I recently hit on a bunch of things written or said by other people, which speak to my notion that fiction has to be engaged with the world. Being too lazy to write my own defence of that notion, I’m just going to quote those things and pretend I’ve published a manifesto.
First, from Benjamin Woodard’s review of Alexander MacLeod’s Light Lifting at Raintaxi:
Not once does “Miracle Mile” drag. Instead, it unfolds with such skill and proficiency that one forgets on occasion that the story is a work of fiction, and that MacLeod didn’t conduct interviews with a series of men and women and transcribe their lives onto paper.
This sense of engagement is a thread that keeps Light Lifting consistently admirable.
Next, Thomas McGuane speaking at an event in Lansing, Michigan, touches on this notion of transcribing lives:
Frank O’Connor was asked about the relationship between journalism and literature and he said that much of fiction is really journalism, but in the case of a great writer, like Chekhov, it’s 99 percent journalism. And that’s kind of a challenging remark, but there’s something to that. I mean, if you look at the best of Updike, it’s perilously close to some kind of photo-realistic journalism.
Jim Harrison, responding to McGuane:
It’s fun to read Dostoevsky’s notebooks because you see how much of his fiction was sort of veiled journalism. He would get obsessed about a news item. He thought he’d found a new theme in European literature (this was 1868) because a girl in St. Petersburg had committed suicide and left a note saying she committed suicide because she was bored.
Richard Ford expands on the theme:
When I don’t like something, or I read a piece of fiction and I think to myself there’s really something defective about this, what I always say about it is, “This is just made-up stuff.”
It’s not thingy. That’s what I say: it’s not thingy. Nothing, no details are observed, there’s no observation of the attenuations of the kind of emotions people could have.
Now that one is fascinating, going from a standard writing-class insistence on concrete detail to that insistence not only on accurately observed human behaviour — the kind of emotions people could have — but on the attenuations of our emotions. It is not how people might feel, but how those feelings fade and lose force, or perhaps how they are muted in the transmission. “Hills Like White Elephants,” perhaps, is the kind of thing Harrison is driving at, Hemingway’s genius in showing us an iceberg by its tip. And Hemingway, notably, was writing fiction as one might write a newspaper story.
On the subject of concrete detail, of thinginess, I have previously quoted McGuane on this blog, talking about the necessity for a writer to be engaged with the world that his fiction reports on:
I have a primary interest in the world and feel if the ratio of world to word is high, that rightness and concision are honoured, I may safely avoid the often suet-filled oeuvre that characterizes the writer who has no other interests … Any writer can disappear up his own ass in a New York minute. You’ve got to have a life. Otherwise every noun in the book looks like it came off Google.
Which I tied back to John Metcalf, who among many other things is my editor:
The real poetry — the names of materials and tools in the trades. Visit hardware stores.
Speaking to a creative writing class, I defended my digressions into photographic technicalities in Combat Camera on those grounds. It is not necessary for the reader to know what a Tessar is, or what is meant by “fourteen elements in eleven groups.” It is necessary, however, for a story to work from carefully observed detail. If the reader does not understand all those details, that’s fine; we encounter things we don’t understand every single day. Gobbledygook is good.
Consider this wonderful passage of gobbledygook, a ranch hand speaking in McGuane’s Something to be Desired:
This time I’m thinking about, I was trying to prove up on a lease I had over at Kid Royal. And we was getting ready to load out at Deadrock. I had the heeler up front with me, the radio on, when I threw a recap right on the scale. I was with Boyd, and he cusses and dumps a set of dead batteries from his hot shot, throws it in the jockeybox and said he’s got a come-along to get our outfit to dry ground with. This was supposed to be the last of a big run of yearlings. And it turns out we got a five-hole spare for a six-hole rim. I knew right then and there my luck was shot.
This puts me in mind of Blazing Saddles:
Now who can argue with that? I think we’re all in debt to Gabby Johnson for stating what needed to be said. I am particularly glad that these lovely children are here today to hear that speech. Not only was it authentic frontier gibberish, it expressed a courage little seen in this day and age.
Which actually has nothing whatsoever to do with my point. But who can resist Blazing Saddles?
Hey, don’t blame me for that title—she’s the one that said it. In an interview with The Tyee, on the topic of how she writes men so well: “I thought of a woman, and added a penis.” I’m just repeating it, as one of my usual desperate attempts to attract inappropriate traffic.
She’s riffing on one of my favorite movie lines, as Melvin Udall, the misanthropic romance author of As Good as It Gets (played by Jack Nicholson) responds to a fan’s gushing question as to how he writes women so well: “I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability.”
(Because we are a society of half-wits, this line is usually attributed to Nicholson, instead of to Mark Andrus and James L. Brooks, who wrote the frigging screenplay. Because who’s ever heard of them?)
The facetious part of her answer attracts all the attention, but I’d rather look at what else she said: “I don’t know. I don’t think intellect is gendered in any way. I don’t think with my vagina, I have a brain.”
This recalls a remark by Jim Harrison on the question of male writers writing women:
I don’t see gender as the most significant fact of human existence. It’s that old idea that when you suddenly wake up at 3 a.m., what sex are you? I don’t get that. It’s sort of the flip side of male chauvinism. It’s a female chauvinism or refusal to think that anyone can have any solid form of empathy of any sort.
Both writers hit what I think is the essential point: the secret of writing the other sex is to discard the idea that it is really so alien. It’s in that idea that we find the dessicated, wooden cliches of gender: men are from Mars, women do not reason, etc. These will not lead you to a rounded, human character.
Harrison’s further remarks aren’t entirely accurate, I think; it’s not “female chauvinism” that insists men can’t understand women, but a widespread assumption embedded in our culture. Men have been, until recently, encouraged not to understand women. You’re supposed to stand around in the garage, wiping your hands on an oily rag while you tweak the valvy thing connected to what you hope is the carburetor of your 1966 Mustang convertible, and say, “Women. I’ll never understand them.”
Whereupon your buddy is supposed to say, “Ain’t that the fuckin’ truth.” Then you both swig your Labatt Blue, from the bottle, and the subject turns to hockey.
This attitude is, for obvious reasons, something of a roadblock for the male writer: you can’t write people who you insist you’ll never understand.
We make the opposite assumption about men: men are supposed to say what they mean, and to have internal lives no more complicated than, say, empty inkwells. So we encourage women to think they understand men all too perfectly, which to the female writer is an obstacle of its own: you can’t make a compelling character out of something that permits complete understanding.
I like to compare this gender question with racial research of the Philippe Rushton kind: in our rush to define differences, we ignore variations. Not all men, or all women, think the same way. We are more alike than we are different; as Lyon has it, intellect is not gendered.
More on this topic anon.
Not a homecoming for me, but for someone else. I discovered, by an accident of web surfing, that I’d missed the 2010 Michigan Author Homecoming in Lansing, which featured Benjamin Bush, Philip Caputo and Doug Stanton in a panel discussion called “Writing War: Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam.” Fortunately, it’s all available on video.
If you scroll down that page, you’ll also find information on the 2008 event, which featured Richard Ford, Thomas McGuane and Jim Harrison in a panel discussion on, well, whatever the hell Richard Ford, Thomas McGuane and Jim Harrison wanted to talk about. That would have been well worth attending—I like all three of those guys.
And I did attend, driving for three hours in the sweltering heat in a car with banjaxed air conditioning. Admission was free, and the hall’s seating capacity was 600; over 700 showed up, and they were packing them into the aisles. I rolled back across the Canadian border at 11:30 at night and presented to the customs agent my battered passport, which I had accidentally put through the laundry. He eyed it with suspicion, and inspected the information page.
“Sir, do you know the expiry date on this passport?”
“That passport is valid for another half-hour,” I said. “So you better hurry up.”
I do like the Canadian Border Services Agency; they have a sense of humour.
In any case, the Ford-McGuane-Harrison chat is available as a podcast and worth listening to. A nugget:
“What two people do in a room where they are alone together is a real little laboratory for morality, in a sense, because that is where you can really concentrate on what’s right and what’s wrong and who’s lying and who’s not.” — Richard Ford
These various lists of rules for writers begin to irritate me, because as interesting as these lists may be, so many of the rules listed thereon are what we writers, what with our advanced vocabularies and all, like to call horseshit.
Which brings me to an offering from Joyce Carol Oates, who quotes Oscar Wilde: “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.”
This word, sincerity: I don’t think you’re using it very carefully.
Quick — who can name one, just one single important and lasting work of literature that is disingenuous and insincere? That was tossed off by a writer with nothing at stake?
This is why I’ve never really had much time for the wit of Oscar Wilde. I can easily picture Wilde sitting up at night, thinking up new sparkling witticisms while preening in the mirror. The man was both a sartorial and an intellectual fop. His overwhelming quality was self-regard.
Sincerity is good. It’s that quality of earnest import that’s deadly.
Witness Steinbeck at his worst, in the more obnoxious intrusions of his various Doc Ricketts characters, who give him license to muse at length on Serious Topics, and in his sentimentality. This is what people object to in Steinbeck — apart from his occasional tendency to drive in a thumbtack with a ball-peen hammer.
But as Jim Harrison said, “the people who condescended to Steinbeck didn’t even write the Grapes of Goofy.”
As much as I hate writerly talk of risk-taking — if you want risk, take up commercial fishing, logging, or fighting Afghan insurgents — Harrison is on to something. It isn’t possible to write anything great without taking a risk, without abandoning chickenshit and standing for something, whereupon everyone gets to smirk at your sincerity, without walking that tightrope and risking sentimentality.
Jim Harrison again: “I would rather give full vent to all human loves and disappointments, and risk being corny, than die a smartass.”
Oscar Wilde died a smartass.
The Farmer’s Daughter by Jim Harrison. Anansi, 2009. (Grove Atlantic Press for you ‘Mericans.)
Jim Harrison is one of those love-’em or hate-’em kind of writers, the love or hate coalescing around a question that’s followed him from the get-go: is he “too macho?”
“Macho” is a label he vehemently rejects, pointing out that in Mexico, this word is reserved for men who express their dominance through gratuitous violence. Fine; the question is, then, is he too masculine?
What are we to make of the extraordinary, unearned sexual success of his male protagonists? Or of the precocious, preternatural sexuality of his adolscents? Are his female protagonists (Dalva, Julip, etc.) manifestations of his ideal female in their forthright sexuality? Indeed, what’s up with all this sex? Is it just male wish fulfilment? (Or, recalling that it is fiction, male wishfulness?)
Or do Dalva and Julip usurp male prerogatives — are they women who actually threaten male dominance? Is the sexuality of his male protagonists a boon, or an affliction? Is Harrison making some kind of point here that some of his critics continually miss?
In the third novella of his latest collection, “The Games of Night,” his narrator muses on that point: “… at odd moments we wonder who we truly are beneath the layers of paint the culture has applied to us.” Harrison has always been after the truth beneath that veneer, the animal within. Perhaps it’s because I read it concurrently with Conversations with Jim Harrison (University of Mississippi Press, 2002), in which Harrison continually answers interviewers on this point — encouraging me to read with more intelligence than my usual lunkish efforts — but it seems he’s never found that animal so convincingly as in The Farmer’s Daughter.
Not that he’s universally successful. The title novella, told from the viewpoint of an adolescent girl, is the weakest of the three. Harrison never seems to fully inhabit her consciousness and consequently she doesn’t come to life as richly or as fully as his other protagonists. She is too precocious (which Harrison hangs a lampshade on by continually having people say she’s old beyond her years), and too sexually open to be a believable teenager. While she’s undoubtedly a strong female character (in the same vein as Dalva and Julip), she never quite feels fully realized.
Harrison is far more successful in his reprise of his long-running character, Brown Dog. “Brown Dog Redux” finds BD on the lam, in Toronto, with his daughter Berry, who is rendered mute by fetal alcohol syndrome, and the story follows his return home to Michigan. It seems here that Harrison is putting BD to bed; if so, it’s a fine, and hilarious, exit.
Brown Dog ambles through life in a perpetual state of lazy, masculine befuddlement. He desires women without irony, says his counsellor (and sole true love), Gretchen, and this is why they sleep with him; never has Harrison stated so bluntly what all this sex is about. But BD is not exactly marriage material, and consequently he is abandoned, rejected, and permanently perplexed. He is, as his name implies, just like a big, dopey puppy, and Harrison gets at this idea much more successfully here than he did with Cliff, in his recent novel The English Major, whose befuddled canine goofiness was clearest when waitresses patted him affectionately on the head.
This is Harrison’s vision of masculinity: when we aren’t puppies, we’re dogs. And bearing in mind that dogs have teeth, we can also be wolves. The third novella of this collection, “The Games of Night,” takes up lycanthropy, one of Harrison’s old motifs. Harrison said of his unsuccessful, Hollywood-bastardized screenplay, Wolf (not related to his novel of the same title) that he wished he’d done it as a novella first, so he would have had control of it, and “The Games of Night” seems to be a belated attempt to correct that error.
Harrison’s protagonist is bitten in the neck by a wolf cub at the age of 12, which results in a blood disorder with symptoms only too familiar to Harrison fans: outrageous appetites for food and sex, and a violent disposition which overcomes his better nature, to his later regret. Those appetites wax and wane with the moon, on a monthly cycle; he is not precisely a werewolf, but he is half wolf, or half dog. That this coincides with puberty is hardly coincidental, and interestingly, the narrator continually euphemizes this condition with such expressions as “my monthly affliction,” recalling certain menstrual euphemisms. This is, Harrison asserts, the male condition.
Although the title novella is weaker than the other two, The Farmer’s Daughter is possibly Harrison’s best book, and the clearest expression of his concerns, in years.
The ever-quotable Jim Harrison on the problem of a national literature:
I’m not a nationalist. I don’t want to hear about American literature. It’s world literature. And all this sniping about who’s good in America is nonsense when you’ve got Gunter Grass, and Gabriel Màrquez. Who is good is who is good wherever they are.
Search for “American”; replace with “Canadian.” Whaddaya know — certain truths are universal.