HOLT UNCENSORED #102
by Pat Holt
Tuesday, October 26, 1990:
AUTHORS ON THE RISK OF WRITING
AUTHORS ON THE RISK OF WRITING
One of the perks of being a book critic is the chance to leave the formal review process every once in a while and open up the creative process to readers in that rare public forum called The Authors Panel Discussion.
It doesn't always work, but heavens! did it take off like a rocket when five writers agreed to take a little adventure with me (as moderator) on a panel called “Taking Risks in Literature.”
I asked these authors to speak for five minutes about the abyss they felt yawning open whenever they did something new or a little frightening with language, intention, imagery, content or theme in the writing of their current books, each of which I had brought along.
I got to warm up the audience by introducing them from the point of view of a critic observing risk in the smaller details of narrative writing. The idea was to plunge us all directly into a danger zone of deliberately inappropriate images, overlong sentences, black humor, “untherapized” characters, “depressing” themes, and so on.
Then, when the audience heard the paragraphs I identified as risky -- and of course these passages were so beautifully written I had to keep myself from puddling up while reading them out loud - people could turn to the authors' presentations not with a blank slate but with expectations and questions that already cut through the surface.
The first door to the creative process opened visibly when Michael Downing, a veteran novelist and teacher of creative writing at Tufts University, explained that when he started writing his fourth book, BREAKFAST WITH SCOT (Counterpoint; 194 pages; $24; buy online at http://www.wordsworth.com ), he thought he had his story all worked out - but was blindsided by the "wrong" character.
"The novel was going to be about a snoopy neighbor and what happens when secrets are spread," he said (I'm paraphrasing all quotes). "In my mind's eye, I could see the neighborhood and the characters when I sat down to write. But soon an 11-year-old boy dressed in frilly clothes and scarf suddenly appeared, standing there with his hand on his hip, looking at me and saying, 'Hey, what about me? I want IN.' "
Downing says he tried several times to erase the boy, soon named Scot, from his mind and "get back" to the story he envisioned, but each time, Scot walked right back in and demanded to be a part of - and very soon the star of - the story.
So here it was, the spark that comes out of nowhere to ignite the artistic fire - and it happened as though Downing had nothing to say about it. Yet "Breakfast with Scot" is written with such authority that we don't mind it when the book takes us out on a limb and leaves us there. Scot is beyond enigma - he is disturbance, alarm, mirror - but the grace and conviction of the narrative strengthens our resolve as readers to seek him out on ever deeper levels.
For anyone in the book business, it's a privilege to attend a process in which the miracle of a book is somehow transported from the mind of the author to the mind of the reader. When we see it take root like this and refuse to budge, to insist on its own legitimacy as a living and breathing entity of its own (even before Word One is written down), we can better appreciate the true courage of writers. Very often they are the last ones to know where artistic process is taking their own work.
A second door opened when, one by one, the three women authors on the panel described the "surprising resistance" they had experienced on the part of editors and book reviewers about explicit sex scenes they had written.
Novelist Jane Vandenburgh acknowledged that female critics were especially negative when they reviewed THE PHYSICS OF SUNSET (Pantheon; 291 pages; $24; buy online at http://www.politics-prose.com ). "No one likes to hear about adultery or people breaking up marriages, or children in families splitting up," she said, introducing the theme of her novel "and the fact is, neither do I."
Her risk had been to take a "perfectly nice book" about family life in Berkeley and introduce the notion of an extramarital affair - "a mature love that is impossible," she said. "Doing this, I wanted to evaporate the distance between the sexual event and the reader. I wanted to create an intimacy with readers that was very much like sex, one that makes the book work like pornography does."
Well, the word "pornography" got all our ears a'buzzing as if a sacred boundary had just been crossed, which it had. Can art ever sound like pornography? Of course it can, as James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence and a host of others proved long ago.
But Vandenburgh wondered if her foray into eroticism, while graphic in detail, might have been considered offensive if it had been written by, say, Phillip Roth, John Updike, Nicholson Baker or other male writers who have gained the kind of notoriety that enhances rather than hinders a book's reception.
I looked out over the audience and thought I saw the words PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT float up in a dream balloon above everybody's heads. Since Portnoy had his way with the family liver way back there in 1969, Roth has written sex scenes so unnecessarily cruel and horrible (to my mind) that one could hardly fathom the women characters surviving another page.
Vandenburg's "purple prose" is tame by comparison, but the writing of it was risky enough for the author that the audience could see right into the creative process: How easy it would have been for the author to "depornagraphize" her book, to throw a blanket over the frankly utilitarian lust that overtakes her characters, to become a more seemly author, a "nicer" author with a toned down, "nicer" book. Why didn't she tame it a little bit? "I couldn't," she said simply.
Then Catherine Brady, author of a short-story collection, THE END OF THE CLASS WAR (Calyx; 239 pages; $13.95 paperback; buy online at http://www.bookpassage.com ), described what happened to her as a writer when she submitted one of the stories to a literary magazine.
In this story, "And the Shin Bone's Connected to the Knee Bone," a "fat meter maid" (Brady's words) who still lives with her brothers and parents and is yelled at by irate motorists all day, nevertheless conducts her ticketing with dignity and intelligence. When she meets a "fat truck driver" who's "had some kind of chemical thing wrong with him and been medicated ever since," she's strangely drawn to his knowledge of physics and his quietly attentive manner.
By most of the world's measure, these two are losers, Brady said, and as they begin to date, their relationship seems to stumble predictably. When, however, the meter maid tries to break off contact with him, she is enraptured by his gentle way and ends up making love to him in his apartment.
An editor at the magazine objected to the story, saying the meter maid "does not earn the redemption" of a fulfilling sexual engagement. "I interpreted this to mean," Brady, said, "that a fat, working-class loser doesn't 'get' to have a happy ending."
Now Brady, who had created the meter maid, became the character's fiercest protector. She found herself standing up for "both losers" as though shielding them from the tinkering of a judgmental society. And here was our glimpse inside the creative process: For a moment, watching Brady re-live this experience, we witnessed how exhausting and debilitating it is for writers to respond to anything other than the inner voices they hear.
Perhaps the writer on the panel who took the most profound risk was Darcey Steinke, whose novel, JESUS SAVES has just been released in paperback (Grove; 272 pages; $12; buy online at http://www.squarebooks.com/ or email Richard@squarebooks.com ).
Here, in alternating chapters, we learn about a young woman named Ginger, whose raw, rough adventurism with drugs and sex rips the lid off suburban taboos invoked by her minister father; and Sandy, a kidnap victim who is horribly abused in a van and in motel rooms by a child molester.
Steinke's ability to uncork philosophical questions in the midst of gritty details is magnificent. Formal religion parallels rather than challenges the evil of humanity. Questions of freedom vs. imprisonment, of who's the real villain in a decaying environment and of the existence of a "savior" outside our own minds all vie for the reader's attention.
"I was influenced by the kidnappings of girls like Polly Klaas," Steinke said, "though sex and violence have always been themes in my books." Accused of writing "dark, very dark" fiction, she described feeling compelled to write about subjects that are unthinkable in other contexts but can be understood and absorbed on different planes when viewed through the lens of fiction.
I have to admit the passage I read to the audience was perhaps a bit too bloody and itself tabooish for many people to absorb all of a sudden. But it demonstrated that "Jesus Saves" - disturbing, uncomfortable, often painful to read - can throw us, too, onto a different plane because of the poetic beauty and surgical precision of its prose. It showed that good literature can never be wholly "dark" or "depressing" because the writing has the capacity to inspire rather than diminish the human spirit.
David Thomson was the only author of a nonfiction book on the panel - IN NEVADA (Alfred A. Knopf; 330 pages; $27.50; buy online at http://www.tatteredcover.com ) . One of the nation's most original and adventurous film critics and biographers, Thomson has also written novels and uses fictional devices in "In Nevada" to advance his typically unorthodox ideas.
Thomson said he decided to leave film criticism and write a combined guide and meditation on Nevada because his roots from the urban "desert" of South London gave him a feeling of being at home when he gazed on the real desert of Nevada and the strange landscape of Las Vegas.
Through his film-critic's eye, Thomson saw Las Vegas as an extension of Los Angeles: The elaborate fantasy hotels on the Strip reminded him of Hollywood sets; so did the fake buildings the government built on testing sites in the Nevada desert to see what kind of damage nuclear bombs would create when dropped on target.
To Thomson, the link between the two was gambling - the activity of risking one's money at Las Vegas casinos and of risking the health of an entire people through nuclear warfare. Again, here was a book that might have been called grim or depressing if it weren't for Thomson's magnificently unorthodox use of language (the wires in a boxing ring are as large as "a girl's wrist," for example, the twisting ropes reminiscent of "umbilical cords").
The best part of the panel occurred at the end, when all five authors began bouncing ideas off each other, and the energy of the room practically lifted the roof off. These were writers who clearly lived to write; they talked as though their bodies were shells that helped them react to the physical world. Nobody got gooey about it, but inside they were motivated by art, and art, we learned, really does live at the center of all writing.
It always astonishes me that literature depends on the ability of readers to decode print on a page, yet the only time one feels truly transported occurs when the print disappears from the page. So-called mid-range writers offer this little miracle to us all the time, but only by working in a vacuum where every tap of the keyboard is a lonely and brave act indeed.
Remembering a recent book in which literary agents said that editors in publishing houses today have been displaced by marketing and sales departments, I asked the writers how they felt about current cataclysms in the book industry. Did they feel pressured by publishing mergers, encroachment of chain bookstores, foreign ownership of publishers, electronic books, the online revolution?
All were aware of these changes, but most said their editor was "the one who protects me from all that," as one person put it. "My editor stands between me and the corporations," said another. "My editor has saved my life, over and over."
What a thrill this, too, was to hear. The one person who accompanies the author at least partway on the creative adventure, the one who guides and hints and suggests and raises the standard, the one who must still be called the great caretaker of literature as it exists today, was also recognized as indispensable.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
H. Wessell's anger and disappointment at being sent away from the J.K. Rowlings signing at Borders, while valid, is misdirected in his denigration of the booksellers there. He chooses to characterize these human beings as "t-shirted drones," implying that they know nothing about books and selling them. Regardless of their apparel, most of these people work hard jobs for little pay, and take great pride in their work. Regardless of where they work, booksellers everywhere deserve respect.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I'm sorry that Henry Wessells (#101) wasn't able to meet the popular children's author, but the situation he described could hardly be blamed on the "chain" aspect of the bookstore. I've been to countless book signings at all sorts of bookstores and the cardinal rule is usually pretty simple: first come, first served. Big-name authors draw big crowds no matter the nature of the ownership of the bookstore, chain or independent.
If the store had 800 tickets to distribute (and such ticket distribution is a sign of organization, not chaos) and that's all they've got -- then that's all they've got. The author may only have two or three hours he can devote to this stop on his book tour for signing and meeting his readers. 800 tickets is a bit optimistic for a two-hour event even without personalization or a lot of chit chat. If you want to be sure to meet the author, then you have to get to the bookstore early enough to get a ticket.
Does Henry Wessells believe that an independent bookstore could have rushed through more people in the same time? Or that the author could be persuaded to stay for an extra day to meet the apparent "demand" for his autographs? Would he have preferred waiting in line for three hours with his crying children only to be told that the author "has a plane to catch and has to leave" and THEN be asked to leave? It sounds like Borders did the best they could in handling this "celebrity" author signing.
Blame the chains when they make a mistake. Don't blame them for the popularity of an author or your desire for an autograph.
Ed Dravecky III
Holt responds: Don't you find it interesting that in all of Rowlings' store appearances, not a single independent store ended up with this kind of chaos?
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I read with great interest Henry Wessells' account of the J.K. Rowlings appearance at the Livingston, NJ, Borders. Compare that fiasco with the wonderful author appearance I attended last night.
One of my favorite writers, Calvin Trillin, gave a great reading at the New York Public Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped in the Village. The group was small (around 100) and the reading was FREE. Mr. Trillin was very personable and nobody was turned away. After an hour, we left happily, even escorting Mr. Trillin out of the library and saying farewell on the street.
Over the years I've learned that if the author you love is appearing at the local megastore, forget about having a worthwhile experience. Instead, support your library's efforts to invite writers into their rooms. When commerce is removed from the author-appearance equation, the quality of the experience rises accordingly.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I am outraged at the line of questioning pursued by the Amazon.com attorneys in their lawsuit against Amazon Bookstore. This is harassment, pure and simple. I am in the process of composing a letter to Amazon.com informing them that, not only are they total homophobes who have no business prying into the personal lives of Amazon Bookstore owners and staff, but they are also simply incorrect in their theory that Amazon Bookstore caters only to lesbians.
I myself am a heterosexual married woman with a small child. Whenever I travel down to Minneapolis, I always make a point of stopping by Amazon Bookstore to see what's new. My husband, Joel Sipress, has accompanied me to Amazon on numerous occasions, and we have both purchased books there . . . Joel has never felt unwelcome at Amazon: Staff members have been cordial to him and he has found many, many books there that appeal to him. He has also attended several readings at Amazon and has been just one of a number of men at these events.
Moreover, Amazon Bookstore has a fabulous collection of children's books--not only have I purchased books for my daughter at Amazon, I have recommended Amazon Bookstore to friends (hetero and lesbian) with children who want good, non-stereotypical children's books.
Amazon Bookstore is a community treasure. To say that it caters to a small fraction of the Minnesota populace is ludicrous. I urge all of your online newsletter subscribers to write to Amazon.com and order them to tell their attorneys to quit harassing the owners of Amazon Bookstore about their personal lives or sexual preferences. It's nobody's business and has no place in this or any lawsuit.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
This letter was recently sent to Amazon.com:
Thank you for your quick reply to my note regarding the questioning by Amazon.com's lawyer of the sexual orientation of employees of Amazon Bookstore in Minneapolis.
While I appreciate your desire to resolve the issue, the points you made fail to support [the lawyer's] actions. Amazon.com's arguments about the trademark issue can be made without the private information you demanded. It's that simple.
I don't have an opinion about the merits of the trademark action. But Amazon.com has turned this into something else. Asking if someone is a lesbian to prove a trademark argument is not only uncivil at best, it's intellectually unsound. Suggesting that their legal strategy forced you to do so is unconvincing. If you want to suggest that the bookstore- -not the individuals behind it- -operated in a single, specific market (if books aimed at half the world's population can be called that), go ahead and make that argument.
If, prior to the lawsuit, the store required that all of its employees be self-declared lesbians, and advertised that fact, go ahead and make your point. But the sexuality of Amazon Bookstore's individual employees is irrelevant. Would Amazon.com be willing to stop selling lesbian and gay books if it doesn't have enough employees willing to declare themselves as such? Or would Amazon.com be willing to limit itself to selling ONLY lesbian and gay books if Amazon Bookstore's lawyers found a majority of lesbians and gays? And what about other private matters, like religious beliefs?
Despite what you explained about the background to the case, I still believe the questions [from Amazon.com's lawyer] were outrageous. From the transcript, it appears he worried about even asking them. Let's now agree that they went much too far, and retract them. They don't help Amazon.com's case anyway.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
You made a typo in the postal address of the Amazon bookstore... Minnesota is MN; you have it as MI which is Michigan.
Holt responds: I sure did make that mistake so here is the information (corrected) again: The hearing on this motion is set for October 27. Anyone who'd like to contribute to the Amazon Bookstore Legal Defense Fund can send checks to the store (Amazon Bookstore, 1612 Harmon Place, Minneapolis MN 55403. Should Amazon Bookstore win or settle the suit, all donations will be returned. You can also buy AmazonNOTcom buttons ($2 each plus .75) or t-shirts ($18 plus $4 shipping & handling) by contacting email@example.com .
Dear Holt Uncensored:
James Schiavone, Ed.D., wrote:
"I love Amazon.com. I get deep discounts on my books and videos - they will combine orders to save on shipping costs, AND THERE'S NO TAX!! Orders are shipped out promptly and I receive them faster than if I placed an order with my local independent. It is called COMPETITION and that's what Capitalism is all about."
I was trying to figure out why viewpoints like Schiavone's disturb me so, and suddenly it came to me: Capitalism is about profit and loss to the exclusion of everything else, and comments like his imply that only profit and loss count. This is wrong, and everyone knows it. Principles count, the life of the mind and the spirit count, imagination and hope and curiosity and delight count.
In the pursuit of profit, capitalisitc enterprises use whatever tools come to hand, including (when they can pull it off) the idea that profit comes first and nothing else is worth our attention. When that doesn't work, or when a change of pace is wanted, capitalistic enterprises sometimes try to create the illusion that what they're doing is about human values, such as community, health, virtue, mind, spirit, etc. This is bull, and any thoughtful person can recognize it as such. We may have reasons for giving in to such blandishments, but if we don't recognize them as a sort of consensual con game, we are being conned indeed.
Capitalism is a powerful and often successful way of organizing an economy. I live in a mostly capitalistic society and I like it, mostly. But unbridled capitalism is often a disaster. Capitalism always wants to cast off the bridle, and when we're not paying attention, we sometimes let it do so, to our grave cost (the Depression, Amazon.com's lawyers, the homeless, monopolies, etc).
Capitalism, as a tool, can sometimes even be put to use in the service of human values like the ones I've mentioned, but no one should be deceived that such values are intrinsically part of a capitalistic economy. Mr. Schiavone says, "It is called COMPETITION and that's what Capitalism is all about." True, but that's not what LIFE is all about. I'd rather live life than live competition/capitalism. Of course, each of us chooses for himself.