Month: November 2015

Don’t Forget about The Art of Fiction


Image via The Paris Review

Just a bit of a PSA today. Unless you have an ontological opposition to reading interviews, you should absolutely check out the back catalog of The Paris Review. The have posted most of their interview series “The Art of Fiction” online, and there are some pretty heavy hitters up there. Some of my personal favorites are Milan Kundera, Vonnegut, Hemingway, and Faulkner, but it’s hard to find a bad one. Even interviews with authors I don’t particularly care for are still interesting enough to be worthwhile (*cough-Jonathan-Franzen-cough*).

So go take a look. Skim through the list and see what jumps out at you. These are nice, long interviews, usually composites of many meeting, poured over and collected. The work of interviewing itself always seems well done, and generally seem to be the best interview given to any particular author.



The Tenth of December, the Limits of Irony (and the Best Kind of Irony)

image via Goodreads

Saunders is very much a known entity, but that’s certainly no strike against the man. He’s got a style that (among many other things) seems to both mock and pay homage to a certain kind of blind American earnestness, and the stories in Tenth of December really run with that. I will admit, this is the first Saunders collection I have read in its entirety, although I have read something close to a dozen of his stories in journals and anthologies.

I was struck by how much the final (and titular) story differs from the rest of his work. Importantly, I also found it to be by far the strongest and most affecting story in the collection. The story is clearly Saunders through and through, but there’s another kind of closeness, an empathy that his more satirical stories are forced to distance themselves from to some extend if they are to function well as satirical works (which they do).

It’s tempting to say that irony blunts genuine human emotion, but that’s too easy and too simple an explanation for what’s going on. Irony forces us to empathize with a different part of our brain, different synapses firing to bring us into a similar state of empathy. The best irony (like Saunders and Vonnegut, say) forces us to confront the things we don’t want to think about in the most unpleasant way possible -by laughing at them. Any kind of decent or sensitive person, upon laughing at human misery, is forced into a mode of reflexive empathy, following up their reactionary laughter with conscious humanity, reaching out to something that they cannot help but recognize themselves in. Maybe it’s actually the jaded and cynical who can’t really get irony.

The Grapes of Wrath and the Journals Behind the Book

Image via The Guardian

The Grapes of Wrath is another one of those American classics that I somehow avoided reading in high school. Getting to read all of these canonical tomes as an adult has, thus far, not proved to be a disappointment. The Grapes of Wrath is a remarkable timeless piece of work, relevant as ever in 2015. And the direct prose, seasoned with occasional King James Bible lyricism, reads as well as ever.

Not that readers need some guy on the internet to tell them that this book is good. But a less obvious suggestion than “I also think that this thing that everyone thinks is good, is good” that I highly recommend, especially for writers, is reading “Working Days: A Journal Of The Grapes Of Wrath”. This collection of journals that Steinbeck kept during the process of writing this novel centers around the daily log he kept, in which he made an entry every day he wrote. It also contains the journal entries he made during editing and the process of publication, as well as extensive endnotes and background information by scholar Robert DeMott. While the information text and later entries are interesting, the central “working days” journal is definitely the highlight. It’s fascinating to see just how much sheer work goes into the process of great writing -not magical inspiration, but a grinding amount of man-hours and forced effort. It does a great job of cutting through lots of the romantic bullshit that gets heaped on great creators.

The process of creating good art is work. It’s also often full of brutalizing self-doubt, anxiety, and a fleeting certainty that you are actually no good, that you are a pretender, and that your big project is a crock of worthless shit and that anyone with a shred of perception will see the truth and call you out. And creation can veer into grandiosity, your unshakable self-important knowledge that this is a great work, a future masterpiece, something that will make everyone stop being evil and sit and feel and understand. Steinbeck, writing for himself as an act of creative discipline, shows every foible and every swing in the process of deep, involved writing. It’s good to know that you aren’t alone in your insanity.

Recommendation: Read the canon, of course. And if you are any kind of creative laborer, read the journals, too. 

Hertfielder and Papazien: Why it’s OK to thoroughly enjoy a bad book every now and then

cartoon me

Both of these books are somewhat badly written, at least by the standards I judge writing by. The prose is either unremarkable or flawed, given to cliche and obvious tropes. But I really enjoyed both of them, and I’d be very sad if ever a day came where I found myself unable to enjoy a book that didn’t live up to some objective standard of obsessive rewriting and literary dedication. As much as I value words written beautifully, it seems ridiculous to expect everything I enjoy to fall within that paradigm.

“80.3: Gas Available” is a collection of columns written by Ed Hertfielder for a few different motorcycle magazines. Hertfielder writes short, humorous essays on enduro racing and dual-sport riding, a motorcycle subculture that I have only moderate experience with, but enormous respect for. His essays read a bit like an extremely blue-collar Dave Barry writing mostly for his own amusement -lots of cheap gags and predicable jokes- but it’s honest writing and it’s about interesting shit. Good enough for me.

Charlie Papazien’s “Microbrewed Adventures” is a beer-based travelogue, written by the founder and head of the American Homebrewers’ Association. Papazien has written some of the best how-to books on homebrewing out there and is a perfect evangelist for the American homebrewing Renaissance, but he’s only a mediocre travel writer at best, falling into the kind of cliched patterns of retelling experiences that characterize the blogs of non-writers hiking the Pacific Crest Trail or backpacking across Europe. But again, passion can score points over craftsmanship, and Papazien’s undeniable enthusiasm for beer and the community it engenders covers a multitude of sins.

Recommendation: Read shit that’s interesting to you and don’t get obsessively hung up on exclusively literary prose, or you’ll turn into an asshole and people won’t talk to you at parties.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano and Grading Debut Novels on a Curve

image via

Debut novels are interesting. I’m a big Vonnegut fan. I’m planning to read all of his novels and then get a tattoo of the asshole he drew in Breakfast of Champions (that is not a joke, and please don’t tell my mom). Player Piano is an instructive look into the early thoughts of one of my favorite authors, but it’s definitely one of his weaker books.

Vonnegut’s short stories have been justly criticized. Most of them are phoned-in moneymakers, sad relics of the (woefully?) bygone era when short stories were still literary commodities of financial importance. Player Piano does not suffer from that particular failing, at least. It’s just really damn preachy. The novel describes a sad utopia where machines have made all but the very brightest human engineers obsolete, regulated to busy-work and menial, unfulfilled drudgery. Vonnegut makes that unfortunate mistake of many young novelists, that of both writing a book around a narrow philosophical treatise (humans are dehumanized without meaningful work) and then spitting that thesis out of his/her characters’ mouths. He’s not stooping to Ayn Rand levels here, but there’s a lot of it, and it’s pretty painful.

This major flaw certainly weakens the book quite a bit, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say it spoils the thing completely. It’s still damn funny, and the earnestness that manifests itself badly in the form of a harping philosophical soapbox in narrative dress finds a much happier outlet in both touching moments of human unease and in the kind of black comedy that drew me to Vonnegut as a younger reader. It’s a strong, albeit deeply flawed, first effort, and it points at all the interesting places Vonnegut went as he strengthened his craft and sense of subtlety.

Recommendation: Read Slaughterhouse-Five or Cat’s Cradle instead, unless you’re dead set on really getting into Vonnegut’s back catalog.