Monday, June 20, 2011

This Is How I Wish People Would Read My Next Book (Plus, Some Other Reading)

I just got my first review for my forthcoming book, Sweet Heaven When I Die, and it's kind of a drag. It's Kirkus, and to begin with it has two errors in a very short review, one minor, one major. There's a reference to a "preacher husband" in the lead essay, "Sweet Fuck All, Colorado," who simply does not exist. I don't know what the reviewer is talking about, beyond the fact that my friend John, husband of my friend Molly, is an Episcopalian active in his local church. 

The other error is more egregious: "Sharlet admits that many of these essays were born from research for other books." 

First, there's tone -- "admits"? Then, there are the facts: I admit no such thing, anywhere in the book, because it's simply not true. One short essay was "born" from research for The Family. I do note, in the acknowledgments, that I wrote the assembled pieces mostly as a kind of escape from fundamentalism.

It gets weirder -- the reviewer says I have "plenty of reason for confusion," since my parents were divorced and one was Christian, the other Jewish. That's a line of backhanded sympathy I recall from the fundamentalist ideologue Marvin Olasky's dismissal of The Family in his magazine, World (before he evidently realized he was wrong and published a series of investigative pieces on the Family). He said I was critical of fundamentalism because my religiously intermarried parents had divorced, leaving me a "loveless universe."

But my biggest gripe is the reviewer's main complaint -- his (or her) dismayed discovery that a collection of essays is, in fact, a collection of essays. "Disjointed!" the reviewer cries. "Disconnected!" Well, yes and no. It's true, as the reviewer points out, that the essays are on different subjects, not bound by content. I think they're bound by thematic concerns, but that's for critics to decide -- critics willing to engage a collection of literary journalism that doesn't come conventionally packaged. The decision to present this book as 13 stories, without introduction or explanation, was a deliberate one. In compiling the book, I looked at a great many similar collections. Nearly all included either self-deprecatory introductions in which the author apologized for foisting lowly journalistic pieces on the poor reader or a friend of the author declared the author a genius. There are exceptions -- the last lines of Didion's introduction to her Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Ellen Willis' introduction to her Beginning to See the Light, which nearly brought me to tears -- but most introductions amount to a disingenuous distancing from the ordinary goals of any collection of stories. 

Writers of short fiction do not begin their books with introductions explaining that this one was published in The Paris Review, that one in The New Yorker, and that they are all casuals, really, and probably not worth reading, but still, they were written, so anyway, here. Nor are short fiction collections measured by the continuity of subject matter -- one doesn't complain that characters don't recur, that questions are not plainly restated. Instead, we look for themes, for common concerns, for currents, or alternating currents, of dread or desire or some other emotion, or impulse, or idea. 

I discarded my introduction because I think literary journalism should be read the same way. There is precious little "news" in this book or in most other collections. I don't read Willis because I want to know about concerts she attended 40 years ago, or because her brother's spiritual condition is of pressing national concern. I read her for the same reason I read short fiction. This is not to say her essays, or mine, are like short fiction; they're second cousins, at best. But just as a painting, a photograph, a song, and a short story all attempt to express something more and less than the news, so, too, does a piece of literary journalism. There's a tension, there, of course -- when Willis' pieces were first published in Rolling Stone, people did read them because they wanted to know about the concert last month, and when Rolling Stone readers encountered the essay titled, in Sweet Heaven, "She Said Yes," they likely read it not for its portrait of a young woman torn between the certainty of fundamentalism and the certainty of her desires but because they were worried about fundamentalist influence on national politics. That same tension may apply to fiction -- consider the timeliness of an Updike story on terrorism, or the timeliness of any story at all by some pretty young thing said to be the next big thing in some assemblage of 20 under 40, 15 before 25, 3 to watch out for, or one for the money. It's best resolved not through invocations of "universalism" -- no such thing -- or anxiety about what endures -- Moby-Dick didn't, until it did -- but through engagement with the story on its own terms, followed by disengagement if the verdict so determines.

Doing so will also relieve literary journalists and other writers of creative nonfiction of the pedantic urge to organize collections according to type. No more neatly divided  “personals,” “travels,” and “considerations.” Some of my favorite books are organized this way, and my first instinct was to organize Sweet Heaven like so as well. My editor, Alane Mason, talked me out of it. No disclaimers. Here is a story. It may be worth reading. It will not be made moreso by the reassurance that it is tucked away in a book as tidily organized as a tool box or a sewing kit or a child’s divided toy chest – this compartment for stuffed animals, that one for “things that go,” as my daughter’s word book describes them, and that one for puzzles.

Well, maybe that would have been good – a book divided up into the categories of Stuffed Animals, Things That go, and Puzzles. The late anarchist journalist Brad Will, the subject of “Quebrado,” comes under Stuffed Animals; “Clouds, When Determined by Context,” about the sci-fi imaginations of 1950s fundamentalists, is a Thing That Goes; and the inner workings of the media monopoly Clear Channel documented in “Rock Like Fuck” are a Puzzle.

*           *           *
My irritation dissipated, I’m ready to move on to cheerier subjects, the recent publications of friends. But having learned from Kirkus that one must be clearly organized, I’m sticking with my new scheme.

Stuffed Animals

Here we have my former student, fellow Buddha killer, and pal Meera Subramanian's first full-length feature in Virginia Quarterly Review, "India's Vanishing Vultures." The title does not do justice to the lyricism or the horror of Meera's essay, but I think this sentence does:
Overhead, hundreds of birds kettled in slow circles in the sky—mostly Eurasian griffons, bulky steppe eagles, and Egyptian vultures the size of large gulls—all riding the warm whorl of desert thermals to the top of the gyre without a single flap of their wide wings and then peeling off like a slowly cascading waterfall. 
Things That Go

Here I'm filing the great JoAnn Wypijewski's short essay on Anthony Weiner for The Nation, although Weiner is now simply gone. To my mind, it's the only thing worth reading about Weiner and why so many of us seemed to care.
Of all the restrooms in all the schools and bars and gas stations across this great land, rare is the stall inside of which someone has not paused to draw a penis. Erect, with tight scrotum on one end and a cartoon squirt at the other, it is characterized by a vigorous arcing line and a paucity of detail; no hairs or veins or rippled skin, no great variation in size or proportion, a Unipenis, really, the signal hieroglyph of our age. When we have blown or glutted or pummeled ourselves into extinction, alien archaeologists will find this symbol on crumbling viaducts and leeching scrap heaps, in the ruins of our cities and the overgrown remnants of our public libraries, and they will conclude, “Here was their god.”
 Read more.

The same issue of The Nation features Kiera Feldman's controversial feature debut, "The Romance of Birthright Israel," in which the thing that goes is the love bus of conservative Zionism, carrying Kiera and her fellow campers on a journey through Israel the goal of which seems to be the reproduction of the state, literally:
Birthright co-founder Bronfman, the billionaire heir to the Canadian Seagram’s liquor empire, began directing his philanthropic dollars to teen Israel trips in the late 1980s. “To me, in order to be a complete Jew, one must have an emotional and physical attachment to Israel,” Bronfman says. But he was bothered that the kids on those early trips weren’t bonding with their Israeli peers. Bronfman’s answer: developing the mifgash—the encounter—between Jewish Israeli teens and their diaspora counterparts. This made the tour bus less of “an isolated bubble,” according to Elan Ezrachi, the Israeli educator who developed the mifgash on Bronfman’s dime. Birthright adapted the mifgash by way of IDF soldiers. These encounters between American youth and youthful Israeli soldiers “move very fast to what we call ‘hormonal mifgashim,’” Ezrachi told me. “Things happen.”

Nathan Schneider attends an evangelical advance screening of Terrance Malick's Tree of Life, at which he is advised by a former chief of staff for South Carolina firebreather Senator Jim DeMint to "mobilize" around the movie. "Mobilize and Contemplate" is his lovely attempt to do so, a hybrid of narrative and criticism that was turned down by a big magazine for not clearly being either. Killing the Buddha to the rescue.