Gone Fishin’

I’ll be offline for the next few days, though I may show up on Twitter on occasion. In the meantime, please consider studying up on the Advanced Genius Theory (Jason Hartley‘s thoughtful responses to my post deserve a response as well, and I’ll get to it soon), or take a look at some of the Q&As with literary websites I’ve been conducting for Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle; better yet, spend some time at the sites featured in the series.

Posting will resume around the middle of next week. As always, thanks for reading.

The Truth in Tracy Kidder’s Fiction

Yesterday the Book Bench linked to an interview with Tracy Kidder at the Bygone Bureau, where he discusses his history as a nonfiction author and some of his early writerly regrets. (He’s bought back the rights to his first book, The Road to Yuba City, in the hopes you’ll never read it.) He also mentions his early attempts to write fiction:

I wrote a novel that was really bad. It wasn’t published, thank god. Although I did use it in a small book that I wrote called My Detachment. It was a novel about Vietnam. It was all about experiences I didn’t have in Vietnam. It was mostly a… that’s the closest thing I had to a journal of my time as a soldier, and so it’s mostly of psychological interest. I published, I think, three short stories over the years. But I haven’t been writing fiction for quite some time. Although I’d like to write fiction again, I don’t have any fiction I’d like to write at the moment.

I’m happy for any excuse to mention My Detachment, which I like to think of as the last honest memoir: A book that is not only up-front about how humdrum the author’s experience was, but which attempts to get at why writers inflate stories about themselves. The impetus for the book was Kidder receiving a copy of that unpublished war novel, “Ivory Fields,” in the mail from a friend. Kidder had burned his manuscript, and on the evidence he provides, he wasn’t torching a future classic. (“About this time is when the sad story begins. It is the saddest story you ever hope to hear.”) But writing the book spoke to an instinct common among soldiers:

Most of the American soldiers who went to Vietnam were boys, whether they were twenty-two or just eighteen. They had watched a lot of movies and TV. I’m sure that many set out for Vietnam feeling confused or unhappy, as adolescents tend to do, and deep down many probably thought they would return with improved reasons for feeling that way. But of the roughly three million Americans who went to the war dressed as soldiers, only a small minority returned with Combat Infantryman’s Badges, certain proof of a terrible experience. Imagine all the bullshit stories Vietnam inspired.

My Detachment is largely a study of Kidder’s own capacity for bullshit, in the failed novel, in conversations, and especially in his letters back home. (“I shot a man through the head and little pieces of his brain and a great quantity of blood colored my gun and my clothes and face,” he lies in a letter to his girlfriend back home.) Kidder admits to an almost comic narcissism: After arriving in Berkeley once his stint is over, he’s disappointed that he isn’t met with the stereotypical protests and jeers. “Maybe if we’d stopped and walked around that campus in our uniforms, we’d have found someone to spit on us,” he writes. Throughout My Detachment, is hard on himself, but not so hard that he lapses into the very self-pity he’s criticizing in his youthful self. It’s essential reading for anybody who thinks their lives merit an entire book.

Inspirational Verse

In a work of fiction, one assumes there is a conscious mind behind the words on the page. In the presence of happenings in the so-called real world, one assumes nothing. The made-up story consists entirely of meanings, whereas the story of fact is devoid of any significance beyond itself. If a man says to you, “I’m going to Jerusalem,” you think to yourself: how nice, he’s going to Jerusalem. But if a character in a novel were to speak those same words, “I’m going to Jerusalem,” your response is not at all the same. You think, to begin with, of Jerusalem itself: its history, it religious role, its function as a mythical place. You would think of the past, of the present (politics; which is also to think of the recent past), and of the future—as in the phrase: “Next year in Jerusalem.” On top of that you would integrate those thoughts into whatever it is you already know about the character who is going to Jerusalem and use this new synthesis to draw further conclusions, refine perceptions, think more cogently about the book as a whole. And then, once the work is finished, the last page read and the book closed, interpretations begin: psychological, historical, sociological, structural, philological, religious, sexual, philosophical, either singly or in various combinations, depending on your bent. Although it is possible to interpret a real life according to any of these systems (people do, after all, go to priests and psychiatrists; people do sometimes try to understand their lives in terms of historical conditions), it does not have the same effect. Something is missing: the grandeur, the grasp of the general, the illusion of metaphysical truth.

Paul Auster, The Invention of Solitude

Everything Bad Is Good Again, or Notes Toward a Better Understanding of the Advanced Genius Theory

In 2004 journalist and critic Chuck Klosterman wrote an essay for Esquire titled “Real Genius,” which attempted to explain a peculiar theory about popular culture called Advancement. The theory, invented by Britt Bergman and Jason Hartley, is at its core a way to reclaim the late careers of seemingly washed-up artists: Musicians like Lou Reed and Bob Dylan aren’t in decline, the theory goes, and they never could be. They might do things that displease you as a fan (like record Metal Machine Music or convert to Christianity), but those actions in no way signify failure; Reed and Dylan have just “advanced” beyond your understanding of them, and if you recognized their early genius you’ll ultimately come around and see the genius in their later work too.

Klosterman’s article attempted to lay out a set of principles of Advancement that struck me as obscure, arbitrary, or contradictory; a few years later I was working with a proponent of the theory, and after overhearing enough parsing about whether Sting was advanced or not, I’d had enough. I wrote a cranky blog post dismissing Advancement, got into a fun but ultimately unhelpful squabble with a commenter named “Val Kilmer,” and figured nothing more needed to be said. But Hartley has expanded the theory into a book, The Advanced Genius Theory: Are They Out of Their Minds or Ahead of Their Time?, and I confess the scales have fallen from my eyes, a little. Back then, I dismissed Advancement as “Ren Faire for rock critics,” but I got this almost completely wrong. Advancement is actually a way of looking at culture and conversations about it as a kind of vast entertaining Ren Faire in itself, but where critics are relegated to unhappy minor roles like Junior Mead Supervisor and Falcon-Poop Disposal Expert.

Because while Hartley enjoys parsing whether Elvis Costello or J.D. Salinger might be Advanced, the theory is mainly predicated on attacking the received wisdom about artists that critics like to trot out; without critics, there would be no need for Advancement. For Hartley, people who say Woody Allen makes movies too quickly and that they’re always about Woody Allen don’t appreciate the fact that a) his plots are more diverse than he’s given credit for and b) he doesn’t care what his fans think, let alone critics. (That second point is critical: One of the parlor-game aspects of deciding whether an artist is Advanced is figuring out if some dumb career move he or she makes is sincere, which would be Advanced, or willfully attention-getting, which would be Overt.) Hartley makes his frustration with critics especially plain in the book’s closing chapter, in which he criticizes the Overt, un-fun way of looking at things: For this crowd of killjoys, “a truly good book must be somewhat obscure but embraced by certain influential critics. It must feature the word ‘tumescent.’ I should have an antihero. It should end in the middle of the story. It should be very long.”

There’s nothing wrong with taking the piss out of stick-in-the-mud critics, and Advancement does have the advantage of being funnier than any other critical theory out there; Hartley is a hugely entertaining writer with a rare talent for being contrarian without being snarky. Has a great riff on the notion that the Rolling Stones were bad-ass and the Beatles somehow weren’t:

Sure, Mick Jagger wrote a song about Satan and a guy got killed at the Stones concert at Altamont, but Paul McCartney wrote a song about an amusement park ride (“Helter Skelter”) that got a lot of people killed, so I say the Beatles were just a bit badder than the Stones. How many more people have to die before the Beatles get the credit they deserve?

The problem with Advancement—and the reason why it’s easy to regard it as a parlor game, if not an outright prank—is that its scope is limited. The theory only applies to artists who have a proven history of unquestioned brilliance (15 years, Hartley suggests), so the theory tends to get caught up in details about whether a musician’s acquisition of sunglasses and “world beat” musicians signifies Advancement or not. (Yanni would be the ultimate Advanced musician, I suspect, were he ever any good.) Another limitation is that Advancement mainly considers careers, not individual works—or at least doesn’t consider individual works in any interesting way. (They’re always better than you think! Because an Advanced artist made them!) Hartley is never more flat-footed as a writer then when he writes about a particular album; when he considers Dylan’s album Shot of Love, he lapses into the kind of fanboy fawning fit for a message board. (“The second song, ‘Heart of Mine,’ is a lovely, piano-heavy tune that shows off Dylan’s ability to sing in a conventional style when called upon to do so….”)

Hartley writes about Advanced writers, but not nearly in as much depth as I would hope. He describes Don DeLillo as a Refined Overt, part of the tribe of “artists who manage to cultivate their weirdo street cred late into life while somehow managing not to annoy people.” (By Hartley’s theory, I think DeLillo seems to be best categorized as an Advanced Irritant, because he clearly doesn’t care about what his fans think, and he’s been denying his fans the big Underworld-y brick of a novel they’ve wanted for more than a decade now.) He reckons that Thomas Pynchon is Overt, which sounds about right, but his heart isn’t really in this particular aspect of the theory; the chapter on writers is less than ten pages long.

In the interest of helping to fill out the theory a little, I tried to figure out which writers might fit the bill. The first one who sprung to mind was Jonathan Lethem, because Lethem once wrote an article made up of plagiarized sentences and then tried to work in some of his theories about it into a bad novel about a rock band, but that seems like an Overt move, and being controversial in itself isn’t enough to be Advanced. (Contemporary writers don’t generate very interesting controversies, as a rule. The biggest to-do of the past year was Alice Hoffman blowing a gasket on Twitter.) James Franco deciding to take a break from acting to pursue an MFA in writing isn’t advanced, but playing an MFA student in a Gary Shteyngart book trailer might be (at least to the extent that you think Franco’s any good, as a writer or actor). I suspect Stephen King is Advanced because he immediately followed up a very thoughtful and helpful book about the principles of good writing with Dreamcatcher, a novel in which people are infected with a virus that makes them shit space aliens.

The ultimate Advanced writer is likely somebody like Joyce Carol Oates, who suffers from the same complaints as Woody Allen—too prolific, too focused on a limited range of subjects. When people say they’re tired of Oates, it’s likely not because they’re actually reading her; they just feel defeated by her sheer output, and they’re sick of hearing about it in the New York Times Book Review. But though Advancement might help clarify the reasons why people might reflexively and unfairly dislike an artist, it doesn’t do much to tell me why an artist’s particular work might be any good, why Little Bird of Heaven might be better than The Gravedigger’s Daughter, even if I accept that they’re both pretty good. (She’s an Advanced artist, after all.)

Hartley, for all his critiquing of artists, is essentially averse to committing acts of criticism, and the argument bubbling under The Advanced Genius Theory is that you’re better off being averse to it as well. As he writes in the book’s conclusion: “Once you have achieved the Advanced state of mind, something amazing happens: you start to like everything.” He’s not arguing against discernment: “You can still have ‘good taste,'” he writes. “It’s just that the question becomes how much you like a work of art rather than whether you like it.” It’s a powerful counter against critics who come up with contrived reasons to dismiss things. But how much better is it to come up with contrived reasons to like them?

Update: Hartley responds here and here.

Links: Kiddin’ on the Keys

Jason Hartley reviews page 86 of Jennifer Egan‘s A Visit From the Goon Squad: “Later, Stephanie and Bennie have gin and tonics, while watching fireflies and listening to a pianist playing ‘harmless melodies on a shining upright.’ … I find the word harmless a strange choice; is it a value judgment? Should a pianist play harmful melodies while people have cocktails? Is there even such a thing as a harmful melody?” I’m probably wrong, but I think that in the context of the critical theory Hartley helped invent, Hartley is being Overt; more on this Sunday.

Paul Auster‘s City of Glass is 25.

David Means on how even short-story collections that aren’t linked are still…linked: “As a reader, you’re moved from one completely individual unit to the next, and you know that they’re not linked and that they can stand on their own, but you still have a kind of sense, in the end, that you’ve been through an experience that comes from the complete entity.”

A lengthy profile of The Taqwacores author Michael Muhammad Knight in the Abu Dhabi National.

Adam Langer recalls the deep imprint Beverly Cleary‘s books had on him.

Barbara Kingsolver: “My inspiration comes from living in the world and seeing things that aggravate me to the back of my teeth or sing for joy.”

Some pushback on the Gary Shteyngart hype (note the comments as well).

Chicago crime novelist Marcus Sakey on the anxiety-inducing but curiously predicable process of writing a novel.

The Wall Street Journal talks with Rick Moody about Kurt Vonnegut‘s reputation, music, New York, and the “old-fashioned, big long story.”

Vendela Vida on the Believer, which she edits: “I think a lot of the people who like The Believer are people who will always be devoutly attached to the physical object of the magazine.”

I’m still conducting email Q&As with literary websites for the National Book Critics Circle blog: Interviews with Three Percent and Open Letters Monthly are now up. More coming; if you have suggestions for sites to cover, please let me know. (Simple criteria: I’m looking for online publications that are committed in some way to regularly reviewing and covering books, and use multiple contributors to do so.)

Zombies With Brains

One of my favorite novels of last year was Ron Currie Jr.‘s Everything Matters!, an ambitious story about faith, family, and the apocalypse. (He expanded on those points in an e-mail Q&A here last year.) That book is now out in paperback, and he’s working on his next novel. It’s a zombie tale, though he insists to Time Out New York that he’s not jumping on a bandwagon:

Obviously, it’s a trend right now, and it’s certainly not a trend that I’m trying to chase, but I’ve always been really fascinated by zombie stories. But I believe I’m treating them in a way that I’ve never seen before; making a real effort to explain zombie psychology. The assumption, I think, at least with the modern Romero-type zombie, is that there is no psychology there. But I disagree. I think there is—it’s not terribly complex, but it is terribly compelling. The common notion is that the zombie wants to devour and destroy and kill, and I disagree. I think the zombie wants to turn the whole world [into zombies]. Zombies hold their own God within them, and they want to turn everything into it.

Currie mentioned his zombie fixation in a 2008 essay on apocalyptic fiction, in which he wrote, “the kid in me still loves nothing more than a good old-fashioned zombie yarn.” The piece also sheds a little light on some of the models for Everything Matters!, like Kurt Vonnegut‘s Galapagos and George Saunders‘ story “Bounty,” both of which look for the humor in end-of-the-world tales. As he writes, “Like much of Vonnegut’s work, Galapagos is hilarious but in an acutely uncomfortable way; as one reviewer said famously, we laugh in self-defence.”

The Pathos Department

Writing at TheAtlantic.com, Alyssa Rosenberg observes that the characters in Tom Rachman‘s The Imperfectionists, a comic novel about a failing newspaper in Rome, are each “pathetic in some way”:

[T]he Paris correspondent is a lame, fabricating drunk; the business reporter is an older woman, settling for a man who mocks and uses her; the editor is humiliating herself pursuing an old flame; one candidate for a Cairo stringer position is hopelessly inexperienced, the other a horrendously selfish bastard; the copy editor is passive-aggressive; the news editor is betrayed; the chief financial officer fires the wrong person when asked to make layoffs and somehow thinks he’ll forget she’s responsible; the publisher is the weakest scion of a failing business line.

This is a flaw to Rosenberg, though, because “Rachman’s novel doesn’t want to deal in any substantive way with the reasons the news business is undergoing monumental change.” Thank goodness.

The Imperfectionists is designed to take a host of known foilbles about newspaper people—the persnickety copy editor, the deadwood correspondent, the out-of-touch publisher—and inflate them to the point where comedy begins to touch on the absurd. That strategy is probably the most clear about halfway through the book, when Winston Cheung, a college grad with no journalism experience, tries out for a job as a stringer in Cairo. He’s anxious enough about being bullied by an award-winning international correspondent gunning for the same job, and a friend’s savaging of his first attempt at a news story only makes things worse:

“I have to say, you spend way too many words getting to the nut of this story. Also, I felt the undersecretary’s goatee received too much attention. Frankly, I wouldn’t even mention it.”

“I thought it was germane.”

“Not in the lead. Don’t get me wrong—I like your attempts to insert color. But I felt you were trying too hard at times. Like this bit: ‘As he spoke, the yellow Egyptian sun shone very brightly, as if that golden sphere were blazing with the very hope for peace in the Middle East that burned also within the heart of the Palestinian undersecretary for sports, fishing, and wildlife.'”

“I considered deleting that line.”

“I’m not even sure it’s grammatical. And, for the record, the origins of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict do not ‘hark back to an ancient spelling mistake.’ Not that I’ve ever heard.”

This is the banter-heavy territory of comedies The Front Page and His Girl Friday; I’d no more trust The Imperfectionists to tell me something about the changing face of journalism than I’d expect Airplane! to teach me something about air traffic controllers. The novel isn’t always so antic, and its 11 character sketches don’t always settle into a consistent tone, which is as it should be; not all pathetic people are created equal. But Rachman isn’t solely fixated on showing how pathetic his characters are. He has a knack for finding the details about his characters that make them empathetic, even when they’re making profoundly bad life decisions—none more than that passive-aggressive, disliked copy editor who has more going on in her life that she lets on. Nobody in The Imperfectionists is equipped to deal with the sweeping changes that are crippling the paper, but that’s the point. The crisis is so big that it can’t prompt an easy solution; all it can do is reveal character.