Saturday, May 15, 2010

How to Destroy Angels

If you're read my fiction, you might know I have an affinity for the band Nine Inch Nails. Have since, oh, 1992, when the EP Broken was released, and all my teen angst suddenly came blasting back at me through my earphones (never mind that the brainchild behind NIN--Trent Reznor--was 26 when he recorded that album).

Trent and I are both older now, but his deeply nihilistic worldview has always been a current conductor for the darker aspects of my creativity. You might say I learned how to do noir from Trent Reznor.

My last novel, The Long Division, in particular, references NIN lyrics on various occasions, though not for more than a word or two, owing to the fact that I can't afford copyright clearance. While I was writing Division, the NIN song "Right Where it Belongs," off the album With Teeth became the unofficial "theme song" for my character Wynn Johnston, an disturbed young man whose sense of reality is gradually cracking.

"Right Where it Belongs" is a haunting song with "Alice Through the Looking Glass" metaphysical themes regarding the "reality" of our earthy existence. It's Lewis Carroll, it's Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" or The Matrix in song form--except that the other side of Trent's looking glass isn't Wonderland or "the ideal truth," or even Neo and Orpheus and Trinity battling giant octopus robots.

It's absolute oblivion, total un-being. For me, the song derives its power from its truth value. It doesn't need to concoct a fantasy realm to scare us. It just tells us exactly what's coming, what's already there. Cheerful, huh? No--but there's a kind of melancholy satisfaction, an inner peace, that comes from pondering the unhappy truth--and this song captures it better than few I know.


As of last year, Nine Inch Nails has gone on a rather long hiatus, which is actually nothing new for Reznor, who's been known to let almost a decade pass between albums. But, actually, Reznor's output has been pretty steady in the last few years: Year Zero, Ghosts, The Slip. And even now he doesn't seem to be resting on his laurels.

Recently Rznor got married to a musician named Mariqueen Maandig, formerly of the band West India Girl. Yes, one tends to want one's mope rock heroes to avoid normal, happy things like getting married, a la Morrissey's famous musical vow: "I will live my life as I will undoubtedly die: alone." But you can't begrudge a guy a little happiness every now and then.

Especially when his marriage results in a new band and a new way to channel his creative energies. That band is How to Destroy Angels. Mariqueen sings, at least on the tracks I've heard so far. I'm a little ambivalent.

Mariqueen is a breathy, quiet singer like Charlotte Gainsbourg or that lady from Portishead. She doesn't belt it out with raw emotional energy like her husband, one of the most viscerally exciting singers of my generation, but this is more subdued music, slightly more conventional than what Trent's been doing. But it grows on me quickly.

And one certainly can't begrudge their first video. In instantly captures that noir sensibility that I've always found so captivating about Reznor. Mariqueen and Trent, both of them victims of some violent murder. It's a bit disconcerting to see the soul hero of your adolescence immolating in a pool of his own blood, but, hell, we're talking about the guy who recorded his classic album The Downward Spiral in the Tate-Polanski house. He's like that.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Atlantis Article

Here's a brand new article/interview with Atlantis, a journal out of UNC-Wilmington, my MFA alma mater. Thanks to Madison Kiger for the great interview questions.

The opening para:

"'Once upon a time is hell.' The first line of the thriller Pyres sets the tone for 308 pages of death, deceit, and a closet full of skeletons that a fifteen-year-old girl must unearth in order to solve her father’s murder. Author Derek Nikitas’s first book has made an irreversible mark on the crime fiction genre. Recently having released his second book, The Long Division, Nikitas is making himself hard to ignore."

That's right. As Morrissey once sang, "the more you ignore me, the closer I get."

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Impulse

Usually I visit two writers' conferences a year. Bouchercon, a conference for mystery and crime writers and fans. And AWP, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, where folks associated with college-level writing programs, mostly MFA program, gather to trade teaching ideas, pleas for literary magazines subscriptions, jealousy and misery.

I enjoy Bouchercon shitloads more. At Bouchercon, my love for fiction is constantly reinvigorated by the enthusiasm of my peers, novice and seasoned. There's community, where writers seek each other out to share news, encourage each other, and discuss the writing world. Each time I've been to Bouchercon, my instinctive introversion was thrown out the window as new writers asked for my advice, editors introduced themselves to me, and sages of the genre, like Dennis Lehane in Baltimore two years ago, passed some wisdom onto me. Walk through the halls at the Boucheron hotel and you're likely to hear laughter and larger-than-life voices. Lots of Type A personalities.

At AWP, there's a kind of hush. Some people look like they're about ready to cry. There's a huge "book sale" wherein literary magazines you've never heard of try to get to subscribe to issues featuring writers you've never heard of. Most of these mags will not be in business next year. At AWP, I get to catch up with a couple of old friends, but otherwise I'm a wallflower, silently attending mundane panels. The literary stars are basically untouchable, or they form little cliques. Sure, there's the "bar scene" and a few off-site parties, but only at night. Walk through the halls at AWP and you get ignored, or at least glared at suspiciously.

If it sounds like I'm leading up to yet another in the endless series of "genre versus literary" blogs, well, I am. There's been enough virtual blood and ink spilled regarding the supposed difference between genre and literary fiction. John Banville got in some trouble last year for suggesting at a mystery conference that his crime-genre alter ego, Benjamin Black, wrote books more quickly and easily than his Booker-Prize-winning literary self. You can really irk some people talking like that.

So I probably shouldn't, but I will. We can split hairs all day about whether "literary" is itself a genre or not (of course it is; at least, it's a collection of many genres). We can debate about the aesthetic merits of literary versus genre fiction, the degree to which one or the other is rife with clich├ęs or utilitarian writing or overblown writing or obfuscation, the entertainment value of either. We can ponder whether there is a "we" at all, or just me, writing this blog to myself.
All that's been done before.

But what I want to talk about is the literary impulse versus the genre impulse. This is observation, necessarily generalized, and it comes mostly from my experiences at these conferences and talking with friends who self-identify as either literary or genre writers.

All writers want to reach readers. All writers want to sell books and please their readership. All writers want to impress their readers. Almost all writers want to feel like they're part of a community. The notions that literary writers want to deliberately alienate readers and stay poor or unpublished just to be "different," or that genre writers want to hoard money by passing off paint-by-numbers exercises as quickly and efficiently as possible--these are all generally false suppositions generated by people who don't understand writerly impulses. We all have egos and want to be admired for our stories--or rather, we want our stories to be admired.

But I've noticed differences between how certain kinds of writers want to please or impress their readers.

There's an authorial impulse that wants nothing more than to hear from a reader: "Your novel kept me up all night. I couldn't stop turning the pages, and I couldn't turn them quickly enough. Those twists and revelations--man, I was floored. Not only that, I learned so much information about X. You're such an amazing storyteller!" Let's say, for the sake of argument, that the writer who wants to hear this kind of feedback has a genre impulse: the need to please a reader by telling as exciting a story as possible.

But there's another authorial impulse that wants most of all to hear this from a reader: "Your novel changed my life. I thought I had the world figured out, and then you just opened up this whole new way of thinking for me. Your vision is beautiful, I contemplated every sentence, and I don't think I'll ever be able to get your characters or your worldview out of my consciousness." The need to hear this feedback I'm going to call, as you might have guessed, the literary impulse.

I'm not suggesting that one is better than the other, though many do make just such a suggestion. To stereotype, some writers with a literary impulse don't understand the genre impulse. They think it's cheap, filled with gimmicks, and disposable. The sheer goal of getting people to flip pages quickly sounds to them like the worst kind of commodity fetishism. Plot is a crutch, outmoded since the Modernist era, fodder for ridicule since the Postmoderns came on the scene. The genre impulse is, to some, less about personal vision than jumping a bandwagon and stealing all its baggage.

But many genre writers don't understand the literary impulse. They think it's vain and elitist to presume that you can explode a reader's worldview. They think it's ego-maniacal and solipsistic to bore readers with endless passages of intellectual or emotional pontification. It's naval-gazing on mundane subjects. It's self-destructive self-marginalization and a complete ignorance of the publishing marketplace.

Of course these are generalizations, or at least extremes along a continuum. Most real writers fit somewhere in the middle. I know I do--and it's exactly that DMZ between these two poles that feeds my anxieties and makes me wonder who my audience is supposed to be--if anyone. Because, let's face it: the literary impulse and the genre impulse tend to attract two very different kinds of audiences, too.

You're wondering what all this has to do with conferences. Conferences show me what happens when you bring together two different masses of people, each tending to gravitate to one or the other impulse pole. And what I discover, whether demonstrably true or not, is that the genre impulse seems generally extroverted, social, and objective. It's also inclusive, less competitive, because all writers with a genre impulse draw from the same inexhaustible pool of tropes and feed an arguably ever-hungry audience.

The literary impulse is generally introverted, competitive and subjective because writers with a genre impulse feel that they're drawing each from their own little drying wells of personal inspiration and feeding a small and finicky audience. This, you might argue, is why literary writers tend to write fewer books more slowly, and why their books are often more autobiographical and "realistic." Their impulse is to voice their subjective experience instead of the collective, iconic, idealized experience of humanity.

I'm really going to go out on a limb and suggest that many more of my genre friends were outgoing and popular in high school, just as they are now mostly great conversationalists and self-promoters. They had the pulse of the people--knew what others wanted to hear, and gave it to them. On the other hand, I know most of my literary friends were awkward loners in high school, too indrawn and contemplative, too pent up with an eagerness to prove themselves to others. They felt cut off from the concerns of the mainstream, yet secretly eager to connect with someone who felt the same strange impulses they did.

Perhaps these are the personalities that these genre and literary impulses breed from? The genre extrovert gathers everyone he can into his fold, eager to entertain and please. The literary introvert seeks out a smaller cadre of confidants, a safety zone where he can discuss how different he feels, how unique. Both of them want to be read, but, it seems to me, for very different reasons. In this sense, I think this old genre versus literary thing isn't a decision at all. It's largely a manifestation of personality.

This is probably no big news to anyone reading, but it strikes the heart of my own anxieties. When I go to Bouchercon, I often feel like a literary grump dressed in communist gray who has stowed himself aboard a Carnival cruise full of champagne and bathing suits. I know my impulses tend toward the literary, just as I know they were probably borne from that awkward, introverted teenager who needed to please people by impressing them with the depth and strangeness of his artistic expression. But the types of stories I create are genre because that's what I loved to read when I was younger, and that's what compels me to write. In my work, I'm constantly stuck right in the middle, the consummate moderate, wanting all at once to propel my story forward and yet linger on the metaphysical experience of my characters in their moments of crisis, rendered in evocative and carefully crafted prose.

This is obviously where my theory falls apart. There are probably very few writers at each extreme. Sure, Lee Child is an out-and-out genre writer, interested in little more than crafting a story that shoots the reader through the book and having another book at the readeywhen the reader is done. Whereas, say, David Foster Wallace, quite obviously a tortured loner to the end, was desperate in almost all his writing to make his vision understood. But when you throw enough of these guys and gals together, they tend to cluster near either extreme.

Here's another knot in my argument: most of the loners I knew in high schools were not readers of literary fiction (hardly anyone is, until she gets to college; and even then one gets "initiated" into a love for literary fiction, a kind of "secret society" of people who believe they feel more deeply and weirdly than the general populace). No, the loners in high school read sci-fi or fantasy, if they read anything at all. I've never been to a sci-fi or fantasy conference, so I don't know about the kinds of people who frequent them. Perhaps, then, when I say genre, I mean only mystery and romance, maybe horror.

Now I'm nitpicking, and my ideas are falling apart in my hands. I know quite a few outgoing literary writers. I know a couple deeply introverted genre writers, including the one in the mirror. My argument is little more than a whim, baseless and ephemeral. But still, when I go to those conferences, the line feels like a solid brick wall.

I'm teetering right on that wall, never sure which way to let myself fall, never quite wanting to decide. I want to please lots of people with engaging and surprising stories pulled right out of the Collective Unconscious. I want to surprise a few with my quirky personal vision and deeply-sought insights. I want it all. What a cad. What a snob. What a... writer?

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Tortise Reads

I know some speed readers. My pal and fellow writer J.T. Ellison says she “can get 10-15 pages into a book in two minutes.” Critic extraordinaire Sarah Weinman is a staggeringly speedy reader. She claims to be able to take in information a paragraph or even a page at a time, sort of like looking at a picture. It has something to do with excellent peripheral vision, to hear her tell it.

Which explains why I can’t read more than a page a minute, tops. Shitty eyesight. Yeah, I’m envious of those who can read faster. Sure as hell could get a lot more reading done, and they may in fact have some kind of wiring in their brains that I don't have.

I don't presume to be able to understand the speed reading process and how it works, and I certainly don't doubt the insights my speed-reading friends gain from their reading. But I have to wonder two things. First, it’s got to be more than just the ability to see better, or wider, or more comprehensively in one swoop. There’s more to real reading than just seeing the words clearly. Second, I must wonder if speed readers end up missing something in the rush--if only because I know I would miss lots of stuff if I read any faster than I do. The point of all this could be only that I'm just kind of slow.

Truth told, I read different material at different rates. Straightforward informational nonfiction goes fastest, since all you’re getting is that: information. Of course, the more difficult the information, the more it needs analysis and interpretation and configuration from the reader, the slower I get. Can anyone read the great philosophers at a steady clip and get anything out of it?

Fiction written in a utilitarian, storyteller’s voice, like Dean Koontz or Stephen King, I can read that pretty fast. I raced through the last three books in King’s massive Dark Tower series, each one in a couple days. The prose is the opposite of dense: breezy, detail-lite passages that race the reader through activity and dialogue. There's often a lot of telling, where the imaginative work is done for you. I'm not knocking this stuff; it's a lot of fun to read and a great diversion.

But what about the more “writerly” fiction? Or fiction written in a time when the reading public preferred denser or more baroque prose, or spoke in an earlier form of English difficult for contemporary readers to translate? What happens to reading speed when meaning gets complicated by compound-complex sentencing, or inversions in syntax, or unfamiliar diction, or complexity, obscurity, or downright evasion or elusiveness?

Here’s the first sentence of George Eliot’s Middlemarch:

“Who that cares much to know the history of man, and how the mysterious mixture behaves under the varying experiments of Time, has not dwelt, at least briefly, on the life of Saint Theresa, has not smiled with some gentleness at the thought of the little girl walking forth one morning hand-in-hand with her still smaller brother, to go and seek martyrdom in the country of the Moors?”

At the risk of exposing my own stupidity, I’m going to admit this is a tough sentence for me. Slow-going. I have to read this sentence a phrase at a time, a couple times, just to see its whole meaning play out. Like: to realize that the person who “has not dwelt” and “has not smiled” is the “Who” at the beginning of the sentence. Like: realizing this is a rhetorical sentence: “What thoughtful person hasn’t thought about Saint Theresa?” (me, for one). Like: getting that the little girl is Saint Theresa herself. Like: getting that the “mysterious mixture” is “the history of man.” This is all slow-going grammatical analysis I have to undertake before I can even see what the sentence is asking of me, and appreciate the question.

It ain’t good enough to dismiss this prose as inconsequential old fashioned-ness, because we're talking about George Eliot, and she’s bigger than any of us. Her place in literary history is solid, and we’re not going to break it. It’s our job to step up to her, to Shakespeare, to Melville, to all of them. Yes, we can say that they're not our cup of tea or ignore them completely, but the more of us who dismiss the past masters, the more of our literary culture and history we kill off and bury forever.

Occasionally, we can dismiss contemporary writers who seem to be just difficult for the sake of difficulty. But we can’t rush to assume that a writer’s difficulty exists only for its own sake. Often, difficulty is a product of culture and time, or, perhaps most importantly, difficulty is a product of the complexity and depth of an author's expression. So we can’t just say: well, I don’t read books by authors who don’t write clearly or breezily. That’s just blanket stupidity.

Philosophy and poetry are even tougher. Try to speed-read Nietzsche or Walter Benjamin or W.B. Yeats. Unless you’re a genius, Speed Reader, you’re lost. Constantly, I have to convince my students to slow down when reading poetry. So often, you’ve got to unravel syntax and consider alternate meanings of words, and that’s even before you can comprehend the full meaning of a line or a stanza. Before you can get a full picture of the image evoked or a full understanding of the idea expressed, you've got to figure out what the sentence actually says.

Maybe those who claim to be speed readers aren’t talking about reading poetry and high philosophy. Few people these days notice when you omit those categories.

But, still. Fulfilling reading is about much, much more than the mere speed at which you process the English language in print. Most of us can read faster than we can comprehend what we’re reading. That’s obvious. But what’s not obvious is that reading is more than just comprehension, too. Just because we understand a sentence or paragraph of fiction, doesn’t mean we truly experience it.

Most of what I mean has to do with gaps—a Reader Response Theory word. Don’t worry—this isn’t technical. It’s just the idea that with fiction, the words on the page are only part of the equation. The words on the page are only a blueprint for the reader’s full experience, most of which the conscientious reader provides him or herself during the reading process.

Take for instance, a brief but arresting image I read recently in Dennis Tafoya’s debut crime novel Dope Thief. Paraphrased: the main character is scoping out a farm house, notices swing set chains, seats missing, pinging against the swing set frame. It’s one sentence, fairly nondescript, but it suggests a lot of gaps that need filling by me.

First, the image gaps. Good writers give “telling details,” details that suggest much more about the image that needs be said. The reader will fill in the rest. When I see the above image, I fill in, at least: the intensity of the breeze that’s swinging those chains, the frequency of the pinging, the rustiness of the swing set, the height of the neglected grasses surrounding the set. And much more that I'm only half-conscious of. I need time--seconds, at least--to do that imaginative work.

Next, the emotion gaps. I have to take a nanosecond, at least, to feel the forlorn mood of the image. I have to ponder why the narrator notices this image and what it means that he does. This is a guy who lost his childhood early, so the image has thematic resonance. The missing swings on the dangling chains are metaphors, but you have to think about what they're metaphors for.

Do I really go through all this work when I read a narrative sentence? Yes. In order to create the movie in my mind, not to mention the emotional depth in my understanding, I have to. It takes only mere seconds to do so, but that’s mere seconds per sentence, which adds up to two or three minutes a page, minimum. Get a denser, more difficult writer like Nabokov or Cormac McCarthy in his earlier books, you're looking at five minutes a page.

So when I hear about speed readers I wonder if I’m not just a damn slow thinker, or if so-called speed readers are really actually denying themselves the full intensity and depth of a reading experience. If you read so fast you don’t fill those gaps, the book stays a hazy blueprint, just a shallow simulation of a full experience. And what fun is that?