Thursday, March 27, 2008

Writer Impossible: The Memoir

Since the kerfluffle with fake memoirist and gangsta-poseur Peggy Seltzer, I've read two memoirs, both oldies. First, André Leon Talley's childhood and young adulthood memoir "A.L.T." Second, Diana Vreeland's own, "D.V." (Note: It must be a sign of greatness to be able to use only one's initial for a memoir). In addition, I've also re-read Peter O'Toole's riotous romp, "Loitering With Intent, The Apprentice." Each has grand stories to tell, storytellers who could regale you with interesting tidbits for hours. The writers were and are keen observers of the world around them, and understand their place or purpose. All three also tell it in a way that is not only truthful, but compelling as well. Would I want to be a guest in a ride-along in their car? You bet!

I'll take the first three lines of each from Chapter 1:
From DV:
"I loathe nostalgia.
One night at dinner in Santo Domingo at the Oscar de la Rentas', Sifty Lazar, the literary agent, turned to me and said, "The problem with you, dollfact" --that's what he always clls me --"is that your whole world is nostalgic."
From A.L.T:
"I shall begin by writing about luxury. I can't be sure exactly what image you'll drum up, but I suspect that it will either be swathed in silk and brocade or dressed in a custom-made English suit."
From Loitering With Intent:
"Uncommonly nippy is it in this old house, where you find me loitering at the base of the stairway in the hall, glum and with iced trotter unhappy in their station on the cold slabs of black and white chequered floor."
Immediately the stage is set. Vreeland, Talley and O'Toole take the reader on a romp. Talley tells you about his childhood, where luxury meant large Sunday meals, pressed sheets, and carefully chosen clothing for church. Vreeland regales the reader with a story about back plasters and Jack Nicholson, then segues to finding the house she left in 1937 on Hanover Terrace. And O'Toole takes you into the world of his early years at RADA.

Missing are tired pity-me flags, the long explanations, the apologies --so evident in lesser memoirs. Usually the one-shots, the pity me poor mommy, pity me poor alcoholic son who has wasted all his money on boozing and drugs.
If they did, I probably wouldn't even have finished the first chapter.
I'd of scrapped them to the book heap reserved for the rats and mice to make warm bedding with for cold nights.

Vreeland, Talley and O'Toole have a wonderful ability with language with which to provide descriptions rich in variety of words and sounds (yes, you can read them aloud). This creates a visual memoir -we can see it, hear it, taste, touch and feel what they're writing about. They have the elusive gift of voice.
"Robert famously was a womanizer, drank whiskey by the bucket, could curse blisters on granite; a martinet at work, he was rollicker at leisure; erudite, theatrical, godless, practical, his industriousness was boundless, his will and determination invicible, his phrasemaking raw.."
(I'm not sure if it's because he's Irish, but O'Toole has a natural inclination for run-ons. But you get the point).

Do they take creative liberties in conveying their stories? Probably. Maybe things weren't as golden in other aspects, but they're not sharing those with the reader at this moment. And memory is a sticky thing --I'm sure I was a size five for decades. However, what they're writing about rings true because of the details given and the voice is so consistent. They aren't playing with pitch or meter, what's coming out is natural and unfettered. And to me, this is the mark of a good memoir: one that told in a compelling and amusing way that has a broad use of language to create visual descriptions.

But above all else: what's written about really did happen.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Writer Impossible: Blogosphere Book Reviews

Another late night. Time to peruse book reviews written by bloggers. I've found a mixed bag. Mostly what I've seen are people confusing a critique, an opinion (usually a recommendation), and a report. I know, I'm quibbling. But there is a difference. Especially since everything on the blogosphere is seen as a review.

Most of the books covered by bloggers are recommendations. Someone likes a book so they pass it along. They aren't critical, indeed have no reason to be --but they are enthusiastic and they want you to know about the book. Since people spend more time on blogs than they do reading newspaper book review sections (which are a dying species), and since printed literary journals are fighting for their existence, what bloggers do to promote reading can't be underestimated. I think new writers who don't become conversant in blogging are missing out.

There are a lot of bloggers who confuse a review with a book report. They break down the plot, beginning middle and end. In other words, they give it away. They're less successful identifying themes or conveying what the author was trying to do, and point out how he was or wasn't successful. In these I've found the one thing lacking is clarity of prose. The review goes on and on. They have a difficult time identifying what they're responding to and why. To them I say, go with the old art school critique:

"I'm responding to this piece because..." or "I identified with this because..."

You don't have to tell us the answers verbatim, but it helps if you know the source of your opinion.

Interestingly, I found more positive notices than negative. It seems that bloggers are less comfortable writing about what they're indifferent to, which can put a blogger in an awkward spot if they've hounded the author for an ARC. I've heard more stories from authors when a blogger befriends an author and requests one. The blogger announces to the blogosphere they've gotten it. They read it and say absolutely nothing. The author is waiting, their blogger buddies are waiting. Sensing a breach in blogosphere friendliness, the blogger offers something terse: "A noble first effort. The author really had a good time writing this."
To these bloggers I say, heed John Updike's advice:

"Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like."
And then there are a very rare breed of bloggers who feel they are standard bearers. The world must be held to their view of how things should work. Dutifully, they will break apart the book, tell you every single perceived fault, then pull out the bully club and give it one final swat by saying something like, "by the way, I found out that only a handful turned out for his reading in Sparta GA." Perhaps they're not answering the question posed above: "I'm responding this way because...."

I consider my articles about books to be recommendations (opinions). I write about what I like. I put in the url so that you can look it up and order it. That it's commercial can't be denied. Believe me, I read many books that I don't care for, but I don't write about those. Writing about something you hate and doing it intelligently is far more difficult that espousing the virtues of an author or book. True criticism is a lot more than whether or not you like something. To those pros who can do this, my hat is off to them. Maybe someday, when I can control my inner snark, I'll toss my critical words into the Mixmaster as well.

Anyway, the blogosphere has changed everything. Recently I submitted a recommendation. When it came time for me to categorize it, I chose "opinion." The editor wrote me back... "your piece was a review." I responded, "No, it was a recommendation." Same cat, different breed. I guess I'll have to learn to meow better.

The above article was first published on