A2A: Scott Elliott & Lamar Herrin

The novels Fractures and Temple Grove are set at opposite ends of the United States, and their environmentalist concerns are different: the one with hydrofracking in Pennsylvania, the other with logging in the Pacific Northwest. But their authors, Lamar Herrin and Scott Elliott, found plenty of common ground during a recent e-mail exchange… not least of all in their ability to draw out the characters and the relationships that make these more than just “a book about hydrofracking” or “a book about the logging controversy.” In a way, those may be the least of what these two novels are “about.”

Scott ElliottScott Elliott: Fractures is masterful in its ability to take us into interior lives. It’s been some time since I’ve read a novel so invested in multiple characters and the tenuous connections between them, and so ambitious and successful at seamlessly moving us into and out of different characters’ heads. Plumbing the depths of characters’ psyches and putting pressure on them would seem to have a ready analogue in the central subject matter and source of conflict that the book takes up in all of its complexity—the hydrofracking in which deep drilling and the pressure of lots of water laced with chemicals releases natural gas.

I wonder if you could talk about your research into natural gas drilling and also the degree to which you thought about the notion of hydrofracking in a metaphorical sense when you were writing the novel and within the novel—as an analogue for the process of fiction writing, and for the way pressure tests bonds between characters in the novel’s extended family.

Lamar Herrin

Lamar Herrin: My research into natural gas drilling took place mostly on the ground, wandering around drilling sites in northern Pennsylvania and making a bit of a nuisance of myself. Talking to anybody who would talk back and keeping my senses alert. I never managed to get onto a drilling rig floor, at least not in person. But as I began to do parallel wandering on the web, and as one video led me to four or five others, I did manage to accumulate a lot of impressions. It turns out drill workers like to video themselves working, sound effects and all. It didn’t take a great leap of the imagination to smell the smells. I talked to certain people at Cornell University and did the reading I could, but mostly it was groundwork and moving around on the web.

And I talked to people in the towns. Friends have asked me what got me thinking of a novel, and I’ve come to believe it was the moment I walked into the Susquehanna County Court House in Montrose, Pennsylvania (I had gone there, and to Dimock, which is close by, to simply get enlightened, to see what might be coming our way in the Southern Tier of New York State). But in the court house a policeman on duty explained that the desks I saw lined up and down the long central hall had been set out so that property owners could come check their deeds, and so that competing family members (or so the policeman claimed) could see who owned what. Almost all of my novels have had to do with families, and here, I quickly realized, was a plot.

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8 December 2013 | uncategorized |

Why Do We Even Do Criticism, Anyway?

In September of 2013, The New York Times Book Review launched a new column called Bookends. They’ve got a pool of eight columnists, and every week, they set up a different pair to answer “pressing and provocative questions about the world of books” like “Are We Too Concerned That Characters Be Likable?” or “What’s Behind the Notion that Nonfiction Is More ‘Relevant’ Than Fiction?” The answers in the first two months have struck me, with few exceptions, as fairly shallow—much like the questions themselves, concocted so as not to disrupt the digestion of the reader’s Sunday brunch.

The installment asking “How Do We Judge Books Written Under Pseudonyms?” particularly bugged me, in part because it’s a question with a fairly obvious answer: “The same way you judge any other book—on its merits.” Francine Prose basically ignores the question, offering a glib list of writers who published some work under pseudonyms, and some speculation as to why they might want to—eminently ignorable filler, from start to finish. It’s when Daniel Mendelsohn weighs in that things start to get a bit more interesting… but, I think, a lot more wrongheaded.

At first glance, Mendelsohn might seem to be tackling a more compelling variation of the question: “How ought we to consider novels written under pseudonyms?” Unfortunately, he also seems to regard the pseudonym—at least in the case of J.K. Rowling, who used the pen name “Robert Galbraith” to publish the novel The Cuckoo’s Calling—as a cheat. (He actually says “trick.”) Rowling took up the Galbraith name because she wanted the novel to be appraised without respect to her reputation; “but although the desire to be judged on one’s merits alone can strike us as noble,” Mendelsohn counters, he’s not sure “criticism untainted by knowledge of who the author is and what she has already done is desirable in the first place—or, indeed, valid.”

That’s right: Mendelsohn just raised the possibility that if you aren’t familiar with an author and her work, you won’t have anything valid to say about an individual book.

Of course, one might more usefully frame the issue by asking, “To whom should criticism be desirable and valid?” By talking abstractedly about the role of the critic, the essay doesn’t seem to waste much time escalating its response from “to Daniel Mendelsohn” to “to any right-thinking reader,” and that’s where I have to get off the bus. Now, I agree with Mendelsohn that connecting an individual work to the author’s oeuvre gives critics an opportunity to tell a very interesting story about that work—but that isn’t the only interesting story a critic can tell about the work, and to suggest, even in passing, that it’s the only valid way to tell a story about that work feels rather ridiculous. (In fairness, even Mendelsohn backpedaled from that implication when we had a polite exchange on Twitter the day after his essay ran.)

Specifically, I would consider the notion The Cuckoo’s Calling cannot be sufficiently appreciated without knowing about the role of J.K. Rowling as its true author, or that no criticism of The Cuckoo’s Calling that fails to reference Rowling’s authorship can be considered “desirable,” absurd.

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14 November 2013 | uncategorized |

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