Saturday, March 9, 2013

If It Hadn’t a Been For That Horse: Semi-Connected Thoughts on Image and Strangeness

1. There’s a Louis Black stand-up routine in which he rants about two girls he overhead talking in a restaurant. One had said to the other, “If it hadn’t a been for that horse, I would have never made it through college.” Black did not have the opportunity to ask what this dropped phrase meant, and it drove him nuts that he would never find out. Like so much language, it dropped into his ear context-free. Worse, he could not imagine any context in which the statement made sense.

2. On an Air Schooner podcast, an interviewee discusses writing ekphrastic poems. She says, it isn’t enough to write about art from the outside; ekphrasis at its best imagines a way into the artwork.

3. Yesterday morning, I had the pleasure to attend an AWP panel on Larry Levis, put together by poet Joshua Robbins, whose book Praise Nothing has just been released. One of his fellow panelists, Kathy Fagan, talked about the Levis poem “Sensationalism,” collected in Winter Stars, an ekphrastic poem responding to Josef Koudelka photograph of a man talking to a horse. It struck me as a perfect example of a writer imagining himself in, as Levis begins to imagine the absent context back into the photo. He writes, “I begin to believe that the man’s wife & children/ Were shot & thrown into a ditch the week before this picture,” and continues his imaginative flight from there.

4. As writers, we strive to find what Eliot called the “objective correlative”—the concrete image that captures an abstract emotion and thus creates that unnamed emotion in the reader. It strikes me now that there is an implied formula here: 1) Locate emotions you want to write about, 2) Substitute things to create that you hope will emotion, 3) Remove traces of abstraction so the images can do their work.

What I’m wondering now is whether this formula is accurate. It seems to me what makes Levis’s poem so successful is that he finds the strange image, the one without context, the one that has no implied response, and then contextualizes its strangeness into his own life’s story—the story with which he is most deeply familiar and with which he makes the reader familiar as well. I want to make a connection here to Russian critic Victor Shklovsky who said we must make the strange familiar and the familiar strange, but the interplay here is more complex. Strangeness and familiarity are intertwined, perhaps even parasitic.

5. Levis writes, “Once, I was in love with a woman, & when I looked at her/ My face altered & took on the shape of her face.” He tells us, “She went mad, waking in tears she mistook for blood.” The familiar, the strange, the imaginative leap from self to not self, the inability to recognize what we make.

6. Today, I want to find a piece of strangeness. I want to feel along the seams of its door and then climb into it like a sports car. I want to press the pedal to the floor and shove the gearshift hard into one place then another as I move from second to third and upward. I want to hear the tires of that strangeness squeal across the pavement and smell the rubber burning under my feet. I want to drive that strangeness hard and fast until it takes me where it always does: that place where horses speak and guide us straight into the truest and most distant part of the familiar, the place where art lives.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Literary vs. Commercial: A Panel Report from AWP 2013

Yesterday, I went to a talk on bridging the gap between “commercial” and “literary” novels. The speakers (Ed Falco, Julianna Baggott, Lisa Haines, and Benjamin Percy) were phenomenal. They were the kinds of writers you want to be friends with so you could sit over beers late at night talking about favorite books. They were all that a panel should be—funny and insightful, approachable but authoritative—and they made a number of comments that I’ve been mulling over ever since. For example, I liked Ed Falco’s point that we should not be judging books by genre but by quality. He rightly argued that there are badly written literary genre books and well-written commercial ones, and that the quality of goodness or badness in the writing itself (rather than genre) should determine how we judge it. He said that the text, once done and sent to the publisher, is not inherently “literary” or “commercial.” It’s the author’s attitude when writing the book that puts it there. If you’re thinking only about your needs as an author and what you feel you must write, you are writing from a literary impulse, but if you are thinking about the audience and how the book might appeal to them, then your impulse is commercial.

Perhaps it is because I agree with him that I found the question and answer portion of the talk to be a bit frustrating. A young writer behind me asked about how the literary/commercial distinction affected the writing of the book—a good meaty process question—and the panelists (I want to attribute this answer mostly to Haines and Baggott, but more might have chimed in) responded that you write what you feel you must write, ignoring the generic question altogether. I am sure this answer feels utterly true to them, and I’m also sure that it is the best answer available, but I have to say, I can’t help but recognize it as an oversimplification. After all, anyone who has written creatively has faced the wealth of artistic choices, each beckoning with its own siren song. We have ridden through the yellow wood and faced, over and over again, the divergent paths. Sometimes, the street signs on those paths might as well be labeled “commercial” and “literary.” They lead us to different ends, but it isn’t always clear which is the better path.

Let’s be honest: our choices determine the book’s audience and the level of respect it earns with The New York Times book review or, as Haines pointed out, a tenure committee. Haines and Baggott both said that their most commercially successful books were left off their academic CVs or listed as supplementary to their other work because they knew those books would hurt rather than help their cause, and failure to make tenure means the loss of a job and the primary means to feed the family.

I’ve been at the cross roads with my second novel now for the past few months, trying to decide exactly how gritty, how “real,” I want this book to be, knowing that making it too gritty may not appeal to young adult readers who are likely to be its primary audience. The creative genies have yet to come to tell me which path I should take, and this fence rail has long become uncomfortable.

Who was it who said “the truth is rarely pure and never simple?” That’s the message I wish the panel had given the young writer in the audience struggling at her own crossroads. And maybe if they hadn’t been on the spot, under pressure to give the quick answer, they would have. Or maybe I am projecting too much. Maybe the choices have always been clearer for them. Haines and Baggott, after all, are talented and prolific—far more so than I am. Maybe they don’t get stuck on these questions as I am and have been. Maybe they don’t wallow in indecision. Maybe that’s the heart of genius.

Since I am not a genius, though, I will simply say this to that fellow writer and struggler who asked her bold question: many of us share your doubt. The answer Baggott and Haines gave is undoubtedly right—we must determine the road by being true to our work. Yet I come back to Falco (silent during this portion of the Q&A) who said that it is during process that we find ourselves following a literary or commercial impulse. Sometimes, those two masters give contradictory orders, and the writer must determine which s/he serves. The choice is rarely pure and never simple.