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Saturday, July 22, 2006

This is Not a Post: New Books Alert!

No, I'm still taking a blog-sabbatical until after Labor Day. But I need to say that my friend Howard Bahr has sent me my very own copy of his brand new book, The Judas Field. Jump on the skateboard and fly down to your favorite independent and buy it! And if you hurry, you can be the very first soul to say a word about the novel on the Amazon River of book sale web sites. I met Howard via the horrid institution of The Blurb Request, but our penpaldom has brought me much pleasure, in and out of books.

In addition, another friend has a new nonfiction book that will be out at summer's close: In the Morning: Reflections from First Light, to be published in September by Mercer University Press. "This book of quiet essays is a very personal look at morning from many aspects—scientific, artistic, philosophical, and religious." I was supposed to meet Phil Williams at the Nashville Festival of the Book, but fate put his back out of joint. But we've been loyal penpals since then. Oddly enough, NFB is where I met Howard with his famous professor pal, Randy Cross.

Meanwhile, somebody I 'met' through magazine acceptances--the editor of Argosy Quarterly--has the first in a big fat series of young adult books coming soon: Apocatastasis, his livejournal blog, contains many of his pictures for Here, There Be Dragons. His plethora (and I mean plethora) of enterprises is featured on his Coppervale web site. You can even find Argosy there. I'm expecting that the dragons will bring him treasure and further issues of Argosy. That's James A. Owen, projector on a grand scale.

Oh, and be sure to go by Laurelines, where Laura Murphy Frankstone has moved on to the most delicious glass and silver and vegetable still lifes. Above is July 21st's watercolor, and you can even read what I said about Laura, Hawthorne, the Other, and the mysterious and infinite replication of artists--or something like that! Just don't take my story seed. Pilferage is mine!

And confetti and happy July 22nd birthday to B, my eldest! He's six-foot and seventeen, fresh home from Turkey and Greece.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Aporia, or The Gap

Friends, readers, passers-by:

I am going off line for the rest of the summer. Look for me after Labor Day, here and at some of my haunts like Giornale Nuovo and Laurelines and outside the windows. Since I have several large projects to do before fall and many summery interruptions scheduled--ferryings of children to camps and to workshops and to stays elsewhere, nights at The Pirates of Penzance and Janácek's Jenufa (directed by Jonathan Miller!) and the premiere of Stephen Hartke and Philip Littell's The Greater Good, as well as fêtes for returning Byzantine travelers and more fêtes for visiting twins and for my visiting mother and for visiting people-I-once-knew, and picnics and plays and music on the lawn and the great etcetera (whew!)--I am going to gather my shards and splinters of free time and make an airy chamber of them. Going inside and turning the key, I'll wield the scepter of a pen over a kingdom of paper.

Thank you for coming to visit me here--feel free to wander the remote and disused portions of the Palace. You may find a dusty old stuffed owl, a surprise behind a door, a box of treasure. Who can say, unless the journey has been tried?

I am re-posting the Fried Phoenix below this post, for those who are interested in hard-boiled acceptances, stewed reviews of stories, and meringue links elsewhere.

* * *

July 8 A Night at the Opera

The evening was pleasant and cool, just right for an opera house by a lake. And it was a delicious night at Glimmerglass Opera: Gioachino Rossino’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia / The Barber of Seville, based on one of Beaumarchais’ plays, so fertile for opera. We should all look so good, so joyful, so gleeful, so full of verve and style after nearly two centuries.

I’ve been veterinarian,
Heathen comedian,
Pious tragedian,
Orator, poet,
And pirate and prophet,
A man for the ladies
And father of babies,
Drunken and sober,
A husband and sailor,
Banker and brother
And barber and lover.
Diplomat, acrobat,
Teacher of etiquette, me!
Satirist, pessimist,
Surgeon and Calvinist…
Student and swordsman,
Spy and musician…
Spanish economist,
Clockmaker, pharmacist.
I’m Figaro!

--Figaro in John Corigliano and William Hoffman’s The Ghosts of Versailles

Sunday, July 09, 2006

"Aversion to exposition," worldview, & art

"It seems to me that an aversion to exposition in fiction may be a 20th century thing. Earlier literatures seemed more comfortable with it than 20th century literatures. If this assumption is correct, does the new aversion come from a move toward more verisimilitude in writing?

"Why do infodumps feel unrealistic to us, particularly in dialogue? Much of what we say every day is expository. But transcribed into dialogue in a story, most of our expository conversations would feel unrealistic."

--Matt Cheney, The Mumpsimus








I would say that an “aversion to exposition” comes from the same impulse as Jackson Pollock dollops (say that 20 times, fast!) and splatters: a conviction that the world is random, uncontrollable, and meaningless. Exposition, in the light of that idea, is drained of authority and purpose. In fact, one can have no confidence in assertions and perceptions as anything but one writer’s stray and momentary thoughts.

Such a stance appears “more realistic,” I suppose, if a writer or a reader subscribes to that worldview—and many writers have done so. Today it appears that most “literary” writers do so, and most writers of “fantasy." Writers of detective fiction are a different breed; no matter their personal beliefs, they must find solid ground in “right” and “wrong,” and within a universe that may appear like a labyrinth but will make sense, if a thread is properly pursued. For them, the man-bull at the heart of a Cretan maze will be discovered, revealed, brought to light. Although I know almost nothing at all about the genre of “romance,” that won’t stop me from a little wild expositon: that path takes one from “start” to “heart,” from the beginning of a labyrinth to the center where the man-bull is tamed and becomes Beauty’s beloved. Meanwhile, “westerns” can’t avoid the laws and heritage that point straight back to the code of Western morality and manliness nailed to the schoolhouse marm's door in Owen Wister’s The Virginian.



The creation and dominance of a worldview that sees the universe as random is, I imagine, the reason that Modernism casts such a very long shadow. It is, I suspect, a reason that a certain amount of recent literature appears profoundly repetitive. If one’s birthright is merely “the random,” then there is a kind of fundamental simplicity to one’s vision. The past century is as far as you need look as an artist, because before that everybody was misguided. In fact, why read or look at your predecessors at all, if everything’s random? Because history and tradition and all those motheaten things don’t matter. Hence, in the latter half of the twentieth century, we often bumped into now old-hat complaints about writers who hadn’t read, artists who hadn’t learned to draw, etc.

The question for these has been how to move forward, because a great deal of what has been done is a kind of running in the hamster’s wheel. For many, the reclamation of skills and beauty is underway.



Surely there is a sort of progress and movement--a pun is an evil thing! there were seven or eight of the relentless, cheeky things here, until I cleaned up the sentence and flushed them down the Oh, never mind--from the world of Piero Manzoni's Artist's Shit (cannily canned in the lovely month of May, 1961) to Ofili's elephant dung and obvious pleasure in color and line.

That high prices have been shelled out--the Tate paid $61,000 for its Merda d'artista--gives the original joke of the thing a pleasant level of absurdity. Of course, the interest in the thing is not "in" the cans or their original commentary but in the twists and turns of a story about each little can and how it grew until one day it, as Manzoni wished, blew up in a museum, taking a lot of highly inflated pretensions with it. The story isn't finished until the last can blows up in the last museum, and the last outraged newspaper article is written, and the museums decide what to do about their expensive, blown-up cans and the unstoppable process of decomposition.

I wonder what is in the tiny can that has been x-rayed inside some of these cans? Was Manzoni just using filler, or is there even more message to the message? You can't say the simplest thing about these cans without a pun, you know; there ought to be an article about that fundamental impossibility.

Leave me alone! I am still talking about "aversion of exposition" and the random worldview!



I'M NOT...






Others long ago rejected the Modernist revolution of the random and ordered the world. For perfectly obvious reasons, these are primarily people who have a religious worldview—a Marilynne Robinson, say, in what is called "literary fiction," or a Charles Causley in poetry, or a Gene Wolfe in what is called "genre fiction." (But this cannot be a Buddhist view, because that leads again to the welcoming and the utilizing of the random.) Despite the fact that they can’t help being of their time and place (nobody can, after all), such artists are “more comfortable” with much from earlier times—an embrace of the chain of being, beauty, truth, moral underpinnings, and other elements dismantled in the twentieth century. They don’t lack subjects of meaning or a compass or light to see by.

These writers may never write about religion per se, yet they have a solid world underfoot. They don't live in one of those shifty, random houses slipping about on sand. What's outside the windows may be astonishingly mutable, but the house stands still.


Still others have a shadowy worldview, borrowed from the culture at large, because they've never bothered to think about how they consider the world. These, neither hot nor cold, are not particularly aware of what they do, and are blown like tumbleweeds by the winds of trend and fashion.







Who said that?



Friday, July 07, 2006

The Palace Storeroom: A Memory from After the Fall

Summer rerun: a post from March 25, 2005, about a memorable day in 2001, not long after the fall of the twin towers.

Now and then somebody finds this needle in the haystack--hours with Howard Bahr and Randy Cross, plus airplanes and bomb scares--and sends me an email. The post is from the very first month of The Palace at 2:00 a.m., when time had not yet solidified, and it was sometimes afternoon or evening or even Giacometti's The Palace at 4:00 a.m., and the Palace itself was less than a house of cards.

The "last news post" refers to two stories Howard and I wrote as an interlocking pair, later published in one of the MacAdam/Cage Blue Moon anthologies. Mine was too much like his, seen through another lens, but it was an interesting thing to do and seemed to say how very different women and men are.

It all seems so very long ago. The world and the land of letters and the kingdom of publishing have changed irrevocably since that weekend in 2001. But here, the hours are e-retrievable.

6 July 2006

After the last news post, Howard Bahr was on my brain, and I dug up a diaryish note about my expedition to Southern Festival of the Book in 2001. I had gone there to read from The Wolf Pit, a book of mine that won The Michael Shaara Award despite the misfortune of coming out just after 9-11 (and, for that matter, not long after The Corrections, a book that killed off Oprah's book club and overshadowed everything else on the FSG list that fall--and, for jolly good measure, just after my editor had left the house as well.) Sometimes Lady Luck rules the realm of books. It's curious to look back and see the start of airport mania; I remember that Elizabeth Spencer told me that she had tweezers in her purse but that what she carried "wasn't any of their business," so she didn't 'fess up.

* * * * *
Nashville bulletin, including a notable encounter with a writer and one of his characters:

I arrived after many repetitions of my mantra ("Turbulence never killed anybody; turbulence never killed anybody...") and restrained myself from kissing the Tennessee earth. Alas, I missed the person named Zan holding a sign, and she missed me, and she answered no page. Not an auspicious start. And it was drooling rain.

More rain the next morning, and my breakfast arrived three hours late. Then I finally scooted off to theHermitage Hotel to meet various folk; there I bumped into Elizabeth Spencer, who promptly sat down to chat, and then came over to hear me read. Which was a perfectly lovely thing to do and just like her. And I did read with Karen Essex a.k.a. "Kleopatra"--quite nice--then signed in the colonnade, a.k.a. Rain and Wind Tunnel of Tennessee. Signed the new book, the prior one, posters, and innumerable rain-specked copies ofMichael McFee's This is Where We Live anthology from UNC. And I saw writer Bill Starr--I met him years ago in Chapel Hill--we yacked a bit, and he said that he'd do a review in the Columbia paper.

Earlier Howard Bahr had arrived mid-reading with his friend Randy Cross--a model for one of his characters--and after the signing, they whirled me off to Franklin. (On the way I glimpsed the enormous and memorably bad silver and gold equestrian statue ofGeneral Nathan Bedford Forrest.) We tromped around the Confederate cemetery and mansion next door, plus the Carter house, complete with hundreds of bullet holes and one distracted chicken; then they took me out to dinner. The sky drizzled and mizzled and wept and poured the whole time, but I won't forget that hilarious and grand afternoon. It is a very curious thing to be shown about a place by a person who has written a book about it--and by one of his characters! In fact, the afternoon was so special that I don't want to tell any more about it, for fear the magic might evaporate. That evening I waded through small lakes to reach the library, dripping my way through the party, but I saw almost no one I knew from North Carolina, alas, thoughI'd hoped to see lots of people--talked to Elizabeth Spencer a bit more, and I met Michael Parker and had a talk with him. Then I went back to the Sheraton and saw that a white powder had been found on a U.S. Airways plane, so I promptly shut off the television, went to bed, and missed the bomb scare--evidently a huge pajama-clad contingent from the Renaissance Hotel trooped up to the Sheraton and hung out in the lobby downstairs for a good portion of the night. Next morning it was still raining, although by the time U.S. Airways bucked and bumped its way into the sky the sun was out. I was not terribly impressed with airport security--I expected my suitcase to be ravaged and my fountain pen inspected by hordes of beret-capped soldiers, but it never happened. Anyway, I read most of the Psalms (my other air habit), and I met lots of talkative and nervous flyers. And drove home to Cooperstown through the hills and red and yellow trees, all luminous on a cloudy afternoon. And that was that, a pellmell but memorable occasion.

* * *
That was the day that led to the Secret Chicken Pact with Howard . . .

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Shorties for the 4th


Almost two centuries ago, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on the 50th anniversary of independence, as the country celebrated the jubilee with dash and frolic. I love the idea of Jefferson drifting on until the 4th, surfacing to make certain of the date and then letting go--and of Adams yielding, believing that Jefferson still lived.



Author of freedom and patron of the mind. Not barrister, not member of the House of Burgesses, not member of the Continental Congress, not Governor of Virginia, not Secretary of State, not Vice President, and not President for two terms. Under the lens of history, his personal story looks much more complex now than it did to his contemporaries, but it never looks less than remarkable.


Before I fell asleep last night, I read a newish story by a writer I like. It was full, chock full. It was too full. It had special beauties in every inch of space. It was exhausting. I fell asleep like a stone dropping down a mile-deep well. I didn’t hear a splash, I was asleep so quick.

I’m going to have to try it again. At bedtime.

I hate for stories to be “reduced” by paraphrase or summation. One of my most hated writing-related activities is to help write flap copy. I love editors who don’t ask me and just go right ahead, and then wave it under my nose. If I’d wanted to write a book in 200 words, I would have done so.

And in general, I'm not fond of the School of Carver, with its demented grandchild-of-Hemingway simplicity.

On the other hand, it is possible for a story to be so encrusted with pearl and the four elements and outlandish density that it lacks utterly those islands of rest that the traveler craves.


Lex Williford and Michael Martone have sent out a survey to various writers about the next Scribner’s anthology of short stories. Some of the ones I suggested were so precisely the expected ones that I cannot remember what they were.

The ones that were not expected were ones I thought just might possibly make it into an anthology of the last 36 years, even though they were not in the literary playpen, not exactly. I nominated Jeffrey Ford’s “Creation,” and John Crowley’s “The Nightingale Sings at Night.” The Ford story I was sure was the right one, but Crowley—wasn’t sure. It struck me as an interesting note to add to the previous anthology, anyway.

And the third involves something I cannot understand. Why, oh why, is there no Isaac Bashevis Singer in the Scibner’s anthology? He published eleven volumes after 1970. Presumably the previous anthology had an even earlier cut-off date. Is Singer somehow not “literary”? Is he not “realistic” enough? Is he too other? Is it because he was born elsewhere? Is it because we don’t allow stories by Americans to be translated?

Since almost all writers teach, this is, naturally, an anthology of stories to be taught. It occurs to me now that it would be lovely to include a few stories that cannot be taught. Of course, there is something in all good stories that cannot be taught, though teachers often don’t seem to understand this essential little fact.


On July 2nd, I drove through the flooded world with N & R on the way to the Episcopal camp where N will spend two weeks. A few minutes into the trip we passed its former location in Cooperstown, a sentimental spot for the children, and I sighed. Oh well. A long drive ahead. We stopped for a picnic and got caught in a downburst. The rain didn’t end and visibility didn’t start until—as we were driving past the entrance and up the hill, the three of us belting out "You are my sunshine"—abruptly a queer golden light banished the rain, and the whole world brightened and settled down to the business of light. And we got out of the car. Boys shouted to N. that they’d asked to be in his cabin, and the jolly little boy frisking-about began.

B. A. M.

The Byzantine Adventure Mail from M. & B. in Turkey looks good, rather like visiting the medieval webbesyte where Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog: “Tough to type on the Byzantýne keyboard. The keys are not ýn the same place. B. flew just fýne, not even a whýmper. The scýentýfýc meetýngs start today and we are now at the conference center. Lots of Amerýcans here so I am never lonely for englýsh.”


Blogger still will not let me post pictures. Occasionally they tell me that I have no cookies and java, even though I have so much java and so many cookies that I can have the stuff for breakfast, second breakfast, elevensies, lunch, supper, dinner, midnight repast, and assorted snacks. They also tell me I can’t get in, so I drop my password in a secret door left open in the kitchen garden. The Pot Boy will always, always let me in.


And a salutory warning, dealing with the Fall of Man: “If once the people become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress and Assemblies, Judges and Governors, shall all become wolves. It seems to be the law of our general nature, in spite of individual exceptions.” –Thomas Jefferson

I know that the face of the human wolf has been looking out at us for millenia, but the world seems especially man-wolfish at the moment. Certain small events in distant places break our hearts, even on a day that should be all rejoicing, and shadow us all with the hour of the wolf.

Be attentive, Mr. Jefferson says; beware the law of our human nature.

Fireworks over Glimmerglass to come...