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Echoes and Mirrors » literature

Archive for the ‘literature’ Category

Late Inspiration

Thursday, January 22nd, 2015

Seven or so years ago, before I went to college, I began writing an awful, sad attempt at a novel. (I posted it to my MySpace blog, if you need any clarification on how much of an amateur I was.)

A few of my friends, in real life, pestered me for years about finishing it. I think I managed to get three or four chapters completed before I realized it wasn’t going anywhere (and, looking back, was basically bleakness porn).

Today, while driving to work, I thought about it and suddenly knew where it could go.

I’m not about to start writing it again, but I did scribble the idea down for later. And I’m damn glad that it didn’t come to me then, as I may have actually kept on with it instead of devoting my energy to better projects.

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“The Imaginative Poverty of the Middle Classes”

Thursday, December 25th, 2014

“We are reverting to the civilization of luggage, and historians of the future will note how the middle classes accreted possessions without taking root in the earth, and may find in this the secret of their imaginative poverty.”

There are dozens of gloriously snide but intelligent passages like this in E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End. I never quite think of myself as one who enjoys pre-Modernist writing, but I’ll be damned if it’s not sharp as hell at times. This narrator doesn’t care about judging the fuck out of people, which is tremendous, but the wit with which it is done? Remarkable.

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Vexed

Sunday, August 10th, 2014

From Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch:

“Are you vexed with me?” Family language: vexed. A word Andy had used when we were children.

Seems like a bit of Lampshade Hanging used to make you ignore that word — vexed — rather than for a particular detail or plot point (some of which require a pretty solid suspension of disbelief in this novel). It’s almost as if Tartt was adamant she would use this word and would justify it any way she could. It’s an indulgence, and one that I think works.

I say good on her for it, too. That line made me chuckle as much as it did strike me as an interesting use of trope.

What may be most interesting to me about it, though, is the fact that a line like this would get ripped up in a workshop. Not that a workshop doesn’t have its value (a tremendous amount of it, in fact) but the notion of a workshop is necessarily attuned to find and destroy things like this, despite how clever it is. It is designed to destroy indulgences, especially of the linguistic variety.

I would never give up my workshop experiences (and would welcome more) but it holds true that the best lessons about writing happen outside of the classroom, and always will. Mostly, they happen while reading.

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Word Ghosts: Robert Pinsky’s Gulf Music

Tuesday, May 6th, 2014

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Robert Pinksy is a smart guy. So smart that he can’t let you know how smart he is. So smart that he can force you to figure that out for yourself and, after a while, you will appreciate his effort to make you put forth that effort. I am drawn to poems that seem to evoke as much critical thought—and philosophical thinking—that philosophy qua philosophy does. In part, I am drawn to them because they do not simply tell you what facet of being is at stake nor what to say about it; they present some metaphor that requires thought to untangle even though the moment you read it, somehow it stings something in the brain pan. I find myself with visceral responses to Pinsky’s poems—some even involve cursing, throwing the book and an accelerated heart rate; others trigger a quasi-(or even total)-eureka moment of sorts that involves head nodding, standing up and sudden talking to myself about how what I just read is so damn right, why couldn’t I think of it? followed by some cursing in envy. I digress. Pinsky seems to at once channel the ghosts of Foucault and Leo Tolstoy to duke it out over the philosophy of history, pit notions about narrative and understanding against each other, even-handedly express complex notions about language in terms of hand-tools, and somehow still give a first impression of flippancy or recklessness.

(more…)

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Brief Encounters with Ben Fountain

Monday, April 21st, 2014

I suppose it should go without saying that I read a lot. I think I do, but sometimes I realize that I don’t read nearly as much as I ought to. Or, more specifically, I get a paranoia about not reading enough when I actually do. One thing I know I don’t read enough of is short stories. I don’t have anything against them (what could I possibly have against them?) and generally tend to enjoy the fact that I can read one while I wait between classes or any other 20 minute bit of downtime I find myself in. I can read one before going to sleep without facing the nagging questions about what’s going to happen next? They’re great.

And reading Ben Fountain’s Brief Encounters with Che Guevara reminds me of the power of short stories. The opening story “Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera,” is one of those stories that probably won’t leave me for a long time (much like Alice Munro’s “Child’s Play,” or Jess Walter’s “We Live in Water”). The ending, specifically, is so artfully done that my reaction is to simply blink at the page and say, “oh, wow.” Because it satisfies an expectation in the exact opposite way that I would expect and exactly in the way that makes the most sense: John Blair (the humble hero of this story) is rescued, but only grudgingly so, and only because he’s become more of a nuisance to his captors than he is worth. It really tips toward his being shot, instead.

Even more beautifully, his guard’s humanity is exposed through his generosity (I won’t spoil the how) in comparison to an otherwise Colombian-lensed but very Cormac MacCarthy-esque outlook on life. That is, one that is full of brutality and is washed out, desensitized. This makes his act mean more than anything John could have done and becomes more important than John’s own disillusionment and joy, if only because it is the cause for how John feels. And be cause it’s an act that’s completely organic but slides itself in unnoticed until the very end.

I think maybe I’ve become a little too complacent with what I read. It may be the case that this story is just that much better than what I’ve been reading. I’d like to think so. Because this is intimidatingly good. It sets a high bar, and one worth striving for. Certainly higher than the attempt at a clever title I used for this post, at any rate.

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I can’t get this out of my head

Tuesday, April 17th, 2012

“First Time” by Jason Shinder

I was a virgin but I knew the messy sexual hunger of the word ah.

It was like two wires crossing that never should. It was like
   the invention
of sound for the deaf. Through my brother’s great, slightly open,
   bedroom door

I saw two heads bobbing for apples on the pillow, their mouths in the
   shape of ah,

the wet crystals of each breath falling on their faces. I heard that final
   ah they made—
the room ripped apart, the wild, injured noise of a wounded dog.

Hellow, little brother, my brother said. I hope we weren’t too loud,
   the girl said.

I couldn’t speak; the wind drifting through me as if through a cow’s
   skull in the desert.
I watched their fingers sift through each other’s hair again, pulling at
   the roots

of everything that had come before, and everything that would come after.

The girl had this way of murmuring, narrating in the dark. I pushed
   the door
further open. Ah that’s good, she moaned. Now you.

This is from Jason Shinder’s Stupid Hope. Admittedly, I don’t read nearly enough poetry as I ought and I’m struggling with the fact that this poem has been knocking around my head for three months now, poking itself into my thoughts on a fairly regular basis. What is going on in these lines is shaking me in two ways: first, it is so insightful and human but still masculine without being macho; and second, that I will never be able to put together a single coherent string of words that can do this.

It makes me never want to write a poem again —or maybe, more precisely, that I will never need to with this having been written— and, at the same time, want to write every poem I even briefly consider. I’m pretty sure this is what we’re supposed to be doing with poetry.

There is nothing wrong with creating something intimidating when it’s so wonderfully done.

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The Unbearable Death of Postmodernism

Saturday, August 20th, 2011

Postmodernism is dead

I have some good news—kick back, relax, enjoy the rest of the summer, stop worrying about where your life is and isn’t heading. What news? Well, on 24th September, we can officially and definitively declare that postmodernism is dead. Finished. History. A difficult period in human thought over and done with. How do I know this? Because that is the date when the Victoria and Albert Museum opens what it calls “the first comprehensive retrospective” in the world: “Postmodernism—Style and Subversion 1970-1990.”

So… the party’s over folks. Please dispose of any empty bottles, used condoms, golden apples, skeletons, overcoats, or whatever it was you were playing with in the trash before leaving. Last one out turn the lights off.

Whatever is next ought to be fun. Let’s take a nap until then.

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A Couple Random Literary Notes (And One Shameless Plug)

Friday, August 12th, 2011

First, a shameless plug: I have a poem in the new issue of Used Gravitrons. Check it out, the whole issue is quite wonderful, really.

Second, and maybe a little late, but Miracle Jones at The Fiction Circus posted a wonderful guide to writing fiction: How to be a Fiction Writer. And I’m not sure which step I’m on, but I have a rough idea and my head hurts.

Third, be on the lookout for the first issue of ILK Journal soon. I’m not in it, but it is run by at least one very good poet and I’m looking forward to it.

I realize I don’t post a whole lot about literature, writing or anything like that here very often and, honestly, I’m not about to start. This place exists for my virtual fist-shaking at the world, absurd philosophical digressions and other miscellany. All of which is without schedule or purpose. I can go months without posting a damned thing. And that won’t stop either.

So carry on, you silly gooses, stop looking at my wacky blog and do something productive.

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An aside in re sense and nonsense, sparked from a lazy afternoon on the couch reading a book outside of my academic studies

Friday, October 15th, 2010

The term “nonsense” is one of the most baffling words in our vocabulary. It has a negative quality only, like death. Nobody can explain nonsense: it can only be demonstrated. To add, moreover, that sense and nonsense are interchangeable is only to labor the point. Nonsense belongs to other worlds, other dimensions, and the gesture with which we put it from us at times, the finality with which we dismiss it, testifies to its disturbing nature. Whatever we cannot include within our narrow framework of comprehension we reject. Thus profundity and nonsense my be seen to have certain unsuspected affinities.

The passage is from Henry Miller’s Sexus, page 214. It struck me as being somewhat provocative even if it is not particularly relevant to the distinction of sense and nonsense in the Wittgensteinian paradigm. It’s only a small snippet of a larger segment where he laments the work of the artist. It begins with this:

In the beginning one wants to approach every problem directly. The more direct and insistent the approach, the more quickly and surely one succeeds in getting caught in the web.

Which echoes of Wittgenstein’s critique of philosophy’s linguistic confusions.

There may be nothing in this, but I found it interesting. I suspect that there is at least a small hint that Miller read, and incorporated, and then regurgitated more than a little bit of Wittgenstein in his own art. Whether or not it is the case, these labored digressions in the book more than make up for the frequent unerotic sex that takes place in it.

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They’re Not Artists, They’re Professionals In An Industry

Saturday, July 3rd, 2010

Where Have All the Mailers Gone? | The New York Observer.

Alas: The practice of fiction is no longer a vocation. It has become a profession, and professions are not characterized by creative mischief. Artistic vocations are about embracing more and more of the world with your will; professions are insular affairs that are all about the profession. The carefulness, the cautiousness, the professionalism that keeps contemporary fiction from being meaningful to the most intellectually engaged people is also what is stifling any kind of response to The New Yorker. After all, kick against The New Yorker‘s conventional taste and you might tread on some powerful person’s overlapping interest. You might anger Nicole Aragi, fiction super-agent. You might alienate a New Yorker editor! Literary triumph in Manhattan is now defined by publishing one or two pieces in The New Yorker each year. That is too narrow a definition of literary triumph.

Writing isn’t art, it’s an industry. An industry that makes Twilight and Harry Potter and… some other stuff. Profitable stuff!

While I loathe the self-publishing and POD elements that sprung up in the publishing world, I can see how they’re necessary to combat the make-the-New Yorker-happy mentality. But those people will probably never reach any real notoriety. Hell, most people who go the traditional publishing route still don’t. But it’s almost universally true that if one does, one is professional about it. And that sucks.

Could the very idea of “being professional” kill America? Maybe I’m biased from my experiences with “military professionalism”, which meant always putting up the illusion that everything is good. It was all about polishing turds. Didn’t matter what you had in your hand as long as somebody could see their reflection in it.

However, professionalism is necessary because it sets standards of courtesy and etiquette. The problem is that it can overshadow the work and its quirks and nuances are so complex that the only way to avoid catastrophic mistakes is money (one could argue that those with money simply move into a different rule set).

For about a million reasons, fiction has now become a museum-piece genre most of whose practitioners are more like cripplingly self-conscious curators or theoreticians than writers. For better or for worse, the greatest storytellers of our time are the nonfiction writers. The proof? No one would dare rank them, presume to categorize them by age or exploit them as a marketing tool. Their writing is too relevant and alive.

Fiction is not dead, sir. The business of selling real, heart-felt literary art in the grand arena of the major publishing houses may be dying, but fiction itself is not. There are more people writing simply for the sake of writing than ever, and they don’t care about professional rules or, consequently, about making money off it.

Trying to view books as a commodity is not right. Because one books sells more than another doesn’t really say much about its quality. Just because a non-fiction book  requires less critical thought to extract the hidden social observations than a novel does not make it more relevant. Sadly, the easier-to-read book is more likely to sell these days.

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