The Discipline of Form and the Love of an Educated Heart

From a 1959 essay, “Epitaph for the Beat Generation,” included the new anthology of John Leonard‘s essays, Reading for My Life:

[The Beats] proved at least one thing more. That poetry, painting, music, and fiction are products of the individual. That the great American novel will be written by some antisocial SOB who can’t stand espresso and never heard of Wilhelm Reich—the guy who sits up all night at a typewriter and brings to his particular vision the discipline of form and the love of an educated heart. A generation may be disenchanted, but it takes a man alone to chronicle that disenchantment. Art-by-citadel won’t work. It’s in league with brainstorming and Groupthink and government-by-committee. Movements, Generations, Subcultures—these are the strewn carcasses of sterile imaginations, conjured up to explain lamely the why and how of genius.

Leonard is more or less new to me; while he was alive (he died in 2008), I preferred to read music or film criticism. I’m still reading, but I’ve noticed two terms show up a few times in the essays collected in the book. One is “Author-God,” which is meant to be mildly critical of the magisterial novelist who’s a lot artful and a little disengaged with the wider world. (John Updike would be the exemplar of that.) The other is “unbuttoned,” a word he uses to praise a writer who’s done plenty of hard thinking but projects it casually. (Think Pynchon.) Leonard’s own prose echoes what he praised and criticized in others’ writing. It’s loose, often nut-graf-less, thick with lists of ideas, writers, politicians, philosophers, a millennium’s worth of cultural detritus, all rattling by like boxcars—Leonard makes you want to write like him, something few critics do—smart but always presented in plain speech. He’ll never convince me to read Harlot’s Ghost, but he makes you want to spend time with every writer he discusses, a rarer feat for a critic than it ought to be.

The World Is Already Filled to Bursting

Lawrence Weschler on why he doesn’t write fiction:

[T]he part of my sensibility which I demonstrate in nonfiction makes fiction an impossible mode for me. That’s because for me the world is already filled to bursting with interconnections, interrelationships, consequences, and consequences of consequences. The world as it is is overdetermined: the web of all those interrelationships is dense to the point of saturation. That’s what my reporting becomes about: taking any single knot and worrying out the threads, tracing the interconnections, following the mesh through into the wider, outlying mesh, establishing the proper analogies, ferreting out the false strands. If I were somehow to be forced to write a fiction about, say, a make-believe Caribbean island, I wouldn’t know where to put it, because the Caribbean as it is is already full––-there’s no room in it for any fictional islands. Dropping one in there would provoke a tidal wave, and all other places would be swept away.

(That’s from the preface—or, rather, the “In Lieu of a Preface”—to his 2005 collection, Vermeer in Bosnia.)

An Interesting Neutrality

In the Wall Street Journal, Lee Sandlin discusses two hard-boiled crime authors whose work has recently been anthologized, Paul Cain and David Goodis. I’m pretty familiar with Goodis, but Cain (no relation to James M.) is new to me. Sandlin assures me I haven’t missed much—Cain was tasked with writing Dashiell Hammett-esque stories for Black Mask in the 30s after Hammett himself struck out for Hollywood, and falls short in comparison. Indeed, the best part of the review is a bit on what made Hammett’s prose work so well. Hammett, Sandlin writes, had a

freakish knack for making neutrality interesting. Every object in a Hammett novel registers with unnerving clarity, even when it doesn’t appear to signify anything at all—as in this aria to an office desk:

Ragged gray flakes of cigarette-ash dotted the yellow top of the desk and the green blotter and the papers that were there. A buff-curtained window, eight or ten inches open, let in from the court a current of air faintly scented with ammonia. The ashes on the desk twitched and crawled in the current.

It’s as radiant as an Edward Hopper painting, and as eerie. It means nothing in particular, and yet it seems to hold within it the silence of the entire American landscape. Hammett’s deadpan brutality inspired generations of truculent, thuggish, bullying private eyes; because of his influence, the average hard-boiled novel is like the world’s surliest Internet comment thread. But his more enduring legacy is in the way he was able to infuse the flatness of the American vernacular with this strange visionary cool.

Loved and Outgrew, Hated and Admired Later

Helen DeWitt, at a reporter’s prompting, lists some of the books she most likes to return to:

Rereading is important for writers because people in the publishing industry constantly give advice couched in terms of helping the reader.   If you are not only a reader, or even a rereader, but a rerererererererererereader, you know this is complete bollocks. “The” reader does not exist.  The 9-year-old who read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe 50 times in a year is genetically identical to the 54-year-old who has read Invisible Cities more times than she can count (if certainly not 50).  The 16-year-old who read Pride and Prejudice as historical romance (I know Austen was forbidden, but really) is genetically identical to the 54-year-old who reads it for its social analysis, its savagery.  (The 16-year-old would have had no interest in Goffman or Bourdieu; the 54-year-old sees Austen as their intellectual cousin.)  As a rereader you can’t be an amnesiac: you KNOW there were books you loved and outgrew, books you hated first time, admired 20 years later.


I don’t get to return to books as much as I’d like, but one of the most enjoyable reading experiences I had last year was revisiting Edward P. Jones’ two short story collections, this time reading them in parallel since the stories “talk” to each other. (That is, the first story in Lost in the City shares characters with the first story in All Aunt Hagar’s Children, and so forth.) I recall enjoying Wendy Lesser‘s book on the subject, Nothing Remains the Same, though it’s been a decade since I’ve read it and I owe it another visit.

Everybody’s Doing It

The Los Angeles Review of Books has a lengthy piece on self-published authors and how difficult it can be for them to get review attention. I’m quoted in it a couple of times, repeating what’s been a stock line for me for a while: “[R]eading a book is time-consuming, and while I’ll try pretty much anything, I want evidence that more than one person was excited enough about a book to see it into print before I invest that time.” I probably should put that on the “For Authors and Publicists” page that makes some self-published writers so unhappy. Perhaps then I’ll receive fewer emails like the one that said self-published authors were being treated as if they were asked to wear a yellow star on their jackets. Or maybe I’ll receive more. Regardless, I recommend the article.

Sentence Form

Since last fall Tin House‘s blog has been running a recurring series called “The Art of the Sentence,” in which various writers celebrate a particular line they admire in a work of fiction. The choices and commentary are hit and miss, but the concept is a good one—it makes me want to dust off the “One Paragraph” series I ran here for a little while. I do like Susan Scarf Merrell‘s riff on three of her favorite sentences, particularly one from William Faulkner‘s Light in August:

“Memory believes before knowing remembers.”

It’s from Faulkner’s Light in August, and if I live to be 100, I will still not understand it. Five words strung together. I’ve been thinking about them for two decades, and every time I believe I’ve figured them out, they shift in meaning. For me, this is the best, most mysterious, most marvelous sentence I’ve yet read.

Getting Away With It

Joseph O’Neill considers Philip Roth‘s late novels in the Atlantic (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain; have been collected in a new volume from the Library of America):

Much of the action in these novels takes the form of the claims and counterclaims and rationalizations and cross-examinations and mea culpas and shame-on-yous pronounced by the disputants or bystanders. Consequently, the characters deliver long, brilliantly penetrating monologues that contradict the verbal and psychological realism with which their worlds are otherwise presented. How does Roth get away with it? You could say that the problem doesn’t even arise in the Zuckerman books—after all, if Nathan Zuckerman in his writing takes liberties with reported speech, that is a matter for him, not Philip Roth, to answer for. (Clever author, to eat his cake and have it too.) You could also defend the inconsistency pragmatically: the characters’ implausible oral powers of advocacy are a price you happily pay for the writing’s overall true-to-lifeness.

Aside from some mild chiding of Deception, O’Neill’s essay is pretty much hagiography, forgiving him for a multitude of alleged shortcomings—in this case the thin line between his autobiography and his fiction. (Fine by me. I believe Roth’s revival started not with Sabbath’s Theater but earlier, with Operation Shylock.)