Quote of the Day: Terry Southern on Hollywood, Writing, “Freakishness”

(Library of Congress)
Somewhere in Southern California (Library of Congress)

Today’s bit of perception about one of America’s most over-analyzed, unloved, and misunderstood “cities” comes courtesy of surrealist pie-thrower and comic raconteur Terry Southern (CandyDr. Strangelove). Interviewed at length for The Paris Review‘s occasional series on screenwriters (the interview took place in 1967 but wasn’t published until 2012) the Texas-born Southern expounded on that great Southern California sinkhole of creative energy and dashed dreams:

Hollywood, that is to say, Los Angeles, is not, of course, a city, and its sinister forces are very oblique. There’s no public transportation system whatever, so the people drive around as though they were living in Des Moines, and it has all the rest of the disadvantages of a small town, only filled with displaced persons. On the other hand, life there has an engaging surrealist quality, an almost exciting grotesqueness.

The cultural scene there in general is sped up, sort of concentrated. Southern California is a mecca for all manner of freakishness, beginning on the most middle-class level—hot-dog stands in the shape of a hot dog. If you go there, you’ll immediately see a carnival, Disneyland aspect that is different from any other place in America.

Southern also notes the differences between the ladies of Hollywood and those of the East Coast:

… girls who want to be ­writers come to the Village and girls who want to be actresses go to Hollywood.

Writer’s Corner: James Franco is a Poet Now, Too

At some point, you would think that the whirling creative polymath that is James Franco would settle down. Onetime heartthrob actor turned creator of curious art installment films (Interior. Leather Bar), star of trashy-smart comedies (This Is the End), director of small-scale literary adaptations (As I Lay Dying), author of novels and short stories, and now: poetry.

francobook1Instead of going with a big press for his collection, Directing Herbert White, Franco smartly went with one of the more respected small poetry outfits out there: the expert Minnesota-based indie Graywolf Press. You can read an excerpt from the collection here.

How is the poetry itself? Not that memorable, but not noticeably worse than much of what’s out there and not necessarily contingent on Franco’s name.

As David Orr puts it in last week’s Times‘ Sunday Book Review, it’s:

“Directing Herbert White” is the sort of collection written by reasonably talented M.F.A. students in hundreds of M.F.A. programs stretching from sea to shining sea. Which is perhaps not surprising, since Franco actually has an M.F.A. in poetry…

…uniformly written in the kind of flat, prosy free verse that has dominated American poetry for ages (typical line: “New Orleans Square is my favorite part of Disneyland”), with stanzas that aren’t so much stanzas as elongated paragraphs.

One could argue that it’s just that flat and unadorned poetic style which all too often reads as lazy and slashed-up prose than actual lyricism which has helped reduce poetry to its currently weakened state.

But Orr’s ultimate take on the book is probably the right one. In short, there’s a lot of bad poetry out there. Better that somebody with the name recognition of Franco is at least taking up the flag and giving it an honest go:

Poetry is the weak sister of its sibling arts, alternately ignored and swaddled like a 19th-century invalid, and that will change only by means of a long, tedious and possibly futile effort at persuasion. Perhaps it’s a blessing to have James Franco on one’s side in that struggle.

New in Theaters: ‘A Most Wanted Man’

Philip Seymour Hoffman in 'A Most Wanted Man' (Roadside Attractions)
Philip Seymour Hoffman in ‘A Most Wanted Man’ (Roadside Attractions)

mostwantedman-posterThe latest John Le Carre adaptation is also one of the final film performances of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and just about nearly worth seeing just for him alone.

A Most Wanted Man is playing now in limited release. My review is at Film Racket:

This elegant, sparse, and scrupulously acted but dramatically stunted adaptation is like Anton Corbijn’s last film,The American: tasteful in a Europhilic way and not quite human. Although set right in the middle of the post-9/11, post-Cold War chaos that supposedly put an end to the old ways of sleuthing, the film has us harkening back to spy business essentials. These operatives certainly make good use of bleeding-edge gadgetry; after all, one of the great draws of those old spy stories was their showing off of then-new technology, catalog-like. But the fixation is really on those classic skills of patience and mousetrap-springing that the modern espionage thriller has essentially jettisoned like Jason Bourne leaping out a window. It would seem gauche if one of these guys even pulled out a gun. That careful sense of professionals going about their work with grim diligence is some of the best of what Corbijn’s film has to offer. What it doesn’t present is a pulse…

You can see the trailer here:

Department of Weekend Reading: July 25, 2014

reading1

New in Theaters: ‘Lucy’ Will Require Only About One Percent of Your Brain

Scarlett Johansson achieves hyper-intelligence in the not-so-smart 'Lucy' (Universal Pictures)
Scarlett Johansson achieves hyper-intelligence in the not-so-smart ‘Lucy’ (Universal Pictures)

Lucy-posterLuc Besson hasn’t written and directed a major action film since 1997’s gonzo sci-fi flick The Fifth Element. His newest, Lucy, is a curious amalgam of The MatrixFlowers for Algernon, and a whole bag full of bunk about humans only using 10 percent of their brains that shows Besson may have been away from the game for too long.

Lucy opens everywhere on Friday. My review is at Short Ends & Leader:

Lucy [shows Besson] having apparently grown impatient with nearly every convention of storytelling. We have barely met his Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) before she’s thrown into a bloody meat-grinder of a crime syndicate plot that results in her becoming a superhuman, god-like creature. All we know about Lucy is that she’s an American student in Taipei who likes to go clubbing. This lack of background drains the drama out of her transformation into near-omnipotence, no matter how nifty it is to watch her drop a roomful of gunmen to the ground with a flick of her finger (more on than in a bit)….

The trailer is fun at least:

Readers’ Corner: Man Booker Prize Longlist

131023 MB2013 Winner Poster MIDThe Man Booker Prize just announced their longlist of titles being considered for their 2014 fiction prize. This is literary news of a sort—prizes like this being a boon for time-challenged readers looking for help in figuring out what to read next—but nothing that extraordinary in itself. After all, this happens every year.

But here’s something different: For the first time in the prize’s 46 years, the list includes writers from beyond the UK and Commonwealth. In short, that means a couple of Americans have been allowed in; though as Publishers Weekly notes, not Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which you will recall won (perhaps undeservingly, I and some others would argue) this year’s Pulitzer for fiction.

Here’s the full list, via PW (who helpfully annotated with author nationalities):

The 2014 Man Booker Longlist

  • Joshua Ferris (American) To Rise Again at a Decent Hour(Viking)
  • Richard Flanagan (Australian) The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Chatto & Windus)
  • Karen Joy Fowler (American) We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (Serpent’s Tail)
  • Siri Hustvedt (American) The Blazing World (Sceptre)
  • Howard Jacobson (British) J (Jonathan Cape)
  • Paul Kingsnorth (British) The Wake (Unbound)
  • David Mitchell (British) The Bone Clocks (Sceptre)
  • Neel Mukherjee (British) The Lives of Others (Chatto & Windus)
  • David Nicholls (British) Us (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • Joseph O’Neill (Irish/American) The Dog (Fourth Estate)
  • Richard Powers (American) Orfeo (Atlantic Books)
  • Ali Smith (British) How to be Both (Hamish Hamilton)
  • Niall Williams (Irish) History of the Rain (Bloomsbury)

Writer’s Corner: Selling Your Book

(Library of Congress)
(Library of Congress)

Ted Thompson’s first novel, The Land of Steady Habits, will hit stores in January. In his funny, honest essay for Salon, “I Sold My Book for $25,000,” he talks (a little) about the process and (a lot) about what he learned. It should be required reading for anybody new to the publishing game who’s got a novel in their head or hard drive and wants to know what awaits them.

tedthompsoncover1Firstly, Thompson brings a well-needed slap of reality to new writers’ often starry-eyed wishes, particularly the notion among many writers and lovers of quality work that a book is only as good as its writing:

Subject matter matters … Once a manuscript leaves your desk, subject matter is the primary (and often only) way it is discussed. So if you haven’t figured out a quick way to answer that cringe-inducing question “What’s your book about?” in a way that interests other people, somebody else will.

Though you wouldn’t know it from hearing all the self-publishing fanatics (the Hugh Howey types who insist that self-publishing is the only way to go) foam at the mouth about elitist publishers, Thompson insists quite correctly that the average publisher wants to like your book:

Every book they publish, especially if it’s by a first-time writer, is a risk to them and their reputation, and it’s one they take because they personally responded to the book. This was a revelation to me, the fact that the grand faceless facade of New York publishing turned out to be a collection of surprisingly normal people, all of whom were looking to fall in love with a manuscript.

And lastly, a point that can’t be made enough: Don’t expect to strike it rich. Thompson signed with a major publisher and even sold some foreign rights. Still, he made about $75,000, and that’s before agent and other fees.

So, even if you’re one of the chosen few who actually gets published by one of the major houses, it’s probably wiser to splurge a little on a new laptop and a few weeks at a writer’s colony for the next book, and bank the rest. In other words: Don’t quit the day job.