Thursday, January 27, 2005

I would never dare

to write such an outright rant, but am full of admiration for those who do, and this one is so funny that I can't stop thinking about it (and feeling sorry for the hapless skewered author of the book under review): Jonathan Yardley's Washington Post review of a how-to writing book by Bret Lott.

Any claims Lott makes of being a serious, 'literary' writer are thoroughly exploded by his penultimate chapter, 'The Most Fragile Book,' in which he tells how his writing teacher at the community college, 'a wild-haired, Harley-riding poet/professor from Cal State,' told his students to read 'a book I'd never heard of,' The Catcher in the Rye. Talk about epiphanies! The blinding light that greeted Saint Paul on the road to Damascus was a dim bulb compared to the firestorm that J.D. Salinger's stupendously overrated little novel ignited in the fluttering heart of young Bret Lott. It was 'this amazing book, this totally true book, this genuinely real book,' the book 'was about me, the me that'd been drifting what felt so many years,' and he reread it 'four or five more times during the next several years, holding it dearer each time, admiring it more the deeper I went into my own life as a writer.'

It's hardly a surprise, therefore, that Lott went on to become a writer of novels and stories in which easy sentimentality dominates and ineffectual men often play significant roles. It is an essentially adolescent, even childish view of the world, one nurtured by Holden Caulfield in 'the most fragile book I have ever read. Fragile, because in the initial rush of its ferocious beauty, the young who read it -- myself included -- can see Holden as their spokesman against the machine, yet in the same instant Holden is himself utterly breakable, because beneath that fearless veneer bent on exposing the world in all its pretension, is a fearful child.'

To which can only be said: Oh, grow up. The Catcher in the Rye may have its uses for the adolescent reader -- indeed, it seems to have become an obligatory part of the American rite of passage passage -- but there's precious little in it for the mature adult. That Lott hasn't gotten beyond it suggests nothing so much as arrested adolescence and makes all the more dubious his claim to have sound counsel for aspiring writers. But then it's hard to take seriously the counsel of a writer who can't write. To wit: "And then I glanced to my left to see a student with her nose wrinkled up, as though smelling something false. She wasn't one of those kinds of belligerent students, either, those sorts who think they know something going in and so rebut everything that comes out of your mouth in order to hold together the sad and tattered last shred of the nomad's tent their understanding of writing has become." Not bad enough for you? Try this: "The image that came to me that wanted to begin itself once I'd finished [writing] The Man Who Owned Vermont, the picture in my head that seemed to want the next novel -- and this is how the beginning comes, as some image unbidden, something I see happening that intrigues me enough to make me want to follow it out to whatever end it seems to find of and for itself -- was of a woman standing inside an empty house, her hand at a window, outside the window, thick woods.

Anyone who proposes to study writing under the author of those words may also want to study business ethics under Kenneth Lay, Jeffrey Skilling and Andrew Fastow.

(Thanks to Tingle Alley for the original link.)

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