Life Stories #15: Gideon Lewis-Kraus

Life Stories: Gideon Lewis-Kraus
photo: Rose Lichter Marck

For this episode of Life Stories, a series of podcast interviews with memoir writers about their lives and the art of writing memoir, I met up with Gideon Lewis-Kraus to discuss A Sense of Direction, his account of pilgrimages that took him across Spain, around the Japanese island of Shikoku, and finally to a Hasidic religious festival in Ukraine. His father and brother accompanied him on that last trip, and it becomes an opportunity for them to address, as a family, conflicts that extend decades back. As he told me, that last trip turned out to hold a key that unlocked the final version of the book:

“My first drafts of the Spain chapter and the Japan chapter had almost nothing personal. It was really just straight travel. I did not set out to write a memoir. And then I went on this trip with my dad and obviously this was incredibly personal… When I first sent that material to my editor, she said, ‘This is really tremendous material, but this book cannot just swerve into memoir two-thirds of the way through. The challenge for you now is to find a way to draw all of this stuff back through the whole book so that we are prepared for the fact that, ultimately, the book comes to all these conversations with your dad about your family.’

My reaction, at first, I was sort of defensive, probably because I didn’t want to do all that work, was, ‘Well, the stuff that was going on on the Camino and in Japan had nothing do with my dad, so I don’t know how I’m going to draw all this stuff back when it was totally irrelevant.’ And my editor, who’s an incredibly smart woman, said, ‘I doubt that. Why don’t you go back and look at the emails you were writing at the time, and really think about this again?’ Then I went back and saw, oh! Actually, I don’t think it was a coincidence that I talked to my dad for the first time in two years while I was on the Camino… None of that stuff had been in it originally, and… the more that I thought about it, the more that I realized, this whole experience on the Camino had so much to do with my relationship with my dad, and it was completely unclear to me at the time, completely unclear to me immediately afterward, and it really took the two years of writing this book to realize how much of that experience had really been about my dad all along.”

Listen to Life Stories #15: Gideon Lewis-Kraus (MP3 file); or download the file by right-clicking (Mac users, option-click).

9 September 2012 | life stories |

Letter to a Young Book Blogger

(h/t Michelle Dean for coming up with the title)

What is the mission of the book blogger? Wow, that’s a fairly pretentious question, even for an imaginary interlocutor. I didn’t even know I was supposed to have a mission. I just thought I was doing this because I liked reading books, and having opinions about books, and even better, getting to tell people my opinions about books, and—this is the really awesome part—some people actually pay attention. Oh, wait, you’re here because you read that William Giraldi article about “true criticism” where he pretended to tell some “young critic” that Matthew Arnold jazz about trying “to see the object as in itself it really is,” and the aims of “lasting criticism,” and you got to the part where Giraldi took a swing at “the ‘literary’ snipes who live their dreary lives online, that legion of wonks who are mere tourists in the land of literature,” and you figured he might have been talking about me, so what did I have to say about that?

Well, what made you think he was talking about me, specifically, and not some other book bloggers? There’s a lot of book bloggers out there, you know.

Uh huh, sure, there’s that line later on in his article where he’s all “if some confuse their need of a dictionary for your use of a thesaurus, that’s OK.” I see where you’re going with this. You saw my critique of Giraldi’s aesthetic where I mentioned that he was “getting a lot out of his word-a-day calendars,” and you know D.G. Myers called attention to that post, and Giraldi mentions towards the end of this thing that people should be reading D.G. Myers, so it’s entirely possible he clicked through and didn’t like the crack about the word-a-day calendars. Maybe, maybe not, and even if it’s true, I’m sure I wasn’t the only book blogger he had in mind. You’d have to ask him about it.

What? You still want to ask me what the mission of the book blogger is? You’re not going to let that go? It’s not enough you should have fun, you want a mission to go with it?

Oh, all right then.

You know who Harold Bloom is, right? Harold Bloom is this guy who’s carved out a life for himself where all he has to do is read his favorite books over and over again, and every now and then he shows up in a classroom and talks about them, and sometimes he writes that stuff down and publishes it, and once he published enough to get tenure he was pretty much set for life. I know, pretty sweet, right? Anyway, if you asked Harold Bloom to describe his job, he might say: “Read, reread, describe, evaluate, appreciate: that is the art of literary criticism for the present time.” And book blogging is exactly like that.

Now, some critics get all defensive about this, and they’ll try to tell you that criticism is an art form, which is sort of true, in that there’s a technique to it (more than one technique, but this letter’s going to be long enough as it is) and some people spend more time practicing it than others, and that level of practice shows in the finished product. By that standard, though, I could say throwing the knuckleball is an art form, or wok cooking, or book blogging. (And you know what? I mean it.)

What’s that? You’ve heard that book blogging is about “taste,” and William Giraldi told you true criticism is “judgment rendered universal through erudition,” and he told you he got that from Johnson? I’m no Johnson expert, so I can’t say I recognize the line, but I suppose that sounds like something Johnson would say. On the other hand, Johnson also said “we owe few of the rules of writing to the acuteness of critics, who have generally no other merit than that, having read the works of great authors with attention, they have observed the arrangement of their matter, or the grace of their expression, and then expected honour and reverence for precepts which they never could have invented.” Interesting guy, Johnson.


6 September 2012 | uncategorized |

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