Tag Archives: The New York Review of Books

On Writing and the Pandemic

30 Mar

NY-empty-streets

By Lanny Morgnanesi

I’m not sure I’m ready to write.

The Coronavirus pandemic has inspired innumerable blogs, podcasts, articles and commentaries. Photos and videos of ghostly, empty streets circulate widely and never end. Footage of people singing to each other as a salve to the quarantine are reaching large numbers in live, nightly broadcasts. And I’m empty of thought.

In such times, for writers, the bare minimum is a journal. You can start it with vigor, try to shed light on the mundane, neglect it a little then let it trail off, but – unless you are out there and in it, which means you’ve got something – you are writing whatever everyone else is writing. My journal began thusly on March 23:

It’s impossible to put today in perspective, since yesterday was bad and tomorrow most certainly will be worse. At this point, at this time, numbers cannot adequately describe what we ultimately will face and how we will get there. Instead, let a few statistics be a point of demarcation along a road of unknown length. Let them serve not as a measure but only as a backdrop for the very present.

At that time, COVID-19 had infected 292,142 people and killed 1,600. Today, a mere seven days later, there are 729,100 infected people and 34,689 deaths. Experts say as many as 200,000 could die in the U.S.

Aside from my venturing out once for groceries – noting the absence of flour and yeast and realizing that in a panic you can’t outthink people – there really was little to write about at a time when there is a great deal about which to write.

While not writing, I read a little about writing. It was a retro piece in the New York Review of Books from 2016. The author was Joan Didion, whose utter and complete immersion in the art of writing has always fascinated me, and the piece was simply called California Notes. She begins saying that in 1976 Rolling Stone magazine asked her to cover the San Francisco trial of Patty Hearst, the heiress kidnapped by political radicals who became one of them and took part (while armed) in a bank robbery. Didion is a Californian who relocated to New York, but the Patty Hearst assignment would bring her back to California. She would seek inspiration for the piece by reacquainting herself with the state and trying to revive her own emotions about it.

didioncouch

Writer Joan Didion

For me, as I sat not writing, the best part of California Notes was Joan’s confession that she attended the trial but never wrote the piece. There was no explanation, except: “I thought the trial had some meaning for me—because I was from California. This didn’t turn out to be true.”  Her California reflections, however, led her years later to write a compilation called Where I Was From and even later  California Notes.

There’s a famous Nora Ephron quote that reminds me of Joan and has been repeated in this time of crisis: “Everything is copy.” I always thought it peculiar that such a quote would become so famous, since few outside of writing know what “copy” is. The reason must be because writers are the ones always repeating the quote. Anyway, “copy” in this sense means “material” for writing, and now – with the world shut down by a virus — everything is indeed copy. You go outside for a walk and it’s copy. You venture out and drive through town and it’s copy. You cook a meal or seek activities for your kids and it’s copy.

Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, Trancas, California, March 1972

Didion with husband, the late writer Gregory Dunne

Even without a pandemic, everything for Joan Didion seemed to be copy. (Her husband died and she got a book out of it). It might be that everything around Joan Didion, all the clouds she allowed to cover her success and notoriety, seemed like a personal pandemic, so she recorded it. In California Notes, she mentions an airline trip from New York to San Francisco in the 50s and reports that on the flight she had, “a Martini-on-the-Rocks and Stuffed Celery au Roquefort over the Rockies.” This means that while in her 20s she was taking notes on everything she did.

It’s true that in my youth I took notes. Joan got much more out of hers than I ever did. Like with her, the urge still remains with me. Recently, while in semi-retirement, I agreed to take a $25-an-hour job as a census taker, figuring I would get something out of it, a story about the real America, even though I’d only be visiting the homes of people in my mostly white, mostly affluent suburban county. As the virus spread, the government wisely decided not to send people house to house. I never went to even one.

In California Notes, there is mention by Joan of an early newspaper job at the Sacramento Union. Newspapers require reporters to learn local “style” – the proper way to refer to things in print. Joan touches on this and says,  “I learned that Eldorado County and Eldorado City are so spelled but that regular usage of El Dorado is two words; to UPPER CASE Camellia Week, the Central Valley, Sacramento Irrigation District, Liberator bombers and Superfortresses, the Follies Bergere [sic], the Central Valley Project, and such nicknames as Death Row, Krauts, or Jerries for Germans, Doughboys, Leathernecks, Devildogs.”

Patricia-Hearst-front-emblem-Symbionese-Liberation-Army

Heiress Patricia Hearst, after her kidnapping

Everything is copy. Sadly, I didn’t make any kind of record of the local style at my first newspaper, and can only remember this: “Do not use a period after the ‘S’ in ‘Harry S Truman High School.’ A period suggests an abbreviation and in this case ‘S’ is not an abbreviation because President Truman did not have an actual middle name.” In the same way I know I cannot compete with the person who thought to buy yeast before I did, I know I cannot compete with writers who know what food and drink they had on a plane in 1955, or can recite that actual constraints put on them decades ago by local “style.” Maybe Joan Didion came up dry at the utterly fantastic trial of Patty Hearst, but she found inspiration at every other turn in her life.

I’m sitting here now looking for inspiration. I suspect I’ll find it eventually. I’m fairly certain, however, I won’t be writing about my neighbors singing, if indeed they ever do. I prefer instead to write about things we fail to see. And right now, I can’t see anything.

 

Old Books Come Back to Life: Remember “Naked Lunch”?

1 Jun
Writer William Burroughs

Writer William Burroughs

 

The New York Review of Books sat on the table face up, showing the lead item about James Baldwin. This was odd, since Baldwin died a quarter century ago. No new books from him.

“As a writer of polemical essays on the Negro question, James Baldwin has no equals,” the review said.

The Negro question?

Oh. This was not new. This was old. It was a copy of the first edition of the New York Review of Books, reproduced on the 50th anniversary of the publication.  The Review was launched in 1963 as salve to a citywide newspaper strike. The most prominent authors of the day contributed. They did so on short notice and for no pay.

What a time that was!

Ideas and making a statement were more important than making money.

As a collective voice from the past now being read in the present, the Review of Books gives more than a few hints of intellectual unrest. The best minds of the day seemed to be laying the groundwork for a coming cultural break with convention and the status quo.

It’s right there, interwoven amidst the literature.

Those doing the writing were the avant-garde, and people listened to them. Looking over their names, it is difficult to recall writers today with reputations as large. Among the contributors were Norman Mailer, William Styron, Robert Penn Warren, Susan Sontag, Gore Vidal, Paul Goodman, Robert Lowell and Jules Feiffer.

If any group reflected the spirit of the times – or perhaps the coming spirit — this one did.

As did the books they reviewed.

Included was “Naked Lunch” by William Burroughs, the grandfather junkie to the Beat writers. “Naked Lunch” is perhaps one of the most unclassifiable novels in the English language. The story – often bizarre and fantastic — takes place inside the head of a man taking a drug cure from a quack. At one point in his career Burroughs would write his prose on paper, cut it up then randomly reassemble the pieces

“Naked Lunch” was reviewed by Mary McCarthy, whose books include “The Group” and “Birds of America.”

At the close of the review, she deals with the “pained question that keeps coming up like a refrain” – Why is this book being taken seriously?

Her answer is that for the first time in recent years, a really talented writer meant what he said.

This was the coming era.

Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer

Some of the celebrity reviewers, those with the larger personalities, were overly tough on their colleagues. Normal Mailer, always pugnacious, said “That Summer in Paris” by Morley Callaghan was “dim” and mostly without merit. One passage, however, saved the book, Mailer said, because it exposed the true character of novelist Ernest Hemingway, who two years earlier committed suicide.

The tale has Callaghan, who boxed in college, getting into the ring with the much larger Hemingway. F. Scott Fitzgerald was the timekeeper. In a round that went long, Callaghan flattened Hemingway. Fitzgerald blamed his poor time keeping.

“Oh, my God,” he said. “I let the round go four minutes.”

Hemingway, perhaps from the canvas, answered, “All right, Scott. If you want to see me getting the shit knocked out of me, just say so. Only don’t say you made a mistake.”

To me, this shows meanness and poor sportsmanship.

Was Hemingway a coward?

Was Hemingway a coward?

To Mailer, who also boxed, it led him to concluded, “There are two kinds of brave men. Those who are brave by the grace of nature, and those who are brave by an act of will. It is the merit of Callaghan’s long anecdote that the second condition is suggested to be Hemingway’s own.”

In essence, Mailer was calling Papa a closet coward, and he cited his suicide as evidence of this cowardice.

Then there was Gore Vidal. He described John Hersey’s book, “Here to Stay,” as  “dull, dull, dull.” Hersey was trying to invent something called “New Journalism,” which later would boost the careers of people like Tom Wolf and Hunter S. Thompson, but Vidal criticized him for cramming too many facts into his sentences.

John Updike is one of America’s best writers but Sir Jonathan Miller, a Cambridge graduate who did books, plays, movies and TV, said Updike’s “The Centaur” was “a poor novel irritatingly marred by good features.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald, poor at keeping time

F. Scott Fitzgerald, poor at keeping time

These reviews pretty much stuck to literature, but an unusual number referenced the Cold War and voiced the fear of imminent doom. It was hard to miss the Soviets. One reviewer discussed four books on the economy of our then-mortal enemy. Another reviewed Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s short gulag novel, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.”

Robert Jay Lifton, in a review of a compilation called “Children of the A-Bomb,” said, “The thing we dread really happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the world resists full comprehension of this event, symbolizing massive death and annihilation.”

He and others suggested that faith in the future was fading, and that without change mankind’s time was limited.

Reviewer Lewis Coser said education and information no longer were the answer.

He called the well-informed person “a cheerful robot.”

“The increase of information may indeed have led, contrary to the belief of the Enlightenment, to a decrease in rationality,” he said.

A remarkably forward-looking book carried the harmless title, “The Exploration of Outer Space.” It written by A.C.B. Lovell and reviewed by James R. Newman. Both lauded the development of radio astronomy as a way to finally understand the composition of the universe.  They believed recent findings made it almost certain that other solar systems contained life and that future contact was possible.

Nuclear war: On everyone's mind in 1963

Nuclear war: On everyone’s mind in 1963

But there was darkness overlaying this optimism. The review expressed a grave fear that humans, if they don’t destroy themselves first, one day would destroy life on other plants, either deliberately or through contamination.

The review ends this way:

“”I myself do not find the prevailing space-race chauvinism and the threat to other planets as horrifying as the threat of global extermination. Nor do I derive consolation from the thought that if our managers turn the earth info a lifeless stone other forms of life will continue elsewhere in the universe. But I am impressed with Lovell’s deep sense of responsibility about life everywhere, and I wish there were many more scientists like him.”

And that’s the way it was in 1963.

Coming would be Dylan, hippies, communes, the counter-culture; Burn Baby Burn, Don’t Trust Anyone Over 30; a refusal to be bought and sold; hope I die before I get old.

 By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

 

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