Sunday, September 20, 2009

What's on your Inspiration Shelf?

If life is finite, your book stash must be too.

I think that hoarding books is a stand against mortality. If we've read them already, we might want to read them again. If we haven't read them yet, we might want to. Looking around at my shelves and boxes, I want to believe I will have time before I die to read them all, maybe again and again. Even if my current rate of reading means I'd need to live three lifetimes. To admit that I can't read all these would be to admit that at some point I'll stop reading. Difficult to imagine.

I recently some changes to my personal book hoard, and culled three boxes of books from the stacks. I decided to get rid of all the books I've read that I do not want to read again. That helped. But it also hurt to say goodbye to these objects. I'm tech-positive in so many ways, but like so many writers and readers, I am in love with the physical presence of books, and I have a hard time getting rid of them. A hard time embracing Kindle, and hard drives.

To make myself feel better, as I was sorting through the books I would let go, I decided to make another stack of books that I would never let go, that I would fetishize in the extreme. I made my inspiration shelf of books I've read that motivate me to write, a little shrine to their actual selves, a space for them to take up unapologetically in the world. If I must be mortal and my reading experience must be finite, then let's make it exquisitely finite, limit my great books to one shelf only. These are the books that are important to my life, at least, right now.

Here's my list, in no particular order. For some, it's the scope of the book. For some, it's the daring. The personal connection. The theme. The innovation. For a few it's just the time it was in my life, and how much it affected me. This is not a list of great books, or a list of personal favorites, but these are the books I can look at and feel something in me reaching. So, it varies:

Moby Dick by Herman Melville. The very copy I first read in high school. I have read it maybe 20 times, and in this copy I can see all my teenage notes.

House of Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

His Dark Materials Trilogy by Phillip Pullman.

Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Penrod by Booth Tarkington. A book I read again and again when I was a child, before I understood the irony, before I understood racism at all.

My Horse and Other Stories by Stacey Levine

You're a Bad Man Aren't You by Susannah Breslin\

Between Georgia by Joshilyn Jackson

The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence

Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

Observatory Mansions by Edward Carey

The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead

The Most of P.G. Wodehouse

We the Living by Ayn Rand

A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf

Dubliners by James Joyce

Candide by Voltaire

So, I've broken it down to these 20 volumes. If I add another, I think I should subtract one -- that's how the brain works best. My own two books are not on the shelf, but I hope my next one will be. It's what I aspire to: to write something that belongs in my brain with these.

Challenge: What's on your inspiration shelf? What one book would definitely have to be there? If you take a picture, I'd like to see.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

How Twilight Killed "The Wasteland"

Lev Grossman, book reviewer for Time Magazine, has bravely prophesied an end to modernism. In his Wall Street Journal article, Grossman posits that the modernist stranglehold on novel-writing is finally over. A new day has come! Nuts to you, Joyce, Eliot, Faulkner, and Kafka. You guys are history! No longer will readers suffer through beautiful language to get to an epiphany. Today's readers want plot, plot, and more plot. "Lyricism is on the wane," gloats Grossman, citing high sales of the Twilight series as proof that plot trumps beauty for these kids today.

Grossman, possibly unaware that Joyce and Eliot have been dead for fifty years, believes that these "modernists" have tricked us into thinking that a decent plot is indicative of a weak book. So, we're secretly reading mysteries and scifi, wishing literary writers would just take heed. "Should we still be writing difficult novels?" he asks, "Isn't it time we made our peace with plot?"

Grossman has graciously forgiven the moderns for blowing up the conventions of the Victorian novel. But he now feels that the time has come to embrace plot again. His evidence? The popularity of young adult novels, which never aspired to disregard plot in the first place. For Grossman, there have been no intervening literary movements. No novels of consequence that delivered any measure of plot with their lyricism, or any lyricism with their genre. The article has the intellectual weight of a strawberry tart, and yet the internet is upside down with panic over it. Is literary fiction over? Do we all have to start writing vampire novels?

Relax. Grossman's thinking is reductive, cowardly, but mostly just silly.

Consider these three major flaws:

1. It's weak on literary history. Did modernists shatter plot? Maybe. But look at the novels Grossman cites: Wharton, Hemingway, Lawrence, Fitzgerald. Really? These writers may be moderns, but in theme and ethos, not in formal experimentation. Pound, yes. Kafka, yeah. Joyce, okay. But Grossman's list of defiant modernist novels is full of plot. Sorry.

2. He uses the word "Pavlovianly."

3. His prognostications don't make sense. In proving his point that plot is back in style, Grossman uses Chabon, Lethem, Niffenegger, Gaiman, and Susanna Clarke as examples. These are the literary champions that are boldly bringing back the storylines we have all been silently, hopelessly craving for 80 years. However, these writers are all contemporaries of the Twilight juggernaut. The figures that Grossman so gloomily references (adult trade sales down 2.3% while Twilight author Stephanie Meyer sells 8 million books) would seem to reflect that while Chabon and Niffenegger may have been slinging Grossman-approved level of plot, the book-buying public wanted to buy Twilight books anyway.

I hope that writers of difficult books will not pause to listen to Grossman's confused ramblings about how literary movements from one hundred years ago are stultifying contemporary fiction. I hope writers will disregard all petulant whines about how "we the people" really want to read inglorious garbage like Twilight. I hope writers of difficult books will not take plot advice from a guy who lifted his own plot from Harry Potter. Yes, Twilight is selling. Yes, cheap fiction does move. It always has. But greatness is not easy, in reading or writing, and you weren't really writing for guys like Grossman anyway. Write for the smart people, the people that filled a football stadium to hear T.S. Eliot, the people who still celebrate Bloomsday. Write for me. I will still work for an epiphany.