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#1 The memoirs of Ned Rorem and Gore Vidal. Their world, the world they lived in from the war to the late 70’s, was a world without AIDs a world where everyone was furiously bonking everyone else, hardworking, drinking, competitive, venal, heroic, everyone seemed to know everyone else. Now? There is some shrinkage, here. We inhabit a freer even more artistic age but we seem less bound to tradition more tied to mediocrity. The puzzle, reading all this floor to continental rooting- the incredible fag-runs of hundreds of thousands of partners… a suspicion that so much gaydom is just turning back on the hard-to-get-ness-the willy-nilly squirmishmess of the American Girl for the easier path of horny men and their easy-to-use power tools…
#2 I want to like John Edgar Wideman but I can’t. His novels run in the stream of consciousness which at best is a transition technique and not even Joyce pulled it off all that well. Makes Wideman’s novel seem cramped and stuffy.
#3 I want to like Mailer’s Ancient Evenings but the idea of fictionalizing speech into the heads of people so far from contemporary America, well.. the accents are all wrong..
#4 If Cheever errs (this after reading through the short stories) he errs on the side of over specificity: describing way after we’ve got the point the children’s fight at the dinner table and the family pyrotechnics. But even his errors are great.
#5 Anyway. A two hour perusal of the great discount displays at U Book Store. Great writing, seconds, remainders going for $3.98. Dozens of expertly written novels by young turks and turquettes. I don’t think writing has ever been better. But the subject matter is drivel. The novelist sits down and writes a novel about a homosexual affair with a novelist. Or he is a university professor or an English bad boy. The Necrophiliac, Zoolophile. Give me a break! Where is strangeness, the majesty of creation? OK, that’s a bit high flown; but I get no sense that vision and weirdness are at work here. Imagination is the key, writing is the tool; give people something to imagine. Instead, we get novels as news to bring back to shock the bourgeoisie (the chef who masturbates into the sauce and salad dressing, sex with a robot, etc.). These young novelists run out of steam, or crank out historical novels. They are all compared to Saul Bellow, declared geniuses, overachievers, Blessed of God.
#6 When did the novel become a kind of code book? We have the feminist novel the black woman professional novel: what happened to the novel as a work of words and folly?: Rebalais, Cervantes Swift, Sterne, Joyce had something else in mind other than the feel good morality/cautionary tale (the resolution of conflict) the novel has become in our day. We have the Powerful Novel: a morality tale, the child abuse novel, the divorcee novel, the blues guitarist novel, the stockbroker novel; how few novels aspire to nonsense. Granted, the old ones often fail to generate suspense. And having a character go on and on for pages in conversation is hard to accept nowadays (I think the whole concept of dialogue is suspect in the American novel, we simply don’t talk to each other-there is not enough common conversational terrain to make assumptions-)
#7 This wonderful passage from Vargas Llosa’s A Writer’s Reality: Discovering a Method:
“It [the beginning] is especially difficult because I need to fight against my insecurity…The only way I can break this depressing situation is to write in an almost mechanical way, similar to what the surrealists call automatic
writing. First, I always write a draft version of the novel in which I try
to develop, not the story, not the plot, but the possibilities of the
plot. I write without thinking much, trying to overcome all kinds of
self-criticism, without stopping, without giving any consideration to the style
or structure of the novel, only putting down on paper everything that can be
used as raw material, very crude material for later development in the story.”
#8 John Edgar Wideman (slight return)
Again, I want to like his novels. I like his approach – as in abstract painting. Black English is naturally literary if you define literary as subversive. Language is a tool; you mangle the tool for your own use – or so it does more than one thing: it calms down the monster who is kicking your ass, it gives you a sense of fun, in enhances your prestige with friends. Trickster lingo. But Wideman’s work seems sometimes locked or wrapped too tightly around one spine; would it hurt to open it up? Even though there may be multiple narrative voices (hard to keep track of, etc.) they emanate too directly from one consciousness. I don’t think it is wise to imitate Joyce – his grand failing – lack of suspense.
#9 Reading British playwright, Alan Bennet memoirs. Fine fine writer; sense of how small and family is England. He writes satire and some old families object to his characterizations; satirizes books and the agents threaten lawsuits. Just how much small change there is on the island, how much hard cheese and small beer, regional and city rivalries, character traits in relief. Their certainties, careful observations, wit, score-keeping and resentments. Maniacal obsessions quirks eccentricities of aggressive island peoples. Nothing like that here? We are not old enough for one thing; we don’t know each other well enough. Ours are more general and therefore less fun? More deadly, serious, without irony and the hints of forgiveness you see in the Brits.
#10 Richard Powers’ The Gold Bug Variations. First off the title: Poe/Bach offputting. To paraphrase Henry James: one rather regrets Powers’ too familiar knowledge of freshmen science 101. Some real dandy sentences, lots of dreck. He shows his essential immaturity by expressions (not questioning), e.g., collective unconscious – a phrase that has been on death row for 15 years. The book doesn’t do two-bit science very well; he doesn’t know music all that well, the encyclopedic flashing, name dropping and when we’re put off – how easy to condemn us as know-nothing, anti-intellectual Americans (the smart reader laughs up his sleeve and slaps a leg: Powers takes science seriously!) The novel is where I go to get away from reverence for science and all that crap. For science is mostly smart men who see invisible things and who tell the rest of us, who can’t see invisible things, how it is. Gee whiz, how life has changed radically from the middle ages! I thought the novel was one place we didn’t need to sit around and agonize over ribohsomes and DNA, to revere science. Powers writes to impress-whom? He name drops after culling Ed Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy and we’re supposed to think he is smart…I won’t deny him his gift for putting words together but science does not deserve the compliment of this writer’s intelligence; it is to give into the enemy camp. Poor Philosophy, poor Literature. Sometimes writers can be dull; you see their thought processes so clearly: it’s a book; it must be profound….
#11 The urgencies and premises of novels now out on the market do not convince me. They are false and made-uppish. The characters are drawn from writers’ surroundings: professors, filmmakers, journalism, other writers; there is no imaginative reconstruction of life as a social fabric beyond a narrow vocational/media net. Their stock of realities of how the world is, is slim, safe and too formulaic; too fathomable. Small narrow safe little coming-of-age stories. Hot-house workshop fiction. The protagonist is a professor or an artist; the subject matter is soft; the sense of process is slim, the sense of how hard life is (or can be) seems not to be a part of the perceptive network of these MFA graduates. You feel the characters being painted or dictated. They invariably quote a poem by Rilke or refer to a painting by X. This locates them in a found novelistic milieu, or rather an accepted novelistic milieu. Yes, the technique is there, but writers don’t think to question the formulas of fiction. What happened to the author as a coiner of perception, seer, visionary, humorist? Without fail they take their cues from the Lang/Arts sections of Sunday papers. You can see how oppressed writers are. They bow in obeisance to social “themes”: child abuse, gay or lesbian this or that. The characters are often journalists or, God help us, novelists. Would it be so painful if Americans looked outside the constraints of straight-on realistic fiction? Would it be so painful if an American were to risk style? We shouldn’t write as though Faulkner never existed. Why the fanatic embrace of all this cliché? My idea of a good novel is Rebalais, Apuleius, Petronius…to continue more in this vein. Industry, we’ve got; what I don’t see is courage. I see navel gazing, I see topical themes, I see the media dictating theme and setting (child abuse, feminism) glam themes…
#12 Would it hurt Jim Harrison-reading his poetry- to write about something other than wanting to get laid drunk or eat a big meal? Would it hurt him to study form to create a beautiful line? His poetry seems monomaniacal jotting of the first thing that comes to his head. Considering the bulk of Selected and New Poems (1961-1981) was written while American boys were being hamburgered in Vietnam, it wouldn’t have hurt JH to write something other than worries about weenies or hunting or rejection from beautiful babes or how hard it is to write poems or bottles of booze or whatever. From the sound of it he got some good fishing done in varied exotic locales.