On False Apology in Writing

February 11, 2023 § Leave a comment

There’s been conversation on Twitter over the past week about this essay by Ottessa Moshfegh that appeared on The Paris Review blog for its Home Improvements series. She talks about her father buying her a once-foreclosed house in Providence for a paltry sum; it is soaked with the stench of cigarette smoke, “a layer of nicotine varnish that made everything sepia and gross” and renders the place uninhabitable. She tears the walls apart to get rid of the smell. Then the previous owner—the one who defaulted on his mortgage—shows up, lights a cigarette, and looks around without saying hello before he starts to cry.

Those who take issue with the piece criticize it as “poverty porn,” a writer using one stranger’s unfortunate circumstances as a subject for art. There’s been a greater regard of late for how people of limited means are portrayed, a concern with turning them into conceits. The sentences that surround the man’s breakdown don’t reach for sentiment: “It was horrible. It was heartbreaking. It was so bad. I looked at my dad. He made no expression. There was nothing to say or to do.”

The essay also contains a lot of the gaze that I have come to expect from Moshfegh, eager to make us look at the dirt, almost to the point of fetishizing warts. When she writes about her next-door neighbor, “an elderly lady from Portugal who spoke almost no English and yet complained to me about all the dogshit in my backyard while bragging about the tomatoes in her garden, which looked exactly like her breasts beneath her housedress, heavy and sliding,” it seems a needless reach, a gleeful slander at someone who doesn’t have the means or eloquence to speak for herself.  

Defenders seem to appreciate the essay’s honesty. Moshfegh never hides that she is writing from a place of privilege, and doesn’t level to a false apology. She actually says sorry to the man in the end, and you wonder if it’s a sorry of regret, or sympathy, or embarrassment. There’s no reason it can’t be a mix of all three.

I have never cared for where Moshfegh’s lens looks in her fiction—there seems to be a spitefulness in how she turns subjects over to inspect their patheticness—but there’s an additional, ethical angle at play when the work is nonfiction and the characters are real. The writer has a responsibility not to embarrass their subject, and in particular not to use their advantages to do so. It seems that much of the objection to the essay is seated in a feeling that Moshfegh has abdicated that responsibility.

I’m not sure I share that sentiment—the author seems to make quite clear that she is aware of where she comes from and knows how she is making out at the expense of another person. She even shares the amount her father paid for the house. Perhaps the unfairness being scrutinized is not about money and class power but about writing itself. The ability to tell a story and put it into words is one that not everyone has. Very few people have the real chance to get published in The Paris Review. Are we always wrong to use that privilege to claim the sad moments in the lives of less-writerly people for our art? Was Moshfegh’s language not gentle enough to make this move? That’s a fair criticism, but one, I think, more about style than circumstance.

To me it feels that the privilege of writing doesn’t invite us to cast our lenses downward, but that downward cast is often unavoidable. We are casting a film when we write, deciding who is worthy of mention and who is not. We decide what quotes to write down. We make permanent the decisions of others. That kind of privilege is gigantic and so inherent to the practice of writing that I don’t see how it can be removed. To be a writer and pretend you are on the same plane as your subject is worse, an act of condescension, of cruelty.


The Iconic Designs of Lorraine Louie

January 19, 2023 § Leave a comment

I enjoyed Dan Kois’s New Yorker celebration of those iconic surrealist Vintage Contemporaries covers by Lorraine Louie that defined the era of paperback fiction in the 1980s and ‘90s.

From the 1984 début of those first seven books, the Vintage Contemporaries design attracted immediate attention. It felt perfectly of the moment, a snapshot of the mid-eighties. If you’re a book collector of a certain age you can close your eyes and see it now. The author’s name in a box at the top, white print against a boldly colored block. (The font is a modification of Kabel, a German typeface from 1927.) A dot-matrix rectangle floating to the left. The orb in the bottom left-hand corner. The illustration in the center, often a collage, with the slight uncanniness of computer graphics.

And the title, in all caps, each letter casting a shadow on the page. 

Even with a range of authors represented—Raymond Carver, Joy Williams, Barry Hannah, Jay McInerney—it’s hard not to associate the VC covers with a certain type of book: vaguely experimental, a little dreamy and waggish. Kois is introduced to the series through Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, noted for taking place across one office worker’s expansive ride up an escalator.

It also must have done wonders for discovering authors, knowing that they all belonged to this curated club. If you liked Carver’s stories, perhaps you’ll like Hannah’s Airships. And the design likely spurred a collector’s impulse among those who were more than casual readers.

The popularity of BookTok and similar social-media trends seems to encourage a return to appreciating design and the book as an object. Perhaps that will influence decisions on book design going forward, if it hasn’t already.

The Betrayal of Language

January 19, 2023 § Leave a comment

Selin is often left having to explain herself throughout much of the The Idiot—especially to Ivan, who seems to enjoy breaking apart her sentences, willfully misinterpreting her for kicks. Then, in the natural way of young adult exploration, she overexplains to the point of sounding ludicrous. “I like words,” she tells a professor who’s interviewing her because she’s trying to get into a seminar. “They don’t bore me at all.”

At the Ploughshares blog, I wrote about Elif Batuman’s 2017 novel The Idiot, and the ways in which the novel reveals the capacity for language to betray us. I had a lot of fun writing this one.

Charles Simic 1938-2023

January 9, 2023 § Leave a comment

R.I.P. Charles Simic. Thinking about Edna, how her name just belongs.

R.I.P. Russell Banks

January 8, 2023 § 2 Comments

The New York Times reports on the death of novelist Russell Banks, chronicler of small-town working class individuals of upstate New York and elsewhere, at age 82 of cancer.

Discussing the foundations of the book [Cloudsplitter]in The Paris Review in 1998, he said, “I am interested in the whole question of the possibility of heroism, especially in a secular age and especially in a democratic society.”

I’ve had a few unread Bankses–Continental Drift and The Sweet Hereafter–on my shelf for a while. As someone who is trying to write a novel that encompasses several distinct subset populations of a small town, I don’t know why I didn’t think to move him up the TBR list. Who are modern writers of small-town experience, where people know enough about each to be busybodies (think Shirley Jackson, Harper Lee, Stephen King’s Dolores Claiborne) but have grown distant as factories, churches, and town commons have fallen by the wayside as places where people congregate? Banks and Richard Russo would seem to come close, but I seek what’s out there in the post-internet era, where people try to live in closed communal spaces and in broad, cosmopolitan spaces at the same time.

What I Read in 2022

December 31, 2022 § Leave a comment

[R=reread; ARC= advance reading copy]

  1. The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion (R)
  2. The Best American Short Stories 2022,Jesmyn Ward, ed.
  3. Bunny, Mona Awad
  4. A Bend in the River, V. S. Naipaul
  5. Niagara Falls All Over Again, Elizabeth McCracken
  6. Sirens & Muses, Antonia Angress; A debut novel about art, desire, and ambition that I wrote about here.)
  7. Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles, Mark Russell (R)
  8. Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin
  9. The Colossus and Other Poems, Sylvia Plath
  10. Pitch Dark, Renata Adler (R) (This one gets overshadowed by Speedboat, I think. Both are good.)
  11. Craft in the Real World, Matthew Salesses
  12. Intruder in the Dust, William Faulkner
  13. A Fairly Good Time, Mavis Gallant
  14. Refuse to Be Done, Matt Bell (this one turned out to be super helpful as I worked on my own novel.)
  15. Also a Poet, Ada Calhoun (an unapologetic memoir about the author’s tense relationship with her father, the art critic Peter Schjeldahl, who died after it was published. Written about here)
  16. The Art of Cruelty, Maggie Nelson (a book that complicates the idea of freedom in ways I didn’t always agree with, written about here)
  17. Hashtag Good Guy With a Gun, Jeff Chon (an intelligent and uncanny book about the dark cells of the internet, written about here)
  18. Brainiac, Ken Jennings
  19. Shuggie Bain, Douglas Stuart (It deserved all the accolades. A beautiful rendered story about family that understands the struggles of the lower classes without fetishizing their plights.)
  20. The Free World, Louis Menand (I love Menand and had been waiting for this one for ages; it was a fun read even though there wasn’t much that tied it together in the end.)
  21. Go, Went, Gone, Jenny Erpenbeck (I had been wanting to try Erpenbeck and was glad I did, though the plot of this one was odd.)
  22. The Girls, Emma Cline (She has quietly become one of my favorite writers.)
  23. The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger (R) (I went back to this one because it plays a role in the plot of Chon’s novel.)
  24. The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner (This may have been my favorite of the year.
  25. The All-American, Joe Milan (ARC)
  26. The Hero of This Book, Elizabeth McCracken
  27. Pop Song, Larissa Pham (These kinds of essays I like–personal but informed by knowledge and a critical eye that looks both at art and in on the self.)
  28. Iceland’s Bell, Halldor Laxness
  29. The War for Gloria, Atticus Lish (Another one I had been waiting for because I liked his first book so much, and it was about a mother with ALS, a subject close to my heart. The story between Gloria and her son is rendered beautifully and realistically, but for some reason it was wrapped in this other, lesser story about dull men throwing their weight around.)
  30. Hanging Out, Sheila Liming (ARC)
  31.  The Sense of Wonder, Matthew Salesses (ARC)
  32. Pachinko, Min Jin Lee
  33. The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane
  34. All-Night Pharmacy, Ruth Madievsky (ARC)
  35. The Trumpet of the Swan, E. B. White (R)
  36. Singer Distance, Ethan Chatagnier (ARC)
  37. A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway
  38. The Best American Short Stories 2022, Andrew Sean Greer, ed.

The Sneaky Violence of Weldon Kees

November 4, 2022 § Leave a comment

I have always been fascinated by the enigmatic figure of Weldon Kees—midcentury poet, painter, filmmaker, who seemed to be always searching for the right vehicle for what he wanted to say and never seemed to be satisfied.

At the Ploughshares blog I analyze some of his poems, which tend toward sneakily violent language and evoke a personality filled with existential dread at the idea of being a middling figure.

Dying Voices of a Generation

November 2, 2022 § Leave a comment

I find myself deeply saddened at the sudden death of Julie Powell, even though I never read her blog or her books. I knew her story, of course, through the movie Julie & Julia, and the fact of her blog rising to prominence as blogs were becoming a way for fledgling writers to find an audience.

Powell’s blog came about alongside other niche-interest blogs–like those of Maud Newton, Jessa Crispin, and Pamela Ribon–that allowed their writers to develop strong personal voices and consequently, personalities that made the internet feel chatty and homey. The format, it could be argued, gave authenticity to an idea of digressive personal writing that has come to shape how many serious essays are written today. That kind of writing hits right in my generation—Powell was only two years older than me—and I think speaks to the Gen X idea of looking for your niche in a vast landscape of others’ achievements and thinking out loud about where you fit.

On the flipside, projects like Powell’s sometimes unfairly got lumped in with similar projects that have been termed “stunt writing”—that of undertaking a ridiculously banal project and using it as a springboard for off-subject riffing, like A. J. Jacobs does in The Know-It-All. But unlike some of those writers, Powell, I think, was more focused on finding a bridge between the amateur and the expert in a way that gave the reader permission to enjoy our small victories amidst a sea of soul-crushing failures.

I’m also sad that her death, apparently from cardiac arrest, was likely due to complications from long COVID, as her last tweets indicated she had been dealing with a range of ancillary symptoms. It is eerie to read them now, to get a real-time report of someone dying without realizing that was what was happening.

The last time I felt like this might have been after the death of Elizabeth Wurtzel. That had nothing to do with COVID, but she falls into the same category of a contemporary I never knew, gone to soon with still so much left to say. Given how stubborn we are about COVID and its effects, I fear how many more voices we stand to lose.

A Novel About Art, Ambition, and Commodity

September 8, 2022 § Leave a comment

At the Ploughshares blog I wrote about Antonia Angress’s recently published novel Sirens & Muses, a book set against the backdrop of Occupy Wall Street that makes a statement about finding one’s voice as an artist in the face of the commoditization of art.

The Dark Cells of the Internet in Hashtag Good Guy With a Gun

July 25, 2022 § Leave a comment

For the Ploughshares blog I wrote about Jeff Chon’s 2021 novel Hashtag Good Guy With a Gun, a book that probes the dark cells of toxic internet masculinity while uncannily immersing the reader in its codes, creating the sense that we are operating on someone else’s turf—and we aren’t likely to find our way out anytime soon.