On Clarion West

I harbor only three major goals. I want to contribute something to emancipatory social theory; I want to excel in literary journalism; and I want to write and publish novels. The last goal figures largest to me, though I rarely talk about it, because it’s also the most difficult, and it’s the arena in which I’ve had the least visible success. But earlier this month I was accepted to attend Clarion West Writer’s Workshop, and I’m finally allowed to talk about it. (There was a reasonable embargo on rooftop shouting until they formally announced their 2017 class.)

Clarion West probably doesn’t mean very much to you if you only read this blog because you like my book reviewing elsewhere or the essays I write here, or if you know me through academic philosophy or because we chat about books on twitter. But I’m writing about it anyway, because it’s the most exciting thing to have happened to me in several years, and because it marks the biggest break yet for my deepest ambition.

What is Clarion West?

Each year 18 aspiring writers go to Seattle (for Clarion West) or San Diego (for Clarion) for six weeks. Each week a different author prominent in speculative fiction comes in as a teacher, presiding over daily story workshopping, meeting one-on-one with the students, and hanging out with the whole group. There are lots of related events and opportunities during the six weeks, but the core of the workshop is reading and critiquing each other’s stories, meeting with the writer-teachers, and writing original stories of your own. The story workshopping resembles what most MFA programs do, but Clarion West is not an MFA program and differs from one in its concentrated and demanding six-week schedule, the fact that many of the teachers are not primarily creative writing teachers but professional writers, and, of course, the focus on speculative fiction.  

Many of my favorite speculative fiction writers attended one or the other of the Clarions: Kim Stanley Robinson, Octavia Butler, Kelly Link, Cory Doctorow, Ted Chiang, Jeff VanderMeer, Daniel Abraham, Ann Leckie, Nisi Shawl. Many of them describe the experience as life-changing, and have returned to Clarion as teachers. On the other hand, lots of other people have attended Clarion and subsequently failed to become professional novelists, or to publish very many stories, or even to persist in writing at all. But Clarion can be an opportunity and a distinction if you make the most of it.

In my case, Clarion West has already benefited me tremendously. While I have a certain dogged faith in myself as a writer in general, as a fiction writer things haven’t been terribly encouraging. I’ve been writing fiction for years, but not really submitting my stuff in hopes of publication, because the taste gap was simply too large. Only a few months ago did I really begin writing things that I wouldn’t be ashamed to publish. I think I’m ready to appear on the public stage as a storyteller, and it’s good timing because I’m about to finish my PhD in philosophy. But I haven’t published a story yet (we won’t count “The Entomology of Village Life,” which was written for a class in college and picked up for a textbook) and have no real way to gauge whether my feeling of readiness is a private delusion or an accurate assessment of my work. Sure, I swept the student writing awards at my tiny midwestern college for three straight years, but that felt, even at the time, like a very small pond. Since then I’ve just been quietly laboring away, gathering stories and learning how to tell them. But as I’ve said on this very blog, the best writing emerges from objective rhetorical stimuli. The trouble with creative writing is that such stimuli are hard to come by at first. Getting accepted to Clarion West is, therefore, a benediction, a permission, and an enormous, breath-taking objective rhetorical stimulus.

*

I’m not a fan of slick samey stories, and so I listen with a certain amount of sympathy to complaints that MFA programs are damaging literature. I’ve never considered getting an MFA and in general think a writer would do best to approach their career slantwise, by learning about things other than writing so they have something to write about, and learning to write by just writing. To each their own, of course, and things work differently for different people, and some writers were perhaps made by their MFA programs. But when I determined to become a novelist, way back in my teens, slantwise is how I decided to approach it, why I’ve studied philosophy and ground away in private at my writing.

So why did I even apply to Clarion West?

Well, in the last three years my attitude to feedback about writing was transformed by the tremendous experience of working for Open Letters Monthly. The smart, no-punch-pulling editors over there, and their practice of giving two sets of comments on every piece — and working with virtually any half-competent reviewer willing to endure the fire and revise their work up — taught me more, with ruthless efficiency, than years of private practice and all my college courses combined. I went from someone incapable of genuinely readable prose, to, well, someone pretty damn readable, if I do say so myself. That’s how you learn: by repeatedly attempting something, and adjusting according to feedback. You can make even better use of the experience if you reflect on, and generalize as principles, the feedback you get. OLM taught me that my essays needed more thematic unity, fewer ideas more fully developed, better narrative hooks; that I was addicted to pretentious diction, em-dash asides, over-complicated sentence structure; that simple expression of things I know is better than fancy misdirection; and lots of other stuff. After a while I was invited to join OLM as an editor myself, and the learning process sped up even more. The sacredness of your precious tics melts away when you find how much you hate them in others’ writing. When I finally retired as an editor from OL at the end of 2016, I was a very different writer.

So I have a great deal of respect for the process of improving through critical feedback, when everybody involved is oriented to a practical goal. There is such a thing as professionalism in writing; it’s not a bad thing or necessarily compromised by commercialism; it’s just taking the work seriously. Workshopping stories is an attempt to secure such feedback, and what makes Clarion West stand out is its highly professional orientation. It’s taught by people who have made fiction their lives and work. It’s attended by people who want to do so. And by all accounts it’s tremendously practical. I’m excited about it because I think it will be the equivalent of OLM but for my fiction. And the objective rhetorical stimulus won’t end when the six weeks are up: from what I hear, most Clarionites remain in close contact long after their summer of study. Could I use a 17-person permanent writing group, carefully selected for me through a story writing contest? Hell, yes.

*

The Clarion journal or memoir is a minor genre of its own. It ranges from published books like Kate Wilhelm’s The Storyteller, to a multitude of blog epics. As a fanatic for minor literatures of all kinds, naturally I’ll want to contribute to this genre. My intention, therefore, is to record the Clarion West experience while it’s happening, in one blog post a week during the course of the workshop from late June through July.

Until that odyssey begins, this blog will return to its regularly programmed ruminations. Perhaps a bit fewer, actually, as I now absolutely have to finish my dissertation in the next two months.

 

On the Forced and the Glib

I know I’m an incompetent blogger. I don’t post anything for weeks, and then I dump multiple three thousand word essays on you in the space of a few days. I redesign this website more often than I write for it. I resolve to blog about every book I read, then promptly fall silent for a month. I invite you to vote about what I should write, then ignore your decision. Moreover, a distressing drama plays itself out inside me when I do manage to post something. Immediately afterward I castigate myself that what I posted was slight or inelegantly written, or I wish I’d saved up the idea and pitched it somewhere else.

Why have I persevered? Why not delete this blog, and turn the website into a mere list of my publications in other venues, a list that the discipline of not blogging might cause to grow faster?

I really can’t answer that question. All I know is that if I try to stop blogging I regret it until I start again. A blog, its astounding potential audience, its editorial and aesthetic autonomy: what writer could possibly resist that siren call? Well, obviously plenty do resist. But I can’t help suspecting they’re either unaware, incompetent with computers, or, deep down, unwriterly. A blog is just too good an opportunity to pass up.

But is an opportunity ill-used better than an opportunity foregone? What am I even doing here?

I believe good writing is called forth rather than pushed out. I see this in my students, whose prose varies in quality according to the rhetorical context my assignment has created for them, and I see it in myself, because I write best when I have to submit my work to an editor, even though my editors often find almost nothing outside a few typos to improve upon. It’s all mental. The higher the quality I perceive to be demanded of me, the more I am capable of. Good writing emerges in response to objective rhetorical stimuli.

But this blog calls forth nothing, and I’m beginning to wonder if that isn’t why I am perpetually dissatisfied with what I post. All the writers who excel in this medium have an editorial vision, a project, a method, which serves the function of an objective rhetorical stimulus: their very consistency calls forth good writing. Inconsistent, wavering, undetermined, and self-doubting, perhaps I’m not cut out to blog at all?

It is at this point in my reflections that the optimism of my inconsistency usually asserts itself. The reasonable thing to do would be to give up. But instead, I propose a new and even more grandiose and even more quickly abandoned project or series or method.

*

Badly desiring to write is a futile impulse if conceived in a vacuum. But precisely this empty wish has structured my endeavors since childhood. Sublunary goals — causes, theses, themes — present themselves and exert a temporary gravitational force on my writing, but I press on with or without an orbit.

For a long time the aimless inexorability of my drive to write filled me with dread. There is something machinelike about it, and to see yourself as a machine has the horror of death without the solace of oblivion. So I fooled myself into believing that my will to literature was really a will to something else: when I was religious, I thought it was perhaps a will to theology and that fascinating genre, the sermon; when I first entered grad school, I thought perhaps it was a will to philosophy, to the phenomenological description and the dialectic critique; and when I got woke, or, more accurately, accepted the moral necessity of socialism and the ubiquity of the struggle for liberation, I thought perhaps it was a will to politics, to the tractate, the op-ed, and journalism. All wrong, though each phase left a mark.

Earlier I proposed that good writing is called forth rather than pushed out. I understand this phrase through an image. Picture the writer as a cave. In his gloomy depths sleeps the capacity to write well. The cave cannot wake the creature sleeping inside it. But if a likely quarry should pass the mouth of the cave, the creature within it snaps to wakefulness, leaps to the chase, and emerges with red eyes and frothing jaws. Because it can only be called forth, good writing actually lies in wait. Being a cave, the writer — yes, my metaphor is about to break down — can only keep his cave mouth open on clearings where prey are likely to pass. Reading, note-taking on life and books, meditative silence, long walks, watchful conversations with interesting people, attentiveness to one’s own dreams and gusts of feeling: these are the passive fundament of good writing.

And thus the will to literature is of necessity aimless. Of course there’s always a next thing to write about, but raising your head to peer beyond that next thing, you will see only more writing. This claim is not meant to devalue other reasons one might write, the myriad reasons most people write. Literature has the weakest of claims to be an ultimate value. Really, you shouldn’t choose it. But some of us, helplessly, have been chosen by it.

*

All this language of passivity might obscure an equally important feature of the act of good writing: its difficulty. Don’t think for a moment that all my language of “calling forth” and “lying in wait” is an endorsement of the frivolous idolatry that goes by the name of “inspiration,” or its false prophet “genius.” Good writers don’t sit waiting for a lightning bolt.

Good writing is difficult not just because it must be called forth, but because, in the heat of composition, you can easily mistake a pushing out for a calling forth. I call this the danger of “auto-complete”: the tendency of a sentence to finish itself, stupidly; of phrases to offer themselves, clichés; of thinking to arrive at typical conclusions, group-think. The next word always wants to auto-complete, not just on your phone but in your mind and on the page.

Auto-complete is inimical to good writing. It produces what Mario Vargas Llosa calls “dead language.”

To avoid auto-complete, good writing must be a constant oscillation between unselfconscious momentum and self-examination. You must look beyond your immediate impulse in order to avoid what’s easy, hackneyed, unexaminedly ideological, and what’s merely smooth and pleasant to the inner ear.

But passing from inarticulacy and illiteracy to competence is already an immensely difficult journey. Many people never get there. And the further demands that literature makes — for instance, that one should avoid auto-complete — can seem counter-productive, elitist, even reactionary from the perspective of someone who has not been given their human birthright, the resources of time and training that lead to real literacy. Moreover, to many who have received this birthright, literature’s condemnation of auto-complete is an offense, an indictment, an intolerable imposition: isn’t their achievement enough, their lucidity and ease of expression?

In college I had a friend who thought he was a very good writer because he wrote purposefully with the maximum number of cliches. He rooted out original expressions the way I try to root out unoriginal. He told me this was the only way to ensure readers easily understood everything he wrote.

But there’s a small, crucial difference between smoothly exchanging words and communicating, between easy writing and literature, between the glib and the good.

*

The problem of blogging, for me, is that it encourages me to write in a way that is both forced and glib. I want to reboot this blog, but not in the way I’ve done so many times before, by proposing some rigid new program and eventually trailing off in shame and self-disgust.

I read Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work recently, a book about the routines of interesting people. It inspired me to tinker with my own routines. I reasoned that I should embrace the freedom afforded by the dissertation-writing stage of graduate school to experiment with myself. So last week, after years attempting to become an early riser, I gave in to my nocturnal proclivities.

Minerva’s owl is my spirit animal. I become most naturally alert after 9pm. So I now use 9pm-3am as my working hours, sleeping in for as long as I need to (no alarms) each morning, which often keeps me slugabed as late as 10am, and after I wake I allow myself to read or socialize or take the long walks I favor, just as I please, until the night and my working hours roll around again. In a mere week’s experiment with this schedule, I’ve discovered myself reading and writing almost twice as much as before. My “productivity” (hateful word) is enormously increased.

This alteration in my schedule, with its combination of giving in and trying harder, corresponds to alterations in other fundamental habits I’ve made over the last year. For instance, I’ve changed how I take notes. Once I would carefully determine in advance for each book what I wanted from it and how I would extract that information. Now I read freely and mark whatever strikes me as interesting or makes me feel something. The result is better than when forethought guide my marginalia, presumably because my unconscious knows just as well as my consciousness what I’ll want to remember and to use from a book. When I’ve finished, I go back over the passages I’ve marked to see if those marks indicate facts to summarize, passages to add to my commonplace book, leads to other books, or problems to work out. Since commencing this new anti-method, I’ve both enjoyed the act of reading more completely, and taken better notes. How does all this correspond to working from nine in the evening to three in the morning? Because both are ways of adapting my external goals to my internal rhythms, of moving decisively in a specific direction without going against my own grain.

I wrote the essay “on apophatic criticism” early this week as a consequence of the new schedule. I woke up around 9:30am and felt like working through some thoughts I had about criticism, Ben Lerner, Steve Mitchelmore, theology, and atheism. Those thoughts, their connection, and the form they took, were a byproduct of that early morning mood. I don’t know how the essay struck you, but to me it stood out among the other things I’ve posted on this blog for a very simple reason: I don’t feel ashamed of it. It was called forth (rather than pushed out) because I composed it simply by reflecting on the ideas foremost in my thoughts on a few consecutive mornings, and it wasn’t glib because I wrote it with no preordained deadline or intended form, in short self-contained sections.

What I propose to do from now on is to devote a portion of each morning to writing this way. I will take as many days as I need to compose each post, teasing out the various dimensions of whatever thought captured my attention on the first day. I’ll write with no urgency, but I’ll write every morning with my coffee. I won’t set preliminary restrictions on subject matter, as I’ve done in the past, though it’s a fair bet that books will remain central. The only thing I can promise in advance is that I will never publish something here again that I feel to be forced or glib; everything I do publish, however unpleasant or controversial or odd or stupid, will be ripened by reflection, earnest in expression, and written with care.

Wish me luck.

On Yoshida Kenkō

In the 14th century, a Buddhist monk and occasional poet called Yoshida Kenkō found himself bored. So he sat down cross-legged in front of his scroll desk, and picked up his brush. He began to write what would become one of the classics of Japanese literature. The Tsurezuregusa is a collection of more or less random notes. Usually, it’s translated as Essays in Idleness or The Harvest of Leisure. It contains aesthetic opinions, anecdotes about talking vegetables, appropriately Buddhist moralising, gossip, strong opinions about flowers, and the strange advice not to sniff antlers lest micro-organisms crawl up your nostrils and eat your brain. Given my helpless obsession with dialectical tension, I found it interesting that this bricolage compiled at leisure insists on the importance of not wasting a second. That’s right: the idle monk felt a lot of urgency.

“It does not matter how young or how strong you may be, the hour of death comes sooner than you expect,” Kenkō writes, “It is an extraordinary miracle that you should have escaped to this day; do you suppose you have even the briefest respite in which to relax?”

Not only was Kenkō aware of mortality, but he drew the conclusion from it that wasting time — in order, say, to think about useless things — was wrong:

Much of our time during any day is wasted in eating and drinking, at stool, in sleeping, talking, and walking. To engage in useless activities, to talk about useless things, and to think about useless things during the brief moments of free time left us is not only to waste this time, but to blot out days that extend into months and eventually into a whole lifetime. This is most foolish of all.

Was he unaware of the irony? Was he, like so many, a hypocrite, loudly decrying in others what he did himself on a daily basis? At first that seemed the obvious conclusion. But at first is rarely at best. On reflection I realized this contradiction belonged to my thinking alone, not to Kenkō.

Why should idleness be incompatible with urgency? I think the appearance of incompatibility is a result of that jumble of maxims known as the work ethic. The work ethic: the idea that unproductive time is wasted time; that the pain of labor is virtuous; and, most pernicious of all, that one deserves one’s livelihood only in exchange for the pain of labor. Even those of us ideologically opposed to allowing our whole consciousness to be hijacked by cost-benefit analysis have about as much chance of avoiding it as a kindergarten teacher has of avoiding the flu. So when we hear things like, “hey, you know you’re gonna die, right?” We think: “No shit. I better work harder.” As if, you know, we’d be letting down the investors in our corp(se), should we fail to turn some existential profit before liquidating our assets.

Whereas Kenkō, I believe, drew precisely the opposite conclusion from his vivid sense of mortality. Here’s another thing he wrote:

If you wish something to go to someone after you are dead, you should give it to him while you are still alive. Some things are probably indispensable to daily life, but as for the rest, it is best not to own anything at all.

To oppose property-ownership because of death is to value the present uniquely. (Cf. “What’s Immoral About the Immoralist?”) To be anti-ownership because of a lively sense of your own mortality is to recognize that an infinitely projected claim from within the finite horizon of a mortal life is the recipe for wasting that life, not using it well.

The present, despite its constant availability, eludes us most of the time. We spend the majority of conscious life elsewhere: in memory or imagination, daydreaming or planning. What if these preoccupations of the mind are an insult to the fact of mortality? How else to live?

Perhaps Kenkō answers that question in the form of the Tsurezuregusa itself. It belongs to a Japanese genre known as Zuihitsu. The word derives from an expression meaning “follow the brush.” The first of the notes in the book goes like this:

What a strange, demented feeling it gives me when I realize I have spent whole days before this inkstone, with nothing better to do, jotting down at random whatever nonsensical thoughts have entered my head.

We are to imagine him sitting alone, thinking through the brush. No, “thinking” sounds too aggressive and goal-oriented. Musing, then. I’m tempted to say meditating because Kenkō was, after all, a monk. But let’s be real. As monks go, he wasn’t particularly ascetic. He lived in the capital city and collected dinner-party anecdotes like a clerical Henry James. “A man’s character,” he wrote, “as a rule, may be known from the place where he lives.” So we’ll stick with “musing.”

He didn’t take the result of his work very seriously. How else to explain passages like this:

If I fail to say what lies on my mind it gives me a feeling of flatulence; I shall therefore give my brush free rein. Mine is a foolish diversion, but these pages are meant to be torn up, and no one is likely to see them.

Why would a man so keenly aware of his own mortality that he became a monk, that he renounced possessions and family ties, choose to sit idly, writing notes that he meant to destroy? The flatulence comment is vivid and illuminating. For Kenkō, sitting down to write was not to assay a “work,” but to extrude thoughts as easily as he might break wind.

Perhaps the aimlessness of zuihitsu is the literary application of the ethic of presence? Of course its apparent aimlessness reveals deeper seams of consistency. Recurring subjects appear, correspondences, symmetries, and felicities of arrangement. They’ve sparked a lively debate in the reception history of the Tsurezuregusa about whether Kenkō himself or an editor arranged it. But even if the Tsurezuregusa has proven to be a valuable book for subsequent readers, a fruitful object for commentators, that doesn’t change the fact that its composition was an act of presence. This act of presence produced meaning as a by-product.

Writing a book to store your thoughts and impressions to be simulated by other and future minds attracts me as a form of immortality. But like other pseudo-immortalities (procreation, accumulating family property), it depends on devaluing the present. (This is perhaps why many writers, like Kafka, have worried that to write was to cut oneself off from life.) Kenkō’s Tsurezuregusa — and zuihitsu in general — is an interesting experiment in writing, not to supersede one’s own mortality, but to enjoy one’s life in the present.


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A Glossary of Literary-Critical Cliches

The following glossary explains the true and secret functions and unintended revelations of certain common cliches used by reviewers when they are describing books. It is lovingly compiled, since I am in fact a reviewer. I am no doubt guilty of most of these transgressions at one time or another. But it is seriously intended as a relevant tic-list. Every single one of these abominations could be avoided, and a hundred others besides, if we reviewers mustered the strength of purpose to avoid lazy evaluative abstractions. Also, I frequently get carried away in my analysis of unintended revelations, so don’t take anything too seriously.


Acclaimed
– apparent meaning: much praised.
– lazy function: to excuse the reviewer from finding any independent reasons why this author should be more important to you than an equivalent weight of white raisins.
– unintended revelation: The reviewer read a bunch of other reviews of the book first, to get some ideas for their own review, and discovered most of the others were positive; alternatively, the reviewer considers this author too popular to poke with a critical stick.

Characters Come To Life
– apparent meaning: you thought this book was fiction, but it’s actually a necromantic spell.
– lazy function: to imply that a book’s characters are more than under-written stereotypes, but without showing or explaining why this is the case.
– unintended revelation: The reviewer fell asleep while reading the book and dreamed they were being chased by one or more of the characters. And, a fortiori: this reviewer confuses their emotional reaction to a story with its more objective qualities.

Cookie-cutter
– apparent meaning: the characters / books / sentences of the author under review, like your mamma’s gingerbread men, have identical formal dimensions.
– lazy function: to imply that the book under review adhered to genre stereotypes or slavishly imitated another story, but without just showing that by examples.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer reads far too much of this genre / the reviewer has been required to read far too much of this author, and resents it.

Epic
– apparent meaning: this book belongs to the tradition inaugurated by Homer’s Iliad.
– lazy function: to indicate that the book is very long.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer did not finish reading this book.

Hack
– apparent meaning: a writer of copious, unoriginal, uninspiring, but adequate words.
– lazy function: to indicate dissatisfaction with an author’s approach to the book under review, without going to the trouble of establishing where the reviewer can even imagine having done better.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer respects the author’s character but considers them deficient in intellect, taste, or time; also, use of this word often connotes a wary respect based on self-recognition.

Haunting
– apparent meaning: a book that sticks with you in a rather distressing way, much like a ghost, even after its physical presence has gone away.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer (and you too, dear reader) is such a sensitive individual that strong aesthetic experiences painfully color their experience of everyday life.
– unintended revelation: The reviewer was overcome by a horrifying personal memory as they read, possibly as a result of the old guacamole they were eating to give them strength to finish, and they have actually already forgotten the book’s plot (but the after-effects of the guacamole continue, and they’re pretty sure they’re going to have nightmares tonight).

Inimitable
– apparent meaning: Impossible to imitate.
– lazy function: to indicate stylistic distinctiveness, deployed to avoid the hard work of showing and accurately describing what is distinctive about the style in question.
– unintended revelation: The writer under review has such recognizable patterns and mannerisms that they are precisely imitable. They are so imitable, in fact, that you would actually beclown yourself by imitating them. So the word reveals the opposite of what it means, confusing description and prescription.

Laconic
– apparent meaning: short.
– lazy function: to imply the reviewer appreciates (and perhaps aspires to) a certain elegant asceticism.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer was so grateful for how short the book was, he chose to overlook how much it failed to persuade / convince / entertain and instead praised it for its abortive qualities.

Lapidary
– apparent meaning: having the precision of an engraving or inscription on a monument.
– lazy function: impressive-sounding word for prose the reviewer more or less liked without being able to put a finger on why: a word the reader is likely to nod knowingly about without actually understanding.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer is a complete philistine when it comes to the plastic arts.

Lavish
– apparent meaning: to indicate that a book has nice paper, lots of pictures, a well-made binding, and good cover art.
– lazy function: to tactfully intimate this book is expensive as fuck.
– unintended revelation: The reviewer would never have got hold of this book but for the fact that review copies are free; moreover, he will soon make a killing by auctioning it off on Amazon; moreover, he is talking about what it looks like to avoid the fact that the book is uninteresting and pointless in every other way.

Magisterial
– apparent meaning: the author or book under review has great authority.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer has the erudition to distinguish truly original or comprehensively evenhanded scholarship on the book’s topic from all the other shit that’s written about it.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer was impressed by the sheer length of the book, the fact that it was written by somebody famous for being smart, or because he has apparently never read anything else on the subject.

Meticulous
– apparent meaning: extremely careful and detailed.
– lazy function: to weakly praise a thing the reviewer found incredibly boring, but nonetheless felt they ought to like, probably.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer only finished this book because they would have felt guilty otherwise, and they wish to delude themselves into believing that they actually enjoyed it, purely as a psychological defense against the recognition of the true abyss of the reading to $ ratio of their ill-advised career.

Nuanced
– apparent meaning: the author under review makes subtle distinctions.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer is not an ideological hack or fundamentalist of some stripe, but a sophisticated and cosmopolitan thinker, who recognizes the manifold considerations relevant to a contested issue.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer actually agrees with the author’s position on this issue, and suspects that people who don’t agree should be made to read it.

Pitch perfect
– apparent meaning: the author under review never uses the wrong word, and always conveys a scene in words appropriate to its significance or an argument in words appropriate to its gravity.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer is a genuine afficionado of prose style, whose discrimination rivals that of Nabokov.
– unintended revelation: (1) the reviewer agrees with the author’s position, (2) the reviewer probably knows the author or wants to be like them, (3) the reviewer sort of suspects their own prose sounds rather like this author’s.

Poignant
– apparent meaning: profoundly touching.
– lazy function: to express, tactfully, that a story was melodramatic (but the reviewer can’t say so or they’d be either traducing a famous name or trampling somebody’s personal story).
– unintended revelation: the reviewer, dead inside from so much reading, is actually unable to produce a tear unless they use a juicer on an onion and then pour the liquid into their eye with a funnel.

Reads like a novel
– apparent meaning: this book, while not a novel, is as much fun to read as a novel.
– lazy function: to imply that this book is really fun even though its topic sounds boring enough to kill a cow.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer is privately extremely interested in the topic of this book.

Resonant [also as a verb: “this book resonates”]
– apparent meaning: this book is about much more than at first appears.
– lazy function: to avoid the actual work of drawing connections between the book’s content and the things it reminded the reviewer of.
– unintended revelation: as the reviewer read this book, they were thinking about something else.

Seminal
– apparent meaning: very influential, much the way semen is influential in the conception of new humans.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer’s godlike view of the landscape of books allows him to make authoritative proclamations about the subterranean lava flows of literary influence.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer wishes more people would write books like this one, and is also unaware that, most likely, the thing he finds original and influential in the book had been done to death actual centuries before it was written; also, the reviewer is likely male.

“X by Y is, pardon the expression / as it were, [one of the other words in this glossary]”
– apparent meaning: Because I am aware that I am lazy, I am not, in fact, lazy.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer is generally speaking above reviewer cliches, but in this case has found a true instance of the original phenomenon for which the cliche was first invented and is therefore justified in resorting to it.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer is not only lazy, but also stupid enough to think that by parading their laziness they will convince you they are not lazy.

Sobering
– apparent meaning: that this book will make you more serious about life, or about some particular issue.
– lazy function: to imply that the reviewer is a serious person who gravely applauds the earnestness of others.
– unintended revelation: the reviewer thinks you, the reader, are probably too frivolous about this issue; also, the reviewer was likely drinking as he wrote this review.


To be updated (when I get the chance) with: elegant, luminous, lush, prescient, provocative, riveting, stunning, thrilling, transcendent, unflinching, love-child of author and author, and voice of a generation.

Feel free to contribute addenda in the comments, or to suggest other likely candidates for the glossary!

Gusto: 6 Notes on Prose Style

Have you ever read something so impetuous that by comparison your own sentences seemed to drag, to limp along? I’m not talking about good grammar or correct usage: I’m talking about gusto.

The 19th century British essayist Hazlitt wrote that “gusto in art is power or passion defining any object.” And then he pretty much immediately offered a second definition: “[Gusto is] giving [the] truth of character from the truth of feeling.” In other words your writing has gusto if it makes readers feel strongly about things by expressing them passionately.

So much for a general definition. But how do you do it? How do you write with gusto?

I’ve been wondering that for months. It’s a curiosity born of desperate hunger, because to write well is the thing I want most in this world, and I think the best writing sweeps you up, shatters your complacency, and carries you along: it has gusto.

I know only two ways to change how I write. The first is to weed out ugliness, to ban myself from tics. The second is to discover patterns worth imitating in the prose of writers I admire and to try them for myself. (The bestiary and grimoire are attempts to do that.) In what follows, I’m going to share six patterns, or techniques, or tricks (call them what you want) that I’ve gleaned from studying writers who write with gusto, and from taking note of the rare occasions when my own prose achieves it.

On looking over this list, I see that most of the items on it are ways of achieving sentence-level concision and paragraph-level vividness. It so happens that these are my watchwords for good writing in general. So perhaps gusto is just good writing? Nonetheless, thinking about good writing under the aspect of gusto produced the following new (to me) principles.

1. Build every sentence around a succinct base clause.

I got this formulation straight out a marvelous book by Virginia Tufte called Syntax As Style. As I began to study gusto, I noticed that writers who clearly possessed it abided by the rule religiously. Tufte wrote:

Prepositional glut occurs if no attempt is made to set up short independent base clauses. The worst offenders in this overloading of patterns are the long noun phrase and nested prepositional phrases, often collaborating in clumsiness and verbal deadweight.

Creating a succinct base clause—a short sentence around which a long one is built—is a technique every writer needs to know.

To show what she means, I’ll take a negative example from the same book. This is a sentence Tufte quotes to show the horror that comes of neglecting her advice:

Neglect of this rich mine of information is due in part to the difficulty one faces in attempting to establish a suitable model in this area for modern quantification techniques that have contributed immeasurably to the formulation of historical generalizations in such areas as economic history and voting patterns.

Yeesh. Can we fix it? Yes, by compacting the disastrous middle into a succinct base clause (and by cutting some of the fat and trading the passive voice for the active).

We neglect this rich mine of information because it’s hard to quantify, unlike economic history and voting patterns, about which quantification permits historical generalizations.

Here “because it’s hard to quantify” replaces all of “due in part to the difficulty one faces in attempting to establish a suitable model in this area for modern quantification techniques.”

What is a concise base clause? First, it’s a clause—the smallest unit of a sentence that expresses a whole proposition. Subject-verb, or subject-verb-object. Second, it’s concise. There is minimal space between the subject and the verb and the object.

For the purposes of gusto, the best thing about a concise base clause is how you can add to it. You can write very long but perfectly comprehensible sentences through independent clauses that freely modify the base:

She ran, ducking under clothes lines, swinging crazily around corners, hurdling fire hydrants, zig-zagging across the highway, hopscotching through the outdoor displays of fruit in front of the Asian market, clipping unwary pedestrians who didn’t get out of her way fast enough, slipping between the clouds of smokers, burning up tarmac like humanity’s answer to the cheetah.

OK, that’s just a silly example, but despite being just as long as the bad example above, it’s perfectly clear. A concise base—like “she ran”—makes possible the real potential of cascading clauses: gusto.

2. Drop relative pronouns.

By relative pronouns mostly I mean “that,” which,” and “who/whom.” Sometimes they’re necessary to express your meaning; often they’re just dispensable roadblocks, screwing up your gusto, making you sound as if you’re thinking about grammar rather than the matter at hand.

Here is a list of sentences I got from the first page when I googled “relative pronoun.” After each quotation I’ve tried to show how it could become snappier by dropping the pronoun.

This is the book that everyone is talking about.

Instead: “This is the book everyone is talking about.” A small but definite improvement.

She wrote to the person whom she had met last month.

Instead: “She wrote to the person she met last month.” Definitely better!

We didn’t bring the receipt, which was a big mistake.

This one’s fun. There are several ways you could drop the pronoun. Here are two of them: “We didn’t bring the receipt. Big mistake.” Or “We didn’t bring the receipt, a big mistake.” Either way, a limping sentence now leaps.

One more, but this time to show the risk of applying the principle too indiscriminately:

Never go to a doctor whose office plants have died. – Erma Bombeck

Now you might think, “Sorry, Erma, this has more gusto: ‘Never go to a doctor with dead office plants.'” But you’d be wrong. In your pursuit of gusto you would have fallen into the piranha infested waters of ambiguity. You would have made it sound like you shouldn’t visit a doctor while carrying dead office plants. So keep a sharp eye.

This gusto-producing technique also produces an effect of informality. They aren’t the same thing, informality and gusto. If informality is a problem, given a piece’s likely venue or whatever, perhaps there are better ways to get that gusto.

There’s nothing, grammatically speaking, wrong with relative pronouns. They can even be rhetorically useful for certain purposes. But they slow you down and often sound prissy; so if gusto is the effect you’re after, try dropping ’em.

I should also note that this whole relative pronoun extermination effort is but one skirmish in the war on bloat that constitutes an entire front of the campaign for… metaphor went off the rails there, instructively. I’m trying to say that gusto is often equal to concision, and extirpating relative pronouns is just another kind of concision.

3. For sonority, use parallelism instead of big words.

The fact is, many of us, when we feel the need for a little organ music in the midst of an essay, crank up the syllable-count. I don’t have a ready example of this gauche form of overreach, but I can create one for you. Here’s a mucked-up paragraph from a review I wrote a few years ago. It’s the sort of thing I might have written before I found better ways to seem profound!

Reinhold Niebuhr had not yet written a truly redoubtable tome. Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic was intriguing but inchoate; his political manifestoes suffered from his Protean commitments; his Gifford lectures were fustian bombast subtended by no erudition; and his collections of speeches, sermons, and essays signified fecundity and trenchancy, but not permanence.

And here’s what I actually wrote, with the parallelism highlighted.

Reinhold Niebuhr had not yet written a genuinely great book. Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic was quaint and intriguing, yet indecisive and unformed; his political manifestos were undermined by the changeability of his actual political positions; his Gifford lectures were two monstrous volumes of pseudo-scholarship; and his collections of speeches, sermons, and essays were signs of a fertile pen, collectively prepossessing, yet individually ephemeral.

You tell me: which attempt to sound profound has more gusto?

While parallelism—balancing rhythmically and syntactically similar clauses against one another—is an valuable technique, abusing it can result in the opposite of gusto. It can result in a swaying, lulling rhythm. From Aristotle onward, the golden rule of rhetoric has been repetition and variety. So use parallelism sparingly.

4. Summarize bluntly.

Nothing pops the ballooning dullness of a complicated paragraph like a sudden, reductive sentence. It also gives the impression that one is cutting through the bullshit. Here’s an example from Laurie Penny, a British journalist whose writing is often full of gusto. She’s talking about Game of Thrones:

Most fans of the show have idly wondered which warring noble house they’d want to be born into. Are you brave and upstanding like the Starks, an entitled aristocrat like the Lannisters, or a mad pirate bastard like the Greyjoys? Personally, I like to think that I’d be at home in Dorne, where knife-fighting and aggressive bisexuality are forms of greeting, but the truth is that I’d have been dead for at least two seasons by now and so would you. And not excitingly dead, either. Not beheaded-by-the-king dead, or burned-as-a-blood-sacrifice-to-the-god-of-fire-by-your-own-father dead. Statistically speaking, we’d be peasants. We probably wouldn’t even get names. We’d just be eating mud and waiting for the war to be over. You know it’s true.

The punch of the short sentences, in contrast to the long ones! Penny loves this technique. She really puts it through its paces, if you read her columns with any regularity, milking it for all its possible effects: cynicism, wryness, authenticity, anger.

In a way, I’m just emphasizing a part of the old chestnut that good writers vary the length of their sentences. But I’ve noticed that the writers to whom I would attribute gusto rely on this specific variation quite a bit: the sharp juxtaposition of long and extremely short. Try it.

5. Use emotion-provoking comparisons.

When a writer is doing their thing with gusto, sparks fly, and those sparks are comparisons. John Scalzi—whose writing is always full of gusto—can barely get through a paragraph without coughing up a mind-worm. Here, for example, is the first line of one of his most popular blog posts:

I’ve been thinking of a way to explain to straight white men how life works for them, without invoking the dreaded word “privilege,” to which they react like vampires being fed a garlic tart at high noon.

My principle here isn’t just “use similes and metaphors.” (Do, though. They rock.) It’s “use emotion-provoking similes and metaphors.”

That narrows it down a bit, because not many comparisons provoke heartfelt sorrow, for example, all on their own. “Like a candle in the wind” needs a funeral and music to wring a single salty tear from even the most emotionally labile among us. But “they react like vampires being fed a garlic tart at high noon” is funny, all by itself. Another emotion metaphors are good for insta-producing is disgust. The acid pen drips metaphors. Turning to the same fertile source of invidious comparison, here are some of the choicest ways in which John Scalzi chose to describe Ted Cruz during the Republican primaries this year: an “ambulatory cloacal splotch,” a “gross and despicable avulsion that yet managed to sprout opposable thumbs.” Ouch.

These things can really liven up a piece of prose. They’re a bit like backflips though. I had a friend in highschool who learned how to do a backflip off a wall. Unfortunately, he decided to show off his new skill prematurely. When he landed flat on his back, his chances with the ladies collapsed like a housing bubble. If you don’t watch out, your audacious comparison could go over just as well.

6. Repeat ideas with rising intensity.

Milton has great gusto. He repeats his blow twice, grapples with and exhausts his subject. His imagination has a double relish of its objects, an inveterate attachment to the things he describes, and to the words describing them.

That’s Hazlitt, again, from the end of his essay on gusto. I, personally, don’t experience Milton as being very full of gusto—a failure I attribute to the flaccidity of my mental muscles, which have to stay pretty tense to comprehend the long, suspended sentences of Paradise Lost. But I think Hazlitt’s point is a good one, observable in contemporary writing as well as in Milton. Often, those who write with gusto will hit a key point several times, trying out several phrases to sum it up, like a brainstorming session at Stirling Cooper.

You know who writes with gusto? Dan O’Sullivan. Here is a riveting example from his piece in Jacobin on the terrifying denouement of 2016:

Trump didn’t think he was going to win — not him, not his cracked, wincing campaign manager, not the sozzled Nazi werewolf chairing his presidential bid, not the jackal pack advising him, not the rival camp, not the media. Trump, that demented circus peanut, knew that he had lost every debate, that he had failed to appeal to the mystical moderate voters who determine elections, that he had trailed in most every poll.

This entire paragraph is the repetition of a single idea. It follows a simple pattern. The whole idea is in the first words, “Trump didn’t think he was going to win,” and the first string of entertaining clauses is an expansion of the subject — Trump — into those others who didn’t think he was going to win, while the the second sentence is an expansion of the predicate — “didn’t think he was going to win” — into the many ways he didn’t think it. We might say about this writer, with Hazlitt, that “his imagination has a double relish of its objects, an inveterate attachment to the things he describes, and to the words describing them.” Even though strong emotion clearly undergirds O’Sullivan’s piece, he can’t resist the opportunity to write with gusto by mining every bit of ore from the shaft of each paragraph.

That’s all I got folks. Use it wisely.

A writer’s equivalent to the sketchbook

A few weeks ago, wandering London’s Hampstead Heath for the first time, I watched Rachel record her impressions — not just the appearance of objects, like a camera, but her impressions, her looking itself — in a sketchbook, and I wished, not for the first time, that I, too, could lay claim to a sketchbook. Rachel is a potter, but that gives her the generic artist’s right to make little drawings everywhere she goes. I do not have that right. I’ve tried to carry a sketchbook, but it makes me feel like I’m cheating on my marriage to literature. What’s needed is a writer’s equivalent. All artists, not just the visual ones, should be able to feast on the world anywhere and carry boredom’s kryptonite in their pockets.

Writing represents just like drawing. But due to the extraordinary power of writing’s medium, it can represent sensory and intellectual and emotional experience. You’d think this would make writing even more portable and ubiquitous than drawing, a perfect pasttime at the park and in the gallery, on lunch breaks and after dinner. But they don’t teach writers to carry notebooks like they teach artists to carry sketchbooks. In all the classes on writing I took in college, no one ever assigned me that basic exercise of drawing class: “Here’s a blank book. Fill it everywhere you go.”

Sure, there’s the “writer’s notebook,” as classically described, for instance, by Joan Didion’s essay “On Keeping a Notebook.” She records fragments of conversation and the sartorial ensembles of people she sees. There are also many examples of notebooks like Henry James’s magnificent volumes of notes for his novels. In their own way, James’s notebooks are as astonishing and final a statement of creativity as Bach’s two- and three-part inventions. But neither of these books contains a single instance of the writerly equivalent of a sketch, a rough but complete record of an impression, suitable for study in its own right and not merely an accrual of material for later, larger, more premeditated work.

The writer’s notebook, as kept by James and Didion, is for accumulating raw material, but the sketchbook is for practice. The writer’s equivalent of the sketchbook should also be for practice. Perhaps that makes it unnecessary, since the performance of writing is an infinitely revisable one, while the painter, for instance, or potter, faces crucial moments, makes irrevocable gestures, and has a reason to practice the physical movements of art.

But I reject that disembodied view of literature. Perhaps not the glyphs, but certainly the words I use, do arise from gesture, mood, short-term memory, what I see, smell, how warm it is, whether I am watched or alone — from my body. If I haven’t written for a while, it’s hard to start. If I’m constrained to write for many reasons for many hours, my prose suffers. I can’t revise a piece properly immediately after I’ve written it. Writer’s bodies affect how they write, so surely their bodies can be trained to help them write better.

What would a real equivalent of the sketchbook be like, then? One could fill a notebook with evocations in words of sensory impressions, a direct correlate of the sketchbook, merely substituting words for lines. But that seems inadequate, as if an artist limited themselves to making rubbings of the textures of things, bark and leaves, gravestones and brick walls. An artist with merely tactile interests would be like a writer with merely visual ones, would be failing to employ the full range of their medium.

But writing about thoughts or emotions — those additional
aspects of the world available to the writer — is innately digressive. From the moment, I mean. Once the writer’s mind gets to work on a thought or an emotion, they — or I at any rate — tend to wander. To wander into the realm of dialectic, if thinking, or into the realm of therapy, if feeling. One of the most important functions of the sketchbook, on the other hand, and something I would like to capture in this hypothetical writer’s equivalent, is training the artist to attend to the moment.

It is the actual act of drawing that forces the artist to look at the object in front of him, to dissect it in his mind’s eye and put it together again; or, if he is drawing from memory, that forces him to dredge his own mind, to discover the content of his own store of past observations. (John Berger)

The writer’s equivalent of a sketchbook would therefore require an entirely new frame of mind. It would require a simultaneous use of and disengagement from the machinery of language, which seem of themselves to take the writer away from the moment.

(Perhaps that’s wrong. In the tradition I was born to, influenced by and stemming from the Bible, naming is creative, life-giving. “In the beginning was the Word.” The author sets things into independent motion with a word. Perhaps my difficulty in using the medium of language to accomplish the simple acts of recording that come so easily to lines and colors is the result of a psychically deep conviction that writing is more creation than representation. But then, in Buddhism for instance, to understand and name a thing is a way of dispelling it. If there’s anything to Buddhist mindfulness, perhaps this very act, right now, of noticing a potentially deep-seated illusion about language — that by using it I’m breathing the breath of life into it and therefore inevitably bifurcating the moment, the impression — is enough to overcome it.)

The closest I have come to this ideal equivalent of the sketchbook is when I go to art museums alone. When I do that, I like to pick a painting and sit in front of it for an hour or two, writing down what I see and think. I try to overcome the philistinism of a defective art education, not through a spurious connoisseurship, but by actually inhabiting an artist’s way of looking for a while.

Ironically, the closest I come to an artist’s sketchbook is in looking at art. I’d like to forego that crutch.

As plain a thing as an ordinary sentence

Don’t all writers have a hidden nerve, call it a secret chamber, something irreducibly theirs, which stirs their prose and makes it tick and turn this way or that, and identifies them, like a signature, though it lurks far deeper than their style, or their voice or other telltale antics?

These words are by André Aciman and they apply to him also, though it can be difficult to look beneath his style, which is so unusual, so beguiling in its coils and toils, that it’s often the first thing critics mention. So let’s dispose of that style summarily and look at what “lurks far deeper,” then return to the style to consider it as a manifestation of that deeper thing.

The uniqueness of Aciman’s style follows almost entirely from his willingness to write long sentences. His sentences are remarkable for more than their length, but length is their precondition. Because Aciman is willing to give himself space, to sacrifice the sacred cow of modern English prose—immediate, self-effacing intelligibility—in pursuit of more rarefied aesthetic goals, he simply has more room to experiment. Long sentences, as should be mathematically obvious, have more possible variations than short sentences. Many of Aciman’s long, recursive sentences have an exploratory feeling, as if he is always probing into the terra incognita of syntactic hinterlands. Here’s a lovely example:

You go out into the world to acquire all manner of habits and learn all sorts of languages, but the one tongue you neglect most is the one you’ve spoken at home, just as the customs you feel most comfortable with are those you never knew were customs until you saw others practice completely different ones and realized you didn’t quite mind your own, though you’d strayed so far now that you probably no longer knew how to practice them.

Within these long sentences, Aciman performs miracles of subtle rhythm and felicitous diction. He seems to feel what few writers, however inventive and vigorous their prose, feel anymore: the difference not just between the right and the wrong word, but between the beautiful and the ugly word. His sentences are beautiful, but they’re emphatically not his signature, hidden nerve, secret chamber.

That would be desire.

Desire’s a funny thing. It’s a pain, a discomfort, because it signifies a lack. When you desire something, you move toward it restlessly, hoping you’ll get it and desire will cease. But if you get the thing you want, and have no further desires to prick you with further discomforts, likely you’re bored. Boredom is even more uncomfortable than desire. And so the life of someone attentive to their own gratification will be a constant rocking to and fro between desire and its fulfillment and the emptiness that brings. Perhaps the lowest point of all is to be bored so intensely that you begin to desire to desire something: and this desire, this meta-desire, a second order self-consciousness of the lack of desire, is numbness.

These three moments in the movement of desire are basically the entire focus of Aciman’s writing. Writers with such exclusive focus upon their theme are rare. If he were a lesser writer, this narrowness of vision would make him minor; but I think he plumbs the depths of his theme, makes the minor major by sheer thoroughness.

The book I read recently which prompts these reflections is called Alibis. It’s a collection of travel writing, but as, I imagine, anything Aciman writes will tend to do, each piece bends toward evoking and analyzing the workings of desire: “it is not the things we long for that we love; it is longing itself. . .”

 

alibis

 

When Aciman visits a place, his regard slides off the present into memories of his own dreams of the future. You know that aesthetic, the retro-future? The future as imagined by someone from the 50s, say? That’s Aciman’s experience of the present: he revisits a place and remembers how he imagined it otherwise. He experiences this both as a painful thwarting, and, self-consciously, as an exquisite pleasure. So when he goes to visit Rome, where he lived as a boy, he thrills with nostalgia for the memory of how he despised the streets he is now seeing, how he used to imagine them as the streets of other cities from the books he escaped into. Or when he writes about New York, he imagines how it might have appeared to Walter Benjamin if he had managed to escape France and emigrated to America. “What we ultimately remember is not the past but ourselves in the past imagining the future.”

But boredom is also there in the elaborate pains Aciman takes, when visiting or revisiting a place, to arrange the most exquisite sensations, to ensure that he will stir up the most poignant desires. And when he fails, he complains about numbness, and turns to writing to kindle the missing fire, and then turns against writing with doubts about its suitability for the therapeutic role in which he’s cast it: “Does writing, as I did later that day, seek out words the better to stir and un-numb us to life—or does writing provide surrogate pleasures the better to numb us to experience?”

If these brief adumbrations of the theme he explores at excruciating (and exquisite) length, in every variation, haven’t made it clear, I’ll say it bluntly: Aciman’s travel writings use terrestrial geography as a pretext to explore the geography of consciousness. These essays, and the travel that occasioned them, are themselves pretexts for inner journeys away from the places his outer journeys are toward. The full title of the book is Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere. That word “elsewhere” does typical Acimanian double-duty, alluding both to the fact that this is a book of travel essays, and to the fact that Aciman himself is always elsewhere than where he travels to.

I say this is about desire, because I think Aciman raises to the level of an all-absorbing theme a dynamic of universal significance—desire itself—but Aciman himself seems to interpret his hidden nerve, secret chamber, signature, as exile. In childhood his family was forced to move from his birth city, Alexandria, and also to descend socially due to the circumstances of their departure. So he attributes his “parallax” vision, his constant absence from the present in favor of the speculations of the past or the counterfactual future, as a consequence, an internalization of the fact of exile: “an exile is a person who is always in one place but elsewhere as well.” His sense of exile is so complete that it has no relation to place; it’s an exile in time, a complete exile, permanent, irrevocable: “This feeling of being cut off from oneself or of being in two places at the same time is as though what was left behind were an amputated limb, something that was cut away from us and was not allowed to travel with us—an arm, a grandparent, a baby brother.”

So, given this absolutely unwavering interest in the dynamics of desire as raised to consciousness by the fact of exile, what are we to make of the style? Is there a connection between those lovely long sentences and the displacements of desire? I think so, yes, absolutely.

For one thing, at their most expansive and wandering, his very long sentences act out the displacement he’s usually describing. With imperceptible slippage, clause by slippery clause, he leads you to a thought that leaves you wondering: where did that sentence begin? You wonder not in a startled, confused way, as when the run-on sentence of a bad writer startles you into attention by a sloppy failure to be consistent in tense or precise about antecedents: no, instead it’s the kind of wondering that comes from wandering, as when you look up from your walk and realize you don’t know where you are are because you got lost in thought and then in reality, or when you’re trying to meditate, to think of nothing, and catch yourself cleverly metamorphosing this well-intentioned nothing into elaborate daydreams.

But the best part about the perfect fit between Aciman’s style and his subject is that he professes to be as helpless in the former as he is in the latters. He regales us with the intricacies of his travels by foot into memory because that’s just how he can’t help but experience those travels, and likewise, “cadenced prose, for all its pyrotechnics, is also a way of hiding that I can’t write as plain a thing as an ordinary sentence in English.”

Why did I read four biographies of Stefan Zweig?

[Trigger warning: talk of suicide and despair, including a disturbing picture.]

Why did I read four (well, three and a half) biographies of Stefan Zweig in a row? The short answer is, I’m not sure. The long answer will take us through train rides, insomnia, paragraph-structure, marriage, suicide, political despair, and then leave us where the short answer did, in uncertainty. So come along if you don’t mind futility.

These days I choose what to read according to spontaneous interest or arbitrary schemas, in order to maintain the impetuosity of my enthusiasm. Lately I’ve put the list of all the books I want to read onto Goodreads, where I can order them by author or publication or title or whatever. Just for the serendipity of the thing, I’ve been reading them alphabetically by title. I had a long train ride coming up, so I needed a journey-specific project, and I was getting a little tired of books beginning with A. First I thought I’d start from the other end and read one beginning with Z. But then that seemed too predictable. So I really mixed things up and decided to start with authors whose last names begin with Z. Which led me to Stefan Zweig.

I got hold of a few of his novellas, and his wildly acclaimed autobiography, The World of Yesterday, and settled in for my train ride.

Clive James had alerted me to the existence of Zweig in his crotchety fabulous Cultural Amnesia. According to James, Zweig was important for the friendships he cultivated and for the portrait The World of Yesterday paints of pre-war Vienna; his fictions, James thought (if I’m remembering correctly), were competent but inconsiderable.

Well, by the end of my trip I disagreed with James. I found Zweig’s novellas masterpieces of concentrated narrative. And most of the world agrees with me, having kept him continuously in print. The US is waking back up to him too, and recent years have seen lots of new translations and republications and biographies and so on. Zweig is in the air. He ought to be. I felt that I had a lot to learn from his craft as a writer. His paragraphs for example, dazzled me. They’re longer than you find in contemporary fiction. But they’re also propulsive and remarkably orderly, even while they seemed to grow organically from the demands of the story. They are a strange hybrid of the logically unfolding paragraph of the essayist or historian and the dancing-forward, streaming paragraph of the story-teller. Here he is, for example, describing a professor who only really comes alive as the genius he is when a lecture rises spontaneously from a discussion in his classes:

Soon what began as mere intellectual conversation became electrical excitement and took fire, with his skilful hand fanning the flames— forceful argument countered claims made casually, sharp and keen interjections heated the discussion until the students were almost at loggerheads with each other. Only once the sparks were really flying did he intervene, calming the overexcited atmosphere and cleverly bringing the debate back to its subject, but at the same time giving it stronger intellectual stimulus by moving it surreptitiously into a timeless dimension— and there he suddenly stood amidst the play of these dialectical flames, in a state of high excitement himself, both urging on and holding back the clashing opinions, master of a stormy wave of youthful enthusiasm which broke over him too. Leaning against the desk, arms crossed, he looked from one to another, smiling at one student, making a small gesture encouraging another to contradict, and his eyes shone with as much excitement as yesterday. I felt he had to make an effort not to take the words out of their mouths. But he restrained himself— by main force, as I could tell from the way his hands were pressed more and more firmly over his breast like the stave of a barrel, as I guessed from the mobile corners of his mouth, which had difficulty in suppressing the words rising to his lips. And suddenly he could do it no longer, he flung himself into the debate like a swimmer into the flood— raising his hand in an imperious gesture he halted the tumult as if with a conductor’s baton; everyone immediately fell silent, and now he summed up all the arguments in his own vaulting fashion.

(Admittedly I also like this paragraph because it describes—and I say this without imputing to myself the success Zweig’s character has with it—almost exactly the method I used to lecture when I taught philosophy. I’d stir up an argument, nurture it like a little fire—the same metaphor has even occurred to me—and restrain myself from jumping in until things had gotten really intense and I could count on the students caring about my intervention.)

But anyway, after I’d read a few of his novellas, I moved on to Zweig’s autobiography. The World of Yesterday was certainly remarkable, evocative, fascinating, but it raised more questions for me than it settled.

theworldofyesterday

Zweig had purposefully retired into the background of his own autobiography, but I couldn’t help wondering about his career—how did he support himself when he decided to just take a few years off to translate obscure French poets? How did he parachute into a regular gig at the Viennese equivalent of the New Yorker, becoming one of their lead essayists when still in his teens? Why did he turn from writing poetry to writing the narrative fiction for which he became famous? Also, naturally, his personal life intrigued me—what was his relationship to Judaism when his career was launched by the founder of Zionism and yet he himself became the living symbol of pan-Europeanism, an avatar and advocate of assimilation? How did he make friends so easily—seemingly considered a bestie by everybody who was anybody in Middle European culture—even when he was a nobody absconding to France from graduate school in Berlin? And of course, why did he commit suicide in Petropolis, Brazil, with his much, much younger second wife Lotte, shortly aftering mailing in The World of Yesterday for publication?

I would have to read another biography.

But I didn’t get to it for a few days, too busy socializing at the place my train had taken me. Then, one night, I found myself sweating onto a matress in an air-conditionerless basement where the humidity was approximately 323%—breathing felt like chugging a glass of water—and the dark, lucid wings of insomnia unfolded above me. So I got up and downloaded onto my Kindle a biography-cum-memoir by Zweig’s first wife, Frederike, and proceeded to read it in one sitting.

federikeandstefan
Federike and Stefan Zweig

It was a strange mixture of compelling memories and shrewd analysis interwoven with unreadable schmaltz and special pleading. The first caution of a biography about an artist who took their own life must be, I think, not to interpret the whole life as a journey to suicide; but Zweig’s wife is understandably fixated on his end, and you can tell a lot of her character-analysis is basically an attempt to understand why he did it, and to blame it, as much as possible, on the woman he left her for. I found Friderike’s information illuminating. She explained some of the contradiction I had noticed in The World of Yesterday, such as the way Zweig castigates the sexual repression of the pre-WWI Vienna but then complains about the sexual freedom of post-WWI Vienna. He apparently exhibited the same contradictions about freedom as a step-parent:

He could not, he said, repress a feeling of envy at seeing the youth of today enjoying itself in such free and easy fashion. And this explained a strange trait, entirely contradictory to the rest of his nature: incited by such memories, he would suddenly deprive the children of some harmless pleasure he himself had suggested. Such retractions, coming from a man who loved to make people happy, seemed inconceivably harsh.

One of the sad implications of Frederike’s biography—and I don’t doubt her for a moment, because it’s an old, familiar story—is that Zweig’s demands as an artist whose life needed to be managed by others and protected from disturbance stole her own career from her.

As guardian of his inner world I was to keep the outer world away, pregnant as it always was with disturbances. Therefore — a fact but seldom openly confessed — I was to have no world of my own, no work of my own that might possibly deflect me from my watch. The circle was widely extended, but I had to stay within it.

I was glad for the shadows Frederike’s biography added to my perception of Zweig. But now I had become interested in her, curious how candid her apparently very open and honest memoir actually was. Some things struck me: even in her own account of their romance, for example, it’s clear that Frederike decided she would go get Zweig for herself, even before he knew who she was, when she was a young unhappily married mother of two. She got him, and according to her became the light of his life, only to be betrayed for a secretary after twenty years of marriage. I had no real desire to exonerate Zweig of being a patriarch, a shitty father, or a ungrateful lover; but there are usually two sides to stories of domestic distress.

So when I got home from my trip I picked up another biography of Zweig, this one by George Prochnik: The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World.

impossibleexile

Here I feel a made a mistake. I don’t mean that Prochnik’s is a bad book or that I regret reading it, but the reason I wanted to read it was to clear up some of the details about Zweig’s career that remained for me, and to add to that an assessment of Frederike’s candor as a memoirist. Prochnik’s book isn’t actually a biography. It’s a meditation on exile and a very moving investigation of the reasons for which Zweig committed suicide, presented in a mixture of novelistic scenes, brief out-of-chronology explorations of his past, and comparisons to the experience of other exiles, including, most prominently, Prochnik’s own grandparents. It was interesting; but it answered virtually none of my questions and raised a bunch more. I think I’ll probably write something about the book on its own account another day. In the story of why I read four biographies of Zweig, however, its role is just that it wasn’t what I needed at the time.

I confess it: at this point I began to get tired of Zweig. I was an absurd expert on certain details of his life. I could probably write my own biography, of considerable length, just from memory. But, an intractable puzzle, I couldn’t leave his life alone, particularly because I still hadn’t gotten any real insight into the things that most concern me when I read a writer’s biography: the material basis of their career, their working habits, how they learned their craft, whether they felt they had completed their work when they died, that sort of thing.

So, with some hesitation, I picked up my fourth biography, Matuschek’s Three Lives. Immediately, it became clear I should have begun with that biography. It was a normal chronological study, based on an exhaustive survey of available sources—including new batches of letters and so forth—and fully satisfying me as to the material details and personal chronologies I was so curious about. But a weird transformation in my motivations for continuing to study Zweig began to take shape as soon as I realized I’d found what I wanted.

threelives

Suddenly I didn’t care about my usual practical interests in this writer I liked. Suddenly I was obsessed with his suicide.

The unthinkable had occurred. I’d fallen prey to that morbid kind of clue-seeking attitude that afflicts biographers of artists like Virginia Woolf or Ernest Hemingway. I blame Prochnik. The end of his book is a truly horrifying account of Zweig’s last hours, and of how his body and that of Lotte, his young wife, were found. Some of Lotte’s clothes were in an untidy heap beside the bed, and it was apparent she’d taken her poison shortly after Zweig. Prochnik speculates that Zweig took his while she was in the shower or bath, and she realized what had happened only after it had happened; she was faced suddenly with the choice of whether to follow him or not. Prochnik has this line I’d like to quote—but don’t have the book in my hands at the moment—about how Zweig looks dead, but Lotte looks in love. That’s because after she took her poison, she climbed in beside her already dead husband, she lay down on her side, gazing at his face, and wound her fingers through his. To pound home the nail with a last blow of the emotional hammer, on the last page Prochnik prints the death photo he is describing. I doubt I’ve recreated the effect of these pages in my brisk summary, but this is what they did to me: I was now obsessed with Zweig’s suicide, with the existential fact of it, with imagining it, horrified and fascinated.

Lotte and Stefan Zweig, as found by their housekeeper and the police.
Lotte and Stefan Zweig, as found by their housekeeper and the police.

As a result I gave up on the last, best biography of Zweig halfway through it. It was now not the book I wanted. As Emil Cioran says:

Each desire provokes in me a counterdesire, so that whatever I do, all that matters is what I have not done.

I gave up reading, but I didn’t give up thinking. I continued to obsess over Zweig’s last days, to imagine the causes and moment of his suicide.

He was by then a refugee. A wealthy and opportunity-rich refugee, admittedly, but one exiled from land and language. His books were banned in both Germany and Austria. He had spent a few years flying, dissatisfied, from country to country, Britain, the US, Brazil. Just before decided to do the deed, he and Lotte had descended into Rio for Carnival, a festival that tended to put him back into his usually happy, gregarious, life-loving frame of mind. Something happened during that trip. Perhaps he read some of the newspapers, with their stories of German advance on the fronts of WWII. Perhaps it was a chance remark a friend made to him around that time, when he casually asked them whether they thought Brazil was safe from Nazi agression—they thought not, that Hitler might come for them, and Zweig’s face had shown he took this prediction much harder than its source warranted. Whatever the case, he was suffering from political despair.

The situation seemed hopeless. Because he had invested his entire life in the cultivation of international literature with a specifically political purpose—the creation of a European culture that could transcend the disgusting aggressions of nationalism—he experienced that political despair as an existential despair, a despair about himself and his own life. Despite his continued wealth, the wife he loved, his many friendships, the prospect of continued work, and the beauty of the landscape in his adopted country—despite all this, he was done with life.

It occurred to me today, when I sat down to write a blog post for an hour (and then apparently forgot about that limit and wrote this behemoth instead) that I finally feel like I understand Zweig. I feel some small taste of political despair myself right now, the day before the first presidential debate in the most sickening election cycle of my life. I can hardly bear what is happening to my country or what may happen to the world, and I am oppressed by nightmares and dark daydreams about how things could, will, must go terribly wrong and plunge our century into bloodshed and hatreds that will make the 20th century look like an era of humanity and hope. I don’t pretend this is a fraction of the political despair felt by Stefan Zweig; but perhaps reading about him was a way for me to cope with my own small despairing. That’s my best but still inadequate explanation for why I read three and a half biographies of the same person in a row.


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Far from his desk, he was still at work

I had a friend in graduate school who sickened and died before he could complete his degree. He was frail and congenitally ill; an early death was always in the cards. But there was a period of about two years when he gradually suspended his activities as a student, at first on the assumption that he would return once he had rested and recovered, then with the increasing certainty that he would never come back. Immediately after he died, I became obsessed with imagining what it must have been like for him in the period before he was hospitalized but after he he stopped working on his degree. What did he do then? I imagined him walking around Boston, feeling that special alienation of the adult who has nothing to do in the daytime in a city.

One day, sitting on a bench beside the reservoir near Boston College, watching joggers, parents pushing strollers, and people deep in conference pass me by, it suddenly dawned on me that the reason I was so interested in my friend’s mental state during those months was that I myself do and probably will inhabit something like that same twilight zone for most of my life.

Many writers work very hard, but the appearance and feeling of aimlessness in the middle of the day, when everyone else is more or less toiling away, will always be a strange way of life, in some ways privileged, in others cursed. Even if you’re not watching the bustle with the eyes of someone waiting to die, in other ways that’s exactly what you’re doing.

Peter Handke’s The Afternoon of a Writer is a devastatingly beautiful novella about what it’s like to be a writer when you’re not (physically) writing. It’s lyrical in a way peculiar to German literature (and, for some reason, Marilynne Robinson), in which the evocation of sharp yet subtle mental states is intertwined with a kind of serious philosophical inquisitiveness. Thus The Afternoon of a Writer has those special qualities that make great lyric poems at once utterly particular and universally relevant.

It begins when the writer, who remains unnamed, finishes his day’s work, in the mid afternoon, and sets out for his daily walk. That’s it, that’s all that happens: he walks to town, gets a bite to eat, picks up a newspaper, has a few conversations, and walks home. But the tiny book is utterly enthralling. I kept jerking upright with the feeling that Handke was describing my own pathologies. For example, the writer is always making vows to himself about this or that aspect of his daily life (I will stop reading newspapers, I will read newspapers faithfully; I will walk into the center of town every day, I will avoid the center of town…). Partly this is because “he seemed to need an idea to carry him through the most trifling daily movements…” Sometimes he wonders:

did he actually have any rules? Weren’t the few that he had tried to impose on himself constantly giving way to something else—a mood, an accident, a sudden inspiration—that seemed to indicate the better choice? True, his life had been oriented for almost twenty years toward his literary goal; but reliable ways and means were still unknown to him. Everything about him was still as temporary as it had been in the child, as later in the schoolboy, and still later in the novice writer.

I have this identical problem. I know just what I need to do next in the big things that matter to me (reading and writing, basically), but I often find myself conflicted to the point of paralysis by small decisions about where to go on a walk, how to spend my free time, in what order to perform small chores, what sources of news to read and whether to pay attention to current events at all… Then I’ll formulate a plan, usually with a vow or two to myself, happily constructing a utopia of rules, which gives me energy for a day or at most a week, until I find myself suddenly faced with all the same questions as if they’d never been resolved. Surely a large part of the explanation for this helpless feeling of having to rethink the structure of what should be mindless habits has to do with the constant preoccupation that is a writer’s work?

It seemed to him that he was not going away from his work but that it was accompanying him; that, now far from his desk, he was still at work. But what does “work” mean? Work, he thought, is something in which material is next to nothing, structure almost everything; something that rotates on its axis without the help of a flywheel; something whose elements hold one another in suspense; something open and accessible to all, which cannot be worn out by use.


Just a few days after I finished the book, on twitter JM Schreiber shared a link to some promotional materials about a forthcoming documentary about Peter Handke. Reading those materials, and watching some preview clips I decided “the writer” of The Afternoon of a Writer is unquestionably Handke himself.

Art Takes Naps

Former poet laureate Donald Hall wrote the collection published as Essays After Eighty for what might seem, at first glance, a pretty tragic reason: “New poems no longer come to me, with their prodigies of metaphor and assonance. Prose endures.”

You see, he’s very old. As of this writing he’s 87. I would say he’s still sharp as a tack or going strong or one of the other clichés by which we condescend to the very old, but he himself forbids my flippancy: “When kindness to the old is condescending, it is aware of itself as benignity while it asserts its power.” Without using a word as infelicitous as “ageism,” he has written the most powerful excoriation of that prejudice I’ve ever encountered. Also, the clichés would be false. He’s not sharp as a tack at 87. No one is. Age brings diminishment, and Hall is not here to blunt the fact: “there are no happy endings, because if things are happy they have not ended.”

This book is a clear-eyed account of what it’s like to become old as an observant and articulate person. I think the theme of aging, which (duh) is hardly new, is due for a crescendo in the symphony of the century. Unless utter environmental catastrophe of a superseding intensity swamps us first, the vast quantities of very old people are going to force us to rethink our societies. And each one of us alive today is increasingly likely to have to face the fact of extreme age ourselves. We’ll need models, literary exemplars to guide our own performance of old age. Hall’s on my list because of paragraphs like this one:

When I was thirty, I lived in the future because the present was intolerable. When I was fifty and sixty, the day of love and work repeated itself year after year. Old age sits in a chair, writing a little and diminishing.

For some reason (fine, we can just call it morbidity) I’m obsessed with books written by people who know themselves to be dying or who have reached an age when death is omni-imminent. (For example Clive James’ Latest Readings.) Due to a lively sense of my own mortality (fine, we can just call it hypochondria) I’ve devoted a probably inordinate amount of time to the question of what death means for life. If you believe—as I do and an increasing proportion of the rest of my society does—that death is a total dissipation, a curtain without encore, does that fact or the awareness of that fact have implications for the conduct of daily life?

It seems to affect people in wildly different ways. Clive James was inspired by his leukemia to a frenzy of minor writing, producing the above-mentioned book of essays, an ongoing column in the Guardian, and then a new collection of poetry. J.G.A. Pocock, on the other hand, commenced his magnum opus, Civilization and Barbarism, a five-volume study of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, when he was 75. At 26, I have only my fantasies to add to this list of anecdotes. But I can say that last year when I had a minor medical scare (see above, under “hypochondria”) I told my beloved that my immediate instinct had been to drop the novel I’m working on and write as many short stories as I could. So I guess the prospect of death would propel me in a Jamesian rather than Pocockian direction. As for Donald Hall, since death is approaching him slowly and clearly, step by step up the lane outside the window where he sits most days and watches the barn, he has a motto: “Technology speeds, then doubles its speed, then doubles it again. Art takes naps.”

Between his naps he’s written these essays. Not a bad way to live.

Dead Language

Ever since I wrote my first story, I have been concerned with something that every writer of short stories or novels has to deal with. This is el language muerto (dead language), which is always present in a novel. Unlike poetry, in which from the first word to the last you are placed in a world of extraordinary sensibility and delicacy or dynamism, a novel or short story is a text in which it is impossible to be intense and creative all the time and to sustain vitality and dynamism in the language … I was bothered by this situation and asked myself why it is not possible in a novel, as in a poem, to use only intense, rich, creative language?

These lines are from Mario Vargas Llosa’s A Writer’s Reality, the prose version of some lectures he delivered at Syracuse University.

Dead language has been the splinter under my fingernail for years. I’ve been concerned with the phenomenon at nearly every stage of my evolution as a writer. In college I rebelliously rejected the canonization of Strunk & White, because they were brandished by milquetoast English professors whose own prose read with all the vitality of roadkill. And it wasn’t long before I turned my scorn on myself: over and over in the last ten years I’ve developed a certain kind of smoothness in my prose which I wake up the next day and discover to be blandness, prose like mashed potatoes made with a blender: where are the chunks?

What is dead language? First what it’s not.

It’s not cliché, though cliché can be a form of dead language. Frankly there are stretches even in a writer like John Updike, who took pride in the strenuous rejection of cliché, or in Martin Amis, who wrote a book called The War Against Cliche, which are like a corpse dressed in its best clothes, made-up with red spots on its cheeks, hung about with diamonds, but still dead. Cliché-free, but dead.

Dead language is also not cold or unemotional language. The often affectless precision of Colm Tóibín—in The Master, for instance, which I just read—is utterly vivified language, language trembling with life. Don’t confuse life with excitability.

So, again, what is dead language? I think it might be best to come at the problem—and I know I’m being evasive—by describing living language. Vargas Llosa will give me a hand again:

[Living] language is any language that has the capacity to take the reader from real reality and move him to a fictitious reality, to a separate reality … The characteristics of [living] language cannot be specified because any kind of language can perform these functions if the writer has the ability to use it well.

Where I put [living] he had “literary,” but I swapped out the word to make my point. I think Vargas Llosa would agree with me that literary language is the opposite of dead language. What it does, he says, is to transport us to a different reality. Living/literary language is like a threshold in C.S. Lewis’s books, a portal to Narnia, a doorway you step through and find everything irresistibly changed, charged with meaning.

But, as Vargas Llosa also wisely said, there are no specifications for this kind of language, no universally applicable rules for it.

You can try to avoid dead language by following rules. For example I could learn to write like Chuck Palahniuk in a lot of his short stories and essays, attempting to vivify my language through sensually rich description of horrifying or disgusting things. Tell me you wouldn’t read an essay I wrote if it began like this:

I sifted warm faeces through my fingers, trying not to inhale, until I found what I was looking for: the hard, white body of a parasite, like a plastic bead dropped in brownie batter. So I did have worms.

An extreme example. (But yes, that’s not far off Mr. Palahniuk.) (My apologies if you decided to read what’s at the other end of that link.) The language certainly isn’t dead. But the life it has derives as much from the plain shock value of the content as from the language. The same can be said for writing that gets its life-juice from profanity, slang, or any other easy gimmick: dropping in brand names at every opportunity, relying on humorous analogies.

The problem I have with these methods of vivifying language is that they don’t last. They work a few times. But when a gimmick is repeated too often it turns into its own vintage of dead language.

Even when you fall in love with the voice of a writer, if they turn out to be a hack who employs that voice with universal efficiency, their manner becomes mannerism for you; you recognize yet another instance of dead language.

So writing well, writing living language, is a high-wire act where each new step requires as much concentration as the last. There’s not a place on the wire where you’ve finally got it figured out and now you can relax, now you can just enjoy yourself. Screw up and you’re dead, or anyhow your language is.

So what is dead language? It’s any language whose usage or familiarity make it ineffective at wrenching a reader away from their present circumstances and into the world you, the writer, are trying to create.

I think each serious writer’s quest to avoid dead language will look unique. Vargas Llosa tries to avoid it by minimizing the expository and descriptive content of his novels, and putting that stuff in the dialogue tags. He also tries to avoid it by re-purposing in his novels documents not usually intended for narrative consumption: police reports, newspaper articles, academic essays. Like many literary writers from Dos Passos on, Vargas Llosa likes to slip such things into his narrative and enjoy the vivification of language that comes from displacing one sort of a document into a strange context, from displacing a non-narrative document into a narrative context. But if I did the exact same thing, I’d end up with a form of mannerism.

Or take DFW’s footnotes. I like them. Some of my friends hate them, and the reason they hate them in DFW I often hate them in his imitators: what originated as a method for vivification has turned into mannerism.

This reminds me of what Gabriel Josipovici identifies in his marvelous book What Ever Happened Modernism? as one of the mechanisms of modernist experimentation, a feeling that you simply can’t do x, y, or z any longer. You simply can’t do plot anymore—that’s a conviction about dead language which overcame certain perpetrators of the French nouveau roman, and while I personally don’t list plot among the language-killers (or at any rate among the things that deaden language for me), I can entirely appreciate the sentiment which would dispense with it. To a serious writer—which I think we must define as someone who cannot abide what they perceive as dead language—almost anything can be sacrificed in pursuit of a living or literary language.

Notes on Book Reviewing

I’ve been a regular contributor and editor for the long-form book review journal Open Letters Monthly for two years now. But I don’t claim any special authority on the subject of book reviews. If my time on that staff has taught me anything, it’s how many levels there are on the parnassus of criticism. I’m maybe on level two, which, hey, is above level one, but if I squint I can see reviewers on levels twelve and thirteen, so…

The fact remains that I have now written many more long-ish book reviews than the average person (34 at OLM, by my count), received and watched others receive the always sharp and wise advice of my fellow editors, and edited dozens of others’ reviews.

Lately, a number of friends have urged me to write down any advice I might have about writing book reviews professionally. Bearing in mind that I’m not a professional—I’ve never earned a red cent for a book review [editorial note: happily this is no longer true], and am not, as a consequence, a member of the National Book Critics Circle, though I rather expect to be someday—nonetheless I’m happy to offer what I have. What follows are my own provisional conclusions about book reviewing.

Learn to love summarizing.

There is only one non-negotiable element in a book review and that’s summary. Some of the most influential book reviews — the reviews that determine whether a bookseller will even carry a book or a library purchase it, often published in places like Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly and Booklist — are tiny, paragraph-long things which do the majority of their work through good summary. Long-form essay-reviews of the type published by Open Letters Monthly also need good summary: in fact, in their case, precisely because of their length, there is absolutely no excuse to leave a reader unsure what a book is about.

Unfortunately, to the beginning book reviewer summaries can carry the odor of schoolwork. They reminded me disagreeably of book reports at first, something I gladly left behind in grade school. But I learned to love them by embracing them as an opportunity for artistry. A sprightly and tight summary is a real feat both of prose and of thinking. You have to condense a few hundred pages into a few sentences, and you have to do it in an interesting way. Opposite dangers of boring but precise over-qualification and interesting but too-quick misrepresentation dog your steps.

I think that, other than the opening and closing of a book review, the summary section should probably receive the greatest care and the most revision. It’s worth getting right. And if you do it well, that’s the difference between a book review no one will read, and one in which they understand your subject and are willing to entertain your own precious thoughts that follow the summary.

Assorted keys to a good summary: (1) it should come as early as it can without ruining the lede (on which, see below); (2) it should definitely include sentences, if possible, about the experience and qualifications of the author, about the genre of the book, and about the book’s main thesis (if non-narrative) or situation (if narrative); (3) if possible it shouldn’t telegraph an evaluation.

Three is particularly important to me, though I know good book reviewers who do otherwise. I think—and this is a view plenty of you won’t share—that even a denunciation is better when the denounced thing is given a full and sympathetic hearing. Summary is where that hearing occurs. Hatchet job or puff job, in any review the point of a summary is a clear, concise statement of what kind of book is under discussion and what that book has to say. Feel free to eviscerate it only after you’ve clearly stated its contents; otherwise you’re fighting dirty.

Don’t just summarize.

Despite its importance, summarizing does not exhaust the functions of a book review. Too often, a new reviewer for Open Letters Monthly will send us a lovely long essay-review which amounts to nothing but summary. Academics are especially prone to this, trained as they are to produce scholarly works five parts summary to one part original idea.

What else is there to do in a book review besides summarize the book? Well, for starters: you could contextualize or explain the book’s content or form, relating it to other books; you could extrapolate from one of its themes, anecdotes, or theses to your own experiences and ideas; you could compare it to a similar book; and you could render a judgment on the quality of its prose, organization, validity, or truth.

The cool thing about book reviewing is that it doesn’t really matter what level of expertise you bring to a book, you can still write a good review. An expert can emphasize contextualization and explanation, a neophyte can emphasize extrapolation, and anybody can make a judgment.

That last comment deserves its own gloss, because I don’t mean the old-fashioned magisterial thumbs up-or-down of the newspaper book critic. More and more I find that kind of judgment and its presumption of impossible expertise repellant. Therefore, I suggest that you…

Avoid lazy evaluative abstractions.

Yes a book review has a normative function, and the people who write them are called critics for a reason. But it’s uninteresting to crustily brute about that this book is brilliant, that one abysmal, this one magisterial, that one better unwritten. These abstractions—of which the most inventive book reviewer runs out pretty quickly—are lazy. They are, in the lingo of philosophers, “thin” ascriptions of normativity, like saying somebody “did a bad thing” rather than that they “stole” or “murdered” or “insulted” etc. If you tell me someone “did a bad thing”, I’ll ask you, “what, exactly?” Same with book reviews.

Instead of thin, lazy evaluative abstractions, you should describe the particular kind of badness or goodness that you have discerned in a book. If you do it with enough precision, you can give weight to your flat abstractions or, better yet, dispense with them altogether.

This is why I said anybody can offer a useful judgment on a book. If James Wood said flatly, “this is a bad book,” it would mean no more to me, and be no more helpful, than if Joe Schmoe said, “this is a bad book.” Both of them would do better to describe the features of the book that seemed good or bad to them in detail, showing me with quotations and accurate summary, giving me reasons rather than bland conclusions.

Even if I disagree with a book reviewer, I respect their judgment if it takes the form of detailed evaluative description rather than a pronouncement I am supposed to accept on their bare authority. I can disagree with a detailed evaluative description in a particular way—perhaps you dislike the casual style of D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature, for example. I would disagree with you, but find your judgment interesting because it’s pinned to an identifiable feature of an actual book, whereas if you announce in stentorian tones, “D.H. Lawrence is a bad writer,” I not only disagree with you, but I’m going to despise the laziness of your evaluation.

Don’t be a tool.

Two traps that bedevil the critic: to accept a role merely as a cog in the economy of book selling, and to reject the role of a cog in the economy of book selling.

It can feel great to find your review excerpted on the praise-page of a book or on a publisher’s website. It might make you feel part of The Conversation. Don’t fool yourself. It’s empty — like getting excited a famous person responded to your tweet — proof only that you gave a thirsty publicist the sort of copy they needed to move books.

Look, I love me some publicists. They send me free books all the time! But we have different jobs and when my words and their desires converge, it should be a contingent by-product of my honest, accurate account of a book, not the result of a tacit conspiracy of mutual aggrandizement.

But it’s possible to be another kind of tool. To avoid even the implied judgment of precise, accurate description, and to leave your reader unsure whether you respected or despised a book. That, in my opinion, is also egregious. You’re a finite being whose limited perspective is always attended by feeling response to the things you concentrate upon. You thought the book was worth reading or not. Convey that information.

Get right to the point.

Now some more nuts-and-bolts suggestions. My first applies not just to book reviews but to literally any piece of writing, unless you have a very good reason to ignore it.

State your main idea early.

This implies two things: first, that you have a main idea, and second that you’re clear enough about it to state it succinctly.

I don’t think your main idea should be a simple thumbs up or down on the book (see the section on lazy evaluative abstractions above), but rather an evaluation-tinged observation about a feature of the book. For example, here are abstracted, one-sentence summaries of the main idea of several recent reviews I wrote:

(1) Existentialism is best told through the biographies of its main proponents, and Sarah Bakewell’s latest successfully does this.

(2) John Berger’s background as artist, novelist, and marxist make him a critic who appreciates and describes features of art works that others ignore.

(3) Friedrich Nietzsche’s lectures on education resonate with similar contemporary critiques, but should give us pause for that very reason.

That’s the sort of thing I (obviously) think a book review should be about: an observation not directly about the worth of the book, which nevertheless has consequences for the worth of the book.

Don’t neglect the lede

The lede is the hook, the opening paragraph or two (or three or four) from which you circle in to a summary of the book and a statement of your main idea. Its function is to be interesting. The stronger its connection to what follows the better, of course; but its main function, I repeat, is to be interesting. You can begin with summary, and if you’re an unusually interesting summarizer that can even be a good lede. You can begin, like a philosophical paper in an academic journal, with a bare statement of your thesis. And, again, if you have a surprising or unusually gripping thesis, that can work just fine.

But normally neither summary nor main point are going to be very hook-like. This is a book review you’re writing. A genre that proliferates like rabbits, a lowly mass-produced genre, and you’re likely competing with dozens of other reviews of the same book. Why should anyone take the time to read you?

Because you’re interesting. So be interesting, in sentence number one.

What’s interesting? Stories are interesting—I think a narrative opening is always the most gripping, and I’m not alone in that. Controversial or counter-intuitive assertions are interesting. Descriptions of inherently interesting things are interesting. But the common denominator in interesting ledes is—emotion.

I think if you want to be interesting you need to make a reader feel something. That can be curiosity, horror, delight, nostalgia, sorrow, amusement, whatever. But the more intense the feeling you inspire, the more interesting you are.

Conclude by returning to the point.

I’m not sure about this point. How to end book reviews still bedevils me as a technical problem. But the one fail-safe method that always seems to draw appreciative comments from other editors, and which I find myself admiring when I read other people’s book reviews, is an ending that alludes to the beginning.

But there are other ways to end. This is something I plan to study, and I’ll report back when I do. For now though, I can tell you this: circling back to the beginning is one safe way to go.

Have a structure.

You want neither to repeat yourself unduly, nor to write a collection of fragments masquerading as an essay. This piece of advice applies only to long-form reviews I think. A short, 500-word or fewer review kind of has a necessary form, just based on the inclusion of all a book review’s elements. But beyond that you have to make organizational decisions, and the thing will be more effective and memorable for readers if those decisions are logical.

 

Hide your structure.

Final piece of advice, related to the last one: rarely, but frequently enough to mention, we get writers who have so clearly organized their review that it feels like a paper. I mean it feels like an academic essay, where the goal is always very explicit organization.

I think one of the major differences between academic and literary writing is that literary writing attempts to disguise the bones of its organization. Mostly this involves two things: (1) literary writing dispenses with too-obvious sign-posting. None of this, “first I am going to… then I am going to… and finally I am going to.” (2) Literary writing takes care to make the transitions between paragraphs horizontal rather than vertical.

What do I mean by that last point? I mean that in literary writing, the first sentence of one paragraph follows from the last sentence of the previous paragraph, while in academic writing, it often follows a pre-stated schematic order. Academics think nothing of abruptly moving from one topic to another between paragraphs, so long as they have explicitly signaled that they will follow this progression. That’s fine, it fits their goals. But book reviewers are, for the most part, doing something more belletristic, and I think a certain organicism of prose follows that function. (The most magnificently organic paragraph writer, in my opinion, is William Gass, in his essays. Study A Temple of Texts.)

If you need examples of this difference, let me suggest looking back at this post. Between sections I am transitioning in a way that resembles what I am describing as academic paragraphing, and within sections I am transitioning in a way that resembles literary paragraphing.

(I’m over-generalizing about both academic and literary prose, obviously. But I think there’s something to my observation anyway.)

Go ye forth and review some books

That’s pretty much it. I hope that any pro (or good amateur) book reviewers will contribute their disagreements and additions in the comments, and I’ll take a stab at any questions.

Also, should you feel inspired by this post to write a book review, hit me up in my capacity as an editor of Open Letters Monthly—I’ll gladly talk to you about getting you a book (book reviewers get free books—did you know that?!) and working with you to publish your piece with us. [Editorial note: I’m not editing anymore. Turns out I like writing more, much more. But the Open Letters Monthly folks are still ready and eager to publish your longform book reviews. Hit them up.]