Selected Shorts X

Sometimes I offer posts with perspectives you won't find anywhere else. And at other times, I pass on the good stuff others have beaten me to. This is one of the latter times.
There seems to be some discord among academics regarding the value of conflict on literature. Meaning: How does social discord and war affect literature? it's been my view that these happenstances, while troublesome and tragic, do bring out the best in writers. The National Book Awards for this year were announced last night, and this round of books seems to support my point of view. Denis Johnson's book, Tree Of Smoke, won this years fiction award. Peripherally in support of my thesis, Tim Weiner's book, Legacy Of Ashes, a history of the CIA's flubs, won for non-fiction. For the NYT reportage on this, go to this week's Review Of Books.
With the holiday reading season upon us, new books are emerging like fireflies on a summer night. One of my fave writers, South African Nadine Gordimer will soon have a new one released, Beethoven Was One-sixteenth Black. Check it out at Amazon.
Hope this gives you something to keep those winter blues away.


Selected Shorts IX

I think I may have mentioned that I’m taking a non-fiction writing course this semester, but perhaps little of the details. The class is a large one, twelve women – and me. Not that I’m complaining, you understand; it’s just that there are certain dynamics in a crowd like that a guy finds hard to accommodate. And I’ll leave that subject before I put a ten and a half-size foot in my mouth.
The class is interesting because the professor – a published writer of some renown – is orchestrating our learning from a book about fiction. All prose can fit in the same Mother Hubbard shoe, I suppose, but sometimes it’s a bothersome fit. The technique of fiction ascribes to a rather set pattern on conflict and rising action, followed by the climax, resolution and, well, tying up loose ends. Picture this visually as an upside down check mark.
The rub here is that in remaining in the general vicinity of the truth (some professors demand that, some – like ours – allow one to play fast and loose with the truth) the fiction progression goes out the window. Try as our class might, we can’t tell a lie, and thus our pieces don’t fit that crazy check mark. After much whining, the prof has finally relented, and allowed truth to take its own natural form. A sigh of relief all around.
The latest issue of Poets and Writers magazine owns several interesting articles – one about Alan Lightman, Lightman is a physicist who writes. I came across perhaps his most celebrated book, Einstein’s Dreams, some ten years ago. A very interesting blend of physics woo-woo (as in ghost sounds) and darn fine writing. He’s now writing poetry, along with his better-than-average prose, and pursuing physics in the vein of Fritjof Capra, i.e., as something of a spiritual quest. You gotta admire Renaissance men…um…people, you know? Check out his stuff.
For the writers out there, P&W has a rather amusing article by one Anthony Brandt, who is a longtime editor for the annual Puschcart Prize. He’s obviously taken some heat over his choices, and in this, his defense statement, he points out a few things that should be obvious to outraged near-winners, all practical from the standpoint of having an eye on how we readers react to such pieces. I’ll stop there…if I say more, you won’t read the piece, will you?
Have fun in that easy chair this winter.

Run, by Ann Patchett

As a writer I understand that having a major publication event in your life is only a set-up for high expectations and—in the eyes of readers—subsequent failure if those expectations aren’t met. In this post, I’m trying to see writing and publishing through the eyes of Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto, winner of the FEN/Faulkner Award and England’s Orange Prize, among others. With that sort of street cred, you can sleep well at night, right? I doubt it, in Patchett’s case, after reading her latest, Run.
I had read Bel Canto, and enjoyed it immensely—a deceptively easy read, considering its implications—and, having read a pan of Run in NEWSWEEK, I decided to pass. Then I reconsidered. It was a one-day novel, something every aspiring writer seems compelled to write these days, including yours truly. The review turned snide toward the end, snarking that one-day novels were best left to the likes of Ian McEwan. Being as insecure of my skills as the next writer in need of a rung up on the publishing ladder, this comment drew me into the fray. What had Patchett done to deserve such a caustic remark? And of equal importance, what could such failings within Run teach me?
In the end, and to put it simply, Patchett did know the ins and outs of the one-day piece. She established her conflict quickly, leading seamlessly into her characters’ pasts through inventive technique as she nudged the plot forward ever so slowly. What dismayed me wasn’t this sort of strategizing. Instead, she failed Creative Writing 101. Her sentence structures are clunky, her dialogue trite, even abysmally so, as lightweight as listening to someone else’s cell phone conversation on the bus home from work. Her character portrayals were inconsistent, empty, unreal, and she jumped from one character’s point of view to another with vertiginous speed. All this leaving the story and characters sketchy and malformed, despite a plot that should’ve worked.
Okay, a bit about the plot. WASPish former mayor of Boston, Bernard Doyle has adopted two black boys, and raised them successfully. One, Tip, is an ichthyologist (see what I mean about stretching the bounds of credibility? Who wants to study fish, anyway? And who cares? Only Philip Roth could make that an interesting digression.) And Dad is now trying to hustle the other son, Teddy, into politics. Tip is nearly run down and might have died, had a middle-aged black woman (who, as it turns out, is his biological mother) not pushed him to safety, at great peril to her own life. But the plot is quickly thickened (or so I hoped) by the presence of these two young men’s biological sister, Kenya, who was with the mother and tries to tend to her after being injured. These family ties bared, Tip and Teddy are trying to figure out what to make of these newfound relationships.
Unfortunately, the two brothers don’t succeed, largely because Patchett doesn’t seem to know what to make of it herself. The meet-up is meant to portray glaring disparities between Boston’s elite and its underclass, something Nick Flynn has done admirably, but it’s clear that Patchett has no grip on either class.
Which leaves me to wonder what happened to Patchett?. Was this a manuscript written early in her apprenticeship, before Bel Canto? Did she have editorial help with Bel Canto, help sorely missing here? Did she simply slap something together for Run, thinking she could coast on her reputation? Only she knows, I’m afraid.
I wanted to like Run, and tried desperately to do so. And in the last fifty pages, the talent she displayed in Bel Canto began to surface, leaving hope that Patchett isn’t a one-hit wonder.
So Ann, if you’re listening, I can only say I’m disappointed. I, like so many others, expected more. I hope the pan reviews for Run serve as a trip to the woodshed, that you’ll go back to your computer sufficiently chastened, determined to pound out another piece displaying the talent of Bel Canto.