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Book Review: The Tin House Writer’s Series

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It is easy to envision Tin House as the ultimate home for modern literature. An edgy, intelligent literary magazine hangs out in one room; in the dining room, a writers’ seminar lingers around the table; the living room is filled with books that radiate a devotion to the craft of writing. For the aspiring writer who stands outside, nose pressed to the cold glass, The Tin House Writers’ Series provides an invitation into the warmth of this fearless, funny, dysfunctional, and brilliant family. On its own, each of the four books in the series is a delectable course in contemporary literature. Together, the volumes are a feast for the language-starved, best consumed in small bites, but likely to be taken in gulps.

The Story About the Story, The Writer’s Notebook, The World Within, and The Journal of Jules Renard comprise the set. A two-hour CD of panel discussions from the Tin House Writers’ Workshops accompanies The Writer’s Notebook. These are books for the writer or reader who loves the craft of writing as much as the end product. In an era of “reality” television, 140 character whatevers, viral media, and rampant self-publishing, this series reminds us why we write.

The collection provides the reader with a sense of family, a tightly woven community of authors who care passionately about their art. With the familiarity of recurring characters, many authors appear in more than one volume of the set to make their cases for the craft of writing. Charles D’Ambrosio writes on The Catcher in the Rye in The Story About the Story; he interviews and is interviewed in The World Within, and chats with other panelists about truth in literature on the CD. Dorothy Allison holds forth on the importance of Place in the opening essay of The Writer’s Notebook and discusses character on the CD. Jim Shepard, Chris Offutt, Anna Keesey, Denis Jonson, and Tom Grimes can each be found in more than one volume of the set as well. This overlap of respected authors from one volume to the next produces a sense of familiarity, and of trust in the work. With a consistent message repeated in more than one place, the reader senses that these people do indeed believe their own words.

The Tin House Writers’ Series is not a read for the tired of brain or faint of heart. Beginning with the journal of the turn of the twentieth century French poet and playwright Jules Renard and progressing through the heart of contemporary literature into interviews and essays with some of today’s most respected literary figures, this series – rather like a family – spares us nothing in telling us exactly what we need to hear. Though threaded throughout with humor, none of these volumes is a light or easy read, and many passages will produce a squirm of discomfort in any reader possessed of even a modicum of self-awareness.

It’s difficult to decide how best to approach the series. Having already reviewed The Story About the Story, and being eager to find hints to improve my own writing, I decided to attack The Writer’s Notebook first. From there I moved through The World Within and on to The Journal of Jules Renard.

Next time, I would progress slightly more chronologically, beginning with The Journal of Jules Renard. Jean-Paul Sartre said, “Directly or indirectly, Renard is at the origin of contemporary literature.” Okay, I may be easily dazzled, but if a work is blurbed by Sartre, there’s got to be something there. Jules Renard (1864-1910) was most famous for Poil de Carotte and Les Histoires Naturelles. He associated with the likes of Toulse-Lautrec and Sarah Bernhardt, both of whom are discussed, lauded, and occasionally skewered in his journal. Poil de Carotte was a semi-autobiographical work based on his own dysfunctional family and emotionally abused childhood. The same fearlessness and clarity that must have driven Renard to produce such a work shines through the journal.

Shifting from merciless realism through exquisite miniatures of the natural world and engaging aphorisms to deprecating irony, Renard’s journal is a fragmentary prelude to the modern memoir. A reader who expects a contiguous, plot driven autobiography will be disappointed. Instead, The Journal of Jules Renard is a literary grab bag of scraps and gems. For writers, he gives lines such as, “That poignant sensation which makes you take hold of a sentence as though it were a weapon,” and “The profession of letters is, after all, the only one in which one can make no money without being ridiculous.” For the reader, he offers: “One enters a book as one enters a railway carriage, with glances to the rear, hesitations, and a disinclination to change one’s place and one’s ideas. Where will the journey take us? What will the book turn out to be?” The lover or beloved has: “Our life was a lake of friendship through which ran a current of love.” And hints of the modern memoir: “The green waters of memory, into which everything falls. They must be stirred up. Things rise to the surface.”

Renard alternates boasts of success with disdain for his work and character. He praises and ridicules the artistic luminaries of his time. His devotion to his wife and children penetrates but is never cloying. And, though he sheds merciless light upon the cruelties of both his parents, we feel his acute loss at each family death. His language, even in the translation of this personal journal, is precise. Scenes are sketched in economical detail. No useful word is omitted, no wasteful one used.

From Renard’s journal, I would move to The World Within, a collection of interviews of authors by authors. An entire world indeed lies between these covers. In this world, writers discuss love, truth, society, global events, politics, sex, family, religion, and more – all within the context of the written word. With Anna Keesey, Deborah Eisenberg comments on the predicament of modern literature: “It wouldn’t seem to be much to ask of a reader, but actually, it turns out that a lot of people like – and expect to be able – to read fiction while they’re half asleep.” For the record, none of these books can be read while half-asleep; I tried it – not bedtime reading. I would instead suggest infusing a shot of caffeine so as not to miss Rikki Ducornet’s take on ecstasy. “Ecstasy is by nature fleeting. So it’s not so much danger as it is the sense of impermanence…Though I do feel as a writer and artist there’s some territory that’s risky because it edges toward madness. Ecstasy is not far from madness.”

These are artists who do not shrink from uncomfortable truths. Marjane Satrapi tells Heather Hartley, “It’s important to talk about who an artist is – the basis of an artist is narcissism. Think of publishing. You have these books the public must like, plus they have to buy them and then applaud and love you.” Heather Larimer followed these directions to find and interview Charles D’Ambrosio, “I don’t know which way you’ll be coming, but I guess I-90. After Missoula take Hwy 1 for about 25 miles until you start feeling lonely as hell; then just when you’re feeling downright suicidal, there will be a gas station on your left.” D’Ambrosio gives a clear-eyed revelation regarding his choice of the essay form over fiction for a time. “An essay you can lean against reality, sort of take it off your back and rest a bit; fiction you haul without relief. It takes an enormous amount of human generosity to write a story; it takes a lot of extra emotion, an overflow, a love and kindness I just didn’t have.” Fiction may require generosity, but in The World Within no one, interviewer or interviewee, is stingy with the truth.

After one has absorbed Renard’s vignettes and aphorisms and digesting the philosophies contained in The World Within I would suggest proceeding to The Writer’s Notebook. Here again, the reader should not expect the easy. This is no clear, palate-cleansing “how to” manual. Gleaned from Tin House’s workshops and magazine, or simply from admired writers, these essays presume a level of literary dedication on the part of the reader. There is no road map here, no “10 steps to the great novel,” no outline to follow. The reader is given the best insights of each writer and then left alone to decide how to proceed. These essays contain the best of each author’s perspective on a particular aspect of craft, and these perspectives tend to manifest in unexpected ways. I had never thought of place beyond the details of time and geography until reading Dorothy Allison’s essay which ends with the great line, “Run hard, run fast. It’s a specific place. It is your specific tender body that your momma loves so much. That’s place.” Let’s just say that Steve Almond’s essay “Hard Up for a Hard On” on writing about sex is not for the prim. After giving examples of various styles of sex scenes, the good, bad and pathetic, Almond leaves us with a last word, “…sex should be written like our lives depend on it.” Not a bad thought.

Lucy Corin’s “Material” forces us to look at the structural aspects of a work, not just in terms of content, but quite literally how that content fills the page. Her diagrams of the physical structure of various short stories brings home how each writer develops a rhythm which then plays out on the page. Beckett’s “Molloy” might as well be a perfect rectangle. Each line fills to the margins completely. In contrast, Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is spare and, well, light. In “Le Mot Incorrect,” Jim Krusoe gives us permission to use the wrong word, to delve around in the muck, to stray from the path, to generally make a glorious mess in pursuit of the truth. The reader must work to extract the best of The Writer’s Notebook. Essays such as Kate Bernheimer’s “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale” and Matthea Harvey’s “The Mercurial Worlds of the Mind” refuse to yield all of their secrets to the first reading.

If I were working my way through this series without a review deadline, I would pause at The Writer’s Notebook to play with my own work. A detour to see how my descriptions compare to the detail and clear-sightedness of Jules Renard, to find the meager truths in my own stories in the illumination of The World Within, to use the exercises and ideas of The Writer’s Notebook for myself : this would be the perfect side trip in a reading of the series.

Once my mind lay exhausted from excitement and exertion, and I was no longer able to look at my own sentences without doing irreparable harm to the computer, I would permit myself a reward, the delightful treat that is J.C. Hallman’s The Story About the Story. There, I would pour a cup of tea, and relax while others guided me through the wonder that is the product of well-crafted writing.

The Tin House Writer’s Series is available from www.tinhousebooks.com for $35.95.

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