The quote about writing from “Death in Venice” novelist Mann has for decades been my favorite assessment of the craft, even, if you will, my mantra. I present it because just days ago in The New York Times an op-ed writer echoed it crisply: “If you find writing easy, you’re doing it wrong.” This is something I have staunchly believed, and still do. Writing’s a bitch.
I’ve written so long and hard that my head hurt, that I’ve become physically wobbly, a wet noodle. And compounding the physical complaints was the inexorably depressing notion that what I just spent hours extracting, exhuming, molding and crafting was irrefutable crap.
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” — Ernest Hemingway
A journalist colleague once called me a bleeder, because I am so slow and painstaking a writer. I’ve spent six hours on a 700-word article, I’m ashamed to admit. That isn’t the norm, but it also isn’t uncommon. Every word — no: every syllable — counts.
My best friend as a writer is so rudimentary I shouldn’t even have to mention it, and that’s reading. Yet I know many writers who don’t get this. What reliably dumbfounds me is how little so many of them actually, actively read. Television has usurped reading as a cultural pastime, confused as literature as it is. I guarantee watching TV is not going to improve one’s prose skills (teleplay-writing skills, maybe). Too many would-be writers are aspiring illiterates. A fact.
As the greats have harrumphed :
“The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.” — Samuel Johnson
“Write. Rewrite. When not writing or rewriting, read. I know of no shortcuts.” — Larry L. King
If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” — Stephen King
Done correctly, writing is work, grueling toil. It’s fun (when it’s going well), but not that much fun. Still, creating and thinking are so gratifying that it’s worth it. It takes time, hours and hours. Listen to Louis Menand of The New Yorker:
“Writing, for 99-percent of people who do it, is the opposite of spontaneous. Chattiness, slanginess, in-your-face-ness, and any other features of writing that are conventionally characterized as ‘like speech’ are usually the results of laborious experimentation, revision, calibration, walks around the block, and recalibration. … Writers are not mere copyists of language; they are polishers, embellishers, perfecters. They spend hours getting the timing right so that what they write sounds completely unrehearsed.”
That’s as hard as it sounds, and, without the most gimlet-eyed editor, failure is inevitable. But we try. We do the work. We grind, grope for the felicitous simile and metaphor, strive for the perfect punctuation, the poetic stroke, the tickling aside. We do, yes, bleed. Sympathy is unfitting for such a self-involved venture. The only reward is to be read.
I can’t do Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” I’ve tried to read it three times, and each time, at around page 20, I crinkle my nose, toss my head back, issue a fluttering sigh, then slap the book shut. Slap.
Pinched and prissy, the prose is like flossy streamers of chirp and chatter, candied and precious and irritating. I can’t comment much further since I haven’t cut a very long swath through the novel, which turned 204 this year. That’s endurance: Readers still love this book, along with other unimpeachable Austen classics, from “Persuasion” to “Emma.” She retains the mantle of literary goddess, and to cross her is blasphemy.
I’m not buying it. Neither are a lot of other readers, individuals far more distinguished than me. Charlotte Brontë, Emerson, Woolf, Mark Twain, Stephen King and Lee Child are but a few with allergies to those charming Austen tropes of money-lust, snobby class divisions, giggling and gossip, society fetes, courting and coupling, husband-hunting and, of course, life’s gilded apotheosis, heavenly nuptials.
“The one problem in the mind of (Austen),” wrote Emerson, “is marriageableness. All that interests any character introduced is: Has he or she the money to marry with, and conditions, conforming? … Never was life so narrow … Suicide is more respectable.”
I know more than I let on about Austen’s work, via literature, criticism and film. What grates is a little of the “Downton Abbey”-syndrome inflicting her work and her world, the unctuous materialism, the superficial scope of humanity, the tea-sipping, pursed-lip superciliousness. Henry James dubbed Austen’s heroines “she-Philistines,” which will be called misogynistic, namely for an author whose work is so exhaustively feminist. (I’m torn on that one. Send comments with the subject line “Jerk.”)
I must be fair. My affection for 19th-century English literature is finite. This will reveal scandalous volumes about my taste for it: I cannot get through Dickens, despite valiant essays. I’ve cracked “A Tale of Two Cities” three times — fail. Both “Great Expectations” and “David Copperfield” parried my great expectations. His books are cluttered, fancy and fussy. Everything reads like a hyper, heightened children’s tale, which is why as a third-grader I so adored “A Christmas Carol.” (Donna Tartt’s cloying “The Goldfinch,” supposedly an adult novel, was so redolent of Dickens I had to put it down halfway through. My teeth hurt.)
When it comes to 19th-century novels, I pledge fealty to Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” and “Sentimental Education,” Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” There are others, but not many. (Apologies “Moby Dick,” of which I’ve read two-thirds. Fail!)
Speaking of Twain, I allow him, king of the caustic and our satirical sire, to encapsulate my feelings about Austen and her most celebrated novel:
“I often want to criticize Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin bone!”
But what is Twain saying? “Every time” he read “Pride and Prejudice”? He read it more than once, or did he just dip into it occasionally, glossing passages to confirm its unreadability, as I do whenever I pass it on the bookshop shelf?
I’m a humble hater. I am certain “Pride and Prejudice” spills forth with aesthetic virtues: bounding wit, robust guffaws, social acuity, perspicacious wisdom. I do believe that. But I am blind to it — blinded in those first excruciating pages by the twee, twittery and bogusly confected. Austen trafficked in realism. What an insufferable reality.
A monkey yelled at me in Jaipur. Another snatched a banana from my hand in Cambodia. A gang of them exploded in all directions, thumping on cars, flying onto rooftops, screeching and scaring the holy bejesus out of me in Delhi. Monkeys: the devil’s minions.
I adore animals and I’ve met many on my journeys, mostly skinny street dogs, but also water buffalos, cows, painted elephants, a mammoth tattooed pig, Egyptian camels, those accursed simians and more skinny street dogs. Because I haven’t been to sub-Saharan Africa or deep into tropical jungles, I haven’t encountered anything wildly exotic, say, a panther or platypus. (I did meet a king cobra in Hanoi. And then I ate it. Eleven courses, including its beating heart in rice wine. I am still recovering.)
Never, ever do I visit zoos on my travels. The mere idea is a great depressant. The sad, ramshackle Shinagawa Aquarium in Tokyo helped snuff my appetite for captive-animal displays.
Of course I meet milling mutts wherever I go. Dogs are the best, even if they can break your heart. In Kathmandu a young punk randomly kicked a stray dog in the ribs. It let out a terrible yowl. I grabbed the kid and chewed him out and promptly befriended the dog, which seemed alright. We still email.
In Tokyo I hung out with a guy and his shambling black Lab. In Paris I played with a pooch wearing one of those medical cone-collars. I took his picture, but didn’t include it here. For now, I offer these creature features:
I’m starting this with a longish quote from journalist Janet Malcolm. Don’t let its length deter you. It’s quick and breezy and devilishly smart — and, for seasoned travelers, likely very apropos.
“Without knowing exactly why, I have always found travel writing a little boring, and now the reason seemed clear: travel itself is a low-key emotional experience, a pallid affair in comparison with ordinary life. … (Our homes) are where the action is; they are where the riches of experience are distributed. On our travels, we stand before paintings and look at scenery, and sometimes we are moved, but rarely are we as engaged with life as we are in the course of any ordinary day in our usual surroundings. Only when faced with one of the inevitable hardships of travel do we break out of the trance of tourism and once again feel the sharp savor of the real.”
Despite the faint bite of the discontent, Malcolm doesn’t sound like a traveling grump to me. She crystallizes, I think, the realities of moving about, strenuously seeking the kind of transcendence concomitant with the very best travel.
But it’s only part of the picture, which is, of course, far richer than the one she paints. She’s right: travel is largely a “pallid affair” compared with actual daily living, which thrums with family, friends, work, pets, a house — all that fluid, unpredictable, tangible, huggable life stuff. And true, staring at paintings and cathedrals can sometimes be a static, numbing, “low-key emotional experience.”
Yet for this hardened solo traveler, it can be a challenge to keep the noise of real life on mute. Alone, I have to seek human contact, that great distraction from oneself, though mostly on my journeys I will go hours, even a day, without speaking so much as two or three words. I live largely in the bustling mental metropolis of my mind, Pop. 1. It is very noisy. Reality isn’t easily shaken.
Naturally, I see all the sights, monuments, museums, theater, ruins, vistas, cemeteries, etc. of a place. The beaten path does have detours: I’ll observe the riverside cremations of human bodies in India and Nepal or witness the ritual slaughter of sheep at a mosque in Istanbul. These extracurricular excursions pry open the head to strange wonderments and infuse a journey with reality-excusing exoticism.
Yet it’s never so perfect. Life’s banalities and hassles don’t just vaporize once you’re negotiating the lunatic streets of Tokyo or chilling in your stunning cave hotel in Cappadocia. Workaday concerns, from money and transportation, to waiting in lines and surmounting language barriers (that’s always entertaining, even fun, I find) barge in, upending the illusion of Being Far Away.
I hate to admit to boredom while traveling, and I combat it fiercely. I get restless and disappointed when I linger for more than 20 minutes in a cafe reading the paper or simply decompressing. I like to move, sustain a momentum. But then you risk rushing and, the upshot of that, running out of things to see and do. You max out the city, at least for a time. Even when this happens I invariably rally, recharge, suck in a second wind and begin to discover all over again.
I’ve blogged that taking photos of locals profoundly enriches the cultural experience. You meet people that way. Or vice-versa. I have met dozens of terrific humans around the world by pure serendipity — at a bar or bazaar, in a museum or on a train. Meeting people is easy.
But some effort is required. In India, during Diwali, the Festival of Lights, I bought a wad of fireworks for a gaggle of kids who were gathered in front of a convenience store. They lit them off and had a ball. So did I.
It was one of those transporting, non-static moments of travel that happens when you crawl out of your head, search, stretch and explore, and, as Malcolm says, “break out of the trance of tourism and once again feel the sharp savor of the real.”
But in this case the real is peerlessly human and rapturous, the very definition of surpassing lackluster reality for something almost impossible to attain in everyday life — the transcendent.
In the stinky-rotten TV movie “Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park,” a mad scientist — lab coat, underground lair, sinister cackle, the works — sets out to destroy the world using the rock band Kiss as his unwitting agents.
That’s odd. I thought Kiss was doing a fairly good job of that all by themselves. Apparently the scientist hasn’t heard Gene Simmons’ solo album or seen Ace Frehley without makeup.
Kiss rules. Kiss reeks. You’re either on this side or that side. Being on the fence means you’ve checked out. It means you listen to Enya.
After 44 years festooned in grease paint, chains, platform boots and yards of what might very well be aluminum foil, Kiss remains a great pop-culture polarizer, an easy critical bull’s-eye and delicious guilty pleasure, the worst rock band ever and the greatest rock band ever. The Michael Bay and P.T. Barnum of rock ‘n’ roll showmanship — kabloom, suckers — Kiss is just a typo for kitsch. Kiss-up. Kiss-off.
A pair of shows spans this good/bad divide that Kiss has gleefully carved. The good is “Gene Simmons’ Rock School,” a droll and gimmicky reality show that aired in 2005 on VH1. The bad (wretched, ghastly, kill me) is “Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park.” The professional hecklers of the comedic Sinus Show present the movie in Austin, Texas, lambasting it until it cries. Expect nothing less than a massacre.
“Gene Simmons’ Rock School” is more proof Kiss will not die. Simmons — Kiss bassist, blood-spitter, boffo music mogul — crashes a classical music class of 13-year-olds at an English boarding school. Blustering and snarling with practiced disdain, a makeup-free Simmons arrives to tutor the rather stuffy kids in the ways of heavy-metal stardom. “To create little rock gods,” he says.
Simmons roars, folds his arms and appraises the children through affixed sunglasses. His scowly grimace suggests he has taken a whiff of the famous codpiece he dons on stage. “I wear more makeup and higher heels than your mommy does,” he taunts the crisply composed class.
The pupils at first recoil. “I think he’s really scary, because he’s really in your face and stuff,” says a girl. (Some of the children’s accents are so thick that subtitles appear.) Declares another: “I don’t like him at all.”
But of course they soon will. As in the Jack Black comedy “School of Rock” and the documentary “Rock School,” the show is about coming together for a collective purpose — in this case to open for Mötorhead — while learning how to cut loose and be yourself. Simmons even lets the kids in on a little secret: You can be a lousy musician and still rock hard and get preposterously rich.
He should know. Except for lead guitarist Frehley, a bona fide whiz, Kiss are flaccid musicians, lazy tunesmiths and appalling lyricists. Some Kiss poetry: “If you wanna be a singer, or play guitar/ Man, you gotta sweat or you won’t get far.” Sounds like a pop quiz out of Gene’s “Rock School.”
With “Kiss Meets the Phantom,” Kiss nearly courted the Kiss of death. Premiering on NBC in October 1978, the band’s first and last movie casts its members — Simmons, Frehley, Paul Stanley and Peter Criss — as rock stars with murky supernatural powers. The bandmates are sort of like superheroes, but the movie is so badly conceived you can’t tell what they’re supposed to be. You have to be acquainted with the special edition Marvel comic books that star Kiss to make any sense of it.
In the comics and the movie, bandmates are literal incarnations of their stage personas, going by the snickerable names Star Child (Stanley, who has a star over one eye), Demon (Simmons: lizard tongue, bat wings), Cat Man (Criss: painted whiskers) and Space Ace (Frehley: more silver sequins than a Bette Midler show).
The evil scientist (Anthony Zerbe, who was in “Cool Hand Luke” and “The Matrix Reloaded” and probably wishes this article would go away) kidnaps Kiss, builds robot replicas of the band and sends the imposters on stage to change the chorus of the Kiss song “Hotter Than Hell” to “Rip, rip/Rip and destroy,” which is supposed to incite fans to riot and ruin everything. That could be the lamest scheme ever in the annals of mad scientists.
So disastrous is “Kiss Meets the Phantom” that even the bandmates, who are not known to criticize their splendiferous empire, disowned the movie. Fans reconsidered their allegiance. Critics drove in on bulldozers. And a camp masterwork was born.
When the movie aired, Kiss was at the peak of their popularity, knocking out hit records like “Destroyer,” “Love Gun” and “Alive II” and peddling mountains of Kiss paraphernalia, from trading cards and dolls to belt buckles and bed sheets. (Today you can even get yourself the $5,000-plus Kiss Kasket. Right. A coffin.)
The band has always targeted young boys, exploiting their fascination with science fiction and horror movies, comic books and fire. Forget childhood sports. Some of us were mesmerized by books and movies, the wide-open realm of the imagination, which happily accommodated the dual fantasy force of Kiss and “Star Wars.” It’s a few paces from a fire-breathing Demon to a growling Wookiee.
In 1978, my best friend brought “Kiss Alive II” to a sleepover. I knew Kiss only from “The Paul Lynde Halloween Special,” an utterly weird exhibition that aired on ABC in 1976. I liked their kabuki makeup, spandex meets armor costumes and the clouds of smoke. But the loud music and exciting photos of “Alive II” — “Calling Dr. Love,” Simmons drenched in stage blood — hooked me. I dressed up as Simmons and Stanley, collected the trading cards, smothered my walls with Kiss posters, bought every issue of 16 Magazinefeaturing Kiss gossip, owned the dolls and ordered all of the group’s vinyl albums from the Columbia House Record Club. I was 9.
And then came “Kiss Meets the Phantom.” This was huge. My excitement was uncontained. Finally, my friends and I would see our favorite band in the whole world actually move and speak. We were too young for Kiss concerts, and this was way before MTV, so bad TV had to do.
Produced by kiddie-show kings Hanna-Barbera, the movie plays like a discarded “Scooby-Doo” episode. Robot werewolves kung fu fight the Kiss guys, who strike back with animated laser beams that shoot from Stanley’s eye and cartoon fire that buzzes from Simmons’ mouth. Stuntmen who look nothing like Kiss stand in for the band during the “action” sequences. There is mild genius behind this kind of ineptitude.
While the movie was a ratings hit for NBC, it was a calamity for Kiss. The group’s “street credibility, which had taken four years of nonstop work to develop, was undone frame by frame in just under 100 minutes,” writes Kiss connoisseur Ron Albanese.
This budding Kiss freak didn’t care. Still, I think I knew the movie had failed us, that it was merely grotesque advertisements for the group and Magic Mountain, the California amusement park where it was filmed.
Today, the music of Kiss is hardly more than a cheap nostalgia trip for an older, wiser me. It sounds tinny and slapped together. And the band has changed. Frehley and Criss have been booted from Kiss (again), while Simmons’ voracious greed metastasizes unchecked. (His latest reality show, “Gene Simmons Family Jewels,” is nothing if not a showcase for his slavering cupidity.)
Yet something appealing remains. With an atavistic charge, Kiss blew me away live in 2000 and 2009. Kiss photos and concert footage pump my blood. My brain can’t shake ancient Kiss trivia. I still have my Kiss dolls.
Straddling the great Kiss chasm, I fend off mockery with the shield of original-fan pride. My arrogance wears a wink, my devotion is full of holes. I am not torn, but at peace with the contradictions. And if you ask me if Kiss rules or reeks, the answer is easy: both.
One of the most tremendous places I’ve been is Istanbul — I’ve said it before — and one of the most divine places I’ve been in Istanbul is the grand Byzantine cathedral-turned-mosque-turned-museum, the Hagia Sophia, or Church of the Holy Wisdom. Defining it is a bit complicated. Built in the 6th century, in what was then Constantinople, by Byzantine emperor Justinian I, it was turned into a mosque after the Turkish conquest in the 1400s, minarets and all. Its knotty history is tidily shrink-wrapped here.
All of these photos I took about eight years ago, my last of three trips to the European-Asian metropolis. Expect new photos when I return. (Soon.)
Each day after visiting Sophia, I’d make the infinitesimal stroll over to the Blue Mosque, or Sultanahmet Camii, pop my shoes off and watch the devoted pray while ogling the at once ravishingly ornate, calligraphically tasteful 17th-century architecture. A preview:
These are a few quotes about the arts that I’ve carried around for a while. I believe they’re intellectual gold:
“Art, love and God — they’re dumb words, and probably the dumbest is art. I don’t know what it is, art. But I believe in it, so far.” — Damien Hirst
“The last hope is that art may transmute the disappointments of life into something more radiant and stable; the lasting bitterness is that although art may guide ‘what pangs there be/Into a bearable choreography,’ it does not repair the original life-rift.” — Helen Vendler, with excerpts from poet James Merrill
On theater and art:
“The new generation of theatergoers are suburban know-nothings dumbed down to the point of expecting art to be some kind of inclusive, fraudulently life-affirming group-grope, instead of what it is: arrogant, autocratic, and potentially monstrous!” — David Hirson, “Wrong Mountain”
“If you intend to follow the truth you feel in yourself — to follow your common sense, and force your will to serve you in the quest for discipline and simplicity — you will subject yourself to profound despair, loneliness, and constant self-doubt. And if you persevere, the Theatre, which you are learning to serve, will grace you, now and again, with the greatest exhilaration it is possible to know.” — David Mamet
“One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper patterns at the right moment.”— Hart Crane
“What writers hear when they are trying to write is something more like singing than like speaking. Inside your head, you’re yakking away to yourself all the time. Getting that voice down on paper is a depressing experience. When you write, you’re trying to transpose what you’re thinking into something that is less like an annoying drone and more like a piece of music.” — Louis Menand
“More than ever, critical authority comes from the power of the critic’s prose, the force and clarity of her language; it is in the art of writing itself that information and knowledge are carried, in the sentences themselves that literature is preserved. The secret function of the critic today is to write beautifully, and in so doing protect beautiful writing.” — Katie Roiphe