July 31, 2012 § 1 Comment
Hey all, just wanted to let you know that I’ll be away for the blog for two weeks, up at my family’s cottage in NE Ontario. It’s the middle of nowhere: 20 minutes of dirt road to Oompah, the closest metropolis. My aunt and uncle across the lake have dial-up internet, but I’m not planning on using it much, instead hoping to catch up on my reading in the hammock, so please direct all inquiries to my interim associate blog supervisor, Bo-Bandy.
July 26, 2012 § Leave a comment
One of my favorite non-prose writers, Aaron Sorkin, has been in the press and all over the internet lately because of his new show, The Newsroom. He’d been getting a decent amount of criticism for plagiarizing his own writing from previous shows and then last week, he fired the show’s entire writing staff—except for his ex-girlfriend—before they started on a second season. I haven’t seen The Newsroom yet (I like to wait for DVDs and take down a whole season in a week), but as an Aaron Sorkin fan with an admiring familiarity with many of his other shows and movies, I feel like I have a pretty decent guess at how these two items are related.
“THE WRITING ROOM”
by Evan Kingston
The writing staff couldn’t help being a little frightened when they showed up for their first day on The Newsroom. They were all Aaron Sorkin fans: Steve studied the cadence of Sports Night dialogue before every script he wrote, Kevin cited The West Wing as the reason he got into television, and Corinne even dated Aaron for a while—and persisted in her belief that Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was underrated, even after its auteur had broken up with her. Nervous at the prospect of meeting one of TV’s greatest writers, they engaged in rapid chatter while taking nervous laps of the office’s busy hallways.
But when Aaron called them all into the writing room and introduced himself, he assuaged each and every one of their fears with a stirring speech, replete with Biblical and musical theater references, about how they were going to change television—and America itself—with the work of the coming weeks.
“But I don’t want you to feel too much pressure,” he concluded. “Just know that the only thing you ever need to do to make me happy is come in to work every day.”
“I’m really disappointed in all of you.” Aaron said to begin their meeting the next day. “Every script you guys gave me—the entire season—is complete crap. Start over.”
It took a long silence for any of them to work up the nerve to respond, and Kevin was first. “Can you at least tell us what we did wrong, what sort of direction to go in?”
“I brought each of you in on this show because you have good taste. So go back and look at the work I did on Sports Night—a show that was too good for TV—or West Wing, where I made America better than America ever could. That was great TV; use it as your model, your guide, your template.”
“We can do that,” Steve beamed.
“You can’t do anything right.” Aaron said at their next meeting as he slid their stacked scripts into the recycling bin he’d brought with him to the table. “These were more like your old scripts than anything I’ve ever written.”
“So it’s got the right structure and pacing.” Aaron made a fart noise with his mouth. “Big deal. You’re still missing most of what makes any writing great. Where’s the awkwardly pompous male lead, his intimidating father figure, a driven yet manic woman? Everything that makes a story interesting? Where’s the enticingly unavailable redhead?”
As the staff worked together all night, Kevin took charge, his confidence eventually leading him to declare, “If you haven’t seen Kevin write Sorkin, you haven’t seen Shakespeare how it’s meant to be done.”
When Corinne laughed at his reference, he seized the opportunity to declare, “You have beautiful red hair. We should go out to dinner sometime.”
“I’m sorry, but I’m sort of maybe going to be unavailable soon, so I probably shouldn’t,” she evaded.
Once she’d turned down each his thirty subsequent advances, they focused on repopulating the show with proper Sorkinian archetypes.
When they presented Aaron with their new scripts in the morning, he hung his head. “This isn’t happening.”
“What could possibly be wrong with them now,” Steve pleaded. “We reworked every character exactly to your demands.”
“A character is defined through dialogue,” Aaron corrected. “So how can they be like Jed Bartlett if they don’t say what Jed Bartlett says?”
The next day, Kevin turned in a skillful pastiche of the greatest Sorkinisms ever, lines from a dozen different projects artfully arranged to form a surprisingly coherent plot. Steve turned in the pilot for Sports Night, with most of the character names changed. Corinne blew off the assignment by saying she hadn’t had time the previous night.
“I think it’s too little, too late, guys,” Aaron sighed after looking them over. “These are close, and I’m proud of everything you’ve learned from me while working on the show, but these scripts are still missing that final touch, the right few words.”
Kevin guffawed. “What? ‘By Aaron Sorkin?”’
“I know it’s harsh,” Aaron continued, “But this isn’t TV camp. It isn’t important that everyone gets to play. I’m sorry, but you’re fired.”
Steve, hoping it was just Kevin, asked, “Who?”
“‘Whom,'” Aaron countered pedantically.
“Actually, in this instance—”
“All of you,” Aaron interrupted. “You’re all fired.”
The entire staff shuffled out, except for Corinne. “Even me, Aaron? I emulated you one better than everyone else. I am wearing your shirt.”
Aaron paused for a moment before smiling. “I thought it looked tight.”
If you’re a Sorkin fan, I hope you got a few laughs out of that and caught a few of the Easter Eggs. I really do love Mr. Sorkin’s work and am looking forward to ignoring the critics and deciding for myself once Season 1 of The Newsroom comes out. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, satire is probably a ways further down the list, but flattery nonetheless. Or, to parody the quote that stands as this blog’s subtitle, what works can one trivialize except those of great importance?
July 20, 2012 § 1 Comment
Sorry there hasn’t been much activity on the blog this week. My car broke down just after I agreed to house-sit for my mom in the suburbs, so I’ve been spending an extra hour on my bike every day—which is fun but also eats into my writing time. I have, though, managed to organize the half dozen posts I’ve written on The Uses of Humor in Literature over the past three months into a single page. Hopefully, this will make them easier to follow, as I initially conceived them as a single thought but ended up breaking them up to fit on the blog. Just click the page link to the left–and relive the magic all over again.
July 10, 2012 § 5 Comments
This week, I present the conclusion to my discussion of humor as a literary technique, with one last example from Ben Lerner’s brain-painingly hilarious Leaving the Atocha Station, hopefully illustrating the points I made over the past month about humor as a form of subtext (in “If you have to explain it…” and “Moby Dick in Needlepoint“):
Adam, the narrator of Leaving the Atocha Station, is hyper-sensitive to subtext, always obsessing over every possibility of what might be implied by what he says, the tone in which he says it, and the practiced expression on his face afterward. In part, he dwells in subtext because the language barrier and his constant drug use leave him with little control or understanding of the literal meaning—a weakness he often tries to turn to his advantage. For example, his strategy at seeming profound on a date at a museum:
As we walked through the Reina Sofia I would offer up unconjugated sentences or sentence fragments in response to paintings that she then expanded and concatenated into penetrating observations about line and color, art and institutions, old world and new […] I would say, Blue is an idea about distance, or Literature ends in that particular blue, or Here are several subjunctive blues; I would say, To write with sculpture—, To think the vertical—, To refute a century of shadow—, etc., and watch her mouth the phrase to herself, investing it with all possible resonances, then reapplying it to canvas. Of course, we engaged in our share of incidental talk, but our most intense and ostensibly intimate interactions were the effect of her imbuing my silences, the gaps out of which my Spanish was primarily composed, with tremendous intellectual and aesthetic force.
As a great poet and bullshit artists (he often wonders if there’s a difference between the two), Adam is using the powers of literature to his own personal gains. As I discussed in the above posts, subtext establishes and deepens relationships, as Isabel is drawn closer by the intimation that Adam has something inexpressibly profound to say about art as well as enough respect for her intelligence to trust that she she can figure out what that is without him stating it explicitly. He establishes a rapport much as a humorist would with a subtle yet powerful joke, or a literary author would with a challenging but concise scene.
The problem is that Adam doesn’t have anything profound to say about the art he is looking at and has very little respect for Isabel (or any of the other women he’s trying to seduce through similar techniques). As readers, we end up liking Adam, though, because he admits these shortcomings to us through self-depricating humor. This is an instance of humor and subtext working as one; the humor marks it as important, not just by begging for our attention but by skirting the issue as something ultimately impossible to approach soberly or express sensibly. As a result, we fall into a trap similar to the one he’s used to ensnare Spanish girlfriends, guessing at a deep and familiar pain or fear that leads him to build so many walls around himself. Falling deeper through the subtext of his anecdotes, which begin to feel more and more precious as we realize how hard it is for him to explicitly share any true part of himself with anyone, we begin to realize the theme of the novel has to do with his fear that there is nothing of true meaning at the bottom of any of his subtexts, just a desire to be admired.
In conclusion, Leaving the Atocha Station is about the way meaning can ultimately escape a person if he or she spends too much time considering every possible meaning of the meanings people ascribe to him–and if that sounds too confusing, I hope I’ve finally driven home my point about the usefulness of subtext and theme, and the way literature can say something more concisely in thousands of words than is possible in a dozen.
And besides, the above book-report topic-sentence misses half the point, because after inferring so much from the way Adam composes his actions for optimal inferences, we have to wonder if every sentence in the novel hasn’t been a carefully composed trick to get us to ascribe a loveably feeling soul to a hedonistic sociopath, the ultimate level of Adam’s subtext as seduction. And if that’s too depressing a thought, I hope you’ll understand why I prefer my literature with spoonful of humor–because reading Leaving the Atocha Station (and rereading it for these posts) was never trying or burdensome, but a constant beauty and joy.
Thanks for reading through this first major thought-arc on the blog over the past few months. In the coming weeks, I’m going to reorganize the blog a bit to bring this series of posts into one easy-to-follow page, as I envision them as one chapter in a book on literary humor. Past that, I’ll be posting one-offs as often as I can between a big push to finish the second draft of my latest novel and a trip to a hammock in Canada to catch up on my reading. Hopefully by the fall, I’ll be back with at least one big idea for a long series of weekly posts–I’ve already got some ideas forming on satire as well as the differences between prepared jokes, wit, and jokes in literature.
July 6, 2012 § 1 Comment
Since I’m already taking a break from the regular business of the blog this week to promote my guest post over at Innocent Offerings, I want to take a second to let everyone know about Versus Literary Journal.
My lovely girlfriend, the poet Jenny McDougal, is launching this new journal along with our friend Kate Glassman as a much needed home for literary explorations of sci-fi and pop-culture. From their mission statement:
Versus seeks to publish original works of prose, poetry, and creative nonfiction that legitimizes, analyzes, and/or deconstructs sci-fi/fantasy and pop culture icons in order to establish a place for them in a literary capacity. The journal publishes contributor content every few weeks on our website and selected works for our bi-annual print edition in the Fall and Spring.
The web adress is http://versusliteraryjournal.org/, and they hope to have the inaugural issue up soon. In the meantime, though, you should submit something awesome to them. I know for a fact they like humorous work; Jenny is often the only person who laughs at my jokes.
July 2, 2012 § Leave a comment
I’m taking a break from writing about literature and humor this week because I spent all my budgeted blogtime working on this guest post for my good buddy Satish Jayaraj’s blog, Our Business is to Create. It’s the blogging arm of Innocent Offeriongs, an awesome Twin Cities literary community powerhouse known for their exciting readings and beautiful broadsides and chapbooks. I was lucky enough to participate in the latest installment of their Cracked Walnut Reading Series, which led me to ruminate on the connection between literary readings and potluck dinners.
(By the way, that’s why I called the post “I Got the Internet Going Nuts.” You get it, right? Cracked Walnut. Walnut. Wall Nuts. You see where I’m going. Paul Wall‘s 2005 Swishahouse classic: “Internet Going Nutz.” Really, nothing? You people are philistines.)
Next week, though, I’ll be back with the thrilling conclusion to our discussion of humor and subtext. See you then!