by Arthur Phillips, April 22, 2011 11:00 AM
Yesterday I finished reading a manuscript by a friend of mine, Whitney Terrell
. His next novel, The Good Lieutenant
(if that's what it ends up being called), is a story of the Iraq War at its toughest, around 2004. You will probably be able to buy it in 2012. And you really should. I'd say preorder it now, but you can't yet. Man, oh man, it is good.
I should say at once that this is one of the great benefits of the writer's life: I have gotten to know other writers, often lovely people (Whit is), and often incredibly talented (Whit is), and occasionally generous enough to let me read their work for free months or years before it's published. (Not in this case. I stole a flash drive of Whit's when he was passed out drunk and bleeding in my living room after a bizarre dinner party/brawl, so he is only about to learn, this very moment, that I read his book. Yo, Whit, who's a "light-weight writer" now, eh?)
I know a few things about the author. He has been an embedded journalist with an infantry division in Iraq a couple of times. He went to Princeton (where part of the book is set). He is from Kansas City (as two of the characters are).
So I read this fabulous book, almost in a single sitting, and I started to ask myself, in that ludicrous envious-novelist sort of way, "How is he doing this? How did he create such a thing? Did he see something like this/know someone like that? Maybe I should go and get embedded in a war so I can write a book this good... " And in my wonder and marveling, I began to conclude this and that about what he had seen in Iraq, at Princeton, in his childhood, and what he felt about the war, and what he was trying ? oh, my God ? to say. I was wrong about almost all of it, I have since learned, because in my privileged position of knowing him, I can find out the facts.
And the facts are, here is a great artist of words and ideas and human nature displaying his wares for lucky readers (early lucky readers now, paying customers later), and as I re-read the pages now (as I am doing between paragraphs of this blog), I am again taken back to the dust and blood and boredom and terror and confused motives and missed signals of his carefully constructed tragedy, the same elements of ancient Greek tragedies and Elizabethan tragedies, and I am again struck with wonder at what a great writer can do...
I have to go now. I have a great book to read. I hope you do, too. (And thanks, Jill and everyone at Powells, for having
by Arthur Phillips, April 21, 2011 11:00 AM
Imagine I said this about any novelist of the last 200 years: "X is one of my all-time favorite writers. I think X is fantastic. I love most of X's stuff. It's not all perfectly to my taste, of course; some of it is badly constructed, forced, misses the mark, even lazy, because some times it seems X was just going through the motions for the money, but, that said, I like the best of X's stuff as much as almost anyone's. X is definitely in my top-five, desert-island, reread-as-I-am-on-my-deathbed list. I associate some of X's best work with the best moments of my reading life."
For almost any writer, living or dead, I cannot imagine higher realistic praise from a serious reader than this. except if X is William Shakespeare. Let X=Shakespeare, and my praise seems somehow insulting to him, reveals depths of philistine idiocy in me. Oh really? Shakespeare is one of your favorites? How sweet.
We have set him up for something more than this. He is in his own category, a god, the greatest not just of his time but of eternity, objectively more important, more wise, more influential, more far-sighted, more eloquent, than any other human who ever lived. We take him to be basically flawless as a writer, a philosopher, a thinker. He is, as his first blurber wrote of him, "for all time." (Oh, yes, it was a blurb, a publishing industry requirement, even in 1623, with the same mixed motives, the same impure origins as many another blurb provided since then.)
I don't want to take time and space to go into why this description of him is false (of him and of every other human who ever wrote anything), or why it does him no favors with people now, or why I personally find it both irritating and harmful. Instead, I just want to point out a few facts to get under your skin.
At the time he was alive, and for 150 years after, Shakespeare was considered one of many. Some of his peers rated him highly, some less so. Some praised him for writing well, some merely for writing a lot. Some liked his comedies, some his tragedies, some both, and some neither. Even when he was the head writer for the most successful stage company in the country, his plays weren't the only ones people wanted to see. And, finally, the field in which he worked ? theater ? was not a high-class, high-prestige, high-culture world. It was not where the "great writers" worked, as judged by the sort of people who judged that sort of thing (and do so still). His theater world was very much analogous, prestige-wise, to TV writing or film writing today. Who's the greatest screenwriter of our time? Who's the highest-paid, or the one with the most Oscars? Who has created the most deeply ground-breaking television? Go ahead, pick your favorites for any of those questions, and you have come closer to knowing how people in Shakespeare's day viewed him. Take it easy, I am not trying to undermine him or say he is no better (or worse) a writer than David Simon, who created The Wire, or David Milch, who created Deadwood, or David Chase, who created The Sopranos. I am trying to say that he was playing in the same approximate cultural ballpark as these three Davids.
Now. Fast forward to 2411, when, among many other entertainments, humans still watch 21st-century TV shows, or at least a very few of them. It's an elitist entertainment, to a certain extent, but its practitioners and students think very highly of it, and while PhDs and fetishists still talk about Chase or Milch, most highly educated people say things like, "David Simon was of another world from those men. They admired him, imitated him, wished they were him. Nobody has ever come close in the last four centuries to producing work that so profoundly and eloquently explains what it means to be human, and nobody ever will."
The comparison is not perfect, I know. But it's not too far off. And, I would just like to add, in conclusion, that for me, if in my new book, The Tragedy of Arthur, I am "saying" anything at all (see Tuesday's entry), it is only this: let
by Arthur Phillips, April 20, 2011 11:41 AM
"Novel" used to mean "something new," which was to say, something beyond any of the accustomed categories of prose. We may still not agree on a definition of a novel (and that's for the best, I'm certain), but we do know roughly what it includes: imagined or synthesized prose which lays no certain claim to events that most people would call "reality." Even "realism," another scarcely definable figment, implies events that might have happened, could have happened, or even resemble things that did happen, but which did not necessarily happen. Fiction, in other words.
And so we say some books are about things that happened — nonfiction — and some are about things that didn't necessarily happen or, if they did happen, happened not quite the way they are described — fiction. And then, beyond either, some things are, the author promises, the way he remembers them happening, as best he can recall, give or take, don't make him swear to it, and nobody's perfect, and actually maybe it wasn't quite like this, but it might as well have been, and look, honestly, some times the way I feel like it should have happened is just as interesting or somehow profoundly and philosophically "true" as the way I suppose somebody else would say it "did" happen and — anyhow, what am I? a video camera, for Christ's sake? of course not — the point is, what I'm trying to say is, whenever I recall an image of my father holding a large... memoir.
But the categories didn't use to be so clear. The earliest English novels purported to be true memoirs, or letters discovered by an editor. You weren't told on the cover, "Don't get too sucked into this. It isn't true, you know." No, you were told, "This happened. Let me tell you about it." You were invited to wonder.
I don't expect to say anything here about the case of James Frey that you haven't already read or heard somewhere else, but I will mention this: I had no interest in reading A Million Little Pieces back when it was still the heart-wrenching memoir of an addict. I had no interest in it at all until I heard Frey had made some of it up, and I was intensely interested in reading it after he was pilloried as a faux-memoirist, that capital crime. Because if he had made something up that had convinced so many thousands of passionate readers, he must be one hell of a great writer. Precisely as good a writer as Orson Welles was a good actor and director, on precisely analogous evidence.
Frey — and the entire popular genre of it's-a-memoir-until-you-start-to-ask-tough-questions — are the descendants of Tristram Shandy, in a way, because these are the books that say, "Here is a story. It really happened," and you can't quite tell if they're kidding or not. And when you can't quite tell, remarkable things can happen.
To be thrown back into wonder and into wondering. How rare is that (outside of news and gossip)? To be presented with that synthesis of prose and to marvel, like a groundling, like an explorer, like a monarch presented with an animal with a duck's bill and fur! What is this thing? Can I trust it? Do I believe or don't I? Can such things be?
Here is James Frey himself about a recently published book: "A funny, sad, absurd, moving, and very, very smart book. I don't know if it's fiction or nonfiction or both or neither, and ultimately it's irrelevant."
Can such things be? And if so, are such things safe? There is a risk, after all, in playing with these categories. Frey certainly learned that lesson, and perhaps I have too. In the necessary world of self-promotion and social-website maneuvering (see my essay from Monday), it is the easiest thing in the world to post category-bending scraps meant to tease and intrigue people into learning more about a book beyond category. And then I get a message from an old friend, one I haven't spoken with in 30 years, whom I am so glad to hear from (God bless social sites), only to receive a heart-felt and lovely note from him consoling me in my time of difficulty with my father's prison sentence, forgers, wicked publishers, and various other statements just short of realism. Oh, Matt! Thank you! And I'm so
by Arthur Phillips, April 19, 2011 10:39 AM
My older son is lately being asked by his sixth-grade English teacher (in increasingly suspicious tones to match the rebellious doubtfulness of his resistant replies), "What do you think the writer is trying to say in this story?" I have done my child no favors, I suppose, by telling him, since he was three years old, that this question is inane and should be ignored.
"What is the lesson of this story?" my younger son is asked by his second-grade teacher in turn, and it's all I can do not to storm into his class like a parent with strong views about the Pledge of Allegiance or Huck Finn and demand she stop indoctrinating my child with dangerous nonsense.
I know. I know it's not bad to teach kids to read closely, to pay attention to words, and I know this fossil of a question is a tried and true method to inspire readerly concentration. Still, it seems like we pass this idea of the writer-as-fancy-messenger from generation to generation without thinking about its misleading, reductionist, exclusionary, fun-smashing, possibility-laming nature. Some writers ? at least some of them ? are not trying to say anything. They have said it, and it takes as long as a poem, story, or novel to "say it." The thing they are saying is a poem, story, or novel. They are definitively not trying to say something pithy that can be recited by a second-grader, sixth-grader, or reviewer in a daily newspaper.
If that student or critic says of a novelist, "He is trying to say that war is bad," then they are expressing something exactly wrong (even if war happens to be bad, even if the novelist in question happens to feel that war is bad, even if lots of the characters in the book are maimed in war and feel bad about it and say that war is bad). They have been taught exactly the wrong lesson, and I'm afraid it started back in second grade. Our little minds are awfully susceptible at that age, and perhaps we should also be throwing in a counter-agent like, "What is the character saying that you agree with? Disagree with?"
For once we think we know what a writer is "really saying" ? some hidden but discoverable message, lesson, or autobiography ? then there is no limit to how much we can get wrong: anti-Stratfordianism (the idea that the works of William Shakespeare were written by someone of another name) exists, in part, because readers think they can tell what the writer of the plays actually believed and actually experienced, even if the same play contains multitudes of contradictory opinions and mutually exclusive experiences.
I have done this long enough that I can make a general assertion (i.e., one that is wrong at least some of the time): literary artists view their job, most of the time, as a matter of synthesis: combining what they feel with what they do not feel, what they believe with what they know others believe, what they fear with what they are proud not to fear, what they desire with what they no longer desire or never did.
I defy you to read a well-written, non-didactic novel by a writer who is alive today ? who is available to answer questions about what she has lived, felt, thought, known, imagined, fantasized, feared ? and then point to the part of the novel that is undoubtedly autobiographical, and get it right with any percentage beyond chance, and then prove it by comparing your conclusions with undoubtedly true statements by the novelist. In rare cases, maybe. Most of the time, no chance.
Now do it with a book by a dead writer. Now do it with a book written centuries ago, by someone about whom we know only cursory facts. Now do it without knowing much about their friends or family or, more importantly, the people they only saw occasionally or from a distance and then turned into characters or pieces of blended characters. This is simply a fact. Most of the time you do not know what the writer has lived; you do not know what he believed; you do not know. And so the question "What is he trying to say?" can only be answered by a projection of your own mind: he is trying to say whatever it is that I think he is trying to say.
There is such thing as didactic literature, of course; I can't deny it. I even love some of it. But that hardly means that all literature is didactic. Animal Farm is certainly saying something beyond the story of a pig or two, but that doesn't mean Lolita is saying anything beyond the story of Humbert and Lo. (Molestation is bad? I think we could have expressed that in some other form than Lolita, whereas the magic and wealth of Lolita cannot be expressed in any other form than itself.)
It's been called "art for art's sake," of course, often by people who were in fact practicing it for something else's sake...
In fact, in the literature I most cherish, the antithesis of any easily stated thesis is present in the same work. Which means that none of those ideas is really what the author is "trying to say." If "molestation is bad" is present in Lolita, so is the thoroughly unpleasant notion that "molestation can contain elements of love." Well, which one of those did Nabokov truly "believe"? Which one is he trying to "say"? Honestly, the only way to answer those questions is to project our own hopes or doubts back on to him. This is because he likely believed one of them or both of them, but had no interest in trying to say either.
But the payoff, the beauty of reading non-didactic literature, and reading it non-didactically (reading it without asking what the author is saying), is that you can nevertheless extract something from your reading, something that feels not like a lesson or a moral, but like a communication devised ? in great detail and astonishing specificity ? just for you. As if the author has intended to say something to you about your very specific thoughts, life, actions, aspirations. When the writer lets the moral go, gives up on relevance or applicability ? stops trying to say something easy or hard or true or distillable about life, the country, capitalism, health care, molestation, war, etc. ? then, magically, a spontaneous moral education is possible, brought out of the reader by a unique reaction between text and that one unique reader, a magic from which the imaginary notion of a "writer," a writer trying to "say" something, is totally removed, and totally unnecessary.
In Nabokov's Butterfly, the lovely memoir by rare book dealer Rick Gekoski, we are reminded that the novel A Confederacy of Dunces was rejected by countless publishers, including Robert Gottlieb at Simon & Schuster, for, essentially, not
by Arthur Phillips, April 18, 2011 10:51 AM
Who's more blogged about than I?
Whose tweet @-mentions number high?
Which is my editor's true favorite book?
How did I so annoy this Avid Reader from Chinook?
Let's all push the elephant out of the room quickly and efficiently:
I don't just happen to be blogging at Powells this week. I do have a new book out, here, and I would appreciate it if you'd go buy a few and then come back. I'll wait. Go ahead now.
Thank you! I'd be glad to sign those for you? No? I quite understand. Let's just move on. Really? You prefer her books over mine? Well, yes, I suppose mine aren't for everyone...
When I started writing my first novel (Oh? Really? Well perhaps you'd like to read a page or two here?), the deal was quite straightforward, and but for a few details hadn't changed in a century or more, I imagine. One took as long as necessary (forever, perhaps) and wrote one's precious little novel, with trembling hopes but scrawny expectations of publication. If luck smiled, and you got a book deal, there was a little publicity, or maybe in very fortunate cases, a book tour. You got paid either virtually nothing or a little bit or, in rare cases, enough to take the heat off and write another one. If, like most writers, you didn't make enough from the books themselves, you reviewed your peers as honorably as you could, wrote ad copy, taught young hopefuls, toiled for Hollywood in speculative hopes of your own. That was how it worked. Work yourself into a lather, rinse, repeat.
There were, of course, diseases one was likely to catch in the literature business. They were chronic but controllable. You would certainly suffer, at a minimum, insecurity, jealousy, thin skin, and related neuroses, but there were limits to the pathways of those infections, and if you cared to take certain precautions you could manage your condition for years, even decades before becoming an intolerable ass. You could, for example, torture yourself by looking at a bestseller list once a week, reading slowly in case you missed your name the first few times, but they only updated once a week. Reviews would be clipped and sent to you by the publisher, but you could opt out of receiving the bad ones, or any of them; you'd really only see the one in your hometown paper, most of the time. You'd meet a few of your readers at events, but if they'd bothered to turn up, then they were usually satisfied or had come by accident and had never heard of you. You could of course work yourself into a fuss about how many people came to the event, how many of them were homeless or insane. You might unavoidably hear rumors of what other writers were paid in advances. But you only learned of your actual sales months after the fact, if at all.
Who knew that this was actually psychic peace, the halcyon days?
If I had been asked, those years ago, to devise a way to make authors more self-doubting, twitchy, insomniac, and peculiar, I don't think I could have done as exquisite a job as time and technology have done for us, apparently without a malevolent designer. There is now in place a system that provides writers nearly constant negative feedback (even the lack of feedback is negative: "Why is there nothing posted yet about my book???"), real-time sales figures, real-time reader disgruntlement, endless information by which writers can compare themselves against one another, and infinite numbers of other authors to learn about, most of whom sell better, are better reviewed, photograph better, have higher ratings online, and are mentioned in places you aren't: a gossip page! People and Us! The TLS! A blog about Brooklyn real estate... Do you tweet? How many followers? How often do you check for mentions? Does Google alert you to spikes in your name's appearance? Your sales number has shifted in the last 24 hours, multiple times. Maybe your overall rank is no good, but compare your number in Literary Fiction (about men, by men in Brooklyn) to... oh, never mind.
(Best of all, let's put all this information on the same machine you are meant to use to write your books. Let's also fill that machine with all the sports news, family gossip, letters from your mom, smut, dwindling bank accounts, bookstores, and smut that exists. Now get some work done.)
(Speaking of online ratings: eventually, like the laws of entropy dictating the inevitable cooling and death of the universe, it seems all literary fiction ? given enough readers posting their comments ? heads towards a cool, stable three stars out of five. If a particular novel isn't at entropic stability yet ? if it's still blazing high at five or not yet achieving ignition ? that's only for an insufficient number of commenters. In the long-run aggregate of all human opinion, everything's not bad, but nothing's great.)
And, of course, on the macro end of the spectrum, writers are daily told that there are fewer readers, fewer bookstores, fewer outlets for publicity, fewer review pages, fewer publishers, fewer books, less money for advances, less money for tours, less, fewer, fewer, and less. Except for e-book piracy sites, which proliferate like roaches/rabbits/E.coli. (As do, perversely, those giddy and sexy MFA programs, the Playboy mansions of the writing life, which show no signs of reacting rationally to the reality of publishing.)
This job ? which once consisted of sitting quietly for a few years, making stuff up, then going out to meet a few nice people in bookstores to answer a few questions ? now demands blogs, tweets, Facebook-keeping, and whatnot in pursuit of the ever more elusive, rare (and economically worried, like all of us) Reader. We are meant to flirt and woo in the hopes of winning a book sale, constantly reminding readers we exist, dropping hints of our worth and talent and skill, like handkerchiefs fluttering from a flirt's faux-forgetful fingers until the mountain of handkerchiefs almost obscure us, and we spend our time embroidering and perfuming and flinging handkerchiefs, hoping, hoping, hoping the next one will be swept up by an interested suitor. But it's hard to be a good courtesan when more and more time is spent on the seduction and less and less is spent on practicing our actual skill at putting out. For which we are paid less and less...
There! That's the basic, standard complaint from the literary world, and yet... And yet...
And yet: I have never been happier in any sort of work in all my life than I was in writing my last book. (Did I mention you can get it here?)
And yet I worked (again, for the fifth time) with dedicated and talented agent, editor, copy editor, publicist, marketers, designers, publisher. I can name names. Five books with Random House, and every step of the process is still a joy for me, from the first hiccup of inspiration to the last reading in a great bookstore or a hipster bar in the East Village, to discovering the brilliant Jill Owens has liked my book. A day hardly passes that I don't marvel at my good fortune: I am a publishe
by Arthur Phillips, April 3, 2009 4:04 PM
Describe your latest project.
The Song Is You is my fourth novel, so I am wobbling into mid-career and mid-life already. Farewell, wunderkindergarten; hello, erectile dysfunction. That was fast.
Themes first, or plot? Let's do plot. A middle-aged (oh, no! it's autobiographical!) TV-commercial director (hmmm...loosely disguised autobiography?) becomes obsessed with an Irish singer half his age whom he sees performing with her band in a Brooklyn bar. As her star rises in the music world, he pursues her, from a distance, and they carry on a peculiar relationship, half-stalking, half-teasing, circling each other but not quite meeting, until...
Themes now. The novel (entirely un-autobiographical, I swear) is a tragic-comic-romantic soufflé, puffed up on its love of music, and should be shelved accordingly. The book is very much about music, how it shapes our emotional lives, how it can even guide our actions. The main character is, like me, an iPod addict, and the novel is (okay, okay) autobiographical to the extent that it maps out some of that tumultuous love affair: man and iPod.
If you're the sort of person who is constantly updating your iTunes files, who attaches memories to music and vice-versa, who has bought the same album on more than one format, this might be the 2009 novel for you. Alternately, if you just like tragicomic romances, or dogs, I would say there's a fair chance you'll like this.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
This is a dangerous game, because I don't think there is such a thing as a writer everyone should read. I am bound to irritate someone who gamely picks up Gyula Krudy now and then hates him. So, I will only say that Krudy is not well-enough known in the U.S., and I admire him enormously. He was a Hungarian (1878-1933), extremely prolific, beloved in his homeland, and sparsely translated in English. However, the translations reveal a unique and beautiful writer. Try The Adventures of Sinbad. Wait! It doesn't have anything to do with the Arab sailor. Sinbad is the nickname of the main character, a man wandering the streets of 1920s Budapest, recalling his life and loves. The language is extraordinary; Krudy writes unlike anyone you've read, images piled on images. It's very ornate, very much "calling attention to itself," so if you don't dig that, don't do it. But if you're looking for a writer who can astonish you by making you see the world how he sees it, Krudy is worth a gamble.
Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
Well, since we're on the topic, here's a taste of Krudy, describing a storm rising in the countryside: "The wind, like some bandit, blew a sharp whistle in the fields, and hunched-over assassins rushed behind bushes and fences."
How did the last good book you read end up in your hands and why did you read it?
I recently read All Quiet on the Western Front. Besides its lofty reputation as the greatest war novel ever written, I finally got around to reading it because I answered a question about it on Jeopardy. I knew the answer without ever having read the book. In other words, the distinctly shallow nature of my knowledge was again revealed to me. Finally, shame drove me to read it.
And, of course, it was unbelievable. It deserves its reputation. I was sitting in a park one day reading it and had to stand up and walk around to shake off some of its power. I was audibly grunting at some of the descriptions of war.
Why do you write?
I like it. I am lucky enough to get paid for it, but I'd do it anyhow. I am not working through childhood pain. It is not torment for me to write. I don't suffer for my art, other than having days where it doesn't come out the way I want it to ? the "suffering" of taking one's work seriously on good days and bad. Really, I just find the process of making things up, of putting stories together, of hacking away at a sentence, a description, a character, a structure, to be as pleasurable an activity as anything I can think of.
Who's wilder on tour, rock bands or authors?
Are you kidding?
Aside from other writers, name some artists from whom you draw inspiration and talk a little about their work.
When I lived in Budapest, just out of college, I fell in with some Hungarian artists and spent a lot of time in their world. I learned an enormous amount from them ? painters and photographers ? even though I am a writer now and fancied myself a musician then. One of them, Zoltan Hajtmanszki, I consider to be one of the greatest living photographers, somehow both very modern and also timeless, reminiscent of the great European urban photographers of the early 20th century: Atget, Brassaï, Kertész, Doisneau...
On the other end of the spectrum, I watch my five-year-old discover drawing and painting, and I am amazed by him. He is suddenly a fully formed Romantic figure, intensely working for hours, then enraged at his failures, then forcing himself back to the blank page, despite its betrayals. I wish I could ease his pain, but I have to admit it's fascinating and inspiring to watch. Does that make me a bad dad? The evidence is mounting...
Do you read blogs? What are some of your favorites?
I religiously keep up with The Reading Experience, where a brilliant and dogmatic lover of literature has thrown away his PhD and teaching career in order to discuss how fiction affects us and how idiotic most critics are. Always good stuff!
Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.
Five Novels That Make You Feel Like You Might Know Something about Life During the Collapse of the Hapsburg Empire:
The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth