Posts Tagged ‘grammar’

The New Yorker

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

redwood rounds

 Redwood Rounds photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2014)

“Sometimes with The New Yorker, they have grammar rules that just don’t feel right in my mouth.” David Sedaris

Monday morning Marcia and I drove our two vehicles through pouring rain—Marcia zooming ahead in the Camry, I poking along in the pickup—down curvaceous Highway One to the picturesque village of Elk where the good mechanics at the Elk Garage made our truck and sedan all better while we had breakfast at Queenie’s Roadhouse Café and hung out there reading and writing and watching the blessed rain fall until our rides were good to go.

After a sumptuous repast of eggs and potatoes and several cups of real good joe, I left Marcia perusing a book on musical improvisation by Eugene Friesen, and sauntered down to the Elk post office to mail some letters and send a movie back to Netflix. In the lobby of the post office I found a box of previously owned magazines free for the taking, and discovered therein a couple of New Yorkers from October of last year, one of which contained a David Denby review of the Nicole Holofcener movie I had just mailed back to Netflix—Enough Said.

Not having seen a New Yorker in several years, I took the two issues back to Queenie’s with me and after a half-hour of looking at the cartoons and skimming the articles and short stories and reviews I felt strongly confirmed in my long ago decision to stop reading that much revered publication.

“A community of seriously hip observers is a scary and depressing thing.” J.D. Salinger

When I was in my twenties I sent dozens of my short stories to The New Yorker with no success, and when I was in my early thirties, after my first two novels garnered stellar reviews in the Briefly Noted section of The New Yorker, I was emboldened to resume sending them my short stories through my agent, the incomparable Dorothy Pittman, and again I had no success. And I only stopped asking Dorothy to submit my stories to The New Yorker when she, ever gracious and astute, explained to me in her delightfully colloquial way with her comforting Georgia drawl, “Honey, I can keep showing those folks your stories if you really want me to, but I’m sorry to tell you, you’re never gonna get in there because it’s a private club, see, and you’re not in the club.”

Dorothy was not being snide or critical, but merely pragmatic and truthful, and she was tired of wasting her time and postage flinging my shit, so to speak, at the back wall of the Algonquin Hotel, as it were, the famous watering hole of the late great Dorothy Parker and her drinking buddies at The New Yorker.

Not long after I acquiesced to Ms. Pittman’s pragmatism, I realized that my lifelong quest to publish a story in The New Yorker had been a key ingredient in the recipe of my writing life, with most of my stories initially aimed at The New Yorker or Esquire or The Paris Review, stories Dorothy eventually sold to other less prestigious magazines that paid good money despite their lack of grand cachet. But without my personal Big Three to shoot for (Esquire and The Paris Review private clubs, too), I began putting most of my writing energy into novels and plays and screenplays.

“Commas in The New Yorker fall with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim.” E.B. White

The private club nature of The New Yorker was on florid display in the two issues I picked up at the Elk post office, with the unremarkable Wallace Shawn and his latest play ballyhooed at length—his membership in The New Yorker club explained and celebrated throughout the article that was little more than an ad for Wally and his latest play. “When Wallace was a boy, he used to go to the theatre with this magazine’s Off Broadway theatre critic, Edith Oliver. (His father, William Shawn, The New Yorker’s editor from 1952 to 1987…)”

The Big article in that same issue was a lengthy recounting of Philip Roth’s friendship with Veronica Geng, the longtime New Yorker fiction editor. The article was a dry Old Testament-like (Deuteronomy?) listing of other New Yorker writers Veronica introduced to Philip, this listing of club members the apparent point of the article. And I asked myself, “Do I know anyone in the world who would care about this?” And the answer was: no.

“I lived in New York for ten years, and every New Yorker sees a shrink.” Meg Rosoff

Then came the fiction, and lo, two of the same authors I found unreadable twenty years ago were featured in these two Elk post office issues, their writing so void of originality my brain hurt as I tried to read the stories, which reminded me of the truly horrid years when nearly every issue of The New Yorker featured stories by the Barthelme brothers Frederick and Donald, their stories so redundant in style and content that to read one of those stark and cynical globs of pages was to read them all—the unvarying message being, as far as I could tell, that people are essentially dull and empty and pathetic and best suited for lying around in motels eating junk food and waiting to die.

Then came the reviews of plays and operas and television shows and art, none of which grabbed me, largely because I don’t watch television or listen to opera, and I only rarely subject myself to contemporary American plays because the several I’ve seen in the last twenty years might as well have been television. And the art spoken of in The New Yorker is only to be seen in New York because, after all, the only good art in America is in New York. Right?

“I keep waiting, like in the cartoons, for an anvil to drop on my head.” Angie Harmon

As a non-New Yorker hopelessly out of touch with the new techno reality of America, and as a person who doesn’t read The New Yorker, I didn’t get half the cartoons in the Elk New Yorkers, and the ones I got didn’t strike me as particularly clever or funny, though I did find one I liked by S. Gross. A witch is hovering on a broomstick near another witch stirring a big pot. The witch on the broomstick says, “I’m going to the store—do we need anything?” I showed that one to Marcia and we laughed because I frequently say the same thing to Marcia.

Finally came the movie review of Enough Said, a film I loved, and I was glad to read that David Denby liked Enough Said, too, though his review implied that since the movie was set in Los Angeles rather than New York, there was something foreign and a bit surreal about the movie despite the fine performances and subtly nuanced story.

And that, in a nutshell, is why I stopped reading The New Yorker, because the overarching message of the magazine, to me, is that anyone who isn’t in The New Yorker club, and anything that isn’t happening near the clubhouse, if you will, is of little or no importance. So the question is, why did I want to publish my stories in a magazine I found, for the most part, to be pretentious and boring and culturally narrow-minded? Was it because they sometimes published great articles that friends often clipped and sent to me (before the advent of the Internet)?

No, I wanted to publish stories in The New Yorker because two of my absolute favorite living (then) short story writers sometimes appeared in The New Yorker. Isaac Bashevis Singer and William Trevor.  Their stories and their writing took my breath away. When I read them I felt I was inhaling genius, and such inhalations helped my soul and inspired me to keep writing. I never cared for Updike’s or Beattie’s short stories or for their mimics, but Trevor and Singer were gods to me, and the dream of having my stories in the same magazine where their stories appeared was a marvelous carrot for the mule, if you will, of my fledgling artistry.

“New York was a city where you could be frozen to death in the midst of a busy street and nobody would notice.” Bob Dylan

When my brilliant agent Dorothy Pittman died in her early forties, I was left floundering in the shark-infested waters of New York-centric American publishing, and the sharks of the Big Apple (mixing my allusions) quickly tore me to shreds, in so many words. Thirteen years later, having found a pale imitation of Dorothy Pittman to represent me for a moment, I sold my novel Ruby & Spear to Bantam.

“I love this book,” said my editor at that publishing house recently gobbled by a larger publisher recently gobbled by a larger publisher ad infinitum. “I love the whole San Francisco, North Beach, Oakland scene, the artists and poets and basketball, the wild women, but…is there any way you could switch this to New York? Then we could really get Sales behind us, not to mention the New York reviewers.”

“No,” I said, and at that point a wiser person would have given them their money back and avoided the whole bloody mess that ensued. But that was before I finally got the joke.

Comb-bound photocopies of Todd’s new novel Ida’s Place—Book One: Return, set on the north coast of California, are available exclusively from the author at UnderTheTableBooks.com

 

 

 

Tapestry

Wednesday, July 17th, 2013

Tapestry

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser July 2013)

“In individuals, insanity is rare: but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.” Friedrich Nietzsche

My brother sent me an email with a link to a page at Amazon where one can purchase, for just three hundred dollars, a Parrot Drone Quadricopter. This drone weighs four pounds and is twenty-three inches by twenty-three inches small and is equipped with a video camera. The drone can be controlled using an iPhone, iPad, and android devices. The four-prop drone records and shares video while flying. There were three hundred reviews by people who have purchased this particular drone, but I did not read any of the reviews because I feared one or more of them would include complaints about the limited bomb-carrying capacity of the drone.

 “There are only two dangers for a writer: success and failure, and you have to be able to survive both.” Edward Albee

A friend sent me an email suggesting I read something by a fantastically successful American novelist I had never heard of. I was not surprised I had never heard of this writer, as I read almost no fiction by living American writers. Why? Because nearly every time I give one of these writers a try, I am more than disappointed, I am horrified. I suffer from the knowledge of proper grammar and syntax, and when an author reveals in the first paragraph or first page of his or her novel or short story that he or she knows little about grammar and syntax, I find it impossible to proceed.

But when a friend emphatically recommends a writer, I will at least give that writer a look-see. Alas, this latest fantastically successful writer failed the grammar/syntax test before I was three sentences into his multi-award winning novel, and seeing that these failures continued regularly thereafter and were clearly not the fruit of an intentional stylistic choice, I gave up and went back to working on my own fantastically unsuccessful, but grammatically sound work.

“Democracy don’t rule the world, you’d better get that in your head; this world is ruled by violence, but I guess that’s better left unsaid.” Bob Dylan

A young professional football player named Aaron Hernandez has recently been arrested and charged with murder. The owner of the team he played for, the New England Patriots, assembled a group of reporters to announce that Hernandez had duped them by pretending for two years to be hardworking and polite while also proving to be a fantastic football player. Now it appears Hernandez was a gun-toting, drug and alcohol-using criminal who may have killed even more people than the one person he is accused of killing.

The owner of the New England Patriots was outraged that Hernandez was not the person that he, the owner, thought Hernandez was. Indeed, many people involved in professional football, a sport that celebrates violence and encourages players to try to severely injure each other, also expressed outrage that this young man, who grew up in an ultra-violent society listening to ultra-violent rap music and playing ultra-violent video games and watching ultra-violent movies that glorify gangsters and guns and senseless killing, might prove to be criminally violent.

“The two biggest sellers in any bookstore are the cookbooks and the diet books. The cookbooks tell you how to prepare the food and the diet books tell you how not to eat any of it.” Andy Rooney

Recent news suggests that the vast book-selling conglomerate Barnes & Noble may soon go out of business. In my youth there were only independent bookstores. Then the era of chain stores dawned and chain bookstores such as B. Dalton and Crown Books popped up everywhere and put many independent bookstores out of business. Then along came chains of giant bookstores such as Barnes & Noble and Borders and they put the chains of smaller bookstores out of business and put many more independent bookstores out of business. Then along came the interweb and Amazon and the advent of e-books, and Borders was wiped out and now Barnes & Noble is collapsing, which should portend a few good years for the remaining independent bookstores patronized by a shrinking number of people who are still willing to pay full price for books and have not yet converted to e-readers.

In the course of this swiftly evolving bookstore landscape, the personal computer became as ubiquitous as television, cell phones took over the world, and the proper use of grammar and syntax became a dying art, not quite yet entirely dead, but nearly so. And the amazing thing (amazing to me) about the pervasive misuse of our beautiful language in most of the books published in America today is that very few people are aware that anything is amiss with the writing they read.

Several people have responded to my lamenting the demise of good writing with eerily similar proclamations along the lines of, “I don’t care how good the writing is so long as I like the story.” This strikes me as deeply ridiculous, as ridiculous as saying, “I don’t care if there’s any water in the river, so long as I can catch some fish.”

“The one thing the public dislike is novelty.” Oscar Wilde

On July 9, 2013, NBC news reported: “New research shows the more pollution, the higher the health risks.”

That startling news brings to mind those feature articles that appear in Lifestyle and Home & Garden sections of Sunday newspapers everywhere and have been appearing in those sections every few months since the 1960’s, articles about an amazing new phenomenon called organic gardening. These articles invariably feature smiling people who have been gardening in this revolutionary new way for at least a year or so and just love the results. These radical gardeners don’t use pesticides or chemical fertilizers yet somehow still manage to grow vegetables and fruits that taste wonderful.

I wonder why it is that organic gardening is forever being characterized in the mainstream media as something new. I find this to be one of the great mysteries of my lifetime, every bit as mysterious as the constant rediscovery that walking is good for us.

“And this, our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.” William Shakespeare

When I was a young man, I read an obituary that had such a profound impact on me that I can still see the entire layout of the obituary in my mind’s eye. The large black and white photograph accompanying the long article was of a slender man with a long white beard sitting at a table and writing with a pen on a large piece of parchment. This man (I can’t remember his name) was famous for three things. The first thing he was famous for was that he had been one of several dozen people involved in a renowned (now forgotten) research project concerned with the relationship between human health and walking. The second thing he was famous for was the invention of a simplified English alphabet (now forgotten) that he believed would usher in an era of universal literacy that would in turn lead to universal prosperity. And the third thing he was famous for was that he lived until he was a hundred and seven and was mentally and physically fit as a fiddle until the last day of his life.

I don’t remember much about his simplified alphabet except that he had eliminated the use of most vowels, which struck me as a bad idea since I loved vowels, a love that continues to this day. I do, however, remember the details of the research project he was involved in that evaluated the effect of walking on human health. According to the obituary, when this man was in his sixties, he was in such poor health that his doctors declared he would soon be dead. He was obese, his heart was failing, he was anemic, pre-diabetic, his liver was shot, on and on. It was at this point in his life that he got involved in the research project with several dozen other elderly people who had also been declared hopelessly ill by the medical establishment.

The project required that these people take long walks every day, and by long walks I mean walks of ten and fifteen and sometimes twenty miles, with only occasional days off from walking. According to this obituary, nearly all the people in the study not only got completely well—theretofore incurable diseases and ailments literally disappeared from these people—but they all lived well into their nineties and beyond.

“There are seven different souls in each person: the mineral soul, the vegetable soul, the animal soul, the human soul, the angelic soul, the secret soul, and the soul of the secret of secrets.” Sheikh Muzaffer Ozak

Last night I dreamt I was helping Aaron Hernandez clear away branches hanging down into a small meadow where Aaron was going to be acting as a psychotherapist for people coming to him for help. We worked in silence, I doing the pruning and Aaron dragging away the branches. I felt peaceful and optimistic, and I had no doubt that Aaron would be a great help to the people who came to see him. Strangely, the more branches I pruned, the more branches there were to prune, yet I felt confident that we would soon get the branches cleared away and Aaron would be able to proceed with his work.