Thursday, May 27, 2010

Name That Loon

Names in fiction have a curious power, a meaning that stretches far beyond what they literally denote. The names of characters often supply basic expository information about gender, ethnicity, social class, and age, and they may smuggle in allusions or thematic hints as well. But in a more intuitive sense, characters' names stand in for those characters' physiognomies on the page: the stems, extenders, cross-strokes, and tails express, almost subliminally, qualities of the individuals' interior lives and the nature of their relationship to the world.

Names are ripples rising to the surface of language that mark a stirring in its murky, inexpressible depths. Even the most vivid physical descriptions -- occurring as they do just once each -- do not stick if they are at odds with a character's name, which is repeated dozens of times in a story and hundreds (or more) in a novel, linked inextricably with her every appearance in the text. More than once in writing workshops, I've observed widespread confusion about the identity of a character who was randomly or carelessly named, both on the part of readers ("Wait -- so Julie is the endocrinologist? I thought that was Patty.") but more importantly on the part of the author ("Oh, shit -- it's supposed to say 'Patty' there."). In my own writing life, I've certainly noticed that I can't connect fully with a character until I've found the perfect name for her, a condition that's led to sleepless nights and lots of obsessive overthinking. Plus, you'd be surprised at the looks you get in Rite Aid buying a baby name book along with condoms and beer.

Little Ender will have a wonderful childhood.

As I've suggested in the past, I am a big believer that, all arguments to the contrary, creative writing can be taught, and that most writers benefit from studying it rigorously: it's a craft, and like any craft it requires discipline and the mastery, or at least understanding, of certain fundamental techniques. Yet in a way, naming represents all the things about writing that I don't think can be taught. It's something that arises out of a personal, nearly tactile relationship with language; like the made-up words Quentin Coldwater utters during his entrance exam at the magic academy in The Magicians, it's a private, idiosyncratic means of expression erupting into something that everyone can see. There are no guidelines for it, no rules. (OK, maybe one: don't name a superintendent "Mr. Duper," unless you're Thomas Pynchon.) But you know before anyone else does when you're doing it wrong.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

When Every Genre is a Mystery

On the bad days, and there are many, it feels as though my work in publishing is little more than the meaningless toil of a miner, extracting salt from lightless, haunted caverns to rub in authors' wounds. The goals of the industry are not the goals of literature; this should be plainly apparent to anyone with a working knowledge of capitalist economics and a local Barnes & Noble, yet somehow it continues to surprise me almost daily. At these moments, it comforts me to think on academia, that faraway Elysium to which publishing's deserving works one day ascend. I turn my thoughts especially to creative writing programs, where, in my rosy recollection, aspiring wordsmiths read and engage with the works of both classmates and published writers whose books challenge their preconceptions and push the boundaries of their imaginations. (I also fondly remember donut holes in the student lounge.)

At these rhapsodic moments, it's easy for me to forget that, like celeb-courting publishing houses (OMG Sarah Silverman!), academia can present its own set of arbitrary biases -- a fact that was brought to my renewed attention today in a conversation with a friend who's currently attending a graduate program elsewhere in these United States. He mentioned that there's been an ongoing debate in his department, ever since a graduate teaching colleague piped up in a group discussion about the writing "don'ts" she offers students in her creative writing class. Horrified by an onslaught of Twilight copycats (aren't we all), this teacher added a note specifying that she does not allow "vampire fiction" in the workshop she's teaching. Many others promptly chimed in, agreeing that they specify that their students are not allowed to turn in, variously, sci-fi, fantasy, romance, and even, most vaguely, "genre" fiction in their work for the courses. Their arguments in favor of this strategy seemed to fall into a certain pattern: I don't know enough about this genre to teach it; I can only help my students if they write in the genre I know.

This is the kind of anecdote that makes me want to crawl into bed with a copy of Gun With Occasional Music and a bottle of bourbon, in hopes that I will awake in a more just world. Because this teacher and others like her are committing not just one grave injustice but two.

The first and more obvious injustice these teachers are committing is against the writers of, variously, sci-fi, fantasy, romance, and anything else that could be considered a "genre." When I say "writers" here I mean both the student writers who have the misfortune to study under them, and in a larger sense, the published writers working in these genres who are established masters of their craft. Dismissing an author's work sight unseen, on the basis of subject matter alone is, to put it plainly, stupid. It means discounting novels by Cormac McCarthy, Kazuo Ishiguro, Susannah Clarke, Jonathan Lethem, and Lev Grossman, just to name a few whose work I've specifically discussed on this blog. But even when the work in question isn't artistically ambitious, the knee-jerk treatment is deeply unfair. If the issue is that student writers are transparently copying the work of another (bad) author, why is it worse for them to copy Stephanie Meyers than the knock-down drag-out wretchedness of, say, Nicholas Sparks?

Put some fangs on this bad boy and you're good to go.

Isn't the teachable moment here a) that a story should be original, inspired by some unique combination of multiple literary influences and the author's imagination/personal experience, and b) that these kids should go on reading stuff that excites them, but maybe better stuff? I'd be thrilled to be the first to shove a Kelly Link collection into their nimbly texting little hands. You want monsters? I'll give you monsters like you've never seen.

The second, and perhaps graver injustice perpetrated by these teachers, though, is against "literary writers" like themselves. Because here's the thing: when a teacher (any kind of teacher) says, "I have nothing to teach someone like you," students tend to believe him. Saying, "I don't know nothing about writing no vampires" implies -- in fact states -- that the realm of literary fiction is so narrow, so impoverished, that its techniques and practices cannot address anything outside of almost cartoonishly limited parameters. It implies that literary fiction is an endless repetition of scenarios and characters that must fall within certain pre-defined categories, again and again and again; that any departure from the familiar will be met with discomfort and distaste. It suggests that literary fiction is itself a mere genre, not an organic, evolving art.

And it suggests that the practitioners of this Literary genre, as represented by the teacher, are in fact even dumber than the vampire-writing student himself. After all, in order to reach the college writing workshop the student in question has no doubt had to read and at least partially comprehend works of literature in the teacher's "genre." The teacher claims that he has been unable to do the same toward the student's. But unlike the student, who is busily perusing the syllabus for a brand new course, the teacher is unwilling to learn.

This paradigm is all messed up, for a lot of reasons, but what bugs me the most is the deep confusion it fosters. "Literary" is not a genre. "Literary" is a term of approbation, a way of suggesting that the work in question aspires to the condition of art, of "literature." And a work of fiction in any so-called "genre" can achieve this, so long as it rigorously pursues its own peculiar aims. Books and stories that fail to be literary fail because they fall into lazy postures, blindly following set conventions without questioning or exploring them. I understand that it must be frustrating to read dozens of stories that exemplify this laziness in the exact same way ("The sparkly vampire gently caressed her boob..."). But if a teacher wants to educate young writers about alternatives to writerly laziness, I don't think pedagogical laziness is the answer.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Making History

I don't often read nonfiction; in general, I find almost anything preferable to reality. However, Jame Loewen's thought-provoking 1996 revisionist text managed to snooker me in with its seductive title: LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME. Although it's filled with surprising information about famous American figures from John Brown to Helen Keller, this book is not primarily a history of the United States. Rather, it's a book-length book review of twelve of the crappiest works of nonfiction imaginable: a representative sampling of high school American history textbooks.

Let me backtrack for a second here. When I was a teenager, I attended (and eventually dropped out of) a conservative religious high school in the Midwest, the kind of hell where a boy with a ponytail gets sent to the principal's office and a girl with a crew cut gets sent to a guidance counselor. Pep rallies were mandatory, and they looked like this:

The Anti-Sex League was a popular alternative to cheerleading.

In short, I hated nearly every minute I spent enclosed in those ironically god-forsaken halls, and the classrooms were even worse. But one class I didn't entirely detest was AP American history. Our teacher was a tremulous-voiced madman so powdered with chalk dust he looked like he'd just survived an explosion, and he addressed us as "children," but with a tone of urgency that suggested not storytime but the last hope of mankind. His lessons on the innumerable tariffs, bills, battles, and Presidents whose progression informed the weekly quizzes were engaging enough, if only because of his forceful way of starting class discussions -- "Children, children! What do you think of this?!" -- but he really came to life on Fridays, when he allowed himself to indulge his passion: conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assasination. To start us off on these paranoid diversions, he always brought in photocopies of what he cryptically referred to as his "documents": telegrams, letters, redacted newspaper articles, photographs, receipts, and an array of other primary source materials, generally involving Lee Harvey Oswald, Jack Ruby, LBJ, Kennedy himself, Nixon, or the Cubans. What made these sessions fascinating were not the particular half-baked theories we cooked up as explanations during the discussion, but the sensation that we were actually doing history: that he was empowering us to parse out for ourselves an interpretation of primary sources, and that our conclusions might be as valuable -- even more valuable -- than anything already published in a book.

Part of the reason I found LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME interesting is that Loewen does not set out simply to set the record straight about common historical misconceptions. His larger and more important project is a rethinking of both the way historical narratives are presented and the pedagogy surrounding these narratives. Loewen isn't as much worried that high schoolers don't know "the truth," but that they don't care. Again and again, he points out something that's obvious to anyone who remembers their high school history textbook (and probably even more obvious to those who don't): these books are boring. Before textbook authors can even begin to redress the grave omissions -- and there are many -- they must first learn to write. As Loewen puts it, "Textbooks unfold history without real drama or suspense, only melodrama." Figures from Christopher Columbus to Woodrow Wilson are subjected to what he terms "heroification." In an attempt to cast them as aspirational role models, authors strip them of any potentially controversial qualities, and they become one-dimensional, featureless, indistinguishable figures in an endless parade of feel-good Americana. Positive changes in American life and culture never meet with government (or popular) resistance; progress moves inexorably forward. Events are causeless, struggles without visible opposition, and the outcome -- American triumph -- is never in doubt. This happens again and again in the passages Loewen quotes, even at the level of the sentences, when the authors use the passive voice. It's not just that the books are inaccurate; they don't ring true, because they ignore the significance-making conventions of traditional storytelling -- even more specifically, of good fiction writing.

Potentially, I think this claim is far more earth-shaking than the more specific critiques Loewen advances about the content of sections on slavery, the Vietnam War, and the Pilgrims. It seems to me that if we truly see history as a series of stories we tell ourselves about the past, then it becomes something that can -- and should -- aspire to the condition of art. But, many people would argue, isn't that just total relativism? Are all interpretations created equal? If a "better story" makes for "better history," then can't just anyone be a historian?

The answer, of course, is both yes and no. For something to qualify as history rather than a novel or re-imagining, it obviously must be based in research and verifiable evidence. But beyond that, I do think we should hold history, along with other forms of narrative nonfiction, to the same standards as fiction. It's not enough for a textbook, revisionist or traditionalist, liberal or conservative, to reproduce names and dates for our perusal. It must transform that material into something meaningful, or else it teaches us nothing worth knowing. In a scene from the Steve Martin play Picasso at the Lapin Agile, the character of Albert Einstein offers that his profession is just as concerned with beauty as any artist's: "...the theories must be beautiful. You know why the sun doesn't revolve around the earth? Because the idea is not beautiful enough. If you're trying to prove that the sun revolves around the earth, in order to make the theory fit the facts, you have to have the planets moving backwards, and the sun doing loop-de-loops. Way too ugly." Picasso asks him, "So you're not just describing the world as it is?" and Einstein replies, "No! We are creating a new way of looking at the world!" I would submit that students should learn to see history the same way: as something made, by and for the human mind.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Junk Food for Thought

Robert Downey Jr. may be sober, but his recent movies sure aren't.  Whether they're good (A Scanner Darkly is easily Linklater's best and trippiest work to date), bad (though in its defense, Iron Man is the only picture I've seen that directly references the board game "Operation"), or shockingly funny (I think even Mel Brooks would've stopped short of putting an actor in blackface for an entire film), they're all typified by their intemperance, their immoderation, their indulgence.  And this is equally true of the adaptation of Sherlock Holmes in which he stars. 

I'm often fond of films that treat their source material with respect, but there's something to be said for the other extreme too: the movie that shamelessly tramples over everything its progenitors stood for, the movie that, like the hungover be-mulleted teenage son of a divinity professor doing the walk of shame with only a hand puppet to clothe himself, bears a resemblance to its forebear in name alone.  Such a film is Holmes.  I imagine the vaguely steampunkish screenplay was banged out in a single night under the heavy influence of Wild Wild West, one of those two liter bottles of Mountain Dew, and the author's gnawing fear that his classic 1962 Chevy Corvair was about to be repossessed.  But pointing out the problems with this movie would be missing the point.  Like a beer bong, the purpose of a film like this one is to deliver enjoyment to the consumer as quickly and efficiently as possible, and to a limited extent, it succeeds.  Unlike Tranformers, a film so blurred and incomprehensible it at times looked like Michael Bay had simply carried his camera onto a robot-themed ride at Universal Studios, Holmes boasts action sequences with -- gasp! -- discernible action, and if you don't focus too intently on the plot's numerous holes, there's a measurable degree of suspense.  So I come neither to praise nor to decimate Sherlock Holmes, but rather to comment on something I found interesting about the particular way it stomped all over the character and stories on which it's based.

I haven't read the original Sherlock Holmes books since middle school, but as I recall, Holmes' methods of detection in them were straightforward, even debatably plausible.  In one story I remember, he notices that a bell pull isn't connected to anything, bell-wise; when he pieces together that it's a rope ladder for a murderous snake to climb down, it actually makes a kind of sense.  Holmes in these stories is preternaturally intelligent, true, but that intelligence is passive, reactive: to ply his detective trade, he requires time and an adequate supply of someone else's mistakes.  He's not a man of action, much less violence.  The strongarm stuff is for characters who aren't using their heads.

In the movie, of course, it's the opposite.  The idea of "detection," if that word can even be used, has been extended to such a bizarre, cartoonish extent here that its meaning is very nearly its opposite.  Although Sherlock Holmes does now and again figure things out from sensory detail -- clues, if we can use so quaint a term -- his real superpower is now his ability to apply the mad skillz of empirical observation to hand-to-hand combat.  Imagine if The Matrix took place in a DOS program where Neo had to key-in fight commands one at a time, and you'll get a sense of what's in store in the rumble sequences of Sherlock Holmes.  In some extra-chronological space, Holmes intones things like, "Uppercut to jaw... kick balls really hard" (not an actual quote) while all around him the action freezes, only to restart with a literal POW as he executes his "deduction" to the solar plexus.  Now that's thinkin'!

This conceit is dizzyingly moronic, and actually just about the best thing the movie has to offer in terms of minute-by-minute entertainment value.  But it's also extremely strange, and the more I think about it, the stranger it gets.  Since time immemorial, the notions of intelligence and brute strength have been played as opposites in drama, especially schlocky popular drama -- think of the archetypal science nerd getting his ass handed to him on the playground, the evil genius villain coming up with an ultimate weapon, only to have it wrested from his spindly fingers by a buff, bluff superguy.  Yet in Sherlock Holmes, the smart weakling has entirely collapsed into the kung fu fighter.  When someone takes a beatdown in this film, he's being bested physically and intellectually at once.  And, just to drive the point home, Sherlock's physical abilities never fall short of what he mentally envisions himself doing -- not even when he's facing off with an 8-foot-tall giant.  What gives?

Let me go off on a seemingly unrelated tangent for a moment here.  Over the weekend, I encountered what might be the best blog post I've ever read over at "Et Tu, Mr. Destructo?" about KFC's new meatwich, the Double Down.  This post is fascinating to me not because of its hilarious descriptions of disgusting fast food (though they were laugh-out-loud funny) but because, as the grease fire smoke clears, pseudonymous blogger Mobutu Sese Seko steps forward with a revelation about the nature of health/diet reporting in general:

"Since the late 1970s, the U.S. has borne witness to an increasingly judgmental and fanatic concern with body image. That our national fever for exercise has been matched by the fattening of us all hasn't occasioned much handwringing about our approach, but self-reflection is one of those time-wasting luxuries only allowed to people who aren't already late for spinning class.  Whatever the flaws in our calisthenic religion, an unmistakable side effect has been the impression that those who eat fast food are slovenly, lazy and/or obese, and that all these conditions have a shared precursor: ignorance. You have to be stupid to eat fast food, and like all good stupid people, you look unpleasant as a biological signal to the world that says, 'Yo, I'm stupid. Don't breed here'... This, of course, is stupid."

I think Seko's hit upon something exactly true about our culture.  As we become obsessed with physical "perfection" (a completely arbitrary ideal that's nonetheless foisted on us constantly through media and advertising) to an increasingly insane degree, it becomes more and more essential to dismiss not just the appearance but the inner lives of the so-called "unfit."  This means that, for example, a doctor who's overweight -- be it Dr. Watson or the Surgeon General -- couldn't possibly be a good doctor, because if he knew his stuff he wouldn't look the way he does.  Constant debates of "is so-and-so a good role model, b/c she's teh fatz" imply that if young people look up to someone obese, it's only the weight that they could possibly be seeking to emulate.  We're reassured again and again that nothing could be going on inside the head of a public figure, or even an ordinary person, that isn't already written on her body; that, as the old McDonald's slogan goes, "What you see is what you get."

My deduction: the smarter a man is, the more closely he resembles Rocky Balboa.

And the logical extension of all this, of course, is that if someone is a genius, he can exercise complete control, not over his mind (that's a given) but over his body too: that he can comprehend his way straight to a whuppin'.  It's a revealing perspective coming from a film that's the intellectual equivalent of a Baconator with a side of fries.