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Wells Tower on darkness, joy and the Internet

Festival of BooksWells Tower

Dark

"Fiction: Closing Time" at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books brought together three writers who traffic in the darker elements of life: Patrick DeWitt ("Ablutions"), Wells Tower ("Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned") and Jerry Stahl ("Pain Killers"). Jacket Copy blogger and moderator Carolyn Kellogg (far left) first asked how far was too far.

DeWitt took this to mean vulgarity and claimed it was easy to be too vulgar, preferring to avoid ugliness for the sake of ugliness. Stahl saw his lack of a New York Times review as possible indication of an excess of vulgarity. Tower said he thought that “general hideousness serves as a sentimentality credit.” The nasty allows the sweet. DeWitt supported this “sweet and sour” balance because he’s not interested in offending people for the sake of offending.

Stahl told the crowd that if they want darkness, they should read the paper. Tower pointed out that a human being is a complicated, painful thing to be; it is the task of the fiction writer to salvage moments of transcendence and amazement. Stahl, on the other hand, said he thought the task of the fiction writer was not to bore: writers must earn the right to be read. He was always inspired by people who say the unsayable, mentioning the late J.G. Ballard. DeWitt said he was inspired by books his father had given him, especially those by Charles Portis, leading to a cross-panel discussion of "True Grit."

The panelists were asked what kept them thinking that they could succeed as writers. After slush pile failures, most turned to magazine writing to get by, penning everything from investigative reports on the carnie lifestyle (Tower) to the fake sex letters for "Penthouse" (Stahl). The conversation then returned to bad behavior. DeWitt reminisced about his magic Ford LTD convertible that somehow consistently eluded police notice. Stahl worked in a McDonald’s at age 38 and stole TVs to buy heroin because “they don’t give it away.” 

Kellogg asked the panelists about their writing routines, which invariably led to a discussion of how to handle Internet distractions. Tower has two desks, one for nonfiction with Internet access and one for fiction without. He finds the Web “awful and irresistible.”

Stahl wondered what Dostoevsky would have done if he could have Googled vodka. Of course, writing is revising more often than not. Tower said that revision is not cleaning up after the party; it is the party. He then said he had realized that, in fact, there is no party.

Stahl told the story of Stanley Elkin, such a compulsive rewriter that he would often ride the truck to the printer, making last minute changes. DeWitt waits until he is completely finished with a book to consider public reception, relying on his wife’s tough editing. Stahl puts his work through Carver’s “cringe test,” but he also made the distinction between cringing and squirming. According to Bruce J. Friedman, if it makes you squirm, you should keep going.

-- Chris Daley

Photo credit: Chris Daley

 
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Charles Portis: truly one the great unsung heroes of American comic fiction. To paraphrase one of his unforgettable fictional creations, Reo Symes, alluding to John Selmer Dix, another of Portis' great fictional creations who also happens to be a writer: Portis puts Shakespeare in the crapper.


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