writing


818 Book reviewing

(More observations on Lord of a Visible World)

Just a quick note on some of the comments editors made when they passed on H.P. Lovecraft’s manuscripts. On page 330, he lists some of these responses in a 1934 letter: “Verbose—long-winded—slow—nothing happens—novelette length for short story idea—etc. etc. etc.”

I’ve heard them all levelled at my own works of fiction, and more. I’m still too gunshy to try to have my work published, but I know I have to take the plunge one of these days. At least I’m writing more than I used to. And I’m trying not to care what my critics might say. I try to remember, Led Zeppelin got their share of bad reviews, some of which they deserved, but it didn’t slow them down.

We saw Doubt tonight. As she exited the theater, one woman who had just seen it gave it a big thumbs down, but I thought there wasn’t a false note in it. It was so good it made me wish I had written it. Criticism really doesn’t seem to mean anything. It seems to depend completely upon the expectations of the reader, viewer or listener.

Well, I finally finished Lord of a Visible World. The last couple of letters he wrote sound positively elegiac. He’s walking through woods he’s never seen before, even though he’s lived in Providence all his life. Somewhere on his journey, he meets two kittens who seem to act as spirit guides, helping ease his journey to the other side (of the road, in this case). He turns around, and they’re gone. He comes back to look for them the next day, but they’re nowhere to be found. Sounds like something straight out of Arthur Machen. Very moving. The whole book has been, despite, or maybe because of, Lovecraft’s many flaws. Joshi’s done a fantastic job.

I’m glad I rescued this book from oblivion; it was due to be removed from the stacks at the Maynard Public Library. If I hadn’t volunteered when I did, it would have ended up in the dumpster, while all those damn romance and mystery novels would have crowded up the shelves. I’ll say one thing for the MPL, though. It does have a good ratio of quality, high-brow literature for stuck-up folks like me to stuff like Marley and Me and The DaVinci Code.

(no code today; I mean, come on)

H.P.’s still in Providence, where I think he’ll stay put (I’ve almost finished the book). And he’s talking about what a bad writer he is.

I’m starting to feel some sympathy for him. Basically, he seems scared of everybody, so that might explain his earlier rants about the great unwashed. He says he’s a bad writer because he’s never done or seen anything interesting.

I don’t want to beat him up any more than he’s already done himself, but I think it’s kind of a tragedy that he didn’t recognize the lousy things that happened to him and his ex-wife in New York — all the dishonest employers who used them very, very badly. The equally tragic writers that he knew well, like Hart Crane.

He wrote all these self-flagellatory letters at a time when he was getting a lot of rejection letters. I guess what attracts me to Lovecraft’s story, which I think S.T. Joshi has crated quite well in epistolary form, is that he suffers a lot of setbacks, but he doesn’t bounce back right away like they do in bad books and movies. He agonizes, he lacerates himself, and then, like Samuel Beckett, he says, “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

American fiction 1900-1945

So I started reading Lord of a Visible World again this week, and I have to say the old buzzard is really making me sick. He’s still at the point where everything is going wrong in NYC for him and wife Sonia. So he’s taking it out on immigrants and people of color. He’s laying the n-word on pretty thick. He also can’t stand Jews, Italians, Poles or Portuguese. If he had ever met any Inuit he probably wouldn’t like them either. So, to vent his misanthropy, he wrote a couple short stories reflecting his revulsion at these folks, “The Horror at Red Hook” and “He.” I haven’t read them, so I can’t say whether they’re any good or not. I can say that I wouldn’t enjoy them either way, as they’re reflections of his seemingly unlimited bigotry. On the other hand, Sinatra had a nasty temper, but I still like his music.

098 Prohibited books

E proibido proibir
– Caetano Veloso

If books are outlawed, only outlaws will have books.
– John Leonard

Wifey and I went to the Banned Books Readout downtown yesterday. We caught Lauren Myracle, who was pretty good. She said it affected her pretty deeply when she heard that someone, somewhere decided that her books (for teens and tweens) weren’t fit for public consumption. A couple other folks got up to say similar things, including Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmick.

But, to me, the real surprise of the afternoon was Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, one of those authors without whom there almost would be no children’s or young adult departments in any public libraries, anywhere. And there she was, this nice, older woman laying out in words I wish I had written down the dangers of banning books. First off, it’s a terrible thing to do to a kid to him or her not to read a book. She said she once got what was clearly a form letter from some elementary school students, each of whom had copied the letter in their own handwriting, and each of whom had misspelled the word “vulgar” as “vulger,” in reference to her works. But a couple of the students had snuck in their own words before the envelopes were sealed: “We really like your books,” or something to that effect.

Sarah Palin’s been getting a lot of attention about whether she had any books banned as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska. As far as I can tell, she didn’t. But the thing that’s moving from factoid to fact status is that she did ask the town librarian how she would respond if Palin asked her to remove some books from the stacks. This is only speculation, but that sounds to me like the kind of “shot across the bow” question that was meant to send a chill down the spine of anyone who even thought about getting in Palin’s way.

I intend to get in her way. If I don’t, I have a pretty good idea what the future will look like for those of us who believe in open access to information: There was a guy at the readout who had tricked out his bike to have a little library on the front, a “book bike,” if you will. Maybe that’s what he called it. I don’t know; I was feeling too shy to talk to him. It was a totally cool idea, and a great way to get books out into the community.

Another way I have seen to get books into peoples’ hands is to use one of those newspaper boxes. Someone has done just that with a newspaper box outside Reckless Records on Chicago Avenue. It’s called the Community Book Exchange or something like that.

Again, a great idea and a great adjunct to a genuine public library. But not a replacement for same, and neither is the book bike. If book readers have to go underground and start doing the whole samizdat routine, stealing around in the night, passing hastily made copies of contraband books to anonymous associates in alleys, it’d be kinda cool at first. Then we’d realize how much it would suck. We’d be embarrassed to have to admit that we lived in a society that didn’t support the free exchange of information, a society that thinks books are more dangerous than guns. Imagine that, a country without libraries, or one with libraries that are so heavily censored that no one takes them seriously.

It could happen. We already have towns without libraries. Fortunately, Chicago isn’t one of them. I found out last Monday that the city government has approved construction of a new branch for the Chicago Public Library in the Goldblatt Building, also on Chicago Ave. I found that out when I went to talk to my alderman, Manny Flores. Heard it from his administrative assistant. Back to you, Jim.

098 Prohibited works

If I were a publisher or an author, I would think having someone (say,
Sarah Palin, for instance) ban my book would bring me the kind of P.R. even the most seasoned media flak only wishes he could drum up. Seems to me it would have the same effect as slapping a “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics” label (thank you, Tipper Gore) on a CD, or giving a movie an NC-17 rating: gotta have that forbidden fruit, know what I mean?

As we gear up for Banned Books Week next week, I would like to suggest that the nation’s presses consider doing exactly that: proudly trumpeting the fact that someone has deemed their products dangerous, unacceptable, potentially corrupting or whatever the complaint may be. A sticker on the front cover that says, “This book is banned in 17 states,” or “Most vandalized book of 2008,” “Most Burned Book of the Century.” Something like that. We could call these stickers “Badges of Honor.” Shape them like little medals, give them a faux-metallic finish, the whole bit.

A friend of mine ran a public library in South Carolina where he was constantly having to reorder one or another of the Harry Potter books because someone was always defacing them, tearing out offending passages or just stealing the books outright. I don’t even think the books are that good, but actions like these elevate an otherwise mediocre series to hero status, and, more important, probably don’t hurt book sales much, either.

I had another friend who ran a public library in a town in central Massachusetts. A group of parents who educated their children themselves would come in regularly and demand that this or that book be taken off the shelves. These home-schooling parents made life pretty hard for my friend, one of the most easygoing, non-confrontational guys I’ve ever met. He still grimaces when he talks about it.

So, whether we’re talking about Harry Potter, Robert Cormier, Lois Lowry or Daddy’s Roommate, let’s turn my friends’ nightmares into something good. Let’s remind the enemies of free thought just how badly their efforts at suppressing speech can backfire.

813.6 American fiction since 2000

The Associated Press reported today that novelist and essayist David Foster Wallace apparently hanged himself this past Friday. I had stupidly ignored him because I had an image of him as a hipsterish, archly clever and trendy young artist, the kind for whom good fortune seems to drop out of the sky. I say stupidly because I too easily bought into the image that reviewers had built up of a postmodern, ironic and inscrutable author whose ideas I could never hope to comprehend.

I heard an excerpt of an old interview with him today on NPR where he lamented that all these glowing reviews failed to mention the seriousness, the passion and the sadness that fueled his work. As I come to more fully understand the reasons people write, and the reasons I write, I see that no legitimate writer, or musician, or painter, etc., can really do much of anything worthwhile without such basic elements as truth and lies, love and hate, hope and despair, life and death and success and failure. I see now David Foster Wallace clearly had all these feelings, qualities and experiences in spades.

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