21 April 2009

Wallace, David Foster. Infinite Jest. Boston: Back Bay, 1996.

I Finished! this back in 2000, at the end of a scarily cold winter that I remember as only having snow on the ground the whole time. I had just graduated college and the newspaper at which I was freelancing couldn't find a full-time job for me. My car broke down three times. Or, well, it broke down once and then I took it in because it seemed the battery died. Then, a week later it broke down again, then another battery, and then, yes, a third time. Turns out the trunk light was staying on even when the trunk was shut. My grandfather came up with the idea to check it.

I was cold and unemployed and living with girls. I wrote things like this:

When you go to sleep at 1:30 a.m. and set your alarm for 9:30 a.m. and make a mental note of that being exactly an 8-hour span of time as long as you fall asleep right as your head hits the pillow, you get a nice feeling of the fact that not only are you going to have a nice night's sleep, but you will also be getting up at a fairly early hour of the morning and will have a good head start of the things you have to do during the next day. This is good and you think so what if I don't have a job to wake up to and you smile under warm blankets.

When you wake up at 9:30 a.m.—after having woken up at 7:30, 8:00 and 8:30 a.m. due to the fact that sunlight just naturally wakes you up but still leaves you tired enough to fall (thankfully) back to sleep—you seemingly can't (but actually just won't) convince yourself that getting up at 9:30 a.m. is half as good an idea as it was when you thought of it last night, because really, you don't have a job to wake up to and what the hell do you have to do that can't wait?

When you wake up a half hour later to the sound of your radio, you quickly get up (actually up and out of bed because you moved your alarm clock across the room a week or so ago not just to make space on your makeshift bedside table created from your future roommate's box of who knows what and two plastic drawer things bought at some big Mart before you came to college (probably from money you got from your graduation party where you were too hopped up on cold drugs to remember much, except being really hopped up on cold drugs) but also to ensure that turning off your alarm clock or hitting the SNOOZE button would force you to get out of bed and start walking (albeit only a couple of steps) which in turn, in theory, would make you wide awake to start the day) and set it for another half hour later, because like really I mean that's all you need.

When you wake up another half hour later (it's 10:30 a.m. after all this foolishness) you think hey yeah I'll just lay (lie?) here in bed for a while, and you do, eyes closed, but music tuned to the oldies station (the good one that bothers to play people like The Turtles and The Four Seasons, not the stupid one which can't seem to get enough of K.C. and the Goddamn Sunshine Band) keeps you partially awake, and just when you think you're about to fall back asleep, quiet oldies notwithstanding, the song changes to "Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog" or whatever the official title of the song is and now you're entire morning pattern of late sleep is ruined because really, who the hell can go back to sleep after leaping so violently out of bed to turn the radio off before the singer could even think about moving to the word "bullfrog"?

And now you're awake and you realize that, while you probably do have things that need done (ask Ma and editor and good-angel conscience if you need hints) you're really not going to do anything, and you stand in the middle of the living room and just look around blankly as if something will pop out at you and say "Over here!" and actually temporarily distract you from the ever-present fact that you don't have a job to wake up to and really, really, really could use one.
Boo hoo. I published this crap on my Web site: http://www.pitt.edu/~dcmst25, the second incarnation of what I don't like to call "my web presence." It's long gone, now. At any rate, DFW's big book was the perfect way to spend those many empty weeks. Something in the ease of the showy run-on language makes the vast, immense world it creates so immediate and accessible. My inclination to fall into books as a way of escape isn't what I'm proudest of, but I like it, selfishly, and this book is the best one to fall into.

So I'm reading it again, at last. I've Finished! my annotated bibliographies for my comprehensive exams, and so I'm able to read leisurely now without guilt. 1079 pages without a pencil in hand. Yes!

At any rate, I didn't want to close this blog with a negative post about some already-forgotten New Yorker story. So I'll let this book stay permanently at the top of all these bloviated entries. I've said before it's the best book you'll ever read. It is. I promise.

Thanks for everyone who's been reading this over the past few years. If you want another way to kill time at work, you can check out this site. Some people are so vain.

08 April 2009

Watson, Brad. "Visitation." The New Yorker 6 Apr 2009. 62-69.

Here's a sentence I'm never happy to see in a short story.
Loomis felt no affinity for any of them.
I like stories about loners, I guess. But can I brook stories about loners who've graduated high school? Loners with kids? What about straight, white loners named Loomis? It seems I can't. This week's New Yorker story is a pretty sad reversion to the oldest New Yorker story ever. Loomis's last name may as well have been Bascombe.

Loomis and his son just can't make it work, maybe, because he is, I guess, emotionally crippled and quote-unquote disillusioned with adulthood or something, and then at one point in the story this happens:
He recalled the days when his life with the boy's mother had seemed happy, and the boy had been small, and they would put him to bed in his room, where they had built shelves for his toy trains and stuffed animals and the books from which Loomis would read to him at bedtime. He remember the constant battle in his heart those days. How he was drawn into this construction of conventional happiness, how he felt that he loved this child more than he had ever loved anyone in his entire life, how all of this was possible, this life, how he might actually be able to do it. And yet whenever he had felt this he was also aware of the other, more deeply seated part of his nature that wanted to run away in fear. That believed it was not possible after all, that it could only end in catastrophe, that anything this sweet and heartbreaking must indeed one day collapse into shattered pieces. How he had struggled to free himself, one way or another, from what seemed a horrible limbo of anticipation. He had run away, in his fashion. And yet nothing had ever caused him to feel anything more like despair than what he felt just now, in this moment, looking at his beautiful child asleep on the motel bed in the light of the cheap lamp [. . .] (68)
Bullshit. Spare me. Watson can't even give this son a name he's such a contrived plot object.

I tend toward arrogance, but I'm not so arrogant as to think I'd ever do a better job of filling out this magazine's 48 fiction slots as D. Treisman has. And yet here's this terrible mistake. Can someone shed some light, here?

03 April 2009

Zalewski, Daniel. “The Background Hum.” The New Yorker 23 Feb. 2009, 46-61.

That down there was my 200th post, by the way. The one about sex and eating. The momentous one.

Still writing comps papers, meaning I'm not reading anything substantial. This article, though, from a back issue I hadn't really picked up when it came, gave me something I just put in the paper I just Finished! So I'm almost done. In two weeks I'll be reading again.

At any rate, it's an extremely thorough profile of Ian McEwan's life and work. Very well researched. very glitzy, too, ending as it does at McEwan's 60th birthday bash at the London Zoo, where Martin Amis and Zadie Smith make glitzy cameos. Here's the part I want to talk about:
Three years ago, McEwan culled the fiction library of his London town house, in Fitzroy Square. He and his younger son, Greg, handed out thirty novels in a nearby park. In an essay for the Guardian, McEwan reported that "every young woman we approached ... was eager and grateful to take a book," whereas the men "could not be persuaded. 'Nah, nah. Not for me. Thanks, mate, but no.'" The researcher's conclusion: "When women stop reading, the novel will be dead." (46)
I've been looking a lot at 20th/21st-century claims on the death of the novel for this paper, and this is my favorite one. It's also, I think, the most authoritative. Men write about the death of the novel, and then proceed not really to buy a lot of novels, or, if they do, not to have any idea who it is that's buying their own novels. Women write novels and buy them and write more.

This, I'm pretty sure, has always been the case.

30 March 2009

Hadley, Tessa. "She's the One." The New Yorker. 23 Mar 09. 62-69.

Look, I'm sorry. All I have time to Finish! these days are magazine articles. The books I pick up I scan so as to sum up and explicate them in six or seven sentences. It's no way to read.

I'm going to put forth an extended metaphor that like all metaphors maybe is flawed. It ties in to ideas about traditional and nontraditional writing styles that've been running through my mind lately. It also ties into something James Wood writes about in How Fiction Works about realism and convention, specifically that the former has become the latter to such an extent that, oh, it's so incredibly dull. (No handy, easily quotable quotes are presenting themselves, so take my word for it.)

In short: realism is very rarely not dull and conventional.

So, then, my analogy:
realism : food :: experimentalism : sex
I mean, here, to line up two instincts I seem to have as writer with two instincts I share with all of humanity. I mean also to do this without becoming one of those irritating diaristic bloggers whose sex life becomes eighth-rate e-pulp for a handful of anonymous RSS subscribers.

It seems in my life that food is of greater necessity than sex, that I hunger for the former more often and more physically than I do the latter. Call me a prude or whatever. And so maybe in line with this it also seems that bad food—like really bad and depressing food—hurts more and feels worse than bad sex. There's a Shoebox Greeting here, to be sure, but it's rare that "bad sex", whatever it might be, is all that bad. It's still pretty nice. It's still a treat. Afterward I feel kinda okay. But bad food, and by this I mean the sort of thing that's unpalatably, spit-it-out bad (a green-olive omelet, maybe, or cottage cheese on banana bread), is just unbearable. It makes me want to run away from myself or from life or something.

Such is the case with fiction. Realism is very much the food I run to books for, and when it's bad—when every metaphor rings obvious and when characters get so predictably marshaled toward conflict with one another, when unsurprising detail is meant to carry far more weight than it ever really could—I hate books and I hate life and writing and everything. I want to spit it out. I get very depressed. Experimental writing—which I don't have the time to try to define, but I basically mean both language-driven fiction and fiction of the impossible, so maybe "nontraditional writing" is best—when bad (when language performs without ever revealing, when surrealism fails to save a banal situation) is still kind of a treat. Afterward I feel kinda okay because at least I've been given access to something if not new then at least un-ordinary.

But sometimes realism is great. Like: great. And it's like when you sit down to eat a meal, and you take a bite and you make that noise in your throat, the one that goes: "Oh, yeah. Fuck I forgot that it could ever be like this." And just like that meal can remind you of everything you ever loved about eating as a kid, really good realism (which is probably just realism written "freshly", to continue to destroy food metaphors) makes you remember every reason you started reading as a kid and every reason you continue to come back.

Nontraditional writing, too, when great, is mindblowingly, impossibly great. It's a different kind of greatness. It's not, okay, a lesser kind of greatness. It's, at the risk of being gross, like drainingly great. And it's greatness is new, relatively. It's adult and mysterious. There's no early-developmental analogue. Okay? Maybe?

I'm losing control of this metaphor. Please open the comments window to dispense your ridicule. But all this is something that came to mind after reading Tessa Hadley's story in the New Yorker, which suffers from a flat ending that's asked to carry too much weight (though is probably the only way she could have ended it), but which also includes such incredibly food-great passages as this one:
Hilda complained about the farmer whose land they were walking on. She said that she had contacted the R.S.P.C.A. because he didn't treat the foot rot in his sheep, and that he'd tried to stop her walking there, although it was a public right of way. It was true that quite a few of the sheep seemed to be hobbling on three legs, or half kneeling, their front legs bent at the joint. Ally worried that the farmer would come out to confront them. She didn't want to have to take sides. As she tramped beside Hilda on the way back, the day draining out of the sky seemed to empty her, too, leaving her weightless. When they arrived back at the cottage, they could still see each other clearly, but the light was at its moment of transition, and, as soon as they went inside, the night outside the windows appeared perfectly dark. In the cottage downstairs there was only one room, with a kitchen at one end and a sitting room at the other, a flagged floor and a wood fire smoldering in a wide stone hearth, one wall stripped back to the naked stone. Hilda put logs on the fire and switched on a couple of lamps. (66)
Why do I love this so much, this whole story minus the end? It's not the verisimilitude that we traditionally value in realism so much as the density of it all. No: the quickness. Again, like McPhee, I'm attracted these days to writing that moves faster than I do, writing I have to keep up with. Hadley's story begins at a writing center, the sort of place where unpublished writers pay to get instruction from published ones, and probably the thing I like the most about this story is that after the first page we never go back to this writing center. Bad realism would follow certain rules (picked up, perhaps, in a paid course at a writing center) and "keep the story focused" on its "unique setting" and the relationship between Ally and Hilda would get straitjacketed into predictable gestures and exchanges taking place in predictable, professional locations. It would be unreal, it would taste like shit, and we'd all run upstairs, to the dirty unspeakable books we keep under the bed.

23 March 2009

McPhee, John. "Spin Right and Shoot Left." The New Yorker. 23 March 2009. 54-61.

I like nonfiction for reasons similar to what I once heard Philip Lopate say about his genre: I read it to watch a mind at work. I don't think much about truth or reality distinctions between fiction and nonfiction. I'm not interested in memoir, usually, at least I'm not interested in memoir because it might be telling me a story that may actually have happened to someone in this world. I'm not interested in nonfiction telling me a story at all. I read fiction for stories. Nonfiction gives me ideas about things.

I've read a smattering of John McPhee in my day, almost always in nonfiction writing classes. Usually I find him longwinded. Impressive but dull. Smarter than anything I'll ever accomplish but encumbered by data.

So what happened to McPhee when he wrote this lacrosse piece? Remnick should always hand McPhee a 4,000-word limit. His prose here jumps and pops like an ants-pantsed Kerri Strug. There's this looseness throughout, the work of a man so in control of his subject—McPhee's some honorary faculty member/teammate for Princeton's lacrosse team—that he's able to drop little facts of the matter in the most curious of his paragraph's spots. One paragraph about the International Federation of Women's Lacrosse Associations suddenly, five sentences in, slips into a discussion about the Iroquois and the Indian National Lacrosse Foundation. It's either some factor of septuagenarian wisdom or New-Yorker-veteran flippancy. Another paragraph about FOGOs (Face Off, Get Off players) consists chiefly of a long quotation from some lacrosse trade mag, then ends this way:
In 1888, Princeton's face-off man was Edgar Allen Poe. His granduncle (ibid.) wrote "The Raven."
And who cares? Factoids are like Doritos for the research-high nonfiction writer. We grab and grab and grab at them hoping they'll sustain us. Because we've uncovered so much stuff and having spent so long to find it and write it down we damn well better find a way to make the reader appreciate it.

The only way to handle it is to throw it in and get the hell right out. Quit building scenes and just string facts together. You'd think I'd've learned all this from "Slouching Towards Bethlehem". You'd think I could trust the material on its own by now.

19 March 2009

Marcus, Ben. "Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It." Harper's. October 2005.

We're back full circle with Tom Wolfe in this essay, in that the very thing Wolfe was decrying as "a literary game, words on a page being manipulated by an author" (49), Ben Marcus holds up as a purpose for writing: the pursuit of (and endless play with) new language shapes. (Indeed, reading Marcus back-to-back with Wolfe, it's clear that Wolfe's problem is that he sees the reality of post-Reagan America as far more linear and logical than do most other writers.) It's not just a matter of making language hard, of writing for the intelligentsia, it's a matter of seeking new opportunities or new methods by which language can represent reality.

The other key difference about Marcus's essay compared to the others we've looked at this week is that he's not coming to any new ideas about the direction his writing in specific or fiction writing in general should now go. He's not, like Wallace and Franzen, trying to figure out what (or why) to write. Like Wolfe, actually, Marcus knows what he wants to write, and he knows that what he wants to write has been disparaged, and so he’s writing a defense. "[W]hen a major, prize-winning novelist seeks frequent occasions to attack a diminishing and ever more powerless avant-garde and its readership, a response is in order," Marcus writes. The subtitle of this piece is, cleverly enough, "A Correction."

But before Franzen gets destroyed as the essay's title promises, Marcus has to describe what he means by "experimental writing"—a term, we'll see, that he's not a fan of. (Is anyone a fan of any term used to describe their writing? I don't know a single writer who willfully adopts the label "experimental" nor do I know anyone [except maybe me] who says he writes realism.)

He opens the essay with a lesson in physiology: the Wernicke's area is the locus of language comprehension in the brain, which was located all the way back in 1874. This is an important brain part for all writers, of course, but particularly so for writers like Marcus and those he's trying here to champion. If we think, Marcus suggests, of Wernicke's area as "the reader's muscle" (39), then we can come to a new understanding of books. They're things that work this muscle, or, in Marcus's words, books are "the fuel that allows this region of the brain to grow ever more capable" (40).

It's a very peculiar view of the practice (habit? hobby? desire? need?) of reading. The purpose of reading is to become a better reader (read: a smarter reader, read: a reader more quickly able to form logical connections between strings of language whose associative leaps are less prosaic). Marcus seems to read the way certain people lift dumbbells, where the lifting of the dumbbell isn't done in order to improve one's tennis swing, say, or achieve better control over one's bowling ball. The lifting of the dumbbell is done in order to be better at the lifting of a future, heavier dumbbell.

As a person who lifts dumbbells in order basically to pose more alluringly before a mirror, I can't fault the guy. Fine: reading is its own reward. This does away, as Franzen seeks to, with any demands that the novel "enrich" a person, or "comment" upon the world. These things, if they happen, happen by accident, or as a by-product of the reader's communion with language. One of the smartest things Marcus does in this essay is show that "experimental" and "realist" writing (isn't it the case that the real problem with those terms is how readily they demand ironic quote marks?) are not as at-odds as they traditionally get painted. Reality is every writer's domain.
No matter my interest in reality, in the way it feels to be alive, and the way language can be shaped into contours that surround and illuminate that feeling: because I don't write the conventional narrative language, and because I haven't often foregrounded the consciousness of characters in my fiction, and livestocked those characters in a recognizable setting, I will never be considered a realist. (41)
"Realism", Marcus convincingly argues, would operate as a better marker (a more accurate marker) were it an earned description, not a school in which one is given compulsory membership. In an ideal world, realism would be a term "conferred only on writing that actually builds unsentimentalized reality on the page, matches the complexity of life with an equally rich arrangement in language. It would be assigned no matter the stylistic or linguistic method, no matter the form" (42).

One thing his essay would benefit from would be some illustrations of writing that seems (or gets labeled as) "experimental" but which actually does a more accurate job of rendering reality than, say, Munro and Cheever and Updike have done. We get lists of endorsed writers whose work does this, but never a depiction of how they do it. But again, as Marcus writes, "This isn't a manifesto."

So, while language-driven writing has all (if not better) the capability of traditional writing to depict reality, there's this idea that for novels to be successful, they need to deliver their worlds in a familiar package. Here is where we start to get to Franzen, but first Marcus makes a pit stop at the 2004 National Book Award controversy. Do you remember it? Here were the finalists:
  • Sarah Shun-lien Bynum
  • Christine Schutt
  • Joan Silber
  • Lily Tuck (who won)
  • Kate Walbert
Never heard of them? This was the controversy: that books which sold very few copies and which hadn't become famous upon their publication were being offered a major award. "This," Marcus writes,
was a clear announcement that the value system for literature was tweaked to favor not people who actually read a lot of books but a borderline reader, highly coveted by the literary industry, who might read only one or two books in a year and who had damn sure better be recommended a prize-winning book that will flatter his intelligence and bring him warmly into the fold of the most audience-friendly writing. (41)
Here we have another Marcus-Franzen intersection: the myth of the general audience. One problem with publishing today seems to be that writers continue to write (or maybe that publishers continue to market) to this "borderline reader" who may or may not exist, rather than to the devoted subculture of the committed, compulsive reader who actually buys a lot of books.

Then he tears into Franzen, who, sure, needs to be exposed for the fame-seeker that he is (Marcus shows pretty clearly the ways Franzen's a writer "deeply antagonistic to writing. One senses him trying to lure his favorite writers away from language, plying them with the promises of other media, where no doubt they could achieve greater fame" [46]), but the weakness of this essay, for me, is the lengths to which Marcus goes to show, point-by-point, all the ways Franzen is wrong. It's weak not because I like Franzen. I agree probably with each one of Marcus's arguments surrounding Franzen's equation of literary achievement and fame. It's weak because all of Marcus's great ideas for what writing can be and do are put on hold for far too long.

Yes, there are wonderful moments. At his meanest (and sharpest) he sees in Franzen the unthinking totalitarianism of Bush II:
Franzen seems to have decided that if someone as smart as he is cannot enjoy [Gaddis’s] books, then all those who say they can must be lying. [. . .] [He] has also decided that his subjective experience must form a basic template for the reality of others. This is an unfortunate trait in a novelist: it is a failure of empathy, an inability to believe in varieties of artistic interest, and a refusal to accomodate beliefs other than his own. I recognize the personality type, and I did not vote for it. (48)
And there's also a nice analogy to the music world, in that Franzen "seems desperately frustrated by writers who don't actively court their audiences, who do not strive for his specific kind of clarity, and who take a little too much pleasure in language," which is "a little bit like Britney Spears complaining that the Silver Jews aren’t more melodic" (50).

It takes a while, but we finally get an explanation of just what's so great about language-driven writing.
While it might indeed be pleasurable to get what we knew we wanted [as we do in traditional realism], it is arguably sublime when a text creates in us desires we did not know we had, and then enlarges those desires without seeming desperate to please us. In fact, it's prose that actually doesn't worry about us, and I don't find that ungracious, because novel writing is not diplomacy. It's a hunger for something unknown, the belief that the world and its doings have yet to be fully explored. (48)
I like this, for the implication it makes that writing for oneself—or, actually, writing toward one's own interests and concerns—isn't masturbatory (or, as Marcus sardonically puts it, "dry-humping whatever glory hole [one] can find" [41]) but rather the age-old aim of the artist.

18 March 2009

Franzen, Jonathan. "Perchance to Dream: In the Age of Images, a Reason to Write Novels". Harper's. April 96. 35-54.

No one likes Jonathan Franzen. Surely, after his Oprah episode and the dreary irrelevant memoirs he published in the New Yorker several years ago he makes such dislike easy. But I like him. I do. I think he's smart and terribly good at running with an idea. I like him the way I like Jim Belushi, or friendly kittens to whom I'm allergic.

Franzen's essay was written six years after DFW's essay on TV and it's concerns are similar though directed less specifically at TV and more toward a mass- and multimedia culture of image. Whereas Wallace's problem was that TV is such a totalitarian force of ever-progenitive self-conscious irony that fiction writers are stuck writing in response/reaction to it, Franzen sees the problem as many others before and after him have: there aren't any interested readers left.

Well, it's not only this, it's also that novelists may have once been able to "tackle" the culture, but not longer. "The novelist," he writes, "has more and more to say to readers who have less and less time to read: where to find the energy to engage with a culture in crisis when the crisis consists in the impossibility of engaging with the culture?" (40).

In other words (and here's especially where he and DFW line up), how can a novelist comment on our chimerical mainstream culture without becoming either (1) a product of that same culture or (2) so outdated (DFW uses the term "outmoded") as for your comment to be irrelevant?

Franzen's eventual answer is to direct those energies elsewhere, and engage a subculture of born readers rather than the supraculture of American Society. This seems at first to be almost petty (or pitiful) in its lack of ambition. It's not going to stop, so just give up. But once this problem is stated Franzen then goes to show a few key things that help us see where he's getting to.

One, the social novel is an obsolete relic. (Is that redundant? Probably, sorry.) Here's where he diverges from Tom Wolfe, in that even if all U.S. writers were to suddenly heed every word Wolfe wrote in Harper's in 1989 and start hoofing it to the streets to do some hardcore Breslinian reportage, the novels they'd produce would all be inferior records of contemporary U.S. mores than anything seen on TV or in movies or read online. Newer faster media have superceded novels in the job of reporting what the world is like. (Franzen calls Wolfe's essay "the high-water mark of sublime incomprehension, chiefly owing to "his failure to explain why his ideal New Social Novelist should not be writing scripts for Hollywood" [42].)

Two, though writers like to think of a general audience, such an audience is a myth. This is the part of the essay that he quotes Shirley Heath a lot, who's shown that readers—i.e., people who sort of kind of have to read—are formed, not innately created, due to the presence of specific external forces acting upon them in childhood. I won't get into all of it here, but what this means for Franzen is that readers form a community or subculture and that, if one does one's research, this has kind of always been the case.

Three, because the social novel (and the kind of democratic nation of keen, conscious readers it dreams of) is obsolete and because the community of readers comprises such a relatively small but fiercely devoted number of people, the novel cannot seek to inform/expose/enlighten, it can only seek substantivity.

That's a lousy word, but it ties in with how Heath understands serious fiction, that it's "substantive," meaning that it "impinges on the embedded circumstances in people’s lives in such a way that they have to deal with them." And what's cool about this idea of what constitutes literary fiction is how well it mirrors the act of creation of fiction on the writer's end. What else do we do as novelists but impinge circumstances on people's (well, characters') lives? Cutely, Heath argues that building characters (whether as a writer or reader) builds character.

And anyway, Franzen writes, the social novel's successes, whatever they may have been, were chiefly accidental, a function of time and technology, of the novel in the 19th and early 20th centuries having no real competitors. It's not a factor, as Wolfe tries to argue, of something inherent in the form of the novel. "Although the rise of identity-based fiction has coincided with the American novel's retreat from the mainstream," Franzen writes, stating as a plain fact what Wolfe points to as a troubling concern, "Shirley Heath's observations have reinforced my conviction that bringing 'meaningful news' is no longer so much a defining function of the novel as an accidental by-product" (48).

So why write? Or, when writing, write what? I keep quoting, but Franzen's saying it all better than my paraphrases could. "Expecting a novel to bear the weight of our whole disturbed society—to help solve our contemporary problems—seems to me a peculiarly American delusion. To write sentences of such authenticity that refuge can be taken in them: isn't this enough? Isn't it a lot?" (49).

What I like about this quotation (and it may be my favorite from the essay; when I just reread it for the fourth or fifth time this morning I underlined it with the kind of recognition I do when singing along to like an R.E.M. song I once spent an early-Nineties evening listening to closely and repeatedly to learn the lyrics of) is how it seems to sit like Switzerland between the Germany of J. Franzen and the France of B. Marcus. If the one thing hunters and animal rights activists can agree on is that extinction is a very, very bad thing, the foremost importance of careful, honest sentences seems to be what Franzen and Marcus can share a beer over. It's the way we can as readers enjoy as I do both Franzen and Marcus, and I'm surprised it's the conclusion we've come to in this essay. I suppose the issue now becomes (between realists and nonrealists) what "authenticity" means in the quote above, and whether taking refuge is an adequate response on the part of the reader.

But what I'm taking away from this is the whole "meaningful news" as "accidental by-product" of the novel. Because lying therein is the possibility that novels can indeed do this. (Franzen's caveat, though, is that "[i]t's all too easy to jump from the knowledge that the novel can have agency to the conviction that it must have agency" [52].) Both The Corrections and Infinite Jest followed these essays about the difficulty of writing novels that mean or say anything, and yet look at how much they say or comment on. And yet these comments are always sublimated to characters. The Corrections is only a novel about a family that's all grown up. And by sticking to this, Franzen somehow found all manner of things to say about psychopharmacology, haute cuisine, post-SSR Baltic states, and Caribbean cruises.

All this out of tending to one's sentences. This, amid the driest spell of my writing life in the past few years, gives me some hope.