Category Archives: TV

Delayed thinking on “Girls”

hbo-girls-lena-dunhamMonths ago, the third season of Girls ended. I don’t think ANYONE is talking about it right now, because no one talks about anything that is months old anymore. We only talk about new/newsy things, such as the Norwegian guy’s struggle and the passing of Nadine Gordimer.

It’s not as if those newer items aren’t worthy/worthier topics of discussion, but wtf. I never got around to talking about Girls here.

This season was a return to form over last year, but most compelling for me was Hannah’s foray into the working world as an advertorial copywriter for GQ, in which position she not only encountered the moonlighting Jenna Lyon, but a set of colleagues who were Writers turned writers.

As someone who works full-time in a creative field, I am basically one of her colleagues. Hannah views them as having given up and deferred their dreams: that to be real artists, they need to cast off their corporate shackles and pursue their real work with single-minded dedication. Which is of course what she ends up doing.

I both admire that and think that it speaks to the character’s youth. She can’t see room for the possibility that a creative life might also involve some kind of non-creative, or quasi-creative work. Or that non-creative or quasi-creative work could be meaningful (if it was, for example, virtually anything other than writing GQ advertorial). I think this worldview is tied to weird financial hang-ups people have about art and success, like living paycheck to paycheck grants one the moral high ground of, say, not working for The Man. I also think this fails to account for the possibility that inspiration might peter out in the life of a creative dilettante (though maybe not…Montaigne didn’t have a dearth of things to say).

Clearly I’m extrapolating quite a bit here, but cut me some slack. I’ve had MONTHS to ponder this shit.

But most compellingly for me, Hannah’s viewpoint fails to account for the self-awareness needed to project one’s possible place in the scope of the culture and be OK with off-Broadway, or off-off Broadway, regional theatre, or community theatre, for that matter; in other words, the belief that the art is enough of a north star that the person can sustain it in a vacuum. That not everyone needs to be “a voice of their generation.” That this particular (read: American) breed of exceptionalism can be kind of damaging and fucked up.

I’m not saying that one should strive for something less than one’s best. Just that one’s very best might not be the world’s idea of the very best. And that’s OK.

Literary power couple

Bobs-Burgers-The-Belchies-550x649I read this profile of James Wood and Claire Messud some time ago, and, especially after all the interesting coverage of The Woman Upstairs, finally broke down and decided I had better not damn the dame for all my ambivalence towards the man. So I’m finally reading The Emperor’s Children.

Perhaps inevitably, it contains some sidewise commentary on David Foster Wallace via a character’s overly earnest attempts to educate himself. It’s played for humor, I think, but it’s one of those referents that comes so loaded with Messud’s husband’s very public views that the whole thing lends itself to a post-modern meta-interpretation akin to that which Wallace himself described in E Unibus Pluram (though that was of course concerned with television).

 

(Aside: I have just now realized that my copies of How Fiction Works and Consider the Lobster sit only three books apart on my shelf. Perhaps I should remedy that.)

Re-reading part of E Unibus Pluram has made me appreciate anew how the discussion of these dynamics in television continues to dominate pop culture. See also Bob’s Burgers, a show that Seth and I have been really enjoying. A consistent thread of the show’s humor is metacommentary, see for example an episode called The Belchies (Goonies), the pleasurable genius of which is better experienced than explained, which brings me to Wood, who never met a pleasure that couldn’t be picked apart for a thorough analysis. Or maybe he could, I don’t know. I’m being hyperbolic here because I so thoroughly lack that sort of critical impulse.

I found my copy of the Irresponsible Self, which I intended to read in tandem with The Emperor’s Children, but I didn’t get past the introduction, in which Wood acknowledges the pitfalls of dissecting comedy, then proceeds to do just that with his maiden example. The dissection proceeds for several paragraphs, becoming more and more precise, until I just had to slam the book closed in a full-body paroxysm of critical theory aversion.

Where does this aversion come from? I’m not completely sure, but back in January, New York Magazine published a great article called Why You Never Truly Leave High School, which got me thinking. My sophomore English class was taught by this chipper creature who single-handedly destroyed my love for To Kill a Mockingbird with her over-explication of it. This is, again, a bit hyperbolic, and there are I think at least as many if not more inspiring and lovely teachers than those whose Cliff Notes-level insights into a book cheapen your affection for it…but maybe that experience was the point at which I closed myself off to critical theory.

Such is my distaste for that teacher that I kind of modeled a character after her in a short story I just revised. It’s really more of a parody than a model, actually, but in this latest revision, I was all, what the hell. And I gave her the actual teacher’s name. It wasn’t a very kind impulse on my part, and I’ll probably change it back, but it gave me a tiny thrill to do it.

Fighting/abiding

What was that about abiding?

What was that about abiding?

I can’t remember where I heard it, or if I heard it anywhere at all, but there’s this thing that happens sometimes, where writers mistake a fight for conflict.1 By fight, I mean argument. And most of the time? Fights are not that interesting. I think this is because anger is a one-note emotion, and while it’s bound to reveal what’s ugly about a character, it’s not going to reveal what’s true about that character’s nature, in the way that finely crafted conflict is supposed to.

I think about conflict and tension a lot within the context of my novel, but nothing comes of these thoughts.

Everything I “know” about conflict has the stale, airless aspect of something I internalized after reading, I don’t know, that shitty Donald Maas book on writing the breakout novel. Somewhere I got the notion that a really great conflict pits two irreconcilable things against each other, for instance, two competing desires within a main character (by which I do not mean the competing desires for two equally hot manimals, the province of subpar YA material such as the Twilight books).

That line of thinking is tantalizing because it positions conflict as a formula of sorts, as if you could sit down in your little writing hut one day and brainstorm a situation that demands a collision of two diametrically opposed worldviews (conveniently contained within a single character). Obviously, that in no way resembles my experience as a writer. Brainstorming within the context of my fiction has produced so little useful material as to render it completely irrelevant.

Drafting is the only answer for me. Draft, draft, draft, and then try to intuit my way to a shape that suits the material. And there’s this, via an interview with George Saunders:

A writer knows the problems with a piece as she’s working on it, I think. That’s what she’s doing in that writing room for all of those hours: trying to figure out how to minimize the inborn defects of the fictional construct.

Sigh. And here, still more Saunders:

…I guess the main catharsis is just the satisfaction of inventing a situation, abiding with it, and then feeling like you’ve shepherded it into the best version of itself – that feeling of having unearthed some non-random surprises in the process.

Abiding2 with it. This is such an apt description for the process. It’s hard to believe that it was 2007 in which I wrote the short story that has grown into my novel. And I’m still abiding with it, hoping for more non-random surprises during this year of its life.

1This observation comes courtesy Girls, which I do enjoy, but come on. Sunday’s episode was a series of fight scenes. I forgive a certain amount of fight scenes when they are well-written or quippy or necessary, but I think in this case that it was the least interesting choice to make for a handful of key shifts in the story arc.

2This is one of those words (like “inconceivable”) that has been permanently altered by the culture. And I guess because of the Saunders context, it is impossible to not point out the Jeff Bridges book?

And it’s chill to hear them talk*

girls

I can’t find a credit for this photo. Presumably:HBO.

So Girls. It’s back as of Sunday. I watched the first season intermittently, not because I didn’t enjoy it, but because I was doing other non-television-type things (aka writing, she said pretentiously). And so now I’m making a concerted effort to catch up, a side effect of which is having to bear witness to a high concentration of excruciating and awkward sex. Girls carries on the fine tradition of the British Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and (further back) The Garry Shandling Show in its power to induce the cringe.

But worse than the bad sex for me was the visceral horror I felt when Hannah screwed herself by reading something she’d written on the subway ride over to her former prof’s reading series, instead of reading a personal essay about dating a hoarder. I found this so distressing that I actually covered my eyes, something I don’t even do watching the horror flicks Seth can talk me into.

Obviously, this was supposed to be funny, but underpinning it was Hannah’s very real anxiety about her writing being trivial. (I wish clips were available – there’s this hilarious scene with her roommate’s ex-boyfriend’s friend rattling off a long, long list of non-trivial things she could be writing about—the soul-crushing blow that led her to screw herself at the reading).

I don’t want to extrapolate too much, but it’s very probable that Lena Dunham writes from experience about that concern. I would be lying if I said I didn’t have the very same concern about my own work. The box of “women’s fiction,” how when women write about family, it’s a “domestic story” whereas a male author’s exploration of the same topic is more likely to be lauded for its art (see: Franzen). But better to carry on with the work than lose oneself in the injustice of an imperfect society.

*I’m kind of ashamed of quoting this song, and yet I did it anyway. Perhaps I’m still sad about Adam Yauch.