Archive for January, 2011

Don’t call me a critic – I’m an analyst!

January 24, 2011

I have a confession. I have never, ever, liked the idea of being a critic. It’s one of those weird, little hang-ups people get over time, they hear a word, they put an image to it, and their nose scrunches up as they say, “ewwwwwwwwwww.” For me, critic has always been synonymous with someone who bleeds everything enjoyable out of whatever they’re critiquing and destroys something rather than adding anything worthwhile to it.

Is this fair? of course it’s not. There are a tremendous number of very good critics who truly do add something to the work they’re looking at, who are a treat to read, and who don’t thoroughly kill the joy from whatever their eyes fall upon.  I’ve read a number of critics that I enjoy, I have friends in the field who I believe do an unbelievably thorough, engaging and, yes, even entertaining job at working through their critiques.

Still…that image remains. Ewwwwwwwwwwww.

Then I ran across a line in the book I’m using in my 7 week short story course this winter. The book is How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas Foster, and it is a book I wish I had came across years ago. If any instructors happen by this page, I fully endorse this book as an entry level reader for getting undergrads into the mode of reading and criticizing literature. It’s not only thorough, but accessible! Also, it’s cheap, so they won’t hate you for making them blow $80 on a book they’ll never use again.

But back to the line I ran across. It’s been a few days, so I can’t pinpoint where it was exactly, but Foster was talking about criticism in general when he makes a reference to deconstruction, a form he clearly isn’t a big fan of, and which he responds to by saying, “I prefer to enjoy what I analyze.”

And there was the golden word. Analyze. Not only does it have pleasant connotations with some entirely forgettable Robert DeNiro-Billy Crystal movies, but it’s also associated with the American all-positive view of business. Stock analysts. News analysts. Business analysts. Analysts, analysts, analysts. We love them. We embrace them. They are all cute and cuddly like Glen Beck at a gun rally.

And so it struck me. I’m not a critic. I don’t criticize. I don’t do quick 900 or so word critiques of novels and short stories, I do short 900 or so word analysis’s of stories. Suddenly, I feel cuter. Cuddlier. I’m okay with the idea of what I do around here -at times, anyway. Also, I feel like a more productive member of society. After all, a critic only criticizes. An analyst is in the trenches, examining trends and making flow charts. They get things done. So universities should be more willing to better fund their literature departments if a move towards re-categorizing ourselves becomes vogue. We’re not longer sitting on the sidelines, criticizing everything, we’re helping out. We’re analyzing.

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The Drama of the Every Day

January 16, 2011

My girlfriend has often lamented how much of modern “serious” fiction” leans on the crutch of drugs to create tension and to build a “real” character. To paraphrase our many hit and run conversations on it, it seems as if everyone everywhere is inserting as many substances as humanly possible into their bodies and acting like the world’s biggest assholes because of it and, often, the change the character goes through is becoming slightly less of an asshole at the end of the work as they wean themselves off whatever drugs they were on.

What I think the real problem is, is that this is lacking in reality. Are there people with drug problems? Sure. But not everyone, while everyone does have a bit of drama in their lives from the simple act of their living. But this is rarely touched on. It seems as if the common dramas of our every day life just aren’t important enough for people to write about today.

This is getting brought up because of something our kid did this morning while we were walking out to the car. He didn’t do anything wrong, he didn’t misbehave. In fact, he did something I guarantee all of us would do. He saw money on the ground. He picked it up. And then those three fateful words:

“It’s a fifty!”

Now, the immediate reaction is, “great!” My immediate reaction was, “oh crap, what now?” And this is why:

Fifty bucks is a lot of money to most people. It’s certainly a lot of money to us, where it would help buy groceries for two weeks (or buy one helluva lego set if the kid takes it to ToysRUs). I feel bad for whoever lost it. I want to find who it is and give it back. But this simply isn’t going to happen. It’s not going to get claimed anywhere, and wherever we turn it in at is more likely to just keep it than not.

So the kid found fifty bucks outside, but I feel horrible for just keeping it but we’ll probably end up doing just that. Meanwhile, whoever lost that fifty bucks might now be fifty bucks short on rent or unable to buy groceries this week.

The drama of every day life.

The Price of Eggs in China by Don Lee – Review

January 12, 2011

Don Lee seems to work in triangles.  Dean makes chairs and is dating a former poet, Caroline Yip, when another poet, Marcella Ahn, moves into the neighborhood and throws everything into chaos. Caroline believes Marcella has tracked her down and moved into the same town just to make her life miserable. From Marcella’s hiring Dean to construct a chair for her, Caroline weaves a tapestry of evil and intrigue. Dean’s own misery and desire for the whole thing to come to some sort of end, to be allowed to go back to the life he was leading before, pushes him to set fire to his stock of wood and try to frame Marcella for it. When the short story wraps up, however, we are left to wonder if perhaps Caroline hadn’t been at least partially correct all along.

Early in the story, it is revealed that Caroline had published a book of poetry at around the same time as Marcella, and had been met by much different criticism. Where Marcella was praised, Caroline was pilloried and, oddly, neither had published anything since. While I’m not sure it can be said that Caroline was happy waitressing, she seemed to have possibly resided herself to the life. For some reason, the reappearance of Marcella, and Caroline’s seeming “victory” over her in driving her from Rosarita Bay, re-energized Caroline’s writing.

Dean just seems to go on, quietly making his chairs, making some money, and wanting to live quietly. We find out he was a rather celebrated artist at one point who garnered a fair bit of fame and is actually quite wealthier and well known than he lets on. His biggest beef seems to be with having to have customers at all, and not being allowed to simply make chairs without the worry of them having to fit anyone.

I wonder if there isn’t something here about the artistic process and how it is different between men and women. It seems the image of the male artist is fairly well formed at this point. While there is a natural bit of competition between all artists, is Lee saying men take it less personally, instead desiring to focus solely on their work rather than getting caught up in more personal, uglier confrontations? If so, what is he saying about the woman artist?

Beyond that, what are the motivations for each? Dean had found great critical and financial success and, effectively, wanted none of it. Meanwhile, Marcella enjoyed great critical success and dropped off the map to a certain degree while Caroline was less than successful and also fell off the map, but to a much greater degree.

Something else that stands out is the nature of obsession. Dean is pretty laid back, and is relentlessly productive. He may have quit making furniture for the sake of art and began making them functional, but he still created. But the moment conflict entered between Marcella and Caroline, and where that conflict may have grown into a weird obsession for each of them,their productivity also fell through the floor.  Then we come to the end of the story where Caroline’s productivity has finally returned but only after “vanquishing” her foe, Marcella. Also, Dean’s own productivity wanes a bit during the escalation of hostilities between the two women as he is forced into their conflict.

I’m not sure if Lee is making a statement about where art comes from or how finicky the process can be and how it can be so easily derailed. It can probably go both ways.  There could also be an argument for Lee saying something about the art and function. By the end of the story, we learn Dean has moved from a rare, expensive Japanese hardwood to a more prevalent and less expensive North American hardwood for his chairs. He has already abandoned the idea of constructing furniture solely for the sake of art, and now he’s moving more towards building for the sake of using.

With Marcella, who we still do not know if she has been productive, it would now make more sense if we assume she hasn’t – at least if we also assume that the rivalry Caroline saw between them was shared. Following Lee’s image of Dean as artist, and how Caroline could only resume writing after moving past the conflict that had haunted her for years, Marcella still shouldn’t be able to write, or at least write productively.

What’s the point? There isn’t one.

January 6, 2011

Over at Fictionbitch, there are the beginnings of a discussion about writing; the why, the how, the teaching of it, etc.  Instead of throwing my thoughts messily around their comment section, partially because I’m somewhat of a negative ninny about this but also because my thoughts are all over the place on this, I figured I’d just throw it up here.

I don’t think there is a point to writing, or a reason for it, or anything else. It seems that with anything artistic, there is a bizarre need to justify its being done. Why do you paint? Why do you sculpt? Why do you write Elizabethan sonnets on postcards of the Virgin Mary? Well, why do you go in and do your accounting work? Why do you play basketball? Why do you habitually watch every incarnation of Law and Order, even the odd foreign versions that have to be subtitled?

At some point, we just need to say we do it because we do it. Some of us get paid to do it, and I think it would be a damn dirty lie to not admit a paycheck is also a wonderful motivator for continuing something. Hell, Stephen King wouldn’t have become Stephen King if he hadn’t sold Carrie and his wife had to tell him to get back to work so they could pay the bills and keep the kids fed. A paycheck is a powerful motivator and enabler. As a quick aside, it also leads into one of my favorite Harlan Ellison rants, “Pay the writer!” (the youtube clip is here, or you can watch the entire documentary it’s from, Dreams with Sharp Teeth).  At some point, though, after talking about how it’s a part of your life, how you love sharing the experience with others, etc. etc. etc, it has to be said that there would be a lot fewer writers if they didn’t get paid to do it in some capacity.

Which comes to teaching. It has to. That’s how a lot of us writers find a way to get a paycheck – we teach, somewhere, at some level, some subject. Creative writing courses themselves, I’m not too thrilled about. I know other people have found them very helpful, very informative, very constructive. Frankly, I haven’t.  But that doesn’t mean they aren’t needed. There is at least one response over at Fictionbitch that I agree with, though: there’s no reason there shouldn’t be a closer tie between creative writing and composition. A lot of the same rules apply to each: you need good grammar/spelling, you need good structure, you need to have some idea what you’re writing about and why AND you need to communicate this to your readers. The skills you hone while learning one can go a long way toward honing your skills at the other. My g/f teaches her composition classes this way, mixing in heavy doses of creative writing, and she has large, enthusiastic responses to it. Since I don’t want to incur her wrath and interrupt what she’s working on right now, I’ll try to pluck the right name from memory and say that, I think, it’s a professor named Dinty More (yes, like the stew) who pushes this method but I might be wrong. Also, by making the creative writing process more closely tied with the composition courses, maybe it could increase their importance in university English departments, something that is never a bad thing as people look to federally fund universities less and less every year.

Now do I feel that good writing, at least good beyond basic grammar and spelling good, can be taught? Not really, no. But I do think the process of going through the workshops, getting peer reviewed, getting feed back, etc. can be a good thing. But I also thing there is a justified worry about a bit of group think setting in and pieces getting overworked.  In other words, it’s a mixed bag and depends just as much on the individual taking part as the courses and university.

And why do I write? Because I do. Now go back to Law and Order.

The Strain by del Toro and Hogan – Review

January 3, 2011

I’m not a fan of Twilight. I could never get into Ann Rice. The whole Dracula/vampire thing, as a whole, has always been something that just didn’t really grab me. I’m alright with the Buffy TV series (though I liked the movie more, and am not thrilled with the idea of a re-make of it) and thought From Dusk til Dawn was good stupid fun. Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan have created a vampire book that I can dig, though.

There is nothing cuddly or romantic about these vampires. There is also nothing admirable about them in The Strain they are directly and indirectly compared to a virus, to a plague, and it is a metaphor the authors do well in honing and expounding upon. There’s really nothing beyond their actions beyond replication and dominance, at least not until the end when a larger picture and direction are hinted at.

For anyone else who has simply had their fill of watered down vampire stories, The Strain is a refreshing change of pace. It keeps you turning pages and breaths a bit of life into an idea that has taken a bit of a beating lately. These vampires are actually scary and the book is well-written.

Last Orders by Graham Swift – Review

January 3, 2011

I have to admit, the main reason I read this thing was because of the movie. I didn’t know who Graham Swift was, didn’t know he’d won a Booker Prize Last Orders, and just wanted to see if the book was as solid as the movie. The two are actually very similar, with a pretty straight adaption straight from the page to the screen. The animosity between two characters (Vince Dodds, the adopted son of the deceased, and Lenny Tate) is a bit more pronounced and expanded upon in the novel. At the same time, Lenny is also a bit more unlikeable, and his beef with Vince garners a bit less sympathy because of it.

The novel is constructed through a an intermixing of perspectives and time frames. This is something Swift handles exceedingly well, as each feels to transition smoothly into the next. There wasn’t a moment where something seemed out of place or forced; information and story was presented in a natural flow that seemed to ebb smoothly from one subject and character to another. The novel comes together not so much as a jig saw, with pieces plucked down into their spots, with a picture slowly emerging, but as a crystal, formed slowly over time from the gradual accumulation of layers.

This layering feels like an important force in Last Orders. From a purely entertainment stand point, it keeps the story moving without allowing it to grow tiresome. Yes, I know, being entertained isn’t always the most important thing with a novel but, no matter how brilliant, a forced death march through a brick of paper isn’t always the most appealing thing – for me, that would be Infinite Jest, which I am vowing to either finish this year or at least hack out another 400 or so pages. So moving back and forth, building the story slowly through events and character is a pleasurable thing. My kid used to have a bizarre fascination with layers. It’s how he approached everything, always looking for either a pattern or layers, and he always seemed to appear most content when both were represented in one. It’s what I think really made lasagna appeal to him. He could watch it being made, each layer being placed over another, each complimenting the one that came before it and the one that would come after it, and finally building to a collective form that is simultaneously whole and divided.

Which is a nice way of looking at Last Orders. As we move from Vince to Ray to Lenny to Canterbury to Amy (Jack’s wife) and back to Vince, we have Graham Swift constructing a pan of literary lasagna. An interesting exercise, which I wish I had done but have just through of while writing this, might be to go through the novel and list out the order of the different partitions Swift uses. He doesn’t have chapters so much as headings, where he shifts the focus to another character or place. So instead of chapter one, we have Bermondsey. After that we have Ray. Then we’re back to Bermondsey, and so forth. I wonder if there isn’t a pattern to who he goes to and when, if certain characters always follow others or if places are inserted at somewhat regular intervals.

Something that stands out after the reading is that Vince and Ray seem to be much more a focus of the novel than in the movie, where Jack’s wife, Amy, held a larger role. We find that Ray met Jack while at war, and a picture of them is referenced throughout the novel.  We are given the impression, and a couple of characters give voice to this, that Jack may have been happiest while at war, while “out with the boys,” before coming back to England and settling into life taking over his father’s butcher shop. Being a butcher wasn’t what Jack wanted to do with his life, he wanted to be a doctor, but he knew he was expected to take over the shop and so he did.  It may have also been the case with his marriage, as we learn it wasn’t necessarily the most joyful of unions (though also not the mot horrible, it should be noted that this isn’t really a story of skeletons being rested from closets) and if maybe he didn’t get married for a similar reason he took the shop – it was just what he was supposed to do. Vince, meanwhile, doesn’t take over the shop and grows to show a certain disdain for Jack. He almost holds it against Jack that he was ever told that he was adopted (though, really, he wasn’t so much adopted as taken in, the only survivor of his family from a German rocket bombing of London) and feels he never quite lived up to his dad’s expectations. And they were probably weighty expectations, looked upon as someone to lead the life Jack didn’t get to. There is a duality constructed between Ray and Vince that bookend Jack’s life, with one representing his gloried past and the other his unfulfilled future.

I was also reading through this interview with Graham Swift from Identity Theory and he starts talking about the every day world and how that is where he begins his stories and he finds extraordinary things there. He goes on to talk about how many extraordinary things are thought but left unsaid, and I realized how prominent of a role this plays in Last Orders. It is a novel around people that have known each other for the majority of their lives, people who are asked to carry out the dying wishes of one of their friends, but it is revealed throughout the story how little each of them knows about the others or, if they do know, they never bring it up. This silence becomes another layer in the formation of the characters and their interconnectedness because, at some point, they all become complicit in what they do not talk about. Vince doesn’t talk about his alienation from his adoptive father, Lenny doesn’t talk about his anger with Vince, and Jack doesn’t talk about the daughter he refuses to admit he ever had. In a way, it is everything that isn’t said in the novel, but which is expressed privately between the characters and the reader, that is the true motivation for everyone’s actions. What separates Last Orders from every other novel, though, is that we are given the sense that the everyone is pretty aware of what isn’t being said, and this layer of complicity might be the most bonding of all.