Wednesday, May 12, 2010

the ask

While in Boston I read Sam Lipsyte's new book, The Ask.

A witty paean to white-collar loserdom in the fund-raising racket, “The Ask” describes a crisis in the life of one Milo Burke, a deeply cynical academic development officer, earnest binger on doughnuts, avid consumer of Internet porn, and devoted father and husband. Detailing the meltdown of Milo’s career and marriage, “The Ask” takes place in an exhausted and passive institutional workplace — the kind of futile office space we know from such cinematic offerings as, well, “Office Space.” Milo’s job, raising money for a university he nicknames “Mediocre,” embodies the futility, waste and presenteeism of late capitalism’s corporate wasteland.

Lydia Millet, NY Times Book Review

Reviews have focused on the black comedy of the book (I pass over this, not because the book isn't funny, but because it seems unnecessary duplication of effort); somewhat oddly, no one has drawn attention to the profound irony of the work.

The humour of the book depends in part on the gap between the narrator's youthful pretensions to artistic ambition and subsequent career: he has been forced to a painful recognition of the inadequacy of the talent for which he once expected great things. He has now been put to the task of raising funds for the support of artists even less talented than his younger self. This is, in other words, not a particularly unbearable world: some talentless people get financial support, some less than spectacularly talented people struggle to get by. It's not a world where Vincents go missing for want of a Theo.

The narrator is, like Lipsyte, a member of Generation X, a slacker who stumbled into middle age. It seems he had a taste for the artist's lifestyle and mistook this for genius. Accounts of his artistic practice as a young man give no reason to think he was ever serious about the work. (Contrast, for example, Peter Carey's narrator in Theft.) Which is to say that the narrator is, in one absolutely crucial respect, nothing remotely like Sam Lipsyte.

The narrator was given to plastering random bits of stuff to a canvas and expecting the world to hail it as genius. We have no reason to think that if we had examples before our eyes we'd be much impressed. But, um, we do, of course, have examples of Lipsyte's work before our eyes, sentence after sentence after carefully crafted sentence. Far from being the complete tosser he has offered as a character for comic effect, Lipsyte has taken to heart the precept of Gordon Lish (with whom he once studied):


LRS: Were you a student of Gordon Lish?

Lipsyte: Yes, I studied with him. He published a couple of stories of mine in The Quarterly, after many rejections. They had that great form letter when they rejected you—it was about five hundred words long.

LRS: I was studying writing at college and then this professor showed up, a disciple of Gordon Lish, and we operated according to the Lish method. You start reading your work and then as soon as you hit a false note she made you stop.

Lipsyte: Yeah, Lish would say, "That's bullshit!"

LRS: That process completely derailed me. Took me years to recover my voice. But for you it actually seemed to have some kind of benefit.

Lipsyte: I think the process for me was to unlearn a lot of the sloppy habits I had. I learned a lot of new stuff from Lish. I struggled for a long time, but what you find out at the end is that there's no "method," it's just a way to get to your own thing.

in conversation with Gerald Howard (at the Daily Beast):

Eventually Sam had a couple of stories published in The Quarterly, and in 1995 he joined Lish’s famed pressure cooker writing class. It was a tough time for him financially and emotionally, as he had to nurse his dying mother, and the class became a transfiguring experience. “I had no real writer’s ego. It had been a long time since I’d shaken William Bennett’s enormous hand, and so I felt ready to, you know, just listen for a while. It was the most formative experience. The final lesson was that you’d have to go become the writer you’re going to become. If you get stuck following somebody else’s rules, you’re in trouble.”

I make the observation that Lish’s influence can been seen in Sam’s obvious concentration on the crafting of his sentences and his single-minded focus on style, a quality less prevalent in the work of younger American writers than it should be. (Savor the perfectly pitched ear required to turn a simple phrase like “a dumpling, some knurled pouch of gristle.”) Sam replies that “Gordon said many things that I will never forget, but the one thing that I always think about is that he said once, ‘There is no getting to the good part. It all has to be the good part.’ And so I think that when people are writing their novels they are just thinking about the story, about what has to happen so their character can get to Cleveland. And they are just typing; they don’t care about the sentences. And what are we here for if not the sentences.”

Now, this is not quite the way I'd look at it. Suppose we take two chessplayers, A and B. A insists on a beautiful board, handsomely carved ivory chessmen. B uses plastic pieces. I would say this tells you nothing about which is the better player - and that the aesthetic qualities of board and pieces are irrelevant to everything that is actually interesting about chess. Suppose you see four people playing cards. Are they engaged in an activity of any interest? One thing you could do is get a closer look at the cards: are these handpainted masterpieces, a pack commissioned, say, by a Duke of Marlborough? Another thing you could do is find out what game they're playing. Are they playing Old Maid? Black Maria? Poker? Whist? Bridge? If poker, are they playing Draw? 7-card stud? Omaha? Texas Hold 'em? What are the stakes? How good are the players? If whist, are they playing a casual game or following the principle of scientific whist? If bridge, are these serious players? Which bidding system(s) do they use? Which conventions? No one who actually understands the intellectual interest of such games would care whether the game was played with a pack of cards from the drugstore. Kant is a great philosopher, but unlikely to score points on his prose style.

So it's not that I wholeheartedly agree with the position of Lish and Lipsyte - but a man who holds this position and so takes infinite pains over his sentences, as Lipsyte does, can hardly be written off, like Lipsyte's narrator, as a disappointed poseur.

This is not, of course, to say that the narrator doesn't work as a character; his self-deceptions are crucial to the humour of the book. It's to say that book's quality places Lipsyte's own struggles to make a living in quite a different light from those of the luckless narrator.

Lipsyte teaches in the MFA programme at Columbia. He frequently comments in interviews that he had not realised as an undergraduate, but later came to accept, that a writer cannot expect to make a living from writing. His experience certainly bears this out. Lipsyte's second book, Homecoming, was initially unable to find a publisher - despite the fact that Howard badly wanted to publish it. Howard (for readers who don't keep track of these things) is an editor of exceptional distinction: a passionate admirer of Pynchon, a visionary editor who published David Foster Wallace's first novel and book of stories, DeLillo's Libra. It is, needless to say, pretty amazing if a young writer manages to win his respect. But Howard was unable to get the book approved by sales and marketing (sales of Lipsyte's first book had been disappointing), and so it went the rounds, and was ultimately, after looooooooong delays, published by Lorin Stein of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Meanwhile Lipsyte, as I say, was teaching.

What this means, of course, is that we have no way of knowing what Lipsyte is capable of achieving. David Foster Wallace took three years to write Infinite Jest; an advance bought him the time, that is it bought the time of a single man with no dependents. Lipsyte writes solidly for three months a year. The Ask shows what he can do within these constraints. It's an artifact, in other words, in a blacker world than the one it portrays.


Mithridates said...

Great post. The chess analogy is interesting, but, if I understand it correctly, it implies that the making of sentences isn't part of the game. It's not as if the writer selects well-crafted sentences or not; she makes them, and in making them has already started playing. I tend to think that writers of the Lipsyte-Lish-Lutz-etc school are playing a different game than other writers because their game appears to have a different end than the games that other writers play. Is the chess played by the hustlers in the park the same game that Kasparov plays? I’m not sure, given how different some of their goals are.

Writers like Lispyte might think in these terms. Let’s say there are two chefs A and B. Chef A takes great pains in creating a spectacularly tasty meal. Chef B spends five minutes knocking together a crude pile of hot mush. Both meals provide the necessary nourishment, both are filling; in these respects, both are equally satisfying, and both chefs are equally good. But whereas every bite of Chef A’s meal is pleasurable, the only thing that's pleasurable about Chef B’s meal is the feeling of fullness it gives. Now, the mush or fast food or whatever that Chef B tosses into the microwave could be more pleasurable to some, but it's pleasure of a different, less complex kind than that provided by Chef A. Some prefer Arby's, others prefer private dining at Michel Richard's Citronelle.

But let’s say that there are problems with Chef A’s way of doing things. The problem with Chef A (ugh, am I going too far?) is that he's not aware or concerned about issues other than the crafting of the meal--about whether the food is grown sustainably or not, about the ethical questions involved in eating meat, about environmental issues in general, about the debate between whole and processed foods, organic and non-organic, etc.--none of which have much to do with the pleasure or nutriment involved in eating (although being morally opposed to eating meat will no doubt turn the meal into a form of torture). In other words, even though Chef A makes a highly pleasurable and nutritious meal, he ignores the fact that some diners view eating as being about more than just pleasure and nutrition.

I also wonder if giving Lipsyte more time would allow him to create something beyond what his evidently pretty settled aesthetic would allow him to create. I mean, he’s primarily interested in creating works that are "all good parts," that have extremely well-crafted sentences. More time would then allow him either to create more of these well-crafted sentences or to craft the sentences better/more to his satisfaction. Nine extra months of solid writing would probably produce more books - although there's no telling; maybe all that time would make him lazier - but would he write more ambitious books, books that recognize, for example, how black the world really is? I don’t want to say that more time wouldn’t preferable to less time. It’d be great if Lipsyte to write more books and not have to worry about reaching a compromise between artistic integrity and adequate sales. But time probably wouldn’t turn Lipsyte into Dostoevsky. What you're pointing to is a failure or limitation of vision that I'm not sure more time would correct.

Anonymous said...

Great comment, Mithridates. But what is the literary analogue of those aspects of food besides nutrition and taste? Style + content is pretty much all of writing, right?

I have not read Lish or Lipsyte but I do wonder why so many people neglect to consider opportunity cost. Of course, there are also people who believe it is better to expend enormous amounts of time learning languages to read a few books in the original instead of reading many more books in translation...

Jenny Davidson said...

Good post, good comment. My friend Jane abhors the sentences of Lee Child but reads him eagerly nonetheless; I read him just plain voraciously regardless of sentences, although I am also partial to the Lutz-Lipsyte access. I do share Helen's feeling that the very best literary stylists are really interest in ideas as well as in sentences (Proust and Henry James being the obvious examples that come to mind), so that there is still a VERY highest good that will be accomplished only by few - not sure whether teaching makes this impossible or not, but it is true that the life of the independently wealthy cork-lined room is for a few very special individuals a TRULY liberating enabling condition.

Jenny Davidson said...

That was "axis," not "access"...

Re: chefs - most chefs even of the most exclusive themselves eat with considerable enjoyment all sorts of things like McDonald's cheeseburgers, Snickers bars, etc. - so that there is place for a wide range of different sorts of writing/cuisine along the spectrum, fine dining alone is not a suitable way of living... (Nor is reading only Lish-inflected sentence-writers, however excellent they may be individually. And I thought The Ask was amazingly good - I am a fan...)

Mithridates said...

Good point, Anon. The analogy does fall apart at some point. The literary analogues for those other aspects of food would have to come under the heading of either style or content or both, though I tend to think of style - and this is just me - as inseparable from content.

Let's put it this way: a book can have a satisfying style and content, if we want to make this distinction, AND still lack something in one or both of these departments. Reading an Oulipian work - not to pick on Oulipo; I like a lot of Oulipo writers; but given their preference for structures, arbitrary constraints, and so on, they seem like a good example - can be a aesthetic pleasure and an intellectual challenge, but it can still lack forms of engagement - and we might deem these forms of engagement important or even essential for good fiction, depending on our preferences - that we might find in other kinds of writing. (Apologies if I'm saying something very obvious.) It seemed to me that HD is saying that the world that Lipsyte represents isn't as interesting or depressing as the one in which he actually lives. The book might have been better had he represented something more like that world, inhabited by a hero more like himself. She also seemed to be arguing that, given the constraints placed on Lipsyte's writing life, we have no way of knowing how good his work could be. So his work could be said to lack style not in the sense that its sentences aren’t well-crafted but in the sense that its way of seeing the world is disappointing; and it could be said to lack a particular kind of content because all of things usually labeled content (ideas about ethics, existence, whatever) are missing from the world he represents; but both amount to the same thing, which is why I’m skeptical about the usefulness of the style/content distinction.

Now that I think about it, the knot I find difficult to untangle is this: if Lipsyte had it easier and didn't live in a world where he had to teach for nine months out of the year, would he be more or less likely to view the world in more negative, which is to say more accurate – just me, again – light? Or, let’s say he does view the world this way but chooses not to represent it this way, would he be more inclined to represent it this way? Perhaps. Perhaps it would free him up, he wouldn’t have to worry about sales or whatever. Roth can write depressing book after depressing book either because sales don’t really matter or because he’s an established name that’ll sell no matter what. But I find successful writers - writers who make enough to live off their writing - to be generally pretty willing to see the world in a much more positive light than I do. The world treats them better than it does the rest of us schlemiels. (Or perhaps it’s our fault; actually there’s a good chance of this in my case. I mean, I’ve spent my afternoon writing over 1100 words in response to a blog post – albeit a terrific one – for Jiminy Jesus’ sake.) It seems to me that all the frustration with the way publishing and the writing life works would have to come out of the life Lipsyte is now living. Or rather, the one that HD has been so trenchantly observing for a decade now. It could be that Lipsyte thinks he's got it pretty good, as most adjuncting, unpublished schlemiels living in Chicago (40 degrees today) would heartily agree.

Could you clarify your second paragraph? I know you haven't read them, but are you saying that Lish-Lipsyte neglecting opportunity cost?

Mithridates said...

Jenny: I agree with you, but my analogy doesn't imply that the chefs can't eat whatever they want. Lipsyte can enjoy dime novels and thrillers and still write "literary" books. That's not what I was talking about. But I should have made it clearer that diners are perfectly free to enjoy fast food and haute cuisine and everything in between.

I might also add that, in my view, the sentences a writer makes are already "ideas.” To continue my critique of the style/content distinction - HD's now wondering why she's allowing comments again – it makes less and less sense to me (though it’s probably an unshakeable habit, we do it all the time) to talk about style, because that would mean that there were some qualities of a piece of language that we could isolate and call style and that would exclude all other aspects of the meaning of that piece of language. Style - or "sentences," by which I take you to mean "style" - is really just one aspect among many of the meaning of a piece of language or of a linguistic performance as a whole. If Lish wants each sentence to be interesting or “good,” it can only be interesting or good by virtue of what it means when it says precisely what it says. I really don’t think there are different ways of meaning the exact same thing; to say something in two different ways is to mean two different things, whatever similarities those meanings might share. So instead of style and content or sentences and ideas, distinctions which lead us into what I view as a faulty dualism, I think it makes more sense to just talk about meaning. Proustian and Jamesian sentences are already part of what Proust and James meant. To talk about the formal or stylistic aspects of the text is just to talk very precisely about what it means. This is why I think formalist criticism is in many ways preferable to most others: they were wrong in thinking that they were just talking about “style” or “form”; they were really talking about the precise meanings of texts, whereas many of their critics, who have a laudable interest in what they call “content,” often wind up talking about the meanings of texts in very general and imprecise ways.

Have I gone to far afield?

Helen DeWitt said...

Suppose we take a couple of lines:

And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings

Or how about:

The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing
Alive enough to have strength to die
And a grin of bitterness swept thereby
Like an ominous bird awing

Now suppose we look at:

3. All men are mortal.
Socrates is mortal.
Therefore Socrates is a man.


4. All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Therefore Socrates is mortal.

The first two examples both aspire to and have virtues not exemplified in the second two. The second two aspire to virtues not aspired to in the first (only one succeeds); they don't aspire to the virtues of the first two.

I think writing that exemplifies the virtues of the first examples can be extraordinarily good. If it consistently gets wrong the kind of thing that's wrong with 3, you end up with John Updike or Martin Amis, who seem to me to be weaker writers, over the long haul, as a result. I don't think 4 is a bad piece of writing because it fails to exemplify the virtues of 1 or 2. I doubt that a work of fiction that had only its virtues would be a strong work of fiction. I do think, though, that if this sort of sentence ends up disqualified on aesthetic criteria something will be missing.

I don't think The Ask would have been a better book if blacker: it's a funny book, and if the narrator had a genuine talent it would be less funny. I thought it was interesting precisely because there was this dissonance between the premise which supported the humour of the book (Milo's lack of talent) and the book's demonstration of Lipsyte's undeniable gifts.

I have no idea what Lipsyte might write if blessed with a MacArthur. The thing that strikes me as interesting is, though, that the realities of the publishing world have socialised him into an acceptance of lack of entitlement which would be entirely appropriate for the narrator of his book; his talent and dedication to his craft certainly seem to merit something better than what's on offer.

David Foster Wallace once wrote a piece for Esquire about the Canadian Open. He followed Michael Joyce, a talented player who was not in the top 10; he said Joyce managed not to get upset about things Wallace would have found hard to swallow, having worked out that getting upset about these things only got in the way of his game. Lipsyte seems to have achieved this level of acceptance too. I wonder whether that's damaging for a writer in a way that it's not for a tennis player.

Jenny Davidson said...

It is also possible (to throw things in a completely different direction) that teaching isn't burden but rather consolation, so that it makes tolerable the otherwise nearly unbearable quest to write and publish books!

Jenny Davidson said...

Mithridates: I think you and I are basically in agreement. But though I definitely like the point that the sentences writers make are already ideas, they REALLY fall along a spectrum, from pretty much no idea at all to thin wisp of idea/shallow idea/muddled idea (the Amis/Updike weakness) to true & lovely idea. The Lish school of thought is compelling in many respects, but it takes what seems to me the middle of the spectrum, or right-middle (position 3 of 4 on the 1-4 scale I sketched out in that previous sentence) and says, oh, that is all. It does not allow for the existence of writers like Borges, where sentences REALLY are ideas in a much more intense and lovely way than in, say, Gary Lutz or Sam Lipsyte's sentences... Lydia Davis's sentences are more clearly ideas than Philip Roth's. Paul Auster's are bad ideas, not exactly for the reasons of HD's ex. #3 but if I were firing on more cylinders right now I would be able to come up with a funny example of why!