Wednesday, January 08, 2014

My mixed feelings about David Sedaris

David Sedaris is hugely popular, so why don't I like him so much?  And I why did I almost delete that sentence, because I felt like I was being mean to him?

I first encountered his work way, way back when all he had done was appear on NPR and publish a slim collection of essays, or, more accurately, pieces.  And perhaps the "piece" nature of his work is part of what makes me feel that I'm missing something.  Is he funny?  Hilarious.  But does his humor reveal something about us, or even about himself?  To me, the answer to that question is either "no" or "yes, but not anything we really want to know."

But people like him.  They like him because he is so funny that they don't really expect much more from him.  They might even like him, on some level, for the reason I really feel resistant to his supposed charms: his humor comes at the expense of other people.  It comes at the expense of literally everyone he encounters.  He works as an elf and the people he encounters are awful.  He goes to a nudist colony and the people he encounters are crude and ugly.  He takes a job picking apples and his co-workers are unworthy of his company.  Etc.  And while it seems clear that each of these situations are of his own doing, he never bothers to ask any hard questions of himself.  Perhaps that wouldn't be funny.

His work also is clearly, highly, embellished.  Yet somehow, like most humor, it is considered nonfiction.  What is it about the humor category that qualifies the experience as nonfiction?  I've never been able to figure that out.

And yet...we'll be discussing Sedaris's work in my upcoming essay course, because there must be something there, right?  And also because, his work has taken an interesting turn in recent years. The barrier of entertaining us has been dropped, and his work has taken on a deeper quality that I actually do...like.

Here's a recent piece of his from The New Yorker:  "Now We Are Five."

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Joseph Mitchell's Ear for New York

Essays should be personal, but what makes an essay personal is actually up for grabs.  Sometimes it is the subject matter itself, which is the case in most "personal essays," where the author recounts in meaningful detail, an encounter or series of events that changed their life.  For other writers, like Joan Didion or Luc Sante, it comes from their profound focus, which leaves readers feeling as if we have literally viewed the world through their eyes.  But then there are writers like Joseph Mitchell, who devote themselves to telling other people's experience.  Rather than projecting themselves onto the page, they seem to act as the conduit that another's experience passes through in order to reach the page.  And yet...one could argue, that just as with Didion and her crowd, remarkable writers like Joseph Mitchell are directing us in a most personal way through the characters they choose to introduce to the world.

Mitchell, therefore, makes a perfect companion to the other essayists included in my online essay course, starting January 13th.  For more on his work, including links, check out this recent New Yorker appreciation: "Joseph Mitchell's Ear for New York."

For more information on my course, and a $25 discount, email ken@kenfosterbooks.com

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Luc Sante: Kill All Your Darlings

I hadn't heard of Luc Sante until I began studying writing at Columbia that I heard of Luc Sante.  I
hadn't really heard of anyone at that point and was remarkably under-read considering I wanted to be a writer.  But he was teaching a seminar called "Evidence" that was supposed to be about writing as an act of presenting evidence, an expansion of his own book, Evidence, in which Sante paired old black and white crime photos with an essay on the nature of and interpretation of "evidence."  This sounded intriguing, so I tried to enroll in the seminar, but was turned away due to overcrowding. The next year, in a planning error, the school overenrolled their first year class and in an effort to solve the seat issue, decided that upper level students did not need to take a workshop.  Workshop, of course, was the reason we were enrolled, so after an uproar, I was offered a spot in Luc Sante's creative non-fiction workshop.  At this point, I was no longer intrigued, but was willing to settle. Naturally, it ended up being one of the best classes I've taken in my entire life.   Each week we were given a strange assignment that forced us to rethink the way we created narratives.  Tell a story and reveal a character through an inventory.  Retell the story of the three bears in the style of a contemporary magazine.  And so on.

In my upcoming essay course on Ruzuku, we'll spend a week reading and discussing some of Sante's work from the collection Kill All Your Darlings.  One of the things that really seems to distinguish his work, for me, is that nearly everything is expressed through a sense of the physical: objects, geography, place.  Much of this is evident in a piece he wrote for New York Magazine: My Dealing, Stealing, Squealing Neighbors.  He can also be genre-defying, as in the essay The Unknown Soldier, which seems closer to a poem yet clearly expresses the sense of history of the Lower East Side of New York in the form of a litany of all of the many people who have passed before us.  And that same sense of cataloging and collage can be found in  The Book Collection that Devoured My Life.

For more info on my online essay course, go to Ruzuku