Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The Pendulum

I left writing class tonight with a chip on my shoulder.

The topic was book reviewing. Specifically, for the Times. I listened to a discussion about the Almighty Book, its implied importance oh-so-much more relevant than other media. The power of THE BOOK. All hail the author, all hail the awe with which one beholds the published writer, whose name on the book cover instantly conveys their legitimacy. God bless the mighty editor, the incredible weekly newspaper insert of the vaunted Times, all hail the commonly known names of writers that everyone else knows by osmosis.

"My ass," I thought. I felt a wall of fury and revulsion building within me. It's not books that piss me off. Look, I write books. It's this notion of cultural elitism. I don't come from money and I don't have the benefit of any special access or pass into the arrogant world of anticipated success. I am jealous of those who do have access, those who look down and don't notice the key to the kingdom on their keychain, because after all, it's always been there.

"Why are you taking a writing class?" My ex had asked me back in the spring, before he opted to become a prefix.

I gave him a lame answer but what I wanted to say was that I'd seen how he'd taught at Princeton, in Lebanon, New Orleans, and in Cairo, how he'd worked with his students to open up worlds to them, to facilitate their success. He'd given hall passes to the those who had come in with blank scraps of paper. I wanted to take writing classes with working journalists because of the opportunities he'd given his students. I craved opportunity. But I should have known he was different.

And so am I. I meet people, or go to parties, or even would sit with the aforementioned prefixes friends (many of which have that easy access to elitism that I so deeply resent), and I would think:

I am not of this world.

I have seldom not been alienated. Hell, I was alienated at Antioch. That takes a special skill. I come from a seriously different background to most of my peers, and I grew up early, grew up hard and independent but with a center so gooey and scared that the shell had to harden even more. I am more at home abroad than in my own apartment. I'll take Curves over pilates any day. I have monkey feet. I'd rather take a workshop in bag-sewing than in writing book reviews. I am more JC than Brooklyn, always just a bit offset from the mainstream.

And so I sat, working my stomach into knots. I shouldn't have wasted my money on this writing class. And yet, it's good for me. It's good to be forced to write beyond your repertoire. But I hate it. But it's good for me. Is it? Why did I think the prefixes responsibility as an instructor would be repeated elsewhere? Was I doing all right with the students I was teaching at the arts school ten blocks away? What would I teach them tomorrow night? I worried about Kuwaiti comic books, about a trade show in Dubai, a theme park near the Iraqi border. I felt anxiety and panic inside as others blithely talked about a book they'd read.

How the hell can I be so alienated at my age? What am I supposed to do to get past this? Why did I not read anyone else's reviews?

And back home, I considered the two essays I had to write for Friday, and the lesson plan for comic book coloring school.

And froze up.

I washed dishes. Messed around with Facebook. And finally, sat down to cut fusible interfacing to sew a new bag.

Writing. I can do it.

Tomorrow. Maybe tomorrow.

But cooling down and behaving normally in society?

That one might take a while.


Anonymous said...

I find your comments today ironic since I admire your ability to blog and wear your heart on your sleeve for all to read. At the same time, I can so relate to the ambivalence and contradictions of today's post!!!

Anonymous said...

The outsider is the observer, the one who can come back with the report and explain to the rest of us what lurks beyond.

Sara Kocher said...

Monkey feet? About a year ago, when I went in to check on my sleeping son, he murmured in his sleep, "Mommy, you're wearing monkey shoes." I've always wondered what he meant.

I agree with both anonymous comments. Also, your churning interior is only visible because you reveal it to us. In person, especially with people who don't know you very well, you seem as cool and collected as anyone. Sometimes more so.

Anonymous said...


I've lurked for a while but wanted to delurk (is there such a word?) and say I saw this and I thought of you. In explanation, a catchphrase from a very popular Post Office TV advert in the UK. Admitting to that and knowing A-ha ages me I guess!


Steven R. Stahl said...

I’m guessing that the supposed importance of a review is based on the idea that a book is a statement about something. The statement can be breezy, flippant, ponderous, lyrical, heartfelt, or abstract--but the book should be a statement, about the author, if nothing else, or the book is nothing. That’s why formula fiction fails: Repeating a statement ten times makes the nine repetitions worthless to someone who heard the first one. A review assesses the effectiveness and worth of the statement. Some writers are better than others at making statements, and should be recognized for their skills.

I prefer to focus on the mechanics of writing as a reaction to fiction because that focus is consistent across genres and types of material. Whether the work of fiction is in prose, comics form, or a video, it should have a plot, characterization, theme, etc., and the parts should mesh--the story should work in ways that the reviewer should describe and the writer can explain. Stories don’t happen by accident. A writer who doesn’t care enough about techniques and mechanics to ensure that a story does work, who figures that claims about style can cover any and all defects, is, in my mind, a fraud who shouldn’t be published anywhere.

I believe a review should be an intellectual reaction to the content of the work, whether the work is a statement and argument combined, or just a statement meant to entertain. That reaction means analysis and ascertainment, not just saying “I like it” or “I don’t like it.” A reviewer shouldn’t feel self-important to the degree that he thinks his review is more important than the book, but the reviewer should be serious, even if the tone of the book is not. The NYT takes books seriously.


Marie Javins said...

All right, question for the subtext-oriented among you: What is Dik-Dik about?

Steven R. Stahl said...

Just going on the editorial description at Amazon.com, I’d say that “Stalking the Wild Dik-Dik” is about your views on life, your self-image, and your self-assessment(s), and about how all of those are altered as you travel around Africa.


Marie Javins said...

Anyone else read this and have an idea? The editorial description is just there to sell books.

It's about...

(I can just tell you)

Steven R. Stahl said...

Well, shouldn’t the editorial description be accurate?

A writer can enjoy writing a book and still be serious about the mechanics that make the story good. A culinary mystery might be a romp, but at the core, it still has to work as a mystery.

I’m not arguing that for a book to function as a statement, it has to be made of parts that can be isolated and analyzed, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph.


Anonymous said...

Two comments:

I agree with Sara and Anonymous. We only know your insecurity because you share it. You explore it. There are those of us who can't imagine doing what you do. Heck I can't even put my picture on Facebook or complete my bio!

Dik dik is about self-exploration and how experience affects the view of the self.

Anonymous said...

Okay another comment. Lets see if I can put it into words. We only see what people choose to show us. Our view of ourselves informs how we see others. We don't know what happens inside the shell.

Also just being an elite doesn't guarantee self confidence. If it did I think people would be nicer.

Marie Javins said...

Oh, I might be the only person who thinks this, but Dik-Dik is peripherally about fear of intimacy.