Friday, February 27, 2009

A story

We hear it here, here, here, here. Publishing is doomed! It's all over! The model just doesn't work anymore!

Well, let me offer a story.

It's 1598. All across England, writers are wringing their hands. "I can't find a patron!" "Patronage is drying out!" "No earls will sponsor poetry anymore!" "How will the sonnetist of the future get paid?" Citing "cutbacks," dukes and counts dispensed with those retainers who'd been charged with finding poets of taste.

The gloomy writers published broadsides about the end of poetry. Others claimed that "micropatronage" might be the future, with each reader of a poem paying a single shilling, rather than one earl funding the whole business. The alehouses filled with tense arguments and dire predictions.

The Cambridge wags, who'd only been in it for the grog and the whores, went back to their fathers' estates. The country poets found temp work as blacksmiths' assistants. Folio publishers turned to printing crude pornographic etchings to stay afloat. But one thing was clear: the Golden Age of Poetry had come to an end.

Meanwhile, in the back office of a little theater, a young man named William shut himself up and wrote the greatest plays the world has ever seen.

Literary Snaps, #1

From the letters to the editor page of the NYT Book Review:

"Anyone conversant with the history of ideas in the 18th-century Anglo-American world will be familiar with Catharine Macaulay, even if [Walter] Olson is not."
- David Liss.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Observed today

A perfect, unspoiled dandelion, in full geodesic bloom.

The question I had to ask myself, as a writer: do I blow on it, thereby proving the truth that no perfect thing can last? Or do I allow it to remain, knowing that some fickleness of nature will soon destroy it, beginning again the cycle of nature's creation?

This is a metaphor for my own writing.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Golden Ratio

50 to 1.

That's how many printed words I try read for every electronic word I ingest (I don't use the word "read" for electronic words).

It gets difficult for me if I accidentally tune in to CNN, or if someone sends me an usually long text.

Email is a constant struggle which has sent me often - and satisfyingly - to long, thick tomes of the 19th century.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

What I'm Reading #2

Cone, by Holger Struens. It's a crime how little Danish literature gets translated and published in this country. Thank heaven Rita Snoef and Ortolan put out this unrecognized classic. It's too daring for American writers, of course, but Struens is part of the European school of ObjektGrupp. Their credo insists that only non-human protagonists can offer fully developed and trenchant explorations of the post-post-modern condition.

To that end, Cone is narrated, or rather exposited, by a pinecone, beginning from its earliest stages, into the growth of microsporaphylls, the development of bract scales, through its descent to the earth, and its ultimate fate - the wondrous regeneration of life. The writing is spare, emotionless - "now as upon previous periods of sunlight energies are transmuted to my ends" - and raw, raw, raw. ObjektGrupp writers, Struens most notably, refuse to inject feeling into their work. Rather we're meant to see nature in its most spare, its most cruelly elegant.

I won't lie, it's not easy to read this book if you're feeling drowsy, or if you're in a comfortable chair. Usually I end up reading standing up, in 15 minute bursts of courage. But devote your mind to it, and it branches out, and blossoms.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

MFA Programs

Sometimes readers ask me what I think of MFA programs. I think this:

You can't "learn" writing any more than you can learn how to make love to a woman. A truly accomplished expert can show you a few things, but he's unlikely to let you watch when he's really at his best. So you have to rely on whatever tricks he chooses to tell you. As likely as not, he won't be too comfortable discussing these in detail with you. And since those aren't really your tricks, to perform them will feel false. Coming from you, they may just be confusing, even painful, to experience.

But as in mastering lady-pleasuring, time, practice, and awkward failed efforts are necessary. MFA programs provide this. If I were endowing an MFA program, here's what I'd do:

I'd buy ten cabins out in the woods of Vermont. Each cabin would be a day's walk away from the next. The only application would be to fill a single sheet of paper with writing that made me weep or caused me unusual physical sensations. If accepted, you'd get the keys to the cabin, 300 sheets of paper, 60 cans of beans, a slab of bacon, and a broken typewriter.

You'd be required to chop three feet of cordwood every morning. Every few months I'd stop by, and I'd ask you to tell me the names of all the birds in the area. If you called an American widgeon a whimbrel, I'd send you packing. That evening, you'd be expected to bake me a pie out of whatever fruit or berry happened to be in season.

After three winters, if I felt that your pies displayed the kind of concentration, discipline, and inventiveness a writer needs, I'd give you a degree.

Books about Books

I was moved to comment on this NY Observer story. It's true that no one wants to read about who had lunch with Sonny Mehta at which Bobby Flay restaurant, and which foreign rights were vaguely danced about as espressos were ordered. But here's what people do want to read about: heroes. Quiet heroes facing long odds in the desperate, perhaps insane hope of achieving greatness. Human beings who inject their whole blood, their every breath, into scratching some mark on some cave-wall that says "I was here. I lived. I loved. I died." before the earth dries out and shrivels away to ash.

That's what editors do. Good ones, anyway. And there are a few. For now. You don't hear much about them, they don't get a damn parade, but they're out there and thank God for that. They're like a Delta Force of the human spirit - secret, treated as expendable, easily forgotten, furiously necessary.

It's not an easy story to tell - there are no gunfights, no figures from the supernatural, and very few sex scenes. But tell that story well and you've told the only story we'll ever need.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

A Marvelous Weekend

Saturday I indulged myself with a full day of looking up words in the dictionary. Not new words; words I already knew or thought I knew.

Sunday I read the New York Times Book Review in its entirety, emotions rising and falling like a buoy on a stormy day, then read this review of the review. Between the two, my feelings were conveyed.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Lunch at Kelly's Roast Beef with: CORMAC MCCARTHY

Sometimes, instead of eating alone, I pretend I'm having lunch with American literary legends. Today's pretend guest was Cormac McCarthy.

ME: Hey Cormac, nice to meet you, I'm so happy you came!

CORMAC: All men are one man and their meetings or lack of meetings come about unbidden though they may be.

ME: Did you have any trouble finding the place?

CORMAC: From the city of Boston I came north across the Tobin Bridge, passing there the channel, and following thereafter the course of Route 16 until it met Beach, and there I turned north and followed that road until it led to the place where I was to noon.

ME: Great, yeah, I usually just walk. So, I gotta ask, what're you in town for?

CORMAC: Covering a Celtics game for my NBA blog.

ME: Really? Wow, that's not the sorta thing I figured you'd be interested in.

CORMAC: The tale of a warrior tribe once begun makes certain claims on the teller, claims not easily acknowledged nor repaid, raising questions not easily answered if even such answers should be, and once begun the teller soon finds that he must follow it to completion though such completion may render his soul forfeit, a thing washed of all meaning, hanging limp in the window of a shambles for the grim examination of passersby.


ME: Look at this guy. Johnny T-shirt over here.

CORMAC: Through these doors walk a cavalcade of figures, tribades and viragos of all description, grim harridans their faces painted to hide some nameless deformity, madmen in buffoons' motley, camp followers to a crusade abandoned, forlorn potentates of vast empires of worthlessness, dressed in absurd regalia marked complete with symbols unreadable in forgotten cuneiforms.


CORMAC: Now appears a column of tired wanderers, pilgrims to a vanished shrine, their shirts like a procession of tattered flags leading forth some doomed campaign against a foe unseen of strength unperceived which can only end in the shedding of blood.

ME: Cool. (LOOKING UP AT MENU, PRINTED ABOVE THE COUNTER) So what're you thinking of having?

CORMAC: Don't worry about what I'm thinking.

ME: Oh, uh -

CORMAC: When I've thought it I'll say it.

ME: Sorry, it's just, you know, an express-

CORMAC: Clam chowder.

ME: I . . I think I'm gonna have a roast beef.

GIRL AT THE COUNTER: Hey guys, how's it going?

CORMAC: No man can tell his own tale, and in attempts thereto soon finds himself foundered, retreating into silence lest further telling make of it a deeper lie.

ME: I'm okay, thanks. I think I'll have a roast beef.

WAITRESS: Want anything on it?

ME: Um . . little horseradish?

CORMAC: Clam strips.


COUNTER GIRL: Cool, number 61.

ME: So . . . do you watch Mad Men?


ME: You should check it out, it's really good, it's this show about these advertising guys -

CORMAC: The people who lived here were called Pawtucket, and their trade such as it was lay in the gathering of shellfish and the making of baskets. In time there came enemies of greater strength, reducing their numbers and enslaving those who remained until their race was washed away like silt along a riverbed, and of them nothing remains save the dust of their bones crushed to powder and laid beneath the roads.

ME: Oh.


COUNTER GIRL: Sixty-one!


ME: How's . . . how's your clam strips

CORMAC: It is like the remains of some desiccated thing extracted from a tomb.

ME: Oh. This . . . this is pretty good.


ME: Well, thanks for meeting me, anyway. I . . . I really enjoyed our lunch.

CORMAC: A dumbshow enacted for a God insensate.

ME: Where are you headed?

CORMAC: The Squire.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

What I'm Reading #1

Twenty Years A Trapper on The Kennebec and The Androscoggin, by Tiverton Wales. I make it a policy to purchase the dustiest books I can find, and this one I picked up some years ago at a used bookstore in Wells, Maine. It's quite a volume - 700 pages, more or less, with no publishing information. Wales tells of his childhood, which redefines "hardscrabble." It's clear that today his mother would've been diagnosed with several mental conditions, but as it was she took this boy along with her on seashell collecting expeditions on the Maine coast. He left home at twelve to try his hand as a trapper. Rare in such memoirs, Wales goes on (and on, and on) about his incompetence as a trapper. He's constantly smashing his hand under rocks, wandering around lost for days, eating the wrong berries and spending weeks "with [his] bowels in a state of the utmost discomfort such as would make the very fires of hell seem but a calming relief and like a good night's rest on a feather bed."

A lot of the book is devoted to his efforts basically to stay sane, although he would never put it this way, of course. But he talks about what faces he would see in different kinds of bark, and how he'd talk to pelts he'd collected, and give them names, so much so that some of them he was loath to part with even when he could get to the markets in Portland.

Anyway, I'm not sure I'd recommend this book.