Briefly noted: The Pattern Scars – Caitlin Sweet

It took half the novel for me realize the problem with The Pattern Scars: It contains virtually no interesting sentences. None that say something unexpected or have unusual musicality or that are patterned in uncommon ways. It’s sentence after sentence of “The footsteps stopped. I could feel someone behind me, but I did not turn.” Or “He was still squeezing my wrist; I wrenched it free.” There are moments that are almost interesting—”I walked quickly so that he would not see my sudden tears, and so that I might outpace my confusion”—but they’re rare. That line works because we normally can’t outpace a mental state—the mental state resides within us—but we get that Nola is trying to clear her mind by walking, and by letting her mind process what’s happening to her and around her.

Sweet has so much potential. She needs only style. None of the boring sentences cited above are offensive on their own, of course, and my own work is filled with unspectacular descriptive sentences that are important for basic understanding. An entire book of voiceless sentences is boring. The promise of something interesting was enough to keep me going; so too was the fact that the novel starts with a child’s point of view, and often simple children develop into sophisticated adults. That doesn’t happen for Nola. The realization, three quarters through the book, that that promise would be dashed made me start skipping pages. I don’t think it’s a mistake that the few reviews of The Pattern Scars I’ve found quote little or not at all from the novel. The story, rendered better, is fine. The attention to the details of words and sentences is lacking.

Briefly noted: The Festival of Insignificance — Milan Kundera

The Festival of Insignificance is out and I don’t know what to make of it. It’s nice enough I suppose but it feels . . . Insubstantial? Disconnected? Do I not get it? Hard to say. Characters or figures appear, are observed or make a speech, then leave. Consider this, from page 110, just 5 pages from the end:

In the broad walk that stretches into the park from l’avenue de l’Obsesrvatoire, a man of about fifty with a mustache, wearing an old worn parka with a long hunting rifle slung from his shoulder, runs toward the circle of the great marble ladies of France. He is shouting and waving his arms. All around, people stop and watch, startled and sympathetic. Yes, sympathetic, for that mustachioed face has an easy quality that freshens the atmosphere in the garden with an idyllic breath of times gone by. It calls up the image of a ladies’ man, a village rake, an adventurer who’s more likable for already being a little older and seasoned. Won over by his country charm, his virile goodness, his folkloric look, the crowd sends him smiles and he responds, pleasing and ingratiating.

Now what? The passage is on its own fine, and maybe it connects in obscure ways to other passages that I haven’t adequately noticed. The odd thing about this passage is that, like many of the scenes, it doesn’t really seem to connect with the rest of the novella. The adjective “Hegelian” appears, which is rarely a good sign. Some passages are witty and perhaps true:

When Ramon had described his theory about observation posts standing each on a different point in history, from which people talk together unable to understand one another, Alain had immediately thought of his girlfriend, because, thanks to her, he knew that even the dialogue between true lovers, if their birth dates are too far apart, is only the intertwining of two monologues, each holding for the other much that is not understood.

Kundera_FestivalThe observation posts are works of art or artists, with the people being the public or possibly other artists: no one understands anyone else because contextual changes make the art feel different to the observer. The lover faces a similar challenge, and it’s one that I know in a different context: teaching. In school I’d listen to out-of-it teachers casually reference TV shows or other phenomena from decades before my time and then watch them be bewildered that something so vital to them and their generation could be a void to ours. Now I’m on the other side of the desk and sense the same thing. Very little culture transcends the time it was produced, and what does transcend that time often does so only through great effort. Ramon senses this intellectually and Alain erotically. Maybe.

But, again, so what? And what of the first-person narrator who speaks as the or a writer? I don’t know, which may be the point of the novella, if there is one.

Art is of course insignificant and significant at the same time. Its role as insignificant is well known, and its significance can be inferred by the ceaseless efforts of religions, governments, and parents to censor it. If art weren’t significant, all that effort into controlling art wouldn’t occur. Political art may be legal in the U.S., but just try writing a political satire of the Chinese government in China. Perhaps the point is that in the West we’ve evolved to a stage where virtually all art is legal and none of it matters, leaving artists and art consumers / experiencers to ask, “What now?”

Maybe there is a stylistic quality to The Festival of Insignificance evident in French that didn’t make it to English. It is always dangerous to assume too much about a translated novel. Maybe too the only good criticism of art is other art, and little conventional criticism rises to the level of art.

Here is Jonathan Rosen writing about it, and ignore the stupid, cliché title, which probably wasn’t his. Too many reviewers are obsessed with the writer instead of the book.

How do you judiciously help someone whose work isn’t very good?

This question keeps reappearing in various guises: How do you help someone whose work isn’t very good? Simply saying “This sucks” isn’t helpful and is usually taken with offense. A sufficiently screwed up work may also be unrecoverable. But making minor changes and saying, “It’s great!” often isn’t helpful either, because the work isn’t great and false praise is a lie. Those seeking criticism should be tactful enough not to ask, “Is it good?”, but often they aren’t and it leaves critics and editors in an awkward position.

I’m a writer, so I tend to see stuff from bad writers, but the same principles apply to other people with other domains of expertise. I developed my method of commenting on bad writing years ago, when a former student and now friend asked me to read a few stories she’d written for a creative writing class. Given her age they weren’t terrible; I made some comments, fixed a couple of minor things, and suggested some books that might speak to her.*

She asked if I thought the stories were good, but fortunately she asked via email so I had a few minutes to think about my response. I replied that I’d reframe the question: if she keeps writing, reading about writing, and developing her own sense of good writing, in four or five years she’ll reread her stories and be able to decide for herself whether her work was any good. I mentioned that when I was 26 or so, I no longer thought the stuff I’d written from 18 – 22 was any good. She got the point, I think, and seemed to appreciate what I was saying without saying.

And what I told her was and is true: I don’t think much of that early work now. But I also wouldn’t be where I am today without having written what I did then. In addition to being true, that sort of advice has the advantage of being tactful. I think John Irving said that every writer who seeks feedback really wants to be told, “It’s perfect. Don’t change a thing.” But of course nothing is perfect and editors exist for a reason (so do therapists; the reasons may be more closely related than we’d like to commonly assume).


* Anyone interested in writing ought to look at this list, which I still think good. I periodically re-read every book on it. In some sense no good writer ever fully stops being a beginner.

Defining fiction

“The relentless definition of feelings, states, and relationships” could be one definition of literature.

I’m reading Paul Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train, and it includes this: “In Cathy’s flat I always feel like a guest at the very out limit of her welcome.” It’s a brilliant description of a feeling I’ve both had and inflicted on others and never thought explicitly about before. The description, while brilliant, is also brilliant like millions of similar descriptions in millions of other books; I’m not singling it out because it’s extraordinary, but because it’s ordinary, and for whatever reason it triggered in my mind the description that composes the first paragraph of this post.

Why we like characters who battle institutions

David Brin’s “Our Favorite Cliché: A World Filled With Idiots… or Why Film and Fiction Routinely Depict Society and its Citizens as Fools” is great, and you should read it. He observes that novels, TV shows, and movies routinely depict heroic individuals standing up to corrupt or evil institutions or organizations. This tendency is “a reflex shared by left and right” to associate villainy with organization. Moreover, “Even when they aren’t portrayed as evil, bureaucrats are stupid and public officials short-sighted.” Brin notes some exceptions (Contagion is another, and the link goes to an article titled “Bureaucratic Heroism”), but those exceptions are exceptionally exceptional.

Nonetheless, I’d like to posit a reason why institutions and organizations are often portrayed as evil: they behave in ways that are evil enough with shocking regularity, and few of us have the means or fortitude to resist broken, evil, or corrupt institutions. The most obvious and salient example, much taught in schools, is Nazi Germany; while some individuals fought against the state murder apparatus, the vast majority went along with it, leading pretty much everyone who learned afterwards about the Holocaust to ask, “What would I do in that situation?” Most of us want to think we’d be heroic resisters, but the push to conform is strong—as the Milgram Experiment and Philip Zimbardo’s research shows. The Soviet Union murdered tens of millions of its own citizens.

Other examples exist closer to home: the Civil Rights movement fought corrupt institutions in the U.S. All the President’s Men exposed criminal actions, cruelty, and simple mendacity at the heart of the White House. The Vietnma War got started based on the invented Gulf of Tonkin. More recently, the Bush Administration made up evidence (or incompetently accepted made-up evidence) to justify the Iraq War. On a smaller basis, many of us have gotten caught in various nasty government bureaucracies in schools, universities, or elsewhere. Here’s one example from Megan McArdle’s struggles with the DMV.

Brin observes:

Now imagine that your typical film director ever found herself in real trouble, or the novelist fell afoul of deadly peril. What would they do? They would dial 9-1-1! They’d call for help and expect — demand — swift-competent intervention by skilled professionals who are tax-paid, to deal with urgent matters skillfully and well.

He’s right. I called the cops when a random asshole pounded on my door and threatened to kill me. They did show up (albeit later than I would’ve hoped!) and did arrest the guy. I’m grateful to them and for the police in that circumstance. But a lot of us are less grateful to cops, as reading Alice Goffman’s amazing book On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. Police as an institution have largely failed inner cities. Ask black people about their interactions with the police, and you’ll get a very different view of police than that of many white Americans.

So we may be getting stories of (exaggerated) institutional incompetence both due to history and due to everyday experience with institutions that (sometimes) don’t work well. Nonetheless it’s worthwhile for those of us who write stories to contemplate the truth of Brin’s observations about cliché on the level of plot, because we should try to be aware of our own dependence on cliché and to break that dependence whenever possible.

On “50 Shades of Grey” and Alan Moore’s “Lost Girls”

There are good parts of 50 Shades but it feels like a luxury “lifestyle”* commercial, written and executed by people with no experience of actual rich people imagining what rich people might be like. It also feels like a bondage story by people with no experience of actual BDSM imagining what BDSM people might be like. Reality is of course often not the primary purpose in a given movie but reality can be bent in an intelligent way to make a significant point or in an unintelligent way that detracts from the point.

fifty-shades-of-grey_poster50 Shades of Dull” gets it right: boredom is the movie’s real enemy, and the movie is unwilling to go “all the way,” with “all the way” defined broadly. The male lead is like a walking piece of injection-molded plastic. The woman is better but both have an essentially impossible acting test. On the way out of the theater I mentioned that he seems more like a serial killer than lover, and someone else said that he’d actually played a serial killer before. Makes sense.

The real fairy tale or fantasy aspect is that a guy like Christian Grey would pick out and obsess over a girl with nothing special about her. This is an interesting reversal of many movies and TV shows, in which a pretty girl improbably picks the quirky, initially low-status guy (“Don’t follow Hollywood movie examples if you want to get laid” analyzes this well, though I don’t endorse everything in the post or indeed much of the site). Anastasia is annoying and generically pretty, without any personality, and yet this very high status guy chases her around—and in ways that, if he were low status, would elicit a restraining order. “Creepy” is a term most often used to describe someone sexually interested in someone who does not reciprocate that interest. Both of us agree that the roommate and brother seem like they’re having a better time and are much more fun than the protagonists.

Still, the lighting was astoundingly good, particularly compared to the movie’s likely relevant comparison pieces. An unrated DVD edition may be a better movie. Much analysis focuses on the audience / societal signals the movie’s popularity emits, rather than the qualities of the movie itself, because the latter are so weak and the former much richer and more interesting. Something is being said, but by the consumers much more than the producers.

Auden said that “the proof that pornography has no literary value is that, if one attempts to read it in any other way than as a sexual stimulus, to read it, say, as a psychological case-history of the author’s sexual fantasies, one is bored to tears.” By this standard 50 Shades is porn but another book, commonly described as porn, is not: Lost Girls.

lost_girls_mooreLost Girls describes the way entire societies decided they hated each other much more than they loved themselves. The really horrific, shocking acts in the book are not threatened rape or young girls or incest; they’re wholescale industrialized death. Next to the latter the former may be serious and vile on an individual level but death is so final, and the delusions around war are even more powerful than the delusions around erotic life. Lost Girls is much weirder, scarier, and truer than 50 Shades and for that reason it will never be as popular, at least in its own time. But 50 years from now, I suspect people will still pick up Lost Girls and the rest of the Moore oeuvre. Like American Sniper, Lost Girls is vehemently anti-war, but it comes to an anti-war place from a much different direction and cannot be reliably read as a pro-war movie, as many have read American Sniper.

Lost Girls is also a novel or set of novels that bend reality in interesting ways that convey the characters’s psychological states, fears, desires, and lives. In this sense too it is not pornography. Sexuality is not automatically pornographic, and though this point is often made I don’t think most people act or interpret as if it’s been accepted.

Lost Girls is art and 50 Shades is commerce. Neither is really porn. Readers of either or watchers of 50 Shades should read Geoffrey Miller’s book Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior, in which Miller points out that most women judge men much less on their material possessions and much more on their health, bodies, and minds. Men tend to do the same. For most people most of the time it’s not about the money, though the money is nice. Men who say women only want money are usually covering for their own deficiencies (this embarrassing post may be relevant).

As usual, books can go deeper and have fewer restrictions on them than movies. Even today there is a freedom-to-depict in books that doesn’t extend into movies and TV, at least in the U.S. It’s also possible to turn a book that’s not very good on the level of the sentence into a movie (or TV show) that’s better.

50 Shades’s great antecedent is the Marquis de Sade; like de Sade, the movie is actually funny when read properly. But the movie is unlikely to be read properly (Tyler Cowen’s post “Two misunderstood movies, two Rorschach tests” is relevant here. Camille Paglia’s chapter on de Sade is excellent.

Despite the above I didn’t regret seeing 50 Shades and you probably won’t either. It’s a very popular movie but not a stupid one, unlike, say, Transformers, or many action movies. I wonder if (following link NSFW) X-Art.com is doing unusual business this weekend.


Here is the NYT on the movie’s director. Here is a characteristically elegant evisceration, from The New Yorker. The London Review of Books is also good: “When it comes to erotic writing, the more explicit it gets – the more heaving, the more panting – the more I want to laugh.” There was much laughter in my theater.

* The term “lifestyle” is so vague and yet so popular among marketers. If you hear a real person use it, be wary. She’s probably been  corrupted by marketers and marketing language. Despite saying this I feel like participating in modern life makes everyone who pays attention a connoisseur of marketing talk.

Nick Hornby in New York City for “Funny Girl”

Nick Hornby spoke at the Union Square Barnes and Noble on Wednesday, in support of his novel Funny Girl, parts of which he read and supported the claim to comedy in the title. Comedic writers may in general read more successfully than other sorts of writers, or perhaps Hornby is unusually engaging. His talk and the book suggested that perhaps obsession makes us interesting and shows who we are, though Sophie, the protagonist of the novel, has nothing in its beginning save what she wants to become.

Nick HornbyFunny Girl is well-observed (“He said that the bevy of beauties in front of him—and he was just the sort of man who’d use the expression ‘bevy of beauties’—made him even prouder of the town than he already was”) and a keen sense of absurdity shadows the opening of the novel (which is all I can comment on so far).

At one point Hornby said that “Acquiring a family of choice is the dream, isn’t it?” but the challenge of a family of choice may be that it is easier to choose to leave such a family than a genetically intertwined family. Some of his talk also implicitly asked why collaboration is simultaneously so hard yet so essential; the book explores that question on an interpersonal level but per Peter Watts it may also apply on a cellular level.

The audience questions were as usual mumbly democracy in action, but Hornby, like T. C. Boyle, seemed to like or fake liking them. Many, many of them took photos with their cellphones held up high, as depicted above; many saw Hornby through their phones as much as their eyes.

On a separate note, Hornby’s novel High Fidelity holds up well and among other things implies that lists are a way of eliding criticism, real knowledge, and rhetoric. This description however makes it sound boring when it is not.

Hornby Funny GirlHere is a Slate interview between Hornby and Dan Kois.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,323 other followers

%d bloggers like this: