At my desk

Last week I had the chance to participate in two separate discussions about David Shields’ Reality Hunger: a Manifesto, the first with members of the Working from Life: Writing Creative Nonfiction workshop and the second with two members of the Future of Publishing Think Tank (FOPTT).

Shields’ book contends that shifts in perception—of self, of the world, of the nature and function of art—are changing the ways in which content is created and consumed.  The book is loosely assembled as a collage of quotations by writers, musicians, filmmakers and cultural critics—and occasionally Shields himself—that allows disparate points of view to bounce off one another and vibrate in proximity.  The structure supports one of Shields’ assertions—that a tidily structured narrative is so unlike the way we experience our lives, barraged with information as we are, as to be an obsolete way of structuring a work of art.  Instead he argues for breaking form and for barely mediated content and he challenges the notion that one can originate content. As his subtitle indicates, he intends to be provocative.

Among Working from Life participants, two points garnered huge pushback. The first is Shields’ flagrant appropriation of the words of others (he does cite sources but only at the insistence of his publisher’s attorneys and suggests one might just cut out of the book those pages of citation). One of my students is a board member of the National Writers’ Union and a vigorous defender of artist copyright protection. While it’s self-defeating for any artist not to be a defender of these laws, I’m also not in favor of sacred cows.  I’m willing to at least imagine a world without intellectual property, one in which ideas and their expression are not owned by anyone, just as many indigenous societies did not have any concept that land should or could be owned.  What would that be like?  It would mean artists would need to find other ways of supporting themselves, but most artists do anyway.  What would it mean for the kind of art created or the way we regarded such creations—not as the result of the effort of a single, exceptional individual but arising out of a collective and communal pool of values, ideas and experience.

The other point of resistance, also shared by one of my FOPTT colleagues, is Shields’ dismissal of fiction.  He clearly believes that nonfiction is the more honest and relevant form (though he does acknowledge that nonfiction contains a health dose of fictionalizing.)  One of my students and one of my colleagues were both passionate in their defense of the pleasures of the novel, of losing themselves in an invented world that could nevertheless reveal potent truths about this one.

Shields is especially scathing about the element of plot, which he feels is artificial and tidy and serves to narrow the perception of the world rather than expand it.  Anyone who has worked with me knows I am an avid proponent of plot as an engine that can move the story forward and as a device that helps to shape meaning.  To me, plot provides the bones on which a story can be hung; Shields may be proposing that we move beyond story itself.

To me this is the value of a work like Reality Hunger. The opportunity to engage with bold ideas—whether one agrees with them or not—is expansive, and nothing is more valuable, I think, for an artist, is whatever facilitates that expansion of mind and perspective.  When I teach at Antioch, I tell the students, “I’m here to mess with you.”  By that, I mean I want to help them broaden perspectives, undermine assumptions, open to greater possibilities.  In Reality Hunger, Shields intends to mess with us, and in the best possible way.

WAW Recommends: Saman by Ayu Utami

Saman by Ayu Utami
translated by Pamela Allen
recommended by Bronwyn Mauldin

samanbyayuutamiSaman is the story of how a Catholic priest in the world’s most populous Muslim country, Indonesia, becomes a human rights activist called “Saman.” Author, journalist Ayu Utami, turns the familiar tale of the crusader for justice on its head by folding Saman’s story into that of a group of young women who knew him when they were school girls and he a newly-ordained priest.

Laila is the good girl who always falls for men she cannot have. Shakuntala the dancer who breaks her name in two for an American grant. Cok the bad girl exiled by her family. Yasmin the serious attorney trapped in a dull marriage. As these girls grow up and explore their sexual identities, the priest comes into his own, and with their help, is reborn.

The story unfolds in layers, spanning the globe from one former Dutch colony (Indonesia) to another (New York), in only 180 pages. We read the story through several points of view, and through narrative, letters and emails. Watch for small details casually dropped along the way, as they add up to a powerful tale that is as much about the diversity of modern Indonesia as it is about any one person’s search for justice and freedom.

You can buy Saman at Skylight Books.

WAW Recommends: The Age of Dreaming by Nina Revoyr

The Age of Dreaming by Nina Revoyr
Recommended by Cheryl Klein

cover_ageofdreamingOver the course of three novels, Nina Revoyr has chronicled girl basketball players, civil unrest in Watts, and now the silent film era: The Age of Dreaming is the story of Jun Nakayama, a Japanese American star of the silents who—when a new part comes his way for the first time in decades—is forced to reflect on the abrupt end of his career. The reasons are as scandalous as an unsolved murder and as subtle as the growing anti-Japanese sentiments he tried to brush off.

The through-line that draws me to Revoyr’s work again and again—besides her insider’s renderings of Los Angeles—is her depiction of characters who are reluctantly shaken out of their passivity. It’s easy enough to write about characters who are brave or even tragic, but it takes serious skill to write about polite, reserved people whose very nature defies the nature of plot.

Over the course of the novel, which flashes between the ’20s and the ’60s, Jun realizes that society doesn’t reward patience and compliance the way he’d hoped, but that he has more control of his own fate than he once thought.

Revoyr’s prose in this novel are like Jun himself: simple but elegant, contemplative and—at first glance—almost dry. But this is all part of a carefully layered character portrait, and the thoroughly juicy mystery at the novel’s center, coupled with descriptions of Hollywood in its giddy adolescence, keep the pages turning.

You can buy The Age of Dreaming of Skylight Books

Dark fiction

After a long period of not having time for pleasure reading, this summer I read three novels, each of which were fairly dark. My favorite of these was Janet Fitch’s Paint It Black, which is about a young woman trying to cope with the suicide of her boyfriend. It’s a beautifully written meditation on grief, guilt and loss, but the amazing thing is the redemptive ending, which was as surprising as it was inspiring.

I’m always a fan of Don DeLillo’s work, and I had great hopes for Falling Man, his novel about a family in Manhattan trying to cope in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. What’s remarkable about the book is DeLillo’s descriptions of the scene of the attack itself, both for those in the Towers and then out on the street as the Towers come down. But the novel begins to drift (albeit mirroring the lives of the characters) as we move forward in time, and DeLillo has to take us back to the scene of the attack in order to end the book. It’s also notable that the book takes us into the mind of one of the hijackers and renders his humanity.

I was in an airport ready to get on a red-eye when I picked up Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. This novel depicts the post-apocalyptic landscape we all fear, wherein civilization as we know it is completely decimated and the few survivors (the narrator is a father who is left to care for his son) comb through the wreckage trying to eek out another day. The language of this book is stunning, the images are brutal, and the vision is a little bit hopeful, but I felt cheated by the end, which seemed abrupt and too easy.