Friday, December 29, 2006

Reading, Writing and Absurdistan

I don’t quite get it. On a very basic level, I can’t figure out why people would want to write unless they like to read. I mean, what would be the point? For the incredibly glamorous fast track lifestyle? I don’t think so. —Francine Prose, Atlantic, July 18 2006

I don’t get it either. That writing programs are increasing by the ten-fold while actual reading is plummeting does not surprise me. Perplexes me yes, but surprise? No. What does surprise me is how many of these non-readers are writers themselves, or people who want to write. This is what I do not understand. Why in heaven’s name, if you do not like books would you want to write one? And if you really don't care much for books, why, why, why should anybody read yours? But this is more common than I thought. James Frey made no secret of his rather lean library which seemed apropos for his rather massive hubris. In her wretched book, The Right to Write, Julia Cameron speaks about everybody being a writer merely because they write. She got particularly defensive at what she thought was writerly elitism. I can’t remember her mentioning a single book, other than the ones she wrote.

My belief is this: Writers who do not read have no right to write. How do you get the right to write? You need to be given permission first. In a blog I posted on Amazon several months ago I wrote about being given permission to write. It went like this:

“Gabriel Garcia Marquez talks about being given permission to write by Kafka. He read the following: "When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from a night of troubled sleep he found himself transformed into a monstrous insect,” and was stunned out of his mind. “I didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like that,” he said. “If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago. So immediately I started writing.”

I have always been a writer, but wasn't given permission to write until I read Salman Rushdie’s Shame, about the sisters Chunnee, Munnee and Bunny. Among its many preposterous bits was a narrator who kept inserting himself in the narrative, even telling beforehand which character he was going to kill off. Then there was Omar Khayyam (no relation to the poet) who may have been born from all three sisters at once. I was appalled. Who told him he could do this? Who told him he could ruin the element of surprise and wag it in front of my face? But in asking the question he freed my answer. I trashed my first book and wrote another, the one I published.

I’m not going to blow my own horn about what I accomplished with my first book, but none of this could have happened were I not a reader. It just makes sense. How can anyone hope to blow somebody away with prose if they have not been blown away by prose? One of the many remarkable things about Gary Shteyngart’s magnificent Absurdistan is how much of writer’s novel it is. Absurdistan celebrates the very idea of the larger than life literary hero, something we have not seen in at least a century. More than that the book dares to suppose that fictional heroes are the only true models for real humanity. Shteyngart takes an audacious line; supposing, as his main character Misha Vainberg does that fictional heroes are realer and more instructive than real heroes. He also takes for granted that the reader is as well read as the narrator. I wasn’t in fact. But I did end up with a brand new copy of Oblomov as a result.

Absurdistan is the type of book that makes me want to write books. This is the type of magic that can happen with a novel, when it frees your mind and your pen. The book opens up new ways of seeing things, reading things by putting words together that excite me like never before. Can I do something like that? Not to copy him but to write in a way that I grab words together, throw them against a wall and watch them bounce? Because, to tell the truth I was bored with skinny prose. Okay that’s a lie. I dislike skinny prose. I dislike it profoundly. I dislike when people wave Hemmingway in my face as if he wrote with a scalpel instead of a pen, claiming that he fixed literature, as if anything was wrong with it. Joyce, Fitzgerald, Anderson, Woolf, Lawrence, and Svevo were all doing quite fine, thank you very much. The reductionism school of literature has been lauded too long as some sort of panacea. The very idea that smaller prose must be better prose has been neutering too much fiction. The result is horribly efficient and meticulously unadorned writing with as much pulse as a gnat.

Don’t get me wrong.
I’m all for Hemingway.
I think Carver is an absolute genius.
But writing like this.
Because I want to.
Because the night is cold.
And I’m alone.
Is just bad.
No to mention lazy.

There is nothing lazy about Shetyngart’s prose. Like the main character, Absurdistan is a huge lumbering beast of a novel, rattling off literary Molotov cocktails with such abandon that it doesn’t care who gets hit. Maybe Shteyngart needed an Eastern European with spotty English to pull this off. Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated certainly echoes this point. But whereas Foer’s “English” revealed the desperate heart of a wanna-be, Shetyngart’s English is the global village that language has been threatening to become; equal parts Bronx Jive, literary overheatedness, Russian Rhythm and gruff Hebrew all set to NYC hip-hop. I’ll go further to say that Absurdistan is the first true Hip-hop novel: Bold in its ambition to associate itself with the Gogols, Dostoeyskies and Goncharovs, but borrowing, sampling and stealing words, then slamming together to see what sticks. A trick to be sure but if this what we have to do to set fire to prose, then bring on the tricks. It’s such a thrill to read a novel that takes chances, consumes itself and downright gluts on a feast of words, without announcing that that is exactly what it is doing. And managing to do so while being a crazy and hilarious road movie disguised as a fiction. I’m so anxious to finish this blog just so I can write again.

And that dear reader is what reading can do for a writer. There are other reasons of course. Under-read writers also betray a certain narcissism evident not just in the preponderance of first person narrators who sound like the author but also in the assumption that one's prose is already so perfect that one cannot risk being “influenced” by someone else. Figures. Only an troglodyte would not want to be influenced by others. That's why there are no Mona Lisas on cave walls. If you have not read enough, you may be a writer, but you have not yet been given permission to write. And you will never write great fiction until you have been given permission. This comes from reading and reading widely. It comes from reading outside of your race, gender, age group, sexuality and era. It comes from reading the very book you wouldn’t touch in a million years, or maybe it simply means taking down Moby Dick and reading past page 2. If you are one of these non-readers, do me a favour. Grab a few books including Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer and don’t stop reading until you get that feeling—You’ll know it when you feel it. The feeling where you say, damn! this book makes me want to write. What comes next will be better than anything you ever written before. Trust me, I know what I’m talking about.

God Save Prince Harry

Seems my favourite worthless royal isn't so worthless after all. Whatever you may think of the British Monarchy (and I think very little) or the Iraq war, surely it speaks to something that this is the first country where someone of privilege, a royal at that, has decided himself to be no better that the "ordinary" people who have been sent to die. It doesn't matter that his royal heinie may never see combat. It doesn't even matter that this may be a publicity stunt to redeem our favourite swastika wearer. The fact is here is a prince putting his considerable money where his mouth is and having the balls to bear arms in the war his country helped start. What would Audie Murphy think about a Brit of all people, showing Americans up? Last time I checked none of the following have signed up for duty:Jenna Bush, Barbara Bush JR, George P. Bush, Noelle Bush, John Ellis Bush Jr, Neil Bush, Lauren Bush, Pierce Bush, Marshall Bush, Samuel LeBlond, Ellie LeBlond.

Of course these worthless rich brats are merely following the example of uncle Dubya, uncle Dick (good show! knocking up the wife exactly two days AFTER the draft was expanded to include childless married men), Cousin Rummy, et al, who used their trust funds to dodge vietnam. How did the so called greatest generation (George Bush senior) produce such cowardly kids and grandkids? Fine, having been in a war, George senior would undoubtably know the truth about conflict. Certainly a good father would never subject his own children to such a thing. So he sent poorer children instead? I can't imagine the type of cynicism that breeds the mind set that believes that the only constuctive thing a poor kid can do for his country is die for the politcians that run it. Who'd ever guess that person coming looking the best in this civil war would have been Sadam?

Thursday, December 21, 2006

New York Notes #1: The Cortez Principle

Sure he was a sadistic, opportunistic, money grubbing, glory hungry, genocide inciting murderer, but Cortez still had a winning attitude to succcess. I know what you are thinking. Do you mean the attitude where in order to get wealth one must slaughter all who stand in one's way even if they are millions of Indians standing on top of gold or millions of Africans setting up huts beside diamonds? No, not that one. I much prefer the lesson where Cortez guarantees success by eliminating failure as an option. Because failure is neither a situation nor an outcome but a choice. Or rather an attitude. Failure is its own forgone conclusion. Circumstances are what they are and sometimes they obey no one, but too often we have failed ten times before we even started.

As soon as Cortez landed in the Americas he burnt all his ships. Whatever would happen to the conqistadores, returning to Spain was no longer on the table. My best friend, Che and his wife eliminated divorce as an option in their marriage. As a result they have survived things that have destroyed couples around them. As soon as they realised that option E, the escape clause, the eject button, the net below was gone, not only did they have to go back into the murk they just left, but they also had to find what worked, discard what didn't and beat a problem into a new shape, because there could be no failure. There is always a way, but you'll never know if one of your ways is the way out. Okay if I keep this up I will look in the mirror and see Deepak Chopra.

Here is my point. After writing the big, well read blog 'On Mediocrity', I found myself, or rather three friends found me to be one of the very mediocre people I was writing about. So 2006, the year I should have spent getting deeper into the art and business of being a writer, I spent selling beer. Placed in a situation where I could either take stock or take risks, I ended up hedging my own bets, willfully sticking myself in a job that I did not despise, but did not love either. It was a life that was behind me but I held on to it because it was safer. My justification was that look, I had debts to pay. I wasn't being a coward, I was honoring my obligations. I said that so often that I convinced myself that I meant it. So I've been living with a net. Figures that people who love nets hate risk, I just had not figured on one of these people being me. But playing it safe still means that you lose. In my case I watched my writing career grind to a slow crawl even as I was making money as an advertiser in a small country, in a career of no real consequence.

Playing it safe is just a three worded term for a more brutal, two worded one: Tunnel Vision. My friend Bill asked me how much I charged for my last advertising campaign, because that was what I was telling the world that I am worth. Whatever I earned that year, that was what I was telling people that I could be had for. After dividing that Jamaican sum into American dollars it turns out that I was worth 66 times less than I thought. This wouldn't have hit so hard were it a new lesson, but I had been there before. I knew this rut. It me six years to get out of it the last time.

I'm not into making resolutions but I will say this. I'm 36. Way too old to be cool and way too young to be dead. And way too far gone to be playing it safe now. A turning point is a point of choice where you can either take stock or take risks. And sometimes decisions that initially look like risks turn out to be things that we simply have to do. Because even inaction has a reaction and I don't want to be one of those "If only" people. So I have become one of those millions in New York striving for a dream that I can't define, on a mission that makes no real sense. It's not that I'm giving up Jamaica or that I'm going to live in the States, but as I left the airport I could smell my ships burning.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Just Found This One As Well: His Royal Badness

Thank God for You Tube. Now I can delude myself that I'm living in the past for as long as I like! Except for Patti Smith circa 1975-6 nobody has ever been as fearless and outrageously original as Prince was in 1980, not even Prince.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Question of The Week

"What has our society come to when Prince is the guy you can trust not to sexually offend 120 million middle Americans?" —James Poniewozik, Time Magazine.

Amen, brother James, Amen.

Have you seen this guy? Does anybody know where he went. There were unconfirmed reports that he briefly surface in some thing called Black sweat then quickly went back to making pop for soccer moms whose children are gone for the weekend and they want to get freekay!

Could somebody find him please and shoot the twerp that has been taking his place?

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

How to Make a Jamaican Music Video

First there must be children. But take heed: all children are not the same. There are some who touch strange things like books and remain indoors. These children may be white, red, yellow, mulatto or black in a white kind of way. Please refrain from employing that sort of animal. Many other children are available, far more pleasing to the video camera. Dark like Marassa and Midnight, with big bellies, still growing teeth, blue school uniforms (with blue tie-the-pig ribbons!). If possible, please make sure they are barefooted and this is crucial people, they must always be smiling. This is essential for the behind the scenes special where the star can grab his chest and remark how with all these hardships surrounding them these children are always smiling, always happy. That way you can be like Anderson Cooper in Africa! Please rehearse this line, for if references to inexplicably happy Negro children are not made, said video will seem exploitative. Your audience will never believe that you have been transformed as a person until you break down at the sight of smiling blackies.

Your local crew must come from a smattering of variably coloured well-spoken semi-Negroes who are quick to point out their Italian, French, Scottish, or Cherokee blood. Not Irish for everybody knows Irish people are just Negroes turned inside out. They should have traveled widely, listen to groundbreaking acts like James Taylor and Creed and should be able to reassure you that they know every hoodlum in the ghetto and go there all the time. Please bear in mind that these men and women only go to the ghetto with a film crew and 1000 US dollars in hand, but don’t let that trouble you. Ghetto people are just people, except that they are from the ghetto.

Now comes your cast. School girls in dark blue uniforms are a must but so too are children who do not seem to go to school, especially if you are shooting on what is clearly a school day. Their purpose is the run behind your vehicle screaming and laughing. Nobody scowls in the ghetto. The sidewalk must be taken up with five to ten men, preferable old and playing dominoes. You must get the action right. Make sure you zoom in to a medium shot just as the winning Negro rises and slams the winning domino on the table, breaking the table in two. Next pan upwards to the cute ghetto girls looking out their window, pan back down to catch more ghetto kids running and smiling then scoot the dolly over to catch the Granny, whose toothy grin belies a lack of actual teeth. Make sure she smiles for two teeth are better than too many. Her hair should be in two pigtails like a Native American and she must be selling something, preferably fruits, vegetables and cigarettes. Under no circumstances should an adult man be shot beside a child. That would imply that he is the father and everybody knows that ghetto kids ain’t got no daddy.

Come to think of it, forget, the ghetto; you must shoot in the uberghetto. Remember that poor Jamaica is the real Jamaica. Forget high-rise buildings, Taino tribal grounds, the second oldest railroad track in the world, and the most fascinating network of underground caves in the Caribbean. You need bad roads, shit running down the side walks, zinc fences, tenements and gunmen, because this is the real Jamaica. Please have the locals stack 12 speakers together, 3 in a row and have the natives come out to wind their waists and slam dominoes on the table or your viewers will think that it’s Haiti. You must shoot in district of Waterhouse. This will be in your contract for Waterhouse is the music video ghetto of choice, probably because the quick to be violent blackies aren’t so violent there. But be sure to buy the men in mesh merinos a hot Guinness or you might not make it out of there alive. Remind yourself that if Alicia Keys can shoot there, you can too.

Should you meet a gunman make sure to genuflect in the usual fashion. But feel free to pass off an offensive comment so that the Jamaican crew can never shoot in that place again. The nature of that comment is up to you but forgo the racial for Jamaican Negroes are not black. Make sure you have extra film left for the midnight dance so you can remark how bestial and sexual the natives can be while dancing. Listen as the Jamaican producer remarks that this is in keeping with our African culture, even though he or she will not do such things until after the wrap when they take you to Quad Nightclub where uptown people grind each other. Try a dance yourself but restrict it to hands, you don’t need to remind us that white people cannot dance for us to remember that we’re still safe. Because once you take our dances we’ll have nothing left! Don’t forget the smiling children.

Make sure there is at least one Rasta, Rastafarian to you. Please try your hardest to find one that is old and almost toothless as the young ones might make a play for your women folk. The Rastaman capacity for seduction is legendary, just ask a certain vogue editor about her Bob Marley lost weekend. One must have at least one Rasta to show the world that yes; Bob Marley’s spirit approves this video. Try to get somebody to wear a Bob Marley T-Shirt while at it. While you cast for Rastas makes sure that wardrobe drapes the video in red, green and gold as these are the only colours that Jamaicans wear. Except the dark blue uniforms of the school children. Extra points if the Rasta is a coconut vendor for you can include a shot of him decapitating said nut and drinking the juice to reassure your women that a big black man with a machete is not a creature of violence but quaint beauty.

All women must be fat. Your video babe will be imported so there is no need to search for Jamaican women that American men find attractive. Your women must have big, big, big breasts. Mount Everbreasts. She must sport two wheelbarrows to carry each tit. And with big breasts must come wide hips and monstrous thighs that could squash a penis into a flounder. She must always have a basket of fruits on her head, even though this is the ghetto. She must blush when called for, wind her waist on cue and disappear as soon as a white woman enters the shot.

When you have wrapped up the ghetto scenes, then it’s time for the other real Jamaica. The deep blue seas, the wide expansive sunrises and the Rastas on the beach. Under no circumstances should you shoot a building that is more than two stories high or was built in the 20th century. In fact, make sure your structure or edifice is not taller than 12 speakers placed together in rows of three. This is to remind American viewers that Jamaicans party all the time and have no need for houses or workplaces. Never ever let on that any Jamaican works for a living in any other profession but selling fruit and cigarettes on the street corner. Have you gotten the sun rising over the mountains shot? The sun rising over the sea? The sun rising over the ghetto? Good. Now shoot your sunsets. When that’s done go to a market and shoot some more market women selling fruit. And running children.

Make sure all of this is done before you shoot your star or he or she may have to wait among poor people. This your star may find extremely unpleasant because then he or she will have to take pictures with babies who have never heard of her. And while no criminal lives in the ghetto you might still want to spring for extra security because it’s not their fault that they may want to take stuff that is not theirs. Private property? Bah!

Please also remember not to pay the extras. You will only create monsters that will then expect to be paid for actually working on your production. Believe the Jamaican producer when he tells you that the locals will be so happy to be in your video that they won’t even take your money, after all, what use is money to poor people? Make sure you thank the Jamaica Tourist Board for allowing you to film Jamaica in the way they like Jamaica to be filmed. Granted, nobody at the tourist board had ever seen or will ever see the ghetto (except in music videos), but they trust that you had found lots of smiling black children and a red green and gold color scheme to play with. And even if you did not, throw in two or three sunsets and they will call it even. And when you finally wrap up your shoot and fly back to where you came from, please come back again soon. Without you, there’s no work for the country to do.

PS: If you think I'm joking, google "Jamaican children," click images and see what comes up.

Monday, December 11, 2006

My Blues Aren’t Blue Enough

Poor Darby Crash. If the late Germs singer thought that his life was so insignificant that death was the only way to improve it, he might have changed his mind had he seen how less significant his death turned out to be. Darby Crash had the extreme misfortune of taking his life the day before Mark Chapman took John Lennon’s. And as poetically catastrophic and sickly epic suicide can be (see: Kurt Cobain) it’s nowhere near the ticket to instant martyrdom that murder is. Or a noble fight with a terminal disease. Crash didn’t even OD in the rock & roll way. Drug overdoses are supposed to be accidental, not deliberate. Gun deaths are far more glorious. For instance, you get Dave Grohl to immortalize you in perhaps the best lyric of his career: “One shot...nothing.” Crash was doubly cursed when months before, Ian Curtis of Joy Division, took his life by a far more poetic hanging, inadvertently spawning the best dance band of all time and creating about five or six genres at last count. Crash was just a loser punk who offed himself before he could record a decent version of Sex Bomb.

I mentioned Darby because it’s a hell of a thing when your own misfortune pales beside others. Not that I’m proud of misfortune or think it’s something to boast about, but in this new culture that celebrates victimhood and uses it to justify any behaviour, you can be declared irrelevant if your blues just aren’t blue enough. This must be why I sympathise with the straight white American male so much. Ever since political correctness declared him the villain of the story he has had no choice to but rush to the sidelines because all the people he kept down must now have their moment. Sure you’re an A student, but are you an A student from the ghetto? Sure you’re the top in your class but did you have to sell meth today just to buy a decent shirt to come to school? Your mom may be dean of studies but is she a crack-ho? Yeah you’re cool, but are you a poor black lesbian feminist who has been given a hard time by people just like you? Of course not. White boy, your blues just aren’t blue enough. I feel your pain. You’d be surprised how many black people do.

I could have traded on third world guilt if I wanted to, but that becomes less and less convincing when I type stories on a Mac Book pro or dine at Asia de Cuba. But that’s not even the point. Earlier this year I applied for a fellowship to a writer’s conference that shall remain nameless. I wasn’t expecting to win, because well, I’m a pessimist but thought I stood a chance, coming from a third world country still shaking off colonialism, political tribalism, globalism and every other ism I could think of. Of course I didn’t win but when I read the biography of who did I had this weird mix of guilt and envy. “My leaders are corrupt,” is just not as engrossing as “when the warlord torched our village, we could not find food to eat,” not even to me. I found myself asking how can I compete with that? I found myself asking myself why am I asking myself these questions? This was beyond politically incorrect. I was envying somebody his or her catastrophic misfortune because it made her resume look so much better.

Of course I had no right to such thoughts, but I know enough to realize that these setbacks also work in persuading who they need to persuade. Of course she could have won because she was simply better than me. After all, I’m not so stuck up my own butt to think I’m the be-all and end-all of fiction, but I kept finding myself asking questions that only my white male friends could understand. Is my suffering, suffering enough? I think my childhood was as crappy as the next misunderstood geek, but how can it compare to “last year they took our children, now our boys have come back to kill us”? My parents may have died from cancer but how does that compare to when they are massacred in their sleep? In a world that celebrates the victim, scars become stars. It’s even worse when the victim has genuine intellectual merit because you simply know that it then boils down to who suffered the most. And if you’re a white male it means that people think you’ve had things too easy. If you’re from the Caribbean middle class it means that you were one of the luckier blacks even if you don’t feel lucky at all.

This doesn’t mean that I think affirmative action or refugee programs are not necessary. It’s a myth to think the we will always do the right thing and measures such as these step in when we inevitably fail to be the nobler creatures we claim to be. But sometimes it does seem as if the playing field isn’t so much level as re-skewed, and if yours is the sinking side then you have no right to say as such. It means that I might never win an award if I go up against a Haitian or African and I should be damn ashamed for writing such a sentence. But I know better. At the end of the day we love storytellers and some people’s stories are simply better...especially if they are worse.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Only Good Dictator is a Dead Dictator

God must have a really messed up sense of humour to continue allowing the worst killers to die of old Age. Mobutu, Papa Doc, Milosevic and now Latin America's favourite CIA creation, and good friend of Margaret Thatcher, Augusto Pinochet. Whatever happened to the Good old days when Mussolini got his just desserts? It takes some skill to wash the blood of some 3000 people off one's hands, so perhaps he was already at peace before he finally croaked. So rest in peace Augusto, you corrupt, murdering, klepto son of a sniveling mongrel bitch. If I ever find your stinking ass in heaven when I get there, God's going to have to answer to me.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Get Thee To A Creative Writing Class!

The first time I came to New York with aspirations (ok pretensions) of being a writer I immediately went to Brooklyn. I had read (ok bought) tons of books and without fail the blurb at the back would say that _____________ resides in Brooklyn. Paula Fox...Brooklyn. Colson Whitehead...Brooklyn. Colin Channer...Brooklyn. Chris Claremont (OMG!!!) ...Brooklyn. That was enough to make a postcolonial writer go batshit. I flew into a delusion close to psychosis. I jumped off the G train and thought, this is my Paris 1927! I would swoop down on Clinton Hill and run into Jonathans Lethem, Franzen and Safran Foer, arguing about whether prose is really just the freest of free verse. I would stop for coffee and Paula Fox would run up and warn me to stop distracting readers with smut. Jhumpa Lahiri would explain that the reason her agent didn’t like my book was him not me. I would spend lunches drinking coffee and smoking Craven A’s, nights poisoning myself with absinthe and the rest of the time banging out the great Caribbean novel while my life fell apart. Spectacularly of course. Instead I couldn’t even get myself mugged, and realized that the last person to ask for directions in Brooklyn was a Brookliner.

Because New York is 8 million nations of one and in Brooklyn the nations are islands. Maybe there is a community of writers there, but as I’m not yet the type of writer that the New Yorker needs to talk about, I probably won’t see it. But there was a reason I was searching. Simply put, a writer needs community. There has to be something to offset the essential loneliness of being a writer. Something had to balance out the truth that we are at our most productive alone.

Maybe this is why so many writers spend a great amount of time knocking Creative Writing programs. “Can writing by taught?” goes the question, as if anybody in a creative writing program has ever been so stupid as to mistake it for composition class. For a genre so confident in its intellectual certitude, literature can be downright bonehead in its theories of how one becomes better at it. Julia Cameron, in the Right to sums it up as this: I have pen, I have paper, I write so I’m a writer. Like Ginsburg rhapsodizing about Bebop, the point was that if you were inspired enough anybody could do it.

Funnily enough nobody spins on their toes twice and gets called a ballerina. Now that I can strum a guitar a little bit, it’s been 6 months and yet Bob Dylan hasn’t gotten the memo that I’m his next band member. And Scorsese, what’s up with you not casting me in the Departed? Don’t you know that I was the star of my high school nativity play? You’d think of all the people who would know that inspired amateurishness is a myth it would be writers, but they are the ones shoveling this stuff. Make no mistake several writing programs are awful. There are also far too many of them and sooner or later they will have to ask why writing programs attendance is up while actual reading is down. But back to the point. I’ve heard and read too many writers, many of them graduates speak nothing but ill of programs, patting themselves on the back with the knowledge that writing can’t be taught and none of the real greats went to writing class anyway.

This is of course mythmaking of the highest order or rather, bullshit. I joined a creative writing program (Wilkes! Big up you'self!) after I published my first novel. And yet I was not the person in the class bitching about how unnecessary the classes were. This man thought everybody had a right to his opinion; boasting that his good buddies Mailer, Wolfe, Hemmingway, Baldwin and Jones never went to Creative writing class. Alas, pity the poor fool who takes a class with Kaylie Jones, who called Baldwin uncle Jimmy and James Jones, Papa. The fact is the boys did go to creative writing class. The class of Maxwell Perkins, the legendary editor from a bygone, awfully missed era. When Jones first submitted From Here to Eternity, Perkins told him to keep 100 pages, ditch the other four hundred and write the book over. He also gave Jones 100 bucks so that he wouldn’t starve to death doing so. Mailer, Thomas Wolfe both entered the Perkins classroom and all literature is the better for it. Hemmingway went to the class Gertrude Stein and Sherwood Anderson. Edith Wharton was pretty much schooled by Henry James. Even Flannery O’Connor went to an actual writing program, Iowa. Even Brooklyn was a school for writers once.

But that Brooklyn doesn’t exist anymore. Nor that Paris or London or Berlin though there was a Prague for a while. A writer searching for community is not going to find it at some smoky cafĂ© in Park Slope or Rue St. HonorĂ©. And maybe editors like Perkins still exist but I have my doubts after a junior editor at one of the three most powerful publishers in the world told me that his boss is not a “book person.” If you want the atmosphere of creativity and critique that can make a difference in a manuscript the only place you’re going to find that is a Creative Writing program. It took me 4 years to write my first book, largely because I did not know what I was doing. I could have used a trained ear, somebody who knew when storylines weren’t tied up, when words like ‘it’ were being overused, when characters were flat when they should be round and when using ignominy in a sentence impresses no one. I’m sure Zadie Smith can get Ian McEwan to read her next manuscript but the rest of us have to go to school. Sometimes if you’re lucky you get to build your own community. More than that, you come to realise that it does take more than one person to write a good book. If you have Jonathan Franzen on speed dial to do this for you then congratulations, but the rest of us have to go to school.

Creative Writing programs aren’t perfect. I’m still not sold on the idea of beginners giving pointers to beginners since nine out of ten don’t read nor have a clue about reading like a writer. There is also the tendency to confuse critique with simply telling what you would have done had YOU written the story. Workshop fiction can be devoid of real feeling (sentiment is the enemy!) and bad workshop fiction obeys rules so close that the end result is more of a thesis than a story. That said chances are that editor will not be able to tell you that your tone slipped on page 150, busy as he is, signing the next plagiarizer of chick lit. And neither Joyce Carol Oates nor Andrew Wiley can read your nine pager so you’ll have to take a number for a very long wait. But maybe Peter Carey or Colum McCann over at Hunter can help you turn your care bears story into Watership Down. Or maybe Francine Prose would pick up where others haven’t that your masterpiece in one less character away. And maybe you will realize that the best writers are students and Creative Writing programs serve to teach us that the essence of good writing is learning itself.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Spacebreak Sex

For something that we do all the time, obsess about when we’re not doing it, think about, worry over, take pills to enhance, and even define one’s identity by, sex seems curiously absent from literary fiction. Oh sure we have bad sex, unrewarding sex, adulterous sex, paid for sex, deviant sex, even interspecies sex (Ok, guilty) but no real sex. We’re particularly good at exploring the implications of post-sex but never in medias res, in the thick of it so to speak. The human body goes through all sorts of wonderful and scary stuff during sex yet nobody writes about it. What gives?

Instead what we have what Barbara Kingsolver called spacebreak sex. You know what I’m talking about. It goes like this:

He touched her hair, she looked in his eyes, they both headed for the bedroom.


The next morning the woke up in each other’s arms...

So what the hell happened? Were they lost in pleasure? Did one of them in the act of sex realize that they were making a horrible mistake? Did somebody fake it and why? Did they think sex was a blanket panacea for everything else and realize that it wasn’t (or it was)? What happened? Who was dominant and why? If a writer loses nothing by describing how a bullet enters a person why does he lose point for describing the entry of genitalia?

I think literary fiction writers are scared of sex. It was so weird in creative writing class when I would submit something explicit and I would be counseled by well meaning adults how to write with more subtlety so that I could get the feeling across, you know, so that I wouldn’t HAVE TO go into the act. Why not? And why use the phrase HAVE TO? Maybe we fear that we would suck at it. Maybe that demon of sentimentality that hovers over all writers would run amok and ruin our stories with lines unfit for even Cinemax After Dark. Maybe we would just end up writing porn. That’s not an unreasonable fear, The Bad Sex in Fiction Award is usually given to otherwise fine novels that stumbled spectacularly in this area. How about this one from literary luminary and 2005 bad sex nominee John Updike:

“..his prick stared back at him with its one eye clouded by a single drop of pure seminal yearning. He felt suspended at the top of an arc. Faye leaned back on the blanket, arranging her legs in an M of receptivity, and he knelt between them like the most abject and craven supplicant who ever exposed his bare ass to the eagle eyes of a bunch of crows.

Faye took him in hand. He slipped in. He became an adulterer. He went for the last inch. She grunted, at her own revelation. His was that her cunt did not feel like Phyllis's. Smoother, somehow simpler, its wetness less thick, less of a sauce, more of a glaze. It was soon over. He could not help himself, he was so excited, proud, and nervous. When he was done, he opened his eyes, and saw this stranger's face an inch from his, seemingly asleep, the closed eyelids showing a thin pulse, her long lips curved self-lullingly.”

Notwithstanding that no good sex scene could start with the word prick (Is this a white male writer thing?) it’s no surprise then that most times we resort to the good old space break.

Maybe great writers, unlike great poets are simply not having good sex. Or maybe it’s only the straight ones. When it comes to good explicit action the gays guys seem to have it locked even if the straight audiences may not want to read it. Alan Hollinghurst can get into literary raptures when writing about man-man action. His Booker Prize winning novel, The Line of Beauty is filled with them, but they work for the novel precisely because the main character was trying for this rapture, with a certain erotic desperation to lock into a 70’s style hedonism in the AIDS encroaching 80’s and failing miserably, especially when class, no respecter of persons or sexualities got in the way. Next to the gay guys are the dirty old men of the Latin boom, such as the late Guillermo Cabrera Infante, who’s Infante’s Inferno would probably never have been attempted by an American or a Brit. Whenever I mention that only the gay guys and Latin Americans got it, Henry Miller is frequently trotted out. But Henry Miller died way back in 1980 and his last books were the words of somebody trading in his own detritus and not even aware that he had become just another Henry Miller imitator.

Maybe we are just aware that other art forms, pardon the pun, do it better. A particular accomplishment is the new movie Short Bus, which opens with a man satisfying himself in a way that few men can and then goes on to a sex therapist who’s never had an orgasm and a couple playing way out of their league by bringing a third person to the party. That this film is buoyed by explicit sex scenes (we have a go for penetration, folks!) underscores rather than undercuts it. I was incredibly pissed off and envious that I hadn’t written a novel like this first. In music Prince nailed the knife-edge between pleasure and perversion way back 1980 with Dirty Mind and Patti Smith rode through with Horses even further back in 1975. Even photography boasts of Mapplethorpe, Helmut Newton, Nan Goldin and Andres Serrano.

I think we literary fiction writers need to take our pencils, or laptops back into the bedroom. Something pretty fascinating is happening in there. Everybody seems to know this but us.