Four Literary Questions

Posted in Moments of Clarity, The Literateria with tags , , , , , , , on 12/29/2014 by Janet Fitch
This question was posed for me by a reader on my Goodreads page. For me, the best questions are the ones that make me think more deeply about the issues involved. This was a good one:
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 “What makes a great story/book? There are so many writers out there, but only a few get any acclaim, and some of the best posthumously. It is a herd mentality that snowballs into popularity?”
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The questioner is actually asking four separate questions here.
1. What makes a great story?
2. What makes a great book?
3. Why do only a few books get acclaim?
4. Is it a herd mentality that snowballs a book into popularity.
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I answered them in order–but Number 2 is the one that interests me most.
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1. A great story is one which satisfies the question it raises in the beginning. It can be a very subtle question, about love, say, or loyalty, or an obvious one, ‘who killed Colonel Mustard and why,’ and satisfies it in a way that was continually surprising, that’s both suspenseful–even oddly so–and pays off along the way in terms of its central question, as well as at the end. Story is setup and payoff. A novel is a series of payoffs. But there is alignment, it doesn’t jump the rails.
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2. A great book is far more than a great story. A great book, and I mean greatness–a great book deepens our understanding of the human condition. A great book moves us, it shapes us. On the technical level, a great book will have us torn between the urge to read on–to satisfy suspense, what we call ‘profluence’ ie. what’s going to happen?????–and the urge to stay and reread that sentence because its so bloody beautiful, moment to moment. The exquisite tension between beautiful writing and compelling story is the greatest of all pleasures. And then to be continually thinking more and more deeply about life and our own humanity, add that in, and you have Greatness.
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3. Why do only a few books get acclaim? Because out of the 400,000 or so books published in English this year, or the 100 million books in existence today, there are only going to be a certain number who meet the criterion of #2–greatness. Of these, so much depends upon a sensitive connection between publisher and public. That’s why real book critics are so terribly important and the loss of stand-alone book review sections in newspapers–and the loss of newspapers–across the country so imperils the whole literary project. Acclaim–real acclaim, recognition of greatness and the ability of great readers to find those books and acclaim them–is a very dicey prospect, luck plays all too big a part in it. There are a lot of writers but not a lot of greatness in any generation. It’s locating the greatness and then allowing that to reach the readers that’s always the issue. Why posthumous books often get more recognition is that the often horrible event of a writer’s death calls attention to their work, and if greatness is involved, there’s the huge regret that there will be no more of their work, and that somehow we readers might have been more attentive, might have somehow saved that writer.
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4. The question of popularity and the question of acclaim are two very very different ones–hard to accept, maybe, in this time of ‘ranking likes’ instead of ranking greatness. We all like a bag of Doritos from time to time, but we all know the difference between chemically treated snack food and a fine and nourishing meal. Popularity means that various aspects of reading matter, a story, a self-help or whatever, meet people’s needs in a satisfying way. They might not be literary needs–see #2–and often aren’t. They might be the need to escape some heavy-duty personal problems for a while. They might be the need to tag along on an adventure. They might be a way to vicariously live a dream life. If they perform their function successfully, people talk about it, and then their friends hear about it.
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It’s not so much ‘herd mentality’ as it is the contagious excitement of something people have found entertaining, useful, pleasant, interesting or meaningful in some way–and it can be excitement of a literary nature too. Fine writers can be exceedingly popular–Tolstoy was very popular in his time, as was Dickens and Twain. In our time, we have John Irving, Amy Tan, Isabel Allende, George Saunders, John Le Carre, Joyce Carol Oates, Richard Russo, Jonathan Lethem, TC Boyle, Jane Smiley, Toni Morrison. Naturally, that’s the sweet spot. To strive for greatness, to tell a great story, to have some acclaim and some popularity–what more can writer hope for?

Paint It Black the Movie

Posted in Moments of Clarity with tags , , , , , , , on 12/19/2014 by Janet Fitch

More than just a gleam in Mama’s eye now.  It’s in Variety, and its official, the Paint It Black movie is shot and wrapping.  Amber Tamblyn, a true force of nature, who fell in love with the book back in 2007, wrote the screenplay, fought to get it made and in the end, directed it as her debut behind the camera. Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development) and Janet McTeer (OBE, Tony winner, 2 time Oscar Nominee) are starring,  along with Alfred Molina (“Call me Fred”) as Cal,  Nancy Kwan (The World of Suzie Wong!) as a refashioned Sofia, Emily Rios as Pen and Rhys Wakefield as Michael, plus Chris Palko (Cage) as Nick Nitro, and Mish Way from White Lung as Lola Lola.

It’s been an incredible journey–the book was optioned before, and with a screenplay that was truly–OMFG.  It took someone who loved it, fought for it, was passionate about it–to finally get this done.  And no one can be more passionate than Amber Tamblyn, believe me.  And now, these ultimately talented actors.  How she did it, god only knows.

Always a strange thing to walk in and see your book reimagined in physical reality.  I don’t care if a movie paints by the numbers or breaks out and does its own thing as long as its a work of art that adheres to its own logic, and man, this is that movie.

Publication Day, No Stopping Train

Posted in Moments of Clarity, Upcoming Events with tags , , , , , on 10/14/2014 by Janet Fitch

It’s been a full year since my friend, the writer Les Plesko died. That night, I watched his YouTube station, over and over again, and wrote the poem On Watching Your YouTube Channel Late at Night.

At the time, I wrote that his magnum opus, the brilliant No Stopping Train, “set in the Hungary of his birth and circulated privately among his friends” had never been published. Now, a year later, that book is entering the world. Prospects look good. So many emotions crowd in on me tonight.  I did a long email interview yesterday with David Ulin, the book critic from the L.A. Times, which ran in short form on the Times literary blog Jacket Copy, and at full length on the Les Plesko website Pleskoism.  But the thinking, and remembering, has brought me to the place of–as a student of his posted, “very glass half full.”  I don’t know if the glass is half full or empty or completely overflowing or downright broken.  All of the above. He wanted that book to be published so much, published well, appreciated.  And here it is. And he is not.  I want to celebrate, and I know I will, but tonight I just feel bereft.

Your book born today

Into the arms of old friends

How like you it looks.

Tomorrow, an interview on KCRW, our local NPR station, with Lisa Napoli, on its ‘journey to publication.’  That torturous path. Can I get my chin off my knees? It is such a beautiful book, a rigorous book, a real barn-burner. If I think about the book and not the ‘journey to publication’, I feel so incredibly happy.  So glad such a thing has come into the world, and is being greeted properly. One of the questions Ulin asked me was whether there was a hierarchy between his books, did he value some over others.  I said that he’d worked so very hard on this novel, there was such beauty, such labor, such rigor, he really wanted to see it — as an old friend put it— “walk down the aisle in a white dress.”

Now here it is, and he’s not there.  And it’s so beautiful in that dress, its shining veil.

An excerpt was from No Stopping Train was published in The Nervous Breakdown this week.  Read it–it’s everything I teach, everything I value in prose–the lyricism, the word choice, the rhythms, the tightness of the dialogue, the moodiness and texture of the landscape, the poetic devices–assonance and alliteration and rhyme. Such music.  The bigger issues interlocked with the human ones, love and betrayal, honor and affinity.  All honed to a glinting edge.

On Sunday, October 19, 6 p.m. in the Charles Young Salon at UCLA, where he taught so many students, for so many years, we, his old friends and students, will walk his book down the aisle. If you’re in town, please come.  For more information, click here.

The Writing Life–Coffee with Alice

Posted in The Literateria with tags , , on 09/19/2014 by Janet Fitch

 Lots of thoughts about writing and life and the writing life in this Alice Carbone interview. Online this morning athttp://www.alicecarbone.com/2014/09/janet-fitch-interview.html

Dear Mr. Bezos

Posted in Moments of Clarity, The Literateria on 09/02/2014 by Janet Fitch

The following is a letter I wrote to Amazon.com’s CEO Jeff Bezos on the Fifth of July, in the hopes of reaching him directly. As I never heard from him, I’ve decided to make it an open letter.  My books and many other authors’ books are being artificially delayed this summer, new copies often made unavailable and bargain copies substituted. The careers of new authors are being purposely crushed in the nest as the preorder buttons on their books have been removed. All these are hardball tactics in the retailer’s dispute with my publisher, Little  Brown and Co., a division of the Hachette Book Group, over the price of e-books. (Carolyn Kellogg of the LA Times wrote a good capsule summary: Amazon and Hachette: the Dispute in 13 Easy Steps.)

The actual cost of publishing books includes paying author advances, editorial and clerical salaries, publicity, marketing and all the other costs of creating books for us to read. Publishers know their own business. For Amazon, it’s simply an aesthetic decision, how a certain number looks to a consumer. Like saying “all houses should cost $25,000, because people like that number.” But what houses? And who will build them?

As a middle-aged woman who has had some luck as a writer, I’d like this profession of author to remain a possibility for young writers in the future—and not become an arena solely for the hobbyist or the well-heeled. What will be lost when working writers no longer can support themselves pursuing their ideas, their art? What will be lost to this country, if these most talented can no longer make a living? I am making this an open letter, because I believe we are at a crossroads, and decisions are being made now which will affect our country permanently.

July 5, 2014, 10:41 a.m.

To: jeff@amazon.com [this is a public address at which he invites correspondence]

Subject: Service, power and responsibility

Dear Mr. Bezos,

As a reader and an author, I find Amazon does a wonderful service, but is in danger of killing the little central nugget from which the rest of your vast online business stems. Amazon is a marvelous conglomeration and delivery system for products of every imaginable function. But the book “business” is really not the same as the sale of lawn rakes or adapters for telephones. It is the intellectual and cultural lifeblood of this nation or any nation.

To have amassed such influence in our culture, and to use it in such a negative way, to give and withhold, to distort, to silence–to silence! is what is usually done in totalitarian countries with a political agenda–but which Amazon is doing for the sake of squeezing out the last drop of profit. As a result it is undercutting the ability of writers to live and create, the ability of publishers to gather and refine and put the best of the best before the public, rather than reinforcing and strengthening the components of our intellectual and cultural life whose future you, at bottom, hold in your hands.

The sheer amount of power you have gained in the literary marketplace negates any disingenuous argument that it’s just “business as usual.”  With the amount of wealth and power Amazon has accumulated, you’ve also put yourself into a position of  responsibility–wanted or unwanted–for the intellectual life of the country. You have seated yourself at that table.  I urge you to consciously accept that  responsibility, and respond to it by treating the small amount of your business which is represented by literature with fairness and even–understanding how important to the life of our society books are–preferential treatment.

The difference between a symbiotic and a parasitic relationship is that in symbiosis, the host is not harmed in any way. The two organisms work together for mutual benefit. In a parasitic relationship, the growth of the secondary organism outstrips the ability of the host to sustain itself.  Unlike symbiosis, a parasite kills its host, and eventually, itself.

I ask you to please reconsider the effect of your demands upon publishers, authors, readers, and our democratic nation as a whole.

Sincerely,

Janet Fitch

 

One Minute Ghost Story

Posted in Ghost stories, Poems, The Literateria on 08/26/2014 by Janet Fitch
The Hand Of Fate by Claudia Kunin

The Hand Of Fate by Claudia Kunin

A while ago, I participated in an afternoon sponsored by X-TRA, the art magazine, at the Hammer Museum, where artists and writers were asked to pick an image, any kind of image, and speak about it for one minute.  I picked an image from my fabulous photographer friend Claudia Kunin’s portfolio ‘3D Ghost Stories” called “The Hand of Fate” (guess whose hand it was?)  Here’s the image, and this was my minute.

 

Richard Quincey was a promising young man.

He used to meet Beth Ambercrombie down by the river.

No one knew what went on by moonlight.

 

Soon after,

He left and wed the daughter of a Boston merchant,

a handsome marriage.

A promising start.

 

Yet, from then on, nothing went right.

Whatever he tried was doomed to failure.

Lawsuits ran against him.

Children sickened and died.

He bore his failures nobly.

What a shame, people said, about Richard Quincey.

 

While Beth Ambercrombie walks in her strange garden by moonlight

She never did marry.

By moonlight she peers into the basin

where she studies Richard Quincey,

And again draws the sign in the water.

 

 

Human Resources

Posted in The Word: Stories with tags , , , , , , on 06/22/2014 by Janet Fitch

The Word: GROUND

Jet  set down her battered briefcase on the chair next to Nora, slipped off her jacket. Her girlfriend was hunched unhappily over an unfinished Sudoku on the dining room table, still in her work clothes. “Susan again?”

Nora appraised her with red rimmed eyes. “I am going to kill her. I’m going to hide behind the door of her office and when she comes in I’m going to staple one of her fucking memos to her forehead.” She clapped her hands smartly, the retort the sound of the staple through Susan Balt’s cranium.

Jet could smell the electrical storm rising from her girlfriend, the ozone under the slighty stale scent of her hair. A few months ago, Gelco had hired a new Human Resources Director– a position which everyone assumed would go to Nora. But they’d brought someone from HQ in Delaware, a petite woman who wore neat ladylike skirt-suits and flat shoes and pearls. Corporate drama. Academics was bad enough, but from what she heard from Nora, it was nothing compared to this kind of Machiavellian byplay.

She’d met Nora’s new boss a couple of times. Jet instantly pegged her for class fink — pursed lips, a smile she’d had to practice, the perennially anxious look in her eyes. A straight A girl—but not one of the naturally gifted ones, the ones who had to be heard in class no matter what, who came into her office and plopped themselves down anytime they liked, and began arguing about points in history from some weird but interesting point of view. No, your Susans of the world respected office hours, took perfect notes, they were the ones buttoned down so tight you worried about a breakdown, they crossed their legs at the ankle. The ones whose mothers made them take piano lessons all the way through high school, who had never had an original idea or a puff of marijuana or a really satisfying screw in their whole lives. The Susans lived to rise to a position of power, where they could force others to walk a mile in their little tight shoes—‘others’ who were, for the moment, her girlfriend Nora.

She tried to massage Nora’s shoulders, smooth in her sleeveless black dress, but Nora shrugged her off. Nora had more than a scoop of the good-girl thing too, which was why her new boss goaded her to such rage. Nora already tried hard. She was already careful and punctual and helpful. She never took sick days, never got into it with anybody. But Susan treated her as if she were a detention student, pointing out sloppiness, carelessness, handing out demerits in a mock-helpful tone.

Her darling girl lay her dark head on her arm on the cluttered tabletop.

“Glass of wine?” Jet asked helpfully. “Doobie?”

Her lover glanced up from her outstretched arm, skeptical, hurting, like an dog with a thorn in its paw, her lower lip turned out and nodded.

Over a glass of Beaujolais and a fatty in the living room, Nora poured out the details, the latest drama, each X-Acto-bladed insult, the whispering cabals. Jet nodded, murmuring sympathetic noises, though honestly, keeping a certain distance, a little remove. She had to keep it hidden, she had to be careful or Nora would accuse her of indifference, turn her fury on Jet. You don’t care at all, she’d said to her more than once. This, my life, it’s all a joke to you, isn’t it.

Jet sucked at the reefer, passed it to Nora. Was she soulless? she wondered. Her ex-girlfriend Hollye used to throw things at her and call her soulless, because she couldn’t get herself all worked up when some neighbor looked at her  funny, some woman at the store. “Fight back!” Hollye used to shriek, clawing at her. “Goddamn you! What makes you so superior?” But Hollye was a hot and cold raving lunatic, drama queen extraordinaire. Jet could still picture her, a small, wiry blonde, taking Volume 2 of Churchill’s World In Crisis from her shelf, a precious first edition, and tearing the cover, flinging it across the room. “How’ja like that, you passive aggressive freak! Mad yet? Hit me why don’t you? ” She had not punched Hollye. But she had begun packing that very night.

Jet smiled understandingly at Nora. This was was no Hollye. Nora was a Human Resources manager, smooth shouldered, patrician. She didn’t break things, she wasn’t insane. Jet did what she could to make Nora feel loved. She refilled her wine, passed the joint to her. Her girl looked better now, more animated, the color coming back into her face as she ranted about on about Susan and her ‘henchmen’ and the Quasimodos of headquarters. But Jet had to admit, it was all junior high to her. Just so much sturm und drang. She’d learned as a kid to let her parents’ fights wash over her. It would be done eventually, there was no point in getting struck by lightning. She used to think of it as ‘grounding out.’

But she tried to interject sympathetic phrases when she could: . “That was way out of line,” “What a bitch.” Just to show she was listening.

“I was talking about Victor,” Nora finally said, squinting at her. “Are you even listening to me? This is real, this is happening.”

What could Jet say? Nora worked for a bunch of dickheads and they were being dickheads. News at eleven. Maybe there was something wrong with her, maybe these girls were right all along. That something was missing in her, that she just couldn’t feel what other people were all up in arms about. Even Nora. It wasn’t that she didn’t care, it was that she just didn’t see the point of getting all worked up about something that would soon settle itself out one way or another. No crisis lasted for ever.

“You think this is nothing. I can see that superior look on your face. Just a tempest in a teapot,” Nora said, sliding her feet off the coffee table, planting them on the oriental rug. Leaning forward. Ready for a fight. Why did women always want to fight with her? Why couldn’t they let her do what she did well and cut her some slack.

“It’s not me you’re mad at, remember? I’m on your side.”

“You should be outraged!” Nora said, her lips stained from the Beaujolais. “This is my life. These people are fucking your woman around. And you just sit there like it has nothing to do with you. It’s ghoulish how you can be so calm at a time like this.”

“Maybe I should be in Human Resources, eh?” Jet tried to give Nora a hug, but her girlfriend shoved her away. “Come on, N. It was just a joke.”

But Nora was staring to cry. “It’s not a joke! This is real, Jet, you just don’t get it. You never get it. You’re behind this windshield, looking at me like I was a bug in Bugland. You’re like encased in this rubber suit, walking through the world.”

Jet did care. She cared deeply about Nora, her happiness. But she couldn’t walk into the electrical storm wearing a metal suit. That would be idiocy. There was too much drama in the world as it was, both ephemeral and dangerous, enormous lightning storms, and she didn’t see the point in letting herself be electrocuted if she could allow a strike to pass safely into the ground. She loved Nora, but she didn’t feel what she felt, the humiliation, the torture by a thousand paper-cuts.

“I am listening.” She put her hand on Nora’s sleek bare knee. “Vic’s siding with Susan. Susan wants you to take on reordering the records, and it’s not your job.” And what if Jet did get upset about all this stuff? What if she was like Nora, or Hollye, and screamed and wept and slammed doors and threw first editions? What woman really wanted a partner like that?

“I’ve decided, I’m going to quit.” Nora gazed into her wineglass, turning the dregs this way and that, rubbing at her tears with the back of the other hand.

Jet gazed at Nora’s determined profile, the firm clean jaw, the smell of her light perfume. Would she really do it? No, her Nora was a tenacious creature, she wouldn’t let Susan run her off. Not in a million years.

Nora brought in the bulk of their income, this was her West Hollywood duplex. Restaurant meals and vacations on beautiful islands… In a month they’d be in Java.  Jet knew she wouldn’t really go through with it. She was just talking. If she wanted to be broke, she could have gone on for a PhD in industrial psychology. But she’d weighed the intellectual stimulation of academia against the cold cash of the corporate world, and went the way that would support her aesthetic, her sweet way of life, the designer clothes she was wearing. Not to mention allowing Jet to be the semi-fuckup she was, a college prof but non-tenure track–she’d screwed up her tenure situation years ago, there was no going back.

“If you want to quit, quit,” Jet said with what she hoped was a bit of passion. She’d learned long ago that trying to stop an angry woman from doing something was to insure she’d do it, just to prove that she could.

“You think I won’t?” Nora asked. And then she growled, like a tiger, a grizzly, like she wanted to tear Jet’s face off with her strong straight teeth.

Jet had to say something. “I don’t know, babe. I don’t have a lot of say in this, do I?” And if Nora did quit? Now Jet smelled ozone, the tickling hair, the fizz of electrical storm, she was losing her grounding.  Oh, surely they had enough dough to tide them over. It was Jet’s recurring nightmare–having to move back to a shitbox apartment in North Hollywood around a pool-less courtyard with kids screaming and people’s TVs blaring on all sides, the place she lived when she first moved to LA… No, Nora would never do that… Or worse–move out of LA entirely. They both knew people forced to do just that, fleeing to Ukiah, or Davis. Charles had moved back to Missouri, he was teaching high school. Erasers hitting him in the head when his back was turned.

“Maybe when we get back from Java…” Jet said. “Things’ll look different.”

Nora wrenched her mouth into a schwa. “Oh, didn’t I tell you?” Swallowing the rest of her wine.  “Susan said it wasn’t convenient. She’s set a big Gelco HR conference that week. We’ll have to cancel.”

Susan had put the kibosh on their trip?  Lightning broke around Jet’s head like a crown of thorns, the crackle of fire in dry leaves.  “That bitch!  What a fucking cunt!”

Now Nora smiled, and poured the rest of the Beaujolais into her glass. “Yeah, that Susan.”

Part  of a semi-weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word.  “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”

Next week’s word is: GLOVE

 

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