Her characters sleepwalk to their certain fates through artificial pocket universes, each one seemingly constructed to satisfy the curiosity of an inhumane, omniscient narrator. Few writers have been so consistently and brilliantly unkind.
Perhaps this fundamental disconnect between the balance implied by its title and the economic realities of literary life circa 2014 explains the underthrob of panic that courses through a number of the essays in the new collection by writers outside the orbit of Planet MFA. Harbach, who edited this new volume, has tapped his stable of n+1 writers, a fair number of whom, like him, went to Harvard and earned six-figure advances for their first books. Whatever is ailing these folks, it isn’t lack of chutzpah or unwillingness to do what it takes to succeed, and yet what was clearly intended as a series of artsy-smartsy essays examining the state of play in literary America too often comes off as an extended moan of self-pity from a once-cosseted corner of Brownstone Brooklyn.
And I said, ‘Oh, okay.’ And the sound of drumming began—the drumming I had been hoping for. And so there was all of this drumming, and it was very exciting. And we went to the central square of the village, where there was a small makeshift wedding bed that I had to get into with the ram. I had been told it would be very, very bad luck if the ram escaped, and that I had to hold on to him, and that the reason we had to be in this wedding bed was that all my depression and all my problems were caused by the fact that I had spirits. In Senegal you have spirits all over you, the way here you have microbes. Some are good for you. Some are bad for you. Some are neutral. My bad spirits were extremely jealous of my real-life sexual partners, and we had to mollify the anger of the spirits.
I lived alone for three years in Brooklyn, paying $1,700 a month ($61,200 all told) for a pretty but small one-bedroom within eyeshot of the Brooklyn–Queens Expressway. I also spent $400 a month on health insurance. At one point I thought I would find another full-time job after finishing the book, but then I must have convinced myself that teaching yoga part time would better enable my writing.
A nice extra was that it was a nationally known program with a distinguished roster of teachers that included Richard Yates, William Goyen, John Rechy and Hubert Selby, Jr., the latter two current faculty members and writers I’d admired since high school. In fact what was unique about MPW was its faculty, many of whom were well-known writers who lacked the usual academic pedigrees. Hubert “Cubby” Selby, for instance, one of the best known and among the program’s most revered teachers, hadn’t graduated from high school.
Those of you out there who grew up in the 90s will remember that every disaster movie brought a slew of novelizations into bookstores. Even if the movie in question did badly, you knew that at least two adaptations of the script would pop up on shelves. At Hazlitt, Will Sloan wonders if the age of the novelization is over.
I get to what I know should be the end of the book. I have my characters all assembled and in the right places. I feel a low sense of dread about finishing the project I’ve been working on for months or years and my mind gets fuzzy. I forget what the story is really about. Everything falls into a jumble of possibilities. I poke around fearfully and come up with an ending that seems OK. It’s plausible, at least, if not artful. So I slap it on and I send the damn manuscript off (to my reader/agent/editor) just to be rid of it, to have the pain of separation done.
Every time, I get a letter back from the reader, agent, editor (or all three) that says, ‘Pitch perfect until page 317 then it all falls apart. The ending is all wrong. Try again.’