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Reviewed: Magic Hours: Essays on Creation and Creators

by Tom Bissell

(McSweeney’s, Believer Books; April 2012)

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Every month, Indie(cent) Exposure will review a book from a small, independent publisher. This months selection is from McSweeneys, a publishing company based in San Francisco, and is part of their Believer Books series.


While best known for his travel and video-game writing, in his new essay collection, Magic Hours, Tom Bissell focuses on art and the people who make it, whether they be novelists, documentary directors, sitcom magnates, or delusional fantasists with big dreams and little talent.

In “Grief and the Outsider,” Bissell profiles the Underground Literary Alliance, an organization of anti-mainstream-publishing zealots whom one editor called, “The ghastliest group of no-talent whiners to have ever walked the earth.” The ULA has “virtually nothing to say about the actual work of the writers it hates”—they group Rick Moody together with Jonathan Franzen because both are members of the “elite.” Most of them “could not write [his/her] way out of an issue of Ranger Rick.” One ULAer says of another member’s work, “There can be no rewrites…Attempts to impose order—grammar, spelling, logic—would cause the fragile bursts of immediacy to fall apart.” Bissell’s retort: “To that one is tempted to argue that poiaurna fopiuay bnvmnnab.” But to Bissell’s credit, instead of simply eviscerating the ULA—which would be the simplest thing to do, given how obnoxious they are—he probes the deeper motivations behind their inchoate anger. He find that ULA members aren’t mad about the writing being pumped out by the big New York Houses (they ask for writing “done in plain English about subjects that matter,” which Bissell suggests demonstrates “a perfect ignorance” of the contemporary literary scene), but rather that “for many, serious reading is increasingly revolving around nothing but image.” Bissell admits that “it is little wonder that the manner in which this gossipy system publishes many writers’ work appalls those it excludes.”

In “Unflowered Aloes,” the author uses his experience as a young editor at W.W. Norton championing the reissue of a Paula Fox book to reflect upon “how arbitrary—how unliterary—the whole business” is. Bissell shares the stories of three writers underappreciated in their time who later became pillars of the American canon—Melville, Whitman, and Dickinson—and wonders what would have happened if each writer had not had a single posthumous champion. An influential early twentieth-century critic accidentally happens upon an old copy of Moby-Dick at a used bookstore, and if not for this “one breathtakingly random incident,” Melville might have faded from memory forever. Far from taking pleasure in the great work that was salvaged from obscurity by chance, Bissell’s experience crushes his belief in fate. “Is literary destiny yet another God that failed?” Bissell asks. “I cannot help but imagine that literature is an airplane, and we are passengers on it,” he writes. “But the cockpit is empty. It has always been empty.”

The uses and dangers of how-to-write manuals are the subject of “Writing about Writing about Writing,” a title that invites the reader to stay away. However this piece is not a masturbatory exploration of craft, but rather a panoramic look at writing guides, from the well known—Gardner and Lamott—to more mystical texts. On the topic of one of these esoteric how-to guide writers, who orders her friends to hug her and tell her how beautiful she looks after she does a reading, Bissell says “nearly all writers are needy monsters, but that is no reason for Goldberg to unwisely encourage this lamentable condition.” On the same author’s assertion that “we are important and our lives are important, magnificent really, and their details are worthy to be recorded,” Bissell commends the “lovely few lines of sentiment.” In moments like these, Bissell goes too far in his generosity; maybe the details of all lives are worthy to be recorded, but they’re certainly not worthy of sharing with a public inundated with misery porn and therapy-group memoirs. The most entertaining part of the essay is when the author takes on a dictum from the famous Elements of Style to not use fancy words, observing, “The ‘fancy words’ Strunk and White unveil as examples—beauteous, curvaceous, and discombobulate—are less fancy words than incredibly dumb words.”

In “Cinema Crudité,” Bissell examines the greatness to be found in the spectacularly bad movie The Room, in which the filmmaker tried to make “a conventional film and wound up with something so inexplicable and casually surreal that no practicing surrealist could ever convincingly ape the form, except by exact imitation.” “A Simple Medium,” an essay on Chuck Lorre, creator of Two and a Half Men, dissects the purgatorially reassuring aspects of the sitcom: “The same characters appear week after week, displaying the same tics, and having the same arguments, in the same rooms, hallways, stairwells, and offices.”

While Bissell is generous and forgiving to even his most mockable subjects, he has no mercy for the tremendously influential—and in Bissell’s view, dangerous—“world affairs expert” Robert D. Kaplan: “Kaplan’s real problem, which has become increasingly evident, is not his Parkinson’s grip on history or that he is a bonehead or a warmonger but rather that he is an incompetent thinker and a miserable writer.”

In a recent interview, John Jeremiah Sullivan (who is Bissell’s most obvious analogue) spoke about the difficulty of first person writing: “It’s a process of training your ear. You know when you listen to your own voice on a tape it sounds strange? You can’t really hear it the way other people hear it…You want to hear it the way a disembodied third person observer would hear it.” Sullivan’s comparison is especially apt for anyone who has had to endure the hell that is transcribing his own interview (“I sound like that? Dear God, why do I keep saying uh-huh?”). When writing in the first person—now seemingly the default setting for narrative nonfiction—the author toes the narrowest of lines between intelligent and arrogant, self-deprecating and self-congratulatory, and between funny and lame, knowing that a single misplaced word or phrase can distort her voice beyond salvageability. Magic Hours showcases an author who possesses the essayist’s simplest yet most elusive of skill: a perfect ear for the sound of his own voice.

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