Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Going Retro

WINSTON CHURCHILL once said he could look farther into the future than others, because he looked further back into the past.

I think of this quote in regard to rock musician Jack White. It applies to his latest album, but also to his recordings with The White Stripes. One sees his influences in his songs’ echoes: 60’s garage rock, from 13th Floor Elevator to The Amboy Dukes. Farther back, to the guitar and drum work on Everly Brothers’ songs like “Don’t Let the Whole World Know.”

Due to these motifs, reimagined, Jack White’s songs sound completely original and new. His collections show far more variety, a kaleidoscope of sound, than those of any other artist, most of whom are stuck in the recent and predictable now.

I believe that creative writers can do likewise. For my ebook Ten Pop Stories, I looked not at recent (stale) “literary” short story history, which every other writer is doing. Instead I read stories from the days when the form was exciting and popular—from writers like O. Henry and Frank Stockton. One doesn’t need to copy the stories to be influenced by them. Instead, capture their sense of magic, adventure, and fun.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Greatest Movie Ever?

It’s come to my attention that the venerable publication Sight and Sound has ousted “Citizen Kane” from its top spot, in favor of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.”

The difference in my own attitude may be demonstrated that I favor the word “movie” for the art over “film.”

Most of the choices listed are film school fodder. Some of them are badly, badly dated, like “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” or Keaton’s “The General.”

I made my own “Ten Best” movie list once, though I never finished posting it. My criteria were simple. I judged each movie as a movie—and not, say, as a work of literature. I valued the visual and aural experience, placing emphasis on photography and sound—but also the musical score, if it had one, which I judge to be a large component in the overall experience. I judged each movie as an experience, through watching and hearing the work in a theater, with the movie presented as it should be, on a big screen. (I’ve seen both “Vertigo” and “Citizen Kane” on movie screens.)

If I recall, Hitchcock had two works in my top ten: “Vertigo” and “North by Northwest.” (Another British director, David Lean, had two films on my list as well.) My top choice was unlikely: The medieval epic “El Cid,” made in 1961; directed by Anthony Mann.

Why this film? Seeing it, as I did in Manhattan a few years ago, was an overwhelming experience. The best cinematography ever—most of the movie shot outdoors. Colorful costumes; spectacular scenery.

The sound? The score by Miklos Rozsa is one of the best motion picture scores ever composed. It stays with you for hours, even days, after you’ve left the theater. Not just the music, but the clanking of swords and the pounding of drums, which accompany the most thrilling battle scenes ever put on celluloid.

There’s much more than this: romance; politics; plot. Larger-than-life characters and a one-of-a-kind bizarro ending. An assault on the senses. A stunning and still-relevant roller coaster ride, fantastic, mythic, and real at the same time, encapsulating everything great about movies and the movie-going experience.

But that’s just my choice. What’s yours?

Friday, March 8, 2013

Selling American Culture

At another blog, I posted about a Youtube video of an American film of fifty years ago.

The video was put together in Japan. This tells me that the biggest selling point of American culture is America itself. Specifically, the idea of America. The dream, which has always been powerful—especially for those in other countries and on other continents.

It’s a point abandoned by official American literature the past several decades. The trendy lit centers now, like McSweeney’s and n+a, have opted for a vague and meaningless internationalism. Fixed on either coast, they have little understanding of what America is about, or what it sounds like outside elite castles. They have scant interest in broadening their understanding.

The way is open for a new road. For a distinctive and distinctly American and populist literary art. It’s what I’ve proposed at this blog. It’s what the literary group Underground Literary Alliance was about. To follow that road would create opportunities which are as limitless the American horizon, and the American imagination.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

About Myself as a Writer


I’m not a natural writer. Upon entering college, I was required to take a remedial English class. I don’t know if it improved me any!

I dabbled with writing in my twenties. I wrote a couple adventure stories for myself. On a job, I edited a local union newsletter. After I left that job and was working for a commodity broker—the opposite end of the spectrum—I wrote an unsuccessful investment newsletter.

It was not until I’d hit my thirties that I became at all serious about writing. One afternoon I went browsing in a university library. Leafing through a few lifeless “literary” journals, I decided I could write better than that. I’ve been trying to do exactly that since.

In any endeavor, you have to know your strengths and weaknesses. I’ve not been satisfied with most that I’ve written, which is why I was happy letting others be “the writers” when I was running the Underground Literary Alliance. I was content putting out the occasional zeen.

I have many ideas about writing. About what good writing should look like. Making those ideas reality by creating something truly revolutionary, artistically, is trickier.

Now that I’ve started creating ebooks, I have a tendency to rush them along. For instance, I wrote most of The Tower one year ago in a two month burst of writing. Not long enough, in hindsight, for something that complex structurally, ambitious in theme and characterization. Living a tenuous existence where nothing is guaranteed, I feel the need, once I have the idea for an ebook, to get it out there as quickly as possible. No time for much rewriting, much less polishing.

My main weakness is description. I hate reading description (“detail disease”) and I dislike almost as much writing it. When I do write it, it’s invariably clunky. It’s something I plan to finesse, with some added ideas.

Back stories, exposition, I’m fine at. In many ways the story “Bluebird” contained in the ebook Mood Detroit is nothing but exposition. Someone recently, thinking he was putting me down, said that “Bluebird” read like a scenario. I’m fine with that, because the story was never much more than that. A treatment: an examination of a personality. A Jonathan Franzen, as in Freedom, can write 50,000 words of exposition and no one complains. The trick is how to integrate it into a larger work. I, no less than Franzen, have not fully mastered that part of the equation.

My two strengths are dialogue and ideas. I love writing speeches, because they allow me to express, through the mouths of characters, conflicting ideas. The human being speaking is the true wonder of nature.

I don’t buy the Henry James/David Foster Wallace theory of placing the narrative inside a character’s mind. Usually there’s nothing to see. Vacuousness. At its worst, narcissistic childishness.

I love spoken poetry. I’m also a fan of Shakespeare. The bard well proved that character is best revealed through action and speech. In The Tower, for all its faults, I take that notion as far as I’m able.