Friday, February 27, 2009

Penguin Guest Blog: From Tuesday

On Writing about Atrocity.
I don’t always agree with Michiko Kakutani, but I think she nails exactly what goes wrong when writers tackle the unthinkable, in today’s review of Jonathan Littel’s The Kindly Ones, the Nazi novel that was a sensation in France, given its first person narrative of an unrepentant Officer:

Indeed, the nearly 1,000-page-long novel reads as if the memoirs of the Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss had been rewritten by a bad imitator of Genet and de Sade, or by the warped narrator of Bret Easton Ellis’s “American Psycho,” after repeated viewings of “The Night Porter” and “The Damned.”

Whereas the philosopher Theodor Adorno warned, not long after the war, of the dangers of making art out of the Holocaust (“through aesthetic principles or stylization,” he contended, “the unimaginable ordeal” is “transfigured and stripped of some of its horror and with this, injustice is already done to the victims”), whereas George Steiner once wrote of Auschwitz that “in the presence of certain realities art is trivial or impertinent,” we have now reached the point where a 900-plus page portrait of a psychopathic Nazi, dwelling in histrionic detail on the barbarities of the camps, should be acclaimed by Le Monde as “a staggering triumph.”

The biggest problem faced by the writer of atrocity is his own talent, that his highest aesthetic value becomes his lowest weakness. By transforming atrocity into art, atrocity is no longer atrocious. There are two ways this can happen: by not dwelling enough on the horror, or dwelling way too much. The former allows the reader either through the beauty (or vagueness) of the prose to sidestep any punishment for being a voyeur. The latter runs the risk of turning into pornography, atrocity smut that numbs instead of outrages.

Of course having just published a novel about an atrocity, I worry about mixing art and horror myself; not just how successful I was but was exactly does that success mean. Does even calling a novel about the holocaust a success result in a kind of glibness? Art taking the place of fact, so much so that people run the risk of looking at the holocaust through Stephen Spielberg’s incredibly artful lenses, and not the actual event? Life is Beautiful has aged horribly because of this very thing, Roberto Benigni turning a concentration camp into a world of wonder, despite having a slight justification for it (in the story, at least).

What happens when a beautiful technique captures horror? VS Naipaul, in his perceptive and damning Middle Passage, once said that a Jamaican slum was a place of such unremitting ugliness that one could never take a photograph of it because the beauty of the photographic process lies to you about how ugly everything is. I saw this in my former job as a location scout: foreign photographers jumping at the chance to shoot in the ghetto, not because they wanted to capture poverty, but because rusted zinc gave such a wonderful brick red colour.

I’m in a reading group about violence and one of the crucial issues we have to tackle is the very existence of such a group. If this study has no plan for concrete action, some form of sacrificial giving to a cause that betters us all, aren’t we just making our own torture porn? We run the risk of reducing violence to a mere aesthetic or intellectual experience, that way a Photograph’s beauty can rob a tragedy of its horror. The only artist I know who may have fully figured this out, balancing beauty and tragedy in a way the highlights the tragedy of the subject, while saving beauty for the dignity of the victim was the gifted photographer Dan Eldon. Of course he paid for his commitment to truth in art with his life.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

I'm Penguin's Guest Blogger for the Week!

Monday's Blog:

I’m thinking about getting into some trouble tonight. The fate of all authors might hang in the balance. I’m reading “Revenge of the Nerds” a funny and bittersweet article in the March/April Issue of Poets and Writers; about how today’s (meaning my) generation of writers can be such wusses sometimes. How we lack the sturm und drang of the mighty men and women of the past; writers that doth bestride the world like colossuses or Colossi, if we want to get technical. Or at least get trashed and laid an awful lot. Writers seemed even more fascinating since they were rarely as Dorian grey hot as rock stars but were even more drunken and disorderly.

But Amy Shearn, who wrote the article, has a point. I think. Most of the writers interviewed said that they were simply too busy writing to get on with any debauchery. Others said that unlike their forebears, they couldn’t depend on writing alone for a living so had to teach in places where scandals weren’t looked upon with “you remember when” nostalgia (No this doesn’t mean you, Bennington). Are we just wimpier? When Norman Mailer traded barbs with Gore Vidal, you knew that sooner or later somebody was going to punch somebody. Compare that to our own recent feuds, like Dale Peck Vs Rick Moody, which came across like two nerds trying to pull out their battered copy of Hitchhiker’s Guide to slap each other with it.

Maybe Byron wasn’t so Byroneqsue, but you’ve got to wonder if on seeing what my generation of writers looked like, that he wouldn’t have become a rock star or wrestler instead. When did we get so nerdy? I have an excuse I think, me being a nerd of some sort since childhood, but so was James Joyce, whose glasses were far thicker than mine. Is it just that we are dweebs or that we write dweeby books as well? I'd be the first to say that we’re pretty awful navel gazers, with the added problem of not having a life to gaze at. I’d like to agree that we may be too busy writing, but here I am writing this blog so clearly I have some spare time. But I’m saddened when Charles Baxter says “writer are no longer gods; everybody knows that.”

Sometimes I think I was born two generations too late. Granted had I been born then I would not have been a writer. I’m also not convinced that the lionizing of writers is such a good thing since it created the culture where we know the writer but not the book, sort of like George Clooney being famous, but nobody being able to name five of his works. I wonder if other writers do what I do: look at how the literary badasses of the media age sacrificed their own work in the bargain. I wonder if they take that as a lesson. But there are times that I wonder if I should go have some illicit sex, say something outrageous or just reach for something a little more banal, like a raging coke habit. Or maybe I should get a wife just to shoot or stab her. Or drink myself to death. I try to say that all this would mean I write less, but I write lees than I want to now, and these reprobates of literary past also got an enormous amount of great work done.

Granted the media eventually chewed up Mailer and spat him out, no matter how much he refused to be a tasty dish. And I’m not sure writers ever wanted to be celebrities, certainly not Updike or Roth. As for the badasses of yore, I’m not sure they were being bad for the camera or the newspaper column, even back in their heyday. But something about me misses that era as if I lived through it. Maybe it’s because that when the writers seemed bigger than life the books seemed bigger than life as well.

Friday, February 13, 2009

On Erotica, or Lo and Behold, The Virginal Ho

Strange things happen when people write in the dark, stranger still when they, without being asked shed light on it. Couple years ago I wrote a blog on Spacebreak Sex, on the curious absence of sex scenes from literary fiction and the overall consensus that maybe that was because we sucked at it. Of course I now hesitate to claim such a thing now that I’ve actually written a couple of them, involving two consenting humans at that, and I wouldn’t have even thought about it enough to write a blog, but recently it came to my attention that somebody was looking for me, with the hope of me writing an erotic story for a collection.

Of course I have no problem with writing about sex (my apologies if you thought this was a PG13 blog). The more whams, bam and slams in fiction the better quite frankly. I don’t see why G. Carbrera Infante and Roberto Bolano should have all the fun; after all they are both quite dead. So no, I have no problem whatsoever with sex in fiction. But I do have a problem with erotica.
Erotica’s purpose cannot help but be dubious: for one, it sets out to spark desire on a mass level; something as fraught with disaster as trying the same seduction on two different people. The idea of one kind of story, or one kind of set up or even one or two kinds of sex that would turn on millions is not only ludicrous, but also kind of creepy. But I’m not one to turn down honest paying work, and besides, this is what pseudonyms are for. And some of that stuff is actually good, well the gay stuff anyway. The straight stuff that I “researched” came across as oddly unsexual, even anti-sex, and they all had a sort of artistic line that was disturbingly similar. It took my awhile to figure out what was wrong with erotic fiction.

None of these writers are having sex.

It’s a curious phenomenon, the virginal ho. The literary smut hound that somehow never comes across as ever having sex. Not satisfied with my suspicion I dug deeper and came upon a site that shall remain nameless. I’ve spent some time in a newsroom so I knew what to do: checked the bio before I read the story. Here was one:

…Bald, old guy writes erotic tales when he's not building his model railway.

I don’t know about you, but that got me hot. A typical paragraph went like this:

"Damn you John, you're being cruel."
"And you're loving it." His hand went to his cock again; he wouldn't have to wait much longer surely.
He bent and kissed her pretty ass, nipped the soft flesh and thought how much he loved this sweet creature.

"Oh no!" she whispered and he heard the trickling sound.

What preceded was a rather disturbing sadomasochistic fantasy, but disturbing only in the sense that it read like the work of someone who had not had sex before. And probably should not since he may cause grievous damage to another human. In another story by a different but male author, the male character, with one hand in the Bangkok whore’s (is there any other?) cunt (his word not mine) and the other in her anus, she still manages to have a pretty lucid discussion about countries of origin, national identity and nostalgia. Worse was the in-between sex narration, where the writer got into quasi-metaphysical mumbo jumbo just to prove to the reader that he’s read wikipedia and was not some hairy palm redneck typing with his free hand.

The thing about erotica for the most part is that for all the action, it betrays very little understanding of female and male bodies. The man’s penis is always hard and dripping pre-cum, the woman’s vagina is always throbbing and dripping whatever, and it’s never a vagina, but a cunt or twat. One becomes nostalgic for a simple pussy. I wonder how these women think, what with their twats throbbing at the mere sight of a male bicep. So we have dicks dripping, twats throbbing, breasts heaving, clitorises undulating (!), lips licking, tongues flicking, cocks straining in their pants. The cock is always super long so that it needs two tongues to lick it and the vagina manages to be super tight yet super deep at the same time. And if the evocative passages are horrible, the evaluative ones, where the writer gets into the character’s mind are much worse. Step into the remains of an exploded orgasm and you slip on lines like these:

“It's all fake, of course. All this. A construction. A replica of love. Play-acting on an exotic stage. A Hollywood movie. And like all movies, we pay our fare, and for a short while we allow ourselves to be subsumed by another reality. In the warm comforting cinematic darkness, we become part of a world more vivid than the one we live in.”

And here I was cussing creative writing students because they’re far too in love with Raymond Carver. For a genre of such transgression, erotica can be frustratingly conservative, or at least lock step. There’s no new territory being opened or any clever retelling of the old. Maybe cleverness is asking too much, but whom, after reading these stories goes on to actual sex? With another person? Consensual? Not only are these writer not fucking, worse, they’re not reading. Susanna Moore’s In The Cut, Nic Kelman’s Girls, Adam Thirwell’s Politics, Allan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming Pool Library and Andre Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name all manage scenes both hot and brilliant, scenes that could teach these writers what happens when one body touches another. But the tragic flaw of this fiction is what grips all mediocre fiction; a lack of reading, a basic unintelligence about literature that perhaps they felt they had no need for since their thrills were below the belt.

Except that it isn’t. Erotica isn’t actual sex, so it has to seduce the brain first. Instead I kept coming across writing like the kind I sometimes see in workshops, by writers trying to shock or titillate but with no experience of either. Other times it’s the taking on of a transgression that they have neither the intelligence nor daring to handle. This leads more often than not to fiction that’s accidentally disturbing, or at least bothersome enough to make you wonder just where did that last missing child end up.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Mr. President...

I know I should be over it by now, but it blows my mind that HE is our new president.