Sunday Salon: What Dreams May Come

I have begun reading Richard Matheson’s What Dreams May Come and was deeply touched by Matheson’s dedication page; his dedication reads:

with grateful love, to my wife for adding the sweet measure of her soul to my existence

The novel, of course, is about a man who dies and risks literal hell to save his wife because the afterlife isn’t good enough, isn’t paradise without her love.

I’m definitely picking up on a theme: In I Am Legend, about the last human on earth, Matheson explores the longing (yearning is Robert Olen Butler’s term for it) of love, of desire as the protagonist Robert Neville longs not only for human companionship but for love, the love of his wife and family, for that love we crave from another person.

The love we lose in death or divorce or even separation. The love, at least to me, that is stronger than the yearning for a god.


The Sunday Salon: Stephen King on Writing

A confession: I like Stephen King. Never met the man, though I feel as if I have, or rather, I like the persona he presents in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. He seems personable. Maybe in real life he’s an arse, but something about the persona delivered in the book suggests he’s not.

He shares similar feelings about reading, writing, and literature that I do. I think if I were to ask him, he’d put a lowercase “l” on literature instead of the upper case “L” English teachers like, which is something I’ve tried to do as a reader over, say, the last 15 years.

What do I mean by this? Simply that genre writers — horror, mystery, science fiction, etc. — deserve as much attention as what many consider “literary” fiction. Not all. Some of it is crap. Just as some “literary” fiction is crap, no matter how many scholarly articles have been published on that fiction saying otherwise. I think King would agree.

“[N]o matter how much I want to encourage the man or woman trying for the first time to write seriously,” he writes, “I can’t lie and say there are no bad writers. Sorry, but there are lots of bad writers.”

Some of you reading this may put King in the pen with bad writers. I confess I did, say, 15 years ago. Back then I had read one of King’s novels, The Running Man, which he published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman.

I didn’t particularly care for that novel, but I was expecting it to be more like the Schwarzenegger movie based loosely on it that I saw a year or two before reading the book.

Before then, I hadn’t read any of King’s stuff because I was afraid to read any sort of horror novels (I still today resist horror movies, although that largely has to do with the gross-out factor: Watching someone on screen get dismembered with a chainsaw is disturbing, especially when it seems so gratuitous; I’m less squeamish witnessing the horrors of war in gritty detail in such films as Saving Private Ryan). Horror novels/movies — the few I read or saw — really did give me nightmares, or at least gave me the creeps enough to think twice about turning the lights out before going to bed. I was 18 before I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and was creeped out each night by something scratching on my bedroom window, which wasn’t near any trees.

In graduate school, King, among other writers, seemed to be scoffed at by my peers, and wanting to fit in and seem intellectual — I became a pretty capable scholar — I scoffed too.

The scoffing was a front. Most of my reading life until grad school consisted of reading science fiction and fantasy, although I had by then developed a serious Hemingway fixation. But in grad school, I wouldn’t read such trash, unless, say, it had been “legitimized” as serious in an English class (in my senior year I took a course in the short story and the anthology included Asimov and Ursula K. LeGuin, so those two were OK, sort of).

At the same time I was scoffing, I was also reading Henry Miller — in particular his “gob of spit in the face of Art,” Tropic of Cancer — and beginning to see literature should be spelled with a lowercase “l”.  I was reading a novel/memoir (Miller is a genre-buster) full of exuberant prose that was kicking the shit out of my notions of literature.

And yet, at least then, the academic literary world wasn’t all that convinced of Miller’s seriousness. Or that was the impression I had once I tried to find scholarly articles on Miller when I finally was able to write a paper on Tropic of Cancer

Of the slim pile I did find, many were negative, written by hardcore feminists who seemed bent on destroying Miller’s reputation. One book, however, caught my attention — Erica Jong’s biography/memoir/critical treatise on Miller, The Devil at Large.

She defended Miller with the gusto of an evangelist. What she also evangelized was the power of reading, the power of literature, the power of art in all its forms.

I find that same joy reading King’s memoir. Reading and writing are a joy for him. Art sustains him, invigorates him.

“Writing is magic,” he writes, “as much the water of life as any other creative art.” I couldn’t agree more.

The Sunday Salon: How German is It?

Two years ago, a burst appendix sent me to the hospital. It was the first time I was ever hospitalized for a serious illness, and the first time in years I had needed health insurance. It also was the first time I understood how lucky I was to have insurance.

I thought about this yesterday while catching up on my magazine reading. The Dec. 7 New Yorker has a “Talk of the Town” piece on the never-ending saga of health care in the U.S. The saga’s history is long, extending back at least to 1916. “Health care has been on the docket longer than most Americans can expect to live, with or without it,” the article says.

Universal health care in the U.S. also has a long history of being demonized, as the article notes. In 1883 Germany was the first nation to extend health coverage to the masses. When the U.S. plated the idea in 1916, that plate quickly froze after the U.S. declared war on Germany in 1917.

Health care became an idea of the enemy. “Critics,” the article says, “said that [universal health care] was ‘made in Germany’ and likely to result in the ‘Prussianization of America’.”

As much as history is a progression of events and ideas, it also tends to repeat itself like a bad burrito. Or in the U.S. it becomes a case of recycling, opponents spinning out new (old?) devils to label a perceived evil.

“How German is it” in 2010 translates oddly to cries of Bolshevism, Fascism, Nazism or Communism. At some point the opposition should perhaps propose the Devil is behind health care reform, taking a prompt from that great agent of recycling his garbage, Pat Robertson. Or perhaps this time history will make some progress.

The Sunday Salon: What Makes Fiction, Fiction, and Nonfiction, Nonfiction?

Earlier this afternoon I took cover from intermittent showers (it’s true I might have melted) at my local library and checked out a Texas literary classic, John Graves’s Goodbye to a River, an account of a trip down the Brazos River.

The book is subtitled “A Narrative” as if it defies either being fiction or nonfiction. In the front matter is a note from Graves, a caveat of sorts:

Though this is not a book of fiction, it has some fictionalizing in it. Its facts are factual and the things it says happened did happen. But I have not scrupled to dramatize historical matter and thereby to shape its emphases as I see them, or occasionally to change living names and transpose existing places and garble contemporary incidents. Some of the characters, including at times the one I call myself, are composite. People are people, and if you put some of them down the way they are, they likely wouldn’t be happy. I don’t blame them. Nevertheless, even those parts are true in a fictional sense. As true as I could make them.

This note made me wonder if this book, originally published in 1959, would fly as nonfiction today, given some of the unscrupulous (and you know who you are, or maybe you don’t and that’s the real problem) reportage being passed off as memoir and other forms of nonfiction in recent years.

What makes a book nonfiction? What makes it fiction? Obviously some books are clearly fiction. The best-selling Da Vinci Code is clearly fiction (and not so great fiction, either). But often novelists blur fiction with reality — I’m thinking at the moment of the note in Hemingway’s (and Hemingway notoriously blurred fictive lines) novel To have and Have Not:

In view of a recent tendency to identify characters in fiction with real people, it seems proper to state that there are no real people in this volume: both the characters and their names are fictitious. If the name of any living person has been used, the use was purely accidental.

In one form or another, you see a similar caveat in many novels today. A just-in-case that might prevent a hurt figure from suing for libel.

But what is Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood? Capote called it a nonfiction novel. It’s not fiction. It recounts the true story of multiple murders in Holcomb, Kansas. But is it nonfiction? Are, for that matter, the essays of Ian Frazier collected in Coyote V. Acme? The title essay is written as a legal brief concerning the lawsuit of Wile E. Coyote v. the Acme Company. (It is one of the funniest pieces of writing I’ve ever read.)

The Sunday Salon: Keeping Separate Journals

This morning I spent a few minutes browsing Amazon, having fantasies about books I want to buy, borrow or steal (jk), and thinking in particular about books on writing creative nonfiction.

Of course that means browsing books by the “godfather” of creative nonfiction Lee Gutkind, coming upon a listing for The Art of Creative Nonfiction, and clicking the Look Inside link on the book cover to get a taste. I scanned the Table of Contents and saw a section titled “Start a Writer’s Journal,” which was intriguing because I’ve kept journals for years, writing not only personal stuff, but also stuff about writing, observations, notes, etc.

Often, though, when I’ve gone back through journals, I find it hard to sort through the personal and pick out the “writerly” entries, things that might make a good story or a good detail in a story. It really never occured to me to keep separate journals, a personal journal and a writer’s journal. Or, it did, but it seemed to be a “why bother?” thought. Wouldn’t that become confusing? How many notebooks do you need?

But Gutkind advises writers to keep a separate journal. A personal journal, he notes, can be, well, too personal, divulging too much of his or her life, too much that may not be fit for public consumption. Or maybe it is?

A writer’s journal, Gutkind says, is a little less personal, though not lacking in personality. It’s where “you conduct an ongoing, spontaneous dialogue with yourself about writing, developing the subjects you intend to or are actually writing about.” Gutkind compares the writers journal to an artist’s sketchbook: “It’s where the masterpiece begins.”

It’s certainly something to think about, though at the moment I’m confined to one notebook because that’s all I can afford. I suppose I could open a new blog, but then that would confine me to the computer, wouldn’t it?

So, do you keep a separate writer’s journal? How do you use it?

The Sunday Salon: Well Wishing to Garrison Keillor

Earlier this week humorist Garrison Keillor had a stroke. According to reports yesterday, he’s now at home recovering. Which is good news to hear. It’s also good to hear Keillor plans to carry on with  “A Prairie Home Companion” radio show.

I also hope he plans to continue writing for Salon. His columns underscore his trademark understated humor and insight, as a recent piece on the New Media/Old Media divide demonstrates.

I think he’s spot on here about a chief illness making Old Media sick:

I’m an old media guy and I love newspapers, but they were brought down by a long period of gluttonous profits when they were run as monopolies by large, phlegmatic, semi-literate men who endowed schools of journalism that labored mightily to stamp out any style or originality and to create a cadre of reliable transcribers.

As someone enamored of Old Media, it’s a shame seeing it crumbling; it’s a shame especially to see the demise of stylish — and substantive — magazine features. Of seeing once-great magazines like Rolling Stone shrink — it literally shrunk in size, but its features have been shrinking for years. Could you imagine a 6,000-word piece by a literary journalist like Tom Wolfe in Rolling Stone‘s pages now?

The style and compactness of some features now would make Hemingway feel constipated,  and his prose transmogrify into something Faulknerian.

And what will the next version of Gay Talese’s classic “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” be? “Paris Hilton Has a Brain Cell”?

Keillor’s also spot on about one of New Media’s chief cancers — tumors of information on superficialities:

What the new media age also means is that there won’t be newspapers to send reporters to cover the next war, but there will be 6 million teenage girls blogging about their plans for the weekend. There will be no TV networks to put on dramas in which actors in costume strut and orate and gesticulate, but you can see home video of dogs and anybody’s high school graduation anywhere in America. We will be a nation of unpaid freelance journalists and memoirists.

This, of course, as Keillor adds, may not be that bad. Maybe in a decade all our brains will be able to handle will be videos of dogs or reading updates on teenage girls’ plans. And we’ll be unable to laugh along with Jay Leno when some college graduate can’t identify the Gettysburg Address. We’ll scratch our heads along with the graduate, and go on to the next text message.

I wish Garrison Keillor good health.

The Sunday Salon: The Weird World of Harry Crews and Tricky Roaches

This past week I finished reading Harry Crews’ The Scar Lover. I haven’t made the time to write a formal review, but rereading this novel only confirmed why I like Harry Crews. He’s sort of a godfather of weirdo lit, a mix of Southern Gothic and the anarchy of The Sex Pistols.

The Scar Lover is about Pete Butcher, an ex-Marine who has just moved into a boarding house. A loner, he’s bent on escaping himself, and a strange past: Always lingering and tormenting him is the guilt he feels about accidentally disabling his younger brother, bashing him in the brain with the claws of a hammer. The action of the novel serves to lead Butcher to redeem himself and eventually become his brother’s keeper.

It’s the action of the novel that puts you into Crews’ gnarled world. At one point Butcher throws an old man into an alligator pit at a zoo — the alligators are too listless to snack. The chief action of the story involves an adventure with a pair of Rastafarians to reclaim a corpse from a funeral home, because the deceased in his will wants to be cremated via funeral pyre. 

As I say, whacky stuff. Check Crews out.

A Reverse Metamorphosis, of Sorts

Well, my craving to sink my teeth into some creative nonfiction was sidetracked by the arrival via Bookmooch of Daniel Evan Weiss’ novel The Roaches Have No King, something of a reverse Metamorphosis, in which a band of intelligent roaches observes the lives of humans and try to manipulate them in order to survive. I’m about halfway through the novel. 


Editor’s Note:

Sorry this is a day late: Lunch called and I scurried to feed my belly; the humans I live with then decided to run errands and took me with them. So no further adventures on the Web for Sunday. Anyhow, good reading to all.