Thursday, June 25, 2009

Nabokov on The Writing Reader vs. The Reading Writer (sort of)

Again, Vladimir Nabokov expresses my sentiments better than I ever could (though it's ironic I'm finding so much enjoyment in the articulation of my thoughts in his words, as just after the passage below, Nabokov writes, "minor readers like to recognize their own ideas in a pleasing disguise" - to which I must reply, in the words of Marianne Moore, "I’ve always felt that if a thing has been said in the very best way, how can you say it better?"):

"Time and space, the colors of the seasons, the movements of muscles and minds, all these are for writers of genius (as far as we can guess and I trust we guess right) not traditional notions which may be borrowed from the circulating library of public truths but a series of unique surprises which master artists have learned to express in their own unique way. To minor authors is left the ornamentation of the commonplace: these do not bother about any reinventing of the world; they merely try to squeeze the best they can out of a given order of things, out of traditional patterns of fiction."

I'd tried to write something to this effect last month, and naturally, Nabokov's facility of thought and expression eclipses my fumbling, groping, sometimes fatuous ramblings. Nabokov is Nabokov for a reason.

Also, this from Elizabeth Bishop, to make us all feel more foolish:
“I do not understand the nature of the satisfaction a completely accurate description or imitation of anything at all can give, but apparently in order to produce it the description or imitation must be brief, or compact, and have at least the effect of being spontaneous.”

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Nabokov on Macro and Micro Reading

I'm aware that though I arrive at my many made-up terms independently, the concepts they attempt to describe have existed for decades (centuries?).

Here's Vladimir Nabokov (from the essay in the post below, "Good Readers and Good Writers") on what I call macro and micro reading:

"In reading, one should notice and fondle details. There is nothing wrong about the moonshine of generalization when it comes after the sunny trifles of the book have been lovingly collected."

I agree! But this has never stopped me from formulating a (hypo)thesis about a book 13 pages in. It has prevented my posting about books before I read and reread them obsessively.

My mom sees I'm reading Revolutionary Road, the book open to a page littered with marginal scribblings (I'm a carnal, rather than a courtly lover of books). Then: Haven't you already read that, Becky? Of course I have! But now I'm READING it.

Again, Nabokov understands my actions and motives better than I or my mother - even after I try, futilely, to explain them:

"Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader. And I shall tell you why. When we read a book for the first time the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation."


There will be more substantive posts soon, though the beautiful Chicago summer slyly hints to me that "there are times when one is not in a disposition thoroughly to relish good writing."
(via Laudator Temporis Acti - from Charles Lamb in a 1796 letter to Coleridge)

I've not yet been afflicted with that disposition, but it's early in the season.

Saturday, June 20, 2009


Am I the only person excited about the new Google Books features?

This is what I'm reading:
Nabokov's "Good Readers and Good Writers" from Lectures on Literature.
(added the essay to my short list after THIS entry @ Wisdom of the West)

Feel free to read along!

More info on Google Books updates HERE, HERE, and HERE.

The new features include embedding (see above), a more comprehensive search engine (to locate text within books, and the books themselves), more intuitive navigation, and a sleeker interface.

I, personally, LOVE the changes.

Also, Google Books has reached a landmark legal settlement allowing the service to provide online access to (potentially) millions more books than it previously could!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Self-Deprecation + Blogging?

I've convinced a few people I know to take a look at this book blog of mine, and some short stories I've written, and "self-deprecation" came up more than once. I apparently think more meanly of my (slender?) skills in fiction writing than do my friends and family... not that I don't value their opinions.... That said, I won't be posting my prose here in the foreseeable future.

Self-deprecation can be tolerable if drenched in irony - and through this exercise, I've (again) discovered that conversely, if coming from a place of true uncertainly, self-deprecation can be uncomfortable( and ANNOYING!) to endure.

There is, unfortunately, little affliction of false modesty when I say I'm daunted by (and in awe of) the work and my readings of great novelists. I don't write these things with any latent assurance that I may one day accomplish that which now seems so beyond what I know of my talents. Perhaps this has been my learning to keep these doubts to myself.

I will have been blogging here for four months by late June and am still grappling with and groping for the right tone. The issue is, as things now stand, I have no other outlet to express or exorcise my thoughts, feelings, fears, and opinions about the things I read and write.

This passage from Nabokov's "Good Readers and Good Writers" (Lectures on Literature) better articulates one aspect of my fear of insipidity (it has many facets):
Time and space, the colors of the seasons, the movements of muscles and minds, all these are for writers of genius (as far as we can guess and I trust we guess right) not traditional notions which may be borrowed from the circulating library of public truths but a series of unique surprises which master artists have learned to express in their own unique way. To minor authors is left the ornamentation of the commonplace: these do not bother about any reinventing of the world; they merely try to squeeze the best they can out of a given order of things, out of traditional patterns of fiction. The various combinations these minor authors are able to produce within these set limits may be quite amusing in a mild ephemeral way because minor readers like to recognize their own ideas in a pleasing disguise. But the real writer, the fellow who sends planets spinning and models a man asleep and eagerly tampers with the sleeper’s rib, that kind of author has no given values at his disposal: he must create them himself. The art of writing is a very futile business if it does not imply first of all the art of seeing the world as the potentiality of fiction.

That covers what could excite or sedate upon a macro-reading... Then there is the matter of writing WELL. This from a girl who feels her writing hasn't matured since she was 17 years old, when it was still novel and impressive.

I'll be back to writing about reading in no time.... so ignore my venting. No comments on this one because I don't really want to know what anyone thinks of this rant - in all its sincere, more than likely inappropriate disclosure.

Unrelated: I may be developing something of an affinity for Yates' work.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


There seems to be some occult providence dictating the things I happen to read. What other explanation could there be for a girl who makes reading lists, never abides them, yet constantly stumbles upon prose inexplicably supplementary to what she has last read?

While reading an article on Gawker today about shady and hastily assembled Craigslist Writing employment postings, I came across a blind link under this user comment: "Gosh, this is where we're heading, huh? Everyone should read this, then". I followed the blind link to what I quickly discovered was "Builders" from The Collected Short Stories of Richard Yates. Naturally, because I've been reading and enjoying Yates' Revolutionary Road, I dove into "Builders" - and in it I discovered familiar themes, discussions of which I will save for my posts about Revolutionary Road.

What struck me most was the story's male protagonist - and how, with all his misguided aggression toward his well-meaning wife, I could end the story not hating the character. I feel similarly about Revolutionary Road's Frank Wheeler. And here's why:

Just as Frank Wheeler resents in his wife the recognition of his own weaknesses, (the "suffering creature whose existence he tried every day of his life to deny but whom he knew as well and as painfully as he knew himself"), we as readers of Yates' work often find his characters repulsive because they amplify flaws we abhor in ourselves. From what I can tell, Yates' characters have a tendency to spin in the mud; in both stories of his I've read, the reader jumps into a mild hell in media res with characters who loathe themselves and their insignificance as much as we pity them for their lack of progress.

Bob Prentice in "Builders" models his life after and measures his talents and evolution as a writer against Hemingway. When Prentice is conned, his shame is only magnified by his realization that "Ernest Hemingway could never in his life have known... [his] own sense of being a fool." And he was serious.

I'm 22-years-old (the same age as Prentice in "Builders") and understand having idols and feeling inadequate. But seeing these perceived failings in Bob Prentice and Frank Wheeler makes them seem hilarious and trivial. These yard sticks that exist only in our own minds, to which we hold ourselves strictly accountable - become prohibitive neuroses - and frankly, it's hard to witness in others, even if the others are fictional.

So when a stumped Prentice, struggling with writer's block, reacts to his wife's suggestion that he stop trying so hard to be "literary" and "think of Irving Berlin" by saying he'd "give her Irving Berlin right in the mouth in about a minute, if she didn't lay off [him] and mind her own goddamn business," the feminist in me wants to continue the story resolved to dislike Bob Prentice - but the human in me can relate to misplaced anger and aggression, and especially hypersensitivity on the matter of others' opinions of my writing.

I'm finding it impossible to hate Yates' impossible characters, in short.

Update: On the Chicago Reader's Lit & Lectures homepage today, an article originally published by the paper in November 2003 was featured, written by J.R. Jones detailing his intimate history with Richard Yates and his interview for Blake Bailey's A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Works of Richard Yates. In the article is this quote: "...[Yates] could be disarmingly candid and grimly funny, especially regarding himself, and the compassion for life’s losers that made his stories heartbreaking was evident every time he spoke." Sounds about right.

Revolutionary Road posts up next....

Saturday, June 6, 2009

"suffer[ing] from a terrible inertia"

I've been listening to New Yorker Fiction Podcasts, first selecting those whose descriptions contain names I recognize. Yesterday, I downloaded Aleksandar Hemon's discussion of Bernard Malamud’s “A Summer’s Reading.”

I've met Hemon twice - both times in Chicago, the first when I was 17 and had just finished Nowhere Man, at a local reading and discussion of the book. We crossed paths again the next year at the 2005 Chicago Public Library Carl Sandburg Awards Dinner honoring John Updike (who I also met that night. He was gracious and signed not only the two-volume Rabbit series every attendee received, but the 3 other books of his I'd brought along; I later discovered my actions were inconsiderate and in terrible taste, but I had NO IDEA at the time and was simply thrilled to be in Updike's presence. Though, having reread the Rabbit, Run more recently, I've found my tastes quite changed.... ).

I was at the dinner with a friend, thanks to a kind benefactor, who understood two bright-eyed 18-year-olds with literary aspirations could have never afforded the night's price. She spotted Hemon before I did and crossed the room to accost him in the most untoward fashion. I, of course, followed, beaming. To our surprise and elation, he not only remembered meeting us both the previous year at his reading, but recalled our names.

Yesterday, as I listened to Hemon's discussion of Malamud's "A Summer's Reading", Deborah Treisman's description of the short story's protagonist as a young man who "seems to suffer from a terrible inertia" left me with a pang of guilt. Because of the timing, my present circumstances(, and youthful egotism?), and our brief (and probably, in my mind, exaggerated) history, my mind was convinced Hemon's (and Treisman's) words were a direct indictment of idleness.

I am moved to action.