Based on a True Story

In the Brooklyn Rail, Paul Maliszewski launches a two-pronged attack on the work of journalist and short-story writer Wells Tower. One complaint is convincing and the other isn’t, but it’s a respectable effort—there’s a common notion that critics ought to go a little easier on the young fiction writer*, but Maliszewski figures there’s no reason why Tower, on the strength of just one story collection, shouldn’t undergo a stress test.

The essence of Maliszewski’s argument is, first, that Tower is a product of the world of magazines, which deals in carefully crafted but dispassionate narratives, and, second, that an unseemly emotional distance, if not emotional confusion, has crept into his fiction as a result. Magazine writing is “not writing; it’s flattery,” he writes. The ding on magazines is reasonable enough: Anybody who’s entered a profile in Esquire or Vanity Fair admiring the writer’s stylistic flash and exited feeling like some humdrum home truths has been recycled knows the feeling. What promised to be a fireworks spectacular turned out to be a couple of kids in the backyard shooting off bottle rockets.

Lame analogy, you say? You may sympathize with Maliszewski, who feels Tower deals in lame analogies wherever he goes. When he describes George W. Bush‘s hands looking as if “they’ve just been dipped to the wrist in something sticky and he’s waiting for them to dry,” Maliszewski tees up: “[O]ne might ask how fingers are supposed to hang when one’s arms are at one’s sides. Don’t fingers without anything to grip always go limp? Or one might wonder why a man with something sticky on his hands is waiting for them to dry. Wouldn’t such a man wipe or clean them?” Perhaps. Or perhaps it’s an awkward, uncomfortable predicament to be in—and if you’re attempting to paint Bush as awkward and uncomfortable, it may not be such a bad metaphor after all.

But Maliszewski is dug in—any feint toward metaphorical language is suspect in Tower’s fiction:

As though. It’s as though Tower is presenting his calling card. He adds, “Jeff Park feels glad to have found work on the Pirate, a machine that draws joy out of people as simply as a derrick draws oil from dirt.” This is all wrong. The ride doesn’t draw joy out of people. Riding it may make them feel joyful, but if the Pirate removed joy from people, if it were truly like a derrick pumping crude oil from the earth, then the ride would leave them without joy. They would be joyless.

This complaint makes sense only if you spend a lot of time thinking of oil as a finite resource. For most readers, the only thing a derrick suggests on a first read is gushers, or if not that then something that works assiduously to extract oil. Worry not, Mr. Maliszewski; there’s plenty more joy where that came from.

The sniping is unfortunate, because it casts his complaints about the short-story collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, in a cynical light—the critic’s ready to blast the head off whatever metaphor dares to raise its imprecise, unaffecting head. But he does compellingly show how journalistic distance blunts his fiction, particularly in the case of “On the Show,” which is based on Tower’s experience following a traveling carnival crew. Indeed, many passages in the story are directly cribbed from the original article. The self-plagiarism in itself isn’t especially bothersome; writers are free to cannibalize their works at will. What Maliszewski smartly points out as problematic is Tower using the same phrases and quotes to serve markedly different emotional circumstances, and the way Tower’s interest in fusty, feature-copy details are more distancing than embracing. Maliszewski writes:

Tower, soaking in the scene, noting its particulars, while being unable to get into a character. Maybe the facts as he knows them discourage his attempts to leap imaginatively into another’s sensibility. Maybe his training as a journalist makes him suspicious of any such leap. Or maybe his social class and the gulf that lies between him and his characters prove to be the greater obstacles.** Whatever the case, Tower’s habit of looking without knowing undermines his fiction.

To be more precise, it undermines one story of Tower’s. The bulk of Maliszewski’s essay is concerned with “On the Show,” which is something of an outlier in the collection, which largely deals with Carver-esque men in domestic predicaments, driven by a lot of shit-talking dialogue. Tower’s failure to leverage the tools of magazine journalism to write successful fiction isn’t a systemic problem, but it’s worth calling out the ways journalism and fiction serve different masters.

* Yes, Tower is in a somewhat different category of “young fiction writer”: He’s been anointed one of the New Yorker‘s “20 Under 40” and is attached to a prominent publisher. The Brooklyn Rail essay would likely not have existed without the praise Tower has received, but had it appeared when the book was published in 2009, it might’ve been attacked as being too harsh on the first-timer too.

** Maliszewski spends a bit of time trying to suggest that Tower’s hardscrabble bona fides aren’t quite in order, an argument that he never quite successfully connects with a failure in Tower’s fiction. Generalizations about class background and what it implies about your ability to write fiction is a messy business; at least Maliszewski doesn’t fall into the trap of suggesting that a lower-class upbringing somehow gives you a deeper understanding of the human condition, but he does readily embrace the idea of feature journalism as a middle-class pursuit that deals in middlebrow ideas.

4 thoughts on “Based on a True Story

  1. Maliszewski point that Tower’s stories suffer because they grew out of journalistic endeavors & his fidelity to preconceived notions actually strikes me as valid– the only story within EVERYTHING RAVAGED, EVERYTHING BURNED that I would characterize as “ground breaking” or “riveting” would be the title story, which is his least realistic story.

  2. I’ve been thinking about this metaphor thing. Wanted to comment; didn’t want to comment; decided to comment. I haven’t read Tower’s book, and I’m not not saying that reviewers or critics are barred from writing about any aspect of a work . . . but there’s something chilling for me as a writer about that metaphor deconstruction.

    Here’s the thing: Writing is such an unpredictable combination of a rush of something from the unconscious and a process of carefully honed words and sentences. And an average novel contains 80,000-120,000 of these words. Among these many words are bound to be a few combinations–even from the most masterful hands, I would think–that don’t hold up (as least for some readers) under the bright light of strict intellectual scrutiny.

    When people started reading and commenting on my novel, I was sometimes amazed at the line or lines they picked up to quote or zero in on. Sometimes, I could barely even remember writing those words. I’m not saying a writer isn’t responsible for every word in her novel, or that anyone is barred from responding. Not even sure what I’m saying. Just felt I needed to say it. Was encouraged to do so by the Nicole Krauss quote in the follow-up post, which had a generous, embracing view of the metaphor.

  3. ‘a machine that draws joy out of people as simply as a derrick draws oil from dirt’

    I don’t have the Tower story in front of me to check, but it’s likely I agree with Maliszewski’s complaint about the above, but for a different reason. Any metaphor must work hard to justify its existence. An interesting comparison of two seemingly disparate elements isn’t sufficient. Why the oil derrick, in this case? It must tie in with something else in the story – theme, a character’s past, repeated motif, whatever. Metaphor should not simply be a form of verbal gymnastics.

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