Mark Athitakis Newsletter #14

A thread of one's own.

Front Matter

If you’re a writer, you know what time of year this is: threading season.

A couple of years ago, in whatever way these things start happening, many writers began taking a moment in December to tweet or Facebook threads of what they considered the best stories they wrote during the past year. I’ve done it myself, and I think it’s a fine practice; most writers, even the ones who get glitter cannons of praise blasting their faces the moment they open their laptops every morning, rarely feel wholly, consistently confident in the work they do. Threading season is a reminder that sometimes you have to generate the praise you want to see in the world.

All the same, I wrote “I think it’s a fine practice” in the same grudging way my son says “thank you” when he’s in a mood and needs to be nudged back into polite society. Threading means a lot for the good of the order, yes; reading and writing them are acts of good literary citizenship, sure. But a mild variant of seasonal affective disorder kicks in for me during threading season, because while reading them I can’t help but reckon with with the work I’ve done myself, and the ways it’s fallen short.

If you’re a writer, you probably have a mantra that you keep in your head, something that serves as a day-to-day motivator and/or general mission statement. Ass in chair is a popular one, as is there's no such thing as trucker's block. Here’s mine, and I’m coming to dislike it: I’m hanging drywall. It’s my way of telling myself that I’m not a particularly stylish writer, not quick with a metaphor or a scorchingly counterintuitive insight, but I do the work; I’m not a great longform guy but I’m a pretty good observer and can stack sentences into paragraphs well enough. The drywall business is the way I tell myself that writing is labor, and that procrastination and diva-ish swoons are not for me, because writing is your job, so do your job. But it’s also a remnant of a time about 15 years ago when, for various reasons, I was incapable of writing a sentence at all. Hanging drywall was---is---my way of making the task manageable and asserting its value, to me if nobody else.

But I’ve increasingly come to recognize the limitations of that personal mantra, which is basically just do it with all the joy and spirit of exploration ripped out of it. If you’re just hanging drywall you’re not drawing up plans for buildings. And, also, I have not once in my life hung drywall and do not wish to.

So I’m sharing the pieces I list below because I (mostly) liked how they turned out and because they were opportunities for me to work on things that I found interesting and/or challenging to work on. I’m more of a journalist than an essayist, and I’m pretty much fine with that; some of my favorite pieces were 300-word reviews for Kirkus Reviews that I’m duty-bound not to put my name on. But I’d like to think of these pieces as stepping stones toward doing more ambitious things next year.

What is Sean Penn thinking? His debut novel is a mess, again.Washington Post, March 27. I don’t relish writing hatchet jobs, but sometimes the book before you makes it exceedingly easy. Humor is easy on Twitter but harder to pull off in print; a lot of the time stray lines I thought were clever get zapped during editing. But if you work at being funny start to finish...

Saluting ‘Myra Breckinridge’ on its 50th anniversary.LA Times, February 23. An opportunity to spotlight a valuable-if-not-great novel in the context of our current moment. I wish I’d had twice the length to play with---after all, I went to the trouble of reading Myron, a ludicrous, embarrassing, fascinating novel, for this piece and hardly mention it---but this sketches out the territory pretty well.

What’s the best American novel? A PBS vote is a revealing look at our (limited) taste.Washington Post, October 29. My instapundit skills aren’t strong, but I liked having the chance to riff on a tight deadline on what felt like a deeply imperfect way of stoking a love of reading---because PBS’s Big Read didn’t, not really, it just let people ratify the greatness of what they read ages ago so they can feel satisfied that they don’t have to read anything new. Plus, a chance at a gratuitous swipe at Ayn Rand fans.

Lydia Millet: Dreaming on Paper.” Barnes & Noble Review, June 19, 2018. I don’t do as many author interviews as I’d like to. And, living in Arizona, my opportunities to do so with authors in person are more limited than they are on the coasts. So I lobbied pretty hard to chat with Lydia Millet, a Tucsonite, about her most recent book, Fight No More. (The Owl Club in Tucson is a fine, homey bar.) There’s good cutting-room-floor stuff about the Sex Pistols and Knausgaard and bad TV shows.

Charles Bowden grimly chronicled the toughest stories of the U.S.-Mexico border. But he was once full of hope.” Los Angeles Times, October 12. Bowden’s book Murder City is a haunting and sad book, one of the most defeated works of journalism I’ve read. Reviewing a pair of his earlier books was a way to think about what his early optimism looked like and what he influenced, though I’m not sure I quite stuck that part.

On Evening in Paradise and Welcome Home, by Lucia Berlin.” On the Seawall, November 25. Two fine books, and a chance to address what I saw as a simplistic framing of her life and work.

On Queensryche’s ‘Eyes of a Stranger,’” March Shredness, March 2018. This was my favorite piece that I wrote in 2018. It was submitted as part of a yearly bracket-style essay competition that writer Ander Monson hosts around a particular music genre. This year the genre was hair metal, which I have a real-deal-no-f-f-f-foolin’ affection for. I wanted to look at the precarious balance that those bands needed to strike between seriousness and hedonism, and how Queensryche messed with the formula. I don’t write for free much anymore; I need to be really compelled by the topic to do so. I wrote this for free.

What I’m Reading, Essay Dept.

Emily Nussbaum drains the bubble bath of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. (Don’t care, I still like it; a Joan Rivers biopic would be nice too, but that’d be a different thing.) Aaron Hanlon attacks the misinformation and sophistry that attaches to attacks on the humanities. Nora Caplan-Bricker explains the complexity of archiving the web---simply storing tweets, for instance, won’t capture the experience of scrolling through a Twitter feed. James Marcus’ personal essay on taking singing lessons is pure pleasure, not least for this sentence about his Gershwin-adjacent vocal coach: “It was like knowing a guy who knew a guy who knew God.”

What I’m Reading, Book Dept.

A.S. Hamrah’s The Earth Dies Streaming: Film Writing 2002-2018 (n+1) pulls off the tough trick of making you want to see lots of the movies he talks about even though most of the movies he watches disappoint him. Hamrah is a deep skeptic of Hollywood and its PR apparatus---ideologically he’s not straying far from Jonathan Rosenbaum’s coattails---but he comes at it from a position of deep knowledge of film history and a keen eye for filmmakers’ bad habits and lazy patterns. Many of the reviews here are capsules, and he’s mastered compression into tight spaces. F’rinstance: “Empires in decline need imaginary cads who are also superheroes. The send them out into the world preening and being caually brutal so we can all pretend the empire’s doing fine. The English have James Bond, an 1960s import to the movies from postwar Brisish fiction, and now America has Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, a.k.a., Iron Man, and import from our literature created int eh Vietnam era and updated for the war in Afghanistan.”

End Notes

I’m getting back into the habit of listening to music while I go about my business during the day. Trying to figure out what works as background noise but not atmospheric fluff has been a challenge, but Steve Reich has fit the bill, mostly. Avoid “Four Organs,” however brilliant, because it demands you stop what you doing and give it its full attention, bratty thing that it is. “Violin Phase” is spiky too, but not quite so insistent.

Thanks for reading. That’ll wrap it up for the newsletter in 2018. In the meantime, send instructions on how to hang drywall and other correspondence to Buy my book. Headshot illustration by Pablo Lobato.