Faulkner House Books

Here’s an affectionate profile of Faulkner House Books in New Orleans, the bookstore made out of the place where William Faulkner stayed briefly when he was writing Soldier’s Pay in 1925.  It sits in Pirate’s Alley, one breath away from St. Louis Cathedral, and is a fine place to browse for Faulkneriana and other Southern Lit.  A former student of mine, Heidi by name, used to work there, and this profile is written by Alex Johnson, another former worker in the place.

I respect Faulkner, even when I cannot always admire him.  The Sound and the Fury and Light in August are great novels, far better than their author was ever willing to admit, and he sweated blood over them.  You could read Joseph Blotner’s fine biography of Faulkner and learn a lot about the author’s technique but, even so, you might not be able to disentangle the Faulkner myth from reality.  It is said, for instance, that Faulkner never wrote when it rained.  If true, that fact would cut down his writing year to about one day, for it rains all the time in southern Louisiana and Mississippi.

On the other hand, the idyllic pace of life in both New Orleans and Rowan Oak in Oxford, Mississippi was made for reflection and writing, and Faulkner, sitting most often on a screened-in porch I’d kill to have, took full advantage of it.  “Don’t be a writer,” he truly said.  “Be writing.”  He took his own advice, milking the atmosphere and the people around him for all they were worth.  He demonstrated that, properly tilled with language and observation, any region’s “postage stamp of soil” contains the stuff of human mortality and immortality within it.  All writers have to do is dig deep enough to find it, and bring it to the surface.


John McPhee On Writing And Editing

On the occasion of the publication of his collection of essays entitled Draft No. 4, John McPhee gives a long, fruitful interview to his editor of many years, Heller McAlpin.  Devour this feature for its many comments about every facet of the writing process, and savor the taste it gives us–rare and sweet–of the human being his fans know John McPhee is.  The “I”, so little seen in McPhee’s objective, detailed, and precise prose is here in the interview and, one learns, in his new book, as well.

Small bits of the essay are worth a comment and a quotation.  On using a dictionary, I quite agree with McPhee, but I would amend his advice to this extent.  Find the word you want to use in Roget‘s Thesaurus first, then use the dictionary to refine your choice to the exact shade of meaning you want to use in your sentence. (There’s walking, for instance, but we do it in a dozen different ways, each one conveying a different message to our readers.)

On the function of an editor, here is this gem:  “A really good editor is not somebody who dicks around, who is messing with your prose. It’s somebody who is talking to you about your ideas and your work, and who reads your thing and talks to you about it. I mean, it’s an interlocutor on that level, a sounding board. That’s what a great editor is. Not a copy editor, I mean a line editor, a person who changes one word to another; suggests, yes, but changes, no. To what extent the good editor sort of thing exists on the Internet, I’m not sure. But where it is, is where young writers ought to gravitate in my view.”

On writing by omission (the process of “greening” a text):  “You know, I stopped doing that in my class, and then I told a former student that I had stopped doing it, and that former student, whoever it was, told me, “That’s a huge mistake; don’t deprive them of Greening.” So I’ve done Greening ever since.”

McPhee has had many students who’ve become professional writers.  On one in particular, he has this to say:  “The book I’m reading right now is called The Epic City by Kushanava Choudhury, who was in my class in 1999. He grew up in Highland Park, fifteen miles from here, but his forebears were from Calcutta. The Epic City is Calcutta, and it is a great book! It’s not a good book — it’s a great book. It’s funny. The writing is so good. Anyway, I’m reading it right now. So I’m filled with enthusiasm for Kusha’s book.”

I, too, have heard of The Epic CityMy interest in things Indian was piqued after reading Gregory David Roberts’ novel Shantaram a few years back and, now, I must go further.

Please read the whole of this great, helpful interview.


The Most Interesting Place In The World

What has changed about the way we live?  Just this:  according to James Somers, “There are fewer opportunities, now, to stumble into a world you don’t already know.”

Somers writes this astounding, true statement near the end of his profile of those who work in the archives division of the New York Public Library–quite possibly the most fascinating place any book lover could ever visit.

Thomas Lannon, chief archivist of the place, tells us what we already know:  Google has changed the way we go after information.  But even more than that, it has changed what information patrons go after.  “They only want information based on the information they think they want.  It’s important to look outside of your own existence,” he says.

That’s what libraries–from Alexandria, Egypt to New York City–were meant to do:  invite us to look outside our own existence, to go beyond where Google tells us to go.  The heart of that adventure, no matter how many physical books a library may contain, lies in a library’s archive collections, its treasure trove of public and private documents, letters, maps, journals, diaries, postcards, and interviews.  The actual records, in other words, of what people truly did and said (as far as such can be recovered)–the stuff from which books are made in the first place.

Somers mentions a superb book, Robert Caro’s The Power Broker (1974), a study of Robert Moses, an unelected official who obtained enough authority through his civil service job to single-handedly dictate where the freeway system of New York City would go, thereby disintegrating neighborhoods in the five boroughs that had stood for centuries.  Moses’s plan served as the model for most of the suburbs that grew up in America’s cities in the 1950s and 60s.  Caro wrote The Power Broker based on extensive interviews with Moses himself and on the archives in the NYPL.  Such work is often thrilling, as a writer may discover what his or her subject did on a particular day, and use that information to enliven a narrative.  Or it may be puzzling, as the writer quickly discovers that people lie in both public and private documents, and multiple sources may have to be consulted in order to find the truth of a matter, or at least come near it.

To read the actual letters written by one’s subject, as I did when consulting the archives of the Shakespearean teacher and editor Henry Norman Hudson in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. in May of 1988, is to come as close as possible to the lives that were here before us.  Even if the document in question does not answer the questions we have, and records only the writer’s walk down to the grocer for some milk, its presence says something valuable about the man or woman who wrote it:  is the penmanship tiny and crabbed, suggesting stress, or is it bold and flowing, suggesting ease and freedom of thought?  What appears to be the mood of the writer?  Is that mood different from or similar to his or her other, more public writings?  Watermarks may be visible on the actual document, an aid in determining when an undated document was written and how old the paper is.  Those watermarks may not be visible in a digital copy.

For all these reasons, and a thousand more, physical libraries and the archives they contain are absolutely essential to the preservation, the development, and the examination of our civilization.  The NYPL is one such place; the library of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is another.  I spent seven happy years roaming the stacks of the main library and many of its satellite libraries.  It was the third-largest academic library in the country, the fifth-largest in the U.S., and the fifteenth-largest library in the world when I knew the place thirty years ago and, God knows, it surely has grown even more in the years since.  Everyone–everyone–ought to know the pure joy of walking into such a place and pulling out any book–literally, any book–one could want.  Such libraries stand as a testament to human endurance and human generosity in making available to us, if we have a good purpose, all the records, bound and unbound, of what we have thought and how we have lived for as long as we’ve been building communities and keeping those records.


Joan Didion

A lightweight Vogue profile of Joan Didion, here.  The photograph of Didion with her nephew, actor Griffin Dunne (Dallas Buyers Club, War Machine, House of Lies, The Android Affair), enlivens the page, and one wishes for more of them.

I link to the article not because it is profound (it isn’t), but because it serves as a reminder that some of those writers whom we love and respect are growing older and are soon to pass from the scene.  Didion is one of those; poet Donald Hall (who, alas, has given up poetry–“not enough testosterone,” he says) is another.  His book, Essays After Eighty is one of my current reads.

One can admire a writer without necessarily liking her.  Didion’s always been that kind of writer for me.  She sees clearly, but she doesn’t see clearly the lives she can’t tolerate, which includes a broad swath of the middle class.  She’s quite human, as her essay “In Bed” demonstrates, but the precision and the order she demands of herself in her work is not a demand millions of us are willing to meet.  As she’s gotten older, she has inevitably become more vulnerable, perhaps for the first time in her life.  Vulnerability is frustrating and frightening, but it is also endearing to those who care about us.  It’s possible that both she and her work have become more approachable than they were.

She has a different sensibility toward loss than most of us.  Photographs of people and places that have passed away do not please her; they do not bring her solace.  Yet, she is finding, as many of us do, that memory is essential for our happiness and our survival.  “I think in the end I don’t want to let go,” she says.

None of us does.  And we don’t.  We hang on to the memory of the qualities or the act (singular or plural) that endeared us to the person we love, and we let the rest drift off into time and space where it belongs.  Was someone savage, cruel, unspeakably rude?  Perhaps, but he helped us after that car accident; she brought food when my grandmother died.  That is what matters to us.  The rest fades, even if the effects of someone else’s personal poison never leave us. Public figures, especially writers, have a hard time letting go because they, above everyone else, are supposed to remember everything, value everything, judge everything, accurately and indelibly, for the public record.  But they can’t do that.  They just can’t.  The reality is that they learn (or don’t learn) the same lessons as the rest of us.  They learn them at the same times as we do, or they learn them later.  The biggest and most profound of those lessons is that no matter how insightful one imagines oneself to be, no matter how aloof one holds oneself from the mass of people living messy, disordered lives, no matter how much better we think we are for seeing a better way to be than most people have seen, we’re still a part of the world we think we’ve judged and measured.  We’re tough and resilient, to be sure, but in the end  we’re just as frail and vulnerable as those we’ve judged.  Pain and loss are our common lot in life, and how we actually deal with them is far more important than how we wish we could deal with them, or how we say we do.


Reading The Conscious Mind

Adrien Owen gives us a list of what he considers to be the top ten books ever written about human consciousness and how it works.

Because I have not world enough and time, I’m tempted to start–and stop–with Owen’s top choice, Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained but, as you can see, there are several other books on the list that surely also fall into the “must-read” category.  One of those books, in fact, brought me up short, and left me stunned.

One of the criticisms I leveled at the often brilliant but uneven novel, A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara, was that I did not believe Jude St. Francis could actually function as a competent litigator after suffering a lifetime of mental and physical abuse.  If, however, Elyn R Saks is even halfway convincing in her memoir, The Centre Cannot Hold:  My Journey Through Madness, I will have to revise my opinion and my thinking about the character Yanagihara created.  I must read Saks’s book.  It’s # 4 on Owen’s list.

To go through such a list is to enter a wholly new and unfamiliar field for most of us.  I’ve read very little about human consciousness–Robert Restak’s popular book, The Brain, and a few others, but I know enough to sound a gentle, cautionary note:  everything we think we know about the brain and consciousness ought to be labeled as provisional.  We do know some things:  we know where the centers of the brain are; we know what areas control what functions, even if we don’t know how that control is accomplished.  Yet, brain research is the one area within which the borders of our knowledge are constantly being pushed back.  In five years, in ten, in fifty, all of the books on this list are going to be out of date.  Science will have learned a great deal more by then.  But we will also know by then, as has always been the case, that we know nothing at all.


The Center Of The Universe

It’s odd that a city on our East Coast–New York–thinks of itself as the center of the universe.  It is important; there’s no doubt about that.  Yet, there’s also no doubt that, as judged by the last twenty years or so, there’s a strange disconnect between what the intelligensia of New York thinks and the rest of the country.  The polls on just about every subject show us eerily divided 50-50, yet half the country remains deeply shocked that the other half, whom they regard as “deplorable,” dares to express opinions and exercise their power in the voting booth.

One would think this is a new development.  It’s not.  Whatever gravitational attraction New York may offer, there have always been other cities which might lay claim to being closer to the center of things–socially, politically, literarily–than New York.  San Francisco is one; New Orleans is another; Los Angeles is a third.

Yet, the strongest case to be made belongs to Chicago, which sits geographically far closer to the center of things than any of these other cities.  Liesl Olson’s book, Chicago Renaissance (Yale U.P.) lays out the argument in a book that will introduce, to many readers, just how important Chicago has been to the literary world.  The brief excerpt will give you a sense of how she writes, and some of the figures she discusses, including H.L. Mencken and Carl Sandburg.  In addition to those figures, however, we should add John Dos Passos, born in Chicago, whose USA Trilogy comes as close to capturing the entire scope of the country in its types of people and enterprises as any work does; and Upton Sinclair, whose muckraking novels, particularly The Jungle, did much to alert people all over the country to the shocking conditions in the factories and shops of our big cities.

It’s also necessary to point out that, as Olson does, that Sandburg and Sinclair not only wanted to identify with the poor and downtrodden, they “wanted to be read by them.”  Richard Wright, too, had this desire, although Olson does not suggest it in the excerpt.  He was conscious of wanting to be a literary artist.  He strove to achieve an aesthetically-pleasing density of prose; to immerse his readers into a part of the world that would shock them.  But he also wrote Native Son because he knew it would sell.

The tension between artistic creativity and capitalism, between the urgency to make and to make a living, was at the heart of much of the literature of America as the nineteenth century passed away.  Capitalism as we now recognize it was just coming into being in the country and writers, whether they were concerned with fiction or non-fiction, had a hard time seeing the economic system clearly.  Money pleased them and great buildings impressed them.  Yet, the skyscrapers of Chicago and New York cast shadows on some of the most appalling neighborhoods we could imagine.  The ironies and the tragedies embedded in the lives of those who designed those buildings, built them, and sustained them with their sweat, their blood, and their dollars were not lost on any of those writers with whom Olson is concerned.

Many of those writers came to discover that, in order to take the full measure of Chicago in the early twentieth century, they had to live away from it for a time.  Wright did; so did Sinclair and Dos Passos.  Olson correctly observes that Mencken regularly took potshots at New York while “safe in Baltimore.”  The necessary distance is a symptom of what Harold Bloom brilliantly described as the “anxiety of influence,” the deep, unsettling sense of indebtedness every artist feels toward those who have come before her or him.  All the while, however, as these writers wrestled with that anxiety, they were seeking to understand the power of capitalism–its ability to provide structures of great beauty and pools of great wealth–and, at the same time, trying to find a means to harness that engine of prosperity for the greatest good.  It’s a complex set of problems with which to deal, and Olson does a good job of revealing them to us, as well as showing us the writers’ deceptively simple goal:  they wanted, through their writing, to direct the economic system in a way that would do the most people the most good.  If that idealistic dream sounds familiar, it should:  it is the ancestor of the present-day tension between the individualistic capitalists of the political right and the collectivist denizens of the political left.


Harry Dean Stanton

Chances are, if you have a reasonably-long list of favorite movies, Harry Dean Stanton will show up in at least one of them.  That’s a testament to the range of this fine actor, who died two days ago at the age of ninety-one, and it’s also a testament to the quiet longevity of his career.  As Stephen Dalton’s obituary makes clear, Stanton shunned the possibility of leading-man stardom in favor of the more enduring legacy of the supporting actor.  He did it with the actor’s tools of face and voice and gesture, but he did it without the upstaging, scene-stealing techniques of an actor such as Donald Pleasence. Stanton knew his job wasn’t to be the star; it was to be the guy who added depth to every scene he was in.  If you’ve ever wondered why an actor who spoke so very few lines could wind up being as loved and respected as Stanton was, that’s why.  He knew exactly what he needed to be in every role.

If you’re a writer looking for a way to characterize a brief role in one of your stories, you could do worse than study what Stanton did in Cool Hand Luke, The Godfather, Part II, Alien,  Repo Man, Paris, Texas, or The Avengers.  He’s a model for how different kinds of men behave in different situations.  Look at the things he does, and how he says what he does, and you’ll begin to recognize how to incorporate such craft into your own work.