Cezanne, Eisenberg, and the question of rape

Posted in Reading (as a writer) on January 26th, 2010 by dylan

“Either you see a picture immediately,” Cezanne told the writer Joachim Gasquet, “or you never see it at all.

Explanations don’t help a bit. What good does it do to comment on it? All those things are imperfect, imprecise things. We talk as we do because it’s amusing, like drinking a good bottle of wine.

From Conversations with Cezanne.

And here is Deborah Eisenberg, more than 100 years later, talking to Anna Kesey in Tin House (no. 34*):

…I’m always perplexed when a reader is perplexed, when a reader says to, or of, one of my stories, “What was that?” I think, Well, it’s what I said it was. It’s the thing I said.

Can explaining a story degrade a reader’s experience of that story, even if you’re not remotely a Cezanne or an Eisenberg? I promise not to go on about my own work much, but people often ask about “Jazz,” which opens my collection with the sentence “It is not true that if a girl squeezes her legs together she cannot be raped.” Rainey Royal’s legs have been parted by the knee of Richard, who is 39 and her father’s best friend—but she’s confused by her own sexual powers, and she isn’t sure it’s rape.

And readers want to be sure. Most think it’s rape: Rainey is 13, and Richard is 39. She says no, and he ignores her.

But she doesn’t scream. She’s been seductive with him. She accompanied him to the park, though her father sent them there at night for a concert. “She knows exactly what she’s doing,” one woman said.

Thus the question: rape, or seduction? And that’s consummation at the end, right?

I never answer directly, though after reading Cezanne and Eisenberg last week, I’ll work harder to tell readers why. It’s not that they’re missing something (unless the writing is flawed). It’s that a story and the question it poses cannot be teased apart, and also that once written, a story belongs to its readers.

It’s what I said it was. It’s the thing I said.

Sometimes I quote Michael Silverblatt, who does the legendary author-interview show The Bookworm on KCRW public radio, Los Angeles:

A short story is like a flower. It should keep opening in your mind long after you finish reading it.

*The extraordinary painting on the Tin House cover, “Jazzy,” is by New York artist Marilyn Greenberg.

EVENTS, DC AREA & BALTIMORE (self-promotion alert; two of my own are here–a new literary collaboration with Eileen Fisher, a designer I adore.)

Thursday, January 28,  4 p.m. — reading, signing, & shopping! A literary salon at the Eileen Fisher clothing store, with “sips & treats.” I’ll be reading from my collection, Normal People Don’t Live Like ThisTysons Galleria, McLean, VA. RSVP if possible: 703.288.1802    $25 off clothing purchase.

Saturday, January 30,  1 p.m. — reading, signing, & shopping! The second DC-area literary salon for Eileen Fisher, with “brunch bites” served. The Shops at Wisconsin Place, Chevy Chase, MD. I’ll be reading from Normal People Don’t Live Like This. RSVP if possible: 301.654.9811    $25 off clothing purchase.

Saturday, January 30, 8:05 p.m. (doors open at 7) — Literary Death Match, Baltimore Edition. The Windup Space, 12 West North Avenue, Baltimore: map Appearing: Michael Kimball, Jessica Henkin, Rafael Alvarez. Competing: Michael Hughes, Mike Young, Jen Michalski and Dave Housley. Hosting: Todd Zuniga. Or read it all here.

JOHN ASHBERY teaching & reading Tuesday, February 2, at Georgetown University, 5:30 p.m. seminar in ICC 462; 8 p.m. reading in Copley Formal Lounge; free; details.

Deborah Eisenberg’s Intensely Intimate Third

Posted in Writing on January 24th, 2010 by dylan

Just found a great Deborah Eisenberg interview with Ron Hogan of the blog Beatrice from 13 years ago. (I’d searched for “Deborah Eisenberg interviews” because she talks about writing like no one’s business, and because a terrific one in Tin House is print-only; more on that tk.) Here’s a snippet that touches on close third; emphasis mine:

RH: My favorite moments in these stories are those in which epiphanies would stereotypically occur, but your characters simply go on experiencing what they’ve been experiencing, doing what they’ve been doing, just the way we would in real life.

DE: That’s the issue as far as I’m concerned. What is an experience? What does it actually feel like? What is the consistency of that moment in the mind? What is actually occurring? What does it actually feel like? Not, how will I sum it up to myself, or how will I sum it up to the reader, but what is going in my nerve endings? What’s going on in this strange, sloshing organ that’s encased in my skull?

RH: In order to convey that, you avoid using an authorial voice that ‘explains’ a character’s thoughts or actions from outside. You stay as close to the characters and their reactions as possible.

DE: To me, in a way the implicit task is always, “What does it feel like to be a human being?” Whoever the character is, how far can I crawl into the mental processes of that character? It’s very rare that one says to oneself, “This is what’s happening, this is what this moment is. It means blah-blah…” That’s just not the experience of being alive, the experience of a moment.

Reading Cormac through Walker’s telescope

Posted in Reading (as a writer) on January 20th, 2010 by dylan

I was ecstatic when Will Barrett, in Walker Percy’s The Last Gentleman, trained his German telescope—”knurled and calibrated with a black spiderlash in the nickel”—on a brick building clear across Central Park:

Not only were the bricks seen as if they were ten feet away; they were better than that. It was better than having the bricks there before him. They gained in value. Every grain and crack and excrescence became available. Beyond any doubt, he said to himself, this proves that bricks, as well as other things, are not as accessible as they used to be. Special measures were needed to recover them.

The telescope recovered them.

Every writer reads with a split brain, right? One eye for pleasure, the other peering at technique–but with my mental telescope trained right on the sentences, I often miss the big picture and end up with the bulleted list. But that’s my lens. In this manner I began rereading Cormac McCarthy, and found three scenes in The Orchard Keeper that felt linked in how they revealed character: through action, not emotion, and through a boy’s interaction with animals.

Page 63: The boy John Wesley spots a young rabbit at the bottom of a dry well. Every day he brings greens and drops them in, till finally the greens flutter over the rabbit

and it didn’t move. He went away and he could see for a long time the rabbit down in the bottom of the well among the rocks with the lettuce over it.

Subliminal revelation: a compassionate loner, kind to animals, responsible: he doesn’t miss a day, checks back even when there’s little hope.

Page 77-80: John Wesley rescues a injured sparrowhawk that eyes him “without malice or fear—something hard there, implacable and ungiving.” With no expectation of gratitude, then, he feeds it grasshoppers and meat. After three days it dies and (this flows into a third scene, or new part of the same scene) he gets a ride into town and walks into the courthouse. “He held the bag up. Hawk bounty, he said.”

Hawk bounty is one dollar. John Wesley acts like someone who has never had so much money:

He held the dollar in his hand, folded neatly twice. When he got outside he took it and folded it again, making a square of it, and thrust it down between the copper rivets into the watchpocket of his overall pants.  He patted it flat…

…and pats it twice more as he walks. That’s a dollar he could have had three days sooner by wringing a hurt bird’s neck. But no, he’d perceived its majesty. For God’s sake, the boy was out catching grasshoppers so the hawk might live.

I was so happy when I saw the thread between the rabbit and hawk scenes that I went back to my novel-in-progress, wondering: might there be 2-3 short, spare segments (the rabbit is only 1 paragraph–half tell, half show) that I can weave in to establish the protagonist’s character in this way?

Good litnews is experiencing rapid cell division.

Jen Michalski, who edits the litblog JMWW, will have a story collection (her second), tentatively titled You Were Only Waiting for This Moment, published by Dzanc Books.

Sandra Beasley will have a poem in Best American Poetry 2010. (She also has three in the new issue of The Normal School, which is worth a subscription.)

Samantha Dunn had a stunning op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times.

“All the angels may be out to lunch…”

Posted in Events & celebrations, Poetry on January 17th, 2010 by dylan

My friend Heather Hartley’s debut poetry collection—the witty, nervy, sexy Knock Knock (Carnegie Mellon U Press)—comes out this month, launched by Tin House magazine with a fabulous NYC party on Thursday, January 21.

Gorgeous invitation won’t upload, so print it out before it vanishes, or make note:

8 p.m., Thurs. 1/21, at the Old Stone House in Brooklyn

5th Avenue between 3rd & 4th Streets

Critical info: readers (of their own work and Heather’s) are Elissa Schappell, Brenda Shaughnessy and Matthea Harvey. “Cocktails will be served. Duh.”

Backstory: Heather lives in Paris, where she’s grounded till fall by health issues. Grounding was not the plan. The plan was to fly here (she’s from West Virginia, poet-friends everywhere) and do readings on both coasts. But Heather is Paris editor of Tin House, a glam job that involves interviewing writers upstairs at the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore, where she also curates the reading series  & co-curates the literary festival. (It would be wrong, however, to say she has the two hippest jobs in town. She’s got three locked up, as she teaches poetry & creative writing at the American University of Paris.)

Back to Tin House, which knows how to celebrate in style: big names, cocktails, plenty of books available. Just show up and squeeze in. For an early glass of Champagne, click here: a prizewinning poem—nonfiction—that ran in Tin House; it was sparked by a shocking New York Times article, referenced at the end.

And here’s poet Cecilia Woloch’s irresistible blurb:

“Heather Hartley’s first book of poems breathes new life into language at every turn. These poems are so sly and sweet, so smart and sexy…In her linguistic playfulness, she’s lithe and muscular as a gymnast. All the angels may be out to lunch, as she says, but all the flags in her heart are flying.

Not Amy Bloom’s snow

Posted in Reading (as a writer) on January 15th, 2010 by dylan

It’s not what happens in a story that counts. It’s how your character reacts to what happens.

Janet Fitch said that, possibly at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. And my friend Natalie and I have been discussing this as we work on our novels, because it improves every passage or scene we apply it to. Taken down to a cellular level, it really is the essence of intimate third person (a Henry James term, yes?).

Working in close third and struggling against lapses into middle-distance third, I find this means that the character, not the author, gets to do all the observing & describing. Ergo any details about people, setting or objects must be true to character, not to author. (I learn very, very slowly and am thinking aloud here.)

For me it means avoiding terms like “she saw” or “she noticed”–this relates to the chapter on free indirect discourse in James Wood’s How Fiction Works (Picador). Ultimately whatever the character observes will reveal her–sometimes what’s being described is secondary.

So here’s my cellular-level paraphrase: it’s not what gets described in a story that counts; it’s how it registers on your character.

And here is Lillian, the main character in Amy Bloom’s extraordinary novel Away (Random House), walking across Alaska on a desperate trip to find her little girl. But it is not Amy Bloom’s snow that she complains about. It is Lillian’s snow:

O Goddamned sky, O Goddamned sea, O Goddamned and everlasting snow is what Lillian says to herself as she walks. She could be calling out the Stations of the Cross or naming the circles of hell as she descends. Everything white is her enemy…She needs to keep looking at the clumps of red berries—the red is a small comfort and it rests her eyes.

So we see where she is—but also, in just a few sentences, 193 pages in, we get a new aspect of Lillian under a new and particular duress.

Also at Squaw Valley, a novelist said: “First put your character up in a tree, then throw stones at him”—was it Jay Gummerman? Where are my damned notebooks?

–  –  –  –  –  –  –

In a Twitter status update on Dec. 30, 2009, Colson Whitehead designated January ShThFuUpAnWoOnYrNo month. (If you have to askif you still have to ask…) I know! It’s brilliant! And if you missed the tweet you saw it on Maud Newton! But I bumbled into this two weeks late. Hence the Unofficial Colson Whitehead February Grace Period, tailored for those who should not blog till their novels are done.


Indefinite extensions anticipated.


Some Flannerys I live by

Posted in Writing on January 13th, 2010 by dylan

This is my dogeared, hard-used 1997 copy  (24th paperback printing) of Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners. It cost $12.

And just below is my new, virginal 1969 “first printing” (vs the 1957 true first edition), from Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, Inc. Where’s Giroux? It cost $85 and made me weep in New Orleans’s Faulkner House bookstore.

Among the Flannerys I go back to again and again:

  • The writer learns, perhaps more quickly than the reader, to be humble in the face of what-is. What-is is all he has to do with; the concrete is his medium; and he will realize eventually that fiction can transcend its limitations only by staying within them.
  • There is a moment in every great story in which the presence of grace can be felt as it waits to be accepted or rejected, even though the reader may not recognize this moment.
  • …the lines of motion that interest the writer are usually invisible. They are the lines of spiritual motion. And in (A Good Man is Hard to Find), you should be on the lookout for such things as the action of grace in the Grandmother’s soul, and not for the dead bodies.
  • violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work.

The Jim Krusoe Litany in my Head

Posted in Writing on January 12th, 2010 by dylan

It seems right to open this highly erratic blog on writing and literary events with a bow to Jim Krusoe: novelist, sensei, friend.

The fabulous Mary Otis and I dedicated our November 2009 UCLA Hammer Museum reading to Jim–as our collections were forged in his Santa Monica College fiction workshop–and I recited the Jim Krusoe litany that plays in my head as I work. Here it is, in part.

  • When you’re writing a scene, give one character a task to complete. It gives the scene something to build toward.
  • Let the task go wrong.
  • Write the scene before the scene that changed your character’s life.
  • If a scene with two characters isn’t working, bring in a third.
  • Beware of designer names in search of a character.
  • People love reading about characters at work.
  • Look for enabling details–the one or two quirky or slightly off things about a person or setting that are so telling, the reader can imagine everything else, all at once.

And may I celebrate the most recent book to grow out of Jim’s workshop: BUMMER, by Janice Shapiro, a story collection just acquired by Soft Skull Press.