Field Guide to Forbidden Books

Literature, with the naughty bits

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Au revoir

I've decided to stop posting here for a while. I doubt this will come as any great shock, since it's already been quite a while since my last post, but I'm making it official.

My reasoning:
1. I'm more interested these days in writing fiction than in writing criticism. If I do happen to get an idea for a piece of writing about writing, I'll probably post it here. This has been a useful place to hash out those ideas.
2. As I work to find representation and, I hope, get the next novel published, it seems to me more and more that writing criticism of contemporary writers could be a bit of a conflict of interest. As an actor, I don't write theater reviews because I doubt my ability to be objective about other performers--especially those performers in roles for which I might be considered. I might, similarly, be more prone to denigrating the work of writers with whom I'm jockeying for position in a crowded marketplace. My bias might not be conscious, but that makes guarding against it all the more imperative.

I will keep the blog online, since I think I did some decent writing here. Many thanks to everyone who read and commented.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Good Advices

I've just finished Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer. For good or ill, I've been reading like a writer my entire life, so many of the discussions are less revelations than statements of truths I have already known instinctively. Which does not, of course, make them any less valuable.

The lessons in humility in the Chekhov chapter are particularly useful, coming nearer the point than I did when I tried to describe the importance of forgiveness in David Foster Wallace's work. Here's Prose quoting Chekhov:

It is time for writers to admit that nothing in this world makes sense. Only fools and charlatans think they know and understand everything. The stupider they are, the wider they conceive their horizons to be. And if an artist decides to declare that he understands nothing of what he sees--this in itself constitutes a considerable clarity in the realm of thought, and a great step forward.

I love this. It's so easy to fall into the trap of believing there to be a list of prerequisites for being a writer, of regarding Tolstoy and Joyce and the other greats with such veneration that we forget that they, too, were simply humans who told stories--that their ways with words would be nothing if not for the peculiar honesty of their visions. Their truths are less pronounced than admitted.

The heart of the matter was expressed more pithily by Howard Nemerov, who told a self-described aspiring writer, "Okay, so write something."

It's amusing that the advice doesn't change at the pot-boiler end of the spectrum. Peter O'Donnell, author of the Modesty Blaise comic strip and the Madeleine Brent novels, recounts a conversation with a pitiless editor: "You're supposed to be an author, aren't you? Well f--- off and auth."

Friday, August 13, 2010


I suggested an American Psycho/Pride and Prejudice mashup, but I'm very happy that Drew Grant has gone one better: American Psycho meets the Baby-Sitters' Club.

I hope this means there's a Less Than Zero/Nancy Drew hybrid waiting in the wings.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Redemption in Prose

I'm not even done with this book yet and already it feels vitally important, exactly what I needed to be reading at exactly this moment in my life. (As if to prove that, at my audition last night one of the other actors was wearing a homemade David Foster Wallace T-shirt: across the chest was DFW, then a superscripted 1; across the bottom of the shirt was the footnote David Foster Wallace.) I can tell I will soon be collaring my friends and thrusting the book at their chests with evangelical fervor. Guys: You have to read this. It is so good.

The opening pages, in reintroducing me to this literary personality I adore, made me cry. They also help me understand his 2008 suicide somewhat--that it was the end of a long and deeply sad battle, that it disappointed him too.

I am--maybe--beginning to understand why I love his writing so much. (As with any writer, the understanding is a lifelong process.) It's not just that he's brilliant, or that he's the most accessible genius you've ever encountered. It's the expansive sense of forgiveness that pervades his work: forgiveness of himself for being what he was, forgiveness of humans for being what we are, forgiveness of the language for being what it is--this last taking him past all the elementary-school dogma about Garbage Words and all the grad school dogma about literary prose and letting him just use the words he needs to use. If the words were sometimes inelegant, sometimes academic, sometimes earthy, sometimes distracted, sometimes obscene, then far from being less artistic, they did a better job of capturing how it feels to be the mess of contradictions that is a human.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Missed Opportunities of Avalon

The Very Bad Book is done; it had some redeeming qualities, but not enough to make me forgive it for being 900 bloody pages long. I'm drafting a longer post about it, and I suppose for equipoise I'll write one about The Once and Future King as well.

But first, to cleanse my palate with Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which I've been looking forward to more than any other book this year.

Friday, July 16, 2010

I Write Like E. A. Bagby, Thank You Very Much

By now, literary folks with time to kill have probably discovered I Write Like, the website that tells you--based on an automated analysis few cut-and-pasted paragraphs--which famous writer's work your words most resemble. I tried it a couple of times, once with the opening scene of my Victorian YA mystery, once with the last post of this blog. Evidently, the mystery resembles Dickens (hooray! exactly what it needs to do!), and the blog resembles Dan Brown. That last assessment was--well, nauseating.

I feel better after reading this post at the NY Times, in which the tool identifies the opening from Moby-Dick as resembling Stephen King. (Well, both writers are New Englanders.) Equally intriguing are the comments on the post, in which it emerges that the tool's database contains a scant 40 writers, of whom only three are female and none are minorities. No Toni Morrison, no Ralph Ellison, no Richard Wright, no Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, no Jorge Luis Borges, no Virginia Woolf, no Carlos Fuentes, no Haruki this is really not much of a canon, then. It's a shame: the tool offers yet another instance of a celebrity-dependent culture wasting an opportunity to turn a bunch of readers on to some brilliant writers they might not have heard of.

But, in a more positive development, yesterday a friend who'd never read any David Foster Wallace was told her writing resembled his. That led to a spirited online discussion of his work--he's one of my favorites, and his 2008 suicide robbed literature of a brilliant mind. The conversation reminded me of what it's like when a writer permanently changes your way of seeing the world. DFW is one of the writers I find most inspiring; his work impels me to write and write and write, until you have to pry the pen from my cold, dead hands. Anything that reminds me of that isn't all bad.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A book to throw across the room

When I read something bad, I feel compelled to write about it. Partly, I suppose, to ensure that my reaction is legitimate, not just some awful moment of bitter-author jealousy; also partly to justify the time I've put into reading.

So, a confession: I've been reading The Mists of Avalon and actually hoping to discover that it has been censored somewhere, so I can write about it here. Because it is so very, very bad. More than once the writing has made me laugh out loud--and not because the author meant it to be funny. There isn't an ounce of deliberate humor here, as the characters all know they're in an epic tragedy and therefore speak exclusively in a language of ponderous platitudes and dramatic assertions (in which exclamation points serve as a handy substitute for emotion).

Anyway, the book hasn't been on the ALA's list of the hundred most challenged books for either the nineties or the aughts, and the ALA website doesn't have earlier lists than that. It must have raised some hackles in the eighties, though, right? I mean, there's sex--ponderous, epic, tragic sex, even if it is mostly written in soft focus--and there are blatant challenges to Christianity. Plus, feminism, and magic, and witchcraft. It cannot have escaped the Reagan years unscathed.

Maybe I'll just write about it anyway.