Tom Perrotta in Seattle

Tom Perrotta struck me more of an observer more than any of the other writers I’ve seen recently: he had an almost shy demeanor, and I could imagine him as one of the teenage wallflowers who are often his characters. He wasn’t like Richard Russo, whose years in a classroom show familiarity with the stage, or Martin Amis, who, though less bombastic in real life than in interviews or writings, still retained more swagger than other authors. Michael Chabon had the professorial air. I want to see a connection between Perrotta’s demeanor and his writing, as my comparison between him and his characters shows, although I know it’s like trying to read autobiographically. Still, I can say with confidence that Perrotta’s writing is the least writerly in the sense of being self-conscious and wordy, and of the above writers his is the closest to the spareness of Elmore Leonard, almost as though Perrotta operates within the societal constraints his characters beat against and try to break out of.

My question to Perrotta last night was about those constraints, since he writes so often about people trapped in one way or another, especially in high schools—a librarian is described on page five of The Abstinence Teacher “a cultured gay man, an opera-loving dandy with a fetish for Italian designer eyewear, trapped all day in a suburban public high school.” The characters in Election are also stuck in high school without having read Paul Graham’s thoughts on the system, while the protagonist in Joe College is trapped by his lower-middle class upbringing and the need to pay for an Ivy League education while his classmates coast on their parents’ money, and in Little Children the characters are in unhappy marriages with the burden of their offspring.

He responded by saying that the trapped feeling is part of the “American dilemma” because he says most of us aren’t really free, and that we don’t realize how unfree we are. Most people feel constrained, although they won’t admit it. We’re all trapped, which he admits might be a “grim” thing to say, but we are, whether by work, or school, or whatever.

I see the issue as one more of trade-offs, and if Perrotta were to expand on what he said, I don’t think he would argue that we are utterly without political freedom, or the ability to go where we want if we want to, but rather that we don’t feel free. We mentally corral ourselves, in part due to past choices, but also in part due to society. I’m stuck by the idea that as often as not we’re trapped as a result of previous choices—an idea that will arise again in my post about Richard Russo, who made a not dissimilar point when he was in Seattle recently.

A few other people asked good questions; one led to him saying that he wanted to write a culture war novel, and that sex education was nearer to his heart than subjects like evolution or abortion, and that he was interested in people on both (or all) sides of the issue. “Nobody quite lives up to their own standards—unless you’re better people than me,” he said, and the wry joke at the end was typical of his responses and of his writing.

(Another thought of my own: does anyone outside of newspapers and magazines and confrontational idiot cable TV even fight culture wars? And if so, are they over?)

He fired back nice answers to the silly question flood that came as soon as someone asked about advice for young writers. Then came “did you put Real People™ in your novel?”, and then a less mundane but no less inane question when another person asked if he felt pressure because his books had been made into movies. I suppose I’m too hard on the questioners, since most probably don’t read the writers’ later criticism in essays, but the questions still annoy. I would’ve liked to assign this. Maybe the other questioners, like me, have not yet finished The Abstinence Teacher; I’m still chewing through Bridge of Sighs and read the first 70 or so pages of Perrotta.

A movie question did lead to a point about the way movies are created. Perrotta said he wrote the Little Children script with director Todd Field and that the ending originally conformed more with the book, but that it didn’t seem sufficiently cinematic or resolute. Field called one day with the different—and, in my view, awful—ending that the movie now has. Likewise, in Election, the movie first used an ending similar to the book, but it apparently didn’t “test” well. No wonder Elmore Leonard said, “I don’t like screenplays at all. You’re not writing for yourself; you’re writing for a committee. They’re throwing ideas in, then the producer gets involved, saying you need to add this character or that character.”

I know what Perrotta means about movies and changes—endings are a pain.

Life

“My daughter likes television, too, and I suspect that her thought process has been corrupted by advertising. Like many Americans, she no longer understands the meaning of simple words. She sees nothing absurd about the assertion ‘you deserve a break today’ when it’s applied across the entire spectrum of society. She believes she’s worth the extra money she spends on her hair. Several of her friends have big houses. Doesn’t she deserve one too? Is she worth less than her friends?”

—Richard Russo, Straight Man

New look

Regulars might note the snazzy new look, consisting of an image underlying “The Story’s Story.” Rest assured that the picture is not stock corporate clipart, but rather a genuine section of one of my bookshelves. I chose part carefully using a single criterion: how convenient was it to take the picture as quickly and with as little effort as possible? What you see best fit my requirement. I did have to monkey with a few spines in Photoshop because they were too light for the text—sorry, Proust!—but the books are genuine.

Russo, Perrotta, Le Guin

Two of my favorite current authors will be visiting Seattle, Richard Russo at Elliott Bay on Tuesday for Bridge of Sighs and Tom Perrotta at the University Book Store on Oct. 29 for The Abstinence Teacher. I’ll be at both, for real this time, as I punked out of Orhan Pamuk’s lecture. If anyone has a link to a writeup, I’ll be happy to post it.

A question remains: will I finish Bridge of Sighs before Tuesday night? My sources say “unlikely,” especially because I just bought (another) copy of Straight Man and accidentally read the first chapter, which may cause me to read every subsequent chapter. It especially resonates because I initially read it a long time ago when I was a lifeguard, and I tore through much of it in the guard shack. The other guards couldn’t understand why I would laugh out loud—or, as they would type, LOL—at a book. When I told them it was funny they looked at me as though I had prophesied an alien invasion. Straight Man was so good that I probably recommended it to the person who absconded with my paperback copy. This being in pre-Delicious Library days, I was prone to letting out books I would never see again. To fill this gap, today I was in Ballard at Cupcake Royale and after wandered into my new favorite bookshop, Abraxus Books. It’s in the old Ballard Library and still feels more like a library than store, complete with luxuriant foliage in front and a secluded feel different from the shouting signs of most city businesses. The chief problem with Abraxus Books’ location is that if too few people know it exists, it might disappear. In the meantime, however, they had a hardcover copy of Straight Man for eight dollars. Score! Signed, it might be worth $10 in 20 years if I don’t cover it in highlighting—something that is improbable but possible.

Back on point to authors: Ursula K. Le Guin is appearing in Seattle as well, promoting her new book. A post describing her appearance at the Seattle Public Library was among the first I put up when I began this blog a year ago. Happy birthday to us!

Stephen King on short stories

Stephen King, the much derided and occasionally respected writer, opined on the problems in short story land for The New York Times. He’s the editor of this year’s Best American Short Stories edition and consequently had the pleasure, duty, or job of going through hundreds of them. I’m wondering if my general dislike for short stories is more a problem with the way they are currently produced:

Instead, let us consider what the bottom shelf [of the bookstore magazine rack] does to writers who still care, sometimes passionately, about the short story. What happens when he or she realizes that his or her audience is shrinking almost daily? Well, if the writer is worth his or her salt, he or she continues on nevertheless, because it’s what God or genetics (possibly they are the same) has decreed, or out of sheer stubbornness, or maybe because it’s such a kick to spin tales. Possibly a combination. And all that’s good.

What’s not so good is that writers write for whatever audience is left. In too many cases, that audience happens to consist of other writers and would-be writers who are reading the various literary magazines (and The New Yorker, of course, the holy grail of the young fiction writer) not to be entertained but to get an idea of what sells there. And this kind of reading isn’t real reading, the kind where you just can’t wait to find out what happens next (think “Youth,” by Joseph Conrad, or “Big Blonde,” by Dorothy Parker). It’s more like copping-a-feel reading. There’s something yucky about it.

Last year, I read scores of stories that felt … not quite dead on the page, I won’t go that far, but airless, somehow, and self-referring. These stories felt show-offy rather than entertaining, self-important rather than interesting, guarded and self-conscious rather than gloriously open, and worst of all, written for editors and teachers rather than for readers. The chief reason for all this, I think, is that bottom shelf. It’s tough for writers to write (and editors to edit) when faced with a shrinking audience. Once, in the days of the old Saturday Evening Post, short fiction was a stadium act; now it can barely fill a coffeehouse and often performs in the company of nothing more than an acoustic guitar and a mouth organ. If the stories felt airless, why not? When circulation falters, the air in the room gets stale.

I’m a bit late in posting the link, but the sentiments about the problems with the short story are ones I appreciate and I doubt the general trends will go away anytime soon. Still, King’s essay might not apply to me: I’ve always disliked short stories because I’m only getting into them when they end. There are some exceptions—Woody Allen, James Thurber, and T.C. Boyle come to mind—but even someone as intellectually wonderful as Flannery O’Connor doesn’t make me really want to read to read, as opposed to reading to admire her technique. As a side note, I’ll be applying to graduate schools soon, and one reason I’m trying for USC is because Boyle teaches there. My Dad took me to hear him speak in Seattle when I was 14 or 15, sparking the initial interest in author appearances that continues today through this site.

Product review: Matias Tactile Pro 2

I recently tried a product as disappointing as Children of Húrin: the Matias Tactile Pro 2 keyboard, which combined a fat price ($150) with poor build quality (loose keys, a malformed edge, and a continuing shadow key problem). Combined, they make a keyboard worse than the one they supersede—in the words of one reviewer, “[…] It’s 4 steps backwards, one step sideways, and 0 steps forward.”

I type a lot, as implied here, and so spend a greater-than-average amount of time thinking about my keyboard. When I heard about the Tactile Pro 2, I sent an e-mail to Derek Trideja, who gave me the title “Alert keyboard fetishist.” An exaggeration, but not far from the truth, and I’ve yet to find that perfect keyboard. Frequent readers will remember when I posted a picture of my writing space—since changed—and the Matias Tactile Pro Keyboard version 1 that peaks out. It’s as close as I’ve come to the perfect keyboard, and if not for the shadow keys problem it would be. Seventy nine dollars was a lot for a keyboard until I began using it regularly, and I found this one much better than the mushy keyboards that most computers come with, or the new and hideous keyboard that came with my iMac.

Programmers sometimes raved about old school IBM Model M keyboards, but the regular ones were discontinued in 1996 and don’t have an easy place for command, option, and control keys, making them poorly suited for OS X. The Tactile Pro 1 filled that gap because it had a Mac layout and the comfort I want. Shadow keys, however, develop when the writer hits a number of keys in succession—apparently the keyboard has multiple keys on the same path in some instances, which can cause characters to appear even when the user doesn’t press them. Problems occur when you type anything ending in “ion”, like “division,” which appears as “divisioqn” if you strike the keys in rapid succesion. Not fun, but still better than the mushy keyboards.

Version 2 still has those problems, although they’re not as pronounced. In an e-mail to me, someone from Matias said that the shadow key problem had been reduced in version 2. The person was right, but it hasn’t been reduced enough. In addition, the USB port situation irritated me—the old version has one cable and two USB ports, one on each side of the keyboard. The new one has a single USB port on the side of the keyboard and two ends, as depicted here:

Matias Tactile Pro USB Plugs

(Notice the background: an Oxford edition of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Other Tales.)

This causes me to run out of USB ports on the back of my computer and to have to continually unplug things if I want to download pictures or transfer files to a USB drive. Their marketing materials don’t mention that they’ve lost one USB port on the keyboard. In addition, the one I received has keys much looser than my previous Tactile Pro—it feels flimsier and doesn’t have the same satisfying action with each keystroke. The front edge was also malformed, as this picture shows, though not perfectly:

The deformed edge of the keyboard

I was tempted to return mine and ask for a replacement unit, but after reading this thread on Ars Technica and the previously mentioned Bronzefinger review I decided not to bother. I’d rather just have the money back, and one thing Matias does offer is a 30-day money-back guarantee. I’m sure that the writer of Bronzefinger and I are not the only ones to have made use of this policy. The keyboard feels more like something hacked together by electrical engineering students one weekend or a science fair project.

What went wrong? I have no idea. I’ve heard engineering friends say that late projects seldom bode well for the finished project, which is more likely to turn out poorly because the delay manifests underlying problems; I’ve read similar things on Slashdot, for what their opinion is worth. The Matias Tactile Pro 2 was supposed to ship in March, but the initial batch didn’t arrive until, as far as I could tell, June, and the one I bought came from the second run that shipped in September. If Matias hasn’t worked the kinks out yet, I’m not sure they will in this iteration. In the meantime, those interested in a better keyboard might want to try and snag a used Tactile Pro 1 or a reborn Model M. The Tactile Pro 2 does have a few stronger points, like an optimizer feature that allows one to change the keyboard layout, but its benefit is minor compared to the keyboard’s drawbacks.


In other technology news, Apple just announced the latest versioqn—excuse me, version—of OS X, Leopard. I’ve also started using iWork, and especially Pages, for some of my writing. Pages simply looks nicer than Word, even if Pages is still missing many features.


EDIT: I posted a review of the Customizer, which is the new version of the Model M mentioned above.

Doris Lessing and the prize

As many of you probably know by now, Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize in literature. Unfortunately, my knowledge of her is as follows:

Still, I’m heartened by and want to read Lessing’s novels because of an op-ed in The New York Times:

It is one of the paradoxes of our time that ideas capable of transforming our societies, full of insights about how the human animal actually behaves and thinks, are often presented in unreadable language.

[…]

A very common way of thinking in literary criticism is not seen as a consequence of Communism, but it is. Every writer has the experience of being told that a novel, a story, is “about” something or other. I wrote a story, “The Fifth Child,” which was at once pigeonholed as being about the Palestinian problem, genetic research, feminism, anti-Semitism and so on.

A journalist from France walked into my living room and before she had even sat down said, “Of course ‘The Fifth Child’ is about AIDS.”

An effective conversation stopper, I assure you. But what is interesting is the habit of mind that has to analyze a literary work like this. If you say, “Had I wanted to write about AIDS or the Palestinian problem I would have written a pamphlet,” you tend to get baffled stares. That a work of the imagination has to be “really” about some problem is, again, an heir of Socialist Realism. To write a story for the sake of storytelling is frivolous, not to say reactionary.

I very much want to keep quoting, but if I continue I’ll copy the whole thing. It also marks her side on a list I’ve started keeping, with writers who believe in art for art’s sake on one side (some Romantic poets, Lessing, T.S. Eliot, Nabokov) and art being inherently political on the other side (many academic literary critics, Orwell). The debate is unending, and I fall more toward the art for art’s sake end of the spectrum.

In addition to Lessing’s piece, read Christopher Hitchens’ comments about this year’s choice in Slate. Hitchens is right about the many weak picks in the Nobel Literature prize, but he goes too far by calling many “time-servers and second-raters.” Then again, if he didn’t go too far he wouldn’t be Hitchens.

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