The other day I was at a restaurant listening in as a group at the next table talked about their favorite books.
This always gladdens me. I love to hear people discussing books with the sort of enthusiasm reserved for movies or rock bands these days. But what I heard next made me sad.
One of the women was praising some novel she’d just read, and she sold it by saying, “It’s short. You could finish it today if you started. And it’s real easy. A quick read.”
…Why in the world would that be a virtue?
Now, I understand War and Peace is daunting to all of us. I still haven’t gotten to it. (My wife’s better than I am.) But why do we want assurances we won’t have to spend long with something we’re supposed to be enjoying?
Can you imagine someone saying, “Star Wars The Force Awakens is short. You could see it and be back here in an hour. A quick flick”?
I’ve also heard many a “book lover” say they were intimidated by thick books?
Why, I wonder? Is there some sort of prize for finishing off more books. Do people get paid commissions to read? If a book is five times thicker than the average book, maybe there’s five times more good stuff in it. (Maybe not, and I’ve read some rambling tomes that needed an editor, but still, the size alone won’t persuade or dissuade me from approaching a book.)
But if you enjoy reading, why would you want it to be “quick”? (It begs all sorts of analogies…well, okay, just one.)
We sure live in a rush-rush-rush culture, which is part of what Entertaining Welsey Shaw is about. We don’t take the time to see what’s going on around us. Right in the opening chapter, when Daniel sees the famous actress in a Starbucks for the first time…
I’m sitting by myself, leafing through a picture book bought after a long meeting and a long lunch. If anyone would look up, they might notice that Welsey Shaw is standing here. True, she’s in faded jeans, scuffed brown boots, violet scarf and green sweater. Someone at a table behind her gets up and shoves his chair right into her buttock. She jumps. He excuses himself without really looking at her face. He and his companion, a matronly Asian woman with short, spiky hair that belongs on her daughter, leave their cups and teabags on the table. They have an air about them that says they are only slumming here. She folds up a laptop much newer and sleeker than mine, sticks it in a leather bag and they are off.
I blink, and Welsey Shaw is still there.
I’ve often wondered how many famous people have passed me by that I didn’t notice because I was in a hurry to get to somewhere. And sometimes we’re not even in a hurry for a reason. We’re just in a hurry because it’s our default setting.
Not only do I not want to rush through a book, I will, if it’s good enough, go right back to the beginning and start again. It’s amazing what you notice the second time around; indeed, if it’s great fiction, you can’t grok everything the first go, and you’ll read a completely different book with the second pass. This isn’t true of something like, say, Gone Girl, but Joseph O’Neill’s The Dog or José Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis will yield treasures in repeated readings. In fact, that’s the idea. Deborah Eisenberg sometimes spends years crafting a single story. I don’t think she’d want you to skim through it in an hour. I’ve read some of them half a dozen times, and with each reacquaintance they’re so different I almost wonder if she doesn’t sneak into my house and alter the text when I’m asleep.
So when I hear people, like these women, selling a book by bragging how short it is, how fast it reads, how you don’t have to spend a lot of time with it, I have to wonder what their point is? If a book (or a record, or a movie) yields up everything quickly and easily, I kind of feel like I’ve been jipped. There’s supposed to be more to it than that, isn’t there?
What do you think?
A replay this week for an extraordinary writer who just won this year’s PEN/Malamud Award. Congratulations to Deborah Eisenberg.
The other night I was reading Cross Off and Move On, the latest short story by Deborah Eisenberg, a completely, utterly brilliant and original writer. Reading it I was struck by how she was able, in so few words, to paint pictures, words her brush strokes. With a few simple sentences (in terms of vocabulary she’s well-within a tenth grade level, proof you do not need to use big or obscure words to write deeply) she conveys a snatch of a childhood memory, or an elusive thought, the kind that never stays long in the mind because it’s pushed out by more mundane concerns: What time did she say she’d get here? Don’t I have to pick up milk at the grocery store? Should I get gas on the way home or wait till the weekend? I remember as a kid playing with magnets and noticing how I could never “pin down” a magnet with another of the same charge—one always pushed the other out of the way. These thoughts are a lot like that. They squeeze away just as you feel you’re about to nail them.
But Eisenberg lives somewhere deep in that netherland between conscious and unconscious, and she can convey the feelings and sights and sounds—and fears and hopes and aspirations—of these areas in vivid portraiture. Better than any other writer alive, in part because few others go there or go as deeply. Eisenberg’s stories are often like dreams.
She fills these dreams with those vivid portraits, and that was the thought I came away with when I finished her latest work—that I’d been thinking of fiction-writing in the wrong terms, or at least not the best-suited terms. Most people, even writers, will reflexively say writer are storytellers. I think I disagree. Writers are painters. They paint with words. The storytelling is secondary.
But, you say, what about The Bard? They don’t call him that name for nothing. Well, consider this: it’s well-known that most of Shakespeare’s plots are not original. Others in his own theater company even addressed many of them before he did. Before he took his stab most of them were not considered anything special. So why do his tellings live on?
I posit it’s because he painted better pictures. His stories had the better brushwork, not the better plotting. Bard my ass.
Great literature, really, rarely turns on plot, on “A happens, which leads to B and that leads to C, which makes D conflict with…”
No, no. It’s the author’s world, headspace, mind. A vase of flowers, a chair, a wheatfield, isn’t particularly interesting until Van Gogh looks at them. Both Beethoven and a far lesser-known composer dealt with da-da-da-duuum. In the same year, too! (1808, in case you’re interested.) If the content alone were so compelling, we’d still remember Étienne Nicolas Méhul’s symphony today, but for the most part we don’t. His notes just aren’t put together in a very interesting way.
God is in the details…
We constantly hear that writers are storytellers, but I don’t think so. Writers paint. Photographers paint with light. Dancers paint with movement. Writers paint with words. You can create a written masterpiece with no plot at all. But you can’t create one without a voice. That’s a shopping list. Or an instructional manual.
Listen to this wonderful passage of impressions from Cross Off and Move On, which, from what I’ve read about her, must originate from Eisenberg’s own childhood:
Sometimes my mother takes me to the club where she works, and even though it’s exhaustingly dull to play in the cloakroom all day, I can bring my paper and colored pencils, and there is a lurid appeal in the ambiguous suggestions of adult life: the soft, luxurious coats and scarves, the interesting muddy marks of huge shoes on the thick carpet when it’s been raining, the great big men who linger and talk with my mother and who smell—and even look—like cigars, and the pretty little basket that the men put change and sometimes dollar bills into.
I don’t know about you, but I can see this painting, hanging in a museum. It’s as real as anything by Courbet or Daumier.
Or how about a couple of very simple poignant sentences that describe the psychological character of a fragile young girl, her embittered mother, and three loving aunts—
There are two pianos in the parlor. I don’t play the piano. My lack of musical talent is impressive, my mother has informed me, and lessons would only be a waste of money. This is a shame, though, I explain solemnly to my aunts, who listen with raised eyebrows, because my mother says that those of us who will not necessarily be able to rely on our looks need to invest time and effort on cultivating our other assets. My aunts look at one another and then Aunt Charna puts her hands over her face and lies back, her lazy, round laugh rolling from her. My mother can be counted on to speak her mind, she says, and Aunt Bernice and Aunt Adela titter a bit, sadly.
Just tilt your head back and imagine it all. Some paintings are best viewed with your eyes closed.
One addendum: if you’re a fan of the show Gossip Girl, which stars her partner-for-more-than-30-years playwright Wallace (“Inconceivable!”) Shawn, you may want to know that Deborah was on one episode in the 2012-2013 season, called Despicable B, as herself. She’s also been in a couple other movies in small parts, most notably an uncredited blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance in Louis Malle’s My Dinner With Andre. (She’s also mentioned in the voice-over of the film, given, once again, by Wallace Shawn.)
He comes in every day—you can set your watch by him—and sits down to read a novel he’s toting. Brainy guy, one of those “beautiful mind” types whose IQ probably tops out on the far right of the bell curve. One day he has Moby-Dick. The next time it’s Complete Works of Isaac Babel. Then it’s Gravity’s Rainbow, Ulysses, Infinite Jest. You’ll never see him reading Twilight or Jodi Picoult.
I was talking to him the other day, in this coffee shop we both frequent. I almost hate to do this—talk to him, that is. He’s a pretty private kind of guy; you an tell by the body language he wants to be left alone. At the same time, there aren’t a lot of people who are as interesting, so I do engage him in conversation sometimes, occasionally.
He had just finished Moby-Dick for the umpteenth time. He enjoyed how it was a novel of ideas, how it rambled and meditated on all sorts of ideas and issues. We started talking about our favorites when I mentioned that so often when you tell someone you’ve read or are reading a particular novel the first thing—usually the only thing—that want to know is “What’s it about?”
In other words, he said, they want to know about the plot.
Exactly, said I.
He fairly bellowed, “Plot is overrated!”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
To me it’s not What’s it about? as it is How’s it about?
I don’t believe plot is really all that hard. Sure there are some works of fiction with amazingly intricate plots that dazzle me, but a good voice will always impress me more than a complex plot. There are almost mechanical ways to construct plots. Of course there is the shadowy, imprecise concept of genius, which resists all formula, but in a lot of ways plot is like rhythm in music—almost mathematical, chartable.
But what makes one voice so compelling that it stays with you your whole life, haunts you? Why is it Beethoven wrote in sonata form just like hundreds of other composers in his day, but it’s not the other composers we remember? Why am I listening to the Archduke Trio right now as I write this, still finding new twists in a work that’s over 200 years old?
Why does the opening of Deborah Eisenberg’s short story “Presents” astonish with its novelty:
The waves go on and on—there is no farther shore; a boat here and there in the dark water, a cluster of fronds, an occasional sunset. Cheryl closes her eyes and the warm night blue water rushes out around her. “Think it’s really like that?” she asks. Cheryl’s voice is arresting—low, and with a city accent that gives each word the finality of a bead dropping into place along a string; sometimes strangers to whom she speaks pause before responding, and look, if they haven’t looked before. “Think it’s really that blue?”
“Blue?” Carter glances down at his shirt. “Nothing’s this blue. Not even this. It’s the lights in here—make everything vibrate.” He tips the little glass bottle in his hand and spills a neat white line from it onto his forearm, which he extends to Cheryl with balletic solemnity.
I have to admit, after an opening like that, I don’t care what the story is “about.”
Back to my friend at the coffee shop. Today he had a new one; he was sitting far away and I couldn’t read the title, but it was thick and no doubt challenging. Its author no doubt created a whole universe of laws, of causes and effects as unique and detailed as the actual universe we live in, Einstein’s universe, Bohr’s universe. Think of literature that way. Like the real universe, it becomes a lot more interesting when you do.
“Plot is overrated!” I can still hear him bellowing.
Preach it, brother…
Perhaps then one reason why we have no great poet, novelist or critic writing today is that we refuse to allow words their liberty. We pin them down to one meaning, their useful meaning. A meaning which makes us catch the train, the meaning which makes us pass the examination. —Virginia Woolf
I would love to make some experience for the reader that entails the words and could not be made with other words, but that is much more, and other, than what the words are. And I would love to make some experience that creates all kinds of reverberations between different elements. —Deborah Eisenberg
Words, words, words. I’m so sick of words! —Eliza Doolittle, My Fair Lady
A musician has notes. An artist uses shapes and colors and lines. A dancer utilizes movement. A fiction writer is more impoverished than these, because he only has words. And words weren’t invented for creative purposes. They were invented for practical matters of survival. Writers then co-opted them. And because of that, writers struggle the way other creatives do not.
Writers are limited by extant vocabulary, unless one invents new words and they stick, which rarely happens. So we are stuck with the bricks and mortars of banking and law and science, the things words were originally created for. The first written communications that survive are notices of debt and proclamations from leaders. Language was not invented so that some poet could write about journeys to far-away places, or ballads of lost loves. No, words originally were utilitarian.
Because of that, we have a wealth of words for precise concepts. Science never has to grope for new ways to measure, define, analyze, at least till we get to infinity, where math as we know it breaks down and even Einstein scratched his curly head. There are precise “terms of art” in law. Contracts may sometimes be vague, but that’s only because they were not properly written.
But the lowly fiction writer has to struggle when his universe turns to the emotional, the impressionistic. I think of the way the Inuit are said to have many different words for what we of more temperate climates just call “snow.” To them it isn’t just one “thing.” One sort of snow is so different—and the difference so important from—another type, that they invent whole new words, whole new intellectual concepts. for it.
After you write fiction for a while, you begin to tire of so many of the same words. He said. She laughed. Suddenly he thought. She felt sad. They were elated. He was in love with her.
How often it is that for the writer, those words just don’t do. They don’t describe enough. We attach adverbs and adjectives, but that just makes the prose clunkier—and quickly these new words get overworked as well. Therefore my character laughs. He may laugh ten times in my story, but each time it is subtly different. Yet I am caged by the word laughed, and a few overused others: chuckled, chortled, snickered. How the Inuit would feel if he were confined to four words for now—which would be plenty in all likelihood for a desert sweller. For a writer, a fiction writer, a fiction writer who wants his readers to feel his unique emotions, the paltry words we have at our disposal often are frustratingly limited. I just smiled. But not in a way I’ve yet smiled today. What kind of smile was it? Was it a “knowing” smile? A “mirthful” smile? “Sardonic”? “Bitter”? “Amused”? After looking up every kind of smile one could have, I find there still isn’t a word that quite describes mine. I choose what I think is the best, though I may change my mind when I review the passage tomorrow. A scientist never has to worry if his words properly describe a newly-found star. A banker never need sweat that there aren’t exactly the right sentences to create a car loan. Did you ever see one with his head in hand saying, “I can’t find the right words to write up the financing for this BMW”? We have plenty of words for exacts. It’s ephemeral emotions, thoughts that don’t conveniently fit into our rigid definitions, that suffer.
Daisy looked at Tom frowning and an indefinable expression, at once definitely unfamiliar and vaguely-recognizable, as if I had only heard it described in words, passed over Gatsby’s face. I can imagine Fitzgerald struggling to find the perfect words while writing The Great Gatsby, then finally settling for that unsatisfactory sentence. So often we have to resort to phrases I hate, saying something was indescribable, vaguely-familiar, was both this and that. “Majesty and opacity” are often use to describe Bach’s Fourth Solo Cello Suite, BWV 1010. But then that describes the Largo of Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony too, does it not? And wouldn’t it also precisely nail the finale of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony? Yet these three works couldn’t be more different from one another.
Here’s a test: the next time you wake from a dream, describe it to a friend. Then notice how poorly the words you use really convey the uniqueness, the flavor, of your experience. Your dream is as real to your mind as the deed to your house, but the words you have at your disposal to describe it are poor, inadequate, because they weren’t really made for that sort of communication. They’re borrowed. And as is true with many borrowed items, while they’re better than nothing at all, they don’t really work.
Some writers have tried heroically to break the bonds of precise, finite words and rule-bound sentence construction. They’re the avant-garde in literature, trying to do what a Jackson Pollock or a Pablo Picasso did with images, what a John Coltrane or an Anton Webern did for music. But with their art you can bend, extend, distort, reform. To some extent that’s true in literature too, but ultimately you have to contend with discreet building blocks—words—and the fact that they must carry some concrete meaning, especially when you start stringing them together in long chains. Ultimately tones of sound don’t have to mean anything, or the meaning can be multiple and/or ambiguous. To some extent of course that’s true with literature too, but past a point literature is irreducible. I can’t tear words apart—blu ackn vol mer ing fes poly ming vi supplem grif—and say I have new meaning. There’s a depth past which I cannot burrow.
So I’m stuck with using a system of communication not intended for me. Think of how many times you’ve said something like, “I can’t describe it. You have to hear it or see it.” Ever hear someone say, “You can’t listen to it. I have to write it out for you”? Leonard Bernstein talked about this way back in 1959, when for an Omnibus television program he called “The Infinite Variety of Music,” he discussed how music can be strung together so that even with just 12 notes repeated higher and lower you can create endless compositions, while a writer with only 12 words would soon be at his wits’ end. He was right. Or perhaps the oft-heard quote “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” sums it up rather nicely.
And if it doesn’t, it’s the best I can do with the tools a bunch of bankers and lawyers handed me.
I was reminded of this when I went over my credit card statements recently.
Mind you, I always knew I had a big Amazon habit. (“Hi, I’m John, and I have a BIG Amazon habit!” “Hiiii, Johnnn!“) Sometimes I think I built one of the wings, and maybe the pool, on Jeff Bezos’ mansion. He could at least invite me over once in a while.
But there’s something about staring all those credit card charges in the face, about actually seeing how rich I made the founder of Amazon last month. This is why I procrastinate when it comes to going over my credit card statements, something that baffles my wife, an accountant, who actually enjoys looking at columns of numbers. Lots of them. *Shudder!*
I do sell items on Amazon as well and so get some of that money back, but not as much as I spend. I collect classical CDs, but more have passed through my collection than have remained. Over the years I’ve bought about three times as many compact discs as I have currently. I’m still searching for really great performance for a lot of pieces. Anyone who can get me to “grok” the Schumann concertos—any of them—gets a special shout-out on my blog.
And yes, I’m aware so much my patronage of Amazon hurts the cute, cozy little bookstores, the kind that always seem to have creaky floors and cats sleeping in the front window. That’s why I make sure I drop money with them too.
And I’ve been upgrading my DVDs to Blu-ray, at least when there are Blu-ray versions available. (It’s amazing the great films that are still not on Blu-ray.) That explains a lot of transactions over the past year or so. You have not lived till you’ve seen Casablanca on Blu-ray.
Still, nothing prepared me for some of my credit card statements. They almost had to be delivered flat. Pages and pages of charges, many from the Big A in Seattle. “Surely this is a mistake,” I think before checking them on my computer.
No mistake. Damn.
So I looked around my house and counted all the books I haven’t yet read. No, I’m not going to tell you the number, because my wife reads this blog.
I’m reminded of the guy who owns a terrific indie video store, Bill. Bill told me he stopped buying DVDs a long while ago and put the rest of his personal inventory in the store because he realized he wouldn’t be alive long enough to watch everything he hadn’t gotten to yet.
So why do I do it? Well, actually I do have at least one very good reason. There have been times I’ve passed on something, only to see it become unavailable or offered second-hand by someone who has jacked the price to the moon. This my wife discovered when she went looking for a Blu-ray copy of her favorite movie, The Third Man. And I’m sure glad I got those CDs of Ernst Levy, a fabulously-underrated Swiss pianist, when they were available.
And some of the credit card charges were gifts to other people. I am a rabid fanatic of Deborah Eisenberg, and will use any excuses to talk about her, and then ship, without being asked, a volume of her collected stories to the person if they appear to show even the slightest interest, meaning they scratched their nose or blinked at some time during the conversation. Deborah Eisenberg should be on everyone’s bucket list.
Still, as I surveyed my living room I realized my shelves are tight enough.
(Once a friend, seeing the shelves for the first time, exclaimed, “They’re sagging!” In college I used to flip through my record collection and remark, “I forgot I had this” to her husband. I think eventually he thought I was doing it just to annoy him, but I really did and do forget. I once ordered the exact same recording three times in a month.)
I have more short story anthologies than I’ve read.
I shouldn’t get another biography of a Revolutionary War hero until I’ve read the seven or eight I still haven’t touched.
I have enough coffeetable art books, thank you. They never capture the experience of looking at the real thing anyway.
—Ditto Beethoven CD cycles. I don’t need any more recordings of the symphonies. Or piano concertos. (The sonatas and string quartets are a different story; you can never have enough of those.) All conductors and soloists today are too reverential anyway. And forget Brahms. There isn’t one great Brahms interpreter alive.
I’m not getting volume two of David Hare’s plays until I’d read (and reread) everything in the first volume.
That book on chess endgames was a bad idea. I never read books on chess endgames. Nobody does.
I don’t need the complete works of Plato. Okay, yes I do. Bad example.
But I don’t think I’ll be ordering volume 9 of Marston’s Josef Hofmann series. I really don’t get his reputation based on what I have heard, with a few exceptions scattered here and there. (To his credit, though, he did invent the windshield wiper. Every time I’m driving and it rains I think, “I should order more Hofmann.” I wonder if that was the idea.)
The projected new Ernst Levy set, however, is mandatory when it comes out. Mandatory!
And the day Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s BRD Trilogy appears on a Criterion Blu-ray, well, I’ll be dancing a jig. Ditto The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
Still, overall I’m going to be cutting back. Tightening my belt. At least till I make my way through everything I have.
I’m John, and I’m a recovering Amazon addict.
See you at the next meeting.