As a part time professional ‘creative writing tutor’, I can say I only ever teach the present tense as one tool among many. I do not urge it on my ‘sensitive and artistic storytellers’, or any of the insensitive ones either. I teach students that verbs are the way they create a relationship for the reader to time, and function a little like the way a horizon line might in a picture. As for using it to dodge the ‘politically dodgy’, well, I can’t imagine teaching anyone that way with a straight face—and so that strikes me as something of a straw man. Or, woman, perhaps.
Today, I’m proud to announce the first-ever Critical Margins Podcast episode!
This week, Jason Braun and I discuss literary elitism: whether it exists, what it might mean for writers and publishers, and how we perceive reading in the twenty-first century. Are fears or concerns about elitism or snobbery just insecurities or something else?
As writers, we are sometimes faced with a lot of pressures to perform. But what’s most important is that we write, and write well.
We’re seven days into a new year, and over the past two weeks or so, we’ve seen a litany of articles on the state of writing and publishing. Predictions and resolutions for 2014 show up in my Twitter feed daily. That’s fine; I’m happy to see people’s 2014 predictions. For me, I think it’s time to return to the basics. Instead of spending time building an audience and platform, what can I do to push myself as a writer?
Roberge argues that literary fiction derives from and is influenced by “moral complexity.” This is how literary fiction distinguishes itself from other forms of fiction, which he argues seek out “pat” explanations of moral complexity:
But/and it strikes me that most good writing (and here, I’ll put my vote in for “good” being synonymous with ethically complex—among a great many of other things that factor into quality, only a couple being a rigorous attention to craft and perhaps an author’s desire while writing the work to matter/last beyond a New York publishing “season” that often gives books about as long a chance as fresh produce to reach its buyers) concerns itself with issues of non-conventional morality.
David Foster Wallace once said that good fiction “addresses and antagonizes the loneliness that dominates people.” Not every work of fiction can do this well, but when a story does, it’s a rewarding experience.
This is the goal in Fiona Maazel’s latest novel Woke Up Lonely. Throughout the novel, we look through the lens of many characters from different parts of life and with a diverse range of successes and failures. What ties each of these characters together is an elusive cult called the Helix: the goal of the Helix is to give meaning and purpose to people who couldn’t find it anywhere else.
The novel takes place in 2005. America is split politically after a close and negative election. Many Americans, upset with Bush’s reelection, seek out meaning and purpose somewhere else. They look at their lives, see what the Helix has to offer, and join the organization. The novel focuses on some of these characters who are affected by the Helix, and an omniscient narrator digs into the psyche and motivations of a handful of characters, revealing their insecurities while they attempt to navigate the complexities of modern life.
The Helix is led by a charismatic leader named Thurlow Dan. Throughout the novel, Thurlow Dan is shown to be as lost as any other character. He seeks out the wife and daughter that left him and tries to impress his parents who live with him in the large, guarded Helix headquarters in Cincinatti.
As Thurlow Dan figures out his own purpose in life, and controls Helix members through pithy self-help speeches, his ex-wife Esme spies on him as a government agent. Thurlow’s true motivations, as we learn, isn’t just to help lonely people feel better about themselves, it’s political. Esme thinks Thurlow is bent on destroying the government, but even then, she recognizes his desire to unravel loneliness: “you said you were so alone. That we all were. And, just listening to you, I was bowed down to the candor of people in pain.”
Unknown to almost every member of the Helix, Thurlow attempts to get weaponry through his political ties with North Korea. What starts out as a story about the motivations of life turns into a shape-shifting spy novel. The Helix does what any desperate organization would do when cornered by the government: it takes hostages, locks down its headquarters, and isolates its members. The back-and-forth between Esme and Thurlow — seen by the reader, but not known to either of the characters until the end — is what ties the couple together, despite their opposing motivations.
Yet Maazel’s skills lie in keeping the focus on the relationships in the novel. Even as Thurlow acts irrationally in his pursuit of control, Maazel keeps the reader most interested in the inner lives of each character. We soon learn that Thurlow is just as insecure and lonely as anyone else. As he says, “Even people who court the hurt, who need the hurt by way of self-recrimination and penance — they do not want this much of it. And not for this long. Because after this long, it’s hard to acknowledge that hurt — this hurt — resolves into years of poor judgment.” As much as the reader wants to hate Thurlow for his poor judgment, he is redeemed in that he’s just as lonely and insecure as his followers.
All of the interconnected stories in this novel ultimately end up focusing on Thurlow and Esme. Just like Thurlow, Esme comes to terms with her past and her wish to stop Thurlow’s destructive path and to have some sense of normalcy in her life. As a government spy, Esme watches Thurlow’s every move, but she knows what he will do because he’s her ex-husband. In the process, we learn about her past and the love she still holds for Thurlow.
Ultimately, this novel isn’t about a cult with ties to North Korea or about the spy ring to stop the cult from weaponizing. Maazel has weaved together an intricate story about desire and longing. The spy thriller stuff is secondary to the loneliness we feel as readers. What makes this a successful novel, and an enjoyable read, is that it antagonizes and aggravates those parts of our selves that are most vulnerable.
Maazel’s Woke Up Lonely seems like a thriller with espionage and international terrorism, but it’s really a love story. It’s one that Maazel pulls off well without reverting to cliche or relying on genre conventions — for that reason, I suspect this novel will end up being one of the best of this year.
As I read David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, I’m reminded that Wallace liked to play with authenticity in narrative. Who is writing this novel? Who is the narrator? Like Paul Auster and other similar, postmodern authors, Wallace is placing a fictionalized version of himself in this novel.
Sixty five pages in, we’re introduced to David Wallace, the fictional narrator of the novel. He is an IRS employee who, until this point, has stayed behind the scenes.
This portion of the novel is called the “Author’s Foreword,” but it’s placed far enough in for the reader to realize it is part of the novel, and it’s fiction. But Wallace is concerned with “reality” — that everything in this novel is real, except the copyright page: “The only bona fide ‘fiction’ here is the copyright page’s disclaimer — which, again, is a legal device: The disclaimer’s whole and only purpose is to protect me, the book’s publisher, and the publisher’s assigned distributors from legal liability” (p. 67)
This is meta-fiction at its most bizarre and complex, and Wallace is both critiquing this po-mo technique and revelling in it. This is how he puts it:
As it moves on, we get the sense that the IRS represents what Wallace could have become if he hadn’t been a writer: a bored, disaffected office worker. These are the people that make up his fictional Peoria IRS Regional office. They are the people who aspired for something larger, but ended up doing what is respectable and “normal.” So, as we read this novel, the things these characters represent, in their own weird way, are the things that we deal with on a daily basis. It’s the mundane, the average, that take up the majority of this text.
For Wallace (the real Wallace), it’s about those dull and boring moments. Maybe there’s beauty in those moments.
We shall see how these characters deal with their perceptions and attitudes about work and social expectations. Wallace wants us to see that these mundane events are an important part of reality, so in that way, it’s semi-non-fictional.