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School reading: Andrew Winer on 'Bleak House'

November 2, 2010 |  6:22 pm

Andrew Winer's second novel, "The Marriage Artist," begins with infidelity, art and death, then unfolds to a dual story of a present-day mystery and love and art in Vienna between the two world wars. Winer, who now teaches writing at UC Riverside and once studied art at UCLA, told Jacket Copy about the school reading that was most important to him. Winer writes:

While a student in the Graduate Writers’ Workshop at UC Irvine, I was required to take a seminar in the English department, which was and is one of America’s high temples of theory, a place where secondary texts -- works of criticism -- can often be valued above primary texts like novels and poems. We MFA students sometimes felt like outsiders in the department, yet I was welcomed into the seminar of Professor Robert Newsom, a renowned scholar in whose courses the greatness of Charles Dickens’s work was still being praised. Among the many novels Professor Newsom assigned was "Bleak House." The Andrew Winer who opened to the riveting first page of that novel was a young writer-student still in thrall to an important but rather formally-constricted group of American short story writers so regarded by creative writing instructors and the anthologies they taught. But Dickens’ evocation of primordial earth in his opening description of London, his enshrouding of the High Court of Chancery in fog, his rule-breaking alternation of omniscient and first-person narration, and his daring glimpses into shadowy, possibly metaphysical corners of existence, loosened me from the grip of religiously restrictive, single-point of view American realism, and altered my vision of what literature could do.  Many other great novels have shaped me since, but "Bleak House" will forever represent my liberation as a writer: the scope and shape of my new novel, "The Marriage Artist," its contrapuntal narrative structure -- and certainly its blending of the deeply internal with large external forces -- can all be traced back to my first reading of "Bleak House." The paper that I wrote on Dickens’ masterpiece was not so much an analytical essay as a love letter to the author, an expression of gratitude to my teacher, Professor Newsom, and an adumbration of new artistic goals that included commands such as: see more! look into things! electrify the reader! Professor Newsom made no effort to hide his love for "Bleak House" and other novels we read. This felt right and proper to me, and I do everything I can to convey to my own students my reverence for great works.

Winer will be reading and signing "The Marriage Artist" at several events in Orange County between Nov. 10 and 17.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Andrew Winer. Credit: Roy Zipstein