Literature, with the naughty bits

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

For me, the publishing industry's potential for waste, particularly when sustainable materials are available, seems more obscene than the objectionable contents of nearly any book. If you feel the same way, behold the Environmental Defense Fund's Paper Calculator, now appearing inside books that are at least partly made from recycled materials.

An aside: ebooks are at best an imperfect solution to the problem of waste, since they rely on electricity, the production of which is one of our largest sources of environmental pollution. They're also distinctly inferior to real books in one or two practical particulars: they don't smell like library paste; a real book's battery never dies; and reading a narrative should be a physical--sometimes geographical--experience. Claiming that the two reading experiences are equal misses the point as badly as the fourth edition of The Elements of Style did when it claimed that a word processor's Cut function was the same as a pair of scissors. It's not, and any writer who has physically hacked through a manuscript knows that there is no substitute for tactile interaction with a book.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

An anniversary related to a different sort of moon

This morning, the New York Times published an excellent description of the legal arguments for and against the censorship of Lady Chatterley's Lover. Fifty years ago, the Supreme Court's decision stripped the U.S. Post Office of the right to refuse to mail content it deemed obscene--a practice that had previously resulted in books such as Ulysses being shipped in dust jackets bearing different titles and bylines. Amazon ought to be grateful.

Pardon the recent lack of posts. I've been working on a book that, I trust, will meet with strenuous parental opposition, if not outright censorship. But I should be back soon.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The writer, redefined

Spotted today in a classified ad calling for writers:
"You don't have to be a professional writer who understands sentence structure."

That all separating amateurs the pros from is the? Knew who?

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Quote of the day

"Every time I read something masterful, I can feel my life getting better."
--Writer Philipp Meyer, in a guest blog for Powell's Books

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

R.I.P. John Updike

We've lost far too many literary luminaries in the past year. For me--although the end of Rabbit, Run sings through my mind sometimes when I am running and it feels just right, and I don't think anyone has ever described that feeling any better--Updike's death doesn't quite have the artistic and emotional resonance that Harold Pinter's or David Foster Wallace's did.

But it does have a personal resonance. Updike I actually met. In college the Assembly Series offered student groups the opportunity to sponsor visiting lecturers, and so the literary magazine for which I was an editor got to sponsor Updike. After his talk, the student editors and a small group of English professors had lunch with him at the alumni house (which represented by far the nicest meal most of the students were going to have all semester).

I wish I could offer some reminiscence of the perfect phrases that left Updike's lips. What sticks in my memory, though, is the awestruck silence in which the students ate, while the English faculty tried very hard to say impressive things. It was fairly awkward, all told. Updike was quiet and gracious. It must be difficult to eat your lunch when everyone around you is holding their breath, waiting for you to be brilliant.

Don't wait for brilliance. Eat your lunch.

That's actually a fantastic lesson for a young writer. Perhaps I learned more from him than I thought.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Further thoughts on lazy writing

In the wake of the Fear of Flying post, I was thinking some more about why exactly I get so cranky about lazy writing. It's not because I'm a snippy grammarian who cares about correctness for the sake of correctness. (I can be, I'm afraid, but that's not the impulse that's operating here.) Rather, it's a much larger issue: why aesthetics matter at all.

I think it's because, at heart, all art deals in what we could be--or perhaps, what could be, period, with or without us. Along with religion and science, art is one of the arenas in which we reconcile our imaginations with our senses, the limitless universe we envision with the all-too-finite one we experience. Even the dourest forms of documentary-style realism are, in some measure, expressions of disappointment: they present what is as a contrast with what might be, so they offer a sad commentary on how far we fall short of our possibilities.

One way or another, art lets us peer through a spyglass at a different world. And it's sad when the lens is cracked, or dirty, or spotted, or blurry. All we want is to see.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Fear of Flying

Author: Erica Jong

What Happens: Erica Jong, a neurotic poet married to her psychoanalyst second husband, writes about the marital discontent of Isadora Wing, a neurotic poet married to her psychoanalyst second husband. At a European psychoanalysis conference, Wing meets the subtly named Adrian Goodlove, and with him she takes a hippie-style vacation from her marriage, camping and fornicating all across Europe. In the process Jong--or Wing, the lines blur a bit--introduces the invaluable concept of the Zipless Fuck, the fantasy of the lover so compelling and perfect that all real-world obstacles simply melt away.

Censorship History: Fear of Flying has been banned far and wide, in Italy, South Africa, and right here at home.

The lasting controversy had to do with public funding of the arts. Jong received a $5,000 from the NEA to write Fear of Flying, and, as required, stated on page 1 that she had received this funding. On the very next page she introduced the world to the Zipless Fuck. This outraged people such as Jesse Helms, that champion of the oppression known as taste, who participated in public debates over Fear of Flying without actually having read the book. The debates grew to encompass the furor surrounding Robert Mapplethorpe's photography and works such as Serrano's Piss Christ, and eventually resulted in the decision that the United States would no longer fund individual artists.

One reader notes that Amazon still censors certain words, requiring discussion of this book to include phrases such as "the zipless fudge." But "zipless fuck" is right there in the Key Phrases, so no matter how grateful I am for the image of zipless fudge, I'm not sure what she's talking about.

Value as Erotica: Fear or Flying has a reputation for being wildly erotic. And sure, it talks about sex (or perhaps around sex) plenty. But if you're looking for an actual sex scene, there's not much in the way of explicit description--there's much more discussion of what doesn't happen. Isadora's husband can go for hours, but draws the line at oral sex; she runs off with her lover, who turns out to be mostly impotent; the three of them have one night together--but if that just made you think FINALLY! then you're still in for disappointment. It's very much the R-rated, cut-to-the-morning-after version of the scene.

Maybe Jong's language is what's supposed to be erotic. Maybe 30 years ago it was really hot to encounter a woman talking this way. There's a certain locker-room swagger to the way Isadora throws around words like cunt and fuck, but for contemporary readers whatever shock value the words might have had is long gone.

And, finally, apart from the basic idea of leaving your husband to go tooling around Europe with your new lover, there's nothing really erotic about the story, unless you have a fetish for neurotic, overprivileged, self-involved women who are hung up on Freudian analysis. Whininess is not hot. Not in women, not in men, not ever.

Value as Feminism: This is one of the sacred texts of the 1970s women's movement. It was a big deal, I guess, for Jong to use language that only male authors had used previously. I've seen recent press describe her as "the original bad girl" (somewhere, in whatever afterlife you believe in, Eve is getting tetchy). To be sure, there's merit and honesty in her recognition of the contradictions inherent in modern womanhood.

And yet, you know, for me, this book encapsulates everything wrong with second-wave feminism. It's whiny, it's solipsistic, it takes Freud seriously, and it makes the tacit assumption that empowerment begins and ends with the self-actualization of a woman who already has quite a lot of power. The heroine never stops to wonder if perhaps her privilege and her obsession with self are themselves to blame for her lack of fulfillment.

Now, don't get me wrong: we needed second-wave feminism, and perhaps need it still, but it has some serious shortcomings. Among them are narcissism and whininess--which I think are directly due to a Steinem-style assumption that women are the perpetual victims of society and of the men in their lives. More pernicious, and ultimately more damaging, is the notion that fulfillment comes from gratifying every personal whim, regardless of its impact on others. How can that count as feminine fulfillment? It doesn't even register as human fulfillment. It's fundamentally childish: the exaltation of appetite, the inability to see beyond the bounds of self.

So we might as well get into this:

Value as Literature: I'm not a huge fan of how all this self-gratification translates into literature. Feminist literary theorists suggested that women could--some said should--write according to their own separate aesthetic, ignoring such supposedly oppressive, phallocentric conceits as clarity and grammar. (These concepts didn't really come to prominence until the 1980s, but they'd been brewing at least since the beginning of the century; some say the Nora chapter of Ulysses is an example of écriture feminine, although I have trouble reconciling the ideas of Joyce and laxness.) Suffice to say that, one way and another, ideas of individual liberation have resulted in quite a lot of lazy writing.

Henry Miller--no stranger to censorship himself--championed Fear of Flying, and said in a letter that the book had a "natural, free flow. Just the contrary of Hemingway's studied prose which so many Americans consider 'good writing.'" Now, certainly Hemingway can get far too mannered. But is it wrong to expect a certain amount of discipline from an artist? Isn't that discipline--which boils down, after all, to exercising aesthetic choice--exactly what separates good art from bad?

There is little such discipline here. In fact, if your bookstore had a Lazy Writing section, you'd probably spot Fear of Flying on the shelf (right there next to On the Road and Angels and Demons). It's at least 50 pages too long. It's that dreaded beast, an autobiographical first-person novel. It's contradictory. It ends on the sort of cliffhanger that indicates the author couldn't solve the main conflict and opted to weasel out instead. It's in love with its own cleverness, brimming with parenthetical asides and the sort of feeble puns ("whoreoscopes," "my hysterical history") that give wordplay a bad name.

Is it antifeminist of me to get on Jong/Wing's case for whininess? That's an interesting question. You could point at literature's long history of neurotic male characters trying to make up their minds--from Hamlet to the protagonist in Notes from Underground--and argue that female characters are due for their turn on the couch. Fair point.

But the problem here is that Fear of Flying begins and ends with the couch. There's nothing more at stake. Hamlet's decision will reshape the kingdom, and he knows it; the process of deciding involves consideration not just of what he will do but of what it means to be human, what it means to die, what it means to face a decision like this. Isadora's decision is going to affect what she thinks about when she masturbates for the next few years, and it will affect her petulant analyst husband, and that's pretty much it. It's not a reflection on what it means to be human; it's just a reflection on what it means to be her--to be affluent and educated and still unsatisfied--and after a while it acquires the tedium of listening to a shrink's taped conversations with a hypochondriac.

Now, isn't there a case to be made for exploring an individual situation in such a way that it becomes universal? Of course. That's all literature ever is, or needs to be. The question is whether Fear of Flying actually makes the leap to universality. The concept of the Z.F. comes the closest. Are we willing to grant the book universality based on that concept alone? For me, it's not enough. I suspect that, when the book came out, the feelings it described were much like those of many women in the affluent chattering class that, coincidentally, happens to establish critical reaction to books. They saw themselves, and assumed the experience was universal. But it's not--not by a long shot.

So the real problem is that this is whininess and indecision without a larger purpose. Women are due for their Hamlet, no question, but should we settle for Isadora Wing? In terms of scale, scope, obsession, and would-be shock value, this is much closer to Portnoy's Complaint. Jong's real subject is Erica Jong, just as Philip Roth's is Philip Roth. That comparison would probably piss off Erica Jong and Philip Roth equally. But so be it.

What Else: There is nothing as simultaneously flattering and dismaying as the light of hope that leaps into a man's eyes when he finds out where you're from. I doubt the reputation American women enjoy in Italy is entirely due to the heroic philandering of Isadora Wing (or Erica Jong, acting as Isadora Wing). Based on my recent months in Tuscany, I'm guessing that the reputation has been well fortified by the hordes of sorority girls who file into the Florence airport wearing velour sweatpants with PINK emblazoned across the butts, chattering about Italy's lack of a drinking age.

Perhaps whole armies of American women, inspired by Fear of Flying, have been descending on Italy, demanding sexual awakenings? If American tourists demand sex the same way they demand other things ("HI! I'M LOOKING! FOR THE GIGOLOS! EXCUSE ME! HI! THE GIGOLOS?"), then oh, a brilliant comedy is waiting to be written.