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The Magical Hours of Tom Bissell

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Aspiring pop culture critics today have an abundance of material to study when determining how to approach a story in a personal yet crafted style. As noted in a recent essay in Slate, there’s a rise in “criticism as memoir,” an approach where reporters inject their memories, thoughts, and actions into the piece they are writing.

In the tradition of New Journalism, pioneered by Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, and Joan Didion in the 60s and defined by Wikipedia as “an artistic, creative, literary reporting form with three basic traits: dramatic literary techniques; intensive reporting; and reporting of generally acknowledged subjectivity,” this new crop of writers — Jonathan Lethem, Chuck Klosterman, Geoff Dyer, and, the subject of this review, Tom Bissell — are carrying on the tradition of personalized reportage.

Bissell’s new essay collection, Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation, which takes works from the Believer, the New York Times Magazine, the New Yorker, and the Virginia Quarterly Review–among other publications–is an excellent resource for writers looking to profile both the lauded and the obscure. Meanwhile, for pop culture enthusiasts it’s an entertaining look inside America’s quirky landscape.

Magic Hours opens with “Unflowered Aloes,” an essay that ran in the April/May 2010 issue of the Boston Review, and that questions of “literary destiny: the faith that great literature will survive and achieve recognition commensurate to its value.” A once-publishing insider, an editor at W.W. Norton, Bissell, after five months with the company, was asked to join the publisher’s paperback committee. He’d just read an essay by Jonathan Franzen in Harper’s Magazine where he’d mentioned Paula Fox’s then out-of-print book Desperate Characters. After fruitless searching, Bissell wrote to Franzen asking where he could find a copy. Franzen, in turn, put Bissell in touch with Fox who sent him one of hers. Bissell brought the book to the attention of his colleagues and wondered if it was worth republishing. To his surprise the publisher didn’t need much convincing and even went so far as to sign up her other out-of-print novels.

From this experience, Bissell concludes that rescuing books from the dustbin of history is serendipitous in nature:

I could not stop reflecting upon how arbitrary–how unliterary–the whole business was. Desperate Characters’ republication, despite the book’s greatness, seemed merely the yield of an inert aggregated chance. I felt something akin to what I imagine haunts the recipient of a Hail Mary touchdown pass. Not only was the ball not meant for him, it was not meant for anyone. The joy of victory is cut with a terrifying void. Outcome is particulate; modulating the tiniest variable can spell ruin. In football, we accept this. But for writers, editors, and readers who view literature itself with quasi-religious reverence, this is intolerable.

At first I wanted to argue with Bissell — and in my mind I did. After all, it was because of his passion and curiosity for literature that led him to Franzen’s essay, not some random stumbling. Not to mention it was Franzen’s passion and curiosity for literature that not only led him to Fox’s work but inspired him to write about it. As someone who works in publishing I would like to believe that I am surrounded by thousands of people who are just as passionate as myself, Bissell, and Franzen when it comes to the literary arts — keeping a careful, almost obsessive, watch on the culture at large. While it may be that obscure literature has an army of foot soldiers on its side, Bissell ultimately makes a convincing argument.

He goes on to name books torched in kitchen ovens when kindling wasn’t at hand, political movements that burned texts in public squares, and books now considered classics–unquestionably so–that were brought out of obscurity after the authors were long dead: Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Melville’s Moby-Dick, and Emily Dickinson’s poetry.

What, then, do we have to thank for the survival of American literature’s three greatest figures? Remaindered copies bought from book peddlers. A man, sitting at his desk, an oxidized copy of a forgotten novel beside him, cobbling together an essay with no idea of what it would accomplish. The lovely devotion of solitary women and men. Essays published at the right time, in the right journals or books, noticed by the right people. Clearly, these are not the props of fate. They are, rather, the stagecraft of chance.

Like I said, convincing. Also convincing is Bissell’s essay, “Writing About Writing About Writing,” in which he skewers the how-to writing book industry (with humor and poignancy). “. . . most people who frequent the how-to-write section will never become writers,” he says, claiming that the books are “mostly useless.” Before you can argue, huffing and puffing that x, y, or z book has changed your life (believe me, it came to my mind as well), Bissell, once again, stops you cold.

Look around the how-to section. To your left: books on how to garden. To your right: computer programming. Down the way a bit more: How to Play Five-String Banjo. Most of the people who buy these books will not become professional gardeners or computer programmers or banjoists either. … Dreams, after all, are many, often mundane, and their private pursuit is the luxury of every dreamer.

Bissell continues, “Can writing be taught?” Answering his own question he says, “All human activity is taught,” but adds this caveat: “Writing can be taught, then, yes–but only to those who are teachable.”

Moving away from book publishing and writing, Magic Hours includes the profiles of two filmmakers who couldn’t be more different. In December of 2006, for Harper’s Magazine, Bissell wrote a piece about Werner Herzog called “The Secret Mainstream.” Although Herzog remains an active filmmaker to this day, having put out films since the feature’s publication, the article remains relevant and still stands as a guide to understanding the man behind the camera.

Setting the tone for those who might not be familiar with all of Herzog’s work, Bissell writes that although the films are “heterogeneous in technique, genre, and breadth [they] scarcely seem the work of one man.” In 2010 Herzog explored France’s Chauvet Cave, documenting the oldest human-paintings, and in his 2011 documentary, “Into the Abyss,” about a triple murder in Texas, he interviews the convicted killers, their relatives, the victims’ families, and law-enforcement officials. Although Herzog is a documentarian of heavy subjects, Bissell is quick to point out that he is “an artist, not a journalist.”

In a style that makes him appealing to young writers, Bissell divulges part of the interview that could have been left out if he were eager to protect his ego. Instead, he offers a cautionary tale: “I hoped–in retrospect, stupidly–to impress Herzog by pointing out a continuity error I had noticed in one of his films.” We’re told that this briefly derails the conversation as Herzog questions the inconsistency. This humbling confession by a respectable feels like a favor to future feature writers.

Two essays later, in “Cinema Crudite,” Bissell tackles the obscure filmmaker Tommy Wiseau whose film “The Room,” has reached cult status, he has seen more than twenty times. You’d think Bissell’s choice to spend this many hours with one movie would mean it was a masterpiece yet he goes on to say that “‘Bad’ and ‘good’ are incapable of capturing” how he feels about it. This mixture of high and lo-brow, Herzog and Wiseau, is testament to how deep Bissell will dig into his own experiences to find material for a story. Everything has potential to become an article.

Praising Bissell’s essays are easy, among them the profile of Chuck Lorre, creator of “The Big Bang Theory” and “Three and a Half Men,” and one on Jennifer Hale, the voiceover actress behind Commander Shepard of the wildly popular video game Mass Effect, but the joy of reading Magic Hours is discovering the eclectic subject matter on one’s own. Bissell’s style is refreshing and inspiring, making Magic Hours a handbook for every pop culture explorer who travels with pen and paper.

Buy Magic Hours at IndieBound or your local bookstore
Interview with Bissell at BookForum
Interview at Salon
Interview at The Rumpus
Poets & Writers profile
Slate article on “criticism as memoir”
“Unflowered Aloes” in the Boston Review
Tom’s playlist for his short story collection, “God Lives in St. Petersburg and Other Stories”

Written by Gabrielle

June 19, 2012 at 6:58 am

Posted in books, reviews

Tagged with , , , ,

2 Responses

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  1. […] taste of comic-con writer has Christ School alum Plumlee as first-round NBA draft pickThe Magical Hours of Tom Bissell /* Thanks to Web Designer Wall for writing about this technique: […]

  2. Maybe it’s a Portland thing to love “bad art” like “The Room” Either way, Magic Hours gives us some pop culture criticism to aspire to. Thanks for the review!


    October 11, 2012 at 2:44 pm

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