Beginners

Wyatt Mason, one of the very few varsity-level literary critics working today, recently shuttered Sentences, his blog on the Harper’s website. While I trust that his byline will continue to appear regularly in Harper’s, the NYTBR, and elsewhere – not to mention the New York Times Magazine, where a few Sundays ago he published an excellent profile of the poet Frederick Seidel – the loss of Sentences nevertheless strikes me as a disheartening absence from the discourse. Three times a week Mason turned me on to some piece of writing I hadn’t previously seen, and he did so with intelligence, warmth, and a casual lucidity. The current state of literature and literary criticism isn’t one that easily heals itself: a notable decampment runs the risk of becoming a permanent vacancy.

(This much was proved when, last year, the world of books – not to mention humanity – suffered the passing of John Leonard, most recently of Harper’s and a sure Hall-of-Famer, whose contributions to the genre across several decades were wide and generous and unfailingly original. There are no more John Leonards.)

I haven’t got any intention of replacing Sentences. For one thing, the breadth, depth, and perspicacity of Mason’s reading far outpaces my own. My only idea here is to follow the model he built: to issue some thoughts on reading, on literature, and sometimes on writing, in a brief, informal style; and to give dogged, attentive consideration to the texture, mechanics, ambiguities, and pleasures of prose.

For the past three or four years I have been at work on a novel and, after completing the initial version, I ran it through the gears of first readers and then second readers, then of an agent, then an editor, and then some third readers and fourth readers, and then two more editors; the book has undergone countless drafts and revisions, both minor and profound, and while it remains recognizable as the book I believed to be finished thirty months ago, the ending is different, the title changed, an entire character I thought was indispensable was dispensed with entirely, and every sentence on every page was subjected to multiple acid baths of revision. I literally cut more words than are included in the published book.

It probably goes without saying that the book is a hell of a lot better for those months of work. (At the time, of course, they felt agonizing and interminable.) The experience left me with a far deeper respect for the necessary, lapidary patience of revision. I am now a slower writer.

The name of this site, Revisions, has, for me, a second meaning as well. Literature is a uniquely lasting medium: we read books written four or five hundred years ago with great pleasure; we read books written a thousand and even two thousand years ago with, at least, a sturdy interest. Music and art can boast of a similar longevity; television, cinema, and photography have endured no comparable scrutiny – certainly no one TV show or film has. The canon of literature is a weeded garden. In my own reading life, I have set aside any number of books that bored me at the time, only to pick them up again a few years later and discover how truly wonderful they are. (It can happen in reverse, too.) One doesn’t only revise his own writing; one revises his understanding of others’ writing. I am interested in examining those second readings of things.

The title of this inaugural post, ‘Beginners,’ draws on the original title of Raymond Carver’s short story ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.’ If there is an ideal allegory of the virtues and – perhaps – the perils of revision, it is the story of that story. ‘Beginners’ was the title Carver wished for; he put it at the top of a very different story from the one that was ultimately published. (Carver’s fraught relationship with Gordon Lish, his editor at Knopf, is by now well documented; my own view is that Lish did Carver’s writing, if not his psyche, a favor.) The New Yorker printed the original story, with its original title, in 2007.

A more personal reason for borrowing Carver’s old title is that I am a beginner at this: unsupervised online writing. The common name for it is a blog, but I hesitate to use the term; I want to think of it more as a column, and, in keeping with its title, I won’t post a piece of writing in haste. Columns (with the exception of today’s) will appear on Mondays and Thursdays, starting later this month, and, while I have no editor in this adventure but myself, I have every intention of being a strict one.

The image at the top of the page, for the curious, is a detail from The Renowned Orders of the Night, by Anselm Kiefer. In the full version, piled atop the supine figure – a self-portrait – is a sky laden with stars.

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~ by mackenz on May 7, 2009.

2 Responses to “Beginners”

  1. Your first ever blog post–ahem, column–and my first ever comment on the internet. I always wondered who those crazy people who left comments on blogs really were like. . .

    I will look forward to Mondays and Thursdays.

  2. Reading this sure beats reading papers aloud in Augustan Satire.

    Always a fan, Anna

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