Confession: I have not been a very good reader of late. “Of late” might not even be the right words. I recognize that reading is at least as crucial to writing as actual writing, and in a way it’s maybe more important. It seems like the right ratio of reading to writing – for an aspiring writer – might be 5-to-1, but I’m guessing. Nobody seems to question the virtue of reading in regards to writing, and I’m not going to either.
What I’ve mainly been reading “of late” is non-fiction, which is the opposite of what I’m trying to write. While it seems like I’m constantly reading, I’m not reading “right” for what I’m trying to accomplish. But whatever. Anyway, my point is that I’m going to place an emphasis on reading fiction novels right now, and even more, I’m going to start writing about them, because that seems like it will put the right kind of pressure on me.
So, knowing that I want to start reading (and writing about) fiction novels, here are some thoughts about a collection of non-fiction essays, “Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation,” by Tom Bissell.
Tom Bissell first came to my attention via his video game writing on the website www.grantland.com. Knowing nothing about the guy – like, that he’s an award-winning essayist – made it pretty surprising that these articles I stumbled upon about video games were so well-written, though in hindsight this seems kind of obvious. But they are very well-written. I can honestly say that his writing on the topic has completely challenged and enhanced my own understanding of – and relationship with – video games.
But that’s not what “Magic Hours” is about, and I chose to read this book expressly because it wasn’t, even though I’m sure I’d enjoy his book, “Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter.” I wanted to see how he tackled weightier topics, and I wasn’t disappointed.
“Magic Hours” is a collection of essays concerning creators and creations, just as its extended title implies, but it reads a lot more like a collection of essays concerning Tom Bissell’s relationship with creativity, and the world – in the best way. He blends some very admirable traits in his writing: an engaging narratorial voice, an editor’s eye for specificity and discipline in language, a journalist’s curiosity and attention to detail (and research), and best of all, genuine humility. He seems to have an “I call bullshit” instinct that he’s as willing to apply to his subjects as himself, which feels pretty refreshing in this kind of writing. His essays don’t provide a lot of answers, but they ask a lot of meaningful questions.
In his opening essay, “Unflowered Aloes,” which originally appeared in the Boston Review, he discusses the experience of working for a publishing house and bringing an out-of-print novel up out of the grave and back onto shelves as a point of departure for a long meditation on what makes a work of excellent literature into a classic, and how it’s far more likely to be forgotten. He uses the histories of many well-known books to illustrate the vagaries of these books still being in the public consciousness, convincingly making the case that there is no logic behind it, only chance. His closer:
What faith, then, can the poet or novelist place in his or her work’s survival? Is literary destiny simply yet another god that failed? Although I know what I believe, I hope I am wrong. Nevertheless, I cannot help but imagine that literature is an airplane, and we are passengers on it. One might assume that behind the flimsy accordion door sit pilots of skill and accomplishment. But the cockpit is empty. It has always been empty. The controls are abandoned. They have always been abandoned. One needs only to touch them to know how mutable our course.
Pretty good, right? I know that sounds grim, but there’s something about his writing that leaves you with a feeling of amazement and wonder, despite the bleak reality he describes. Or, from his foreword:
To create anything–whether a short story or a magazine profile or a film or a sitcom–is to believe, if only momentarily, you are capable of magic.
The essays cover a period of ten years and you can really see his writing improve as he goes along. He’s perhaps over-reliant on his “aw shucks,” Upper Peninsula, Michigan upbringing in the early going, but the writing becomes more confident and pointed as it goes. He nearly revels in a detailed takedown of travel-writer/historian Robert D. Kaplan and nearly fawns in a detailed aggrandizement of filmmaker Werner Herzog; he wrings his hands in trying to understand the Underground Literary Alliance. But in all cases, you get the sense that he approaches things with an open mind, not attacking without cause, and not idolizing without honest appraisal.
I won’t run down a hall of mirrors by discussing much about his essay, “Writing About Writing About Writing,” but he delivers some excellent writing advice via a critical analysis of other writing advice books, and as usual, he covers the topic in width and breadth.
That someone would devote more words to the cosmically terrible movie, “The Room,” or to a prolific video game voiceover actress, or even to reprehensible hack, Chuck Lorre (oh he of Two and Half Men infamy) than to Hemingway and David Foster Wallace, the latter of which he had a personal relationship with, says everything you need to know about his willingness to look for answers in unusual places.
And it’s a blissfully short book. I can’t say enough about short books. It seems like anything you can say in a long book can also be said in a short book. There’s virtue in treating time on the page as meaningful, at least for me as a reader. This book felt like every word counted.
So, that’s that.