Reader’s Corner: ‘The World Turned Upside Down’

My review of Yang Jisheng’s new history of the Cultural Revolution, The World Turned Upside Down, was published at PopMatters:

For the first few years of the Cultural Revolution, China ripped itself apart in a frenzy of finger-pointing, denunciations, and pogroms. The combination of didacticism, divinely-ordained illogic, and thirst for public declarations of guilt (preferably following sessions of torture) reads like the Spanish Inquisition as carried out by the Khmer Rouge…

Writer’s Desk: Get the Details Right

In her novel The Mars Room, Rachel Kushner mined the details of her life in San Francisco, specifically growing up on the Pacific side in downmarket Sunset, long before Silicon Valley. Here is how she described it:

The Sunset was San Francisco, proudly, and yet an alternate one to what you might know: it was not about rainbow flags or Beat poetry or steep crooked streets but fog and Irish bars and liquor stores all the way to the Great Highway, where a sea of broken glass glittered along the endless parking strip of Ocean Beach. It was us girls in the back of someone’s primered Charger or Challenger riding those short, but long, forty-eight blocks to the beach, one boy shotgun with a stolen fire extinguisher, flocking people on street corners, randoms blasted white…

Given the litter of specifics there, you can not only imagine the scene but feel Kushner’s tart pride in recalling everything. That same instinct could turn to insult when reading an author who lets their attention slip, doesn’t remember that it was “forty-eight blocks to the beach”.

In Kushner’s essay, “The Hard Crowd,” she writes about her time in Haight-Ashbury, in the detritus of the 1960s, with Oliver Stone shooting The Doors on her doorstep. Sidelining from that, she takes aim at another California-reared scribe, Joan Didion:

In her eponymous “White Album” essay, Joan Didion insists that Jim Morrison’s pants are “black vinyl,” not black leather. Did you notice? She does this at least three times, refers to Jim Morrison’s pants as vinyl.

Kushner then pens an imaginary letter of complaint:

Dear Joan:

Record albums are made out of vinyl. Jim Morrison’s pants were leather, and even a Sacramento débutante, a Berkeley Tri-Delt, should know the difference.

Sincerely,

Rachel

Get those little details right. Get them wrong, and a reader who knows will be instantly pulled out of your writing. Possibly never to return.

Do your research, and keep them coming back for more.

Writer’s Desk: Only If You Have To

Around the time of the release of his documentary Harmontown, the ridiculously prolific and idea-rich writer Dan Harmon (Ricky & Morty, Community) took part in an AMA on Reddit, where he delivered some tips on the trade.

This one hit home:

Nobody can tell you that it’s going to work out. Outcome can’t be controlled. We’re not luck writers; we’re screenwriters. So all one screenwriter can say to another is, ‘Hey, it’s a tough racket for a really long time with random pockets of insanely good fortune to be found.’ Would you write screenplays if you were on a desert island? If the answer is yes, you should stick with it, because what the hell else are you going to do that’s going to make you happy?

While he’s specifically talking about screenwriting, which is its own kind of death-by-committee trade, the same lens should be used to view any kind of writing.

In other words, if you can do something else with your time, go and do that thing. It will certainly make you happier than writing.

(h/t: No Film School)

Literary Birthday: Susan Sontag

When Susan Sontag (born today in 1933) published Notes on Camp in 1964, she was already something of an enfant terrible in the literary world. This inventively formatted and passionately argued book-length essay further fueled her reputation at a time when the lines between high and low culture were blurring fast.

In elliptical fashion, the normally fiery critic danced around defining camp (“a certain mode of aestheticism”) and tried to give some idea of the overwrought and self-conscious (except when it isn’t) artifacts that are part of the camp canon: Tiffany lamps, Swan Lake, King Kong, Flash Gordon, and “stag movies seen without lust.”

The next year, Sontag entered herself into the evolving canon of camp—its droll downtown Manhattan subdivision, at least—by sitting for one of Andy Warhol’s “screen tests.”

Writer’s Desk: Once Again, With Feeling

A few days after 9/11, Ian McEwan wrote in The Guardian about the aftermath of the tragedy, the shock it had caused in the people he knew. Despite the world-spanning nature of the events, he noted that “the reckoning, of course, was with the personal.”

In describing how people channeled their traumatized watching into fantasies and daydreams that limn the cracks in the “terrible actuality”, McEwan hits on something essential in these imaginings about “what if it was me?”:

This is the nature of empathy, to think oneself into the minds of others. These are the mechanics of compassion … Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.

Your writing does not have to overtly engage with ethical quandaries in order to be moral. All it needs to do is whisk the reader into another person’s consciousness. By doing so, fiction can breed understanding.

Literary Birthday: Zora Neale Hurston

Anthropologist and so-called “Queen” of the Harlem Renaissance Zora Neale Hurston was born today in 1891. She liked giving people varying dates for her birth, invariably ones that marked her as younger. This fooled many writers like Alice Walker, who later helped rescue Hurston’s reputation from obscurity. Hurston most likely crafted this misconception not due to simple vanity but to obscure the fact that she did not even start high school in Florida until 1917, when she was already in her mid-twenties.

Despite such a late start to her education, after Hurston hit New York in 1925, she quickly became a literary star, publishing popular works of autobiography (Dust Tracks on a Road) and autobiographical fiction (Their Eyes Were Watching God) and writing for the Saturday Evening Post.

Literary Birthday: J.R.R. Tolkien

Even though his name would become synonymous with modern fantasy fiction, J. R. R. Tolkien (born today in 1892) only wrote the epic Middle-Earth cycle collected into The Lord of the Rings, when he was not working at his day job, which was professor of literature and language at Oxford.

Beyond his love of old folklore like Beowulf, which he drew on heavily for his own fantasy tales, he was also a dedicated philologist (a kind of historical linguist) who enjoyed not just learning languages (everything from Greek and Old Norse to Greek, Middle English, and Welsh) but making up his own languages. For the characters of Middle-Earth, he created over a dozen entirely new tongues, ranging from various Elvish dialects like Sindarin and Quenya to Khuzdul (the secret lingo of the dwarves).

Not content with that, Tolkien also invented a “Goblin Alphabet” for The Father Christmas Letters. That book, like some of his other fantasy tales, was written originally to amuse his children, who likely appreciated the effort, though some of the syntax may have been over their heads.

Writer’s Desk: Invite the Reader In

In her essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown“, Virginia Woolf described the phantom form that books can take for writers, a little figure (who identifies in this instance as “Brown”) and says “Catch me if you can.” That infuriating chase makes up the bulk of a writer’s life:

And so, led on by this will-o’-the-wisp, they flounder through volume after volume, spending the best years of their lives in the pursuit, and receiving for the most part very little cash in exchange. Few catch the phantom; most have to be content with a scrap of her dress or a wisp of her hair…

And what to do when you have finally caught the phantom? How to bring the reader in to witness the glory of your catch? Treat them as a guest:

The writer must get into touch with his reader by putting before him something which he recognises, which therefore stimulates his imagination, and makes him willing to co-operate in the far more difficult business of intimacy. And it is of the highest importance that this common meeting-place should be reached easily, almost instinctively, in the dark, with one’s eyes shut…

If you give the reader something familiar to hang on to, they will be more likely to follow you anywhere.

(H/T: LitHub)

Literary Birthday: Isaac Asimov

The first works published by Isaac Asimov (born today in 1920, a date now marked as National Science Fiction Day) both appeared when he was just 19 and could not have been more different.

One was his Columbia University thesis, “The Kinetics of the Reaction Inactivation of Tyrosinase During Its Catalysis of the Aerobic Oxidation of Catechol.”

The other was “Marooned Off Vesta,” published in the pulp science-fiction magazine, Amazing Stories (which a young Asimov had read at the newsstand at his family’s candy store, despite his father’s disapproval).

Asimov received a doctorate in chemistry but writing proved more enticing. He ultimately published 400 to 500 books (accounts vary). Some were nonfiction works on science, math, history, and literature. But many of the rest were science fiction tales like his now iconic “I, Robot” and “Foundation” series, exactly the kind of thing his father had once tutted over his reading.

Writer’s Desk: Find the Time

John Cheever had a fairly simple formula for writing. He explained it once when meeting a wonderstruck Michael Chabon:

Writing was a practice. The more you wrote, the better a writer you became and the more books you produced. Excellence plus productivity, that was the formula for sustained success, and time was the coefficient of both. 

For Cheever, though, this meant there was little room for anything else. Children? Cheever called them “notorious thieves of time.”

Of course, Chabon went on to father four children and publish 14 books, including masterpieces like The Yiddish Policeman’s Union and Wonder Boys. So he must have figured out some way to budget his time.

Reader’s Corner: Poetry in Bed

The deadly debonair Welsh actor Richard Burton may have made his living as an actor but his true love was reading, particularly poetry. The range of authors who “corrupted” him ranged from Shakespeare to Proust and Hemingway:

But mostly I was corrupted by Dylan Thomas. Most people see me as a rake, womanizer, boozer and purchaser of large baubles. I’m all those things depending on the prism and the light. But mostly I’m a reader…

In Gabriel Byrne’s lyrical new memoir Walking with Ghosts, he describes drinking with Burton after a grueling day of shooting a big costume drama in Venice. In between ruminations on their craft from a jaded veteran (“I’ve done the most appalling shit for money”), Burton rhapsodizes about his true love:

Poetry, the sound and music of words sooth me, always have. And books. Home is where the books are, he said. What I’ve always rather wanted was to be a writer, perhaps it’s too late now. I’m at an age, he said quietly, when I fear dying in a hotel room on a film.

Byrne notes that Burton’s fear did not come to pass:

He didn’t die in a hotel room but at home in bed, halfway through a volume of the Elizabethan poets.

Writer’s Desk: Art is Not Therapy

Art Spiegelman created some of the greatest literature of the 20th century by translating his and his family’s history into indelible art.

At the same time, he thinks it is more complicated than simply putting one’s thoughts, worries, and pain on the page. As he told Vulture:

Therapy is vomiting things up. Art is about eating your own vomit. There’s a therapeutic aspect to all making, but the nature of working is to compress, condense, and shape stuff, not to just expunge it. It’s not just an exorcism…

There can be nothing braver than coming clean in your writing.

But bravery is just the starting point.

Reader’s Corner: Year’s Best Graphic Novels

Publishers Weekly just published its annual poll of the year’s best graphic novels, at least as determined by its crew of critics (including myself). A strong favorite for the top selection, a choice that I strongly stand behind, is Derf Backderf’s stunning work of impassioned history, Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio.

You can read the full article here at Publishers Weekly.

Here are some of the other top favorites:

Reader’s Corner: Literary Datebook

If you are looking for a holiday gift for a literary-minded friend, how about a fancy desk calendar?

Check out the 2021 Barnes & Noble Desk Diary. Besides being a handsome hardcover edition with David Levine art throughout, it also has a wealth of short pieces about authors written by yours truly tied to the month or year a particular writer was born. There are also some longer profiles, like this one for the great Ursula K. Le Guin:

Get ’em now while they last.