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.

Getting Uneven

Raymond Carver‘s final published story, “Errand,” is arguably his most unusual work—it’s a piece of historical fiction about the death of Anton Chekhov, and historical fiction wasn’t Carver’s forte. (According to Carol Sklenicka‘s 2009 Carver biography, the piece was a relatively difficult edit at the New Yorker because it had to be vetted by the magazine’s fact-checking department.) No doubt the story bothered a few critics—it’s not the story I think of when I think about what made Carver great—but it did help bolster his reputation after his death. As one British reviewer put it after reading the story, Carver was the “Chekhov of Middle America.”

I thought about the strangeness of “Errand” reading John Matthew Fox‘s complaint about how short-story collections are too often dismissed as “uneven,” and Lincoln Michel‘s follow-up post on the subject in the Faster Times. For Fox, judging a story collection on whether they’re “uneven” or not “encourages a form-based, limited type of ‘unity’ to collections, and discourage[s] a thematic or innovative type of unity.” For Michel, the “uneven” critique leads to too-hasty dismissals of any story in a collection that appears to be an outlier—for instance, the title story of Wells Tower‘s 2009 collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, a story about Vikings in a book otherwise set in the present day.

Michel may be protesting a bit too much: Whatever accusations of “uneveness” Tower’s book may have received, it hasn’t done the author’s reputation any apparent harm. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned received much more praise and attention last year than, say, Ha Jin‘s A Good Fall, a very good collection of stories exclusively set in the Chinese enclave of Flushing, Queens. If a story about Vikings shows the breadth of your talent and ambition, Fox may be right to suggest that critics avoid the word “uneven,” at least to the extent they confuse it with the word “diverse.”

Because consistency (or “evenness”) is a foolish thing to hope for in story collections, in the same way it’s foolish to expect it out of record albums or TV shows. (Even New Day Rising has “How to Skin a Cat” on it; even The Wire had a fifth season.) Where a novelist generally sustains one narrative voice, one tone, and one plot over the course of a book, a story writer might work with five, ten, twelve. So part of the pleasure of story collections are the left turns, the surprises, the experiments, even the failed ones. Ben Fountain‘s stellar 2006 collection, Brief Encounters With Che Guevara, closes with “Fantasy for Eleven Fingers,” a story about a young concert pianist in the late 19th Century, a place and time distinct from the contemporary Third World of Fountain’s other stories. The story is fine on its own, but it’s also improved in its context—the themes of alienation and isolation that characterize the preceding stories deepen “Fantasy,” or at least show how deeply those feelings run regardless of place and time. Something similar happens with “Jonas,” a story tucked in the middle of Belle Boggs‘ debut story collection, Mattaponi Queen; it’s a story about woman’s efforts to understand her husband’s decision to get a sex-change operation, placed amid stories that address more commonplace domestic concerns like aging, addiction, and escape. But by placing “Jonas” where it is in the book, Boggs tacitly argues that the story’s themes are of a piece with its companions.

Both of those stories signify unevenness, but it’s unevenness as a virtue. It’s certainly an asset in the best collection of stories I’ve read so far this year, Stephen O’Connor‘s forthcoming Here Comes Another Lesson. Thematically and tonally, it’s a mess: A story about a minotaur and a video-game-obsessed girl bumps against a story about an Iraq War vet’s first difficult day home, both of which are placed alongside a series of seriocomic tales about a “professor of atheism” arrived in (perhaps) heaven. O’Connor can be satirical, but not in the kind of consistently arch way that marks, say, a George Saunders collection. O’Connor is simply acrobatically capable of finding the style appropriate for each story—and his fanciest trick is the closing “Aunt Jules,” an expansive story about two sisters where the conflict and style are utterly familiar and conventional, but no less successful for that. It’s his “Errand,” unusual even in a set of stories that’s defined by the unusual, but what critic would hold that against him?

Links: The Secret History

At Jewish Ideas Daily, D.G. Myers—who from where I sit sets the standard for rigorous, thoughtful, and provocative litblogging—is in the midst of an ambitious study of landmarks in American Jewish literature, with a focus on lesser-known works. His second essay in the series looks at Ezra Brudno‘s 1904 novel, The Fugitive.

Thomas Doherty‘s excellent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Death of Film Criticism,” is worth reading on its own terms, but there are plenty of obvious parallels to be drawn from it book criticism and arts journalism in general. If there’s anything to be learned, it’s that plugging your ears and pretending the Internet doesn’t exist won’t help. Plenty of critics embrace it, of course, and a few just might make a buck off it.

Mary Gaitskill wasn’t a fan of the cover of her 1997 story collection, Because They Wanted To, which featured a large screw. “I threw a fit, I tried to get them not to do it, but they gave me even worse covers—pictures of cannibalistic-looking women stripping the clothes off of a screaming man, or a girl in a wet dress leaning over with her hands on her butt.” The paperback cover seems reasonable enough.

Some literary passings get more attention, but few have inspired the range of thoughtful and affecting remembrances the way Barry Hannah‘s death has. A.N. Deverspiece evokes the shock of learning about his death. HTMLGiant gathers a few thoughts from admirers. Justin Taylor recalls Hannah’s influence. Nathan Deuel offers a contrary view. Wells Tower‘s 2008 profile includes the Hannah story “Water Liars.”

Tower, by the way, didn’t wind up winning the Story Prize this week. But Daniyal Mueenuddin‘s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders was a fine choice.

Lionel Shriver
talks with the Wall Street Journal about her new novel, So Much for That: “I don’t assume any sentence is good just because I wrote it.”

An American in Tangier, a 1993 documentary on Paul Bowles, is available on the incomparable cultural archive UbuWeb.

A guide to the J.D. Salinger letters now on display at the Morgan Library & Museum.

Paul Theroux isn’t impressed with John Edwards‘ charitable efforts in Haiti.

Lots of folks get suckered into Ayn Rand‘s philosophy as teenagers. Count George Saunders among them.

Missouri legislators are planning to rename a stretch of highway in Saint Louis after Mark Twain, having decided that Mark McGwire doesn’t deserve the honor. A radio station doesn’t think Twain deserves it either, so a petition is making the rounds. Hall of Fame Cardinals shortstop Ozzie Smith seems to be getting most of the votes, though I’d feel skittish driving on a highway named after somebody known for backflips.

“Oversized Sweaters and Stirrup Pants”

Books fade and the Internet takes over everything, but the urge for college students to launch a literary magazine never dies: Three seniors at Brown University have launched an online journal called Wag’s Revue. In an interview with the Brown Daily Herald, cofounder Will Litton argues that there’s room for an online publication that puts some restrictions on length and quality of content. “When there’s unlimited space to print whatever, you can blog everyday and end up with a crockpot of really mediocre writing,” Litton says. “So much is getting published, there’s no journal with stringent editorial controls.”

Fair enough, though as much as the handsome presentation of the magazine online suggests that those controls are in place, the 28-page essay on the “hipster/douchebag dialectic” is going to have to wait for another day. Instead I gravitated toward the interview with Wells Tower, having just read his excellent short story “Retreat. In the interview, he discusses the tangled history of that particular story, hitting it big in the Paris Review before struggling back up as a reporter. And amusingly, he discusses one of the crummy jobs he was forced to take along the way:

I had a data entry gig, which was so unbelievably dehumanizing. I just had huge stacks of invoices with obscure numbers that corresponded to obscure electronics parts. Even if they’d describe the electronics parts with actual language instead of numbers, I still would have had no idea what I was keying into the computer. It was me and my boss, who was this kind of satanic woman with oversized sweaters and stirrup pants. She was just constantly cracking the whip on me. I could never enter enough invoices to make her happy. It was terrible.

Links: Malaise Speech

Today is John Steinbeck‘s birthday. In his honor, the National Steinbeck Center is hosting events through the weekend; in related news, the entire country is hosting a massive Great Depression for the next five years or so.

Perhaps a commemorative Mark Twain coin would help?

Minnesota author Bill Holm, called the “polar bear of American literature,” has died. He was 65.

Those Robert Coover appearances at the University of Pennsylvania I mentioned earlier this week are now available online on video and MP3.

Russell Banks says Martin Scorsese‘s film adaptation of his novel The Darling is still moving along.

A healthy selection of works by Wells Tower, including an excerpt from his new collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, are online.

The viability of Tao Lin‘s plan to finance his writing by selling shares in his next novel is being disputed in the comments of yesterday’s post. Bright minds who understand finance and publishing better than I do are encouraged to weigh in. (Update: I got played on this. Maybe. Probably. Anyhow, lesson learned.)

Last call: Tomorrow I’ll be at an all-day seminar on fiction writing at George Mason University, put together by American Independent Writers. If you’ll be there, please say hi.