Friday, April 2, 2010

Gentle April Post Number 2: Writers I Have Loved

There are certain writers I love, just as there are certain musical bands that I love; and I'm tying the two groups together here in this first sentence because I view them both with the exact same sort of starry-eyed reverence: As with the musical groups, I have a tendency toward hero-worship regarding my favored writers because I am consistently blown away by what good creative writers are capable of doing with language. By "creative", I don't mean only writers of fiction; because writers of non-fiction can be as linguistically ingenious as fiction writers. In the same way that musicians use a finite number of notes to give immanence to an infinite number of new musical expressions, so writers use the finite number of words in a given language1 to give expression to an infinite number of worlds or possible worlds. One way my abject hero-worship manifests itself is in my attempts to slavishly incorporate the writing styles of the authors I love into my own. I myself cannot be said to have a style so much as I have a kind of magpie-writer's amalgamation of the salient aspects of the styles of my most favored writers — and this want of a style of my own, I think, is a large part of the reason that so much of what I write is so cringe-inducingly bad.

I try to acknowledge my debt to other writers as often as possible. I have on numerous occasions, for example, copped to having lifted the bathetic, footnote-heavy aspect of my blogging style from David Foster Wallace, whose death I am still mourning and whom I consider to be one of the few genius American writers of the late-20th/early-21st centuries. You really don't have to look hard to find aspects of Pynchon, Joyce, Dave Barry, Henry James, and even In His Own Write/A Spaniard in the Works John Lennon in my writing "style", such as it is.

The above sounds far more pretentious than I intend it to; you could read it as my claiming that my writing is qualitatively similar to that of the litany of writers above. That's not what I mean. What I mean is more along the lines of ... when you hear a guy "speaking French" by saying "Voo-lay voo jous voo Ooo-la-la", you understand that he's trying to sound as though he's speaking French but at no point do you mistake his gibberish for actual French. And that's what I mean: The writers listed above, when they write,  are speaking their uniquely brilliant language; whereas I'm just a geezer trying to imitate them by going: "Voo-lay voo jous voo Ooo-la-la" — but, in my defense, I am at least aware that that's all I'm doing.

Which brings me to the point of this my latest attempt to write a post so G-ratedly inoffensive that you could safely read it to your kid at bedtime to put him to sleep2: I actually used to know3 a guy who knew David Foster Wallace; so I was one degree of separation from one of my Writing Heroes4!

Until a couple of months ago, Bruce was the Head of Reference here at my library. He, too — like David Foster Wallace — is a writer; in fact, he just published a book of stories and essays of his own, some of which I had the privilege of reading in typescript while they were still in a state of becoming. He is an excellent writer with a distinct writing style all his own. I recommend his book very highly.

But I always sort of felt I treated Bruce slightly poorly, in a sense; because he got his MFA in the same program and at the same time as DFW, and that's how Bruce knew him. So whenever I talked5 to Bruce about writing, I tended to get all effusive about Wallace, and meanwhile, there in front of me was a struggling-to-be-recognized writer who probably could have used a bit of praise himself. His writing certainly deserved praise.

Sorry, Bruce.

In the course of writing this post, I had cause to e-mail Bruce because I noticed that, on the amazon record for his book, in the "Customers Who Viewed This Item Also Viewed ..." section, there was listed ... Karl Rove's book!

This is Genteel April, so I will neither say nor imply anything political about this, other than to say I had to e-mail Bruce to let him know about this because I knew he'd get a kick out of it. And he did.

I just checked Karl Rove's book on amazon to see if Bruce's title was listed there in the "Customers Who ..." section.

It was not.

So there's your reciprocity for you, right there.

But again, I would recommend Bruce's book very highly to anyone who enjoys writing that is unique, challenging and rewarding. I'm hoping Bruce reaches a wider audience than just the people who know him personally, because I've noticed a tendency among readers who know Bruce to read his fiction as some sort of roman-à-clef, and everyone kind of wonders, Ooo, I wonder who this character is supposed to be. I guess there's no real harm in that, other than that the creativity and artistry involved in inventing these characters tends to get shunted aside in favor of the fiction-as-veiled-autobiography approach. And that, to my mind, is a bit of a shame.

People who don't know Bruce obviously couldn't take that approach and his work would be evaluated on its merits, not its supposed Jackie Collins-ish who-could-this-character-correspond-to-in-the-real-world content.

Added 3:00 p.m. Princeton Public Library:

I have no idea why Princeton PL is open today. My library is closed today. But my wife and I decided to spend the day in Princeton, do a little shopping, have some lunch, etc. Just finished lunch and I'm killing a hlaf hour here because my wife is at the bead store; and I can't even fake and interest in beads, so she cut me loose for the duration . But I just had a shepherd's pie and two Otter Creek Copper Ales at a place called "The Alchemist & Barrister" so I'm not regretting at all the decision not to eat at Triumph Brewpub.

Hmmm ... I could have spent this free half hour there ...

In any case, I wanted to say that I can not for the life of me undertsnad why I did not include, in the litany of writers I like, the witers of The Simpsons (geniuses, all) and the writers of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. They are all, as Ian insists on saying these days, "beast"!
I actually have a 5k race tomorrow — my first race since the Turkey Trot last November — so there's a distinct possibility that something running-related may end up on this blog at some point this weekend. That'll be a change.
1 I tend not to read many writers who write in languages other than English. This may sound chauvinistic, but it's not; because the reason I stick with English-language writers is, with translations, you are, in a sense, getting the translator's vision as much as you are the author's. A C# is a C# in France, just as it is in the USA; and a 1 is a 1 — the languages of math and music are universal and need no translation. But when Shakespeare has Hamlet say to Ophelia "Get thee to nunnery", he's punning on an Elizabethan slang term for "whorehouse" — "nunnery" would have suggested both "whorehouse" and, well, "nunnery" to speakers of English, circa 1600. It is unclear how any translator could translate a line such as that into, say, French, without sacrificing the pun, the meter, the meaning or all three. Obviously, not every translating choice presents this dilemma, but I think the example illustrates my point.

And since I have a reading knowledge of no language other than English, I can't read, say, French writers in their native language. I am deeply envious of polyglots (such as my wife) because, in my view, their facility with other languages gives them access to worlds that are nearly entirely closed to me. For example, when my wife and I are watching a TV show and a character speaks in Spanish, there is often another character there who will translate what the Spanish-speaking character said. As often as not, my wife will say: "That's not what she said"; and she will proceed to enlighten me as to some significant subtlety that the translating character had not conveyed. I envy that ability for reasons that I think should be obvious.

2 And, man! — would it ever work, huh? Your kid'd be out like a light by the second sentence, if only to escape the tedium. The real trick would be for you to stay awake longer than he does! It's guaranteed lights out all around, is what I'm saying.

3 Technically, I still know him, but he moved to the other side of the country and it's unlikely we'll ever meet up again.

4 Is knowing a guy who knows a guy one degree of separation or two? If actually knowing a guy is one degree of separation, then I'm two degrees away from DFW. I've assumed, above, that actually knowing a guy is zero degrees of separation, but that assumption could be wrong.

5 A lot of this talk was via office e-mail because Bruce and I rarely worked the desk together.


  1. Good point about the translations. I've often wondered the same thing when I read Murikami or Saramago.

  2. If I have any writing debt, it's E. B. White and Isaaic Asimov.

    I like watching foreign movies, knowing that the subtitles are not quite right, but it's better than dubbing. Even not knowing any of the language, you still get emotion. I was watching one movie, and in the theatre was a huge crowd of people who spoke that language, and they were killing themselves laughing. This was not a comedy. It was the translation, or skewed version of it.

  3. Me write like Tarzan. Actually, I like to think that Pessoa's many personalities and Gaddis' subverted intellectualism influence me.

    I read a lot in translation (I aint gonna learn me no ancient Italian to read Dante!) and have 35 translations of the Tao te Ching on my shelf, because I like to compare.

    @Keith: I watched Ghostbusters in German just to hear "Ich bin geschlimed."

  4. Weirdly enough, to expand my Italian non-academic vocabulary, I'm reading Agatha Christie in Italian. Strange, I know.

    Good luck in the 5k tomorrow.

    Btw, I had faith in you all along. I was just warning off the f*cktards. You know, the other ones.

    Happy Easter!

  5. I upped the heathen factor on my blog. Happy Easter!

  6. gawd! Make me feel all guilty, why dont'ja, for reading only... Nicholas Sparks?... Nora Roberts?...Danielle Steele?... whatever terrible, horrible hack is currently polluting the bookshelves of Barnes and Noble.

    Good luck at the 5K!!!

  7. No worries, loomoo. I'm deep into a Maeve Binchy non-tome myself.