Monday, 25 July 2016

Letters from/to a young writer (1/4)


Hey George,

I hope this semester is finding you well. I'll refrain from sprinkling the introduction with too many colloquial necessities that attempt solidarity, as I would be forced to humorously embellish them to assert both my masculine identity and want of not appearing bothersome (but inadvertently revealing personal insecurities). However, I would like to say in a truly truthful and honestly honest fashion that I now, more than ever, appreciate all that you and the other instructors did for us this summer.

I do miss it dearly, from the pure literary immersion, to the unabashed sense of camaraderie, and even an afternoon sitting on the sunny back porch of the Dirty Duck while bashing 50 Shades of Grey. (I had a graduate friend recently try to explain to me that it's art. I hope I don't sound too pretentious if I call him a "poor bastard").

I suppose if that winding sentence is replacing the traditional "How are you?" in a letter, this part would be the "I am fine." Although it was very small, I submitted my first piece: a five hundred word short for NPR's Three Minute Fiction contest. Consequently, I got my first rejection note. Now I can start putting "Writer" on my résumé and touting it at blind dates, right? That's how I assumed it worked (I kid, of course).

It was probably best this be my first rejection, as the prompt was lackluster, and I wasn't incredibly fond of Brad Meltzer (afterward, I went back and re-edited a negative review I did of The Millionaires back in High School, just to show him who's boss). I haven't had enough time to write anything I feel comfortable submitting otherwise, but I have found a very small writing group in their first year on campus, and I have thus realized just how spoiled I was at Warwick. I have also begun volunteering with an after-school program affiliated with the Midlands Center for Expressive Arts to help middle school children write creatively.

I would also like to follow up on a less personal and more academic point. I am currently enrolled in a class on Realism literature, and one day after class I asked my professor about lyrical Realism, to which she responded as having never heard the term. Having only the Zadie Smith article you gave us and a very vague memory of your mentioning it, I was quite useless when she asked what I meant by it.

So I guess my question is simply, what is lyrical Realism? Smith places postmodern authors in opposition to lyrical Realism, but postmodernists are typically seen as opposing modernists, who are in turn seen as opposing realists. Where does lyrical Realism fall, or is it more of a Venn-diagram relationship? Is it a movement, or just a categorization of novels devoid of the self-awareness in post-modernism?

Speaking of post-modernism, I finished Gravity's Rainbow (which I absolutely loved, though getting lunch with one of my favorite professors immediately afterward, David Cowart, probably gave the experience an unfair advantage since he just published another book-length analysis of Pynchon in January of this year), and after doing so I started knocking out titles on your recommended reading list. Right now I'm on American Pastoral, and I can't tell you how helpful and enjoyable the recommendations are so far. Roth and Camus are proving to be good palate cleansers after such a winding puzzle of a novel.

I'm not counting the required reading for my realism class at the moment because, well, I've never really been a fan of Madame Bovary to be honest. I've also been alternating between David Foster Wallace's short stories and Fitzgerald's shorts (the DFW is mostly to hold my own when talking with Professor Cowart about his newest project: the relationship between the Thomas Pynchon/Don Delillo generation and the David Foster Wallace/Chuck Palahniuk generation), and I'm finding the regiment quite pleasing. I've always been a fan of balance. I will say that your list in itself (so far) gives a wide enough spectrum without going into unenjoyable territory. A perfect balance of expansion and familiarity. I can't imagine how coveted a mixtape of yours must be.

I apologize for the tangents, self-deprecation, and continual praise, which must be getting tedious by now. At the very least, I appreciate you getting through my lengthy and impromptu burst of communication.

Forgetfully Yours,
Ryan Celley



Hey Ryan,

Firstly, term/semester: they both suck. I had just about recovered from too many (very enjoyable) commitments over summer, and got back into reading and writing on the PhD, when term started and shot holes into my plans spelling out a big 'fuck you, George' in the barn walls.

That said, I'm not not-writing, I'm merely not putting in as much energy to it as I feel like I want to. This is an endless kind of worry and panic and niggle, but shouldn't be ignored, as it's better to feel like you want to be writing more, than writing lots and feeling like you want to lie on a sofa at home in a dressing gown.

As to being a writer now, yes. Collect those rejections. I don't know if there's a milestone to reach, but one prof who just started teaching with us this year collected 60 and took about 12 years to place his first fiction book. In Turkey however, you only really join the club when you get your first death threat. Go figure - and set your own standards. Personally, I don't call myself a poet (David Morley's on there too, along with many other interesting poets) and for tax reasons call myself an editor, not a writer. Keep reading, then start wreading. (Go on, google it.)

Yes, Zadie Smith's "lyrical Realism". Here, read this first: Garth Risk Hallberg on whether it's really all that exciting. Ostensibly this is a self-professed avant gardist trying to police the boundaries of avant gardism; in other words, it's a lorra ole balox. On the other hand, the aside in the early parts about lyrical Realism points to something else happening subtly in the book media, which in brief:

1. Corporatisation of the trade means an increase in retail, publishing and taxonomies of book markets.

2.  'Literature' (aka wtf?) gets hemmed in and panics and starts pushing out the qualities of 'literary fiction' (as distinct from literature as chalk from cheese) without acknowledging centre/periphery debates, or ideas of taste, preference and the intrusion of the markets into this traditional approach to book publishing.

3. A backlash occurs, mostly spearheaded by writers of what was recently know as 'slipstream' (China Miéville is probably shoulder to shoulder with Toby Litt in this, but also Scarlett Thomas, and any number of others mixing and remixing genre tropes with more serious 'grand', playful or experimental narrative techniques), suggesting that 'literary fiction' is in itself a kind of genre, or has within it trends and characteristics that suggest homogeneity.

When these things come from publishers, it means there's money to be made. When it comes from writers disinvested of direct financial gain, or academics (in this case, Zadie Smith is in the latter camp when she writes essays), then there's a point being made underneath the superficial whining of 'writers hard done by'. Slipstream, for example, got hijacked by publishing, got its own table in Waterstones, and the honourable thing to do (as done by Litt, Miéville, etc.) was to stop using the term and move on - China mentions this in interview somewhere.

(Cut out all the 'Two Paths...' stuff about McCarthy as avant garde - it's unfortunate rubbish; McCarthy's writing, especially Remainder, isn't a patch on Pynchon, Foster Wallace, or, going back a little ways, any of the French Oulipians, symbolists, existentialists et al who influenced him. In British terms, Smith does JG Ballard and Ann Quin and any number of very exciting genre writers - of SF, of fantasy, etc. - a disservice by positioning McCarthy in these terms. But you've read Hallberg's Millions article, or at least the intro, so I'll stop there.)

So, returning to this point about 'litfic', what are its dominant qualities?

A certain lilting musicality to the sentences, which drowns out the sense somewhat, substituting the substance of character, meaning and the whole form=content issue for a kind of narrative trance. Like pouring whiskey down someone's throat while you saw off their souls. This musicality is often called 'lyrical', or 'poetic'.

An approach to realism that, to put it in a blunt, neo-avant knee-jerky kind of way, "Forgets that Joyce's Ulysses ever happened". In this, a struggle arises which has been much documented in literary circles and diaries and interviews and stuff, to do with the subject of 'authenticity'. In fact, this issue of authenticity has become so problematic, you might say that's all Jonathan Frantzen ever writes about. (This is one of the cheekiest statements I've made in a long time.)

Your question sums up quite nicely: "Is it a movement, or just a categorization of novels devoid of the self-awareness in postmodernism?"

Or: It's a set of novels written with a void in them, desperately trying to cohere into a movement (read: guild, lobby group) to protect their pitiful share of the book market.

The issue Smith raises is to do with homogeneity in the industry, and her limited range of references, her 1+1=2 comparative approach, limits what she is saying. In a wider social context you could link this to the growing movement to decentralise ideas of national identity, dialect, etc. in Britain [OMG this statement is so dated now! - GT], which Smith is very much a product of. The BBC didn't allow accented broadcasters until about fifteen years ago, unless they learned 'received pronunciation'.

Anyway, you weren't asking for an essay, though it was an essay question, but hope this is a kind of guidance. Behind the reading list I gave you, you could insert this kind of contextual architecture, but you have to remember it's bullshit. I watched an interesting video interview with Orhan Pamuk recently and he gives a very brief answer to the question of what advice he'd give to aspiring novelists: don't listen to anyone else's advice. Learn to do it yourself. Everything here is just my version of reality/lyrical Realism, so you'll have to work it out yourself. You're reading enough exciting stuff, by the sound of things, that you can look forward to a career in editing at the very least, if you keep at it [Also dated - congrats on the job!]. But remember to keep writing too.

Also, a personal thing: be wary of reading too many alcoholic misogynists/misanthropes. Try and play off the Mailers and the Roths and the Celines and the Hemingways &c. &c. (there are so many of them!) with some antidotal stuff: Stein, Adorno, Ballard, Quin, etc. where the same kind of issues might occur, but handled far more intelligently and generously and humanely, even at their bleakest. Some say (and I understand this) that you learn as a writer to separate out the person from the product. I agree, but you can't separate the person's politics from the literature and moral breadth is as important as technical breadth.

A mixtape from me is nothing like a reading list from me. I have over-cultivated literary breadth at the expense of other art forms. When you're through the books, let me know if you want more - but focus on your studies also; that's important. I imagine all US college study is a bit like what happens in The Social Network, unfortunately, but hey, at least it gives you time to read and write. And wread.


Part 2 tomorrow.

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