17

Aug


Great Writers Trapped in Genre Fiction

Schrodinger's Cat

I’ve been reading Schrödinger’s Cat Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson and it’s just wonderful. Just a delightful brain twister. But more than that, it’s as well written a book as any piece of literature. It’s as witty as anything Vonnegut ever wrote. Yet Vonnegut is someone who transcended science fiction, and Robert Anton Wilson is mired in science fiction. He’s probably almost unheard of by anyone but hardcore sci-fi fans. It’s kind of interesting in that Schrödinger’s Cat is about infinite possibilities of multiple universes, and in some universe (unfortunately not this universe) Robert Anton Wilson is considered the voice of a generation.

Genre fiction is just considered the wasteland of literature. The problem is a lot of it is legitimately crappy. Most of these guys can’t write. They can’t put together two scentences let alone the many sentences required for a full length novel. If Isaac Asimov didn’t write about robots, he wouldn’t have published at all. But some writers get trapped in the perceived limitations of their genre.

Here are some who should have been larger than their genres:



Philip K. Dick
– Dick is without a doubt one of the biggest names in Science Fiction, but he should be known in any college literary class as well. He was a sci-fi philosopher whose work mirrored more a hard boiled Bertrand Russell than the rocket fueled space operas popular in his day. Unfortunately, Philip K. Dick was just a tad ahead of his time. The rest of his career may have been ruined by heavy drug use and possible schizophrenia.

Patricia Highsmith – Probably one of the best thriller writers of all time, but is more known for Matt Damon than anything else. She was smart, funny, and little twisted… the perfect tools for a great crime writer, and any great writer of anything really. However, she had a troubled personal life: a mean alcoholic, she was also labeled as an antisemitic, an Anti-American, and a lesbian. And like Philip K. Dick, Highsmith was also suspected of having several mental disorders. Her biggest problem though was probably being female in a male dominated genre.

Both Dick and Highsmith should be considered literary greats in the vein of Kafka and Nabokov, and perhaps in the universe next door they are.

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13

May


Line from The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

This is my favorite line from Oscar Wao so far:

In the real world girls turned away in disgust when he walked past. Changed seats at the cinema, and one woman on the crosstown bus even told him to stop thinking about her! I know what you’re up to, she’d hissed. So stop it.

As an accomplished stalker and people watcher this is one of my greatest fears.

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4

Apr


The Lone Samurai Review

The boat slowly sails to Gangryu Island, a small Japanese island sandwiched between Kokura and Nagato. It is cold this day. This is where they agreed to meet, Sasaki Kojiro and Miyamoto Musashi, for an exhibition of samurai skill. The two greatest samurai of the 17th century set to have the greatest battle of either’s life. This moment becomes a major focal point in William Scott Wilson’s The Lone Samurai: The Life of Miyamoto Musashi. Kojiro has been waiting for three hours and watches Musashi’s boat with intensity. Musashi is late. Kojiro unsheathes his overly long sword dubbed the Drying Pole; for Kojiro “the soul of a swordsman was bound up in the weapon he carried at his side.” Musashi is half asleep as the boat limps to shore. He is filthy and unkempt, he pulls out his weapon, recently carved from a wooden oar. Musashi jumps into the water and wades toward his opponent. Kojiro thinks to himself this is the legendary Musashi?

Kojiro yells insults at Musashi. Musashi ignores him. Out of anger, Kojiro throws his scabbard at the water. Musashi laughs and says, “You’ve lost, Kojiro. Would the winner throw away his scabbard?”

In The Lone Samurai the reader stands on the shore and watches these two warriors trade blows. Wilson wants us in the thick of things and for a while he succeeds. For the first fifty pages he does an incredible job of blending story with history. With the popularity of Japanese lore, and so much myth still resonating with us, it’s refreshing to go back and get this image of the samurai at the height of his profession. Musashi is still relevant to modern culture. His book The Book of Five Rings has often been compared to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and discusses discipline, knowledge, the every day mind, fluidity, and psychology. Because of this The Book of Five Rings became briefly popular with American business in the 80’s.

Wilson’s career has been primarily that of a translator, but he demonstrates a surprising ear for prose in this first English biography of the man whom many consider the greatest samurai that ever lived. Still he demonstrates his translator roots when he defines samurai; Wilson strips away the warrior connotations and gives the true meaning as “one who serves.” Wilson has translated many samurai books, and his publisher Kodansha International was so impressed with his translation of The Book of Five Rings they gave him a chance to do this biography.

Read more »

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19

Feb


A Million Little Pieces

Crimes Against Writing

I just read A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, not the most timely of reads given the circumstances, but I wanted to see if the book was worth anything beyond Oprah’s stamp of approval and a little controversy. I treated the book as fiction and it was fairly easy to see why people were so made. The book simply isn’t good. Now that’s not to say A Million Little Pieces was bad, it just wasn’t particularly good. There weren’t any moments that the so-called memoir flopped, but there wasn’t any place it shined either. To hear Oprah talk you would have thought this book was a masterpiece, like Nabokov and Faulkner made sweet, sweet love and that baby was A Million Little Pieces. Sadly it was just an average piece of non-fiction.

James Frey



I do have a biased against non-fiction, I’ll admit it. I’m a fiction man. But there are plenty of non-fiction books I enjoyed, but for the most part I find memoirs bland and lifeless. “Lifeless!?” you say. “How can it be lifeless when it’s based off of life?” The problem is that non-fiction sells, so two things happen: books are pushed out way before they’re ready and the books are conceived by writers with only a small amount of talent but big ambition. Ultimately though the biggest problem with creative non-fiction is the people reading it. For some reason, if a story is true or claims to be true readers give it a sort of special dispensation. Which means they’re much more forgiven with the prose and more likely to cut the writer some slack. They believe that even if the writing is bland the truth in the moment makes up for that. Does truth equal beauty or does beauty equal truth? For me, if something is magical it becomes true, and a hack is a hack no matter how much of himself he puts on the page.

But as non-fiction goes, I’ve read worse than A Million Little Pieces. I can’t go so far as to say that the writing is good, but it wasn’t outwardly bad (which I think is saying a lot for the genre). Personally I don’t care that James Frey lied, I was much more concerned with the style. However, the back lash against him was because readers felt robed. However, the book was somewhat true, it can’t be completely discounted. His only real crime was that he made himself a tough guy. I’ve been in countless writing classes with dudes who think they’re Hemingway man’s men, and while the results were usually less than spectacular, I never held it against them. James Frey painted himself to be a major league criminal that hit a rock bottom that just didn’t hit. What we know for sure about Frey is that he drank too much, he was arrested for a traffic violation, at least once, spent three hours in jail, and maybe did some coke. He’s definitely more of a bad boy than myself, but not nearly the menace to society Frey painted himself out to be. It’s that story of recovery that moved so many of his readers. By painting himself to hit an ultimate low and being able to recover (and being able to recover through sheer force of will), he gave hope that his readers could recover just as easily. By lying about his story, he suddenly deleted their prospects.

The second problem readers would have had was that James Frey talked at length in A Million Little Pieces about truth. About the importance of truth. About the Tao ringing true. And he painted the boastful, lying character of Bobby as despicable. The fact that Frey was proven to falsify much of his life then puts into question basic tenants of his book. That truth will save you and admitting the truth to yourself is the beginning of recovery.

A Million Little Pieces was originally written as fiction and rejected something like 14 times. The reason, of course, was pretty simple: mediocre prose and a melodramatic atmosphere. I don’t blame Frey though, I feel like he got cornered into it by his publisher. Given the choice between not being published at all and hundreds of thousands of dollars, it was a pretty simple choice. I do blame him though for killing off his great love. Through there wasn’t anything even approaching genuine emotion between Frey and Lilly, but I kept wondering how was Frey going to get out of this. Their relationship was hokey love at first sight. That’s not real love and it’s kind of hard to pass it off as that in a memoir. So, how does he got out of this fake relationship? He kills her. And not only Lilly, but James Frey killed everyone—he killed anyone that could possibly corroborate any of his story.



As it turned out, the scandal didn’t hurt Frey’s sales one bit. The sequel became a best seller. And Frey recently published his first book of fiction (which turns out to be his third book of fiction). All in all, the moral of the story is to lie your ass off, but if you do, make sure you kill all the witnesses.

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