Why Write?

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WHY WRITE?

At an event I once hosted, I asked the assembled writers this question. Besides the “practical ordering of my reality” type of answer, there were also some surprises: one woman had been a classical singer, but failed, and needed to embark on something else having to do with language. One man said, I write to talk about what I read—equally unassuming. I began to think that it would be much more stimulating to know why certain writers wrote than to engage with anything they had written, especially fiction or poetry—two ultimate forms needing years of practice. It’s debatable who said, “Everyone has a book in them…” yet the second clause of that sentence, as uttered by Christopher Hitchens, is concretely dismissive of the first: “…but in most cases, that’s where it should stay.” Who would have thought there were so many writers, that oodles would have the calling—many thanks to the internet? Now there is no barrier to that fusty adage, but it might be better to say, Everyone has some opinions in them. Continue reading

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Hugh Kenner Hits a Home Run

Wouldn’t it take an outsider to aptly critique the American scene, the American people, the American culture? Hugh Kenner, a Canadian, did this at the end of a section devoted to Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams in his book A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers. A book dedicated to Guy Davenport. A book on Donald Barthelme’s syllabus.

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Coming: The Sounds of Sam Lipsyte in The Fun Parts

THE SOUNDS OF SAM LIPSYTE

In the next few weeks we will hear that Sam Lipsyte’s The Fun Parts (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is funny, irreverent, sex-obsessed, witty, broken, indiscriminate, and wry. Listening is the key verb as concerns Lipsyte. In the best stories: “The Climber Room,” “Deniers,” “The Wisdom of the Doulas,” “Snacks,” “A Worm in Philly,” “Expressive,” “Ode to Oldcorn,” and “Nate’s Pain is Now,” readers reading to the little man or woman that controls their brains will hear in their heads a prose holding piteous subjects grandly animated with vibrant and uncanny sounds. These delightful noises are a bonus because they accompany such an unwonderful world—not necessarily an evil place, but a staging ground for the salacious and ignoble to have their way with the weaker of the species.

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Yi Yi: The Best Film You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

During the opening wedding reception, the yawning father (NJ) takes his son (Yang-Yang) for food he wants to eat.

How often do two people who have been watching a film look upon each other breathless and transfixed at the end? I had seen Yi Yi, Edward Yang’s 1999 film, but as is often true with any pleasure, I had to share the experience with someone and so a week after seeing it I played the DVD for a friend. For a second time I was crushed, weeping at many of the same scenes, yet finding different shadings in the various plots and subplots. It’s the story of birth and death in an extended family, but it is much more.

The film is set in Taipei, and its opening piano music set over a wedding reception makes one think it may be a Taiwanese Terms of Endearment. To some extent this is true, but people coming into this film won’t be overwhelmed by the star power of the American film, though a few of Yi Yi’s actors are famous in the East. If all the players are strangers and to some extent the culture (the island of Taiwan has a checkered history, being thrown back and forth between Chinese and Japanese rule), audience identification can be purer. If given, trust won’t be tainted by the accuracy of marketing to the right demographic. So who is Yi Yi aimed at? Yang’s film is directed to the humanists and to the people who have loved life and hated it—people who have tried to do their best and ever endeavor to know themselves better.

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“I don’t know why we live…but I believe we can go on living for the reason that life is the most valuable thing we know anything about”

From Letters of Note:

In July of 1883, the novelist Henry James received an emotional letter from Grace Norton — a good friend and fellow writer who, following a death in the family, had recently become depressed and was desperate for direction. James’s beautiful response can be seen below. It is, without a doubt, one of the greatest letters of advice I’ve ever had the fortune to read.

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“Literary Topographies” by Daniel Green

Time for a change?

Recently Lev Grossman explained how he chooses books to review. “I review books,” he proclaimed, “if they do something I’ve never seen done before; or if I fall in love with them; or if they shock me or piss me off or otherwise won’t leave me alone; if they alter the way my brain works; if I can’t stop thinking about them; if for whatever reason I absolutely have to tell people about them.”

Scott Esposito appropriately enough questions how candid Grossman is being, pointing out that his sinecure at Time necessarily constrains Grossman to “a very limited range of choices.” As Scott reminds us, “in most cases he’s functioning as an adjunct of a publisher’s marketing department, essentially adding whatever institutional and personal authority he has to the marketing push for a book that has almost certainly been acclaimed 10 times over by ‘reviewers’ that are similarly empowered.”

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A Medley of Gass Interviews and His Influence

Over at the Reading William Gass website, curated by Stephen Schenkenberg, a video has been unearthed of Gass talking in Paris about five years ago. He reads from The Tunnel for a short time–then excitedly talks about the sentence. It’s a marvel.

There is a great new Bookworm interview with Gass about Life Sentences.

At Word Patriots, Mark Seinfelt interviewed Gass twice: once about his new book and once about Stanley Elkin. There are also three shows dedicated to Paul West.

Finally, my essay at The Kenyon Review–On Influence: Starting and Stopping Cracks–takes some lines of Gass as a starting point for a meditation on writing and art. The first paragraph:

Why not stand up straight for art? Rainer Maria Rilke’s older lover, Lou Andreas-Salomé, cared greatly about his relation to words and made him improve his handwriting, urging the poet to take control of everything in his life before communing more with the muse. Soon Rilke purchased a stand up desk to improve his circulation while he wrote poems—by changing his methods, he changed what the methods produced. This might speak to a few things about influence and who we are willing to listen to (Andreas-Salomé, also a former lover of Nietzsche, was a distinguished psychoanalyst and writer), but undoubtedly, art is at least as much physical as emotional.