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Each year, this university’s English department awards several scholarships. Most of them require typical martial facts (name, numbers) and writing samples, while one includes a prompt. This year’s prompt: “If you could select one literary text that every English major should read, what would you select and why?”
The question seems simple—all one has to do is reach over to the bookshelf and pick a favorite at random—but the modifier of literary, seemingly slipped in so frivolously, skews the earth’s axis and hurls the cosmos into the ocean. What exactly does it mean to be literary? How can we define or, even, show it?
I think the answer can be found in the texts themselves. I’ve been reading submissions at TMR for a year now. Most of the job is analyzing stories and trying to put into words why they do or don’t function well. Sometimes it’s fairly easy: there is no characterization, or the style relies on clichés. Other times a story is perfect mechanically, but it lacks the indescribable quality of great writing, a unified force of magic that, I suppose, we describe as “literary,” the popularly pithy label like the hundreds of others we invent to try to express the matter that lies in the area between life and literature.
I’ve read in many places and heard from many people that “literary” is only a term used to market books. That’s a fair argument, though I think it’s too easy of an escape to the question of what makes something literary, and I don’t want to fall into the whirlpool of genre fiction debates and how some works are misunderstood, etc. etc. This adjective also isn’t just limited to books, as by now it’s accepted that genres like film and music and television can be well written, that they can transcend from the “ordinary” into the “literary.” But the adjective does come from the word literature, and it’s the genre whose works have longest lingered on our tongues and minds.
It’s easy to say that the components of literature must be present and masterfully executed to make something literary: vivid writing, developed characters, a complex plot. But what does that make of descriptive poetry, or a play?
A few months ago I read Clare Cavanagh’s translation of Nonrequired Reading by Wislawa Szymborska. It’s a collection of newspaper columns in which Szymborska reviews various books that don’t usually get critiques (self-help books, an annual calendar) and uses them to muse on life. The micro-essays are terse and vivid, and they generate the cumulative feeling of having flipped through a poet’s notebook. But does that mean they’re not literary because they were published in newspapers, or because there are no sustained characters or plot, because the pieces don’t have many unifying qualities besides a premise and an inquisitive tone? Of course not.
So the aforementioned components can be present—they usually are—but they aren’t required. The effect, of magic and discovery, is required. For something to be literary, it must a regenerative force, a carefully constructed mirror, without a smudge or any the maker’s fingerprints. Every time somebody returns to a literary text, they see something different in it, an effect reliant on the present condition of the reader and the depth of the text. And every time somebody else goes to the text, they see similarities, but they detect different components. Both people see the eyes, but one sees the hair and the other sees the chin. Only the mirror-maker has the complete image, for their completion contains an intricate depth, as well as a mystery of having explored and created it.
Some of our great mirror-makers are those deigned as literary authors. Shakespeare, of course, so skillfully implemented wordplay and interesting interactions and opposing ideas that his plays and sonnets continue to engage readers and scholars today, more than four hundred years since he wrote them. Flannery O’Connor merged concurrent literal, symbolic, and religious narratives in each of her Complete Stories. The writings of Willa Cather and Robert Frost, to take two other genres, can easily be read on literal terms, while masterful craft—ambiguity!—lurks behind their printed letters.
It should be noted that in the end the artist does not have full control over how they will be branded, whether their work earns them immortality, or even what readers understand of their writing. Of course, authors labor to limit confusion and misunderstanding, and to open certain parts of their writing to questions, whether to reflect life’s qualities, or to the imagination, or to complicate narrative, or to do whatever they want their art to do. But that’s not to be confused with confusion because of poorly-drawn scenes and characters. The mastery, of course, must be there.
The starchy observer might, again, argue that I’m being some sort of elitist by using these terms—literary, art, poetic—but it’s not mere labeling, or oppression. I doubt that the writers I mentioned earlier sat, with pen in hand, to develop an inspiration, thinking, I’m going to make this one literary, really literary—so it sticks for a long time. Greek bards didn’t recite hexameters to fossilize their echoes on eternity’s bookshelves. If one’s goal is to craft an emotional mimesis, to make their work like life, which has no certainty and definitely no neat resolution, then they will do so, and the label will come afterwards if they are successful. But it’s simply a label, and it’s the effects and qualities of that label that we’re after. Only time, like with all things, controls the rest.
When Henry trudges into the rain at the end of A Farewell to Arms, there is no full resolution to his story, or his life. He has enough momentum to walk off the page and join us, for some time, strolling in our minds and our world. When Riggan leaps out of his hospital room window at the end of Birdman and his daughter comes in moments later, looking through it first at the ground and then to the sky, we have an ambiguous, open ending. The magic prevails. The suspension of disbelief continues to mesmerize us. The story lingers in our consciousness for much longer, and it becomes something more than a 300-page novel or a two-hour film. It becomes something magical, something so intricately constructed that it has a reality of its own. That, I suppose, is when we know that something is literary, that it, like the great mysteries of life, has the substance to survive the unyielding passage of time.
Photo courtesy of Martin Cathrae
Today’s blog post comes from author Erika Dreifus
Not long ago, another writer paid me what I considered to be a supreme compliment. Essentially, she said that I write well on personal subjects without “oversharing.”
The comment pleased me, but it puzzled me, too. That’s because I’ve received plenty of criticism for being—well, let’s just say a bit too forthright with my words. And no small amount of that disapprobation has come in response to words on the page (or screen), rather than those flowing from my vocal chords.
But I do try to disclose judiciously. Therein rests the pleasure; the comment suggested that I’ve been at least somewhat successful in meeting that aim. When I considered it more carefully, I discerned some patterns that may have helped me earn my fellow writer’s praise. If “oversharing” concerns you, too—I’m well aware that not everyone experiences this particular anxiety—these five tips may be helpful.
1. Try the second-person point of view.
I know. You’ve heard that some editors detest the second-person point of view. You’ve heard correctly. But sometimes, it’s a technique that works. And sometimes, editors agree.
Some of my most autobiographical writing, in poetry and prose, has succeeded (I think) because it employs a mediating, distancing “you” to create what might be best described as a “safe space.” A space in which I’ve waded though some difficult material a little less fearfully. A space in which readers, for their part, might be a little less overwhelmed with the insistent thrum of what Joan Didion termed an “aggressive,” albeit admittedly sonoric
Case in point: the four-essay sequence I call the “Sunday in the City series,” a quartet that stemmed from an assault I experienced in early 2009. Initially, and instinctively, I drafted all four essays using the second-person perspective. (One, later published in a column featuring first-person work only, was adapted for that venue.)
As I worked, I came to see these deeply “personal” essays as being at least as much “about” the people they cited and alluded to as they were about me. And I didn’t think that was a bad thing. In fact, again recalling Didion, I perceived a benefit: an easing of the pressure embedded in the first-person entreaty to “listen to me, see it my way….” A chance—for both the readers and for me—to breathe.
Still not convinced? Will you perhaps try the third-person point of view instead? At the very least, it may get you started working on difficult material.
The third-person perspective sure seems to have helped the pseudonymous Anna Lyndsey, author of the new, buzzed-about memoir Girl in Dark. According to this New York Times T Magazine piece, when Lyndsey began writing about the strange illness at the heart of her story, “even the act of writing ‘I’ was enough to make her wretched. So she wrote in the third person instead. ‘The girl in the dark did this, she did that . . . it was a bit like a fairy tale.’” Notably, “[i]t was only after an agent, who had heard about her situation, asked to read her work and requested she change voice that Lyndsey entered her own story.”
I can’t help wishing the agent hadn’t made that request. I’d love to see the original—and to know if Lyndsey might, in fact, still prefer it.
2. Move beyond memoir.
Pro tip: “Personal” isn’t always a synonym for “autobiographical.” I write about many subjects that matter to me deeply, that I probably wouldn’t write about at all had they no links to my own experiences or viewpoints. But I’m not, primarily, a memoirist. Nor do I aspire to that title.
In fiction, I’ve sometimes transferred to characters the role of dealing with subjects that, for various reasons, I haven’t addressed in print in my own voice. Take, for instance, how lingering distress over an incident that I witnessed many years ago emerged some time later in the history belonging to one of my characters (a character who happened to be different from me in innumerable ways—male, a Baby Boomer, a spouse and parent, etc.).
But fiction isn’t the only alternative. Which issues matter to you? Which ideas get your blood going? What would you love to read more about? Maybe—just maybe—others may have addressed those topics, too, in ways you can analyze and discuss in writing. Maybe you needn’t re-invent the wheel.
For example, last year, rather than writing all about my own status as a woman who hasn’t had children, I pitched a review-essay on books relating to that topic. Yes, I wove into the final piece some of my autobiographical thoughts and circumstances. But the essay wasn’t about me. And that, I suspect, considerably reduced any risk of “oversharing.”
3. Take your time.
No more thought pieces. That’s it. Let’s keep our thoughts inside, think on them, our thoughts, let them become ideas even. Then write. Ok?
— Jennifer Gilmore (@jenwgilmore) January 27, 2015
Some writers seem to have an instant opinion on every single event (or pseudo-event) that makes the news. They consider themselves thought leaders and cultural commentators. In some select cases, they may merit such titles.
But too many insta-pieces suggest that, above all else, their authors simply love the sounds of their strident voices (or maybe the sounds of their equally strident computer keys, clicking away). Subject-matter expertise, reflective prose, critical reading and examination of other sources—sadly, too much insta-punditry lacks these staples.
I can be as susceptible to clickbait as the next person. But I’m getting better. These days, when I see certain headlines and bylines, I don’t think, There’s something I want to read. There’s something that might make me think about an issue in all of its complexity. No. I think, What is this person spilling from her guts/preaching about this time? And then I move on to the next item. Because sometimes, less really is more. Sometimes, it really is a matter of quality, not quantity. Sometimes, readers really don’t need to hear your every thought on every subject. Certainly not immediately.
I’m not saying one should never write a timely, self-inflected opinion piece. We all know that editors look favorably on work with a current “hook.” (As it happens, being child-free/childless also energized this pegged-to-the-news commentary.) But I do think that, for many of us, there is value to the notion of “everything in moderation.” And in taking one’s time.
4. Check (with) your sources.
A great deal of my published writing has connected, in some way, with my family history. Much of this has to do with the history of my paternal grandparents, German Jews who immigrated to the United States in the late 1930s, met and married in New York, and became the parents of an only child (my dad).
My paternal grandmother, who passed away in 2002, loved to talk and share stories. These days, she might be considered “an oversharer” (I cringed whenever she regaled companions with tales of my toddlerhood toilet-training triumphs). I believe in my bones, as the saying goes, that she would bless my telling her stories. Moreover, much of what rests behind this material is historical—and it’s “public” history, about persecution and war and immigration.
But that’s not the case with everything I write that may be inspired by family background or circumstances. Which is why, whether it’s a short story rooted in my maternal grandparents’ not-so-amicable divorce, or a poem written the morning after my young niece’s lead performance in her school’s winter musical, I share my work. With my mother. With my niece’s mother. (In that vein, if you write about her own offspring, you might pause and review Andrea Jarrell’s recent Washington Post piece titled “Why I’ve Quit Writing About My Children.”; at this point, not even receiving her children’s blessing is necessarily enough for Jarrell to proceed toward publication.)
In some cases, I’m asked for a simple change. In others, there may be a request that I not to attempt to publish the piece. Not now, anyway. Although I may sometimes wish they’d opine differently, having others “vet” my work this way helps avoid the sort of overshare whose impact may go beyond me to cause trouble or pain for those I care about most.
5. Confide in (trusted) others.
To an extent, this point overlaps with #3 and #4 above. So I’ll keep it brief:
Sometimes, we write to exorcise demons, large and small, acute or chronic, direct or intergenerational. But sometimes, sharing what’s obsessing us—over coffee with a close friend or in a 50-minute therapy hour—alleviates the pain sufficiently. Sometimes, when we hear ourselves articulate aloud what the problem is, we don’t need to take the story any further. We have shared it sufficiently—taking it further may indeed risk an overshare.
Ultimately, I can’t help suspecting that any tendencies I have to avoid oversharing may be due in part to some nature/nurture circumstances. In my case, for instance, having been born to parents who put a premium on privacy—you will never, ever find my parents on Facebook—likely has something to do with the lingering lure of discretion.
Then, I recall the cautionary lesson imprinted in my first after-college job, in which I worked for a government agency in Washington. We were routinely advised to think carefully before we spoke: “Imagine what you’re saying repeated on the front-page of the Washington Post.” That something dire might result was implicit.
Which raises a related point: I held that job during the presidency of George H.W. Bush. In other words, I’m a Gen Xer who came of age before email, before the Internet, before texting and blogging, and so on. Some Gen Xers have obviously embraced “viral” culture more freely than others; I’ve always been a bit of a “late adopter.”
Finally, there’s the fact that before I entered an MFA program, I’d already earned a PhD in history, which means that I’d spent a lot of time immersed in lives and worlds other than my own; I’d already learned how to read, think, and write beyond my own life and times.
But as the points above suggest, you don’t need nature, nurture, or six years of doctoral study in history to avoid oversharing in your writing. That capacity rests within every writer’s grasp. We all can reach for it. If we wish.
Erika Dreifus is the author of Quiet Americans: Stories (Last Light Studio) which was named an ALA/Sophie Brody Medal Honor Title for outstanding achievement in Jewish literature. She writes poetry and prose in New York, where she also works as Media Editor for Fig Tree Books. Visit her online at www.erikadreifus.com and follow her on Twitter (@ErikaDreifus), where she tweets on “matters bookish and/or Jewish.”
Please join us in congratulating the winners and runners-up of this year’s Miller Audio Contest! Winners were selected in collaboration with our guest judge, Andrew Leland, host and producer of the Organist (kcrw.com/believer), a weekly arts and culture podcast from KCRW, and the Believer magazine. Stay tuned for these pieces to be released as featured podcasts on TMR‘s Soundbooth in June and July.
1st Place in Audio Documentary: “Lance and Nina: A Story of Addiction and Redemption” by Karen Brown
Runner-up in Audio Documentary: “Heartland, Missouri” by Abigail Keel
1st Place in Poetry: “Notes on his poems by a guy who observed them in their natural habitat” by Kevin McIlvoy
Runner-up in Poetry: “Thresher” by Kai Carlson-Wee (with music by Channing Showalter)
1st Place in Prose: “Leaving Los Angeles” by Alison Byrne
Runner-up in Prose: “Vox Rex” by Robert Morgan Fisher
1st Place in Humor: “Chicken Cutlets, Cleavage & Compromise” by Jaime Lowe
Runner-up in Humor: “This is how I thought things were done…sorry”
by Erin Drew
Special thanks to judge Andrew Leland; Contest Assistant Editor Brad Babendir; our amazing contest interns Leanna Petronella, Angie Netro, Richard Miller, and Mollie Jackman; and the rest of the TMR staff. It was another great year for submissions, and they were a pleasure to listen to. If you didn’t place this year, we hope you will consider submitting in 2016, and again, a big congratulations to our winners!
You may have heard of the poet Patricia Lockwood. Her poem Rape Joke made quite a stir in 2013, and her recent book, Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals was reviewed widely (see, for example, The New York Times, Slate, and The Rumpus, and, for commentary on the discomfort of male reviewers of the book, The Toast). Over 50,000 people follow her on Twitter @TriciaLockwood.
She’s one of the scrappy up-and-comers in the contemporary poetry world, and while “Rape Joke” has deservedly garnered much attention as a cornerstone of her book, there’s another poem in there that keeps blowing my mind for its wildly irreverent, wildly thoughtful treatment of literary ancestry. This poem is “The Father and Mother of American Tit-Pics.” In this long poem, Lockwood declares Walt Whitman is the “mother” of American poetry and Emily Dickinson is the “father.” She turns the question of influence on its head with her gender-bending, hilarious, oddly touching reverie on narcissism, writing, and American poetry.
Every writer struggles with what Harold Bloom termed the Anxiety of Influence. We wonder if we stray too far away from literary traditions or if we stagnate within them. The brains of other writers sit on our shoulders like slimy, lumpy, terrifying birds. Lockwood’s poem uses the outrageous metaphor of “tit-pics” to mull over the impact of the two biggest icons of American poetry. The poem begins with Emily and Walt (the poem uses a first-name basis, so I will, too) having returned from the dead for a day. They climb out of their graves and their first act is to exchange tit-pics with each other. Then Lockwood says,
When you want to say a poet is mysterious, say, “Very few tit-pics of him exist,” or “Reading his letters and journals, we are able to piece together a pic of his tits—they loved butter and radishes and were devoted to his sister.”
Here, “tit-pics” act as a metaphor for some private internal secret that is the “key” to Emily and Walt’s poetry. The phrase suggests that our hunt of this key, or our exposure of it, is unseemly. In terms of literary influence, this excerpt implies that our relationship with those who came before us is prurient and inappropriate. We want too much from them. We need to stop acting as paparazzi to their souls.
Lockwood builds on the tit-pic metaphor when she turns her camera towards the speaker. She says,
I admit that I brought them back from the dead because I was standing in front of the mirror taking picture after picture of my tits in order to establish once and for all time what a tit actually looks like, since according to the dictionary lots of things can be a tit, even including a bird and an idiot.
Now the tits seem to represent poems and poem making: the speaker wanted pictures of the poets’ tits (their poems!) so that she can make her own best tit-picture (her poem!). This ridiculous metaphor refuses to be only ridiculous, though—it’s trying to tell us something about how writers use writers, and how that use is fraught.
The poem gets even stranger when Lockwood reverses Emily and Walt’s genders. She turns Whitman into quite the exhibitionist with,
Walt Whitman with a bra on his head, which is keeping his thoughts from being totally bare. The bra is too small and the bra is made of lace and his friends are saying, “Walt you are falling OUT” and “Wow Walt you are giving everyone a show” and “Why are you giving away the cow for free when I only wanted to hear the moo.”
Are the poems still tits? In that case, is this a form/content dichotomy, in which tits equal content and form, as the scrap that’s barely restraining the breasts, is the bra? Whitman’s lines are long and meandering, so is Lockwood slyly insinuating that his form is minimal? Lockwood spends a long time lovingly details Whitman’s breasts, declaring,
I mean he’s had two hundred years to develop them.
Perhaps that’s why breasts have gotten bigger, because American poetry is accumulating in our lungs and has to push its way out somehow.
Lockwood is insisting that we view American poetry through the lens (fatty tissue?) of the breast, and yet that comment about lungs rescues the image from total silliness: breath gathers in our lungs. Breath is part of speaking. We have so much breath in our lungs, so much American poetry, that it is desperate to get out.
Tit-pics as anxiety of influence, tit-pics as narcissism, tit-pics as American poetry—Lockwood keeps turning and turning her metaphor-wheel. I find the metaphor to be quite gutsy. While some critics might brush it off as reveling in shock value, I think it’s building towards an argument about how we use our literary heritage (a boob-bard thesis, if you will). I’d argue that Lockwood actually uses these two primary figures in American poetry to do something not particularly related to these poets. She’s using them, but not in imitation: she’s creating her own idiosyncratic argument about influence.
The poem ends with Walt and Emily dying again. They are once more inside the grave. Lockwood says,
Above them floating their tit-pics.
And floating above their tit-pics our eyes.
If the tit-pics are, in some sense, Emily and Walt’s own self-reflection (the metaphor wheel still spins!), then our eyes gaze at their introspection. It’s a pretty apt encapsulation of what many writers (perhaps especially poets) do with the Keats and Bishops of their pasts: they stare obsessively at others’ words, which are allegedly mirrors to the soul.
Is that what writers do with other writers? What’s the problem with having a relationship with these foremothers and fathers, any way? It seems easy enough to see the problem in zealous imitation. At the very least, this produces unoriginal work; at the very worst, plagiarized. Yet don’t most creative writing teachers assign imitation exercises? At what point do these exercises stop being generative? I wonder, too, how the market plays into this. As a poet, I find that many literary journals seem to publish the same kind of poetry, in the same kind of style, with the same kind of content. If the same kind of poem appears everywhere, it means this poem is getting published. A poet who wants to make a living off their poetry (read: residing in academia) needs to have published a book, and, often, in order to publish a book, needs to have a healthy number of published poems. I don’t know any poet who consciously writes to the Fad Poem, but does it seep into us unconsciously?
These, in my mind, are some of the dangers and issues of investing in a reading relationship with current and past poets. What about the other way around? Can a writer have too shallow a relationship with authors of yesteryear? I always recommend Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Robert Lowell to my beginning poetry students who write in a Confessional vein. But why do I do this? I suppose I assume it’s wise for a poet to be familiar with their ancestors, but to what ends? So they don’t repeat what’s been done before? In other words, do I want my students to familiarize themselves with similar styles and subject matters in order to depart from them? Maybe. Or maybe I want them to join the voices, to riff off of past members of the school. That kind of riffing, though, would only be evident to a very select group of well-read readers. By cultivating a relationship with our literary ancestors, do we risk insular, elite readership?
At the same time, if we don’t cultivate that relationship, it seems like we risk sounding ignorant. Perhaps we lose out on inspiration. Ultimately, perhaps influence, or even cross-pollination, is simply inevitable. While I didn’t find Lockwood’s poem to be in the vein of Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman, I did wonder about John Donne. Lockwood’s poem essentially turns on an extended metaphor, known otherwise as a conceit. The metaphysical British poet John Donne was known for wacky conceit-driven poems such as “The Flea,” which uses a flea as a metaphor for sexual intercourse. To me, a flea representing sex is no stranger than a tit-pic representing American poetry. Does it matter that Lockwood’s conceit recalls Donne’s? If so, in what way? Perhaps I feel like I understand the poem better. Clearly, it makes me begin to invent a sequence of literary heritage. I know that in my own poetry, I find it useful when others see echoes of certain poets, as it helps me frame myself to myself. It gives me a reflection that is not overwhelming, a small pool of poets that I can try to swim around in. Perhaps knowing who your influences are is as much as knowing who they aren’t. To make my own (terrible!) metaphor, in a vast sea of porn (contemporary poetry!), it helps to know which tit-pic is actually going to turn you on.
I never expected Mr. & Mrs. Smith to feel like an apt metaphor for my relationship with my significant other, Rachel Rowsey. I didn’t expect to wake up on the morning of April 22, 2015 to read an assassination on my character penned by someone I trusted so much. But Mr. Smith didn’t expect Mrs. Smith to try to kill him, either. So I thank Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie for their hard work and help getting through this tough time.
Unfortunately, I’m not a trained assassin. Actually, that’s probably a good thing. Being a trained assassin seems like a miserable existence. I’ve watched enough Scandal to know that for sure. Fortunately, Rachel isn’t a trained assassin either, so nobody is going to die as a result of this feud.
Regardless, I cannot stand by while I am accused of things that are simply not true. I was a journalism major for approximately one-quarter of my time as an undergraduate at the University of Missouri, which means I have an obligation to the truth. In Rachel’s column, she says that the “Books Received and Read” score in our relationship puts her up five to nothing.
This, readers and ravenous pursuers of all that is factual, is false. A slander. A lie. In June of 2013, Rachel gave me The Fault in our Stars, a book that I read in its entirety in a timely fashion. In the words of much maligned Chicago White Sox announcer Hawk Harrelson, “you can put it on the board, yes!” That’s one for Bradley. At worst, 5 to 1.
But wait, there’s more! The fifth book to which she refers is The Confessions of Noa Weber, a book which she has not yet finished. I have also not yet finished The Pillars of the Earth. This means the score is either 5 to 2, or 4 to 1. Either way, that’s some big progress for Team Brad. Movin’ on up.
The controversy does not stop there, either. It never does. As Ms. Rowsey mentioned in her column, I also read two of the books for which she is giving herself credit. Technically, I gave them to myself in order to read them alongside her (as was the basis of her column), so they cannot be counted for my score. However, reading those books did cut into my free reading time, which made it harder to finish the books that I was given. I’m not saying the game was rigged, but I’m not not saying it, either. It’s the book club equivalent of the 2002 NBA Western Conference Finals.
Furthermore, I have to call into question the entire system of scoring itself. A book is not a standard unit of measurement. What really matters, when it all comes down to it, is page count. Tiny babies read tons of books. Because the books they read are tiny. Do those tiny babies deserve credit for reading all those books? No, they don’t. Babies can’t do anything. Rachel, who is not a tiny baby (95% confidence in that statement), has read 1600 pages. I, on the other hand, have read 1348. Yes, I’m still losing. But I’m a lot closer.
But, am I still losing? No. Enter the last truth bomb:
Pure volume statistics never give a fair picture. Efficiency is important. In this case, the number of books read should be considered in the context of the number of books gifted in the first place. And here is where Ms. Rowsey greatly falters. By my count, Rachel has given me three books. I’ve finished (or nearly finished) two. That’s a .667 batting average. Those are all-time great numbers. Triple crown numbers. All-Star. Hall of fame. Meanwhile, I have given Ms. Rowsey 11 books, of which she has finished six. That’s a .545 batting average. Great, elite, Hall of Fame, too. As good as .667? I don’t think so.
Today’s blog post is by TMR contributor Jeffrey Condran
When Kurtz delivers his, “The horror, the horror,” it is famously impossible to tell what, exactly, horrifies him so. Is it that the sight of his white countryman reveals to Kurtz how thoroughly he has taken up African life, and that the degradation is too much to bear? Or, equally possible, has Conrad filled his character with horror because the colonizers have found him, that they mean to return him to Europe and his wife, and that the very thought of leaving Africa and his new life is unbearable? Most likely, somehow, both of these possibilities are true at once.
I remember quite well the first time I read, Heart of Darkness, and encountered this line. It stayed with me as scenes from great books do, and I incorporated the ambivalence of its message into my own understanding of life. Yet as I began to read more widely, especially contemporary literature, I never again found a novel or story that affected me with such complexity, such anxiety and desperation.
Not until, quite at random, I picked up a copy of Robert Stone’s, Outerbridge Reach. The story follows the fortunes of Owen Browne, a former naval officer who can’t face the bleak prospects of his current life as a writer of advertising copy for a yacht brokerage, and who—in a mad attempt to make life feel meaningful again—enters a “round-the-world single-handed sailing race.” Lacking the proper sailing experience for such a venture, in a vessel of dubious construction, at a moment where Browne’s marriage is at the breaking point and his relationship with his daughter possibly on its way to estrangement, Stone is merciless with his character. Browne makes one poor decision after another, compromising little bits of personal integrity and, ultimately, undermining his identity to the point that he decides to commit suicide. There is a scene where Browne, his swimming gear weighted down, struggles for a moment or two to stay above the surface and watches his boat sailing away without him—its wake a white banner signaling Browne’s defeat, before he’s pulled under the waves for good.
That I became a fan of Stone’s fiction after reading Outerbridge Reach is an understatement. I worked backward, reading all of his novels: Children of Light, A Flag for Sunrise, Dog Soldiers, A Hall of Mirrors. I kept extra paperback copies of my favorites so that I could lend them to people. I often found myself flipping to the back of Stone’s books and gazing at the image of his author photo, which—one has to admit—generally captures Stone offering the camera a rather crazy-eyed expression. Who was this man who could write book after book that stripped people down to a collection of their worst impulses and by doing so revealed a truth about humanity that even most writers didn’t want to see? I wanted very much to meet him.
After almost a decade of reading and admiration, I found my chance. Stone came to Pittsburgh on a book tour for Damascus Gate. With a friend—the same man, incidentally, who had given me Heart of Darkness—I was in the audience. It was thrilling to listen to Stone read, but rather than finally satisfying my interest, this experience only whetted my appetite further. After the reading there was a long line for readers who wanted their books to be signed. It gave me plenty of time to screw up my courage, and I said to my friend that we should invite Stone for a drink in the hotel bar. When the moment finally came it was my friend who asked if he were free for a drink, and to our surprise and delight, he agreed.
There we were in this well-appointed downtown bar, sitting in club chairs, the subdued lighting working its magic on the glasses and the alcohol—my star-struck infatuation in full flower. What did I talk about with Robert Stone? We discussed the Scotch we were drinking, my admiration for one of his lesser-known novels, Children of Light, which delighted him because it was his favorite of his own works, the writing of his friend, Madison Smart Bell. At one point our conversation turned to urban violence, Stone telling a story of being almost shot outside the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. Then we talked about Haiti—he was already at work on his next novel, Bay of Souls. An hour or so had slipped past and we might have been on our third round of drinks when, quite suddenly, and without any embarrassment at all, I asked Stone if, looking back on his career, he had any regrets. I say that I wasn’t embarrassed but that was only because I was drunk. Yet he answered almost without hesitation. “I wish I hadn’t left so many books at the bottom of the bottle.” It was a brutally honest admission. I was taken aback and for several moments found nothing to say by way of response. I was surprised at what that one line revealed about Stone. Looking back, however, I should not have been. He was simply treating himself to the same kind of clarity and lack of sentimentality with which he subjected his characters. The moment was sobering.
We lost Robert Stone this January. I heard the news while waiting on a flight from Vancouver to Las Vegas. There’s something about air travel that both exhausts me and leaves me feeling oddly vulnerable, and because of this the news of his death knocked the wind out of me. I couldn’t help but to think, all in a rush, about the horrible pleasure of his novels and, of course, that now there would never be another. Immediately, I felt my reaction too maudlin, too self-pitying. And so instead, just for a moment, I imagined Stone himself treading water, taking one more good look around, before letting the weight of this life pull him forever beneath the waves.
Jeffrey Condran is the author of the story collection, A Fingerprint Repeated. His debut novel, Prague Summer, was published by Counterpoint in August 2014. His fiction has appeared in journals such as The Kenyon Review, The Missouri Review, and Epoch, and has been awarded the 2010 William Peden Prize and Pushcart Prize nominations. He is an Assistant Professor of English at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and the Co-founder of Braddock Avenue Books.