Films, Uncategorized

Films About Fiction: Young Adult

Young Adult (2011) works on that shopworn trope of the writer as misanthrope to tell the story of a prom queen soured with age, returning to her home town to try to suck the life out of her high school sweetheart’s happy marriage.  Meanwhile, she drinks too much and works on the final novel in a teen romance series.  That’s the plot, but plot is the least interesting thing about this movie.

Instead it’s a character study of author-protagonist Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), a woman self-absorbed to the point of absurdist satire.  For screenwriter Diablo Cody there was something inherently progressive about portraying a woman this emotionally retarded:

I knew a lot of people like Mavis—not as malicious as her, but who are kind of slovenly immature like her, which is the opposite of the way we’re used to seeing women portrayed. I relate to that really strongly and wondered why we didn’t see them in movies. When the movie came out, sure enough, I had so many women tell me that Mavis reminded them of themselves—which I’m proud of, because it’s tough to admit that you’re like Mavis.

Young Adult movie poster

Cody goes on to compare her to a Kardashian, but why then was it necessary to make Mavis a writer?  Why not make her a TV personality or some kind of dilettante (or both)?  Well, we wouldn’t have that great title, for one thing, and for another the kind of books that Mavis writes form a sort of commentary on the kind of person she is.

Although Mavis does several things that are traditional of writers in the movies — struggles to put words into her laptop, eavesdrops for inspiration, and writes in voice over — she is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the similarly self-indulgent character of Hank Moody in Californication.  She has achieved a modicum of notoriety as a writer, at least in her home town, but she has done it by writing someone else’s books.

She may be loath to cop to her true status, but Mavis is just the latest hack hired to tackle one of these never-ending series upon which the publishers continue to slap a popular author’s name (even after the author is dead), and then foist upon the YA market.  I guess those books sell, because from what I can tell it’s an increasingly common practice.

In any case, Cody is using the novels — and the YA genre as a whole — as a metaphor for Mavis’s shallow, hollow self-involvement.  Govindini Murty summed it up pretty succinctly in her Huffington Post analysis:

Charlize Theron’s Mavis embodies all the narcissism of modern popular culture. She’s obsessed with reality TV (the Kardashians drone on in the background of several scenes), a medium that has elevated the navel gazing of minor celebrities to the level of major entertainment. Mavis writes young adult novels that are only thinly-disguised relivings of her own high-school glory days, and she’s otherwise obsessed with appearances and shallow celebrity status. The film repeatedly shows Mavis studying herself in the mirror — either in depressed self-loathing after an alcoholic bender, or with vain self-satisfaction as she puts on makeup to impress her former boyfriend.

All of this comes together in one ridiculous, yet poignant scene:  Mavis arrives at a bookstore in her hometown to find copies of her novels stacked together on a table.  After she convinces the clerk that they’re her novels, despite the fact that there is a famous author’s name on the cover, he tells her this display is the final effort of the store to sell them, and nobody is buying.

Hiding her hurt, Mavis offers to sign the books to increase their value, but the clerk stops her because the books can’t be remaindered if someone has written in them.  In one blow he crushes what little of her self esteem was left.  And, of course, she tries to sign them anyway, because when they disappear so will the proof positive that she ever amounted to anything special.


Chandler Interviewed by Fleming

A rare treat for pulp-o-philes: an interview of Raymond Chandler by Ian Fleming on the topic of “English and American Thrillers.”

Fleming comes across unpretentious and thoughtful as he tells Chandler about how he dashes off a new Bond novel in two months every summer, and then admits that that doesn’t contribute to the quality of the work. He calls Chandler the superior author and when Chandler demurs, Fleming proves his point with a surprisingly insightful commentary about what makes his writing work as entertainment and what makes Chandler’s writing a deeper examination of character.

My favorite moment though has to be when Fleming claims that “James Bond I never intended to be a hero. I intended him to be a sort of blunt instrument wielded by a government department who would get into bizarre, fantastic situations and more or less shoot his way out of them.” Put like that, 007’s adventures sound like a cold-war commentary as much as the spy fantasies they more clearly are.


Malcolm Lowry

Although his novel, Under the Volcano, was featured last year in Esquire’s 75 Books Every Man Should Read, I have only ever met three people — male or female — familiar with Malcolm Lowry.

Two of them thought he was a genius, and the third a misanthropic degenerate.

I probably never would have heard of him myself if I hadn’t lived in Kazakhstan for a year. There I was limited to a diet of library books, very few of which were in English, and one of which happened to be the posthumously published short novel, As Dark as the Grave Wherein my Friend is Laid. I picked it up purely based on the title.

They also had a copy of Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place and his more modestly titled first novel, Ultramarine, and I absorbed those, as well.  However, it wasn’t for some years that I finally got my hands on Under the Volcano.  This was before the Internet, and finding editions of obscure, out-of-print authors was a bit of a scavenger hunt. Nowadays, not only are used copies of Under the Volcano a mouse click away, but it’s also readily available in nifty new edition.

Although challenging, I could not help but admire this grim, gritty, fascinating novel that slams closed with one of the most harrowing and brilliant final pages of any book I’ve read before or since. The Guardian UK recently ran an article recommending that “more people just read the thing.”

An atmosphere of difficulty cloaks the book like the thunderheads that hide the “immense flanks” of Popocatepetl, one of the two volcanoes in whose shadows the doomed alcoholic consul, Geoffrey Firmin, his estranged wife Yvonne, and his half-brother Hugh confront their fates. First published in 1947, Volcano had the troubled early life typical of unique books. It sold well in the United States, but in Britain it was remaindered and in Canada, where it was written (Canadians are proprietary towards Lowry, who spent the happiest period of his life there), it sold only two copies between the end of 1947 and 1949. Its reputation grew over the years following Lowry’s death in 1957, but it remains a book that deeply divides opinion. Not because of the book’s “what,” which is fairly straightforward, but its “how”: tangled time schemes and a Faulknerian stream of consciousness are just two of the prominent challenges with which Lowry tests readers.

Nevertheless it is well enough loved to have inspired a John Huston film starring Albert Finney, and lent its name to Creative Writing Workshops in Tepoztlán, Mexico and to London’s Original Mexican Restaurant. (And a lot more than that, actually.) In fact, In 1998 it was rated as number 11 on the list of the 100 best novels of the 20th century compiled by the Modern Library.

Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry

Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry

The New Yorker featured a fascinating retrospective on Lowry’s life and work a few years ago.


Historic Homes of Writers

I recently spent more than a week in Key West, Florida.  A writer friend told me, half seriously, that he was “jealous of your pilgrimage” and another said, “Cheers to Papa!”  And, yes, while I was there I made a visit to the Earnest Hemingway Home and Museum.

Hemingway's Desk

A view of the desk in Hemingway’s writing room.

Although inundated with tourists, the place is kept in excellent repair and simply dripping with tropical grandeur.  Most importantly, for me, the writing room above the shed is decorated in a manner that it might have been at the time when he was there writing To Have and Have Not.

The rest of the house is more of a record of the tastes of his second wife (and rightly so, considering her family money paid for it and that she continued to live there after he’d left for Cuba with his third wife).  Still, it’s neat to see, especially all those mutant cats.

Of course, I have no idea what the house really looked like in the 1930s.  For example, they tell you on the tour that Hemingway kept a boxing ring in the backyard until his wife replaced it with a swimming pool while he was in Spain with his mistress.  But the house itself is gorgeous, and steeped in history.  And all in all, I enjoyed it just as much as any of the historic homes of writers that I’ve visited.

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve enjoyed visiting writer’s historic residences.  Growing up in the Valley of the Moon, I used to visit Jack London’s Wolf House, or what’s left of it, all the time.

I’ve also been to the homes of Russian writers.  And in Massachusetts I made sure visit to the Poe House and took in the Longfellow House-Washington Headquarters, which is really an amazing place to tour.

All these houses are very different.  The only thing they have in common being that a writer did his work there, and it’s nifty to get an idea of where they sat and what they saw out the window.

Here’s the complete list of writer’s homes I’ve visited in the order that I visited them:

  • Jack London – Sonoma, California
  • Fyodor Dostoyevsky – St. Petersberg, Russia
  • Dashiell Hammett’s apartment – San Francisco, California
  • Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • Edgar Allen Poe – Boston, Massachusetts
  • Leo Tolstoy – Moscow, Russia
  • Earnest Hemingway – Key West, Florida

Update: I also visited The Borges family’s Palermo homestead.  You can’t go inside, which is why I didn’t remember.  (I was reminded by a fun article at Flavor Wire.)

Fiction, Short Stories

New Story: Le Mycète Sans Pitié

StrangeworldsHappy Halloween!  A short short story of mine, Le Mycète Sans Pitié, appeared today in a publication called, “STRANGEWORLDS: An Anthology of Bizarre Fiction.” So far the book is only out in a Kindle edition (for $1), but publisher BizarreBooks promises to have a chapbook version available soon.  According to the book’s description, these are “bizarre out-of-this-world mindf**k stories.” So, uh, you’ve been warned.

Nobel Prize for Literature

Overblown and Utterly Essential

This year the Nobel Prize in Literature was given to Tomas Tranströmer, a relatively obscure poet from Sweden.  The Prize committee explained that the selection was made because “through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality.”  Response from the media has been mostly positive, although the committee was prepared to defend itself against accusations of bias because they had chosen a Swede.

“We have been quite thoughtful about this, not being rash in choosing a Swede,” [the academy’s permanent secretary, Peter] Englund said, noting that Transtromer’s works have been translated into about 60 languages. “He is well known among people who read poetry.”

Still, the New York Review of Books blog called out the prize for its “essential silliness” by describing the impossible amount of material that the prize’s 18-member jury has to review in order to narrow down to a single recipient.

Let’s try to imagine how much reading is involved. Assume that a hundred writers are nominated every year—it’s not unthinkable—of whom the jury presumably try to read at least one book. But this is a prize that goes to the whole oeuvre of a writer, so let’s suppose that as they hone down the number of candidates they now read two books of those who remain, then three, then four. It’s not unlikely that each year they are faced with reading two hundred books (this on top of their ordinary workloads).

Across the pond, the book blogger at the Guardian UK called the Prize’s recipients in general “a curious club” and delineated their many failings as role models alongside the selection committee’s failure as judges of cultural merit.  It’s a pretty harsh survey of the 108 years of the Prize.

Ironically, the best description of the parameters used to select these luminaries may come from an unlikely source, gambling.  This year, according to an article at the Huffington Post, the in-house literary analyst for Ladbrokes gave Tranströmer’s victory 9-2 odds, the second best of any author on his short list.

That one well-read oddsmaker has to take into account far more than just a writer’s fame and body of work. He must consider a writer’s age (the Academy prefers to honor older writers), gender (the Academy has made statements acknowledging that is hasn’t honored enough women), as well as whether the writer’s name has been floated previously for the award. He also has to consider where a writer is from, as the Academy has made a point in recent years to think more globally. Last year’s winner, Mario Vargas Llosa, was the first South American to win the award since 1982.

Such a formula can be worked out for the simple reason that there is an obvious skew to the selection process.  The question that none of the critics address is, however, how much does that really matter?  I would suggest that those seeking to dismiss the prize due to its lack of objectivity are missing the point entirely.

There will always be a slant to any prize selection process in literature, because literature is by design subjective.

The importance of the Nobel Prize for Literature, overblown as it may be, is not so much who actually wins, but rather the attention their victory brings to literature in general.  The patina of the Nobel Prize is extended to everyone toiling over words, whether they win any of the money or not.

We should have more literary prizes like this, not less.  More attention to writers of all kinds, and to words.  People need to be encouraged to seek out that “fresh access to reality.”

Fiction, Short Stories

New Story: The Angelic Host

Serve in Heaven, Reign in HellA story of mine, “The Angelic Host,” was made available this week in the anthology, Serve in Heaven, Reign in Hell.

Published by Static Movement, a speculative fiction micro-press with a growing footprint of fantasy, science fiction and horror-themed anthologies, Serve in Heaven promises readers “avenging angels, devious devils, and tempted mortals.”  A copy will set you back $15.99.

Films, Writing Tips

Films About Fiction: Midnight in Paris

Midnight in Paris (2011) is a Woody Allen film about a fantasy many writers have of living among their idols in the past, and features lovingly sketched caricatures of Earnest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, among others.

To the delight of Gil Pender, the nebbish screenwriter who is magically transported from our time to theirs, these luminaries cavort through the Paris night demanding that artists love passionately and speak truly. Whereas Gil is only now learning to follow his bliss.

The most cringeworthy moment, for Gil, is one in which his shallow and derisive fiance and her pretentious friends dismiss his literary aspirations as sentimental fantasies. They’re right, of course, but speak with a total disregard for his feelings. The crux of their criticism is that Gil is too cowardly to show his novel to anyone and not enough interested in other people’s opinions.

That’s all set to change, however, when Gil steps through the looking glass and into a flapper party straight out of the Twenties. There he encounters his literary idols and, immediately entranced, starts asking them to read his work. Apparently, he wasn’t afraid, he just wanted the evaluation of somebody he considered truly worthy. That or he had the good sense not to show it to his mean-spirited companions.

Finding readers is an interesting conundrum for writers. It must be done, but you’re almost certain not to like what they have to say. Good critiques push for improvements, sometimes contradictory ones, and it’s up to the author to sift for gems. On top of that, hearing criticism requires an ego strong enough to withstand it. There are those that thrive by this process and those who wither.

In Paris in the 1920s of course, writers workshops did not exist as they do now. Instead they had salons, the most famous of which was Gertrude Stein’s. These meetups served some of the same purpose as a writing group, but without the formalities. Gil visits a salon and gets direct input of the most basic sort. He is told to fix one big thing, and in a single day rewrites the first four chapters. In reality this is not how these things work, of course.

Peter Turchi has a thoughtful and realistic discussion of writer workshops at his website. He describes them as laboratories and medical theaters, acknowledging that they can be instructive, but warning that they are too often “intent on finding fault.” Turchi says all writers have “horror stories to tell: stories about rude behavior, harsh comments, savage ‘advice,’ someone trying to dictate how someone else should write, writers in tears, writers enraged, or friends who feel obliged to ‘defend’ each others’ work.”

The reasons for this are reflected in the film when the Hemingway character, asked if he will read Gil’s novel, says something to the effect of, “I already know that I will hate it. If it’s bad, I will hate it because it’s bad, if it’s good I will hate it because I did not write it. All writers are competitors.”

To get away from the jealousies and trash talk, Turchi recommends focusing on a work’s intentions first and then taking the foray into craft.

One of the most useful things a workshop can do for the writer is to reflect the intention of the work back to her. It is of course helpful to give the writer suggestions for developing the work; and it’s useful for every writer to learn to diagnose the ailments of a draft that falls short. But falls short of what? If the conversation doesn’t begin by trying to recognize the work’s intention, there’s a great risk that the suggestions offered will be suggestions for ways to make the story what the speaker thinks it should be, or could be, or might be.

This puts the critique firmly on the side of the author, and to my mind that’s the only place to be in a workshop. In this regard, Midnight in Paris may be a bit flip with the details, but its feeling is correct. What Gil gets at the salon is a thoughtful critique, delivered in a respectful manner, with no other intention save the improvement of the work. He takes this critique to heart, and produces something better.

At some point Gil quotes Hemingway to himself, saying that all modern American literature can be traced back to Huckleberry Finn. Twain is a great example in critique, too; he always shared his unpublished manuscripts with “a private group of friends.” In the following video, read by John Lithgow, Twain describes the 14 types of people whose opinions he sought. It’s an amusing and insightful look at how writers get feedback.

Who is Mark Twain? from Flash Rosenberg on Vimeo.

Writing Tips

More Rules for Writers

Writing advice is plentiful on the internet.  Following up my previous post about Rules for Writers, I’ve collected some more:

But for some really good and very funny advice I would highly recommend the new book Starve Better by Nick Mamatas.

Authors, Writing Tips

Reading like a Writer?

I read and enjoyed Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, but something about it bothered me. Prose argues that writing is learned by reading other works and emulating them:

In the ongoing process of becoming a writer, I read and re-read authors I most loved.  I read for pleasure, first, but also more analytically, conscious of style, of diction, of how sentences were formed and information was being conveyed, how the writer was structuring the plot, creating characters, employing detail and dialogue.  … What writers know is that, ultimately, we learn to write by practice, hard work, by repeated trial and error, success and failure, and from the books we admire.

I agree very strongly with this.  Where I begin to be concerned is in her analysis of specific examples, and not any one of them but rather the whole way she discusses close reading.
She breaks her book into chapters covering Words, Sentences, Paragraphs, Narration, Character, Dialogue and other elements of fiction, but her examples and the way she unloads these examples are, or seem to me to be, rather pedantic.  I don’t feel I learned much about reading or writing.  Rather it was all about analyzing.

I’m not the only reviewer to note this.  Brien Michael in his review at The Quarterly Conversation pointed out that “the book’s approach has much to do with Prose’s astute observations in the classroom” and “that Prose is surviving a tempestuous marriage with the academy.”

One of the fundamental problems with Prose’s approach is that we must depend on her to summarize the story up to that point or beyond so that we can make sense of what she’s doing. Even if we’ve read The Great Gatsby (it’s been since high school for me), it’s unlikely we could focus on the particular point without Prose’s attentions. She’s urging us to be brazenly intimate with a text while forcing us to rely on her introductions. It’s clear that the approach works much better in the context of a classroom, where the focus is on one story or one book, and it might have been more effective in Prose’s book if one text had been the focus of each chapter. Prose could have more closely replicated the pedagogical approach she employs in the classroom, and we would have been far less likely to misplace our own enthusiasm for the text—or our respect for her skill in unpacking it—in the abundance of illustrations.

If the technique is developed in the classroom and requires a classroom to explain, then Prose isn’t talking about how a writer reads so much as how a professor reads.

Perhaps her direction is indicative of the way certain writers operate in the modern teaching-mill marketplace.  Carlo Gébler certainly claims something of this sort about himself in his recent essay at Some Blind Alleys, stating unequivocally that “I started as an amateur, but at some point – I do not know when it happened; I only know that it happened – I became a professional, and once I became a professional my relationship to the world in general and to reading in particular changed utterly.”

I never simply enjoy the act of reading anymore. My authorial intelligence is totally and fully engaged. When I read, whatever I read, I examine and analyze. This is partly in order to judge the artifact and rank it, but also, and perhaps mostly, I am doing this so that I can learn from it. I want to know what I can appropriate. You could say – in fact, I will say it – I read primarily to steal. This attitude applies not just to books but to everything. In every situation, whatever it is, whether private or public, personal or impersonal, happy or sad, interesting or boring, exotic or quotidian, while part of me is involved and interacting and apparently sympathetic and human, there is another part of my personality that is scrutinizing my experiences and thinking two terrible things: What’s in this for me? And: Can I use this? Can I put it in a story? Can I put it in an article?

Gébler is no longer learning from reading so much as, in his words, cannibalizing.  He blames the marketplace for forcing him to evolve from an “author” into a “writer and teacher.”  He is bitter, but Prose seems mainly positively about the transformation.  I suspect the truth is somewhere in between.