Category Archives: Books – Mixed-Media Literature

Infinite Jest: is this about me, or the characters?

I spent much of the summer reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and regardless of my final thoughts or critical appraisal, the book itself was an experience that succeeded in challenging me as a reader. Along the way, I constantly consulted the web site Infinite Summer, just to measure my reactions against the multitude of bloggers and readers who posted there, and I had to keep using and abusing their “Infinite Summery” to keep track of various character/plot details. So I’ve got much love for the site, and the overall project there, and highly recommend it to anyone opening this hefty tome. (I’ve wanted to say “hefty tome” for awhile now, btw)

Cover_IJ

My thoughts after finishing Infinite Jest are complicated, as they should be after reading something that is 1,100 pages of dense prose. So I’m going to try to unpack and distill them here, in easily digestible bullet-points, before I deliver my ultimate conclusions at the very end. I don’t know how well I can contextualize the book and its particulars, either, so if you haven’t read it, this might be a blog post to skip.

  1. There were a lot of great moments in this book. Some were small: individual sentences that just shone so bright I had to dog-ear pages or get out my phone and take a picture because I’d feel awful if I forgot about them. Absolutely timeless and brilliant. Some of the great moments were larger: long sequences of extreme empathy and such insight that it doesn’t feel possible that a single person could have observed (and written) all of this. (I say “observed” in the sense of a fiction-writer. To see it in real life and takes notes. To imagine it, based it on your real-life interactions and observations. Etc. I know that this book is not a work of weirdo-memoir a la Eggers, even though much of it seems to parallel Wallace’s personal experiences from tennis academies/ rehab centers.) To start off any discussion of Infinite Jest without acknowledging David Foster Wallace’s incredible skill as a writer (and specifically as a fiction writer) would be unfair.
  2. “Good moments” doesn’t necessarily mean “good novel,” though. So I need to be clear about that. I can love individual pieces without loving the whole. (Likewise, I can also love a whole without having a whole lot of individual moments that I found to be ground-breaking, etc. Like, we’ve all listened to albums that were great, but that didn’t seem to have that one amazing single?)
  3. I did not find Infinite Jest to be a good novel as a whole, or a good story. Despite those aforementioned “great moments,” I’m looking at this book as a novel. Not just as a nice collection of individual moments. Not just as a study in voice, or writing style. A novel. And “novel” implies a certain tradition, a certain set of expectations, a certain structure…Students cringe when I use words like “story” and “structure” in my class because they think that these words mean that I’m imposing a “stupid formula” on them; they think that–since they just discovered DeLillo and Heller and Barthalme–“story” is beneath them. But that’s not really the case. Even in wildly experimental novels, we see well-crafted stories. Storytelling is an art form. Storytelling matters. Storytelling means that you have a reader, and you’ve got something important or interesting to tell them. And storytelling is really fucking hard. And usually the students who complain about “story structure” are the ones who just can’t learn how to tell a story, and so they spend all of their time justifying the complex choices in their flawed fictions (fictions which, incidentally, could be dramatically improved if only the students cared about the readers who will be consuming this piece). Okay, so back to Infinite Jest: there were a lot of good moments, and if the author had cared enough about the characters (and the reader) it could have been a good book and a good story…but the structural issues in this novel are just too great, and they just wind up weakening the story, detracting from it, preventing it from what it could have been. This is one of my lasting thoughts, when instead I should have been left with thoughts about the characters and the situations.
  4. Quick note: I believe that the best storytellers disappear. The second that the storyteller reminds you that he/she is there, or that this work is all about him/her…well, then the story suffers. Sometimes the author is part of the story, as in the case of Kurt Vonnegut, so it makes sense that he pokes his head in. But for me, the best stories (not “fictions,” not poems) are immersive experiences where story is the top priority. Even in books like Middlesex, where beautiful prose makes you stop and admire it on occasion, or House of Leaves, where the prose is met with a variety of extra-textual elements that draw attention to themselves, every choice seems to be made to support the story, first and foremost.
  5. Other quick note: I love long novels. Infinite Jest is long, but I knew that it would be long when I, like, saw the book. I wasn’t naive. As I mention above, my favorite novels are big thick immersive experiences. I loved The Corrections, and I loved The Secret History and The Little Friend, and I loved The Bonfire of the Vanities, and I loved The Jungle and Anna Karenina. I love to fall into a book and forget that I’m reading it, to have a whole month of my life consumed in the experience. There’s nothing quite like it. So I was really pumped about reading Infinite Jest. I loved David Foster Wallace, too, and I thought: big book, plus awesome author, equals incredible experience.
  6. However, it’s too fucking long. Let’s get this out of the way first. I dedicated two complete months of my reading time to this book, and while I didn’t necessarily think that this would be a problem…it was. Why was it a problem? Because the book did not keep me consistently engaged, and because so much of it did not seem to value my time. Kurt Vonnegut was fond of saying that you should “use the time of a complete stranger in a way that he/she will not feel their time was wasted,” and there was too much of this book where I felt my time was wasted. Long twenty-page passages that revealed only one important sentence. And when we’re talking about Infinite Jest pages, a single page is the equivalent of two or three or even four Tom Wolfe pages, or Donna Tartt pages, because he is a huge fan of unbroken text (i.e. single paragraphs that stretch onward for twenty full pages) and are thick with jargon and technical terminology. Initially, I was told that the book would take about 200 pages before I got into it, which I was already skeptical about. 200 pages? No author needs 200 pages to get a reader interested. That’s a slap in the face, because that means that you’re wasting my time with those first 200 pages; they could have been structured in a way that would have been engaging (don’t tell me that they couldn’t have). But then I got to page 200, and I was told that, well, actually, you’ve got to get to page 500 before the book becomes engaging. And when I got to 500, yes, the book finally had a structure that seemed to progress the story in a meaningful way, a way where the reader was suddenly a valued part of the exchange. After 500 pages, story finally took precedence in the authorial choices. But 500 pages? A full month of laborious reading just so I could have a story in the final 500 pages? If you want two months of my time, you’ve got to do better than that; you’ve got to keep me engaged for two months; you’ve got to show me that you care about the reader and not just about your own ambition as a novelist. By page 500, I was only getting more and more pissed about how much time was being wasted on material that could easily have been cut/condensed without compromising anything.
  7. That’s the big thing: “without compromising anything.” Because DFW’s fiercest advocates will suggest that the book’s length is necessary because the rambling quality of the prose is a trademark of DFW’s voice. I would argue that the exact same effect could have been achieved with thirty fewer words per page. With forty fewer. Fifty. I would even argue that there are full chapters that literally add nothing, or that add so little that the important material could be revealed elsewhere. The argument for the book’s gargantuan size is basically, “He’s an artist, so let him do what he wants!” But from the perspective of a writer/editor, I think that’s bullshit. Every artist faces constraints. Infinite Jest was already edited and cut down from a larger page count, so DFW was not so far above editorial guidance that his art was hands-off; it just wasn’t cut enough. Additionally, the unending/unbroken paragraphs have no reasonable explanation other than to piss off the reader and test his/her resolve. You’re telling me that a ten-page paragraph is necessary as a unit of thought? That it wouldn’t have been improved with, like, a little break here, and a little break here, to create the sort of rhythm that could aid the reader in moving through the text. Hell. Look at me: this blog post is dense, so I wrote it in a bullet-pointed list. You know why? Because I don’t hate the reader, and I want the reader to move through the text cleanly and with some speed. I want you to know what’s important, which ideas you should hold onto, and which ideas might simply be supporting claims. You’re my reader: I care about clarity because I don’t want to waste your time.
  8. Look at me. I’m getting angry. This is what happens when you waste two months of my reading time. This is also what happens when I see so many Infinite Jest supporters who seem to refuse to acknowledge that there are any flaws in the book at all, and who–in their every review or blog post or whatever–justify every damned decision in the book, as if DFW could do no wrong. I mention the tiniest thing, and I feel like there’s a backlash coming. Dude. The paragraphs are stupidly structured. Yes. Yes, they are. Yes, they are. (See, now I’m arguing with an imagined DFW supporter. God.)
  9. Okay, sorry. (taking breath) The book has a story, and a plot, but Wallace’s plot doesn’t serve the story. This kind of builds on what I wrote a little while back. Quick definition: “plot” is the deliberate sequence in which the author arranges the hundreds of different elements of story. “Plot” is the way the author chooses to introduce characters or situations or setting. “Plot” is the author’s choice of putting a memory on page 6 instead of page 300. “Plot” is the opening line, and the closing line. You can tell the same story in a hundred different ways. Infinite Jest is a story that could have been told in 5 pages, or 25,000 pages. When we sit down to read a long book, we assume that one of the author’s purposes is to immerse us in the story and help us to truly experience it (as I mentioned above), whereas a quick story will be like a punch to the gut, but not a full-out 25-round fight. In this book: there are moments when the plot is meaningful, when it makes sense that a character is introduced at this/that precise spot, but there are way more moments when DFW’s structure is just a mess, when we say “Why the hell didn’t you tell us sooner?” or when you later say “Maybe I should reread the early portions of the book, since they gave me no valuable information, and I was lost, and now I’m reading valuable information that could have helped me to understand them, but I’m on page 600, so fuck if I remember what the hell was on page 20,” etc.
  10. For starters, the overall structure is confusing, and has no necessary function. For the uninitiated, the book is structured out of chronological order. We begin at the end, with the main character somehow rendered unable to speak or communicate. Then we just start skipping around in time randomly. We are introduced to characters whose importance we do not understand, and situations which will not be mentioned again for several hundred pages. And while I’m not necessarily against out-of-order storytelling, the problem here is that DFW does not construct the order of information in a helpful way. For instance, the sections/chapters of the book are generally labeled as “Year of the Perdue Wonderchicken,” or “Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment,” and we don’t actually know what this means until well past page 200. The book takes place in a weird future where all North American countries have unified, but we aren’t introduced to the particulars of this world until…geez, page 400 maybe? I used the word “random” above, and I’m sure someone will point out that DFW had a reason for the structure…but having a reason doesn’t mean that it was a good reason. To paraphrase Chris Rock, “you can drive a car with your feet, but that don’t make it a good fucking idea!”
  11. The problem, then, is that we are constantly misreading the text. Basically, we assume the world is round, and then the author comes along and tells us (200 pages later), “Oh, and by the way, did I mention that this world is flat? Ha ha! Boy, that changes things, right?” Again, DFW supporters strongly support this artistic decision. They’ll tell you that it makes you want to read the entire book again as soon as you’ve finished. To which I say: “Fuck you.” I read authors who construct their texts in a meaningful way that will teach me how to approach their world. I do not read authors who play jokes on me; it’s super-easy to hold one over your audience…the author inherently knows more than the reader, after all. If I have to watch a movie twice just in order to understand it, I say: “Poorly edited movie. You could have plotted this in a way that helped the viewer to understand the world and the characters and the conflict, etc.” Same goes for books. Yes, I enjoy books/movies that offer something new on the second read/view, but not books that only become intelligible on the second go-round.
  12. The book, then, feels like a joke on the reader. There’s actually a great moment in Infinite Jest (a moment of unparalleled honesty, in fact) where Wallace is describing an experimental film from James Incandenza called The Joke. It’s a movie where cameras are trained on the theater’s audience, and then the audience gets mad because they’re being pranked, and they all storm out of the theater having paid real money to look at their own faces as a movie-joke. Well. That’s this book, in a nutshell. It’s long, and deliberately confusing, and is designed to make you have to reread the text in order to understand what the author could have helped you to understand on the first read, but didn’t, because he apparently hated you. If you flip the final page and say, “Oh man, I’ve got to reread to figure out what just happened,” the joke’s on you. The author could have crafted this story in a way that didn’t waste your time, in a way that you could have read (and loved) it in a fraction of the time. There are thousands of great books out there that do take you as a reader seriously, and that you would enjoy (trust me: you would love them), if only you’d put down Infinite Jest and venture forth.
  13. But doesn’t that make Infinite Jest brilliant, because  the reread thing, like, mirrors the Entertainment described in the book? For the uninitiated: this book focuses (in part) on a video called “The Entertainment,” which is so hypnotically addictive that viewers become zombies and watch the movie on repeat and fail to ever do anything else with their lives afterwards. Literally. They would cut off their fingers to get the movie back on. They never speak again. Etc. So supporters will tell you that the structure of IJ essentially mirrors that of the hypnotic never-ending “Entertainment,” since you sit there reading 1,100 pages and then flip back to the start to read again. Except. Except it doesn’t. Because watching a video is passive, and reading a book is active, and that’s sort of the point of critiques for book-reading and against TV-watching. Also, the book only inspires this re-read function in a very small percentage of readers: David Foster Wallace Disciples. Those by whom he can do no wrong anyway. Most readers likely fail to get beyond 100 pages in this book, and–judging by conversations I’ve had–even fewer get beyond 200 pages, or 300, or 400. Many start the book several times, but never make a dent because it is so laborious. Personally, I re-watched each season of Game of Thrones not because its structure left me confused, but because it was so expertly constructed that I wanted to better understand the world, and the pieces involved, and how the writers had done it. The second viewing was enriching, but the first viewing had been awesome on its own. The same is not true of Infinite Jest, where even the fiercest Disciples will admit that you’ve (at the very least) got to get past the first 200 pages before the thing starts to become engaging. 200 pages of text to “get through”? Again, this is a structural problem, not an argument for structural brilliance.
  14. David Foster Wallace Disciples justify everything in this book. Listen, I’ve got my own favorite books, and my own favorite authors who can do no wrong. So I don’t hold anything against the DFWDs who love this book and everything it helped them to see and experience. I’m glad this book worked for them/you. Please try to understand these two things: (1) I’m working through my response to a book that did not work for me (but required a tremendous investment, which I gave to it), and (2) Even if you love a book, you can still admit its flaws, right? As I scan comment boards and reviews and online responses to this book (especially at Infinite Summer), I see this fierce support of the book’s every trait/element, and hey, maybe this is a result of an equal/greater critical tsunami against the book (after all, a lot of people apparently hate it, since so many give up on it)…what do I know? But just as I shouldn’t criticize DFW himself for the fans who support him, DFW supporters shouldn’t support the book mindlessly just because some critics or readers have raised legitimate arguments against it. The excessive length, for instance, is a damn good argument. Please do not try to find a reason to justify it, just because this is your favorite book/author. Don’t tell me that there isn’t a great 750-page novel in here that could actually be much better. That’s not even up for debate. It would have been possible. Admitting flaws is not admitting that the book is worthless, or that your experience was worthless, or that IJ is going to go out of print if you don’t keep hollering about how good it is. On the Infinite Summer site, there was a single featured blog post from one reader who was frustrated, and couldn’t understand why she was the only one who wasn’t enjoying the book (or even engaged by it). She was then shot down by scores of comment-boarders (“Wahhh! Quit your bitching!” “Give up, then, stupid!”, those types of comments), to the point where her next featured blog post did an abrupt (and probably insincere) about-face; now she suddenly loved the book, and was so sorry she…etc. Listen: it’s okay to be honest. The book isn’t going anywhere.

Some other notes:

  1. I understand that I’m not the smartest reader in the world. Yes, I get it. There are a lot of people smarter than me, but I don’t back down from challenging readings. I can already feel the critiques of my critique of Infinite Jest, comments telling me to go back to reading Twilight or Dr. Seuss or whatever, as if I don’t ever read books, and I just so happened to try a Big Difficult Book, and I’m mad at it because it was Big and Difficult. Go look through my Reading List. I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I try to make my reading wide and varied. We can disagree about the merits of Infinite Jest, but not about the merits of my own reading life.
  2. I’m also not the quickest reader. I will freely admit that I’m a slow reader, in fact. That it would take me an hour to get through ten pages of Infinite Jest. And I will freely admit that this sort of thing contributed to making me an even angrier reader. It’s as if David Foster Wallace was writing his essays for a real reading audience (his essays are amazing), but he wrote his novel for this weird audience of…himself. And ain’t nobody as brilliant as DFW, even if they’d like the world to perceive them that way.
  3. I’m not the smartest or the quickest, but I am a dedicated reader. I treat all books the way that my mother taught me to treat my veggies. I give ’em a shot. And it’s very very rare that I don’t finish a book. Because I don’t want to make a judgment until I know exactly what the author was doing. So if this blog post offends someone who loved Infinite Jest, there’s a lot of things you can accuse me of: but you can’t tell me that I didn’t spend a lot of time and energy with this book, that I didn’t make as solid an effort as any author should receive, and that I am making my judgments based on some incomplete read. (No, it is not an incomplete read to have only read it once.)
  4. Maybe I’d have enjoyed it if I read it during a different time in my life. I also did not enjoy On the Road, by the way, because I read the book when I was 28. I have friends who basically told me I was crazy for not liking it…but they read it when they were 16, and it changed their lives and outlooks, etc. Maybe I’d have enjoyed Infinite Jest if I read it when I was younger, early twenties perhaps, when I didn’t get angry at spending two months with a book. But now, I have to fight for my reading time. I’ve got a wife, a baby, a full-time job, and my own writing life. Carving out a reading life is much tougher. And so I get upset when I feel as if I’m wasting my time, or as if I’m spending my time with a book that doesn’t care as much about me as I do about it. (Yeah, I know, that sounds a little creepy.)
  5. To all the people who have heard “Oh my God, you’ll love it!”, I say: “Probably not.” Go read David Foster Wallace’s essays instead. In his essays, he was constrained by editors, given direction by the rhetorical situations of the publications. He knew he had a specific audience, and so he was not given free reign. It’s this freedom, I think, that made Infinite Jest such a bloated out-of-control mess, the feeling that he–Wallace–could do whatever he wanted. Nobody pushed back and said, “Well listen, this could be a much better book if we–“

Here are my final conclusions.

This book’s most interesting conflict is not necessarily that of the characters. Instead, it’s the conflict of the author. This is a novel that seems to be torn between (a) Post-Modern/ Ironic Novels that are more concerned with the Author and His Ideas and Jokes and Wicked-Smart Displays of Wit (caps mine, heh heh), and (b) Sincere and honest storytelling, which cares (and cares deeply) about the characters and their motivations, and what will become of them.

In other words, Infinite Jest doesn’t know if it should be about David Foster Wallace and his abilities, his performance as super-smart and important novelist, or if he should just shut up and let it be about the characters on the page. It is Irony vs. Sincerity. (Which, incidentally, is a theme that some of the characters are actually wrestling with…so we know that this very conflict was on the author’s mind.)

There are moments in the book when Wallace zooms in tight on a character, when we stick with that character and become heavily invested in his/her life. It is at these moments when the emotion of the book is palpable, when we can’t put it down; you can see and feel and taste the humanity, how much capacity for caring that DFW actually had. When people say that they started to really get into the book after 500 pages, it’s because a great deal of the final 500 pages are written with this philosophy in mind (over-written, but still).

But at the same time, it often feels like Wallace was fighting against these types of moments. Like these (the moments of true humanity and honest character building) were cracks in the “smart structure” of the Big Important Post-Modern Book he was trying to write. Like, as soon as he realized he’d written something that was emotionally moving, he had to switch real quick to a funny pseudo-essay about video phones, or a quick passage about herds of feral hamsters, or whatever.

Consider this quote from his character Mario Incandenza, who is unceasingly positive and honest and good-willed:

It’s like there’s some rule that real stuff can only get mentioned if everybody rolls their eyes or laughs in a way that isn’t happy.

It’s this sort of tension that, I feel is responsible for all of the flaws that I found in the book. As if David Foster Wallace wanted to write two different books at once, and maybe please two different audiences at once: he was struggling with whether to write something Sincere, or Ironic, and that conflict bubbled over into every nook and cranny of the book. It’s almost like trying to combine Star Wars and Spaceballs into one movie. And the final result (for me) was interesting, but only on biographical level; by the end of the book, I became more interested in the life of David Foster Wallace and the evolution of his art than in the piece of artwork that I was supposed to be engaging with. (In other words: I want to read his biography, which I imagine will be more enriching than reading Infinite Jest. But now that the book is shut and the blog post is over, I’m really okay not caring about IJ or any of its characters ever again.)

Book Reviews/ Reviewer Reviews

So…I’ve been writing reviews and critiques for a long time now.

Back in 2005 or 2006, I started an account on Shelfari, and wrote a short review of every book that I read. Hundreds of short reviews, most of them trying to look at the book from a writer’s perspective: what could I gain from it? Some of the more articulate and insightful reviews now survive as blog posts here on my site, while others are…best left there on Shelfari, buried beneath hundreds of other short postings and comments.

I learned a lot from writing those reviews, no matter how dreadful some of them were. I learned that every book has an author, and that every author is a real person, and that every Real Person Author is probably the same as me: they read their reviews, and they care about what readers think. On the positive side, I was actually contacted by Brad Listi (Attention. Deficit. Disorder., and founder of The Nervous Breakdown), who loved my review of his book, and who thanked me for a thoughtful examination of the contents. At the time, that was the closest I’d ever come to a “celebrity encounter” with a real author (not counting my professors). On the negative side, though, I wrote a pretty scathing review of a book called Nylund the Sarcographer, by Joyelle McSweeney; it’s a book I still dislike and wouldn’t recommend, but it’s a small-press offering by an obscure poet, so did I really need to write something that so loudly trumpeted how terrible I thought the book was? Well. When I recently checked my old book review, I noticed that there were a grand total of four (4) people who have the book on their shelves, and one other review: this one a single sentence, generic, and much kinder, likely the review of one of the author’s friends. And someone had marked my review (which was extremely specific about the book’s failings) as “not helpful.” Oh no, I thought. The author definitely read this review. The author definitely thinks I’m a gigantic a-hole, maybe even marked the “not helpful” button herself.

Since 2007 or so, I’ve also been writing critiques for my Creative Writing students’ poetry, nonfiction, and fiction. In a single “Introduction to Creative Writing” course, I will write 75 highly analytical and personal 1-2 page critiques, one for each student for each genre in which they write. In a fiction or nonfiction workshop class, the workload is more reasonable: a detailed 2-page critique for each author’s short story. In every single critique, I am forced to consider the audience: I am not writing to other readers and telling them whether they should check this book out, but instead writing to the author him/herself to tell them what is working in their manuscript, and what ideas need further attention. The result is predictable: half of the students love me, and love the rigor with which I attend to their manuscripts; the other half hate me, and think that I’m attacking them, and (on some occasions) refuse to speak to me, or refuse to revise (the “I don’t care what you have to say! I’m a genius!” defense mechanism), or call me “harsh” and “unreasonable” in their evaluations, or cry (literally), or even begin to defend sloppy writing (“Come on, Mr. Holic. A few typos don’t really matter.”).

In any case, I’ve written thousands of reviews and critiques in the last decade of my life, some of which were appreciated, and many of which were not appreciated. (I even had a student who bragged that he had not read my comments.)

And now I’m writing a book review/ reading essay series called “Reading Books While Burping My Baby” over at Burrow Press Review. I try to focus on small-press books in the column, but really, I write about whatever I happen to be reading, and discuss how my own reading habits are changing as a result of having a baby. The latest installment is here, and focuses upon Jess Stoner’s mixed-media/ hybrid novel I Have Blinded Myself Writing This.

And what do you know? Jess Stoner read the essay, loved the discussion (and the criticisms), and made a really awesome post on her tumblr account. This was a real first for me, to have an author so grateful for the review I gave. Maybe I feel like the last seven years of reviews and critiques have actually been building me into a solid, honest-to-God book critic.

It makes me feel even better to contrast the above with the following exchange between author Patrick Somerville and The New York Times book review. The article is a must-read. Apparently, the book critic completely misread the novel, and not in an excusable way (i.e. not due to the fault of the author’s own poor/ confusing writing); the critic attributed the events of the entire first chapter to the wrong character, thus altering and muddying the book’s story and structure, and causing everything to collapse. Corrections were issued, but what does a correction matter to an author whose book has now been given a poor review that cannot be taken back? The book critic can’t re-read and re-judge the book, after all.

There is a similar responsibility in writing book reviews and student critiques, I think. To say something misguided in a student critique would be (potentially) destructive; it might even mean that you’re teaching the wrong principles, setting the student down a path where they think that 2+2=12. You’re writing directly to an author, and you don’t take on that task lightly. With a book review, the audience is obviously different, but maybe the responsibility is the same; maybe the critic should keep the author in mind…the main responsibility is to the reader, certainly, but just as good reviews can herald the arrival of new talent, bad reviews can sink careers before they even get started. A bad review might not matter for Stephen King, but for me? No, the author isn’t the primary audience, but if the critic remembers that the author is an audience, maybe it’s easier to remember the responsibility of writing a fair and critical review.

On the flip side, I’ve grown accustomed to seeing authors write things like “Thanks for the review!” on one another’s facebook walls, and I’ve become accustomed to seeing overwhelmingly positive reviews published throughout the small-press world. You scratch my back, I scratch yours. “Croney Critiques.” This is what happens when the critic makes the author into the primary audience for the review, and now we’re dealing with something that’s irresponsible for readers. Maybe it’s even irresponsible to the book’s author.

In my own writing, I strive to be as honest as possible. If I don’t give you honesty, then what the hell am I giving you? We’re both wasting our time. But honesty isn’t an excuse for hurtful or hateful commentary, either.

In any case, check out “Reading Books While Burping My Baby” over at Burrow Press Review. Critiques are always welcome!

Daddy’s – Lindsay Hunter

I’ve meant to write about Lindsay Hunter’s Daddy‘s for awhile, and for a lot of different reasons.

First and foremost, of course, I went to grad school with Lindsay (for about a year, I think) and I was excited to see that–after she relocated from Orlando to Chicago–she’d made a name for herself with a unique and gritty female-centered fiction, and she’d published her first book, a collection of (mostly) short fiction, with the inventive Chicago-based featherproof press. From a purely selfish standpoint, then, it was just fun to see someone I knew achieving real success in fiction writing and publishing…and aside from the easy access to signatures/ autographs, it’ll give me an opportunity to someday tell people that “I knew her way back when.” Looking forward to that.

But I’ve also wanted to write about Daddy‘s because it fits one of the main themes that I like to blog about: mixed-media fiction. featherproof press, as I mentioned above, is a creative publisher; take a look at their web site, and you’ll see that they truly see the book itself as an art form, not just a boring vehicle used to deliver text. They publish mini-books which require readers to print out the copy and literally craft the book themselves; they publish books which include mobiles; their covers are brilliant pieces of work, often piquing interest and making you consider adding unknown authors to your shopping cart without even reading a synopsis, a blurb, or an excerpt. I might be over-stating this, but I really think that featherproof is setting the standard for what small-press publishing should be. After all, if the publishing industry is encountering real conflict with the advent of e-readers and e-books, and consumers and publishers alike are questioning the value of print books, why not–if you believe in the value of print books–make them into something worthy of actually printing? No one would argue that digital photo frames should take the place of wall paintings, after all, and while mainstream publishers seem content with cutting their printing costs and transitioning their business model to highly profitable books that are made specifically for e-readers, featherproof is crafting  books that are actually pieces of art that we want to hold in our hands, books made with real passion by people who truly value the Book itself.

Okay, so that’s featherproof. But what about Daddy’s? How does its format and structure fit into this concept/ philosophy?  First, I should say that this is a book of short “traditional text” fiction that could have been enjoyed on its own. It doesn’t necessarily need any clever design elements, and many of the pieces were previously published (and successful) in both online and print journals. Hunter writes short fiction that rarely exceeds 2,500 words. It’s quick, and it’s often scary how quickly a character’s life (or decisions) can derail in these stories. It’s brutal and it’s honest, and it feels like the ultimate White Trash Story Collection, every piece bringing to mind double-wides and gravel driveways and piles of discarded McDonalds bags. I’ve heard Raymond Carver’s old minimalist approach described as “grunge fiction,” but trust me when I say this: you haven’t read truly “grungy” fiction until you’ve read Hunter.

But about the formatting: the wraparound cover of Daddy’s is an image of a tacklebox, with the front cover as the top (complete with handle) and the back cover the bottom. The spine is an image of the hinges, and each cover has a small flap that folds out so that you can literally hide the pages and carry this thing around like a paper version of a tacklebox. Bizarre, but super-cool. And throughout the book, the text is interspersed with highly stylized (and often resonant) images representing items from inside the tacklebox. Some are literal, some are metaphorical, and some are just surreal. Overall, it’s an interesting reading experience, the grungy fiction matched with such grungy graphics. In terms of mixed-media fiction, this is what I would call “narrative voice,” the use of extra-textual elements to complement the voice of the narration, to heighten the mood (see The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime as another example of this), rather than a “hybrid” work, where we are supposed to view the images as some document or photograph that the characters are actually viewing, too.

The other interesting aspect of the Daddy’s layout: the entire book is printed on its end, much like a flipbook. There are no indentations, either, with white space breaks separating the paragraphs, and paragraphs themselves are rarely separated over two different pages. This gives the feeling of online text, which makes sense for the author and her work; Hunter has had a lot of success publishing in online journals and magazines.

The journal Diagram, though, recently published a negative review of Daddy’s and another featherproof book, arguing that they were failures because they seemed gimmicky and didn’t actually change the way that we read a book. And I do agree that the book doesn’t “change the way we read.” I’ll never say, “Man, I wish more books were printed this way!” The formatting changed the way that I read this one book, and I think that’s all that Hunter (and featherproof) was trying to do here. Their real argument (as a publishing company) seems to be this: each book is unique, and each book’s overall design and layout should be treated on a book-by-book basis. If the author is widely published online, and her style is gritty and rural, why not create a tacklebox book with online-style formatting? It makes the book into a piece of art that reflects the content.

In any case, this is an idea that I haven’t really explored much on this blog: how will we see mixed-media fiction change the shape and format of the books themselves? I’ve talked a great deal about how the addition of images and documents and graphics have changed individual stories, but aside from graphic novels, there are few fiction writers so ambitious that they want to transcend what we expect of the Book itself.

(And Lindsay: still need your sig, dude! Don’t think I’ll forget about this one.)

The 9/11 Report

The 9/11 Report: Graphic Adaptation is a fascinating read, I think, both for what it does well, and for its negatives implications.

What does it do well? I think that it proves that graphic novels can tackle nearly any subject, and that the mixed-media approach of art and text can be extremely useful in distilling even some difficult information. Did this subject need a graphic adaptation? No, not necessarily. But does any book need a movie adaptation? No. And some manage to offer a new angle, new and interesting perspectives, that the original material did not. That, I think, is the case here.

The negative aspect of this graphic novel, though, is this: it is already being categorized as a “young adult” piece of literature, which is odd to me. What makes something young adult? Pictures? Are we saying that comics dumb down even the most sensitive and important material, like the 9/11 Report? There’s a growing trend in creating graphic novel biographies (the recent Che biography, an MLK Jr. biography) that I would love to see continue, but if it is assumed that these are watered-down versions of the original, rather than a new artistic treatment impossible in text alone…then the form of graphic literature has a real problem.

I think this was a noble attempt. Not perfect, no. Hopefully, the next attempt will be more visionary, though, so that we can put to rest the question of whether a graphic adaptation is just a kid’s version of adult information.

Fatherland

I learned about “Fatherland” after reading Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America” and Michael Chabon’s “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” both of which were alternate histories that re-imagined the circumstances (and outcome) of World War II. Before reading either book, I’d never really given much thought to the idea of an “alternate history novel,” but Roth’s book in particular opened my eyes to how such a book could match all that we love about literature (complex characters, complex themes, intense imagination) with all that we love about nonfiction history (intense research, the complex relationship between the smallest conversations and the largest events/battles/tragedies, the cause-effect connections that we might never have considered). “The Plot Against America” was rich indeed, and what made it such a remarkable work of literature was that it could make us interested in the characters and their fates on the first page, and then interested in the specifics of the imagined world on the next…and it all seemed so creepily real.


“Fatherland” doesn’t quite achieve the same heavy characterization as Roth’s novel, but then again, if we compare every other author to Philip Roth, nobody’s got a chance. This is a much different book, written from a much different perspective: whereas “Plot” took place in America and focused upon the Jewish perspective, “Fatherland” takes us directly into post-war Germany, where many years after the Nazis have won World War II, a detective begins to notice a strange series of murders and suicides of state officials, a mystery that will eventually lead him to some startling revelations about the entire Fatherland. It’s a murder-mystery, so it’s actually got a great deal in common with Chabon’s “Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” and here’s the good news: it never felt like a cheap mystery novel or a cheap Patterson-style paint-by-numbers thriller. Harris is a strong writer, painting vivid descriptions of his world and populating it with characters who rarely feel as if they are going through the motions of the plot. This is literature, not pulp.

In fact, the strongest point of “Fatherland” is not necessarily the mystery that the characters work to solve (once the clues start piling up, you’ll easily be able to solve it yourself), but instead the overall tone of the book. Victorious Germany is a scary scary place, dark and cold and wet, and every character is deeply repressed. If the question that this book poses is, “What would have happened to the Germans if they’d won the war?” then the answer is, “They’d all be miserable.” This is a country where murders and suicides are frequent, a country whose borders are subject to frequent terrorist attacks, a country of concrete and stone edifices built to honor leaders who have long since lost their humanity. And what’s worse? Germany is a respected world power, and the shining beacon of the U.S.A. is dimmed by their cooperation with Germany, and their own forgetfulness of Germany’s atrocities. It’s almost a dystopian world, as chilling as any post-apocalyptic novel you’ll ever read.

But there’s one other reason I’d recommend “Fatherland” for interested writers/readers alike: this is also a striking example of mixed-media fiction, as Harris intersperses the final half of the narrative with memos, letters, and other documents that help show the Fatherland in greater detail. In fact, the inside cover of the book provides a map of the novel’s great set piece, including visual renderings of the structures that Hitler would have built had he won the war. The memos and letters, though, are not simply the disturbing products of Harris’ imagination, but instead are the real textual artifacts of World War II Germany. In other words, Harris uses real documents in his novel,. While I’ve seen dozens of authors create fictional letters, memos, etc., and incorporate them into a narrative in order to create a greater sense of realism, or in order to move the plot in new and interesting ways (or in order to better reveal character), I can’t remember ever seeing an author incorporate real artifacts. Some novelists use real song lyrics, or real telecasts, or real speeches, to place their characters into a real world where Lenny Bruce is giving his stand-up routine, or the Doors are performing on stage, or someone is watching Ronald Reagan on TV…but real documents that the audience has likely never read, that were revealed in court proceedings after the war, but (in this novel) were imagined to have been lost/ hidden? It’s a brilliant use of “mixed-media fiction,” and it elevates the novel and the novelist and further immerses us in a world that feels too real.

“Fatherland” is a quick read, filled with dark descriptions and a fast-paced plot that always relies upon the characters’ motivations rather than the standard plot formulas of thriller novels. No, it’s not “The Plot Against America,” but (for my money) it’s much sharper than Chabon’s attempt at alternate history. If the description of this book interests you in any way, you won’t be disappointed.

The Photographer

“The Photographer” is quite possibly the most inventive book I’ve ever read, and it’s a testament to the author(s) that it stands as an amazing example of a memoir, a piece of literary journalism, a graphic novel, a book of photo journalism, and (most accurately) a piece of “mixed-media literature.”

I’ll get back to that idea of “mixed-media” in a moment, but first, I’ve also got to say that…well…I’ve grown very weary of books and stories that are born entirely of white/middle-class/American guilt. Books that seem to exist to make a social statement (and often, they actually make a good social statement), but that find themselves sold at Barnes & Noble and on Oprah, and marketed to people with money and good homes and stable families, etc., who want to feel bad about the world around them, but whose activism generally stops after the final page of the book is finished. They are books that, yes, raise social consciousness and expose terrible injustices (drug abuse, epidemics, child soldiers, rape), but the publishers themselves don’t really care about those injustices…the publishers just know that these books sell a LOT of copies…and the readers only consume them in order to feel like they are a more responsible world citizen.

What’s wrong with this line of thinking? Well, it’s not dangerous. It’s just annoying. Often, it devalues books that do not attempt to raise social consciousness (trust me: I’ve heard readers remark about how they will only invest their time in this single genre), and it devalues the “art” of the book itself. For example, there’s a review right below mine on Shelfari which states, “I loved learning about the Afghani people…It was a great reminder that despite its many flaws we are very lucky to have access to any medical system…While I understood [the protagonist’s] desperation to get home [at the end of the novel], I was disturbed by his selfishness and lack of consideration.” The art of this particular memoir, the brilliance and honesty with which it crafts a complex narrator who will not always behave well, is discarded by this reader when he/she sees that the book has become about the character and not the social issue. And that’s a style of reading that winds up constraining what great literature is able to do, and what publishers are willing to publish.

In any case, though, I’ll just say that I was wary of “The Photographer” for this simple reason. It seems like a preachy social consciousness book, as if it was published just a year or two ago in an effort to protest the continued military action in Afghanistan.

And I’m so happy to say that, while the book does illuminate Afghani life and culture, it’s about the narrator’s journey…his understanding of that culture, his difficulty in adapting, his need to leave, his desires, his aspirations…yes, it contains real social commentary, but that isn’t the “purpose” behind this book. “The Photographer” is a memoir, first and foremost, and fulfills all that we expect of great life narratives. It isn’t preachy. And it’s far enough removed from the Afghanistan of 1986 that we have additional perspective, and our emotional attachment to the events isn’t so strong as to cloud our reading experience (imagine reading a 9/11 narrative two weeks after 9/11…you’re going to cry no matter what…now read it in the year 2020…chances are, you’ll be better able to appreciate it as a piece of literature).

But because this was written by a photojournalist, it’s also got a unique style of narration that does indeed feel educational. So there are moments when it feels like literary journalism. (In a way, it bears a striking similarity to “Maus,” which relies upon the transcribed interviews and stories of the narrator’s father to shed light on events that the narrator does not recall, or was not present at). Technically, you can read this as memoir or journalism and still be satisfied, so long as you realize that it is a piece of literature that creates complex characters, and often does not give easy answers.

Now, about the “mixed-media literature” comment I made above. While Mark Danielewski’s “House of Leaves” might still stand as the most impressive example of a mixed-media novel, “The Photographer” isn’t far behind (if it’s behind at all). But this is a graphic novel, not a “text-based” novel, so we do expect that it’s going to graphic-based from the start. But the inclusion of real photographs interspersed with the hand-drawn comic art was absolutely brilliant, and our view of the characters and situations becomes so much richer for the twisting and bending of mediums throughout. And Guibert’s strategic placement of the photos also creates great tension and drama; sometimes the photos are sprawled out, tiny, like a roll of film; sometimes they occupy a full page, after the story has built to a tense crescendo.

Quite simply, “The Photographer” is one of the best books I’ve ever read. As a writing instructor, I would use it in a half-dozen different classes. As a reader, it’s the type of book that absolutely destroys the experience of the next three or four books that you’ll read (unless you’re reading “Bonfire of the Vanities” or “The Stand,” the experience just can’t compare). Though it isn’t an example of “Millennial Generation Literature” (most of the Millennial Generation wasn’t even born in 1986), I think it is an example of where the next generation of literature can and will go. Not just photos and comics and text, but blogs and photos and comics and text and diagrams and logos and…but I’m getting ahead of myself. Check out “The Photographer.” You won’t be disappointed.

Best American Comics?

Each new year, it seems, the genre of “literary comics” (my term of choice is “graphic narratives”) grows and matures just a little bit. Thirty years ago, when the comics medium was dominated mostly by teenage/escapist fare, the most important evolution in the comics medium was the rise of “comix,” a sort of indignant response to the innocent animals and superheroes that many perceived to be the only subjects of comics books. We suddenly had dirty comix, animals engaged in sexual acts, characters whose faces looked like genitalia, anything to change the perception of the medium.

And then the 1980s, and Maus, and a Pulitzer Prize, and the 1990s, and a dozen well-respected graphic novels (even superhero comics receiving serious attention), and the 2000s, and graphic novels reviewed in the pages of the New York Times, and Houghton-Mifflin adding a “Comics” edition to their esteemed “Best American” series, and some literary journals (including The Florida Review, where I’ve worked for several years) adding comics as one of the literary genres we publish. Comics will always have the “kid’s stuff” perception, simply because so much of the market will always be dominated by superheroes and cartoon characters, but at this point, isn’t it foolish to argue that they aren’t respected as a serious artistic medium?

This is the main problem with The Best American Comics 2009. It has the same indignant attitude as the dirty comix of the 1970s, a lot of sexually explicit material, an R. Crumb piece, stuff that seemed appropriate thirty years ago (including an Archie-like piece called “Gropius” that is absolutely annoying, and appears five times in this book) when comics needed to change their perception, but which just seems irrelevant and stupid today.

(Gropius, apparently, is a well-reviewed collection…but at least one other critic agreed with my assessment of the material.)

To be fair, this book also includes some fantastic work from several cartoonists who really appear to be tackling interesting subject matter, and using the medium in a way that truly reflects the current culture. Kevin Huizenga is one of these artists, and his “Ganges” piece–an extended story about a guy caught up in the web bubble of the late ’90s, whose company doesn’t know what it’s doing, and whose employees spend their days and nights immersed in the video game culture–is brilliant, a perfect representation of the rise and fall of Generation X. Truly, it was the highlight of this anthology.

But too often, this book just seemed to be a collage of excerpted work that couldn’t recapture the energy or focus of the original, and stories and art that seemed to try way too hard to be “comix,” a genre that I wonder why we cannot move past. The “Best American Short Stories” series works well because we’re dealing with self-contained stories, not novel excerpts, and until the comics series can avoid the excerpted work, and avoid the temptation to include work that (to be fair) would have been included 15 or 20 years ago, had there been a “Best American Comics” series back then, it will feel disjointed and won’t quite live up to its potential. We don’t need to make up for all the decades during which comics were ignored. If you want to do that, create a “Best American Comics of the Century” (which would be fascinating). No, we need to see how comics are maturing and growing in the past year, and this anthology doesn’t yet feel like it is doing that.

Natural Disasters, Graphic Novels, Blogs, Bio-Comics!

“A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge” is a graphic novel that demonstrates the underlying theory that made Art Speigelman’s “Maus” so haunting, memorable, and successful. In our current culture, saturated by televised images of destruction, we sometimes need to see major tragedies and disasters in a completely stylized way in order to avoid becoming desensitized. With “Maus,” Speigelman used cartoon animals to re-enact the Holocaust, and the effect was disturbing and sobering: mice slammed against the wall until their heads exploded by Nazi cats. It was as if our most innocent mediums were no longer safe.

Josh Neufeld might not have been attempting something so bold as “Maus,” but this series of graphic narratives (I use the term “narratives” because it is composed of seven nonfiction biographical tales, so while the term “graphic novel” is used for all book-length comics, this definitely isn’t a fictional novel) definitely helps us to see Hurricane Katrina in a new light.Yes, we’ve seen the CNN footage. Yes, we see Spike Lee’s “When the Levees Broke.” Yes, we are outraged. Yes, we feel for the inhabitants of New Orleans. But somehow these comics heighten that feeling by forcing us to confront fresh and different images. The storm is more malevolent, more of a physical manifestation when hand-drawn. The destruction more surreal, as if–when it occurs in the comic format–it is striking New Orleans a second time.

Neufeld’s work is significant for another reason, too, this one not just aesthetic. “A.D.” represents two interesting trends: first, Neufeld used highly journalistic techniques to piece together the story, interviewing real survivors and writing their stories, a practice seen in disaster movies and documentaries, but not (necessarily) a practice I’ve seen in comics and graphic novels. And second, he published this as a blog, first and foremost, and then collected it into the graphic novel. In short, this is a book that is highly representative not just of our times and of the major event framing our times, but also of the many different mediums that we currently use to communicate and to publish; it’s nonfiction, and it’s journalism, and it’s an artistic representation/reaction to a real event, and it’s comics, and it’s a blog, and it’s a book…Neufeld certainly covers his bases, here.

Mixed-Media Fiction: Sink or Swim?

“The Raw Shark Texts” is an interesting concept that never really rises above “interesting concept.” It’s a breezy read, moves very quickly and sometimes develops real suspense, and the plot is well thought-out, but it still feels superficial by the very end. Perhaps this is because the characters feel as if they could have been plucked from any novel/movie about twenty-somethings, or perhaps this is because the majority of the text is told through dialogue and seems to ignore the truly complex interiority  that it could have explored…but either way, this feels like Bud Lite. It’ll get you through the night, but it’s never going to rise above and really challenge you.

The concept, as I said, is interesting: there exists beneath the “real world” a whole other plain of existence, perhaps another dimension (though–since this book lacks much interiority and real development–we are never sure of the real facts, just the character’s observations), and in this plain of existence, there are seas and seas of creatures who feed on thoughts and memories and ideas. Most often, our dimensions never really meet, but occasionally, when someone falls into heavy thought and abstract conceptualizing…the fish are drawn to that person’s mind, and the sharks begin feeding until the person becomes a hollowed-out shell of their former self. Really crazy stuff, right? Hall has developed a nice little mythology for his novel.

And I think the overall book serves as an interesting commentary on our times, on the youth generation. We have finally entered an age where we believe we can document everything that happens in our lives: we can take thousands of digital pictures, we can write daily status updates, we can (as I am currently doing) write reviews of each book or movie or album we digest, we can blog our thoughts…We feel lost when we haven’t documented our lives. We fear a life adrift, where we cannot easily load our computers and search through all of the pictures we’ve taken over the past year. What would we do if we lost all of this? What would we do if something had feasted upon our digital selves, erased all of those memories? No matter the danger and cost, of course, we’d try to relocate our selves, which is exactly the mission of Eric Sanderson, the novel’s narrator.

In theory, it’s all very relevant, and very brilliant. It even incorporates innovative fonts, images, and a full flip-book of a shark attack. Very Millennial Generation.

But ultimately, it fails for the same reason that “House of Leaves” failed. It doesn’t really know where it’s going. The end of “Raw Shark Texts” seems to imply that the narrator has been crazy all along, and that he’s imagined all of this happening, which is a real shame and a real cop-out. “House of Leaves” failed because it decided to deliberately confuse and obscure the narrative at the end (likely because Danielewski was himself lost), and “Raw Shark Texts” does the same. Where do we take this story, he must have asked. How do I wrap it up in a way that services both the character, and the commentary I’m writing? When a book tries to serve both character and commentary, all is sacrificed because the character becomes a puppet.

Hall had a chance to truly do something special, here. But in the end, while this is fresh and often compelling, it just turns out to be an interesting little novel, and that’s sad because it could have been much more.

“House of Leaves”: Mixed-Media Fiction or Gimmick Fiction?

“House of Leaves” falls into the love-it-or-hate-it category of literature, a book all at once intriguing and inventive and mind-blowingly creative…and also gimmicky, needlessly difficult, frustrating, and self-indulgent. It is a book that defies easy genre categorization (just call it “fiction,” and more specifically, “mixed-media/ post-modern fiction,” and don’t try to further label it), but also defies easy critical review.


Here’s the basic idea: Danielewski gives us–at the core of the book–an academic study called “The Navidson Record,” written by a strange and now-dead loner named Zampano, about another man’s experiences (and his documentary film) living in a haunted house. Already, at its most basic, the book is two narratives in one: Zampano’s and Navidson’s. And the academic study is heavily footnoted, providing hundreds of other academic perspectives on the Navidson narrative. So the central story becomes a satire of academia, as well as a meditation on narrative and story structure in the age of mixed-media. Brilliant, right?

But then we have an added sphere of narration. Someone has found this academic study, and has interspersed it with a story of his own, how it has affected his life, etc. Simultaneously, then, we have up to four stories happening on a single page, all at once (Navidson, Zampano, Random Scholars, and Narrator). And sometimes even a fifth: the unnamed editors who have taken this entire collection of material, and have published it as a book called “House of Leave.” And it is here that the book loses its effectiveness, I think. While Navidson’s and Zampano’s stories both resonate, and while the scholars are simply a tool for satire or further depth, the narrator (Johnny Truant is his name) simply isn’t interesting. He writes in abstractions, going on for pages and pages about darkness in his soul, horror in the world, etc., etc., giving five-page footnotes so focused on creating a dark and creepy tone that they wind up sounding as cliched and meaningless as a “Hellraiser” monologue. One of the most basic tenets of good creative writing is “show, don’t tell,” and the Johnny Truant narrative fails miserably in this regard. It’s all adjectives, emotions, and abstractions. It detracts from, rather than enhances, the story.

There’s a whole lot more going on throughout this novel, too, of course, so my over-simplification of the book’s structure is…well…simply an unsatisfying discussion of “House of Leaves.” This is also a book that plays with typefaces, fonts, and even the placement of text (we have text in the margins, text swirling in circles, text that leads us on elaborate “wild goose chases,” text that is crossed out, text on top of text); Danielewski is offering us a reading experience that we’ll never have again, in other words, and many of his choices are brilliant, form serving function, much like a breathless progressive verse poem. Some choices, though (a series of letters from Mother to son; the inclusion of an index; the inclusion of appendices) simply feel like gimmicks, unnecessary mixed-media additions designed (through their very strange-ness) to gain mainstream attention rather than actually building upon the narrative at all. They’re no different than a hologram cover, or a pair of 3D glasses packaged with the text. Danielewski, in other words, got carried away.

“House of Leaves,” in the end, is best remembered for the fantastic story at its core, for the satirical look at modern scholarship, and for the inventive use of text and mixed-media…but one cannot simply deem the book an “instant classic,” or “seminal” (though we might regard it as such with some perspective). It fails as often as it succeeds, mostly because of the author’s excesses. Sometimes, the very best works are a combination of remarkable energy, and remarkable restraint. Think about it this way: would you have watched Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy if each film had been 12 hours long (and they very well could have been). The best writers know when to stop, when to edit, when to cut. They know when to omit bad ideas. Sometimes, not every throw strikes the bull’s eye, but the best and most enduring writers know when to pluck the errant darts from the wall.