Pinterest, “Lifestyle” and Walter Benjamin

Closing down the 10 year project that was my LivingSmall blog has me thinking about blogs, and the internet, and Walter Benjamin.

Benjamin has been clattering around in my head for months now while I’ve been trying to form a coherent argument about why I dislike Pinterest. Actually, about why I dislike Pinterest and slick, overly-photographed lifestyle blogs. And why I find the concept of “lifestyle” itself so troubling.

It was Benjamin’s observation that “mechanical reproduction” of art brings it spatially closer to the masses while simultaneously draining it of the very quality of presence that makes it art in the first place, a quality he called “aura.”  We’ve all had this experience with famous paintings. That they are reproduced as posters and postcards and coffee mugs and calendars drains them of their actuality. When you finally see Monet’s water lilies — are you really seeing them? or are you just seeing the reproduction you already know, writ large, there upon the wall?

And what so of the internet? Although I stopped blogging at LivingSmall because I had said everything I have to say on the topics of gardening, or chickens, or baking bread, or canning; I also found myself turned off by the way the “lifestyle blogs” both proliferated and became increasingly slick.

I think of it as the “bowl of apples problem.” What happens when the bowl of apples on my kitchen table starts to look, to me, privately, at home, like “a bowl of apples?” What does it mean that the lived experience of our daily lives is becoming something we don’t experience directly, but start to externalize? Start to see as “lifestyle?” I suppose that’s part of the pleasure for some — the idea that your bowl of apples looks like it could be in a magazine, or a slick blog — it’s what makes people feel like they’re getting it “right” — but it complicates the always-tricky notion of authenticity. Am I having an honest experience of aesthetic pleasure when I arrange some apples in a yellow bowl I brought back from France, when I enjoy the way they look on my kitchen table in the early summer sunlight? Or, am I imitating something I’ve seen online, even if I’m not imitating it consciously?

The proliferation on the internet of idealized visual images of activities in which I find pleasure — gardening, cooking, chickens, foraging — cheapens those experiences for me, and causes me to distance myself from the authenticity of my own experience. It inserts a layer of external imagery against which I wind up comparing my experience, and which thus distances me from the pleasure of engagement. I wind up either wondering if I’m doing it right, or more typically, because I can be this way, I wind up losing interest in things I genuinely like because they’re becoming trendy.

I love my yellow bowl I bought in France. It bears all sorts of memories with it, and to fill it with fruit and set it on my table gives me pleasure. To fill it with fruit, put it on my table, and photograph it for Pinterest is something else entirely.

That I can’t quite get a handle on what that “something else” is, is part of what’s fueling the new writing I want to be doing, some of which will be appearing in this space.


Authorhood and Identity

Stephanie Bernhard’s recent essay at Full Stop addresses a problem I’ve struggled with since publishing Place Last Seen in 2000 — the weird conflation of the author and the work as it exists in modern publishing.

My very first reading, on a rainy night in March one of the six people in attendance asked “Have you had any tragedies in your own life?” and I was appalled. I’d written a novel. If I’d wanted to write about, say, the death of my youngest brother from cancer when he was two, I would have done that. But I didn’t. What I wanted to do was write an imagined story about the loss of a child, and the effect that event has on a family. Yes, there were roots in my personal experience, but I’d deliberately written a story, a fictional story about other people, and other characters.

My instinct that night was to snap “what the fuck business is it of yours?” but of course, I didn’t. I stammered something shocked and inarticulate about all fiction having roots in experience, but that no, I had never lost a small child in the wilderness.

Bernhard is making a two-part argument, and it’s the first part in which I’m most interested, the one in which she traces the ascendency of authorial persona over the content of the work itself. In part, she claims this is a function of our social inability to imagine multiple identities for women:

…after a while, all of the lovely-and-sad-yet-strong cover girls looked appallingly similar. It became hard for us to imagine that the stories they contained would vary much either. Book buyers have even less incentive to differentiate among the mass of womanish covers. But as Wolitzer notes, if “women’s” covers tell the same story, then “men’s” covers, more likely to contain all text, to tell no story at all.

When covers fail to differentiate one book from another, how do readers choose what to buy and read?

More than ever before, they — we — choose our books based on the identity of the author. We choose to believe the story, thousands of years in the making, that the author has created a unique work and must therefore be a unique and infinitely interesting person.

I found the rapid nature of the way attention swiveled from my book to my self deeply unsettling, and in the (too many) intervening years, it’s one of the things I’ve struggled with most as I’ve tried to write a second book. Where does my work fit? I’m certainly not writing pink-shoe books. I’m certainly not going to sell another novel based on my looks. I’m not an ethnic minority. And as I’ve moved toward nonfiction, trying to figure out a way to write about the deaths of both of my brothers without getting locked in the box of “greif memoir” or “tragic figure” has been both silencing and, as I’ve become increasingly determined, motivational.

The problem is that I find the process of selling my self mortifying. What I want is to sell books.

On “Unlikeable” Characters


I’m mining LivingSmall for material for a project, and came across this post. Since I was listening to Mark Maron’s podcast interview with Diablo Cody while I drove in from the cabin this morning, the notion of unlike-ability and female characters was on my mind anyhow. I especially loved the part of the podcast where they discussed not redeeming the Charlize Theron character in Young Adult (on my Netflix queue). Both Mark Maron and Diablo Cody admitted to sort of wanting the Hollywood ending, the one where she’d learn something, where she’d grow, but also talked about how that would have ruined the movie. Narrative expectation is one of my perennial bugaboos — how can we complicate it? how can we play with it? how can we upend it? And how can we do all that while still managing to get published, or to get movies green lighted?

So, a blast from the past — not new, but I think not entirely without relevance.

Posted on 

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the subject of fictional characters and “likeability.” Probably because I’m writing again, but also because it’s a topic dear to my heart, since so many readers found Anne, in Place Last Seen deeply unlikeable (go take a look at the Amazon reviews if you don’t believe me). Patrick and I used to laugh about it, because we both thought I’d pulled my punches and had made her sympathetic, or at least much more sympathetic than in her earlier incarnations. I wasn’t entirely surprised when she was greeted with a hail of criticism because I’d already weathered a couple of years of graduate workshop populated by writers doing Katherine Mansfield-esque odes to their idyllic childhoods, and whose consistent response to Anne was “no mother would do that!” (A response that indicated to me that I was doing exactly what I wanted to be doing with the character.) At any rate, I didn’t want her to be “normal” — what would be the interest in that, either as a writer, or as a reader? I wanted her to be odd; to be Anne.

So I was Googling around when I came across Emily St. John Mandel’s terrific essay at The Millions, In Praise of Unlikeable Characters, an essay that caused me to fire up the Kindle and download Bad Marie. It’s a terrific read, which is such a pleasure these days. a book that really sucks you in and in which many things actually happen, and that has characters in whom you become deeply invested. Marie does indeed do some very “bad” things, but Marcy Dermansky does such a good job writing her from the inside that you get sucked in, and nod along in agreement that of course, Marie’s is the only logical course of action. She makes her sympathetic without necessarily making her likeable. You always doubt her — especially since so many other characters tell her how bad she is. It is that seed of doubt that lurks, no matter how much one might be rooting for Marie that that made me feel the book pulled it’s big punch. I won’t give away the plot point, but there is a moment very late in the book, after you’ve seen Marie act in many impulsive and unwise and even vengeful ways, where she comes right to the precipice of doing something truly monstrous. And while the naive reader part of me, the part of me that really does believe somehow that characters are people, and who comes to care about them (the part of me that still feels guilty for breaking Jonathan’s leg for plot purposes at the end of Place Last Seen), while that reader was glad that Marie didn’t go over the precipice, the cold-hearted novelist in me wishes she had.

No one writes books like that any more. Books that take a character all the way over the edge. (Or perhaps no one who writes like that can get them published, another discussion altogether.) I was trolling around in the Paris Review’s newly-opened interview archives and in David Mitchell’s interview he talks about reading Nabokov, and trying to figure out what he was up to:

I used to read Nabokov with an X-ray on, trying to map the circuitry of what he was doing and how he was doing it. Lolita is an act of seduction. This is a lovable rogue, you think, this Humbert Humbert. How interesting life is in his company! Then there’s a place where, toward the end—and this is one of the most chilling scenes in English literature—he realizes that Lolita has lost her magic. She’s not the pliant young fairy she once was. But it’ll be OK, he thinks, because I can have a daughter through her and start all over again. That’s when you know you’ve really been had here—this Humbert figure is a damaged, dangerous piece of work, and you’ve been riding along happily in his car for a hundred and fifty pages.

There’s a corresponding problem to the “likeability” problem (and not that all women must have pink high-heeled shoes on the covers of their books) and that’s the flip side, the total monster — at it’s best, you get someone like Dostoyevski, at it’s worst, you get Hannibal Lecter or American Psycho, books that are only about an unredeemable character, that plumb the depths and claim, by doing so, to be breaking new ground. Those aren’t the unlikeable characters I’m interested in — the ones I’m interested in are like that family member that you can never figure out, or the friend about whom you continually find yourself saying “how could she do that?” Someone who seems just like us, but who isn’t — and it’s that difference that makes it interesting. What makes someone like that tick? Are they really “bad”? I love the exploration of that murky ground, and I especially like it when the author resists the urge to “heal” the character, resists the therapeutic narrative of our age. They’re hard to find though, which is why I find myself turning back to Elizabeth Bowen, or Mavis Gallant, writers who had their gimlet eyes firmly fixed on the flaws of human character.

So readers, in the comments, tell us who your favorite “unlikeable” character is, and why?

The Descendants: Bourgeois Self-Congratulation

Sigh. The Descendants. The reviews from places like Rolling Stone and the New York Times call it a “nearly perfect” movie. While Dana Stevens over at Slate, did take on the thinness of the story, and the underwritten nature of the George Clooney character, no one that I’ve seen (in my cursory Google search) seems to be noting that this movie just reinforces the notion that what counts as a story is the trials and tribulations of the white upper classes.

I’ve written about this before — it was my chief complaint about Freedom and the critical canonization of Jonathan Franzen. There is a certain cultural object that seems specifically designed not only to reassure wealthy white people that their story is central to the culture, but to flatter them that they are the right kind of wealthy white person, and The Descendants is as perfectly-formed an example of this as anything I’ve seen in a while.  (The Help did it too, with race relations more than gradations of class, but so ham-handedly that it’s hardly worth parsing.) Matt King has inherited enormous wealth, but, the voice-over is careful to explain to us that his refusal to spend his capital is a moral decision for which we should admire him. He chooses to live solely on the proceeds of his property law practice, a practice that is, by the looks of the office space, pretty lucrative. Matt’s aristocratic self-restraint renders him superior to his wife, whose attitude is characterized by greed and unnecessary risk-taking (hence the coma, and her subsequent death). Oh and she cuckolded him. (A mistake the movie emphasizes by having her cuckold George Clooney with the guy who played Scooby Doo. In case we might miss the point about how foolish she is.) Elizabeth is the wrong kind of wealthy person, one who wants expensive things, who likes shopping and spas and flashy risky sports. Matt’s cousins too, are characterized by their greed, even as the ever-present voice over informs us that most of them didn’t inherit the kind of capital that can be disdained, and that they really need the money that the land sale would generate. Matt is the sole trustee of a family land trust, and although the cousins have all voted, and have lined up a buyer with a plan for developing this admittedly gorgeous chunk of Hawaiian land, at the last minute Matt refuses to sign the papers to dissolve the trust. He gives a pretty speech about how their ancestors have entrusted him with this land, and the movie portrays this as a brave moment of standing up to his family. But the effect is to demonstrate once again that Matt, played by the always-charming George Clooney is the right kind of rich person. This allows the viewer, who has by this time come to identify with Clooney because he’s well, Clooney, to reassure themselves that they are not like all those crass rich people, they are (or would be) the sort of correct rich person who would never have sold off that gorgeous piece of property, even to help support their cousins who actually need the money.

There are many charming aspects of the movie, chief among them Clooney’s warm performance as a baffled father, and although reviews refer to the daughters as terrible brats, they seemed pretty normal to me (I know a now-12 year old who would have worn her older sister’s underwear in just that mocking manner). And I get the legacy issue — I too come from one of those families where there are a lot of photos of successful and fabulous ancestors who did astonishing things. It’s not that these are not suitable subjects for novels or movies (see Edith Wharton, Henry James) but it’s the utter lack of self-awareness that soured this movie for me. The characters are so black and white, the wife so bad, George Clooney so good, the cousins so bad, George Clooney so good, that one can’t help but get a whiff of that same sort of white-guy-self-congratulation that inflated the reviews of Jonathan Franzen’s quite good novel into the next Great American Novel. When you’ve got reviews in all the major media outlets doing the same for this movie (to say nothing of the Oscar nomination and whatever it’s garnering at the SAG and Golden Globe awards), it seems to me that we’re looking at another case of bourgeois self-congratulation. And it seems to me that everyone involved should be just a little smarter than that.

Resolved: The Year of Writing Letters

Stephen Elliot over at The Rumpus got me thinking about letters again. He’s started a new subscription service called “Letters in the Mail” where for $5 a month, he’ll ask writers to write an actual letter on paper, and send it to the subscribers. It’s a cool idea, and although I haven’t signed up yet, I’m thinking about it.

But in the meantime, I’ve resolved to write more letters this year. I have a long one started to my oldest writing friend, the one for whom I’ve got a whole folder, down in the basement filing cabinet, stuffed with the letters we wrote one another. Our friendship was made through the mail, since we’ve never, in the 20 years we’ve known one another, lived in the same place. Somehow though, the quality of our email correspondence has never matched up to the quality of the letters we used to write one another. It could be because our lives have both changed, in many many ways, but I think, somehow, the medium is also involved.

The whole beginning of the letter to my friend Deb is an examination of how odd it is, after the immediacy of email, to write a letter I know she won’t see until sometime next week. I like the roominess of that. I like that there’s space in a letter to explore something that’s bothering you, or interesting you, or compelling you right now but without the expectation that someone is going to respond this afternoon. You’re not writing it to get a response, to get an immediate answer, but rather, trying to get a sense of the contours of the country, and then sending that impression to someone you love for safekeeping.

In my 20s, from a ferry travelling between France and Ireland, two friends and I put a note in the wine bottle we’d just emptied and threw it overboard. We made up a story about being taken hostage by pirates, and months later, we all got postcards from an Englishwoman, who found our bottle, and who hoped we’d secured our freedom by then. It was charming.

That’s how the mail seems these days. The internet used to feel like putting a message in a bottle, but the internet now is so busy and popular and full of traffic and Twitter and Blogs and noise that it no longer seems that way. The mail though. No one is sending things through the mail. Perhaps it’s picking up some lost cachet …

We’ll see how it goes. I have a short list of people to whom I plan to start writing letters again. The Post Office is in trouble, so maybe we should all start sending one another letters, and postcards again. Who doesn’t like to get real mail from an actual person?

Franzen, Suicide and the Real

I was pretty clear last fall that I thought the whole kertuffle over Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom was, in essence, a big circle jerk by well-educated publishing industry types who got all excited to see their own little slice of American experience fêted as The Way We Live Now. Which doesn’t mean I didn’t like the novel. The book’s satire was actually sort of brilliant, the characters were interesting and alive and often heartbreaking, but at the end, I just couldn’t help but feel that Franzen was having it both ways. He was getting away with crafting exactly the sort of book that would appeal to the vanity of the people he was satirizing. Which was also sort of brilliant, if in a dark hopeless kind of way.

Franzen’s piece in the April 18 issue of the New Yorker has been nagging at me all week. There’s a lot going on in this article — Franzen runs off to a mostly-deserted island off of Chile where he hopes to detach himself from the “addiction to stimulation” that he feels is the bane of our time; to see a rare songbird, the raydito; to somehow reconnect with what he feels is a lost authentic individualistic narrative represented by Robinson Crusoe (the island is in the archipelago in which Alexander Selkirk was marooned whose story served as Defoe’s inspiration) and finally, he means to scatter a matchbook’s worth of his friend David Foster Wallace’s ashes while he’s there.

For me, the heart of the essay is not the camping misadventures, or the long digressions about Robinson Crusoe and the history of the novel or What Fiction Means Today, but Franzen’s struggle to come to terms with Wallace’s suicide. The digressions are interesting, and serve to illustrate how far Franzen is willing to go to avoid dealing with the loss he’s been running from for two years, but as a fellow traveller who has been down that long road of trying to figure out why someone you loved would do that to you, this was where I found myself actually touched by the article.

Franzen describes sitting with Wallace the summer before he died. Franzen can’t keep his eyes off the hummingbirds flitting around his house and he can’t even get Wallace to see them. He realizes that “the difference between his unmanageable misery and my manageable discontents to be that I could escape myself in the joy of birds and he could not.”

If you’ve ever been around someone who is seriously depressed, you’ll recognize the gulf. There’s a weird sense when you’re sitting with someone who is depressed like that that your own enjoyment of the hummingbirds is a betrayal. “Look!” you say, and they turn away with a big “so what.” A big “so what” that feels like personal rejection. A big “so what” that makes you wonder if the birds are really so great, makes you wonder if maybe you’re just an overenthusiastic ridiculous idiot. “Dancing Bear” I call that part of my personality. The one that tries too hard to engage. I grew up with a depressive mother, and I lost my younger brother in 2003 to a single-car auto accident after a long period of depression. I spent most of my life trying to engage depressed people. That I failed with the one I loved the most is the hole in the world with which I live every day.

My depressed person, Patrick was just coming out of a dark dark six week stretch. We called the look he had during that time “alligator eyes above the swamp.” That he managed most days to get out of bed, to drive to my house to pick the dog up for a walk was a major accomplishment. That night, he’d seemed to be coming out of it. He’d seemed happy. In hindsight, it looks like mania, but that’s hindsight. So it was after a night of rather manic drinking at the last of our monthly Art Walks here in town, he drove an acquaintance to his house ten miles outside of town. Coming back down the gravel road he drove off an embankment at, as the coroners told me ” a high rate of speed.” He was very drunk.

Franzen’s description of Wallace’s boredom, his indifference, his inability to see the birds, I get that. Franzen’s descriptions of how boredom, and it’s attendant imitation of being a living human being fuel Wallace’s fiction is incredibly astute. The difference between my brother Patrick and me was, in large part, that I can find real joy in the actual things of the world — in my garden for instance, or in the experience of hiking in the mountains that surround Livingston, in the dogs, in watching my friend Nina’s kids grow and change. Actual joy in something outside my own head. Patrick, like most depressed people, especially when he was in the hole, couldn’t. He wanted to, and he often tried to imitate someone who cared, but he couldn’t actually make that experiential leap where the world outside his own pain was interesting enough to perhaps provide him a lifeline back to the world.

When someone you love kills himself, whether accidentally like Patrick did or deliberately like Wallace (although the survivors of both are left wondering, was it deliberate? was it an impulsive accident? and neither of us will ever know), the anger is overwhelming. Franzen claims its in large part what drove him to an island off the coast of Chile: “my current state of flight from myself had begun two years earlier. At the time, I’d made a decision not to deal with the hideous death of someone I’d loved so much but instead take refuge in anger and work. Now that work was done …” When someone you love kills himself, you’re left in a welter of narrative: everyone argues over the truth of a story that can never be determined. Mostly though you’re left in the bewildering position of wondering how someone who you know loved you could do that to you. It’s the kind of pain that you never get over, the one that lodges deep down inside. What kind of terrible person must you be if the person who loved you most in this world couldn’t even be bothered to stay alive?

Here’s where I’m deeply grateful to Jonathan Franzen — he goes there, into the head of the fucked up depressed person, and parses the fucked up logic in a way that finally makes some kind of sense.

To deserve the death sentence he’d passed on himself, the execution of the sentence had to be deeply injurious to someone. To prove once and for all that he truly didn’t deserve to be loved, it was necessary to betray as hideously as possible those who loved him best, by killing himself at home and making them firsthand witnesses to his act.

That’s the first thing I’ve found (and believe me, I spent two years reading everything I could find on depression and suicide, often to the consternation of my friends) that makes sense. By killing oneself the depressed person can “cure” you of the mistake of loving them, prove to you that you should never have loved someone so unworthy in the first place. They’ll free you from your mistaken love.

When I was in grad school, one of the reasons that my professors were spectacularly disinterested in my novel was that I wasn’t experimenting with the idea that we’re all somehow hollow, with the idea that “the Real” is an unobtainable fiction. I wrote a novel about the realest thing I could think of, parents trying to find their lost child in an actual physical landscape. I wrote about death, and not as a metaphor. Perhaps one of the reasons I could never read Wallace is that what he’s describing is the inside of the head of the sorts of depressed and narcissistic people who raised me. That fictive universe feels like the one I chewed my own arm off to escape, and one reason I escaped into outdoor sports is because that was a world where it was easy to determine what was Real and what was unimportant. Keeping warm enough in bad weather not to die of hypothermia: Real. What you looked like while doing it: Not Real. Not panicking when you encounter a bear standing on his hind legs and woofing at you on a trail you’ve hiked with your dogs a million times: Real. Even in the garden where the stakes are lower, cause and effect is pretty clear: enough water and sunshine and you get tomatoes and lettuces. You don’t get interpretations of tomatoes and lettuces.

Which is not to say that birding or gardening or hiking would have saved any of the people we loved. Depression is a real live mental illness with biological components and we don’t really know how to treat it or cure it or save the people we love. And while I’m still not going to start writing dense, footnoted prose about our alienation from ourselves, while, in fact, I’m writing about the ongoing idea that we can actually know ourselves and our loved ones in some fundamental way, I will always be grateful to Jonathan Franzen for doing the hard work of parsing the fucked up logic of the suicidal.

(Although for his own good, I would like to encourage him to learn some real outdoor skills the next time he wants to go off and play Robinson Crusoe. Our search and rescue teams are good, but still.)