Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A Modest Proposal

Latest figures for trade books published in America (data from Publishers Weekly) project 400,000 new titles for 2008, which works out to 75,000 + titles a week. This figure does not address reprints or revisions; nor does it address self-published works or indeed the fact that the ratio of book readers to population in general remains about the same. The numbers surely do not reflect a growing tendency of Americans to read, rather it speaks to the increasing number of titles read by those who do read copiously.

With so many new books being published each week, the relatively small space available for reviews becomes an issue here because many of the better book reviewers already have gigs, contributing with some regularity to the publications that use their work. The pay is not grand by any stretch, mostly a labor of love. For me, after all these many years of work in the trenches of book reviewing, there is still the kick that trumps fees--the kick of being give a copy of a book you'd have bought anyway, then being paid to write about it.

That said, and having been made aware of the so-called review process for books sold on Amazon dot com and similar sites, I offer the modest proposal of a Flickr-equivalent for book reviewers, where one can post book reviews in a similar manner as individuals with dreams of being Margaret Bourke-White and Annie Liebowitz, and Robert Mapplethorpe, and William Eggleston or Stephen Shore can post their snapshots and say they have their art available for public viewing on Da Internet.

Such proposal will gladden the hearts of those who wish to democratize art instead of supporting much less understanding it. The proposed site, Reviewr, can give each of us the chance of venting his inner critic's spleen on the likes of Margaret Drabble and Don DeLilo with the impunity of the critic's protective coating without having to pass licensing tests or demonstrating hand-eye coordination or, indeed, anything approaching judgment.

It was Emerson, I believe, who wrote to the matter of each of us, when seeing some superb essay or hearing some well-observed bon mot or apothegm, can nod in agreement with the coiner for having intuited our very vision exactly as we had done at the banquet given us by ourself in recognition.

Such is the nature now of criticism that one is able to render a judgment not having read the work in question but by carefl consideration of the Google apercu of the work.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Some Notes on Regional Dialog

For readers who are not familiar with working class locutions of South Boston. the works of two writers, one dead since 1999, will convince them they are hearing what Thomas Moore once referred to as "The harp that once through Tara's halls/The soul of music shed."

If not outright impossible to think so, it will be a least improbable for readers of George V. Higgins (1939-99) [The Friends of Eddie Coyle] or Dennis Lehane [Gone, Baby, Gone; Mystic River] to hear anything less than authentic cadences and tropes.

For readers of Elmore Leonard [Fifty-two Pick-up; Get Shorty], it is a given that if people want to work a scam, pull a heist, or stage some more complicated mischief, you have to talk the way Leonard's characters do in order to have a chance that your wild schemes will pay off.

If your reading tastes turn at all to the novels of Donald E. Westlake in any of his multifarious pseudonyms, you are probably convinced that Westlake has hidden microphones extending throughout the underworld, extending into places that are considering entry into the underworld.

And of course your latest assumption would be that Richard Price, particularly in his remarkable new Lush Life has similarly nailed the street authenticity of the Lower East Side.

These examples are only males, writing mostly in the crime/suspense/noir genera; Annie Proulx makes you believe you know the patois of Newfoundland and, for that matter, Wyoming; Edith Wharton will convince you she "heard" the chatter of the Manhattan upper echelons, and those delightful ladies from the South, Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers, get you convinced you are hearing Southern as it is spoke.

The fact is, all of these were and some still are excellent creators of the necessary element of dialog, not conversation but dramatic speech that reflects simultaneously character and story. 

 Each of the named examples has some experience wherein and whereof he or she may write, but each has also learned how to compress, sketch in, evoke, use irony, repetition, and a distinctive originality that makes the result appear to be authentic when it is nothing of the sort, it is what it sets out to be, dialogue, which is by nature dramatic.

The difference between these exemplary dialogists and such remarkable others as Tim Gatreaux, Charles D'Ambrosio, Jhumpa Lahire, and Junot Diaz make it seem all too easy to attempt to pick up an accent or a mannerism here or there and be perceived as authentic. 

 This is one reason why so many American writers fail so miserably, old chap, in writing English characters who are believably English, making it a near irony that English novelists have a better sense for the way dramatic American English sounds.

The trick, the real trick, the one beyond listening to the characters is to start by listening to what the characters want or do not want to happen, then to listen with all one's might to something that goes beyond an accent--listen to the story.

Monday, April 28, 2008


1. What does one have to do in order to become a competent observer?

2. What details should be noted, which passed over?

3. Does being too observant slow down the story with unnecessary detail? Does being too observant prevent the observer from acting, feeling, anticipating consequences.

4. Or defensiveness.

5. Does defensiveness come from a lack of trust in the ability to see the necessary details of a story?

6. Who is the observer in the particular story?

7. What is the nature of this individual's perceptions? Because that is the key to it, the eye of the detail the beholder beholds. What a person says or does describes the person as does what the person notices or does not notice.

8. There is no room for passivity in here, each must make choices--words to be used or not; details to be noticed or not.

9. Is the observer a samurai? As in:
A 13th Century Samurai prayer

I make the heavens and earth my parents
I have no home.
I make awareness my home
I have no life and death.
I make the tides of breathing my life and death
I have no divine power.
I make honesty my divine power
I have no means.

I make adaptability to all circumstances my principles
I have no tactics
I make my mind my friend
I have no enemy
I make carelessness my enemy
I have no armor
I make benevolence and righteousness my armor
I have no castle
I make immovable mind my castle
I have no sword
I make absence of self-interest my sword.

10. What would happen if you were to substitute all those I observations with The writer?

11. What effect will that have on chicklit?

12. Be serious, will you.

13. We lost seriousness genes in The Diaspora. Seriousness is so New York. You can visit New York and not be serious but you cannot live there and not be serious.

14. You have to be funny to consider L.A. in all seriousness.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Song Is Ended, But the Melody Lingers on

His voice had the husky hush of the lower registers of the clarinet or tenor saxophone. Number three reed. If you listened closely, you might catch a hint of West Texas.

His first break in the world of music to which he aspired came when he joined the iconic Second Herd of Woodrow Wilson "Woody" Herman, an explosive, energetic band that was not about to be hindered by playing for dance but which offered instead short, punchy program music takes, mini-Petrouchka's or The Rite of Spring. In addition to becoming a respected member of the Herman Herd reed section, his composition Four Brothers was a peak moment at the tie big band jazz was about to fracture into smaller groups, jazz equivalents of chamber music intended for listening. Four Brothers featured him on tenor along with Zoot Simms and Stan Getz, with Serge Chaloff on the baritone. From that point on, the Second Herd was known as The Four Brothers Band, during the course of which it was joined by the likes of Milton "Shorty" Rogers and Shelley Manne, among others, playing harmonic delights from Ralph Burns and Neal Hefti

As such things go in music, Rogers and Manne orbited away from The Herd, luring "him" away with them for his one-man reed ensemble and his composing. "He" was Jimmy Giuffre, whom I first met when Shorty Rogers ad His Giants were playing at an iconic jazz club called The Haig, across Wilsire Boulevard from The Ambassador Hotel.

From Giuff, I learned that there was more, considerably more, to Dvorak than The New World Symphony, that there wer joys to be had in the works of the Czech composer Laos Janacek, and that I'd better start listening pronto to the Ravel and Debussy trios. His true voice, I argue, came forth in the clarinet, those potentially soggy tones down at the bottom, places where the blues begin and harmonies cry out like the sounds of passion coming from other rooms when you are unable to sleep and have to listen.

Our good fortune is a considerable recorded legacy left by this quiet giant, dead yesterday at 86.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Feeling Is Mutable

You are in the midst of random, unstructured thinking, a series of brief tropes without any particular volition or goal when a word bobs up from below the surface, jarring you suddenly as it bears the gift of an emotion you know is associated with the word. Neither the word nor the emotion are expected, arriving unsought, unannounced. For the next several moments, you attempt to describe to yourself the dimensions and texture of the emotion, encountering the major barrier a writer encounters.

It is one thing to feel an emotion, another to describe it to yourself, another still to describe it to others, particularly others you may never meet in person. We'll call those individuals readers.

Firstly for ourselves and then for these individuals we call readers, we attempt to translate feelings into some kind of logical pathway, a pathway that leads the reader somewhere tangible, even if there is inconclusivity in that tangibility.

Language evolved in order to help humans pass along secrets of survival within a particular culture. But the speakers couldn't help themselves, they transfused the information with attitudes, edges, raw and subtle feelings, strata of implications that reflect the social/pack nature of mankind as a species.

Straightforward facts and formulae are unvarnished but it is possible to see and hear the poetry in their construction. Darwin had it right by having a garden which he structured for his personal sense of aesthetics as well as for a laboratory in which to continue his observation about how the inhabitants of the universe behaved.

Storytellers have learned over the years to infuse their information and observation with feelings.

Damned straight words contain feelings along with the descriptions and names of things. Information with feeling may be likened to propaganda but it may also be related to story. Propaganda puts us off; story puts us in.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The Heart of the Mutter.

Story is a core sampling of people in a culture.

The longer and more complex the story, the more striations appear in the core sample.

Story reflects the ping-pong game of a person in a society, responding to what the society does to him and what he tries to do with it. At the same time this game is in progress, the individual is engaged in table tennis with himself, trying to make sense of all those impressions coming at him like a service ace.

If you wish a vision of a particular culture, consider the ways and whys of an individual behaving--or misbehaving--within that particular culture.

The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

The Raj Quartet, by Paul Scott.

The Alexandria Quartet, by Lawrence Durell.

Highly successful samplings of remarkably differing cultures and the individuals who are swimming about in them, trying to find some scrap of flotsam to cling to, treading water on the metaphoric seas of uncertainty and hungry sharks.

Or, consider Antigone, who at first only wanted to bury her dead brother, then was willing to risk her life to do so in spite of the injunction placed by the very person who had the most power to stop her while simultaneously having love for her as his strongest emotional attitude toward her.

Story loses something if it does not reflect a sense of where the characters are suspended in the culture in which they live. Are they bottom feeders? Sharks? Porpoises?

Many writers have gone over the top in their political agendas, Ayn Rand coming to mind but also, to give a fair not to balance, Upton Sinclair. There were times as well when Jack London fell off the tightrope wire. Nevertheless.

Nevertheless, saying we cannot risk showing our politics in our writing is to attempt to write without the most vital organ of all, the heart.

Thursday, April 24, 2008


There are three degrees of cliche, beginning with the mere cliche, which is a minor sort of cliche that nearly goes unnoticed, a sort of sweeping of some disorder under a carpet as a quick evasive action rather than actual cleaning.

Then there is the minimal cliche which is loud enough to be noticed, loud enough in fact to stop the conversation or halt the reading. The minimal cliche is often associated with one of those moments in tea rooms or small gatherings when there is a sudden gap in conversation and the room becomes quiet, all voices and ambient noise halted. At that moment, one person utters a word which is not of itself as remarkable as having the potential for being remarkable. A word such as circumcision or smegma. Once the word is uttered, the ambient noise and conversation resume at a louder intensity, as though to cover up the fact of the offending word having been uttered.

The there is the serious cliche, something ponderous, overriding mere shorthand that informs most cliche and as a dog sometimes savages a rag or bone, worrying the cliche into a kind of submission that turneth the stomach.

But perhaps the biggest most egregious flagrant cliche of all is the trope in which the writer deliberately disinters famous cliches of the past to use in an essay meant to be ironic in which the main course is a menu of cliches to be avoided. A cliche of such a nature transcends laziness and clunkiness, it becomes as Hillary in our midst, seeking recognition and revenge against originality. Australian and North American English have the advantage of men and women who get more out of the declarative sentence than Margaret Thatcher got out of her off-shore banking accounts.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Power Play

Not only are characters or, if you will, partners in a relationship subject to individual bifurcations, they are, when they appear on stage together, subject to the play of power.

By individual bifurcations, I mean that each character is at the very least thinking he needs no one else, can do it all, whatever the all is; is independent, fully endowed with talents, resources, abilities, and none of this sentimental nonsense about partnering with another person or being a member of a gang or clan or moiety or bowling club. Same character recognizes the need for at least one sympathetic place to rest the head of ego, however briefly. This last is in direct opposition to I can make my own way.

The play of power--should be capitalized to The Play of Power--has it that often when two characters are on stage one holds some power, knowingly or not, over the other.

The trick of story is to pull the rug from under the one with the power, evening up the playing field as it were, without the power broker at first being aware of the shift. Then comes the discovery, coldly, often brutally. Position neutralized or, even better, reversed.

Having resolved to murder Malcolm, Macbeth momentarily loses his nerve, his power usurped when he witnesses a servant bearing a tray of food toward Malcolm, causing Macbeth to speculate that this will be Malcolm's Last Supper, and thus the association between Malcolm and JC. Macbeth posits that were he to follow through on his plan and murder Malcolm, "Trumpet-tongued angels will sing his praises..." and thus the apotheosis of Malcolm will begin. He cannot go through with it, ceding power to do so to, take your choice, the cosmos, God, Malcolm. A contrite Macbeth goes to his wife to confess his inability. She is furious, berates him to the point where he gets a second wind, goes into the dining hall, kills Malcolm, returns to his wife, hands bloodied with the deed.

The first thing Lady Macbeth says to him, having seen his bloodied hands and, thus, knowing he has followed through with the plan, is "My husband!"

Power, pure and simple.

Power back and forth, driving story.

And you thought the Asians had a way with ping pong.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


1. A reasonable ficelle, or baguette, quartered, drizzled with a fruity olive oil, sprinkled with a mixture of finely chopped tomato and garlic, tossed in a 375 over for some time. A breakfast with authority. Needs coffee.

2. The arrival in today's mail of a Little Blue Book, yclept Poems of Robert Burns, number 284 on the Little Blue Book roster. The booklet is falling apart but the poems aren't.

3. The Kahuna Grill, way out in the Goleta Big Box Mall, serves a concoction called The Island Burger, which contains among other things a wedge of pineapple. Dale, who owns The Kahuna Grill, is an ardent surfer, a regular at Peet's for coffee; the combination of interesting persons bringing interesting things together. Who but a surfer would refer to a hot dog as a tube steak?

4. Occitan or Catalan goodie: aioli, a sauce made of garlic and good olive oil. Think of a bowl of olives, a few slices of baguette, and a plop of aioli. Go ahead, think of it.

5. A fan of pickle in many of its avatars, I also pause to consider the unpickled pickle, the fresh, crisp, splendid cucumber, sliced lengthwise in strips.

6. Serrano ham, buried in snow for some considerable time, thus to age.

7. The French and Spanish have another sort of ham, brought about by feeding nuts to the pig.

8. The chiramoya, a multifaceted fruit from Peru and Ecuador but also, mercifully, grown in California. Looks like a green hand grenade. Tastes like a succulent pear or peach.

9. While we're at it, gazpacho, the soup of soups.

10. With all this seasonal talk about lamb shoulders and shanks, not to forget the basic short rib. It is said that Hopkins derived his sprung rhythm from contemplating a plate of short ribs.

11. It is probably apocryphal or urban myth, but Dom Perignon is reported to have said upon tasting his first sip of champagne, "My God, I'm drinking the stars."

Monday, April 21, 2008

Light out

When Huck Finn reckoned he had to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, he was tired of having gone through the effort of making a book, beginning to have second thoughts about his association with Tom Sawyer, concerned about the potential consequences of being adopted by Aunt Sally, who was going to sivilize him, a thought he "can`t stand ," because "I been there before."

Having been acquainted with Huck since I was younger than he before his eponymous adventures, and having revisited him at least once during every subsequent decade of my life, I continue to find things in the arc of his activities that speaks to me as an individual, to me as a writer, and to me as someone who has fallen into teaching in much the same way Huck fell into his adventure with Jim, the runaway slave. This last time I approached his hegira not as someone who was drawn to think this was finally the book that would show me how to write fiction--although in many ways it already had--but as someone who was increasingly able to see the split in characters, the things that drive them often beyond their ability to contain within themselves the components that have forged them, made them what they are at the given moment of our investigation of them in action.

The Territory Huck is bent on lighting out for could very well be, ironically enough, the same California into which I was born and which is, among other things, home base for a funky clothing seller called The Territory Ahead, more of less associated with comfortable clothing that can be worn as one relaxes, drinks the sharp coldness of Mexican pilsner-style beer, thinks things over, takes long weekends, and more often than not does not wear socks. Indeed persons who wear socks here are often assumed to come from Cleveland, Ohio, and to have in their closets a pair of while loafers and a white belt with which to keep up a pair of polyester trousers that will, at a moment's notice, drip dry should they need to be shed before you go out to dinner.

One of the major issues in Huck Finn's eponymous adventure is the reappearance of Tom Sawyer toward the end, a confounding set of events in which both Huck and Tom are less than kind or considerate to Jim, the individual who had been the engine for Huck's coming of age, just as the novel itself represented the significant and symbolic coming of age of its author, a man who had himself lit out for the Territory, seeking something beyond what he himself had recognized to be one of the most glorious jobs a man of his times could have had, a riverboat pilot on the majestic Mississippi River.

Had Huck not taken off for the Territory, he in all likelihood would have become Tom, which is not an altogether bad thing, nor is it an altogether good thing. Huck needed to grow into the thing resident in the emerging acorn within him dictated, someone who saw beyond the boundaries of Sir Walter Scott and his gaudy romanticism, and certainly beyond the faux sentimentality of James Fenimore Cooper. Huck needed the Territory to grow into the echt Huck Finn he finally connected with inside the confines of his study in Hartford, where to some degree, he had begun to morph into Tom Sawyer.

A person who chooses to present visions of things, be it a visual illustration or a written one, needs to light out for that particular Territory ahead of the others; it is not on any map, it is however a place the person must record and document in some way, making it a place of reality and certainty. The biggest changes in my life came when I realized that much as I'd admired Tom, I'd grown beyond him and needed the Huck who was willing, perfectly willing, to go to hell for Jim rather than betray him.

Twain carried this vision of territory, the territory between slavery and freedom, with him for a long while, wrestled with it and was wrestled by it. Having made his fame and fortune of the sort a creator of Tom and Huck could fantasize, he saw for some hours a place where his artistic self needed to revisit, a place he could get to ahead of those who would sivilize him.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

My Word

One of the first things you look for when you begin revision is the way you use and to link independent clauses in languorous rolls that spill across the page like waves breaking on some south-facing shore. Somewhere, perhaps as far back as when you were infatuated with the rhythm of Hemingway to the point where you could not hear your own, you picked up this habit, this unnecessary muscle memory. You have to watch to see if and is used thusly, lazily, watch to see if you can't get better music without all the goddamned ands.

Bad enough you picked up a loathing for that, will go out of your way to avoid that, cringe at the thought of two of them in a row--"he thought that that had been two thats too many and that that would have to stop."

So there is a sense of the inner song of a paragraph and a page, informed by Hopkins and Yeats, nodding along the way to the force that, through the green fuse, drives the flower almost as though you knew what Thomas meant. Auden, too, although he is not so difficult to discern and besides stories Isherwood told you about him and that time you and he drank many, many bottles of beer produced a sense of knowing something about the man.

So look at it this way, now, when the thinking stops and the process clicks in, you hear a particular music which you have somehow adjusted for. When you don't hear that music, what comes forth is just okay, serviceable, but likely to go on a bit, possibly even get repetitious. Listen for Waltzes Noble and Sentimental, Mother Goose, Fourlaine, all Ravel of course. Naturally, you'd want to get Gershwin, too, since he studied with Ravel. Somehow the Albeniez gets in from time to time, as does Bill Evans, Barry Harris.

It is comforting to know who you hear when you should not really be hearing anything but the words; hearing those individuals, occasional Fanny Mendelsohn, you're where you've worked yourself in to be. You cannot listen to Rosalind Targ or Wanda Landowska because Bach takes you away from you and into him, which is fine for listening to music as music but not for listening to your own writing.

The right combination of short sentences wrapped around longish ones, plus a little internal rhyme and deft Chaucerian alliteration--the holy martyr for to seeke that heym hath holpen when that they were sicke.

And Keats: The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass, and the grass is played off in alliteration against was, Ah, bitter chill it was/The owl for all his feathers was a cold/The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass.

You are not yet sure why you hear these things when you are into things; not sure how the process works, only that it does and if you don't hear things, then you are not quite into what you are writing about no matter what it is you are writing about.

In its way, this makes sense; you are trying to rationalize how it is you have come to hear music when you are inside what you are writing. The music you hear somehow translates to keeping the meter and intensity of how you want to say what you want to say; it even helps you exclude all the unnecessary stuffy you cast through while you are finding what you want to say.

Okay. You get that, even get the fact that the consequences of hearing music involve simile arriving like an unannounced guest followed by puns.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Are You Better off ow Than You Were Seven Years Ago?

1. When was the last time you regretted not having a rain coat with you?

2. Wasn't that feeling of being caught in the rain a warning to always have your characters constructed so as to resemble forces of nature that are similarly caught out with no protection?

3. Were Ahab and the whale co-dependent?

4. When a character wants something significant, isn't that an invitation for a person to get in the way?

5. How does it feel, being caught between a person and something you want?

6. How do Americans, with thee and thou rendered obsolete in their spoken and written language, account for degrees of familiarity, intimacy, and class distinction?

7. How do you feel about people holding doors open for you and calling you sir?

8. Will you ever forget being in a pick-up baseball game with some writers and tv people and how you didn't have enough players to make two teams and were forced to rely on some kids, one of whom called to you, Throw it over here, sir?

9. What is the difference in feelings between being the youngest in a group and the oldest?

10. How many Mozart Piano Concertos can you identify by number? The 20th doesn't count because everyone knows that one.

11. Why does street language change so quickly?

12. Which is worse, characters all sounding alike or coming through as too conversational?

13. Did Ahab enable the whale?

14. Why was Jaivert so driven?

15. If Jane Austen were living today, could she write for Desperate Housewives?

16. We ever better off?

17. If a thing is worth doing, is it really worth doing well?

Friday, April 18, 2008

Overcast Spring Afternoon

1. The asthmatic snore of a leaf blower a few hundred feet to the north on Hot Springs road.

2. The throaty chatter of quarreling squirrels in the nearby stand of cedars, followed by the misanthropic squawk of one who has fallen from his or her branch, followed by a round of recriminations and I-told-you-so remonstrances.

3. The gluttonous sounds of banded pigeons at the seed- and peanut-filled stump, their vocalizing sounding like afflicted wheels on a supermarket shopping cart.

4. A sudden, thick, wrenching sound as a white-crowned sparrow miscalculates a newly washed window.

5. A parade of bugs, altering their life forms against the window adjacent my work area.

6. The nasal horn of a taco truck, announcing afternoon break refreshments for the workers at two neighboring estates farther up toward Mountain Drive.

7. The horn of an afternoon diesel, slamming through from Los Angeles, sounding like a kid with a runny nose.

8. A bored neighborhood dog, telling all in earshot to fuck off.

9. The hourly angelus from Our Lady of Mount Carmel, down below at the foot of Hot Springs and East Valley.

10. Not to be outdone, the contrapuntal and more quickly paced retort from the Presbyterian Church further down on East Valley.

11. Another neighborhood dog, contributing two-part harmony to the matins of barking.

12. Sally, aroused from her afternoon nap, advising the barking dogs to get a life.

13. The overhead whistle of a hawk, cruising for the hawk-like equivalent of afternoon tea.

14. Someone lazily raking along a graveled path. Perhaps too lazily, A voice enjoining, Let's get a move on.

15. The musical chatter of two Spanish-speaking maids, walking down Hot Springs Road toward the bus stop. one a contralto, ending sentences with question marks.

Thursday, April 17, 2008


Depending on how it is used and by whom, the word "product" can take on more trajectories than the inside of a dog's ear.

Drug users, eager for the means to scratch their particular neural itch, are wont to approach other individuals variously known as dealers or pushers, wanting to know, Hey, man, you got any product?

Neighborhood garage and repair services telephone regional distributors in search of product, supermarket managers seem always to be after shelvers who are invariaby named Larry, to for Chrissake get more product up on the shelves, and managers of motion picture theatres grouse incessantly about distributors who don't distribute enough product, which is to say film, to fill a mini mall cinema. Book publishers, increasingly run by MBA grads named Helmut or Franz, wanting to be more discriminating in their production of product and thus a book has become a product and is judged not by literary merit but by how many units it has moved in a particular time span.

It is like the Colbert Report writ extra large, where a few writers meet at day's end for a beer or two and one broaches the subject, Hey, how much product you get done today?

It is bad enough that in contracts you are hereinafter referred to as author, not Fred or Sam or some such thing but hereinafter referred to as author and your counterpart is hereinafter referred to as publisher.

This is an agreement between Author and Reader, executed on this eighteenth day of April, which is kind of funny because there was a poem that begins, Twas the eighteenth of April in seventy-five/Hardly a man is now alive/Who remembers that famous day or year...but I digress, this is not the midnight ride of Paul Revere but the contract executed between writer and reader in which the writer affirms and warrants that all characters herein displayed are original and do not trespass on the copyright of another.

Thanks, Helmut or Franz. And guten tag and a happy zeitgeist.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Little Blue Book

Lowenkopf's Law of Coincidence: The older one gets, the more likely one will become increasingly involved in a series of coincidences that will cause one to think there is a predestined order and structure in the universe.

A bit too long, perhaps, for an aphorism, but maybe by removing the occasional noun or verb here and there, it can be tamed, brought in line.

Yesterday, a smal, sturdy envelope arrived from one of the myriad Amazon dot com retailers, containing in nearly mint condition a three-and-a-half inch by five-inch booklet entitled Facts You Should Know About American Literature. The author is E. Haldeman-Julius; it is title 1289 in a series of similarly sized little books, mostly printed on a pale blue cover although some are rendered in an off-white while other yet appear as the color of a pea soup provided at venues where one is forced to listen to some aspect of Christian doctrine before being allowed to slurp. Lubavitchers would not dare to serve soup of such a color, thus they are excluded from the trope.

The coincidence occurs when I am seated at the Xanadu Bakery, directly in front ot the Von's of the Stars, a market so called because it attracts individuals from Hollywood, not merely persons who drive up here to shop but rather those who do well eough in the entertainment industries to afford a pied a tierre or more, enabling them to have filled refrigerators in two different counties of this rambunctious state.

I am working out with Brian Fagan an approach to the opening four chapters of a book already contracted dealing with our forebears, the Cro-Magnon. Smugly satisfied over the prospects of this early insight into the venture, we slide into an atmosphere of near ebullience when, intent on some recondite purchase, Mark Collins appears, assumes the thrust of our scattered papers and bear claw crumbs if not the actual subject matter, then proceds to tell us not to forget the Haldeman-Julius Little Blue Books rights.

Why, I wonder, would you mention such a thing? I ask.

Because I have been inexplicably driven to collecting the things, Collins rejoins, whereupon we discover our mutual fascination with these books that sold millions of copies via mail order from about 1923 until 1956. My particular favorites were short stories of Chekhov, De Maupassant, and Jack London.

Collins has promised a full list of the books , photographs, and an opportunity to investigate his copies, thinking this might be a fun venture for my weekly book review column. I am not only agreeing, I am drawn back to the time when my collection was kept in a cigar box generously provided by my father who, at the time, favored a brand called Creamo. My Little Blue Books, stored in the Creamo Cigar box, began to take on a leafy tang, something between a wet dog and cooked cabbage which, now that I think about it, was exactly what Creamo Cigars smelled like.

Haldeman-Julius Little Blue Books were in many ways the beginning of the paperback book industry in this country, a sort of everyman's Tauchnitz Editions and, indeed, later the Pocket Book, copies of which I owned even though the twenty-five-cent price could get me a convincing model airplane model kit. Soon, very soon, books won out, and the next step in my iconography was a collection of the paperbound books made available to American GIs during World War II.

More on these remarkable books, anon. Collins has already sent me a complete list of all the Little Blue Books; he promises photos which I will share.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

By Design

For some years you sat hunched over your Remington upright and, later, your Olivetti Portable, producing things that had drive but no visible lot line. Your stories had the anachronistic feature of a flat line on a cathode ray tube. Zilch. Nada. Always some individual setting forth as, indeed, individuals in more viable stories set forth, some grail or other in mind. The shelves of your book cases were filled with titles promising you entry into the world of the published authors who were too busy working on the new story to even consider having fun any other way.

Even the weekly writers' poker games produced a sense of despair as you watched Day Keene, working his way through tall cans of Olympia Beer, musing about the novel he would--and did--begin next week and what a sonofabitch that Donald MacCampbell was of an agent. Bob Turner, eager to get started on another novel, would raise someone, anyone, an extra two dollars, but we all knew he was merely flaunting his riches from television. Len Pruyn, nervous that his last two stories were near misses at Playboy, and mindful of how previous appearances in that publication could make one's world for a time, would casually float out a story idea to see if it had any promise. Jack Matcha, brooding over not being able to come up with a repeat performance at Gold Medal, would try to outfloat Len with the notion of getting serious and writing a play. "Hell with it," Day Keene was always the first to say. "Let's go to Slim's, where they serve real beer instead of this milk of self-pity." And you would reply, "Damn straight," because you knew they all of them knew how to plot and you hadn't figured out yet what do do as a substitute.

Slim's was the iconic Bank Cafe on Gaffey Street in the armpit of San Pedro, a block away from Shanghai Red's and in an equilateral triangle with one of the worst Chinese Restaurants in the history of mankind. As we plied the back roads, usually from Day's or Len's in Palos Verdes to San Pedro, we sought relief from the outreach of our work, all of it personified in one man, Donald MacCampbell, the literary agent. In time, you were his client, too, but in that strange turn of events so common in the publishing industry, you also became his editor and as well Bob Turner. Don't Step on it--It Might Be a Writer, MacCampbell's title, had a bug on the cover. If you look closely at the bug, you will see a picture of me. Turner's memoir, Some of My Best Friends Are Writers, But I Wouldn't Want My Daughter to Marry One, also had a picture of me,buried within the graphics. "For good luck," Turner said.

How to discover a viable substitute for their familiarity with plot? I laughed when it came to me, just as I laughed at an email note from Lee's River, a companion of the blog life. Lee has mentioned two individuals to whom she could not make a specific observation. I laughed at the memory this brought to me across an ocean of years. My substitute for plot was imagining things characters could not share, things they felt constrained from verbalizing. They could be thought of but not acted upon. As Dryden once said of Chaucer, here was God's plenty. Son, very soon after this transformation, by no means in the desert and most likely on the road back from Slim's in San Pedro to my hovel in the Hollywood Hills, the acceptance notes began to keep some sort of pace with the Absolutely No Cigars notes.

Plot is a design, a dizzying Oriental rug, a sublime Navajo. It is also what one person dares not tell another for fear of consequences, and may be triggered by things one person dares not tell himself.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Writers' Toolkit

There is a defining moment in many conversations, a moment when the pinot noir reaches the halfway mark in the bottle and one of the conversants speculates that it is time to order another bottle, only to be greeted by remonstrations and protestations that there is an entire half bottle left.

The bottle here is purely for illustration, although I did in all truth chose my overall favorite red--just in case. The focus is on the way a noun--a person, place, or thing--helps define the viewer by allowing the viewer to reveal trances of personality DNA in the very act of viewing.

The act of viewing is one of the more jealously guarded things our characters have, often to the point of nourishing their view in brooding reverie or revenge fantasy should the circumstances warrant. Books are written and lectures presented wherein the specific focus is the way an event or a work of literature or art not only is seen but should be seen, as though the writer's or speaker's perception is the accurate one, under which all further argument is pointless.

Until recently I had considered point of view in a story of significant importance and were you to catch me at the proper moment, could see me warming to the rhetorical questions I attach to that importance, following the lead of the English essayist, William Hazlitt, I have come to admire. Who is telling the story? I bray across the meadows of the classroom. Why is the story more effective when told by this person? Would another person be able to tell it better? At about this point, I dredge up poor Nick Carraway, the default narrator of The Great Gatsby, and defend him as though he were my doctoral thesis and that I truly cared about such things as doctorates or theses. All of this questioning who tells the story makes sense, but it makes more sense to consider from the onset how important it is to recognize that unless there are individuals who see the wine bottle differently, there is going to be less story if any story at all.

Mine vs yours is the fast track to story. My rights versus yours, my privilege versus your rights, my understanding against yours, my taste in such matters as opposed to those unfortunate individuals you sometimes hook-up with. Ah, but wait, I'm just clearing the security check: what about the manner in which a particular person, place, or thing was seen in an historical context.

James Buchanan, for example, looks pretty good now as an American President because we have had seven years of George Bush, against whom any president would look good. For the longest time, he could be paired with his immediate successor to the presidency as the alpha and the omega, the absolute worst and the unquestioned best. In a collective sense or looking on the tenure of the fifteenth president as an historical event, we now have a new standard by which to assess.

Individuals do things in twenty-first century fiction that are often accepted as merely an event as opposed to being seen as social outcasts. The young brother of the protagonist in the Jhumpa Lahiri short story, Only Goodness, has a lady friend who has a child by an ex-lover, pointedly not an ex-husband. Nothing judgemental is said. Were this twenty years earlier, an eyebrow or two would have been raised. And what would happen if today a male character brought a date wearing a dress with a large embroidered A across the bosom, introducing her around the assembled host as Hester. Way cool emblem there, Hester. And in the ladies' room, Hey, is that dress from the new Ralph Lauren line?

Point of view means so much more than who the focus of the narrative is; it is at its essence context writ large; it is the sense that inheres in all characters of their correctness, the sanctity of their vision. Dare I raise the issue of those with problematic ego supplement? Yes, I believe I do. Individuals who doubt themselves, dislike themselves, distrust their vision are members of a segmented and separate part of humanity who must be seen to and understood as vulnerable in ways that become more appropriate for us to consider as the years--the world's and our own--progress. If they are victims, who were their oppressors? If they are deluded, who supplied them the drug of opiate or religion or social caste or tradition or...

One of the reasons we homo sapiens stand out from our brothers and sisters of other genus and species is because we are afflicted with a point of view, a sense of self that fits in the toolkit Nature has provided us. As a golfer looks to his bag for the proper implement in a fairway situation, the non-golfer looks to this toolkit of Nature for implements to use in solving problems. We judge species for a number of qualities, including their ability to make and use tools which, we argue, allows us to rank them on some scale of comparison to us, however patronizing the outcome may be.

We have at our disposal glorious opportunities to learn how to use the tools that are our point of view. These opportunities are lumped under the heading of education. The salient question here is where we get the education.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Wile E. Coyote, Capt. Ahab, and Hillary: A Lesson in Irony

Of the many things a writer may infict on characters, one of the least discussed and understood is conspiracy. Time after time, the writer conspires with readers and, indeed, with other characters, the target being one or more individuals in the dramatis personae.

That's right--a writer taking into confidence readers and other characters by sharing information and attitudes about the target character, saying in effect that we are all superior because we know something the target character does not know, a somethng that will ultimately cause that target character a comeuppance, as in George Minafur, a central force in Booth Trakington's magisterial The Magnificent Ambersons. Or perhaps the readers and characters are left with the impression that the target will never get it.

On such conspiracy is based a long, enduring pathway of dramatic narrative; it is called irony.

Irony is about the disconnect between the known and the unknown, the seen and unseen, the understood and misunderstood; it revolves about who is doing the seeing and, appropriately, what position the seer then takes, as in moral high ground.

We know Wile E. Coyote cannot win, a knowledge born of our understanding of literary convention and of the common-sense awareness that if Wile E. Coyote were to succeed once, that is to say realize his goal of dining on The Roadrunner, there would be no further episodes in a remarkable series. And so, empathetic and altruistic sorts that we are, we continue to watch Wile E. Coyote's attempts with the secure knowledge that he will be once again imaginatively humiliated.

There is one other attraction inherent in the adventures of Mr. Coyote and The Roadrunner, the single-minded preoccupation of the coyote, in many ways unrivaled in literature, certainly of a piece with Brer Fox's preoccupation with Brer Rabbit, and Krazy Kat's relationship with Ignatz Mouse, all of which transport a quantity of that illusive cargo we refer to as humor.

It is decidedly unfunny when we shift the venue to the sea and the world of whaling, as exemplified by Capt. Ahab, now aboard The Pequod, ever on the alert for GWW, the Great White Whale. To the degree that Ahab is as perfervid as Brer Fox and Wile E. Coyote ad Krazy Kat, he may be linked to these characters, but because he is so tangibly human and not a tangible and whimsical figure of imagination, Ahab has one foot--er, sorry for the pun there--firmly planted in the landscape of tragedy. Yes, you may properly deduce that tragedy and humor are close kin and that, indeed, you may secure humor from tragedy merely by speeding it's pace; yes, you may secure humor from tragedy by inserting moments i which a target character takes him/herself with exaggerated gravitas.

Comes before us now the junior Senator from the Empire State, intent on conspiring with us to cast aside a mounting sentiment of support for a nominee from her own political party to represent that party's bid for the Presidency of the United States. The junior Senator, emphatic of her experience, her ability, her eagerness to serve from 3 in the morning of Day One, is asking us to cast aside the outcome of Reality in order to cast herself in the starring role of a drama that has already been cast.


To compound the irony, the junior Senator from the Empire State is stealing lines from the actual nominee of the opposing party, which she is directing against the individual she has lost out to in the casting call.


A greater irony comes on stage when much of the media, still bearing the tar and feathers administered by conservative and libertarian points of view as being perfervid in their left-leaning and progressive agendas, are pouncing on the irony of the junior Senator from the Empire State, reporting it as fact and news. Much of the American public, whom H.L. Mencken once accused of negative acuity, are in similar fashion, seeing the Great White Whale when there is in fact no White Whale at all.

Another irony yet is what happens if a writer were to fictionalize such a scenario, then pass it forth as drama, only to be told such things could only happen in cartoons and fables.

And so we beat on, as Nick Carraway observes at the end of The Great Gatsby, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly back into the past, the irony here being that to the very end, Nick has regarded Gatsby as a romantic instead of an Ahab.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Endless Gyre of Character.

After last evening's work-through on character and how individuals with agendas produce story, some thoughts arrive about how characters internalize and externalize their individual agendas. One such manner is in what they say to one another and, appropriately enough, what they don't say.


Dialog is not conversation, it is the dramatic equivalent of lasik surgery; it has a sharp, intense edge. In many ways, dialog is the core sampling of a scene, subjecting characters to intense scrutiny by--you guessed it--each other and the reader. Dialog is the DNA of a particular person, a simultaneous indication of who that person is, what that person wants, what that person thinks of other persons, what that person thinks of himself. After a few pages in which to grow acquainted with the ensemble of dramatis personae, the reader should be able to tell who's talking. The reader should be able to tell with little or no attribution.

Social, racial, biological strata are defined in fiction not by igneous or sedimentary deposits, neither by alluvial fans nor schist nor feldspar but rather by degrees of awareness of social custom, standing, ranking. In an early episode of The Wire, an up-and-coming young figure in the drug world, D'Angelo Barksdale, has brought a date to an upscale Baltimore restaurant where the clientele is pretty well integrated, which leads the date to the observation that if you have the money, you can pretty much go where you please. Barksdale wants to believe this but is clearly uncomfortable even though he is trying to appear cool. Toward the end of the meal, the waiter wheels a desert trolley to their table. The date wants chocolate cake which Barksdale, wanting to be accomplished and suave, picks up from the serving tray only to be told by the waiter, "Oh, sir, That's the display piece. Let me get that for you." Mortified, Barksdale allows the waiter to serve his date and declines anything for himself, a lovely core sampling of how the concept of manners, serving, and conventions differ from an upscale restaurant and, say, a corner eatery where the main dish is the chili dog.

How comfortable are "they" within a setting? How comfortable are "they" with others? What defects or secrets or insecurities are they trying to cover up or, conversely, exploit?

What makes us remember a character? It is not, I venture, physical description so much as it is how the individual uses or fails to use the physical hand we writers have dealt them, which brings me back to that memorable dramatic skit featuring Bette Davis and William Bendix as a more-than-middle-agd husband and wife. Bendix, in pants and undershirt, is reading the newspaper, content to let his wife do the cleaning and dusting, her hair done up in a towel to protect it from dirt. We begin to get the throughline of the skit when Bendix begins to order her away from the window and her implicit understanding of why. Bendix is convinced that some neighbor his looking at her and lusting after her, his sexual jealousy gradually mounting. The absurdity of anyone thinking this slattern sexually attractive is gradually replaced by the growing realization that this man is serious. To him, this woman is beautiful, sexually desirable ,and someone whose honor he cares about with as much passion as, say, Gawain and Arthur variously had feelings about Guinevere.

Imagine if you will the potential for expanding that segment to another scene in which the imaginary neighbor Bendix was jealous of appears on stage, trying to strike up a conversation with the Bette Davis character. Imagine him leaving anonymous gifts for her, flowers, boxes of candy, love poems. Suddenly a scene with a dynamic becomes expanded to a Georges Simenon novel where the behavior of characters is constantly pushed to that remarkable level where the unthinkable comes to pass.

We often hear the hype of chemistry between actors in plays and motion pictures, a chemistry that can certainly be exemplified by the one between Paul Newman and Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sun Dance Kid. This chemistry is something that trumps actual story, becomes a story of its own, with its own energy, making the landscape come to life in ways the set decorator never dreamed of, which is an apt analogy here because on this very day, in the Saturday workshop, one writer, a film set decorator, saw her novel come to a life she had not imagined because of the chemistry between characters she had not thought of as front rank.

No matter what the rank of the character, the understanding of this individual can be the key to the story shifting from that six-word-drivel of the Hemingway short story about the pair of baby shoes for sale, never used, to something of substance, as in the two waiters in the same author's short story, A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, and the one customer they're trying to get to go home, or the emotional wrench we feel at the tail end of Steinbeck's story, Chrysanthemums.

We need relevant, telling details of their life before we can give them one. Even the kid--if it is indeed a kid--or perhaps the elderly guy who delivers our pizza has something that makes him something more than the deliverer of pizza. There used to be a manager at Starbucks who had me returning to Starbucks even after I'd discovered Peet's coffee, just for a chance to get a few words with Tom, who had something that made him more than Starbucks' coffee.

Drill down past the core of all of them, get at the sedimentary rock, the poetry, the dreams, the urges, the taboos. Hold them to the spectrometer of your imagination and let the midnight special shine its ever lovin' light on them, to see how far you have come in your time on this relatively small ball that hurtles so relentlessly through space, returning in ways that Giambatista Vico and Gallaleo and Annie Proulx understand and you have yet to learn.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Amicus Brief

One of the things we look for in friends is the easy and flexible tie of acceptance; we look for someone we can be accepting of, someone who will return the favor by being accepting of us, with all our follies and foibles. Work associates and acquaintances are another matter, a population living for all practical purposes on another plateau. We have to get along with these, maintain a level of some civility. When persons of this level reach the point in our esteem where we become vulnerable in the sense of possibly being disappointed in them, then the lines have been muddied and we are at risk of becoming accepting of them.

I am openly wondering here if we treat our characters with the same degrees of awareness, being accepting or not, being disappointed in them or for the, running the risk of caring about them to the point where they take on a life of their own, off the page or screen, appearing , as friends often do, in our dreams, plans, speculations, remembrances.

How much in reality do we know about our characters? Do we know their dreams to the extent where we know what they hope to accomplish in life? Do we know for what and for whom they lust?

These questions weigh heavily on me much of the time and bear down like the contents of an improperly stacked shelf, dousing me with results of a sudden shift in center of gravity, more so when I stumble across formulaic rubrics for creating memorable characters or when I read something where the goals, dreams, and secrets of the characters are as remote as a distant star. This last is a splendid metaphor for character because in many cases the light we see from distant stars began its travels to our sensors even before we were born. Some characters were set in motion in centuries past, The Wife of Bath coming to mind as a prime example. Six hundred years is a long time for a character to travel, but she, The Wife, holds up remarkably well and serves as a model for emulation, not necessarily of type but of process.

In the process of going through early episodes of The Wire, I am finding another form of reminder. Most of these characters have the added advantage of having their agendas and words set forth in what I will call street poetry. They also have the dual advantage of visual representation in general and depiction from a fine ensemble cast of actors in specific.

This may explain some of my craziness and otherness. I wander about in a manner reminiscent of Stephen Deadalus in the Ulysses Night Town segment, haunted by visitors from the ghost world. Like Stephen, I am visited by images of Annie, my mother, with some mother-son issues, to be sure, but nothing so guilt-ridden and driven as Stephen's to his mother, whose death-bed wishes were that he pray for her, and his agenda was to refuse. I am visited by a growing panoply of ghosts, from the plateau of friendship and from the land of the acquaintance, often with no clue why they picked a particular moment to appear. I am visited by and may appear to be conversing with characters or with acquaintances with whom I am in the process of developing that vulnerability I mentioned earlier, the vulnerability of becoming accepting of them and their foibles.

Although I on occasion appear to myself as a misanthrope, I am not seriously enlisted in that particular lodge; it is too easy to find individuals and characters not only to accept but to outright admire and envy their abilities at coping with various of the challenges presented by life.

If they--these imaginary individuals of my own process--will trust me with their stories, why shouldn't I extend them the favor of trusting them with mine?

The bond that connects us or, in fact, is waiting for the connection to become more manifest is the bond of confidence. I need to gain their confidence so that they will tell me not the surface story but the real story, the deep story, the one printed on the archival medium of their soul.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Pieces of Ought

From time to time, we come across works to read or see or listen to that make us wish we'd been there, however small a fly on the wall, at creation. These works, out of the mainstream, inspire and force the green fuse through flower, as Dylan Thomas so aptly put it. To say it another way, these works make us envious of those who originated them, make us want to produce our own version as a tribute. This is, I recognize, reactive composition as opposed to originate composition, a distinction that is as grand as the separation between character-driven stories and those propelled by plot design. Thus I would call my piano concerto In the Manner of Ravel, as indeed he called a piece of his In the Manner of Borodin. I would call my opera The Gershwin Family as a nod to Porgy and Bess. My version of the first two and the last episode of The Wire would be subtitled: a tribute to Clark Johnson and David Simon, the respective actor/director and the writer. The motion picture that haunts my reverie and working writing process is The Late Show, a 1977 film written and directed by Robert Benton, featuring Art Carney as Ira Wells, a retired, sixty-ish private eye, and Lilly Tomlin as the highly distracted former hippie, Margo, who has come to Ira with a case involving the recovery of her missing cat. Ira goes to work and, shades of Dashiell Hammett and Sam Spade, discovers who killed his former partner.

I do not imagine for a moment that I could have produced anything close to the originals in quality and plangent emotional integrity. On the other hand, I believe it is a nice thing, a kind of iPod Genie-in-a-Bottle to have at hand, the business of being inspired by the works of others to trick out my own landscape, case it, rehearse it, costume it, and set it into action.

Introducing myself to a new class last night, I mounted my high horse to proclaim, Please do not write anything for this class that is not fun for you. I don't care if the intent is revenge or profit or revisionist history so long as the revenge amuses you, the profit is enough to buy a decent meal with a respectable bottle of pinot noir, and the history you revise wasn't very satisfying in the first place.

Nearly every book on the shelves of my main book case is a title I am in some way envious of, including the Big Little Books, and the reference books. Man needs all the inspiration he can get. These titles inspire even while they frustrate and send forth waves of awe.

As a species, we writers only produce the things we've written, not the things we ought to have written, but we are guided by that remarkable pole star of being directed by pointing the hour-hand of our watch to the sun when it is directly overhead, then setting our course on the minute hand, navigating with the most primitive of devices when all about us, other writers are using the sophisticated tools of their intuitions and imagination.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Products, Units, and Books

One of the great, unknown terrors awaiting the author who strives for significant recognition is the horror not even Stephen King could recognize. Of course Stephen doesn't recognize it because, well, because it doesn't matter to him. Being Stephen King and wanting to bring people in close touch with fear in some form is his goal. Not only is he good at it, he has explained with his concept of scary things to include seemingly quotidian things that do not, on the surface, seem at all scary but which, on closer inspection, seethe with fright.

Which brings us right back to the beginning. And away from Stephen King.

The writer who achieves success in the commercial markets ceases to become a writer of books or stories and is assigned the nomenclature of producer or productivity source. His or her books are no longer books, they are units or product or units of product. How many units of hardcover product will it take to fill a shelf or display bin at Wal-Mart?

Not only does the author get screwed royalty-wise by having the royalty on copies sold to such mass-discounted sources, the author gets screwed by being told by the publisher that the publisher cannot afford to allow the author to write something outside the author's area of expertise. You want to write outside the area of your expertise, you'll have to assume a pseudonym. You'll have to take on another name, perhaps even a translation of your name if it means something such as lion's head in another language. You can still say on the cover that you are who you are, but this time you're writing as someone else, writing as though you were who you are. I was told that readers would not read Westerns by anyone with a name like mine and so I became Craig Barstow and Walter Feldspar to write Westerns as though I were more authentic because my name sounded more--er, Western. It is also possible that the same publisher who wasn't too happy with your last book will take your next book if you change your name because you were such a loser with the last book, but with a new name, you no longer have a track record that is in the tank.

It is sad to see the way publishing has become a business where individual titles are treated as a new product in an existing line instead of another book in a steady production of books, with the year-end figures predicated on all the books published. It is sad to see the writer asked what he or she has published instead of what are you working on, as though having published something is the only standard applied in making one a writer. Indeed, writers are sometimes asked how many times they have been on The New York Times Best-Seller list, as thought that makes them a writer. It may be a wild stretch but I don't think people are all that curious to now how many condoms per year a condom manufacturer manufactures; they may be interested to know how many condoms were used in a given year or, conversely, how many were not used and to what effect.

This is all quite academic, and somewhere in these grooves of academe is the meme that selling copies of a book makes a writer more insightful, original, and effective.

We begin by wanting to write stories that will change the world, then narrow our expectations to wanting to write stories that will effect people, then narrow our expectations to wanting to write stories that will move some people to some particular feeling, then narrow our expectations to the point where we want to write something that will please us for some brief span of time, say the length of time it takes the trapeze artist to miss the trapeze and fall to the net below.

The job is a difficult one to fulfill because as writers we are difficult to satisfy. We are constantly missing the handle and felling to the net below, It is the best job in the world. And yet we want to chuck it ll aside for the privilege of being nagged into writing a unit or a product for some MBA who is too busy to read.

Relatively few of the novels actually published sell more than five hundred or a thousand copies, a fact that does not make the writer any more or less of a writer
John Williams' remarkable novel about the academic life, Stoner, barely sold two thousand copies when originally printed, but now, in a new edition from a new publisher, Stoner is a minor classic

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Itching for a Fight

By any accounts one of our early speculative writers, Nathaniel Hawthorne produced a short story, The Intelligence Office, in which individuals came to ask practical and existential questions with the hope of being supplied direct, non-bureaucratic answers. Indeed, as the narrative develops, one such person arrives, heatedly exclaiming: "I want my place! My own place! My true place in the world! My proper sphere! My thing to do which nature intended me to perform when she fashioned me thus awry..."

There is more to the quote, which is a memorable and lovely one as are so many of Hawthorne's gem-like observations but, lover of the digression that I am, I forebear to quote. As Dryden once said of Chaucer, "Here [in Hawthorne's aphoristic display]is God's plenty." Those of us who have found their proper sphere in the world of writing have indeed been fashioned awry by that lovely combination of cells, bones, wired-in predilections, and compulsions that make us what we are and which we must now struggle with, for being fashioned awry by nature means exactly what it says: seriously awry.

Some of us are in it for the apparent glory of success in terms of numbers of copies actually sold, others of us seek prizes and grants, perhaps even writer-in-residence appointments. Others still pursue the Holy Grail of the perfect story, the perfect novel, the one critics will hold up as the gleaming example, the pole star for all who follow. For others yet, there is the ambivalent sense of a recurring itch somewhere between our metaphoric shoulders, a place that cannot be conveniently reached by ourselves and so we lurch about, aware of the itch, somehow satisfied to have found it, but always on the lookout for a place we can use for an itching post.

Writers write to redress old wrongs, real and imagined, wrongs inflicted on themselves and others. Writers write for revenge against real and imaginary lovers, authority figures, editors, and literary agents. Writers write to build up, tear down, and rearrange, a series of motives that applies to history, demographics, economics, and the big three among forbidden areas of trespass, sex, religion, and politics. (Philip Roth Comes to mind as someone who has engaged all three with a particular panache.)

And so we lurch on, mindful of our itch and the near impossible prospect of scratching it into submission, on the metaphoric cusp, which is where we deserve to be. Writers who don't itch are either dead or deluded. For the rest of us, it is as though we are Gatsby, on the lookout for the green light at the end of the harbor, hopeful, continuously hopeful of effecting some outcome which we constantly revise in the secret blogs of our head.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Dramatic Darwinism

Over the past several days, I've given considerable thought to the kind of locale I distinguish from mere setting or place or even physical description. I call it landscape, which may also be an historical era, an actual event such as a war or disaster or performance or celebration; it is a combination of presence, time, dimension, and context. Yes, context, as it an attitude about what the time, place, people, and attitudes meant to them and to me writing about it in the now.

Or is the now just as bound by suspicion as the deconstructionist notion of text?

We put forth a good deal of time thinking about such basics as characters, scenes, story arc, conflict, and yes, even those vital reversals of fortune that make it seem as though the characters will once again be denied what they want. We spend little time developing the landscape on which these elements will be played out or, to use a painterly metaphor, the texture of the medium on which the story will be painted.

Stop dithering, Mr. Dickens. Was it the best of times or was it the worst?

Landscape is the sum total of tools you bring to the job, the canvas or wall or paper or cardboard; it is the pencil or charcoal, the brush or pen or the palette knife; it is the width and intensity of your strokes and the smoothness or texture of your background.

Without this sense of you having taken over the landscape, there is no sense of you inhabiting the story. I knew there was a message waiting for me in my sense of nostalgia for the Coconino County of the George Herriman comic strip, Krazy Kat, just as I feel somehow more secure knowing Wile E. Coyote chases Roadrunner through the same kinds of terrain, just as I am comfortable with the moors in Jane Eyre and the parched, withering setting of William Faulkner's make-believe county in Mississippi.

Setting is the place where we let our guard down, thinking we'll throw in a weather report and a Rand McNally Atlas description somewhere to demonstrate how well we describe. Except that it isn't at all about description, it is about taking over the setting, where and whenever it is and making it as much ours as we have made the characters ours.

Somewhere out "there" in the imagination is a place where we are tempted to bring our characters, put on a show in the garage, charge admission, become dramatic entrepreneurs of the highest order. We have to feel our way through this landscape until we respond to it in some tangible, emotional way because it is as much a part of the story as what the characters in the story want. Brer Fox wants Brer Rabbit; Wile E. Coyote wants The Road Runner, in both cases for dinner. The characters in Mrs. Wharton's New York stories want something, too; they want status quo, which means we have to see what the status is in order to appreciate what the quo means and, in Mrs. Wharton's case, to whom it has meaning. Her stories would be notably different in Coconino County, Arizona.

An overweight person, taking a second chicken drumstick on is plate, is living in a different landscape than Oliver Twist wanting more oatmeal. The former produces a kind of wry humor, the latter produces pathos.

Landscape has as much personality and rules of behavior as characters who exist in different social strata. The way characters speak to one another and to those out of their social strata define one kind of landscape; the way characters behave in select venues is our clue to how comfortable or uncomfortable they are, how entitled or servile they are at heart. Thus the Marxism of speech and place--how characters talk and behave--in direct comparison and contrast to what they want and what they think of themselves.

A narrative Darwinism inheres in all stories; we enhance this survival of the fittest by recognizing how characters react to and behave in the most rigorous and stratified terrain of all, the landscape of the writer's mind.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Carnival and the Grotesque: Some Words on Humor

The Russian Formalists working in the early years of last century and, thus, about a hundred years ago, were seeking a way to investigate and interpret poetic language, placing more of a premium on it than, say, the language of psychology. Such critical thinkers as my own favorite,Mikhail Bakhtin (November 17, 1895 – March 7, 1975), were looking for a means of removing the inconsequential and mundane from those very aspects of life, the inconsequential and mundane. They were looking, in other words and, of course in simplistic apercu for the miraculous and extraordinary embedded in the quotidian. These critics in Russia pushed the world of literature into the twentieth century, into modernism, into an investigation of the connection between the writer and the text.

Bakhtin's major work was an explication of Rabelais, a writer misunderstood and denied validity in a manner similar to the very misunderstanding and denial associated with Bakhtin. By dealing with what he called the carnival and the grotesque, and by studiously analyzing portions of Rabelais that had been excised in the interests of good taste, Bakhtin demonstrated how crowds, social classes, and uses of language demonstrated a workable metaphor for The Body Politic, which is to say for the entire range of social classes, where each strata emerged in Rabelais' writings as embodiments of society.

Such musings, beyond the confines of the academy and the peer review help us see how our own work may reflect the very spark, the lightning in a bottle we seek to make it ours and to give it the life of what I will call reflective entertainment, which is to say those things that make us think even while we are enjoying ourselves.

Although I much admire most of the work and purpose of Carl Hiaasen, and have read in him at some length, his novels are not my emotional favorites even though some of his characters have taken up residence in my own imaginative reflections, my own casting of landscape and dramatic terrain. Hiaasen's work approximates the tone and intent of Rabelais.

The grotesque is the term used by Bakhtin to describe the emphasis on bodily changes through eating, evacuation, and sex: it is used as a measuring device for the body politic. The carnival, that glorious pre-Lenten eruption of convivial behavior, represents the activity of the group. As seen by Rabelais and, later, by Hiaasen, these activities give us something to measure. Most of us who read Rabelais or Hiaasen measure them by laughter, which is another subject dear to the literary hard of this amazing critic, so long forgotten, just now beginning to reemerge from the shadows with a focus we can use as we sweep the night skies, looking for our own pole star by which to orient ourselves.

If we chose what seems funny to us, we have begun looking for the miracle of explosiveness in the illusion of the ordinary.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

A County of One's own

When you think regionalism in terms of American literature, your thoughts would likely be drawn sooner or later to Yoknapatawpha, a county in northern Mississippi, and once there, to its county seat, Jefferson. Neither of these venues are to be found on Map Quest or Google maps, but they exist with throbbing presence in much of the short stories and novels of William Faulkner. They began in his mind and were transmogrified into ours to the extent that those of us who have never set foot in Mississippi nevertheless believe we know that part of the world and the complex strata of individuals living in it.

On the other hand, as many Westerners know, Coconino is the name of a county in Arizona, its county seat is Flagstaff. With the exception of San Bernardino County, California, Coconino County is the largest of the counties in mainland United States, containing among other notable features The Grand Canyon. While we're at it, there is another Coconino County, not perhaps as well know or studied as William Faulkner's county, but influential nevertheless to those whose interests and talents reside in the graphic arts and literature.

I speak of the Coconino County of a cat, a mouse, and a dog, a world of surreal and whimsical beauty and accoutrement. The cat, sometimes rendered as male, other times female, is romantically drawn to the mouse. For his part, the mouse is the sworn enemy of the cat. The dog is a sworn member of the law enforcement establishment, one of his major jobs keeping the peace, which translates to preventing the mouse from throwing bricks at the cat or, arriving on the scene too late to prevent the launching of yet another brick, hauling the mouse off to the Coconino County jail for appropriate punishment. Thus you have Krazy Kat, Ignatz Mouse, and Officer Bull Pupp.

The creator of Krazy Kat drew his last comic strip adventure shortly before his death in 1944, but for over sixty years, the legend and reach of arguably one of the great icons of pictorial story telling has attracted fans, influenced other artists, inspired some writers, and remains a cultural icon. Two other iconic contributors to the Valhalla of comic book art spoke to me with unabashed awe , enthusiasm, and admiration for George Herrimann's creation. Bob Kane, creator of Batman, confessed to an envy for the dream-like beauty of Krazy Kat; Charles Schulz, creator of Peanuts, said without hesitation that Krazy Kat drew him into wanting to create his own landscape, peopled with his own characters and animals.

Such is the wonderful nature of Krazy Kat, the feline, that he or she (but never it) is always ready to believe that the latest brick missile launched by Ignatz Mouse is a frank admission of requited love. In this image, Ignatz Mouse has pretended to be a picture in order to avoid detection until he has let fly with brick, catching Krazy Kat
unaware until the moment of contact, at which point, ah, true love.

It may be a stretch in time, but to show how iconic the Krazy Kat landscape of Coconino County is, we come half a century later to an equally surreal ensemble cast of characters slinking through the buttes, mesas, and cactus, none other than Wile E. Coyote and The Road Runner, their agendas as clearly defined as their artistic forebears. This then becomes a panegyric to the landscape of the heart and mind, the place evolved through a combination of imagination, loneliness, desire for adventure, and the artistic need for much more than a room of one's own. They are there waiting for us, ready to pounce or throw bricks, motivated by love, purpose, and mischief.

Friday, April 4, 2008

'Twas Brillig

Sithen the sege and the assaut was sesed at Troye,
The borgh brittened and brent to brondes and askes,
The tulk that the trammes of tresoun ther wroght
Was tried for his tricherie, the trewest on erthe.
Hit was Ennias the athel and his highe kynde
That sithen depreced provinces, and patrounes bicome
Welneghe of al the wele in the West Iles...

No, that is neither Esperanto nor border Spanish/English, not some conflation of vowel, accent and consonant that will inform the language as it evolves from American English to Internet English. That is the opening of the original text of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, not as set to paper by the original and, alas, anonymous poet, but probably by some contemporary scribe who made a copy. Fortunately, the copy remains intact, transporting us back to the time when our language had a more Germanic touch to it than it does now.

For most of my reading life, I have been fascinated by this historical time, particularly persistent in trying to convince various institutions to allow me to teach a course in Chaucer, spending some unsuccessful time trying to teach myself Anglo-Saxon, although some success is manifest whenever I knock over a cup of coffee or drop something balanced precariously on something else I'm carrying.

The opening above translates like this:

Once the siege and assault of Troy had ceased,
with the city a smoke-heap of cinders and ash,
the traitor who contrived such betrayal thereCheck Spelling
was tried for his treachery, the truest on earth;
so Aeneas, it was, with his boble warriors
went conquoring abroad, laying claim to the crowns
of the wealthiest kingdoms in the western world...

The translator is the scholar/novelist Simon Armitage, who has, to the ex tent I've read, done a remarkable job of making the language clear, evocative, and yet emblematic of the original language in use by the original poet when the narrative was first written. I'm reading this new translation because I admire the many earlier versions I have read, learning a bit more about the original and its language with each new version. It had not occurred to me before this version that the original begins with the sack of Troy, the bare bones of The Iliad. Nor had it remained in my mind that the opening also referenced another of the so-called classical pillars of Western literature, The Aeneid, of Cano arma virumque fame (I sing of arms and the man)by Virgil, which was later made much fun of by G.B. Shaw in his play, Arms and the Man.

It is interesting to speculate that the Gawain poet may well have been showing off; he was certainly an educated poet to have heard of the Trojan War and, indeed, the Aeneid; he may also have been trying to appeal to a particular audience with those references which. having been made, are dropped forthwith in favor of the present story, which involves King Arthur and his crew, having a bit of a Christmas gala when into their midst rides a strange, unearthly knight, all in green, seeming as odd and menacing to the Arthurian Round Table as Marlon Brando's Johnny Strabler character in the film, The Wild One.

Revivications of older works have, in modern times, resulted in some notable failures. King Kong comes to mind, along with legions of filmic remakes including the transmogrification of Seven Samurai into The Magnificent Seven although the Japanese version of Macbeth played well enough to leave a lasting impression, and some-but-not-all transformations of Shakespeare plays into other settings or time frames than they were intended have survived well, even to the point of providing fresh insight into the original as well as leaving a sense of some relevance to our present time.

I can imagine no better way for a writer to "get" a work from the past than to do a modernization of it, a thought that immediately causes me to wonder how Alexander Pope's magnificent jape, The Rape of the Lock, might play out as a contemporary venture. My current sense of having found the distinguished restaurant or splendid gift shop or used book store is The Canterbury Tales by he who was probably as urbane as Noel Coward, Somerset Maugham, and Evelyn Waugh, rolled up into one, Geoffrey Chaucer, in many ways the father of our language of poetry, humor, and irony. As a youngster, just past the having learned to read stage, I recall weekly supplements in the Sunday Examiner, the morning Hearst paper in Los Angeles. There were the Charles Lamb synopses of Shakespeare plays and someone--I forget who--doing modern readable Canterbury Tales. There was also Krazy Kat, but that was another matter, or perhaps not, now that I think of it. I was affected and effected by those surreal tales of whim, pathos, and magic to the point where in my head Ignatz Mouse, Krazy Kat, and Offisa Pup were as real as the Knight, the pardoner, the Wife of Bath, and the entire Canterbury-bound ensemble cast.

Dream on. And watch out for slithy toves.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Failure as a Role Model

Showing up for the conventional Thursday lunch with Conrad, which is to say Barnaby, not Joseph, I see a chunk of restaurant window, a portion of sign, and some coin-operated gum ball machines. Thinking this could be a nice shot, I reach into my pocket, remove the Leica and fire away. With luck, you'll see one in a moment or two. From the sideline comes a voice urging me to take a shot of him. Indeed, it is the youngest of the male Conrad siblings, Winston. Fair enough. BC and I are with some regularity joined by a next generation Conrad.

After we are inside and our orders are given, Winston, who has written a book, Hemingway's Italy, reacts to a comment I made about a small town in Montana by remarking that there lived the late Gregory Hemingway, the younger son of the Hemingway. And BC, who has written about and crossed paths with the Hemingway, begins to suggest that Winston has enough contact with the Hemingway family to merit another book. Against Winston's demurral, I volunteer the statistics on books written about Marilyn Monroe, JFK, and Abraham Lincoln. Winston is wavering but still not convinced. I decide to drop my one and only card, which is a low trump but nevertheless of trump rank. I will give you a detailed reminiscence of my undergraduate years in some contact with Gregory Hemingway. Winston's trump card is that Greg's nephew has written the book BC is talking about; he offers to bring it forth next week.

At that point our meals are served and we lapse into favorite the Hemingway stories. BC has the trump card here, one that even surpasses Hemingway's being rankled by BC's temerity in daring to have written the quintessential novel about bullfighting, Matador, based on the life of Manolete, whom BC knew as a friend and the Hemingway did not. BC has found a quote from the Hemingway that he will use in his latest book, The 101 Greatest Openings (of novels) Ever Published. The quote will appear on the first right-hand page after the copyright page--the epigram. "Don't tell them," the quote will assert, "that we had to learn how to write. Let them think we were born that way."

Hearing that, my respect for EMH took a new upward thrust.

I by no means object to the concept of a writer's writer, but each time I see the blurbed assessment that someone--anyone--is a born writer, those parts of me that can curl do. Some writers have a greater sense of poetry or story or drama or theme or descriptive ability; some even have all these in one package, but they do not arrive with right- or left-handedness or color of eye or size or shape or skin coloring. Only work removes the traces of work. Those of us who have been at it from early in our career and are still not content with what has been achieved realize only too well how much it has cost to be where we are, to say nothing of how much it will cost to get where we aspire.

Beckett had it right. Go out and fail. The go out and fail better next time.