What’s the Matter With Shermer? or, How John Hughes Turned Me Against Dave Eggers

My Gen-X brain is slowly showing signs of memory loss, so I can’t recall exactly where I saw every film by the late John Hughes. But I’m pretty sure I caught both Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club in a movie theater in Forest Park, Illinois, not far from my hometown of Lyons. The location was meaningful to me. Forest Park is about 20-odd miles south of Northbrook—Hughes’ hometown, the filming location of much of his best-loved films, and the stand-in for the mythical town of Shermer, his upscale Yoknapatawpha of teenage angst.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is famous for being a kind of accidental tourism film for Chicago; the Art Institute of Chicago, in particular, never had it so good onscreen. For me, it also served as a tourism film for Chicago’s North Shore, home to some very nice houses (though the Bueller home in the film is in California) and some very good schools. Bueller’s mad dash home at the end of the movie through the backyards of Shermer required huffing and puffing through big, broad lawns, leaping hedges every hundred paces, occasionally cutting through streets that were sometimes politely interrupted by traffic. If I were to attempt the same trick at the time, I’d have to avoid the gravel trucks leaving the quarry a block away and jump chain-link fences (and cranky dogs) every 20 feet.

That’s a long way of saying that Bueller was one of my first introductions to class distinctions. Though Bueller and his friends shared some of the same geographical touchstones I did (I liked going to Cubs games and the Art Institute too), there was an ocean-wide gap between their lives and mine. Though Hughes films are celebrations of the teenage rebel, those rebels all achieve closure by embracing the upscale existence they spend their lives in anyhow. Bueller is going go back to his high school and listen to Ben Stein drone; Molly Ringwald‘s characters in Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink land cute, upper-middle-class guys, despite her other-side-of-the-tracks mala fides in the latter; Judd Nelson‘s badass rebel in The Breakfast Club landed Molly Ringwald, in that film the epitome of North Shore comfort and assurance. Hughes films are mostly about finding love, but they’re also a little about finding the shortcut to upward social mobility.

It was, for an attendee of a high-school in a blue-collar suburb that had aggressively resisted any tax increases for schools in decades, a little grating. (None of which is meant to paint my adolescence, or where I grew up, as degraded or miserable; Chicago suburbs get economically worse the farther south you go, and I was pinned somewhere in middle. I did much better than cartons of cigarettes on Christmas, I got to go to a good college, and the promise of upward social mobility has worked out just fine for me.) After about ten years or so, John Hughes films and youth spent in a UAW household installed a few prejudices in me. So by 2000, when Dave Eggers published his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, my brief on the book wasn’t, “Here’s something by a guy who used to work at the same paper I do,” but “Here’s something by a guy who grew up in Lake Forest.” My initial reaction to the very existence of the book was active dislike.

It seems a little silly, now—after all, plenty of my favorite writers were raised in perfectly nice homes more than a few rungs up the class ladder than I was. Would I have resented Michael Chabon for growing up in Columbia, Maryland, if I grew up in one of that town’s scruffier neighbors? At any rate, the only evidence of class resentment I can detect in my review of Staggering Genius is my urge to stress that Eggers lived in “Lake Forest, an affluent Chicago suburb.” I’m confident that my disappointment in the book was more a function of its contents than the feelings I brought to it, though it can be difficult for a reviewer to separate the two; I’m also certain that And You Shall Know Our Velocity! is an awful book because it is an awful book, not awful because somebody who grew up in Lake Forest wrote it.

If my prejudices were still deep-seated, I could keep myself busy for a while reading nothing but books about working-class families in the Midwest. That would make me sick of my own existence fairly quickly, though; one of the main pleasures of reading fiction is that it introduces you to lives you couldn’t experience, haven’t experienced. Those old Hughesian resentments haven’t reduced my admiration for Ward Just, who’s as North Shore as they come. The goal is to avoid thinking of people—as the poignant, fist-pumping note at the end of The Breakfast Club put it—“in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions.” If I’m being honest, I’ll concede that Hughes probably taught me a little bit about that too.

Links: Installment Plan

In the Wall Street Journal, Lee Siegel argues that we are no longer living in an “episodic” era for fiction, stories more about events than transformations featuring Huck Finn and Augie March. We are now, somewhat unfortunately, living in the “narrative” era, where we crave closure and emotional growth in our characters. This is, of course, all 9/11’s fault. Arguments to contrary will abound, I’m sure—hasn’t popular fiction always been “narrative,” and aren’t most satirical fiction writers today (George Saunders, etc) dealing in “episodic” fiction, as comic writers always have? Somebody organize a conference!

Speaking of: The International Conference of Mark Twain Studies is going on now in Elmira, New York. According to the video, discussions of cats and studious beard grooming are on offer.

A lovely collection of Rockwell Kent‘s illustrations for Moby-Dick.

Constance Fenimore Woolson sold more books in her time than her would-be beloved, Henry James, but James got global fame and a bust in the National Portrait Gallery; Woolson gets a plaque on Mackinac Island.

The Bud Billikin parade is this weekend, which may mean nothing to anybody reading this outside of Chicago. But it’s a big deal there—a South Side to-do launched to get the kids excited to go back to school, and the brainchild of novelist Willard Motley, considered “the most prolific novelist associated with the concluding years of the Black Chicago Renaissance.”

Rick Moody listens to music while writing, but no lyrics please: “He has a fondness for ‘experimental or serious music that doesn’t have lyrics.’ For him, this includes music by La Monte Young, Morton Feldman, Meredith Monk, Steve Reich, Arthur Russell and Rhys Chatham.”

In addition to writing a new novel and a horror movie, Michael Cunningham is working on the screenplay to a Dusty Springfield biopic.

Larry McMurtry is pretty much done: “I’m about at the end of it. I can write certain things. I don’t think I can write fiction any more. I think I’ve used it up over 30 novels. That’s a lot of novels.”

Budd Schulberg—novelist (What Makes Sammy Run?), screenwriter (On the Waterfront), and Papa’s sparring partner—died this week at 95.

And PopMatters draws a few interesting connections between manga pioneer Yoshihiro Tatsumi and Raymond Carver.

Slow Going

The Chicago Reader catches up with Audrey Niffenegger, who’ll be getting plenty of attention in the coming months—the film version of her debut novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife, comes out August 14, and her follow-up, Her Fearful Symmetry arrives in September. Niffenegger is a Famous Author now, but the article concentrates on her lovely, less blockbuster work as a visual artist. (If you’re in Chicago at the moment, you can see some of the pages of her illustrated story “The Night Bookmobile” at Printworks Gallery.)

It’s been six years between novels for Niffenegger, and she tells the Reader that her bestseller status had a role in that:

“When I was writing my first novel I was alone with it,” she says. “For my second novel I had the benefit of other people’s expertise”—an agent and editors—”but it can make the work go slower because I . . . question myself more as I go along. I know I will be hearing from readers if I get it wrong.”

How much has it slowed her down? She says that she’s currently 20 pages into her next novel, The Chinchilla Girl in Exile—a work that she’s been writing since at least 2006. She told Writer Unboxed back then, “It’s about a nine-year-old girl who has hypertrichosis, which is a hereditary disorder in which hair grows all over one’s body and face; my character, Lizzie, looks like a junior werewolf. I’m very fond of her, she’s plucky.”

Workshop Prose

My in-flight companion during the past long weekend was a galley of a forthcoming biography of Raymond Carver. I’ll scribble more about that when the time comes, I’m sure (it’s out in November), but for now I’ll say that one of the many striking things about Carver’s life was how much traveling he did as he was launching his career—from college to college, program to program, anything that was going to allow him to stabilize his always-wrecked finances and give him a quiet space to write. The shame of his lost years is how much of his time was squandered on drinking instead of working; in Iowa City he and John Cheever timed their mornings to show up at the liquor store just as it opened in the morning.

Still, those programs were critical to him as a writer. Well before Gordon Lish allegedly “made” him, Carver worked hard under the tutelage of Grendel author John Gardner at Chico State University, where he learned the importance of revising, revising, and revising some more. Years later he’d put some of that advice into a letter to his daughter: “When something feels complex or complicated to you, write it out carefully and thoughtfully, several different times if necessary, until it flows smoothly and expresses exactly what you want it to communicate and nothing else.” Sounds like a no-brainer—you read it and wonder why we need writing classes at all, practically everything you need to know is in that one sentence. But for Carver that simple guidance was hard-earned. And of course, it’s advice that’s damn hard to execute.

Carver is of course now synonymous with “workshop prose”—once his reputation was made in the 80s, so many aspiring writers were seduced by the simplicity of his writing that they thought it was simply achieved, and they signed up with MFA programs en masse to achieve it. I suspect that much of this is covered in a recent book I haven’t read, Mark McGurl‘s The Program Era, but as a shorter defense of the workshop, I liked the comments by Telex From Cuba author Rachel Kushner. She’s teaching fiction for the first time, and talked to the National Post about it:

There’s this argument — I mean, you see it percolating up in the Amazon review comments — that, ‘Oh, this reads like workshop prose.’ But the idea of the workshop is not totally new. Flannery O’Connor took a workshop. Nabokov was Thomas Pynchon’s teacher. So at least in the United States there’s a real tradition of this. And most of what I’ve learned as a writer I learned after the workshop. But the workshop allowed me to place myself in a context of peers and try to assess with a colder eye wether or not I should keep going.

If “workshop prose” is showing up in Amazon review comments, it’s probably time to officially designate the term a tired cliche and move on.