Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Public Enemy Number One, pt. 3

This is part of a series about James Frey—
Introduction (why this guy?), Part 1 (on the memoir), Part 2 (on the novel)

For those of you just joining us, here's my thesis again: James Frey is a despicable hypocrite.  He says he cares about literature, but he only cares about money, and in fact, his main way of making money has been to repeatedly, unapologetically, and viciously curb stomp everything that a legitimate champion of literature would stake his life on trying to protect.  This thesis is supported by a large body of evidence primarily consisting of everything James Frey himself has said and done throughout his entire career to date.  Yet, even with the blood splatters of all that is worthy gleaming on his sneakers and the pavement at his feet, James Frey attempts to explain away his behavior by claiming that it's all part of his "art," assuming -- perhaps correctly -- that most Americans are either too stupid or too easily intimidated by "artistes" to follow this line of logic any further.  We cannot allow James Frey to get away with this.

Because this matters.  I'm not saying that in jest.  We live in an era of anti-intellectual fatalism, an era where appearing on television is taken for a symbol of divine right to power and riches, an era where a refusal to compromise one's work or morals is taken for simple naivete about the machinations of capitalism.  But it is not inevitable that fraudulent douchebags will get huge book deals and dominate the literary landscape, all the while exploiting younger, poorer, and in all likelihood, more talented writers.  And if this circumstance does come to pass, due to the human errors of the cynical and feeble-minded, the least the rest of us can do is say something about it.

Or so was my thinking a little over a month ago, when I first saw this harrowing and well-written piece in New York Magazine about James Frey's fiction factory.

On the Fiction Factory

Full disclosure: I'm a graduate of the MFA Creative Writing program at Columbia University (although I don't know the author of the NY mag piece or anyone featured in it), and I've ghostwritten a couple of books myself.   So it's fair to say that the scheme described in this article hit close to home.  Although I'd certainly be repulsed by Frey's behavior regardless of what vulnerable population of writers he chose to prey upon, the fact that he chose this particular community -- a community that in my recollection was made up of wildly ambitious, dizzyingly insecure individuals, most with no business training and the daunting apparition of 5- or 6-figure student loans forever looming over the flip screens of their buggy laptops, a community both energized and lightning struck by the buzzing voltage of the industry surrounding it, a community of writers who may claw each others' eyes out in workshop but will still start a bar fight to protect one of their own -- well, let's just say it intensifies my ire.  And the fact that I actually have some first-hand experience with book packagers and the deals they usually cut with ghostwriters intensifies my suspicion about Frey's plans and motivations.

So let's start with the business end of things.  Here's the deal offered to ghostwriters, according to author Suzanne Mozes:
In exchange for delivering a finished book within a set number of months, the writer would receive $250 (some contracts allowed for another $250 upon completion), along with a percentage of all revenue generated by the project, including television, film, and merchandise rights—30 percent if the idea was originally Frey’s, 40 percent if it was originally the writer’s. The writer would be financially responsible for any legal action brought against the book but would not own its copyright. Full Fathom Five could use the writer’s name or a pseudonym without his or her permission, even if the writer was no longer involved with the series, and the company could substitute the writer’s full name for a pseudonym at any point in the future. The writer was forbidden from signing contracts that would “conflict” with the project; what that might be wasn’t specified. The writer would not have approval over his or her publicity, pictures, or biographical materials. There was a $50,000 penalty if the writer publicly admitted to working with Full Fathom Five without permission.
Later in the article, Conrad Rippy, a publishing attorney, points out another unusual aspect of this deal: there's no audit clause in the contract, meaning that there's no way to verify the amount that the writer is to get 40% of.

In a normal book packager's ghostwriting contract, the writer gets no credit and a flat fee in the thousands.  When I was ghostwriting, I wouldn't have had it any other way.  To me, writing trash that I didn't own was as faintly disgusting as it was amusing, the occupational equivalent of reaching into a toilet for lost ring; it might make a good story later, but it wasn't the first image of myself I wanted to present.  The upside of the deal consisted entirely of being able to walk away afterwards with a check in my pocket and my intellectual and artistic reputation intact.  It worked out okay for the packager too: they got their books on time and, after paying me, were able to stash the royalties with no further computations.

What Frey is attempting to do here is something very different.  He wants to own the work, sure, but he wants to own the writer too.

Why doesn't Frey just write these books himself?  Well, first of all, that would take work.  But second, the contract, at least as it is here described, is a contract for the writer as cash cow, or writer as scapegoat.  If the writer's career takes off down the line, then Frey is free to plaster the dude's face to the book's jacket and put a stop to lucrative deals the writer might try to make with other packagers or publishers.  If the book is a legal disaster (which has been known to happen), Frey can denigrate the writer and have him foot the bill.  And if the book is a success but Frey sees no particular benefit in giving credit where credit is due, then Frey can just take that credit for himself.

Moreover, the fact the writer is paid only $250 up front puts all of the risk on the writer as well, despite the fact that the company has all the creative control.  Let me repeat that one more time.  All of the risk is on the writer, despite the fact that the company has all the creative control.  So imagine the following scenario: Columbia MFA Pollyanna Goodheart writes a salable YA novel.  Over a period of weeks or months, James Frey makes her change everything about it, then makes further changes himself (perhaps inserting a subplot involving evil motorbike riders).  Editors everywhere patiently explain that the book, in its current state, is a piece of shit.  Pollyanna Goodheart no longer owns any version of the material she spent months writing, and 40% of nothing is still nothing.  She returns to her Morningside Heights studio apartment with $250, fifty of which she immediately needs to spend on antidepressants and rat poison from her local Duane Reade, while at the end of the day Full Fathom Five presumably still has greater assets than two hundred dollars hidden in a Frito bag and a birthday check from Grandma.  As Suzanne Mozes puts it, "So there's nothing to lose?  Except my time?"  Frey's reply -- "I have nothing to lose" -- seems right on the money.

I fear that here we've returned, once again, to the Kingdom of the Obvious, but since this is where Frey's culpability resides, we may be spending quite a bit more time here during this post.  Because this man is almost cartoonishly villainous.  And the worst part of his villainy, at least for me, is the fact that he won't own up to what he's doing, which is squeezing young, unpublished, desperate writers for the few valuable things they have: their talent, their time, and their reputations.  James Frey instead claims that he is trying to make an "art factory," the literary equivalent of the "factories" created by Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst.  Let's examine that claim a little further.

The first prerequisite of an art factory, I'd submit, would be that it, you know, make art.  "Well, how do you judge what art is, that's so subjective, art can be anything, it can be a urinal in a gallery, remember you love that movie with the plastic bag blowing in the wind -- you could say it's garbage, but maybe to him it's art," says the dippy sixteen year old me, who still sprawls on a beanbag chair somewhere in the backrooms of my mind, listening to Fiona Apple on her headphones and sobbing herself to sleep.  After smacking her around for the better part of an hour, here's how I'd reply. 

Art can be successful or unsuccessful, but what defines it as art is the attempt, on the part of the artist or artists, to convey a truth about the human experience.  What makes something not art but artistic prostitution is the attempt to pander to the audience in order to separate them from their money.  (Remember the cruise ship essay I mentioned?  DFW says it better than I ever could.)  And although there are occasions when the status of a work as art or not art can be subject to debate -- Castaway: auteur film or extended Fed Ex commercial? -- this is in fact not one of them.

I haven't read the books produced by Full Fathom Five because life is too short.  But even if I did, you could argue that I'm biased against them anyway, since I would be reading them with the sole intention of tearing them apart for this post.  So let's go with the opinion of someone who is, if anything, biased in favor of these books.  Yes, that's right.  Let's start with how James Frey himself defines literary art.  Here is a list of statements he's made on the subject:
  • Frey told us, he wanted to write in the tradition of Tropic of Cancer, “A Season in Hell,” and Paris Spleen—transgressive works by transgressive authors. As he pointed out, heavy hitters never write like the established writers of their own time. Hemingway used short, declarative sentences; Miller wrote about sexuality in the first-person present tense; Mailer blurred the line between fact and fiction. These men created their own styles. (from Suzanne Mozes)
  • "I’m a big fan of breaking the rules, creating new forms, moving on to new places... In literature, you don’t see many radical books. That’s what I want to do: write radical books that confuse and confound, polarize opinions." (direct quote, NY Mag)
  • His goals as a writer are "to play with genres, to play with truth and reality, play with the rules people place on writing and art, which I wholly reject.” (direct quote, Vanity Fair)
  • "I spent ten years teaching myself to write.  I spent ten years trying to find my voice... Throughout that time, one of my goals was to remove any and all signs of obvious influence from my work.  I did not want to be a clone.  I did not want to be the next version of someone else." (direct quote from "Music and Talking: An Essay" by James Frey)
OK, so based on these statements, what sort of projects would one expect to come out of an "art factory" headed by James Frey?  Well, we'd see books that are risky, innovative, and shocking, both in terms of form and content -- maybe something a little like the list published by a press like Akashic or featherproof or even Melville House, but really too inimitable, explosive, and new to compare to anything currently on the scene. 

So how does Frey describe the kinds of projects he wants to see his laborers tackling?  Here is a list of the statements he's made on the subject:
  • Frey believed that Harry Potter and the Twilight series had awakened a ravenous market of readers and were leaving a substantial gap in their wake. He wanted to be the one to fill it. There had already been wizards, vampires, and werewolves. Aliens, Frey predicted, would be next. (from Suzanne Mozes)
  • Frey said he was interested in conceiving commercial ideas that would sell extremely well. (from Suzanne Mozes)
  • “I’m sorry, but we’re looking for high-concept ideas that we can pitch in one sentence. We know it sounds cynical, but it’s what we know we can sell.” (through his assistant, NY Mag)
  • In the meeting, Almon handed me a two-page outline, something that Frey said he uses in all his projects, to help my book with pacing. It was a classical Greek three-act structure, with suggested page numbers and advice on tracking the emotional narrative of the book, similar to a redemptive Hollywood movie. (from Suzanne Mozes)
Interesting: an "art factory" that, by Frey's own definition, doesn't produce art.

Interesting... interesting...

What am I saying?  "Interesting"?  Like hell it is!  There's nothing interesting about this at all!  The guy is a liar and a fraud!  He started as a hack screenwriter, wrote a memoir full of stuff he made up, got a 1.5 million dollar book deal for something that reads like Raymond Carver on Robitussin, and now he's exploiting writers to produce garbage so he gets even more money for DOING SHIT THAT IS WRONG.  Am I the only one who can see this?  Am I the only one here who is sane?  Listen, American literary culture: stop picking on Jonathan Franzen.  Here's the dude whose glasses you need to steal.

And if he isn't wearing his glasses, knock the contact lenses out of his eyes!

OK, OK, I'm not advocating violence here.  But really, guys.  Stop checking your Amazon ranking, minimize your grant applications, close Publishers' Marketplace for just one second, and listen to me.  This is worth getting upset about.

Because here's the thing.  We all want to be read.  We all want to have enough money to keep writing.  And we're all aware of the nonsensical demands of the industry that can provide us those things -- an industry all too often populated by soulless dreameaters who care nothing for the survival of our art.  But we do not have to become like them.  The one thing we have going for us, the only thing that makes our struggle worth doing, is the fact that we're right.  We're the ones who give and don't just take.  We're the ones who value something more than money.  We're the ones who question the status quo.  And that doesn't just make our lives bearable -- it makes the lives of the people who read our work more bearable, too.

So let me end this on a positive note.  There's nothing we can do to stop James Frey.  But there's also nothing he can do to stop us.  We just have to remember not to believe his lies: about what happened, what he's doing, or what matters, on the page or off, in a writer's life. 

There's more I could say about this -- there's always more I could say -- but for the time being, I consider James Frey properly chewed out.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Public Enemy Number One, pt. 2

This is part of a series about James Frey—
Introduction (why this guy?), Part 1 (on the memoir), Part 3 (on the fiction factory)
On the (new) novel

BRIGHT SHINY MORNING, which is either James Frey's first published novel or his second, depending on when you started the meter, is made up of several loosely connected narrative threads, featuring a diverse collection of characters in the LA area.  Frey includes all types, and believe me, they are all types: a vain and secretly gay movie star, a sad but hardworking Mexican-American maid, a struggling but upwardly mobile African American couple (whose mamas got their backs), a philosphical hobo and the teenage runaway he takes under his wing, and a couple of crazy-in-love kids who go to the City of Angels to seek their fortune, only to incur the wrath of an evil gang of motorbike riders.

Yes, you heard that right.  An evil gang of motorbike riders.

One could argue that the prose here invites comparisons to Raymond Carver.  Here's the one I would make.  Imagine an uneven short story collection by Raymond Carver.  Now imagine that Ed Wood writes a screenplay based on that short story collection.  Then imagine somebody hires James Frey to write the novelization of that screenplay.  That would be the book BRIGHT SHINY MORNING.

Such a comparison is the only way I can think to explain the rapid tonal shifts of this book.  Every few pages, the writing veers from the effectively sentimental ("It took four surgeries to put his legs back together.  His football career was over.") to the half-baked hardboiled ("Young, angry men, often without stable homes, are given money, guns, a sense of respect, a sense of belonging, and turned loose to buy, sell, rob and kill... There is little the police, or anyone, can do about it.  Arrest one and there are ten more, twenty more, fifty more.") to the sexploitational ("He is an American hero.  Amberton Parker.  Symbol of truth and justice, honesty and integrity.  Amberton Parker.  Public heterosexual.  Private homosexual.").

Yet these shifts in tone are rarely accompanied by the other shifts -- in diction, in sentence structure -- that we might expect in a book that delves into so many different lives and subcultures.  Frey's voice, the same "tough guy tells it like it is" tone of his memoir first novel whatever, doesn't allow us to access the inner worlds of these people, the intricately woven threads of their internal logic.  Frey announces their emotions in quick cliches -- "it broke her heart," "he was reduced physically and mentally," "she did what she could to bolster his spirits" -- and sometimes we get a character's stray thought (for example, the Mexican-American maid contemplates saying fuck you to her boss, though that "would go against everything her parents had taught her").  But the self-awareness is missing.  The characters that Frey holds up as admirable here are selfless strivers who never look inward; they're forever single-mindedly focused on doing honest labor to get ahead, sure, but more importantly (and without exception) to support dependent family members.  No one -- except for bad boy Frey himself, of course -- calls bullshit on the system.  The characters' occasional retreats from contemporary culture, always into inarticulate depression, are self-indulgent fugues that they eventually snap out of, for the good of their loved ones.

At times, these characters remind me of the characters in the great social-realist novels of the 20th century: Sister Carrie by Dreiser or The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck.  Those novels were content to depict ordinary people primarily as the unwitting fuel for the cruel machinery of capitalism, rather than as complexly thinking individuals.  Yet what machinery is Frey protesting against here?  It doesn't seem to be capitalism, at least not exactly.  In the world of BRIGHT SHINY MORNING, the busy worker bees confront obstacles, but as long as they don't set their sights unreasonably high, they're able to achieve their dreams.  Illegal immigrants raise their daughter up right; despite a sports-career-ending injury, the African-American football player and his wife have an idyllic marriage and a small home; the Mexican-American maid finds love and a job at Staples; even the crazy-in-love kids have a cute wedding (though they shouldn't have crossed those motorbike riders).  And it's abundantly clear that the hobo's status on the outskirts of society is the result of his alcoholism: his primary virtue is in trying to help his meth-addled charge avoid the same fate.  The game isn't easy, but it also isn't rigged, and hard work, however humbling, results invariably in the spiritual payoff of contentment.

What Frey does see as nasty, demeaning, and fruitless is the attempt on the part of any ordinary person to enter the glittering world of LA's entertainment industry.  In what I see as the novel's iconic scene, Maddie (Crazy-in-Love-Kid: Female) whispers to her lover, "I think I want to be an actress... Yeah, I want to be a movie star."  "Really?" he replies with some chagrin, and then, "If that's what you really want, give it a shot."  But of course she's just kidding: "It's not what I really want...I got what I really want."  What's that?  "I'm pregnant." 

OK, so this girl isn't exactly a fount of intelligence, imagination, or ambition, and I can't say I expected her to do anything much more interesting (April Wheeler she's certainly not).  But what is Frey actually trying to say here, and in the rest of this novel, which he has set so squarely and insistently in Hollywood USA?  It seems to me that the main theme of this novel is that creating art, creating entertainment, is inherently vain, selfish, and false.  The pure of heart don't allow themselves to be drawn to its artificial glow; instead, they keep their eyes on the things of this world: the broom in their hand, the baby on their lap, the time-tested rituals of graduation, marriage, the keeping of a home.

Nowhere in the book is this theme more clearly explored than in the section -- starting on page 229 of the paperback edition and continuing through page 240 -- that lists dozens of aspiring entertainers, the age at which they arrived in LA, the age that they are now, and sometimes, their day jobs, which range in quality from lousy to tragic.  Here are a few examples (direct quote).
Katy.  Actress.  Left her husband and three children to become a star.  Works at a grocery store.  Cries herself to sleep every night. [...]

Lee.  Actor/model.  Moved to Los Angeles at 21.  Waiter and occasionally a bartender.  He is now 27. 

Brad.  Actor.  Moved at 20.  Works as a bartender.  He is now 27.

Barry.  Singer.  Moved at 18.  Works in the ticket window at the Wax Museum.  He is now 31.

Bert.  Writer.  Moved at 24.  Bartender.  He is now 50.
And this doesn't even include the ones who have turned to prostitution.  Oh, they're victims, and it's sad, so sad: Frey practically orders us to pity them.  But there's something more going on here.  If we're to assume that, despite their time downwind from the fragrant streets of San Francisco, these folks are still capable of rational thought, then they can't just be victims.  They're chumps. 

And Frey's pity for them is well seasoned with condescension.  By choosing to list their ages or their menial day jobs, rather than, for example, why they love the movies, what inspires them, or what their greatest creative achievement to date has been, he's implying a couple of things.  First, he's suggesting that the time spent in pursuit of their dream has been entirely wasted; that the quest itself (for an acting career, or a screenwriting career, or a directing career) has resulted in no personal artistic satisfaction for these people; that it's impossible to produce anything of value without being successful, and that success always means industry recognition and more important, fame.  Second, he's suggesting that their perseverance is not admirable, but pathetic. It may be sad for a 20-year-old to want to direct films, but it's even sadder for a 30-year old to want to, and when a 40-year-old is still trying, it's flat out heartbreaking.  Third, he's making these characters interchangeable with each other, and with anyone else who has the same aspirations.  "It is estimated that 100,000 people a year move to Los Angeles to pursue careers in the entertainment industry," he gravely informs us, in a paragraph that reads like a PSA.  "They come from all over America, all over the world.  They were stars at home, they were smart or funny or beautiful.  When they arrive, they join the 100,000 that came the year before they did, and they await the 100,000 who will arrive the year after, the year after, the year after."  In other words, these people aren't making a conscious choice to live their lives pursuing their passion.  Instead, they're stunted, they're delusional.  They're losers who either can't or won't grow up, who aren't willing to accept the self-evident truth that they aren't special.  Because their work has been deemed unworthy by the industry, because they haven't been chosen, they deserve our pity but not our ear. 

And that's the thing: unlike, say, Jonathan Franzen, who locates someone very like himself in an unsuccessful screenwriter in his novel THE CORRECTIONS, or John Kennedy Toole, who allowed us to see both the lunacy and the majesty of his crank writer's prose, Frey does not bother giving even one of these wannabes a subplot. I think of a line from Aaron Sorkin's screenplay for The Social Network: "If you'd invented Facebook, you would have invented Facebook." This seems like something Frey might say. In the aforementioned passage and others, he comes across like the self-defeating voice in the back of every creative person's head. If you really wrote a screenplay, he seems to say, if you really knew how to act or sing, if you really had a vision as a director, wouldn't we have heard of you by now? Those people with regular 9-to-5 jobs, with marriages, with families -- those people really have something. What do you have? 'The work'? Give me a fuckin break.

Let's face it: not every creative person will achieve something like this in his lifetime.

And what about the successful entertainment-people in this book?  Well, they're even worse, because the only way to that type of success, as Frey sees it, is through a mile-long shit-filled pipeline of total ethical corruption and megalomania.  The novel's one villain (OK, except for those pesky motorbike riders) is Amberton Parker, the "public heterosexual, private homosexual."  A matinee idol along the lines of a Brad Pitt or a Tom Cruise, his entire life is about keeping up appearances -- to others, but also to himself.  He's obsessed with the way he looks, his clothes, his hair, and obsessed with being loved.  As the novel progresses, he uses his wealth and power to enslave Kevin Jackson, a young agent at the talent management firm that represents him, in a kind of bizarre sexual servitude.  But even as he blackmails this dude into sleeping with him, he's still not satiated -- he still wants Kevin to admit that he does, in fact, love Amberton, despite all appearances to the contrary.  "Do you love being with me?" he asks.  "Do you love making love to me?... Do you at least love my body?"  Kevin's responses are "No," "No," and "No," but Amberton is unfazed: "You're hot when you're angry," he says, and forces himself on the guy once again. 

Amberton, the only character in the novel who has chosen to make a life in the arts, is a kind of vampire.  He doesn't care about the work itself, just about how big an ego boost it will provide; he chooses projects based on the fawning letters that accompany the scripts, or on the basis of "which movie will make the most money and take the shortest time to shoot."  We never see him actually at work on a movie set or thinking about acting.  All we see is the opulent life this fame has given him, and the fact that for Amberton that's still not enough -- it still feels empty.  And it's empty, at bottom, because it's founded on a lie. 

In Amberton's case, that lie is his supposed heterosexuality.  But I don't think Frey is really interested in the fact Amberton is gay; what Frey hones in on is the falsehood.  In the passage that introduces Amberton, Frey hits us over the head with this again and again.  Amberton dates "the biggest!!! actress in the world.  Dates a model who goes by one name.  Dates a debutante, an Olympic swimmer the winner of six gold medals, a prima ballerina."  Amberton even gets married to a woman and has three children.  And because of all this -- and ONLY because of this -- is he allowed to become a major action star and romantic hero.  Long before Kevin arrives on the scene, we see Amberton is corrupted: he's betrayed his true self, sold his soul, and as he roams the world searching for someone or something to fill the void inside him, he's aware he's done it knowingly, that he's brought this on himself.

I mean, the guy even "wr[ote] a memoir."

So, in the world of BRIGHT SHINY MORNING, creative people are one of two kinds: chumps or vampires.  And although we pity the chumps, we can't exactly hate the vampires either, because fame, once tasted, cannot be untasted; the ego's mad craving never stops, and nothing is ever enough again.  Or so James Frey would have it.

continue to Part 3...

Monday, December 6, 2010

Public Enemy Number One, pt. 1

I want to be rich and I want lots of money / I don't care about clever, I don't care about funny / I want lots of clothes and fuckloads of diamonds / I hear people die while trying to find them / And I'll take my clothes off and it will be shameless / 'Cause everyone knows that's how you get famous... / I don't know what's right and what's real / Anymore...
- Lily Allen, "The Fear"
This is part of a series about James Frey—
Introduction (why this guy?), Part 2 (on his recent novel), Part 3 (on the fiction factory)

James Frey is not personally responsible for the excesses of contemporary literary culture, but in his work and his career, he has come to stand, for me, as a symbol of all those excesses taken to their worst extreme. Everyone knows that James Frey is a liar -- that's a statement of fact, not a value judgment.  He's lied in print, on television, and on the radio.  But lots of people lie for all kinds of reasons, and the simple fact that someone lied does not, in my opinion, make that person permanently contemptible.  The reason that James Frey is permanently contemptible is because he's also a hypocrite.  When he calls himself a writer, an artist, he is not affirming a commitment to truth and beauty, a commitment that at times comes at great personal cost.  He is offering an alibi for actions that are clearly, nakedly motivated by a desire for money and fame.  Someday, when sentient robots inspect the dross of our ridiculous civilization for clues as to what, exactly, went so terribly awry, they will come across the moldering archive of Frey's contributions to the world of letters, and those robots will weep until their face plates are streaked with rust.

Who is James Frey, anyway?  He's most famous as the guy whose addiction memoir, A MILLION LITTLE PIECES, a runaway bestseller and Oprah Book Club selection in which he referred to himself as a Criminal with a capital C, turned out to be heavily fictionalized, despite the author's public assertions that the book was accurate and had even been fact-checked by Doubleday, his publisher (which, obviously, it never was).  Despite the subsequent media storm and an avalanche of hate mail, Frey kept writing, eventually publishing the novel BRIGHT SHINY MORNING with HarperCollins in 2008.  His most recent project is Full Fathom Five, a young adult book packaging company.

To keep this post manageable, I'm going to divide it up into three chunks: the first about Frey's memoir, the next on his novel, and the last on his book packaging company.

On the Memoir

I haven't read A MILLION LITTLE PIECES cover to cover, and the scandal surrounding it has been discussed to death elsewhere, so I'll do my best to keep this short.  But I do think the debate over this book provides a good illustration of the kind of "controversy" Frey has courted over his career. 

Because the thing is, in my opinion, there should be no controversy, at least not literary controversy.  What happened with A MILLION LITTLE PIECES had nothing to do with art and everything to do with money.  Frey was financially motivated to publish the book as memoir, not as a novel, and then, when the factual inaccuracy was discovered, he claimed to be an artist fighting the good fight.  The fact that anybody listened to him, that anybody took him seriously, says to me that our national debates about literature have degenerated to the point of total incomprehensibility.  In the 1950's, Americans asked more of their game shows than we do of the literary world today.

Consider this: according to an article on Frey in the Guardian, Frey's agent submitted A MILLION LITTLE PIECES to seventeen New York publishers as a novel, and all of them rejected it, including Doubleday.  Only when it was resubmitted as a memoir did Doubleday make an offer.  The words in the book were the same, but the categorization was different.  So what exactly did James Frey think was going on?  If he believed the accuracy of the book didn't matter, why did he think they changed their minds?

I would argue that there are two basic modes of reading.  One is to read for aesthetic pleasure, and the other is to read for information.  The concept of the "found poem," or of appropriated text in fictive works by postmodern authors like Donald Barthelme, hinges on this division of reading modes.  With a found poem, readers approach text that was intended to be read as information -- instructions in a grammar book, poorly translated warning signs around a swimming pool -- in an aesthetic mode.  And of course, approaching a book in a search for information can grant value to aesthetically questionable material.  Everyone's familiar with the old saw, "Truth is stranger than fiction"; we say that because we allow nonfiction writers liberties that we wouldn't give their fiction-writing counterparts.  Coincidences, freak accidents, out-there statistics might seem "unbelievable," but we believe them anyway if we're given to understand they've been verified.  What frequently makes nonfiction interesting is the very thing that makes fiction uninteresting: it seems implausible, farfetched, too perfect -- like someone made it up.

Fiction sometimes contains kernels (or more) of information -- historical details, geography, the nuts and bolts of a character's profession -- and nonfiction can offer aesthetic pleasures, too.  Naturally, the reader often switches back and forth over the course of the book, sometimes enjoying a well-crafted turn of phrase, sometimes learning a new fact.  But for a book to "work," it doesn't have to provide an equally valuable experience to readers in both modes.  For example, I would strongly advise against reading CHRONIC CITY for factual information about the life and death of Marlon Brando, or most of the other pop culture subjects it touches on, even though the aesthetic pleasures it offers are off the charts.  And I haven't read Obama's DREAMS OF MY FATHER, so this is not my opinion, but I've heard several (hugely Obama-supporting) folks comment on its overdone sentimentality and unpalatable earnestness; at least one rabidly Democratic yet perhaps painfully astute reader told me it "sucked."  But a book of its kind at least has the potential to convey information that could be useful to voters: factual information about Obama's background, and the added bonus of some insight into his values and reasoning.  Unless it was ghostwritten.  In which case I'm going to have to vote for Palin next time, because everyone knows she writes her books all by herself.

My point is that evaluating the quality of a book is always partly dependent on knowing if it's supposed to be read as nonfiction.  And whether or not Frey saw his own book as having enough artistic merit to draw an audience primarily motivated by aesthetic pleasure, the rejections must have made him realize that the publishers who had read it didn't agree -- that they believed it would be valuable to readers only for the information it contained, presumably the life lessons gleaned from his battle against addiction.  This meant that he had three options.  
  • First, he could have tried submitting the novel to small, independent presses and first novel contests as it was, or with minor revisions, "sticking to his guns," trusting his original vision.  If he was unable to sell his first book, he could put it in a drawer, write another one, and go through the process again.  
    • Let me point out two obvious things about this: first, it would not have made him rich and famous, and second, it would have been sincere and honest, both factually and artistically.  Our culture values wealth and fame and does not value factual or artistic sincerity and honesty, so in the story of James Frey, many people have concluded that the mere possibility of wealth and fame, the simple temptation of it, must have been utterly irresistible -- that no further explanation is needed to understand why Frey did what he did. 
    • Maybe this would be more plausible if James Frey was straight out of rehab, couch-surfing and freegan, so that publishing a book looked like the only possible golden ticket to save him from his depressed existence.  But that was not the case.  James Frey was a successful screenwriter who penned the 1998 David Schwimmer vehicle Kissing a Fool, among other scripts, and the advance Doubleday ultimately offered him for the book was $50,000 -- not chump change, by any stretch of the imagination, but not big bucks by Hollywood standards either.  One might, in fact, argue that he had already sold out, so doing it twice was unnecessary.  In any case, they made him an offer, to misquote the Godfather, that he certainly could have refused.
    • Let me point out another obvious fact: many, many talented writers -- writers much more talented than James Frey -- have penned loosely autobiographical first novels and found themselves in a situation similar to the one he was in at this time.  Most of them have not falsely published those novels as nonfiction, instead choosing to go the route described above (sticking to their visions, etc.).  What happens to these people?  No one puts them on TV, or gives them bags of money with which to purchase tasteful modern art.  No one publishes their second books with a huge publicity campaign, fueled by the controversy over their first, or reviews those second books in the New York Times, just to give them another chance ("He got a second act. He got another chance. Look what he did with it. He stepped up to the plate and hit one out of the park.").  These people are left, at best, to a small readership, second best, to their pleasures of their art, and at worst, to the prospect of a life in which that art lives on only in a diminished aspect.  Rejection is horrible, those editors' terse emails like a spam virus of the soul, stalling everything that once opened with ease, closing every window.  Yet it's a reality too, one that sorely tests the author's commitment to what he claims to hold dear -- a reality Frey wasn't willing to face.
  • Second, Frey could have tried to "fix" the novel, to make it more palatable to commercial editors. Although memoir was a popular genre when he was submitting his book, first novels were -- DUH -- still getting published.  They're still getting published now, with the economy in the toilet!  Frey could have studied up on what sold and tried to make his book conform to those narrow standards.
    • But that would have taken work.  Next pls.
  • Third, James Frey could have rewritten the book as a memoir, adhering as closely as he could to the reality of his past while still making the prose, structure, and overall vision beautiful, engaging, and insightful.  Because -- and again, here, we enter the Kingdom of the Obvious -- people do, in fact, write memoirs that are actually true, and actually literary nevertheless.
    • I imagine that, like every issue of the New York Times, all memoirs contain some factual errors -- "honest mistakes," the kinds of slips of memory and detail or even occasional, minor, intentional embellishment that we all make when recalling our lives.  I am not arguing for raking authors over the coals for these kinds of errors. 
      • However, the errors in A MILLION LITTLE PIECES are not these kinds of errors.  Frey recalls, for one example, that he spent three months in prison, when in fact he spent no months in prison.  That would probably be the first thing I'd suggest he edit out.
    • But again, doing this would have taken work.
What Frey decided to do instead was not one of the three options I would have presented to him. He decided to do something that no ethical person would consider an option at all, which was to sell a largely fictional book as nonfiction.  He did so knowing that the book's primary selling point in the eyes of the publisher was the fact it was supposedly true.

Frey has pointed out that the publisher must have also known the book was untrue, because the revisions his editor suggested -- shifting timelines, altering characters -- were geared toward improving the story, not toward accuracy.  I have no idea what actually happened, but this certainly seems plausible, since a lot of sleazy people work in publishing.  But the fact that someone else allowed or even encouraged him to lie doesn't make sense as an excuse for lying.  To me, this reads a bit like Bernie Madoff blaming the feeder funds.

But here's the thing.  People make mistakes.  Sometimes they exaggerate or lie or get pretentious.  Sometimes they sell out, and not even for so much money that it makes any sense.  But this, in and of itself, doesn't mean they've entirely thrown their craft under the bus of their own greed, because sometimes they're also honest and repentant about their motivations.

For example: in his excellent essay "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," David Foster Wallace tears into what he describes as an "essaymercial" by Frank Conroy, author and chair of the Iowa Writers Workshop, which numbers among the promotional materials for a luxury cruise.  Wallace writes: 

The really major badness is that the project and placement of 'My Celebrity Cruise...' are sneaky and duplicitous and far beyond whatever eroded pales still exist in terms of literary ethics.  Conroy's 'essay' appears as an inset, on skinnier pages and with different margins than the rest of the brochure, creating the impression that it has been excerpted from some large and objective thing Conroy wrote. But it hasn't been. The truth is that Celebrity Cruises paid Frank Conroy up-front to write it, even though nowhere in or around the essay is there anything acknowledging that it's a paid endorsement...Celebrity Cruises is trying to position an ad in such a way that we come to it with the lowered guard and leading chin we reserve for coming to an essay. 
Yet, after being found out for his complicity in such a depressing, monetarily motivated scheme, what is Conroy's reaction?  Does he blame the limited literary-essay market?  Does he blame the brochure's publishers?  Does he call it a "coping mechanism"?  Does he say he "struggled with the idea of it"?  Does he claim he was bending genres?  Does he defend the essay as essentially sincere?  No. Instead he admits, with what DFW describes as "the small sigh that precedes a certain kind of weary candor":

"I prostituted myself."

What.  A.  Guy.

continue to Part 2...

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

I am a double agent for the KGB, pt. 3

Just thought I'd mention that my review of Patrick Somerville's masterful and amazing short story collection, The Universe in Miniature in Miniature, is now up on the site for the KGB Bar lit journal.  Check it out here:

Monday, November 22, 2010

Public Enemy Number One, Introduction

For some time now, I've thought about adding a feature to this blog, a category that -- alongside reviews and rants -- would constitute another kind of post in my repetoire.  Sometimes I considered calling it "Banned from the Shop."  Sometimes I considered calling it "File Under: People Who Should Be On Fire."  But I think the most accurate label for posts of this kind is actually the simplest: "The Chaw Shop Enemies List."  And so it shall be named.

I've been hard at work.

The main reason I didn't start the Enemies List sooner was that it's taken me some time to work out, what, exactly, constitutes an enemy of the Shop.  While one part of my brain just keeps screaming the words "Michiko Kakutani!" over and over until the syllables become shrill and meaningless as the blaring of a car alarm, I don't think that writing profoundly misguided, intellectually lazy, sentence-level uninteresting criticism is in itself enough to cast one forever from the Valhalla of my good graces. 

The fact is, as much as I dislike her articles, Kakutani -- like a precocious eleven-year-old with an Amazon account and a thesaurus -- is simply out to share her opinions with the world.  By all appearances, she truly believes in the validity of even her most hilariously deluded misconceptions.  When she writes a sentence like, "Alice Sebold's first novel, The Lovely Bones, is anything but a hokey, Ouija-board mystery," she is not, I think, giggling to herself about how she's just punked the nation's readers into taking what could have easily passed as a Lifetime movie novelization seriously as literature.  She's only trying to communicate her own (lamentably uninspected) experience of the book.  When she headlines her review of Kazuo Ishiguro's exquisitely constructed masterpiece The Unconsoled, "From Kazuo Ishiguro, A New Annoying Hero" and describes it within as a "shaggy dog narrative... [that] sorely tries the reader's patience," she's just expressing her frustration over the admitted failure of the jacket copy to spell out what in the heck is going on with the plot.  There's a sensibility at work here, and after reading a couple of her pieces, it's easy enough to recognize it: Kakutani doesn't like to be confused, not when her head hurts and she has a book report due.  She doesn't like to get lost, not even for a second, because that's weird and scary and might give her bad dreams.  So whenever these things happen, she complains, and loud.

Despite the disturbing cultural consequences of this bawling anti-intellectualism, concealed in a thin snugli of superficial erudition, I find someone like Kakutani -- or her somewhat less irritating colleague at the Times, A.O. Scott, who drew my ire here -- difficult to hate for long, for the simple reason that, although she may be allergic to serious thinking, she does value books, does look to them for at least some of the things they can in fact provide: instantly accessible entertainment and emotion, for example, if not formal originality or ideas or substance.  To someone like Kakutani, books do matter, do nourish and sustain (even if she prefers that nourishment to be minimally chewy).  They are a form of communication between human minds (even if what she prefers them to communicate would often be better suited to a tweet).  To her, books aren't mere products, valuable only in terms of their sales; they do have intrinsic worth (even if she assesses that worth haphazardly midway through her first and only speed-read of the work in question).  Kakutani cares about fiction -- she just has a painfully limited understanding of all the different ways that it can operate, and she's too impatient to sit still while someone else explains it to her.  Maybe she's just never seen the need to waste all that time thinking it through, since she doesn't write stories herself and she's got a steady job already.  But, whatever her reasons may be, although I don't respect her opinions, I could hardly call her an aesthetic psychopath.

Let me explain what I mean by that term.  It's my understanding that, in psychology, a psychopath is someone who understands human empathy and moral motivations intellectually, who can often "read" people exceptionally well, but who is incapable of feeling the corresponding emotions that come, for most, as a natural consequence of that knowledge: tenderness toward others; joy in emotional intimacy; guilt and shame when he sets out to deliberately hurt someone.  In this way, a psychopath is essentially different from someone who's ignorant or mentally challenged, in that he's fully capable of comprehending his full range of options and the consequences of choices he makes.  Psychopaths know what they "should" do; they just don't care.

An aesthetic psychopath, then -- and I use this term not as a psychological diagnosis, but strictly as metaphor -- would have to be someone who understood his art, who studied it closely and learned its tricks, and who knew, at least on some level, what it was capable of, the dizzying heights and devastating lows to which it could subject the human mind and heart, the scope of what it could convey.  In other words, he would have to be aware of the range of choices, and the consequences of those choices, available to a practitioner of his craft.  A non-psychopath, so informed by study and experience, might become even painfully sensitive to the inadequacies and subtle triumphs of his own work, and would engage ever deeper with others whom he recognizes are on the same quest, seeing their ambitions and shortcomings in excruciating relief.  He would, in time, become a master of his art, and a mentor to those he instructed.

An aesthetic psychopath, on the other hand, would be someone who knew all that stuff, sure, but who didn't, pardon my French, give a rat's ass about any of it.  Only someone like this -- the Patrick Bateman of the literary world -- could be a true enemy of the Shop.  And now, I'm both pleased and chagrined to say, I think I found him.

Please allow me to introduce our guest; he's a man of wealth and taste.  Submitted for your consideration as Chaw Shop Enemy Number one, I present...

James Frey, j'accuse.

In my next post, I'll dig into the particular grounds for thus awarding him, including this.  But in the meantime, thanks for reading.  You're still on my good side.

continue to Part 1...

Friday, October 29, 2010

Degree of Difficulty, pt. 2

When given the hypothetical choice between the superpowers of flying and invisibility, I have always, without hesitation, chosen invisibility.  Although flying would be wonderful during rush hour or late at night when subway service is spotty, there's something both profoundly appealing and alluringly disturbing about knowing what people really think of you -- what they say when you're not around.  It's partly for this reason, I think, that I have always loved the writing workshop.  Although most (or at least some) participants act aware of the writer's presence and her feelings when discussing a story draft, the conceit of most workshops I've attended is that the writer is in "the booth" for the period of the discussion.  Though she can see and hear the conversation, she can't take part in it, can't spring to her work's defense or agree with a certain reader's interpretation.  The purpose is not for the writer to intrude into the reader's experience of her story, but to eavesdrop on it: to find out what exactly the piece communicated, and what it failed to get across.

Writing workshops have been an invaluable part of my development as a writer. Probably the best two years of my life were spent in grad school, where my fiction was alternately attacked and devoured by a ravenous pack of wild intellectuals; I still wear their scars with pride.  So, as part of a self-imposed campaign not to drown myself in the Central Park reservoir before I turn thirty, pockets weighed down with candy corn, craft beer caps, and zip drives containing my unpublished oeuvre, I recently decided to sign up for an extracurricular writing class conveniently located in my nabe.  I lucked out big time: it's an excellent group, and the reads on my work have been generous and thorough.  But returning to that Conference Table of Broken Dreams (because that's what a flawed story is, isn't it? a broken dream?) after three years' absence has gotten me thinking about difficulty again, and the way it's addressed in the academic environment where so much debut fiction starts.

The writing workshop is, by its nature, biased in favor of the short story.  A short story can be submitted in a lone chunk, read in one sitting, and discussed in its entirety during a single session.  Although the draft of a story may be rough and the reading experience may involve an overtly critical approach (line-editing, etc.), the experience of reading and talking about a short story in a workshop is basically pretty similar to the way students would read and talk about a short story anywhere else.  To workshop a novel or novella, on the other hand, requires a bigger leap.  Split into twenty or thirty page chunks, the story is automatically digested differently than if it were presented in whole.  A major factor in my experience of a novel, for example, is, "How fast did I feel compelled to read this?"  The speed with which I'm propelled through a book isn't necessarily proportional to my enthusiasm for it (I read Room and The Magicians each in under two days), but it is a major part of the experience for me, something I nearly always mention when describing a book.  Yet this large-scale momentum isn't something that can even be considered in the workshopping of a novel.  And neither are other "macro" factors, like themes, image patterns, arc, or -- perhaps most important for our discussion here -- formal structure.

Because that's where the question about difficulty comes in.  Like the Philistine who stands too close to a pointillist painting and then complains about seeing nothing but dots, a workshop student may find himself stymied by excerpted sections of a novel that, viewed in the context of the entire work, might serve an obvious structural purpose.  Then again, they might not.  But given simply an isolated span of pages, he has no way to know.  So novels, regardless of the extent to which they're innovative, are frequently perceived in workshop as more "difficult" -- more mysterious, unknowable, tougher to judge -- than even experimental short fiction.

This is of course a fascinating contrast to the perception of difficulty by consumers of books, who (as the publishing industry knows all too well) seem to regard short stories with the same enthusiasm they normally reserve for spam email, but who occasionally deign to set aside their magic glowing Etch-a-Sketches for tomes like Freedom. (Those who aren't reading it on the Etch-a-Sketch, that is.)  Maybe the reason for short stories' unpopularity isn't difficulty per se, but it's certainly something akin to it.  Short stories, as a form, are characterized by qualities like compression and elision.  For them to hold together, every element, sometimes even every word, has to serve a function.  Stories, in other words, present a conundrum for many modern readers, in that their "blink-and-you-miss-it" aesthetic requires intense concentration.  Although stories take much less time to read than novels do, they demand a different kind of time, ideally uninterrupted and sustained, and a reading style that hones in on detail and language over plot.  And when you add formal experimentation into the mix, many readers will panic, thinking they've picked up a book of contemporary poetry by mistake. 

Don't let this be you.

But I don't mean to make fun.  Reading a short story is an intellectual sprint, and not every jogger is good at sprinting.  (I can enjoy a nice leisurely power walk, myself.)  What I find interesting, though, is the fact that many readers, who are not writers themselves, who would never pick up a short story anthology or collection or a literary journal, or even flip to the fiction section in the New Yorker -- let alone formulate impassioned opinions about what was printed there -- manage to tackle and (in book clubs and other forums) actively discuss contemporary, formally complex novels like The Time Traveler's Wife or Middlesex.  By keeping their focus on the big picture, these non-writer readers glide over and see beyond the smaller stumbling blocks that become the exclusive and intensely debated focus of so many workshop discussions...and that sometimes derail authors midway through a manuscript.

Difficulty certainly is in the eye of the beholder -- that's an obvious enough point and one that I made in my previous post about this subject.  But difficulty is also in the means of transmission (short sections versus the complete manuscript) and the speed at which the work is consumed.  Plus, there are doubtless other factors, too.  So tell me, kind readers, what adds to your perception of difficulty in a piece of writing?  What takes away from it?  And if you could either fly or be invisible, would you still bother with reading at all?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Child Neglect: Some Thoughts on Emma Donoghue's Room

Kids say the darndest things -- especially in contemporary literary fiction, where they have a tendency to shoot their mouths off on every subject from 9/11 to their own rapes and murders.  As a device, child-narration can be tough to pull off, but when it works, it's equally tough to resist.  In his introduction to the Vintage Book of Amnesia, Jonathan Lethem cites amnesiacs as a natural subject for fiction, since invented characters, by their very nature, come to us without pasts, assembling themselves before our very eyes: "Conjured out of the void by a thin thread of sentences, every fictional assertion exists as a speck on a background of consummate blankness."  Child characters are the same way, newly arrived and bewildered in a realm of unexplored possibility -- with an added bonus, too: as young creatures with still-developing minds, they are by nature curious, full of wonder and energy and the potential for intense joy or sadness over the most seemingly insignificant things.

Yet, when child-narration succeeds, it succeeds not because the child in question stays a blank, an innocent, but because she rapidly acquires her own specificity: because we see the adult person within her forming and transforming, struggling to get out.  In his 2005 masterpiece Tideland, filmmaker Terry Gilliam tells the story of a lost child, Jeliza-Rose, who finds herself orphaned in a run-down farmhouse on a featureless plain when both of her parents die from drug addiction.  Despite these dire circumstances, she subsists on her imaginings, and her beautiful visions of sentient Barbie doll heads, talking squirrels, floods, and rabbit holes share equal time with the setting's increasingly grisly realities (her neighbors include an overzealous taxidermist, and the subject of a botched lobotomy with a stash of dynamite under his bed).  In a wonderfully weird introduction to the picture, Gilliam explains, that he's finally found his inner child, "and she's a little girl."  It's clear from watching the movie that this is true.  Even amid disaster and horror, Jeliza-Rose quickly reveals she is no tabula rasa for viewers to project their own child-selves onto.  Like Gilliam himself, she has a distinct, idiosyncratic sensibility that would be recognizable no matter what world we saw refracted through her eyes.

It isn't just what she sees, but the way she sees it.

Emma Donoghue's novel Room starts with a similar premise.  The novel's narrator is Jack, a five year old boy, who is growing up in a grotesquely disturbing home environment: an eleven-by-eleven shed in a maniac's backyard.  His mother, we learn, was kidnapped and imprisoned there at age nineteen, and since then, she's been raped almost daily by the psychopath (referred to only as "Old Nick," not his real name), who keeps her alive on a meager diet of frozen foods, canned goods, and pain pills.  But, like Jeliza-Rose, he's never known a normal life, so to him, "Room" is the world: magical at some moments, frightening at others, but never monolithically vile.

In my opinion, the best moments of this novel unfold in this setting, a place at once otherworldly and plainly, grittily observed.  It's clear that the story is set in the contemporary era -- Jack watches Dora the Explorer on TV -- yet the touches of pop culture, rather than grounding us, make the situation seem even more surreal and impossibly removed.  Room is a realm where the traditional categories of realism versus fantasy no longer clearly apply.  Divorced from the context of larger civilization, Jack and his mother are forced to construct their own society, their own rituals and meaning, and although these behaviors often seem escapist and deluded, confronting their daily deprivations would not just be unlivable for the mother, but incomprehensible for Jack.  Instead, she teaches him to live in life as they know it, without an inkling of anything beyond the contents of their cork-lined cell.

A person's world is defined, we begin to see in Room, not by objective "truth" or even the sum total of knowledge available to humans somewhere, but by the knowledge passed down by authority figures within his particular community.  The whole of North America was once unknown to Europeans; the whole of Europe was once unknown to North Americans.  And Jack's mother doesn't speak Spanish, so to Jack, Spanish is not a "real language."  For him, food or books or toys don't exist until they get inside Room; the idea of their manufacture or purchase is just as mind-boggling as a time before the universe's creation.  He has no idea that Old Nick's nightly visits to his mom's mattress had anything to do with his own conception.  And fairy tales are just as real as anything on the evening news.  This is not magical realism, but reality as the speaker knows it.  And, if Donoghue lingered for longer in Room, allowing Jack to engage with this reality as he grows up (or even just grows a little older), we would come to learn just as much about the particularities of his character as we would about a kid, say, in the Middle Ages, who treats bloodletting as a hated inevitability in service of a greater good (like modern orthodontics), but who still has other qualities, other traits and interests, that make him distinct.

Unfortunately, just as Jack is beginning to come into focus, rebelling against certain of his mom's restrictions (tellingly, his first disobedient act is to come out of the wardrobe where he sleeps at night to take a good look at his father/captor) while continuing to accord with others, Donoghue suddenly moves the plot in a whole new direction.  Jack's mom begins to dismantle the ideas she's imparted to him since birth, fessing up that other boys and girls, sky and trees, are not "just TV," but real things, just past the door.  And SPOILER ALERT, she's planning an escape.

It's at this point that, for me, Jack as a character begins to recede.  His first experiences with the outside world, including a chase sequence where he leaps out of a moving truck, are page-turning stuff, and Donoghue makes a good point by showing him as more terrified and homesick than anything else as he encounters people and situations that just weeks earlier would have seemed as strange to him as taking a trip to Mars.  But after a few pages of listening to him wax nostalgic about Rug and Sundaytreat (the one special item they got to ask Old Nick for each week), I realized, with a sinking feeling, that Donoghue really had no idea who this kid was.  Jack's actions and interactions, his desires and fears, are profoundly predictable, scars left by his confinement.  But there's nothing more personal under them, no sensibility at work that we could recognize even if his experiences had been different.

And so Donoghue switches gears.  Jack becomes a passive observer of his mother's struggle to re-acclimate herself, and the story suddenly becomes something I'd flip past on Lifetime.  In what's easily the worst scene I've read in awhile, Jack throws a temper tantrum just before his mother is supposed to be interviewed for TV -- so she brings him with her (to which I must say: WTFFF?), and he sits, silently listening and hardly commenting even in his narration, as she delivers seven and a half pages of exposition and directly stated thematic material.  This is a disaster for the novel, not just because of the laziness of the fictive technique, but because it betrays the novel's central conceit: that Donoghue is at least attempting to relate this from the perspective of a plausible five-year-old.

OK, I get that Jack is smart, and that he's been trained to parrot back what people say on talk shows (it was part of how his mother taught him vocabulary back in Room).  But being able to parrot back what a person said is a far cry from understanding it, or even finding it interesting.  And, with the swirling newness of everything that would go into this event -- the lights, the cameras, the wires, the boom mike, the tech guys, the clipboards, the makeup -- I find it completely absurd to suggest that Jack would sit there, attentively listening to every word spoken, without ever becoming distracted or having a strong reaction of any kind.  Donoghue has completely lost interest in him as a character, and it really fucking shows.  If he were a real child, the treatment the author gives him in this scene would be akin to forgetting to pick him up at day care and leaving him there for four days.

The book never recovers from this huge misstep, in my opinion, not even with its lyrical tearjerker ending (though I'll admit that passage, a callback to Jack's mother's favorite storybook Goodnight Moon, is crudely effective even in its obviousness).  And once I shut the cover, I found myself wondering why it all had to go so awry.  Donoghue created a wonderful kid in the early chapters.  It's just criminal that she let him die of total neglect.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Dying of Consumption: Bookstores, Libraries, E-books, & Guilt

I used to think that libraries were virtuous.  When I was a kid, trips to the library were akin to trips to church.  Both environments were silent, hallowed, with soaring ceilings and an occasional homeless person.  Both felt like sanctuaries for a certain kind of knowledge, a knowledge yoked together with duty and obligation: the sanctity of the Word.  Both filled me with a strange, humbling sense of my own insignificance.  I was not the first to read these pages, be they Bible or hymnal or storybook, and I would not be the last.

The bookstore was nothing like either of these places.  Growing up, I did most of my book shopping at Chapter One, a strip mall storefront conveniently positioned just a few doors down from a Baskin Robbins.  They sold activity books with paint sets and Koosh balls attached to their covers, pop-up books whose complex origami had not yet been crushed by the mashing paws of other schoolchildren, Far Side collections like vast scrapbooks of hallucinations, chapter books bursting with educational mysteries whose answers were printed upside down at the end of the book, and later, lean bumpy-covered books printed on newsprint and published bi-monthly that told tales of man-eating hamsters, werewolf camp counselors, and brave young girls who faced burning at the stake when their proto-feminism was confused with witchcraft. 

I was an only child, and spoiled when it came to reading material.  I read a new book every few days, and these books were usually my own.  I burned through paperbacks the same way a Franklin stove devours wood shavings, entirely indiscriminate, and yet, even in the midst of this consuming passion, I saw and vaguely regretted my own decadence.  A nobler person than I wouldn't be tugging her mother's arm across the parking lot in the mad pursuit of more Encyclopedia Brown or Cam Jansen.  She'd be going to the library.

It was only in college that I began to recognize a library's unique appeal.  It probably helped that our campus library was far closer than any decent bookstore; also it was free, allowing me to read as promiscuously as I always had and still have money left over for late night nachos, theme party costumes, ironic Walmart impulse buys ("Oh my God, a My Little Pony with an American flag tattooed to its ass!"), and bad blockbuster movies at the local cineplex.  But there was more to it than that.  In my growing up years, the library was overstocked, unnavigable, daunting, and once I found whatever I was looking for, I was eager to leave.  In college, the library was a place to linger.  I snuck in cups of coffee and wrote papers and stories in an armchair, snug between the stacks.  I went in for twenty minutes between classes to check my email or read a magazine.  I checked out videocassettes from their large, idiosyncratic collection (they had Weekend and Eating Raoul but not Jaws, which suited me fine) and watched them on my roommate's TV; I even figured out how to use interlibrary loan, which if anything was faster than Amazon.

All this prepared me for grad school, where I had a vastly superior library at my disposal, and which meant that for a total of six years, I bought very few books, beyond the ones required for my classes.  I was, finally, virtuous, unencumbered by the rampant consumerism that had for so long contaminated my reading life.  And then one day in workshop, while talking about giving readings on a book tour, my professor said as an aside, "And you know what just kills me.  When I give a reading, and someone comes up to me afterwards from the audience and says, 'I loved what you just read.  I'm going to go check it out from the library.'"

I am no economist, to be sure.  But still, it's surprising that, for so many years, the thought never truly struck me that authors might not be such big fans of libraries -- that they might, actually, like to receive royalty checks within their lifetimes.  "Maybe," I tentatively offered, "those people don't have that much money?"

"Oh please."  My professor batted away the question.  "I mean, sure, if someone really can't afford it, I understand.  But most of these people can.  I mean, I'm talking about readings in mall bookstores, where the person already has a shopping bag.  In coffee shops, where a cappucino's four dollars.  In bars, here in New York.  If you can buy a drink, you can buy a book."

I fell silent.  During the time I'd been in grad school, I had bought many drinks.  Many, many, many drinks.

I did not change my book buying habits overnight.  But after grad school, although I got an NYPL card, I didn't find myself using it much.  Instead, I found myself spending more time in the independent bookstores, even sometimes Borders or B&N, where glossy covers glistened, face out on the shelves, luring me with that old seduction.

I think physical books are on their way out, and I don't resist that change; I think it's inevitable, and fighting it will only make writers lose time and opportunities to connect with an audience that's still hungry for the same things literary fiction has alway provided: beauty, truth, intellectual challenge, humor, wisdom, sex scenes.  In some ways, physical books are themselves an obstacle to some of the most important core qualities of literature.  When I moved apartments over the summer, I did a major purge of my bookshelves, eliminating not just a lot of books for long-completed courses but also some novels that I'd bought for pleasure, read once with interest, and then doubted I'd ever read again.  With each title I eliminated, I literally weighed the book in my hand, thinking, "Is it worth it to haul this?  Is it worth the space on my shelf?"  It's strange that a book's thingness makes me evaluate it in these crass physical terms -- that the mode of transmitting ideas, scenes, language weightlessly from mind to mind is so goddamn heavy, a brick.  That is not, in my opinion, anyway, what makes books worthwhile.  That's an inconvenience.

Yet, it's an inconvenience that has been a part of my reading life for as long as I can remember, and as such it's linked inseparably to the thing I care most about in the world.  Maybe one of these days I'll get myself an e-reader.  But right now, I'm just shopping on my bookshelf, slowly working my way through all the fiction I bought the old-fashioned way.  Which is to say, guiltily.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

I am a double agent for the KGB, pt. 2

Check out my new review on the KGB Bar's website!  This time I'm writing about Pirate Talk, the new novel by Terese Svoboda.  Here's the link:

Monday, October 11, 2010

It's a Zoo in Here: Animals in Fiction

When I was a child, one of my earliest lessons about fiction was on the component parts of a story: the primary ones hit upon were conflict, setting, theme, and characters.  Our teacher explained that "characters" were the "people" in a story, the actors who either caused the action or suffered the consequences of it.  I immediately raised my hand to ask if stories that featured only animals were then in fact stories at all.

Obviously, as my second grade teacher explained to me then and as I am well aware now, personified animals or even inanimate objects (from Toy Story's Woody to Asimov's robots to Pynchon's Byron the Bulb) can just as easily function as the protagonists and antagonists in fiction as actual living humans can, and many great stories, especially for kids, feature relationships between humans and non-humans front and center.  In stories of this kind, the enchanted creatures become the child's imagination externalized, made flesh, and tend to either mirror the child's thoughts about the adult world (Alice in Wonderland, The Phantom Tollbooth), provide fantastical tests for real-life moral quandaries (The Chronicles of Narnia, the film The Labyrinth), give the child the opportunity to reverse roles and take on the duties of protector or parent (The Indian in the Cupboard, the films The Iron Giant or ET), or supply reliable friendship and comfort while allowing the child to explore his identity outside of the confines of family (Winnie the Pooh, the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes).  In all of these cases, though the creatures themselves certainly have independent goals and motivations, we see them through the child's eyes, and ultimately, we judge them in terms of the effect they have on the child in question.  As much as a reader may like a talking faun or a lovable robot, it's clear she's not meant to locate herself in those characters.  By definition, they are the Other.

We're aware that we see this character through the child-character's eyes.

For that reason, something odd tends to happen in stories where people and their civilization are conspicuously absent: we are forced to identify with someone inherently dissimilar to ourselves.  As a kid, my first exposure to stories of this kind was in Aesop's fables.  Interactions between a fox and a raven or a cat and the mice it pursues were unsettling, not just because of the unmitigated cruelty and violence (no second chances here), but because these animals, unmoored from the context of my world, were deeply unpredictable to me.  One story in particular, the fable of the scorpion and the frog, was especially creepy: a scorpion hitches a ride on a frog's back to cross a fast-flowing river.  The frog is uncertain if it should trust the scorpion not to sting it, but as the scorpion points out, if it stings the frog mid-journey, they will both sink and drown.  Still, in the middle of the river, the scorpion stings his companion anyway.  Why?  "It's in my nature."

What does this mean, "It's in my nature"?  Is the scorpion good or bad, active or passive?  Does a scorpion have free will?  Even as a young child, I knew that humans are sometimes slaves to their own biological imperatives: the need for a bathroom on a road trip, the need for a puke bucket during flu season.  Was the scorpion's need to sting akin to these exigencies?  Or was its need to sting more like the other, less uncontrollable urges I experienced: the temptation to palm a roll of Lifesavers from a convenience store or to break my toys in the midst of a tantrum?  If the scorpion had been placed in a story with a little girl, it would have been clear where my sympathies should fall -- the scorpion would be a villain, or, simpler than that, a mere danger, like a lit stove.  But in Aesop (whatever he may have intended), this clarity was lost to me; try as I might, I couldn't locate myself in either character.  Although the altruistic frog was certainly more lovable within the context of the story, the scorpion's needless cruelty raised questions about him too.  If a scorpion's nature was to sting, then what was a frog's nature?  And if that nature was just a matter of instinct, genetics, not something chosen, then wouldn't his potential for goodness or badness entirely depend on whose perspective the reader chose to adopt?  After all, if a story were told about the frog from the point of view of a fly, the frog would seem inherently evil too.

One of the big complicatons in stories entirely about animals comes with personifying more than one species of animal at a time.  I call this the Animal Farm effect.  In the novel Animal Farm by George Orwell (which does, in fact, briefly feature humans as well, though not in the same way as the kids' stories I described above), a mass revolt against an unjust farmer leaves the animals in charge.  Yet, over the course of the story, the pigs -- originally placed in a management role because they are the smartest of the animals -- take on more and more of the qualities of humans in their interactions with the other barnyard creatures, until finally they are living almost exactly as their human masters once did, inhabiting the farmhouse and walking on two legs while others serve them.  The rules of the farm, which once represented the interests of all, are now reduced to one simple credo: ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL, BUT SOME ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS. 

Orwell, who was using the story to make a statement about Stalinist Russia, clearly meant for us to reject this maxim: the barnyard animals are all sentient, all capable of speech, and thus all equal on the novel's terms.  But I think that "all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others" does reflect something that's frequently true about the use of animals in fiction.  When creating a world dominated by animals, something must still be regarded as the Other in order for the animals' social order to be comprehensible to us -- in order for their life to at all resemble the relationship of human society to the natural world.  Even in Animal Farm, rats, songbirds, and rabbits play this role: the other animals attempt to "tame" them (signalling to the reader that "tameness" is the "humanity" of animals in this scenario) but without success.

The mid-90's Disney film The Lion King, for all its many embarrassing faults (if I never hear the saccharine song "Hakuna Matata" again, it will be too soon), succeeds in this one respect, at least.  With the exception of a meerkat, a wild boar, and a toucan -- all of whom are treated basically as servants and comic relief -- all of the speaking characters are predators, and the prey are basically de-personified.  In one memorable scene, a herd of bison trample a lion to death, not out of anger or a desire for revenge, but because they literally cannot be reasoned with.  They are running out of blind, unarticulated animal fear, seemingly unable to understand or even hear the cries of the main character for help.  For some lions to be "good" and some "evil," for the choices of a lion to have any moral weight, we must first establish that the central nature of a lion qua predator is morally neutral.  And we must do that by making it clear that the story is told from a lion's perspective.

I got to thinking about all these issues over the weekend, after seeing Zack Snyder's fun, gorgeous, and intermittently disappointing kids' feature, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'hoole.  After Watchmen (particularly the magnificent, absurdly ambitious, aggressively postmodern ultimate cut version, which I wrote about here, here, and here), I doubted he was going to top himself with a picture about magic talking owls, and unfortunately I was right.  However, moments of this picture are still fucking glorious, beginning with a sequence at the beginning when an owl swoops down to snatch a mouse off a branch and then continues effortlessly in its flight.  There are a few ornithological non-sequiturs throughout (one plot thread asserts that owlets can be turned to zombies by being forced to stare at the moon as they doze off -- a weird idea, considering that the laws of nature and even the film itself firmly establish that the little dudes are nocturnal), and a feel-good musical montage that made the Lion King soundtrack seem as edgy and smart as Sweeney Todd's in comparison.  But the movie's best moments come when we see owls' own natural behaviors unexpectedly invested with emotional import. 

"Branching," when owlets glide from branch to branch while learning to fly, is a little like athletics, a little like driving lessons, yet not exactly like either: it occupies a space in an owl's life not quite equivalent to anything in ours.  And an even better scene (easily my favorite moment in the film), comes when the little sister of the two main owlets hawks up her first owl pellet, a solidified mass of mouse bones and fur that resembles something fossilized.  Panting and traumatized, spittle dripping from her beak, she stares in horror at the thing her body has just unwittingly ejected, while her nursemaid, a dippy snake, bustles around saying things like, "Oh, it's a beautiful day, the day of your first pellet!"  "You mean," the stunned chick replies, voice quaking with trepidation, "it's going to happen again?"  Vomiting up an owl pellet is a little like menstruation is to humans, yet it also happens to boys; it's a bit like losing a tooth, but it never stops, not even in adulthood.  At heart, it's a thing that happens only to owls, and it isn't transformed to parallel directly with human experiences -- but the way they respond to it, socially and personally, seems more or less the way people would, if people were owls.

Sure, they look real cute... until you see the gunk that comes out of their mouths.

In this sense, stories about animals or other non-human characters can be deeply subversive, and not just because they allow the author to veil controversial opinions under the guise of fantasy.  Rather, these stories are subversive because of the way they allow readers or viewers to set aside their own perspective to emphathize with one that, by its very nature, is profoundly foreign, even disturbing or grotesque.  Especially for kids, but really for all of us, that's a lesson that can't come soon enough.