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helpfulsnowman from Colorado is reading But What If We're Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman January 30, 2018 - 6:26pm

I re-read this story recently, and I have questions.

First, I think it's great. But I wonder if I think it's great because I write fiction, so the turn at the end is appealing to me. Has anyone read this story with someone who doesn't give a rip about writing fiction? What was their reaction?

Also...this sounds like a very dumb question. Why does this work? I can see this ending going very bad in the hands of most anyone else who tried it or anything like it. What are the specific mechanical things that let her manage it?

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jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like January 31, 2018 - 11:42am

Which turn? I felt like there were several changes in direction. Do you mean the one about the sharks?

When I read it, I admit I was a maybe a bit too wrapped up in the question of just how autobiographical it was. [Did Hempel actually receive a leg injury & legal restitution?] The occasional inclusion of seemingly unrelated facts and narrative-breaking comments did inspire some interesting divergent thoughts. All-in-all, it reads to me like confessional prose-poetry or creative non-fiction: less about the story, more about the concepts & experience. Even if all the particular events are fabricated, the meta-event (i.e. writing) is not. If it works "as a story," is it perhaps because "the story" isn't the ultimate focus?

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MattF from Tokyo is reading Borges' Collected Fictions February 2, 2018 - 9:10am

I think by "turn at the end" you're talking about: "I'm going to start now to tell you what I left out of 'The Harvest.'"--her breakdown of the original telling?

I can't answer your initial question, but I'd wager that non-writers/literary nerds would only hate the story if they actually finished it.

As a writer and lit-nerd I do like it, but it feels a bit dated to me--90's post-modern profundity. Which I don't mean disparagingly, it's what I loved, and was/is an important period of writing in my opinion. It just doesn't quite hold up for me.

I'd say it works because it's smarter than us at every turn. It is profound. The competing definitions of "harvest" gets the mind churning. But the first line (and I may be biased here) reads like it was written for Gordon Lish.

When everyone was immitating Raymond Carver this story was written, but then everyone was immitating David Foster Wallace and things changed. 

As jyh mentions, there is a non-fiction quality to the prose that is incredibly compelling. I think the line on the first page: "But I won't get around to that until a couple of paragraphs." is what sets up the whole story: its veracity, and the early story's lack-there-of. Fiction that reads like non-fiction is impossible to beat.

Researching it as I write this, it appears that she wrote a fictional account of real events, then wondered why she wrote it that way and wrote an addendum, and the two were combined to create the final story. It's a brilliant piece of writing, just time-stamped in my opinion. There are Hempel stories I like a lot more.

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helpfulsnowman from Colorado is reading But What If We're Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman February 2, 2018 - 10:31am

jyh-

I am talking about the turn neear the end, the "I'm going to start now and tell you what I left out..." I think you might be right in that the story is very meta, and it's less about the actual story than the construction of the story, trying to capture this very big thing and how difficult that is.

MattF-

That's interesting, and it makes sense that maybe she was struggling with the expression and said, You know, maybe I'll mash these two things together. Maybe express the difficulty by expressing the difficulty. 

I can see what you're saying about the dated-ness, although that era and style is by far my favorite. I'm a much bigger fan of the Lish students than I am the DFW folks. 

And I agree that someone who isn't a lit nerd would probably hate it, but I'm still curious. And I can see why it's taught a lot. There's a lot to dissect and discuss in a fairly short story.

 

Kedzie's picture
Kedzie from the SF Bay Area is reading The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien February 3, 2018 - 12:49am

I may be the reader you're looking for.

Before finding a link to the story: http://www.pifmagazine.com/1998/09/the-harvest/ I'd heard of but didn't know who Amy Hempel was. I suspect that I had heard of David Foster Wallace but can't say for sure. I had heard of Raymond Carver but had not read anything by him. Had never heard of Gordon Lish.

I had to Google post-modern, which lead me to Google modernism. I tried to read some of the explanations on Wiki but it was very long and full of links that would need to be clicked on and studied, too many for my feeble brain. While I enjoy writing very much, I'm not a student of the craft, and rarely dig deeper than the "how to" phase. For that reason I really enjoyed Amy's lesson (second part of The Harvest).

I can't identify the era of a story by the prose, the tone or the message. For era, the story needs to contain information that informs me of the era. Similarly, I can't identify schools of thought, such as modernism or post modernism, nor writing styles, or philosophies. I just like what I like with little regard for that stuff.

So to answer your question: I liked the story, but am unsure why she included the second part, which I took literally, as a lesson on how to write fiction. I did not consider the second part as intergral to the story, but as a lesson for students, and while I certainly appreciate the second part, I would have liked the story just as much without it. I reaize that I am probably in a very small minority, but that's how it reads to me.

I did not think the narrator had been bitten by a shark, only that she did not wish to explain the accident to a stranger, just as she did not care to type out all the sylabbles in motorcycle.

Not sure why the story works, or what specific mechanics make it work, but it does work. I enjoyed it. Also enjoyed the second part.

Kedzie

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MattF from Tokyo is reading Borges' Collected Fictions February 3, 2018 - 4:15am

Kedzie-

I think you are the reader he was looking for. Good stuff.

You don't need to know DFW, Gordon Lish, post modernism or any of that crap. But I would highly recommend picking up Raymond Carver's Where I'm Calling From. It's a great book.

To put all that stuff in other terms, for a lot of years short fiction was extremely earnest, and a lot of people believed that great short stories had to end in epiphanies. So there were a lot of contrived epiphanies. As you can imagine, it got pretty fucking tiresome.

I think one reaction was a gritty realism that said 'fuck your epiphanies.'

Another reaction was irony and self-consciousness, and a constant awareness of the manipulative aspects of writing techniques. 

Both of these reactions kind of exploded in the 90's, and for me the Hempel story feels like the second.

And all this shit is just my analysis as a heavy reader and wannabe writer over the last 2.5 decades. I don't have an MFA in any of this stuff. Just spouting opinions, all of them flawed...

Kedzie's picture
Kedzie from the SF Bay Area is reading The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien February 3, 2018 - 12:59pm

>>> You don't need to know DFW, Gordon Lish, post modernism or any of that crap. But I would highly recommend picking up Raymond Carver's Where I'm Calling From. It's a great book.

Thanks. I will look for it.

>>> To put all that stuff in other terms, for a lot of years short fiction was extremely earnest, and a lot of people believed that great short stories had to end in epiphanies. So there were a lot of contrived epiphanies. As you can imagine, it got pretty fucking tiresome.

I'm not knowledgable in literature, but am in pop music from the late '50's to now. In musical terms, what you describe can be understood by comparing Bruce Springsteen - rocks most earnest confessor - to John Mellencamp, a guy who's often compared negatively to Bruce, even sometimes called "a lesser Bruce."

John's best songs are his nasty ones. When JM tries to be earnest, especially when going for an epiphany, he's a snooze, and sometimes even downright embarrassing. (I'm not talking about Scarecrow, which has a real nice nasty edge, but rather, a song from that same album called Justice and Independence '85, which is perhaps John's worst song of all time). JM should stick to being the little fucker in the back of class using his pocket knife to carve "school sucks" on the desk. In that realm he's got it all over Bruce, who's a good Catholic boy. Tom Petty, on the other hand, was perfect when snarky and cynical, yet could also pull off earnesty, a rare musician. Warren Zevon too. But guys like Bruce and Bob Seger are incapable of snark, cynicism or irony, AND, wise enough to know it.  

>>> I think one reaction was a gritty realism that said 'fuck your epiphanies.'

Maybe like punk in the Seventies? They were fed up with music as it was, and so forged their own thing.

>>> Another reaction was irony and self-consciousness, and a constant awareness of the manipulative aspects of writing techniques. Both of these reactions kind of exploded in the 90's, and for me the Hempel story feels like the second. And all this shit is just my analysis as a heavy reader and wannabe writer over the last 2.5 decades. I don't have an MFA in any of this stuff. Just spouting opinions, all of them flawed...

I like analysis and opinions. I just don't have any when it comes to literature, which makes me Helpful's perfect subject. I read some stuff and like it, read some other stuff and go meh. But the writing part, that I do enjoy. Lately it's become an obsession. At least this obsession won't make me fat. My ice cream obsession nearly killed me. ;-)

MattF's picture
MattF from Tokyo is reading Borges' Collected Fictions February 4, 2018 - 3:02pm

Kedzie, you led me to checking out Mellencamp's worst songs of all time, and I have to agree with you there. That was awful. I'd guess lit, music, and visual arts all have fairly analogous movements through time, being jolted by the same historical events. The Vietnam War I think being a major before and after culture shift of what art has looked like in our lifetimes. 

Kedzie's picture
Kedzie from the SF Bay Area is reading The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien February 4, 2018 - 10:11pm

Yeah, “Justice and Independence ‘85” is truly horrible. 

However, Mellencamp is actually fantastic. There’s a current thread about him on a Jason Isbell FB group where people are listing their favorite Mellencamp songs and the list is endless. The guy has an incredible ear for melody and an amazing catalogue of great songs.

He’s also written some of the greatest whole albums of any American rocker. Albums like Scarecrow; The Lonesome Jubilee, Big Daddy; Human Wheels and many, many more.

At his best he’s easily the equal of all the industry’s critical darlings. Where he goes wrong is when he tries to make the “big statement.” But that’s a tall order for anyone. Those who can pull it off seem to do it by not trying. Tom Waits and John Prine, for example.

Fun conversation. It’s DEF inspired me to check out all of the writers named in the thread. 

Kedzie's picture
Kedzie from the SF Bay Area is reading The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien February 4, 2018 - 8:10pm

MattF

I know how the Vietnam War changed popular music, I lived through it. Don’t know how it changed other art forms. Would love to know so feel free to offer your observations.

I remember when the war was wrapping up, I read a harrowing novel called Dog Soldiers by a harrowing guy named Robert Stone. I don’t know if he would be an example of the changes seen in post-Vietnam literature. I just know that the book had a real vein of darkness running through it. Then again, so did A Clockwork Orange and if memory serves that was written in the 1950’s. 

 

MattF's picture
MattF from Tokyo is reading Borges' Collected Fictions February 5, 2018 - 6:33am

Kedzie, in my observation it's not about darkness, which I agree has been a staple of art from the very beginning, Beowulf etc (WWI had a major impact on all the arts, as I understand it). I'm gen-X, so grew up just post Vietnam, but as I I've come to understand it, pre-Vietnam the instutions of religion, government, and corporations were very much the pillars of society, and though often questioned in literature, it tended to focus on bad actors in the institution; whereas post Vietnam, the institution itself became the potential evil, the pillars were gone (for many), and everything was open for exploration.

Elvis was scandalous, and eighteen year old boys were getting their legs blown off on tv at dinner time--there had to be a new exploration of obscenity. 

A book like J.G. Ballard's Crash, published in 1973, probably couldn't have existed pre-Vietnam.

Something as simple as John O'Brien's Leaving Las Vegas (1990) would have been heretical in the 50's. 

There has always been counterculture, and rebellion against social mores, but I think there was a bigger breakdown of meaning with Vietnam, hence a bigger effect on the arts.

It's just occurred to me that John Cheever's short story "The Swimmer" and O'Brien's Leaving Las Vegas are nearly the same story, adapted to the different times.

I know there are people on here that can talk really well about this stuff. Hopefully we'll hear from some of them.

I do like Robert Stone. And didn't mean to criticize Mellencamp, just the '85 song (which was even kind of catchy until the lyrics kicked in).

Kedzie's picture
Kedzie from the SF Bay Area is reading The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien February 5, 2018 - 1:37pm

LOL. Those lyrics should give any young writer the faith to know that you can fail tremendously and still recover from it.

I get your point about post Vietnam. Perhaps Watergate also pushed people in the direction of institutional mistrust. Unfortunately, what we have today in the US is a massive coordinated exploitation of that mistrust, an exploitation that has landed us in the current mess that we now find ourselves in.

One of my oldests kid’s fav movies - perhaps his #1, would have to ask him - is Leaving Las Vegas. And of course being 65, to me, it was unwatchable. (Gimme The Deerhunter, now that’s a movie). But over the years the kid has convinced me that I’m wrong. Now I am told that it started as a novel? That may be the better way for me to approach this story. 

When it comes to reading, I have a lot of catching up to do. Worked for 40+ years and never had much time for books. So really appreciate hearing about all the new (to me) authors in this thread,

 

Kedzie's picture
Kedzie from the SF Bay Area is reading The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien February 5, 2018 - 1:34pm

Example of when John Mellencamp is great.

No big statement, no political discourse.

Just a guy with a bad jones for a girl.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gwH0gmlLDP8

MattF's picture
MattF from Tokyo is reading Borges' Collected Fictions February 5, 2018 - 3:10pm

Leaving Las Vegas was a novel, and sadly the author, John O'Brien, did commit suicide, apparently two weeks after it was sold to become a movie. According to Wiki, his father considers the novel to be his suicide note. 

It might not be the greatest novel, but for me is one of those rare, iconic novels that really stands apart from everything else I've read. A sense that it is the author's best attempt at creating their art, rather than adhering to some expectation or market force or whatever else. There is a rawness to the writing that is rare these days.

If your son loved the film, you should recommend John Huston's film Under the Volcano (also based on a novel). I believe Cage studied it for his own performance, and they are interesting to see together. 

Kedzie's picture
Kedzie from the SF Bay Area is reading The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien February 5, 2018 - 4:21pm

Thanks. 

He’s due for a visit here soon so maybe we can watch each film over two nights.

Watched The Deerhunter with our youngest over the holidays and he was blown away (sorry accidental pun). At the end he just sat there mouth open. The credits rolled and he’s all “that was Robert DeNiro?” I was amazed he hadn’t known that. Turns out his exposure to RD has been The Fauckers and Meet The Parents.

Needless to say he’s now on a ‘70’s kick.

MattF's picture
MattF from Tokyo is reading Borges' Collected Fictions February 5, 2018 - 10:18pm

I don't know, Kedzie. I'm starting to feel culpable for influencing a pretty depressing father and son weekend. Maybe Under the Volcano, then something with Bill Murray? 

Sad to think anyone could think of Deniro and not have Taxi Driver, Deer Hunter, or Raging Bull as one of their top mental hits. 70's posters were mandatory for any Gen-X-er with outsider-artistic pretensions, life myself.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like February 5, 2018 - 11:06pm

"America's 'Loss of Innocence'" or whatever. I'm young enough to have not grown up believing in an innocent America, and I sometimes wonder how it was possible people ever did, or if they ever did, or if that narrative tack was included in the indictment to make the 60's & 70's appear even more dramatic, like a real turning point, perhaps even an inexorbale descent into tragedy.

Kedzie's picture
Kedzie from the SF Bay Area is reading The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien February 6, 2018 - 12:31am

MattF - well, we did watch Requim for a Dream together once... As for the youngest, he'd heard about The Deerhunter and Taxi Driver for years, but had not gotten around to either. And for some reason he did not associate DeNiro with The Deerhunter (guessing he does for Taxi Driver). Doubt he's heard of Raging Bull.

jyh - having lived through it, I view the '60's and '70's as a very real turning point. In the '50's people definitely believed in "Good America." Not neccesarily innocent, but decent and righteous. But Vietnam came along and blew that whole fantasy to hell. Korea should have done that but never did. Lots of reasons for that but I don't want to bore you guys with Boomer Logic. ;-)

 

MattF's picture
MattF from Tokyo is reading Borges' Collected Fictions February 6, 2018 - 3:30am

jyh: "Innocence" is not the right framework. A nation built on slavery has no claim there. Loss of trust or faith would be more accurate. More an issue of brand loyalty than anything else. 

 

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like February 6, 2018 - 10:32pm

Ah, well was the "innocence" that of the state, or of the citizens? (That trust or faith being its product.)

MattF's picture
MattF from Tokyo is reading Borges' Collected Fictions February 7, 2018 - 5:13am

jyh, I don't understand your question, but I think you may be looking at something we're not quite saying.

The best example I can give (which will circle back to 'The Harvest', yay!), is to look at WWII journalism vs Vietnam.

WWII reporting was govt censored and self-censored for positive news. Reporters considered themselves patriots, and part of the war effort. Essentially, it was an arm of propoganda (and I'm not judging that--the goal was bolstering the homefront to victory).

Officials attempted the same narrative in Vietnam, but they didn't have the same war, journalists saw the deception and rebelled, and revealed a very different truth, at odds with the military's version of events. 

Citizens were shaped by the information they received in both wars, so the country was just different. 

A post WWII writer's reaction may be: you know part of the story, but here's the whole story.

Post Vietnam may be: their story is bullshit, here's the truth... or is it? That 'or is it?' is what I was alluding to with "Harvest" and a lot of other 90's writing. The Things They Carried is perhaps the classic work in that vein. Fight Club is really about the same damned thing. There was a lot of focus on who was telling the story, and deconstructing their motives (even if they are the author's own), and claims on the story itself.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like February 7, 2018 - 11:18pm

Yeah, I was sort of going on a tangent. If no one follows me there, no problem.

But, in a way, you have approached the tangent. People deconstruct the intentions of news media as well as the government's.