Reviewing the Review: May 21 2006 (and a Tribute to Richard P. Brickner)

The New York Times Book Review has clearly aimed to make a big statement with its Top 25 Books of the Last 25 Years list, which it leaked to the blogs ten days ago in preparation for its publication today. Like many, I find this list highly disappointing (and so does Joyce Carol Oates). I don’t want to pound on a deceased ungulate mammal, so let me just say that if these were the best 25 books of the last 25 years I wouldn’t be interested in enough in contemporary literature to be running this website right now. I nominate New York Trilogy by Paul Auster, The World According to Garp by John Irving, The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker and Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. I’m quite sure that both John Updike and Philip Roth did their best work before 1980, and the only title on my list that appears on the Times list is Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver.

Enough, enough, enough about this list. This week’s entire Book Review is devoted to literary fiction, and Rachel Donadio’s endpaper ties everything together with a serious and informative examination of the business outlook for literary fiction today. Her opening paragraph wastes no time:

The pride and joy of publishing, literary fiction has always been wonderfully ill suited to the very industry that sustains it. Like an elegant but impoverished aristocrat married to a nouveau riche spouse, it has long been subsidized by mass-market fiction and by nonfiction ripped from the headlines. One supplies the cachet, the others the cash.

This is a hell of an important topic, and I’m glad Donadio is addressing it. But I start resenting her defeatist conclusions from Sentence One. The inability of book publishers to monetize literary fiction is “wonderful”? No, actually, this represents a major wasted business opportunity and Rachel, you’re fired.

I absolutely refuse to believe that book publishers can’t find a way to turn larger profits with the great literary fiction that abounds in our time. Are there any innovative thinkers out there? The film industry and music industry manage to adjust to new pricing models constantly, but major book industry executives will stand at their podiums at trade shows and declare that the $25 hardcover is the only format they can possibly use when breaking new authors. And they wonder why they can’t sell more than 19,000 copies of Benjamin Kunkel’s Indecision (have they noticed that young people do not like hardcover books?).

One hundred years ago the Ottoman Empire was known as the “Sick Man of Europe”. Today, book publishing is the sick child of mass media, and maybe that’s why loyal readers like me feel a bit disgusted when the book industry pats itself on the back too loudly.

* * * * *

All of the above took on a new perspective for me after I put away the Book Review and idly flipped to the Metro Section to find, on page 39, an obituary for novelist Richard P. Brickner. Richard Brickner, a former writing teacher of mine, died at the age of 72 in New York City, where he had lived his entire life.

Richard Brickner was the best writing teacher I ever had and a very big inspiration to me. In fact, I attended his writing workshop at the New School five semesters in a row. He had many repeat students, which is a testament to his skill as a teacher and his popularity with his students.

Richard Brickner spent his life on the outer fringe of literary fame and fortune. Fiction was his passion (Henry James and Isaac Babel were his heroes), but ironically his most successful book, My Second Twenty Years was a factual memoir of his struggle to live a normal life in New York City (and maintain romantic relationships with women) after being massively injured in a car accident at the age of twenty. It’s a powerful book, but I like his operatic-themed love story Tickets (life imitates Puccini) better.

Brickner wrote novels the way he got into taxicabs — slowly and with great difficulty — and during the two and a half years I studied with him he was working on his magnum opus, After She Left, about a brilliant but naive young woman who is pursued by many men and ends up making the worst possible choice. The book was designed to be a modern retelling of Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, which Brickner considered the best novel ever written. In fact, understanding the parallel with the James novel was key to understanding this book, but in the end Brickner was a victim of his own subtlety, because, unlike the authors of Ahab’s Wife or March or The Hours, Brickner did not make the literary parallel obvious. The book got tepid reviews in the New York Times Book Review and elsewhere, and it did not seem that any of the reviewers caught on to the Henry James connection at all.

After She Left was Richard Brickner’s last novel, and a disappointing ending to a once-promising literary career. But this writer’s greatest legacy must be the thousands and thousands of students he inspired at the New School and City College of New York. If I had to put his writing advice into a single sentence, it would be this: “Come on, you can do better than that.” I was very lucky to have learned from this man.

7 Responses

  1. Come on, you can do better
    Come on, you can do better than that

    This is very concise: ” Come on, you can do better than that,” and zen-like in the aspect of the teacher asking the student to recognize their potential within themselves. This reader waits to hear about another column elaborating Richard Brickner’s method.

  2. Well, Warren, I tried to
    Well, Warren, I tried to remember if Brickner had a philosophy, but I think the essence of writing instruction might be more about practice than philosophy. Brickner always showed great concern for the quality of each student’s work. He’d express joy and surprise when a student wrote something good, and disgust and derision when a student disappointed his expectations. He managed to be fully engaged with his roomful of wannabe writers, year after year. He disdained laziness and “first-thought-best-thought” sloppiness (he didn’t share my enthusiasm for Kerouac), and he accepted no excuses when sloppy sections showed up in otherwise good pieces. He taught discipline and care, and that’s what’s stuck with me now, many years later.

  3. Valuable lessons, indeed,
    Valuable lessons, indeed, from Brickner. When I first started writing, I tried to write like Kerouac, and it usually read like an illiterate bragging about his last drunk. I sometimes suspect that Kerouac did a lot more editing than we give him credit for.

  4. Oh, one more thing I think I
    Oh, one more thing I think I specifically learned from Richard Brickner: when you are not happy with the way a story or novel or chapter is coming out, don’t hesitate to jump in there and completely rearrange things. Change the sequence of events, swap in a different setting, radically alter a character’s personality … do anything you can to fix a scene that isn’t working. He taught me to think of every aspect of a work of fiction as malleable, “plastic” in the classic sense.

  5. Being sloppy is definitely
    Being sloppy is definitely being dishonest to the reader, been there and done that.

    Kerouac did a lot of writing. On The Road was supposed to have come from a bunch of his notebooks.

    I’d really like to hear anything else and if the classes really helped. I read Steve King’s On Writing and took creative writing in the eighth grade and wonder whatever could help me. Tobias Wolff says he teaches his writing students to edit.

  6. At the risk of sounding
    At the risk of sounding over-the-top, it makes my heart soar to read that. Because I was kind of learning that on my own, but wondering if it was a valid practice or just me vacillating unnecessarily.

  7. Richard was a great
    Richard was a great inspiration to me, when I arrived in NYC after the Peace Corps in 1968. I signed up for his course at the New School and found the evening sessions magical. He was a passionate man, who loved literature and the deep commitments of a life in writing. I learned about myself from him in ways that I had not thought possible, and, although he was enthusiastic about my work, I decided that I did not have it in me to write fiction. So, I went off to graduate school. I am still haunted by the wonderful image of Richard, with his cramped hands on the page, saying tremendous and critical things about the stuff we had brought into him. He was (and remains), to me, the picture of courage and the creative spirit.

    J Paradis

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