Posts Tagged ‘Harvey Pekar’

Book Links 10/16/12

October 16, 2012

A couple of tributes to the writer Harvey Pekar are taking shape in and around Cleveland libraries over the next few weeks. The statue looks impressive, and I’ll probably make a trek over there to check it out. I like Pekar’s work, his focus on real people and the every day ins and outs of just getting by. If you’re in the area, check out the statue. Buy some American Splendor gear. Watch the incredible movie starring Paul Giammati. It’s all worth it.
Something I’m a little less sure about: someone using Holden Caulfield in their novel. In the end, it should stand on its own merit. At the same time, it’s choosing not to by hauling Caulfield into its structure, opening the door for such criticism.  I have mixed feelings on it (for the record, not thrilled with pretty much anything like this, from Ahab’s Wife to the various Classic Lit + Monsters mash-ups), but I thought it was worth putting out here.

Harper Lee writes a letter to Oprah. I don’t know why she hasn’t put anything else into print since To Kill A Mockingbird, but every time she does put something out before the public, I can only think her voice is one we needed more of over the years. She is smart, she is truthful. It’s an old letter, from 2006, but this is the first time I’ve seen it. So I’m sharing it.

Finally, Ben Masters (author of Noughties)(which I haven’t read) has a nice article up NYT about literary excess. I’m somewhat ashamed to say I don’t read a lot of literary criticism, though I had to sit through a lot of talks about it as the wife went through her MFA program and everyone talked about what gets published, what’s “in,” etc. And from what I’ve gleamed, Masters is right that there does seem to be a preference for pared down prose that goes straight to the point and goes on to the next point (just the facts).  I think people who actually buy books might agree with Masters, too.  In the world of wallets doing the talking, the average best-seller hovers just under 400 pages.

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Harvey Pekar – RIP

July 14, 2010

I had no idea about this until taking a walk with my g/f and kid this afternoon, we were turning a corner when I glanced at a newspaper box and saw a big picture of Harvey Pekar plastered across the front of the paper, above it two years boxing in a dash. I don’t know why it came as such a shock or why it even struck me as hard as it did but I forgot for a moment where I was and who I was with and uttered a loud “oh shit!”

It’s not as if I’ve ever met the man. I’ve read a few of this things, saw the stunningly good movie based on his graphic novel, American Splendor, and have seen/read a handful of interviews and that’s really the extent of my knowledge of him. Maybe it’s living in Cleveland, some weird local thing where he just feels like a neighbor because he’s famous and lives somewhere in the vicinity of the same city I live in, hell, who knows. Whatever I was feeling probably wasn’t exactly rational. But there was something about Harvey Pekar that seemed, not so much a force of nature but more like a rock. He was nature itself and seeing him pass was like seeing a rock pulverized. How could anything take down a rock?

I liked his writing. From what I’ve seen and heard of and from him, I liked him, too. While I continue to get caught up on his older stuff, I regret the loss we have of not having future works by Pekar. I haven’t seen anyone quite like him, nor do I expect to. We have lost an original.

Kevin Smith, Critics and the unreliable narrator

March 29, 2010

I like (most of) Kevin Smith’s movies. I download his smodcasts. I follow him on Twitter. But his recent dust-up over critics not reviewing Cop-Out favorably is a highlight of a general misconception about criticism in general.

And it is something that I have also suffered from in the past. It is something that is hard to work out of the system once it has found a home. Above, where I mentioned “not reviewing Cop-Out favorably” I had begun to type “not liking Cop-Out” before realizing how charged that sentence is and how it reflects the same ignorance Smith appears to have, at least momentarily, suffered from. It doesn’t, or at least shouldn’t, matter if critics like a work. There’s been more than a few books, movies, music, etc. that I’ve enjoyed on some level while also believing that they are likely quite crappy with little redeeming value or meaning. Sometimes I just like some mental junk food.  So, despite my enjoying something, I would still stand up and say, “Yeah, it’s crap. But I enjoyed it.”

The thing is, if you’re trying to honestly criticize something, that “Yeah, it’s crap” part has to be there. For instance, see my recent post about Laura van den Berg’s collection of short stories. I liked a LOT about the collection. I say I liked a lot about it. In the end, though, when everything gets tallied up and conclusions have to be drawn, though, I also had to say that I thought it had serious shortcomings that it did not overcome.

It’s this duality that I think is lost in the argument between critic and artist. The artist sees someone “not liking” their work when “like” really has very little to do with it. This understanding of the role of a critic is made worse by misunderstanding of terms a critic uses that an artist, frankly, may never need to know even if they employ a technique the critic perceives.

Which appears to be partly what happened on this blog recently over a review of Pekar’s The Quitter. In a comment to a follow up blog, attempting to illuminate the use of “unreliable narrator” there was a mention of The Screwtape Letters. Which struck me as odd.

It has been years since I last read The Screwtape Letters and, recently, I haven’t had time to go back and entirely re-read it. But I have scanned through it, I’ve scholar.googled it and did a quick glance through some lit journal searches. My immediate recollection was confirmed. The Screwtape Letters is not an example of an unreliable narrator. While why Screwtape isn’t an unreliable narrator is important, it’s not pertinent to this blog. What’s pertinent is that this mistake was made. This isn’t to single out that individual commenter but to use it to illustrate something that is likely fairly common – a genuine language/process gap between the critic, those whose work is the subject of criticism and the audience for whom that work was created and for whom the critic is writing.

The language and backgrounds for becoming a “critic” and becoming an “artist” are inherently different. Many artists have the words “self-taught” somewhere in their biographies. And it’s my opinion that this isn’t just a brave thing, to have struck out to master a craft with little or no fall back plan or option, but a necessary thing for many artists as I’m not sure that all that is necessary to be an artist can be taught or accrued in a classroom. Or maybe that’s just the romantic idealist in me wanting to see the artist, at least in some way, as the woman for whom inspiration must strike to allow them to forge their timeless works. A critic, however, almost certainly has to be in a classroom through necessity. There is simply very few other options for being exposed to the work of other critics, for gaining any sort of understanding of the field, than without the aid of classes and instructors who are already learned of the lay of critical land.

So maybe it shouldn’t come as any sort of surprise when the two sides lock horns over what one writes about the other. It has to be all but inevitable. The training for each can come from wholly different directions, employing language and terms in ways that are wholly different from what the other side employs. Sure, each side can (and do) try to bridge that gap but it’s a gap I’m not sure is always bridgeable. After all, a critic does come off very much as a judge and that’s the sort of eye that no one likes to fall under.

But what role does the audience play in this?

Part of me wants to tie this into our current political climate where intellectualism has become a dirty word.  Language has an inherent political context. Nearly everything said or written can find itself twisted and appropriated for all sorts of purposes. I think it becomes clear that the term “critic” is slipping from our lexicon, too easily associated with “criticize” and all of the negative connotations that word can find itself lugging around. Instead we see this term “reviewer” being bandied about.

And what’s the job of a “reviewer?” Well, it seems their job is to simply review. Now, there are certainly aspects of that word that lends itself to serious critical work. The daily/weekly articles written for movies, plays, books, etc. have long been called “reviews.” In the military the term “review” also has a serious charge to it, a formal retrospection into an event for the purpose to lay a judgment of. Looking into my Webster’s New World College Dictionary, however, and those sort of definitions appear no sooner than fourth under the heading “review.” The first three definitions are far less formal that use phrases such as “a looking back” or a “general survey, report or account.”

Going away from the dictionary, considering personal connotations to the word review, and what I come up with is an expectation for an informal recounting, which is even more relaxed than a “general survey.”

To think of a movie review now, you would almost come to expect a simple recounting of plot with some very basic or rudimentary thoughts about the movie but nothing that would be overly critical (or overly praising). A “review” of Transformers could simply be

It’s a movie about robots fighting other robots,  and some people get involved. It looks pretty on the screen and is, at times, really loud.

I get the impression that is the sort of thing expected of movie reviewers now. Something lacking in actual criticism since it is something that isn’t really implied as part of the process any more. And it’s here where maybe literary criticism is shielded in a way that movie criticism isn’t. While there is certainly a TON of movie criticism, a large number of people who write passionately and knowledgeably  about the movies are burdened with the title of “critic” or “reviewer,” titles that either immediately draw ire or inspire confusion as to role.

Alright, I’ve gone on long enough. Part of the whole Kevin Smith Thing is, I’m sure, just bruised ego. It’s natural. But I think another part of it is the shifting of expectations of society and how language has shifted with those expectations. Maybe we no longer expect a reviewer to be critical and get somewhat put off when they are. When this difference of expectations is met with even greater differences in language, the fire becomes an inferno as one perceives the other as chucking gasoline rather than turning on the hose.

I’m naive, I admit it

March 28, 2010

One of my goals has always been to be published. By a major publishing company. With an editor. And, most importantly, a nice advance that could (maybe) pay my bills for a bit. I also always sorta expect a publishing house to be helpful in pushing me (or any author) in the right direction regarding publicity of said work.

Then I read this blog by Mitzi Szereto.

Then I read this page by Jim Cox at the Midwest Book Review.

Then I talked to a couple of other friends of mine who are knee (well, shoulder) deep in MFA Master/PhD programs.

And I discovered how horribly naive I really am about the whole publishing mess. Any hope that a publisher would help a writer succeed appears blind and destined for failure. Want to do readings? Book’em yourself. Want to get reviewers to read the thing? Send them copies.

Unfortunately, if you’re like me (and you’re probably not, so you’re fine), you don’t really interact well with people. Or maybe you are like me which means that, like me, you have some work to do. for the first time, networking is taking on a clear importance and meaning.  Friends (or at least people who want to remain acquaintances and who may later ask you for a favor) are essential.

But how do you make friends, especially in a world where you are literally a tiny fish in a MASSIVE sea? I come from a small ass town in SE Michigan. I have lately moved to Cleveland.  Not exactly the center of the universe or, especially, the literary universe (Though Dan Chaon lives about 10 minutes away, and I guess Harvey Pekar lives somewhere in this town, so there’s some people whose names are at least noticeable on bookshelves). Given such a situation, it’s easy to look around and wonder how the hell you’re supposed to meet/greet/schmooze anyone.

Well, first, send stuff out. Obvious answer. People like you enough to publish you, on their dime, that’s a great first step in fostering allegiances to call on when needed. Second, use the web. Search for blogs and websites related to your interests/writings/etc. And comment. Say stuff. It’s easy, even if you do look like a naive nit (such as I on Mitzi’s blog). And just know that it’s going to happen. Don’t be an ass. Just be you (unless you are an ass then try to be something less you).

As I crawl, drag, stagger towards finishing the (first) re-write of my first novel I have considered hurling into the world, I’ve started taking these steps. And credit goes to people like Mitzi Szerato and Jim Cox for erecting islands of illumination in the publishing darkness. Eventually, I hope to provide something similar. Until then, I’ll keep plugging away and trying to be a bit less naive.

And I’ll try to shake more hands.

Dean Haspiel is Talking About Me

March 17, 2010

And it really isn’t very nice.

Upon first reading this, I went back and wanted to edit in some sort of clarification to my Quitter review.  Then part of me wanted to defend myself on his journal but I can’t because I don’t have a live.journal ID and, frankly, I don’t want another ID to keep track of. I even thought of emailing him but, honestly, he probably doesn’t care by now and, if I slept on it, I’d probably just blow it off by morning, too.

But after re-re-reading my review, I think I am clear enough in my calling not Haspiel personally out for his credibility, but the possible credibility of one of the narrators, either the illustrator or the writer. Put another way, it is a question of reliability. Much like how you gradually come to know that Humbert Humbert isn’t to be trusted as a narrator in Lolita, I wondered if the reader wasn’t given reason to not trust one of the interpretations of “Quitter,” either that of the illustrations or that of the words. Here’s the block of text from the review that I think caused the problem:

Considering the visual nature of comics, I wonder if this doesn’t take away from the credibility of one of the narrators, either the writer or the illustrator. The text matches up well with the illustration, but considering the effect small things from facial expressions to stances to shading can affect how a panel is viewed and interpreted, there is a clear possibility for one to provide an interpretation of the story that might be different from the intended interpretation the other half of the story telling might desire to communicate.

Now, I admit, it’s not exactly William Faulkner. But it’s not horrible. And I think the credibility (or reliability) of one of the narrators is fair game. Maybe I was entirely wrong but I thought there was a certain disagreement, at times, between what the illustrations depicted and what Pekar’s words depicted. And that this disagreement could mean that one was slightly more or less reliable than the other. And that such a thing might be entirely purposeful by the writer/illustrator. The idea of two narrators telling the same story but in different ways, at the same time, seems like an intriguing idea to me. Something that makes me think of Last Year at Marienbad, for instance.

I also do not believe his examples of a director/screenplay and singer/lyrics are really fair comparisons. First, they can’t be referred to as “narrators” in the same way the writer/illustrator can (and must necessarily be) referred to as “narrators” in their respective forms. It isn’t a question about the credibility of the artist as a person. It’s simply not, and I think that’s clear. The credibility that is being questioned is the narrative truthfulness of the illustrator versus the writer. they’re telling the same story in different mediums. Each is, essentially, a narrator. If the interpretation of the text ever differs significantly from the interpretation of the images, I think the credibility of one of the narrators has to be called into question.

Just as you question the narrative credibility of Humbert Humbert in Lolita. It’s not a question of Nabokov’s credibility as a writer but of his creation.

The Quitter by Harvey Pekar – Review

February 24, 2010

Outside of his comic book success, it would probably be easy to call Harvey Pekar a failure. He slinked through high school, avoiding anything that might have been a challenge. He washed out of the Navy. He ditched college. He jumped from job to job, blowing opportunity after opportunity to begin setting himself up for a pretty decent life. He had a habit of getting into fights to boost his self-esteem, he was uncomfortable approaching women, and he spent massive amounts of time in his room listening to jazz records. But along the way he also found himself being successful at writing criticism for jazz magazines. He became a primary figure in underground comics. A critically acclaimed, box office hit movie was created based on his comic American Splendor. And, perhaps his greatest achievement in many ways, he found long lasting love with his third wife and adopted daughter. 

So what is the title all about? Well, it seems to go hand in  hand with a string that ran through the early part of Pekar’s life: his ability and willingness to quit anything the moment it showed the least bit difficulty. The Navy. College. Women. etc. etc. etc. Pekar blames this trait, at least partially, on a crippling lack of self-esteem fed by an overly critical and depressed mother and a father with whom he shared nothing concerning culture, social views or anything. 

Pekar’s success in life, in comics, seems to stem from his eventual overcoming of this fear. It was his success as a jazz critic that seemed to have stemmed the tide of self-doubt and provide the stepping stone for his later determination and success as a comic writer. 

One of the things that I find most interesting with “Quitter” is the conversational tone of the work. It reminds me very much of a script. Stage directions are provided but the real meat of the story is in the dialog. Even in panels where the exposition isn’t dialog, Pekar’s writing makes it feel as if he is in the room telling you the story. It is a trait of a story teller and is immediately engaging. Such a conversational tone engages the reader in a way that a more distanced tone is incapable of.

An interesting note about Pekar’s work is that he doesn’t do the illustrations. While I am sure he has a definite hand in the work created, he is still largely only half of  the team. While the story is autobiographical and the words are Pekar’s, the story is essentially told through the interpretation of another. The illustrator of Quitter, Dean Haspiel, is someone who has worked with Pekar in the past. He’s the creator of a couple of romance  comics, Billy Dogma and Opposable Thumbs, as well as having illustrated for DC, Marvel and Dark Horse comics. Considering the visual nature of comics, I wonder if this doesn’t take away from the credibility of one of the narrators, either the writer or the illustrator. The text matches up well with the illustration, but considering the effect small things from facial expressions to stances to shading can affect how a panel is viewed and interpreted, there is a clear possibility for one to provide an interpretation of the story that might be different from the intended interpretation the other half of the story telling might desire to communicate.

For anyone familiar with Pekar’s work, Quitter won’t disappoint. For anyone unfamiliar with it, the graphic novel won’t present any difficulties in allowing you to access his world and may even provide a good stepping stone for fleshing out Pekar’s ongoing life narrative through his American Splendor comics.