clearly he hadn't been at a loss for words since late infancy, and I wanted to hear what that was like.
I didn't get quite what I expected. First of all, only three people besides me had enrolled in the class; maybe the hundreds of other potential students were too blocked to sign a check. And instead of an auditorium, our cozy group was meeting in a small conference room.
Without bragging, the instructor confirmed that he was the man for the job. "In the 1950s," he confided, "I signed a contract to deliver 240 short stories for a radio program. Every day, Basil Rathbone read a new one on the air."
How did he do it? Before sharing his method, the instructor wanted to demo some software on his laptop. As we gathered around, he fiddled with the keyboard and a diagram appeared on the screen: a central idea surrounded by related concepts, each item connected by a line.
"That looks like a right-brain cluster!" said one of my companions.
"Sometimes I like clustering on a huge piece of butcher paper," said another.
Somebody else mentioned "scatter diagrams" and "idea tanks," and I began to realize that these people were more diligent students of writer's block than I was. It struck me that in some ways, having a block was the next best thing to being a writer. You still got credit for the creativity, the ambition. You also functioned as a kind of mental conservationist, holding onto your insights and experiences instead of dispersing them into the marketplace. Deep in their hearts, perhaps some writers would prefer to be blocked.
Not my classmates. These were sincere, intelligent people who just couldn't succeed in getting certain ideas down on paper. The woman to my left wanted to write an article about the fact that although she was 42, she had tried out for the cheerleading unit of a professional sports team. The woman next to her wanted to get at the feeling of the last day of summer. As for me, I wanted to write something about a visit I had made with my son to an exhibit of giant mechanical insects.
None of these ideas were especially language-resistant, were they? You could understand, say, Dante scratching his head over the Paradiso, since he was supposed to be describing things that were by definition too ethereal for the crude apparatus of human speech. But we were drawing a bead on the humdrum, and missing. Our difficulties, then, were connected to some inner resistance of our own--a perverse inability to say precisely those things that we most wanted to. No wonder the atmosphere resembled a specialized encounter group. Instead of beginning with a standard 12-step confessional, everybody prefaced their spiel with some variation on the phrase, The story I want to write is... And there was something poignant about that, too, suggesting not merely a literary problem but an existential one: you weren't quite real until you had written down your story, you were a kind of ghost in search of the mot juste.
And the method itself? The image of smashing the block had an appealing military ring--I expected something akin to breaching the Maginot Line. Instead the approach was strictly commonsensical. You made yourself write in 15-minute increments. During these periods you didn't waste time with stylistic nuance, you simply produced, free-associating if necessary: "Your fingers should never stop moving on the keyboard." They didn't. The instructor turned on his timer, left the smoke-free prose chamber to have a cigarette outside, and the four of us tapped away. When he returned, we read our work aloud--a feature that took me by surprise, since my first effort consisted of four pages of crazed Dostoyevskian rambling about my financial problems.
"How did that feel?" the instructor would ask each of us.
"Fine," was the invariable answer. Then we hunkered down for another session.
Deep inside I was hoping the method would fail. It seemed to me that writing involved some mysterious triangulation between the writer, the subject, and language itself, and that it would take something more sophisticated than dimwitted behavioralism to fix whatever was broken. However, eight cigarettes and two hours later, most of us had officially smashed the block. I had nailed that visit to the big bugs exhibit, with particular care paid to the 12-foot-high praying mantis. The aspiring cheerleader made major progress too, and even the last-day-of-the-summer lady felt she was o the right track. Whether the resulting prose was any good was beside the point. After all, you could always sign up for the one-day workshop on self-editing, which I noticed was scheduled to meet at the First Unitarian Church.
More proof that I'm getting old
I remember drinking way too much, and having one of those talking-to-the-toilet bowl evenings. It was during that night, when we'd all stayed up way too late, and we got so pissed that we ended up crying--about, you know, how wonderful we were, and how much we loved each other, even though we'd never said anything. It was a good one: you never say anything like that. Especially if you're a Northern Man.Me, I'm a blubbering Southern Man, and it was yet another sentimental impulse that caused me to buy The Who: BBC Sessions. These guys were the real heroes, the avatars, of my teenage years. They explained the inner workings of angst to me. Once, after a romantic disappointment, I walked home and wrote Love, reign o'er me with a gloved finger in the snow. (Glad I got that one off my chest.) Unfortunately, the best material here is also available on Live at Leeds--still alarmingly high on my personal rotation--and these versions sound like they were recorded on a Dictaphone. I sympathize with the old trouts at the Beeb, who must have regarded the Who's blitzkrieg attack as a technical challenge. But in the end this is for completists only, who can't live without the hilarious commercial spot the band recorded for the BBC, set to the tune of "My Generation."
Wednesday, December 07, 2005
Blogs! They're Back!
Bryan Keefer, assistant managing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review’s daily website and co-author of All the President’s Spin, called the panel to order at Makor, a West Side outpost of the 92nd Street Y. Joining him were Terry Teachout (all in black), Maud Newton (mostly in black), and Sasha Frere-Jones (in a breezy green shirt and brown cords, which may after all be the new black.) Keefer got the ball rolling by asking the panelists how they became bloggers in the first place. "I was looking to kill time in my cubicle at work," Newton explained. Teachout took the question a mite more seriously: "At a certain point, it became clear to me that high-culture commentary was going to migrate away from its old outlets, and move onto the Web. And I needed to get there." Frere-Jones, leaning at an odd angle to address the microphone bolted to his chair, played the levity card: "My entire career has been a long, unending accident. I thought I was in a band for a long time."
Next, the discussion moved on to technique. Or more specifically: how do Teachout (drama critic for The Wall Street Journal) and Frere-Jones (pop-music critic for The New Yorker) vary their approach when switching between print and online publication? "There’s no overlap between the two," explained Frere-Jones. "At The New Yorker, my job is to be completely accessible to the lay reader. As for the blog…well, I don’t really know why it’s there." Visitors to the critic’s virtual rumpus room may be equally puzzled. My first time there, I found what looked like a collection of paint swatches with cryptic captions. But I’ll keep going back: sooner or later there’s bound to be a juicy article about Bad Company.
Teachout took a very different tack. "I don’t think there’s much difference in the way I write for About Last Night and for print," he said. "But what the blog offers is the possibility of an immediate response." Another bonus, in his view: absolute flexibility as to length. His Wall Street Journal drama column, Teachout notes, is always 875 words long, give or take the odd adverbial clause. "If I want to write about a play on the blog, I can write just two sentences. Or fifty sentences. It's up to me."
Keefer asked the trio how blogging was altering the landscape of cultural criticism at large. At this point both Teachout and Frere-Jones (at right) heaped some quasi-orgasmic praise on their fellow panelist. "Maud is really somebody who started out and created a reputation online," declared Teachout. "We're going to see a lot more of that. Maud's career may indicate the future of cultural journalism." By this point Newton was nervously crossing and uncrossing her black lace-up boots. And why not? Teachout was sounding like Jon Landau on Bruce Springsteen circa 1975, and that sort of messianic quote can be awfully hard to live down. Meanwhile, Frere-Jones upped the ante. "I don’t even read the New York Times Book Review anymore--I just read Maud. I don't want to sit through a lot of dull prose and newspaper crap." In that sense, he argued, Newton and her blogging peers are slowly but surely chipping away at the Old Media's market share.
There was a brief discussion of blog-related reader mail. Apparently Newton gets plenty, Teachout somewhat less, and Frere-Jones almost none at all. (The single exception: an abusive letter from Jack White of the White Stripes, taking the critic to task for his fancy, hyphenated, suspiciously Gallic name.) Then Keefer brought the conversation to a close with a final question: "If everyone's a critic in the Age of Blogging, how does a critic distinguish himself or herself?" Newton, still quivering from the panelist's equivalent of a sugar high, dodged the question: "I really try not to think about that." But Teachout nailed it, with a tiny, effective summation of how blogs mingle utility and quirkiness: "You give people stuff they can use--plus the sauce of personality." So far, that seems to be the recipe for success. But how exactly can we measure success in the blogosphere? That, alas, will have to wait for another panel.
Thursday, December 01, 2005
Two nits to pick re: NYT Best Books of 2005
Talking Amazonia, V.S. Pritchett's pipe
I was glancing through Jeremy Treglown's V.S. Pritchett: A Working Life the other day, and came across this interesting example of New Yorker-style prudery, circa 1969:
Among the stories he was working on around this time was one narrated by a student who falls for her teacher. At first, it's his marriage that she's attracted to, but the unreciprocating, pipe-smoking professor soon becomes the main focus. To escape her obsession, the girl eventually gets her father to take her home, but not before--in a scene which guaranteed rejection by the New Yorker--she puts the professor's pipe in her mouth. "The taste was sour and I thought how dirty men are. I was afraid I was going to be sick."Indeed. Treglown goes on to assure us that despite the author's famous affection for pipes--he's clutching one on the book jacket--we're not reading a disguised slice of autobiography. The hyperactive V.S., then teaching at Smith, was much too busy cranking out George Meredith and English Comedy, a new collection called Blind Love, and approximately one million book reviews, to fool around with his students.