Multiple Enthusiasms

Infinite jest. Excellent fancy. Flashes of merriment.

Tag: esquire

Completing the MBA homework I needed those laddering interviews for made me think a lot about attention. How we get it and to whom we give it, and why. Every once in a while, I’ll make disparaging comments about some author or other–usually Stephenie Meyer or Sarah Palin. Lately, James Franco.

I make those remarks, of course, because I’m jealous. It’s the frustration of a still-emerging writer scared shitless of never making it, for whatever ‘it’ means. The fear of a newb that all the fancy education and writing learning and multiple novels will never get the attention I’ve always thought they deserve.

And of course they don’t. Because nothing really deserves attention. Attention has to be earned.

Which, I think, is where a lot of the frustration with Meyer and Palin and Franco comes in. As a writer, I don’t get the fascination, the quality people find, but maybe I’m approaching it with the wrong idea. Do Meyer’s and Palin’s readers go to those women’s books seeking depth of thought and lucidity of prose?

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I hadn’t planned to blog today, but earlier today, Chartroose pinged my “Batman Noir” post to tangent from as she wrote about Christian Bale and American Psycho, and now, in the truest spirit of Internet meta, I ping back to her in response, because I started to write a comment I realized might as well have been a blog on its own.

To sum up, while she was not a big fan of either the book or the movie, Chartroose seems to appreciate the book for what it is: a non-comedic satire. She mentions the outcry that occurred when the book was first published, then her own reaction to it:

I read until the wee hours of the morning and finished it the next evening. I decided the novel was total trash and stuck in my bookcase, thinking I would probably end up throwing it away later on. Disposal of the novel never happened though, in fact, over the next several days I found myself pulling it off the shelf and rereading entire passages just to make sure that I was recalling them correctly. I had American Psycho on the brain, and it was not an enjoyable experience. Even though it was creeping me out, I just couldn’t get it out of my head. It was the most disturbing book I had ever read.

She goes on to make some extraordinarily cogent points re: sociopathy and . . . oh, hell. Did you read it? You totally should. It’s totally worth it. In fact, here’s that link again, because otherwise I’m going to have to quote her penultimate paragraph, anyway.

Okay. So.

I can’t say that I loved American Psycho; like Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, it’s not an experience you can really love–it’s bleak and disturbing and kind of even hurts as you read it, so it’s not really something to love.

But good?

Yes, I think so.

I never heard the media outcry over the novel; I was a sophomore in college in 1997 by the time a buddy of mine read it and recommended it to me. And perhaps that’s very crucial; sophomore is Latin for “fool,” or thereabouts, if I’m not mistaken, and where I was in life at that time might have been instrumental in my reading of Ellis’ novel. To wit: back then, I was struggling with my identity. I’d just left my bucolic South Jersey hometown for Jersey City to attend a small Jesuit college that was, ultimately, a seminal experience in my life even though it wasn’t exactly the prototypical college experience. When most of my friends at other institutions were getting their bang on every bit as much as they were getting their book on, I had buried my head in credits and writing (back then I had just completed the first draft of my first novel, which clocked in at nearly half a million words, not one of which was actually really worth anything). I was struggling with identity to the point that I was even questioning my own name; my given name is William, and every man I know with the same name had become “Bill” by high school, and so I did, too. Until well into college, when I just wasn’t sure what I wanted people to call me anymore.

And finally, I was a nearly twenty-year-old dude, which meant I felt like society had certain expectations of me that I was meant to fulfill. Except I had absolutely no idea how to actually be a guy, and so I sought advice from the only resource readily available: Men’s Health. Not to mention Esquire and GQ. Every man depicted in the pages of those magazines seemed to be the ur-man, not just the uber-man but in fact the sort of prototype on whom the entire idea of masculinity is based. Washboard abs, Colgate teeth, well groomed hair, chiseled biceps, perfect jeans, tailored suit . . . you get the idea.

The perfect ideal of masculinity.

That was the mindset I had when I came to Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, and for that reason, it was the perfect book at the perfect time in my life. Not only did I feel like I got it, and what he was trying to do, but I felt too as though he had captured precisely the perfectly incredible absurdity of pretty much everything I was experiencing at the time. One device Ellis makes frequent use of in the novel is the extraordinary attention to detail the protagonist, Patrick Bateman, pays to the wardrobe and effects of those around him; anyone who’s ever read Esquire has encountered precisely the same thing. The ten best face washes. The thirteen best new colognes of the season. The four most realistic-looking fake tans.

And no woman can tell me such is relegated to the pages of men’s magazines. Cosmo does it constantly–this season’s hottest shades of lipstick! Next season’s hippest designer!

When I read American Psycho, I read it as a pretty much brilliant critique of precisely that aspect of our culture. Chartroose mentions:

American Psycho is trying to tell us that capitalism is as violent and merciless as Patrick Bateman, and Bateman’s disregard for women as anything but body parts to be abused and discarded is a mirror reflection of modern society’s objectification of women.

But I think it’s more than that; it’s not modern society’s objectification of women but rather our culture’s collective objectification of ourselves. Bateman doesn’t merely objectify women; he objectifies everyone, which is why every new character is described not in terms of a quality or a smile or a trait but rather in terms of the suit he wears or, famously, the business card he carries or, even more famously, the music he likes. When Bateman enjoys something, like Phil Collins’ “Su-su-sudio,” he does so not because he actually likes the music but rather because it is something everyone else seems to enjoy. He uses a Sony Walkman and wears headphones quite often, and when he listens to Whitney Houston, it’s not because he wants to dance with somebody but rather because he wants people to think he wants to. If Bateman objectifies everyone, it is because he feels himself an object; his lack of empathy comes not from his detachment from other people’s feelings but rather from the fact that he has none of his own. His clothes, his beauty regimen, his workouts; he’s not improving himself so much as improving the way the world sees him, and trying all the time to be a more beautiful object to those who view him.

I think it’s a rather brilliant critique, obviously, and I think it ultimately springs from the same sorts of disillusionment as inspired Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club:

Man, I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.

Patrick Bateman is the reason Fight Club exists; he is a rockstar, basically, and he doesn’t chase cars and clothes because he already owns them. He has achieved everything society has told him he should want but still feels he has no purpose or place. He kills people, but mostly he understands that “On a long-enough timeline, the survival rate drops to zero” for everyone.

“Shut up! Our fathers were our models for God. If our fathers bailed, what does that tell you about God?”
“No, no, I… don’t…”
“Listen to me! You have to consider the possibility that God does not like you. He never wanted you. In all probability, he hates you. This is not the worst thing that can happen.”

Patrick Bateman has achieved, as both a man and a person, pretty much everything society expects of him, or is on his way to. Society has convinced him that, if he does so, he will be happy, but that happiness . . .

Where is it?

Sticking feathers up your butt does not make you a chicken.

Precisely.

Willy Wonka promised that the man who got everything he ever wanted lived happily ever after, but Jagger got it arguably more right; happiness isn’t getting what you want but rather in getting what you need and understanding why you needed it in the first place.

I read somewhere, I believe, that something like three of the top five bestselling novels in Japan last year were published via cell phones. Interesting, in its way; the idea seems popular, and I’m all for getting new readers and new books to those new readers any way possible. But I wonder a bit about the content. I try not to judge such things, because it makes me feel like a pompous douchebag, but I worry that the kind of novels that lend themselves to being read serially via cellphone are the kind of novels, say, Tila Tequila might write (if you don’t know who she is, count yourself lucky).

Amusingly, though, I caught a feature in the latest issue of Esquire–great works of literature as text messages.

Click the image below to visit the slideshow:

I had some ideas for others:

Macbeth: “I can haz crown? Out damn spot!”

American Gods: Meet new godz. Same as old onez.

Old Man’s War: “I fite everything! My DAN makes me teh wassum!!11”

Hamlet: 2 b or not? Not.

In light of the discussion on what editors actually do, and why they may or may not be necessary, I thought I’d point to a piece I found over at the New Yorker (though I’m not sure whom I found it by. Someone in my blogroll, probably). The article concerns Raymond Carver and his editor, one Gordon Lish.

I’ve not read much Carver. My sister is a big fan of his, and even won a bet concerning plot and structure by showing her professor a copy of one of Carver’s collections, but I’ve not really yet explored much of his stuff. I don’t know much about Carver at all, really. He just ain’t my cup of tea, to be honest. I make jokes all the time about blowing shit up, but Carver’s stories, while minimalist, also seem a careful study in the “not much happens” school of short story telling. Which always makes me say, “Wait, nothing happened? Then why the fuck are you telling me the story? Is there a point?”

Personal predilections aside, his voice is distinctive. Nothing may happen, but somehow, you still sort of feel the nothing happening. His stories are weird that way.

Anyway, Gordon Lish was editor of Esquire for several years. Judging by his Wikipedia entry, he was involved with the “Merry Pranksters,” including Kerouac, Casaday, and Ginsberg in SF before he and his second wife moved to NYC. He earned some renown through his career: DeLillo, Kundera, Nabokov . . . the list goes on.

From the Wikipedia entry on Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”:

“What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” is actually a heavily edited version of Carver’s original draft, “Beginners.” His editor, Gordon Lish, cut out nearly half of Carver’s story, adding in details of his own. Carver’s version, released by his widow, Tess Gallagher, in December 2007 to The New Yorker magazine, shows the extensive, and sometimes apparently arbitrary edits.

Now I’m going to speak about this from some personal experience, and admit something; I was, for other writers, not a very good editor. I always tried to make the writing better, the story better, but often to the detriment of the original material, the original voice, and the original content. A good editor maintains that original content; I really wasn’t one. I wasn’t bad, exactly; I just wasn’t good.

Here’s the New Yorker article on the story.

I think it’s worth reading if only for the glance into the sometimes esoteric realm of what occurs behind the scenes in writing and publishing. Considering Lish’s edits, is the story really any better, or is it, in fact, worse for the wear? I’ll admit I found Carver’s original final several paragraphs rather poignant, especially the horses bit, and especially the end; does their loss negatively affect the story? Or was Lish correct that they were stronger without them?

Or is Lish just some editor who was never good enough to be a writer and so had to butcher other author’s works? Sure, he “introduced” major writers of the 20th century, but what did he do to their stories? Considering the finalized state of Carver’s story compared to its original, I cringe to think what he did to Nabokov and Kundera, personally. And I don’t even really like either of them.

Questions, questions.

At what point do you, as Carver say, “You know what? Sorry, but that’s not the story I wrote. You can publish that, if you like, but you’ll have to write it yourself.”

It’s almost like Lish was the P. Diddy of his time, sampling a classic song, laying a bit of new vocal on it, calling it his own, and cashing in.

Or maybe it’s almost like Lish helped those writers transcend their otherwise mediocre writing?

I’ll admit, I haven’t a clue.

Which is, largely, the reason I chose to self-publish my collection. Not because I didn’t want editorial input; I’d already gotten it, several times over. Rather, just because I just don’t know how important editorial input is to short stories anymore.

Finally, also, some thoughts on how to become an editor, over at et cetera.