Twenty Writers: Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics

See the “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books” home page for more information on this series as well as a list of other reviews and essays


So far in this series, about half of the books I’ve discussed have been nonfiction and the other half fiction. This is the first time I’ve written about a text on critical theory—and it may be the best lit crit book I’ve ever encountered.

The text I’m speaking of is Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Published in 1993, the book remains the definitive work on comics theory a quarter century later. Others have attacked the subject, but none come close to McCloud’s exhaustive treatment.

McCloud is an unlikely “Aristotle of comics.” Prior to Understanding Comics he was best-known for Zot!, a lighthearted superhero comic book series which introduced many American readers to the tropes and style of Japanese manga. While Zot! was a success in the 1980s, its reputation has not swollen over time, as evidenced by McCloud’s sheepish preface to a 2008 reprint.

There’s nothing sheepish to be found in Understanding Comics—McCloud is not merely comic’s Aristotle, he’s one of its best ambassadors. His belief in comics’ power and universality is unshakeable. Page after page he convincingly argues comics belong in the same inner circle as other high art forms, including art considered vulgar upon its first appearance, such as film and jazz. Comics may even be more inclusive than other forms, as the language of comics is the language of the modern world. Advertising, software, religion, news, and entertainment all employ comics’ visual cues for their own purposes. This isn’t so much a book on comics as a book on perception and semiotics.

When I first picked up Understanding Comics in the mid-1990s, I enjoyed reading comics occasionally, but only as a guilty pleasure. I’d read superhero comics as a teen but set them aside as childish even before I left high school. (And this was during the 1980s rise of so-called “adult” comics like The Dark Knight Returns and the all-but-forgotten Camelot 3000.)

McCloud’s treatise left me with a renewed pleasure for reading comics. He disassembled and reassembled what I “knew” about comics before my eyes, all the while with concision, humor, and infectious zeal. His unraveling of the “invisible art” also left me with a fresh re-looking of the world at large. I can’t think of higher praise for McCloud’s magnum opus.

The sequential art

Understanding Comics is not the first work on the principles of comics. That honor goes to Will Eisner’s Comics & Sequential Art.

Before Eisner, books on comics focused on technical production: inks, scripting, musculature, shading, etc. (The most prominent example I know of is How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, the standard go-to guide for aspiring fourteen year-olds back in the day.) Comics & Sequential Art focused on the language of comics, much as a book on film theory would discuss camera angles and shot selection as the “language” of movies.

Prior to Eisner and McCloud, books on writing comics skewed toward technique and process.

Sequential Art‘s biggest contribution is right there in its title—Eisner put forward a general definition for comics. He held up comics as a special style of communication with unique properties and advantages. Eisner saw the field still struggling to break free of cultural restrictions (“comic books are for kids”) and waiting to be applied to broader purposes. For example, Eisner advocated using comics for technical manuals and in education.

Reading comic books in grade school may be more acceptable today than when I was young, but I suspect the suggestion still earns chuckles among certain educators. That’s too bad; Eisner remains ahead of his time. After all, while IKEA’s assembly guides and their Ziggyesque “IKEA Man” character have elicited much lampooning, their ability to transcend written language stems from the fact that they are comics. And when Google wanted to introduce the world to its new Chrome browser in 2008, it hired none other than Scott McCloud to present the software’s design and features via a digital comic book.

Understanding Comics takes many cues from Eisner’s work, and McCloud is eager to tip his hat to the master as well as introduce readers to a plethora of other comic artists you may or may not have heard of. But where Eisner’s book is head’s-down on the drawing easel, McCloud’s eyes are fervently skyward. Eisner’s intended audience is other comic artists; McCloud’s audience is everyone. To McCloud’s thinking, the language of comics permeates the modern world. He’s not merely comics’ Aristotle and ambassador, he’s its evangelist. Understanding Comics may be the first foundational lit crit text written by a fan boy.

The invisible art

The care and thought put into Understanding Comics is evident from the front matter onward. Consider that a book subtitled “The Invisible Art” opens with an enlarged image of an eye staring back at the reader—an iris, eyelashes, and eyebrow framed by a comic panel. Seeing is everything for McCloud, which is why Understanding Comics earns a space on the shelf beside Berger’s Ways of Seeing.

One bit of lingo in the software business is “dogfooding,” that is, the idea software developers should use their own software to better understand the problems and bugs their users are experiencing. (Imagine if every Apple employee used Microsoft PCs and Android phones, or if the entire workforce of The Gap wore Armani suits.)

McCloud dogfooded comics. His entire thesis, from first page to last, is told in comic form. He demonstrates the ubiquitousness and power of comics by drawing comics. The only places McCloud “reverts” to pure text are the Acknowledgments and Bibliography pages (where he can be forgiven, since I doubt anyone wants to read a Bibliography set to comic form).

Cleverly, McCloud inserts a cartoon representative of himself into the book to gently guide the reader along (and even analyzes the strategy itself as a graphic device). He deploys every trick in the comic biz to illustrate his points: alternate panel layouts, strange word balloon shapes, odd and abstract art styles, and so on. Every page offers a surprise for the reader. I can’t imagine the quarts of blood McCloud must have sweat to craft this masterpiece. Whatever criticism you may lob at McCloud, you can’t call his book dry.

After an ambitious and vivid history of comics going back to prehistory (no, really), McCloud appropriates Eisner’s term for comics—”sequential art”—and develops his own rigorous definition. From this foundation he launches into the depth and breadth of the language of comics: panels, gutters, lines, word balloons, transitions, and the utility of color (as opposed to the job of coloring, a la How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way).

McCloud’s ambitious “picture plane,” from photo-realism (left) to iconography (right) with the degree of abstraction rising up the pyramid. The eye on the left is the realm of visual and the mind on the right is the realm of ideas. Notice on the far right how McCloud considers written language a kind of “pure” iconography.

But McCloud isn’t satisfied to stay grounded on matters pertaining to comics itself. He reaches further with chapters on iconography, the nature of vision, and perception versus self-perception. He muses on the unique language of comics, where pictographs plus written word combine, and how space on the page can represent shifts in location and time, and sometimes shifting both simultaneously. He concludes with a surprisingly moving chapter on the relationship between artist and art that should be required reading for students of all creative disciplines.

Whether you agree or disagree with his conclusions, McCloud’s faculties for persuasion are appealing and impressive. The power of Understanding Comics is in taking McCloud’s tour through language and imagery, even if you don’t always agree with his destinations.

Recommendations

If you enjoy Understanding Comics, I recommend exploring the terrain McCloud mapped out. What follows is a list of graphic novels reflecting McCloud’s vision. They’re also rewarding in their own right:

  • City of Glass, Paul Karasik & David Mazzucchelli: Engrossing graphic novel adaptation of Paul Auster’s novel. City of Glass reads like a pure application of Understanding Comics.
  • Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, Shigeru Mizuki: Mizuki’s semi-autobiographical World War II manga features a “cartoony” military against a backdrop of stark photo-realistic Pacific island landscapes, a visual strategy McCloud fleshes out in his book.
  • Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China, Guy Delisle: A story of palpable solitude, Shenzhen spends much page real estate showing off modern China via “aspect-to-aspect” transitions discussed by McCloud.
  • Asterios Polyp, David Mazzucchelli: Like Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Polyp is a personal tale about a man hitting the road intertwined with philosophical musings on nature and existence. As with City of Glass, Polyp is obsessed with structure, symbols, and synthesis. Mazzucchelli’s detailed visuals slyly make the abstractions concrete.

For an entertaining stroll through the lingo and icons of the funny pages, I also recommend “Quimps, Plewds, And Grawlixes: The Secret Language Of Comic Strips”

Twenty Writers: David Kidd, Peking Story: The Last Days of Old China

See the “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books” home page for more information on the series as well as a list of other reviews and essays.


Peking Story by David KiddDavid Kidd’s Peking Story: The Last Days of Old China has settled into a somewhat unnoticed shelf of American literature: the literary eulogy.

Serialized in The New Yorker in 1955, collected in book form in 1961 as All the Emperor’s Horses, and republished in 1988 under the title it holds today, David Kidd’s book is an underappreciated classic in American nonfiction. Memoir, travelogue, New Journalism, creative nonfiction—none of these terms seem an apt categorization of Peking Story. The book is wistful, mournful, and laced with dry humor—a eulogy.

As the book opens, Kidd is a college student on a foreign exchange trip to Beijing in 1946. There he meets Aimee Yu, one daughter among many in a prominent Beijing family. In the span of a few pages, the couple are married. Courting Aimee is more glossed over than spun out, treated as a perfunctory narrative requirement. Peking Story is not a romantic book in the sense of love and matrimony. It’s a romantic book in the sense of Eastern exoticism and lost traditions. It’s right there in the subtitle: The Last Days of Old China.

As the book progresses, David Kidd the narrator develops as a kind of mystery himself. He doesn’t come off as one would imagine most Americans would talk or act in 1946, especially a college student from the Midwest. There are moments that read like a Graham Greene novel, the world-weary Britisher turning up his nose at the dreary reactionaries and their anti-imperialist manifestos—only Kidd studied at a state school, not Oxford. That’s one of the many mysteries of Peking Story, this American narrator who sounds distinctly un-American, seemingly more comfortable in Chinese silks and soft slippers than sneakers and blue jeans.

The Last Days of Old China

Like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, Kidd goes to some lengths to remain outside the books’ lens, preferring to focus on the events and people around him. Peking Story is a public story told by a very private man, and that shapes the book and contributes to its unique form.

Kidd alludes to his private nature (and the burden of telling his story) in his preface:

Only a few Westerners who once lived [in pre-Communist Peking] are still alive today—no more than ten or twenty of us at most, scattered throughout the world. I used to hope that some bright young scholar on a research grant would write about us and our Chinese friends before it was too late and were all dead and gone, folding back into darkness the wonder that had been our lives.

To this day, no such scholar has appeared, leaving me, as far as I know, the lone, first-hand chronicler of those extraordinary years that saw the end of old China, and the beginning of the new.

Author David Kidd

Author David Kidd

With the courtship and marriage out of the way, David Kidd eagerly moves into the opulent Yu family estate just outside of Beijing. (“Beijing” and “Peking” are Mandarin and Cantonese pronunciations, respectively, for the current capital of China. As Mandarin is now the official language of the People’s Republic of China, I use it here and reserve “Peking” for the book’s title and quotes from it.)

It is within the Yu family compound that Kidd slides his marriage from the reader’s field of vision. In its place he slides in the colorful Yu family itself and their grand estate, garden, and art collection. Beyond the compound’s walls the Communist revolution begins to encroach on their daily lives. These elements are Kidd’s true focus, with his marriage merely the frame to explain his presence on the estate grounds and in the Yu family’s lives.

The Yu’s are rich beyond the everyday meaning of that word. The family’s history and prominence extends hundreds of years in China’s past. The grandfather was at one time the Chief Justice of the Republic of China’s Supreme Court. The family estate is known for having one the best gardens in all of Beijing, and perhaps China. The Yu’s once held mansions and houses all over northern China, but declining fortunes and currency devaluation have chipped away at their holdings. By the time Kidd arrives, the Yu’s have only the family mansion, a burial shrine outside the city, and a stunning collection of historical Chinese art the family cannot bear to part with.

Arriving in Beijing two years before the Communist Revolution and leaving two years after it, Kidd witnessed China’s transition from a strict traditional society with deep class striations to a country intent on leveling the field and erasing its past. Rather than write this story with a breathless, you-are-there urgency, Kidd describes the changes from the comfort and safety of the Yu estate. Kidd’s encounters with the new Communist regime comes fleetingly, such as when they must register with the local police that the Yu’s intend to hold a costume party. Kidd portrays the revolutionaries as dreary, inconvenient, and déclassé.

I normally hold little interest in British entertainment of the upper-class variety, the rich lolling about on their divans and club chairs, plotting intrigue against each other while servants rush up and down stairs attending their every whim. For all of Kidd’s blind spots, Peking Story works because Kidd plainly sees the Yu’s way of life crumbling beneath their feet. Rather than pick up guns and defend their estate—what an American story that would be—the Yu’s shrug, brew another pot of tea, and reflect upon their garden before its wrested from them. The tension between dynamism and stasis is the backbone of Peking Story.

The bronze braziers

As a fiction writer, what I draw from Peking Story is Kidd’s skillfulness at sketching out characters and painting colorful scenes with graceful economy. Although Kidd comes across as waspy throughout the book (and a bit too blithe to the poverty about him), his education and breeding gifted him with a clean writing style that flows effortlessly. It’s harder than it looks.

Kidd’s narrative construction is as classical as his prose. The chapters are arranged almost perfectly. Early scenes that read as little more than humorous anecdotes are later revealed as precursors of devastating consequences for the Yu family. Kidd neatly sews disparate anecdotes together to craft chapters that compare and contrast China’s culture and the steamrolling revolution. Although “compare & contrast” rings like a English teacher’s tired essay topic, these pairings illuminate the reader’s way through Peking Story like a trail of paper lanterns.

The most memorable anecdote in Peking Story relates to a collection of bronze braziers the Yu’s display throughout their mansion. As Kidd tells the story, the luster of these incense burners is indescribable. They must be continually heated in order to maintain their luster, and so the Yu’s charge their servants to maintain a small charcoal fire burning beneath each at all hours. Kidd tells us the Yu family has kept the fires lit and the braziers hot for hundreds of years.

Then, encouraged by the Communists beyond the estate walls, the servants begin to question the people they’re working for. One morning the Yu’s discover all the charcoal fires are extinguished. The once-indescribable bronze braziers are now irreparably dull and gray.

The tale of the bronze braziers is the most memorable and powerful anecdote in the book. It’s a perfect metaphor for the aristocratic Yu family keeping alive China’s culture and the Communist revolution threatening to upheave it all.

However, the story may be too perfect:

I hope that specialists in Chinese bronzes, and technical experts, will back me up in saying that the story is completely phony—as is, I felt on reading it, much of the rest of the book. That Kidd had married Aimee Yu was plausible, although when I knew him he was plainly gay—he might have changed, or could—entirely laudably—have married her to get her out of China. But the obviously deceptive picture that the book painted was upsetting; this is one of the few books I’ve read that made me angry.

James Cahill’s rebuttal to Peking Story is well worth the read. In particular, he voices here a suspicion I had in the back of my mind the first time I read the story of the bronze braziers. Their sublime beauty destroyed by petty malice seemed a writerly addition by Kidd who (possibly) felt the need to put an authorial thumb on the scale.

I’m torn on this subject. Cahill’s objections are worth any reader’s consideration, but I still find myself drawn to the elegance and power of Kidd’s prose. I don’t particularly care about his sexual orientation, although it certainly would explain why his marriage takes a back seat in the book.

In Kidd’s defense, unlike fabricators like James Frey (A Million Little Pieces) and JT Leroy, Kidd’s falsehoods—if they are false—don’t create an undeserved authority or prop up an exaggerated persona. His presence in China is documented, as is his marriage to Aimee Yu. The story of the bronze braziers sweetens the book, the kind of misstep even a seasoned novelist might make to seal a point with the reader.

Tiananmen Square & Forbidden city entrance, Beijing, China. Joe Hunt. (CC BY 2.0)

It’s not the first time a well-respected work of nonfiction was revealed to contain fabrications. Questions about the veracity of Steinbeck’s Traveling with Charley have been received with a shrug by Steinbeck fans and academics. If Cahill is “angry” at the “deceptive” Peking Story, he must be outraged at Steinbeck. If not, why? Because Steinbeck’s sympathies are on the right side of history and Kidd’s are not?

(I would point out that if Kidd stretched the truth, it’s conceivable a kernel of truth inspired the story. Even if the braziers were not damaged beyond repair, it’s possible the Yu’s kept incense burning day and night through the household, and that one night, due to Communist influence, the servants rebelled, damaging them somehow. The metaphor of an Old China lost is not so strong, but the thrust of the anecdote remains.)

Where Cahill sees deception, I see craft. The reader’s reaction to the story of the bronze braziers is a leading indicator of the way they’ll receive the entire book. Some will toss the book aside, disgusted with Kidd’s approval of Chinese high society and disdain of the servants. Others will sympathize with the Yu’s, for no reason other than their desire to preserve a four thousand year-old culture and its rich traditions. In either case, Kidd’s anecdote encapsulates the entire book and the reader’s reception of it. It’s that kind of skill that encourages me to write a 2,200 word essay on Peking Story.

However, I’m less sure Kidd’s sympathies lie with the Chinese aristocracy per se. Kidd does not hold up the Yu’s as bold keepers of the flame, but rather as eccentrics. Without exception, Kidd’s tragedies are the loss and destruction of Chinese art, culture, and tradition. Kidd mourns for the dispersal of the Yu collection and estate more than any death in the book. He also mourns the death of common sense. In Kidd’s hands, registering a costume party with the Beijing police is as absurd as proving to the American consulate his wife is Christian to guarantee her visa out of the country.

Then there’s the matter of Cahill accusing Kidd of kowtowing to “anti-Communist sentiment in the U.S.,” guessing Kidd was “encouraged somehow by the powerful and rich China lobby.”

Kidd may be accused of all manner of motivation, I suppose, but Occam’s Razor strikes me as appropriate here. I see Kidd as genuinely upset at the rearrangement of Chinese society. He seems deeply shocked to witness a four thousand year-old cultural legacy deleted in a fit of moral outrage. The suggestion of shadowy, powerful forces funding a book that, frankly, did little to reshape American attitudes toward Communist China is unnecessary to explain the existence of Peking Story. I also don’t view The New Yorker—even The New Yorker of the 1950s—as a publication to kowtow to right-wing nationalists.

Fabricator or not, Kidd is forthright with his opinions and biases. When it comes to motivation, it’s simplest to take Kidd at his word. Cahill, on the other hand, appears more motivated by a sense of social justice than he’s letting on in his essay.

What’s more, for Cahill to argue Kidd misrepresented the Chinese Communists as a “mean-spirited movement” is to ignore the crop yielded by Maoism: The Cultural Revolution and its purges, denunciations, historical rewriting, and reeducation tactics. Kidd’s stories, first published eleven years before the Cultural Revolution’s earliest stirrings, practically predicts the furies to unfold. It’s a literary feat almost as impressive as Graham Greene warning the United States out of Vietnam in 1955’s The Quiet American.

The 21st century may be China’s century, but Peking Story eulogizes the price China paid to make its great lurch forward.

David Kidd died in in 1996, leaving behind a life as far-removed from his Midwestern origins as possible. After fleeing Beijing, he settled in Kyoto and founded a school of traditional Japanese arts:

As a tourist attraction, Mr. Kidd did not disappoint. To sit on a cushion before his throne, listening to his erudite patter, and seeing him sitting cross-legged on his kang, a divided Chinese sofa, rustling his silken gown as he gestured extravagantly with his inevitable cigarette, was to be in the presence of a presence.

With China’s role ascending in the 21st century, I would recommend Peking Story to anyone curious to learn about China’s future from its past. For those who want to go deeper, I would pair Peking Story with the superb Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang and Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World by Margaret MacMillan.

BBC News on John Hersey’s Hiroshima 70 years later

Hiroshima by John HerseyLate last year I wrote about my love of front matter using John Hersey’s inestimable Hiroshima as an example of why the first pages of a book matter. To mark the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima‘s publication, BBC News published last week a fantastic article on the history of John Hersey’s masterpiece, detailing both the 1946 New Yorker article he penned as well as its reception when published in book form.

Not only does the BBC article reproduce some of the pages of the original “Reporter at Large” article—The New Yorker really hasn’t changed in 70 years—it includes a quick biography of Hersey and the circumstances leading to his assignment in postwar Japan. One literary tidbit worth mentioning:

[Hersey] expected to write, as others had done, a piece about the state of the shattered city, the buildings, the rebuilding, nine months on. …

On the voyage out he fell ill and was given a copy of Thornton Wilders’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Inspired by Wilder’s narrative of the five people who crossed the bridge as it collapsed he decided he would write about people not buildings. And it was that simple decision that marks Hiroshima out from other pieces of the time.

Wilders’ novel is an unapologetically Christian story scrabbling for meaning in the remains of a supposedly senseless tragedy. It’s an apt book to prepare one’s soul for writing about the tragedy at Hiroshima.

A war correspondent, Hersey would’ve had practical experience writing of attacks and military maneuvers as well as the journalist’s skill for getting the four W’s down on the page in economical, readable prose. Yet Hersey chose to write about civilians, each detached from the war, rather than the larger geopolitical context. This is why Hiroshima is sometimes seen as an early form of New Journalism, although unlike its later practitioners, Hersey maintains the traditional journalist’s distance from his subjects.

The BBC retrospective also has a nice gallery of Hiroshima‘s covers over the years, including the one I mentioned in my earlier post (and displayed above). Each complement Hersey’s writing in their own ways, although I remain partial to Wendell Minor’s cover for the reasons I explored before.

Most impressive for me is Hersey’s refusal to be interviewed by the BBC, or for most anyone. From a cabled response he sent to the BBC (probably mangled due to the quality of telegram transmission at the time):

Hersey gratefullest invitation and BBC interest and coverage Hiroshima but has throughout maintained policy let story speak for itself without additional words from himself or anybody.

Here’s to a time when authors believed their work should speak for itself, rather than the modern inclination to itch and claw for more book tours, more time in front of a microphone, and more publicity to burnish one’s credentials and sell more copies.

In praise of front matter

This is prehistoric by Internet time, but a few months ago Paul Cantor’s essay “eBooks Are Great But….” left me thinking about a lot of issues surrounding the rise of digital books. I responded to him directly on Medium (you can read my full response), but as time passed one detail I touched on kept nagging me:

My biggest gripe with the Kindle is how it opens a new book to the first page of the first chapter. Here Amazon screwed up. Show me the cover, then let me page through the front matter to the first page. This is the pleasure and ritual of reading a new book.

Now every time I download a new ebook or sample, I think back to this comment. Amazon really did screw this up. When I pick up a physical book, the first thing I read is the cover, then the title page, then the rest of the front matter (“prelims” in the trade), before reaching the first page of the first chapter. This is not wasting my time. This is part and parcel of to the reading experience.

Hiroshima by John HerseyFor the sake of example, let me take a physical book off my shelf—John Hersey’s Hiroshima.

The cover for my paperback version is superb, a rising sun drenched in suggestive red. It rises over a moon bridge with the water below as blood-red as the sun. (Without a word printed on the cover I would immediately know this book regards Japan.) The quoted Saturday Review of Literature‘s exhortation that “everyone able to read should read it” is almost unnecessary at this point in time for a book of Hiroshima‘s stature, but I suppose it gives lingering on-the-fence customers one more reason to buy a copy.

Since I was a child I’ve studied book covers before diving in to the book itself. I’ve seen plenty of crappy book covers in my lifetime, but a great cover is worth moments of reflection. I’ve always admired the illustrator who can capture the essence of an entire book in a single image. Wendell Minor (the cover illustrator for this edition) did a fine job of that without exploiting the more obvious emotional signals the name Hiroshima evokes. The cover is tasteful, evocative, mournful, and thoughtful—just like the book itself.

Opening the book, the first printed page (titled “When the Bomb Dropped”) lists the main characters of Hiroshima along with brief biographies for each. This isn’t filler. This page suggests to me that Hiroshima is a book of many people, not just one. What’s more, this is not a book of dry facts about the detonation of the first atomic bomb against a population, nor is it scientific analysis. It’s also not a military history, as none of the names have a government or military title.

The next page lists John Hersey’s other books, published between 1943 to 1987. I was under the impression that Hersey was a journalist who fortuitously had a magazine feature article turned into a bestselling (and now historical) book. I didn’t know he had such a prolific career. While this seems minor, skimming down the list shaped how I received Hiroshima.

Hiroshima title pageThen comes the title page, a clean, almost retro layout befitting the book’s original publication in the 1940s. A small note indicates the final chapter was written more recently, forty years after the bombing of Hiroshima. Again, that’s a nice piece of information to have—that while I’m reading a history book originally published contemporaneously with the events it describes, it’s not been frozen in time.

The colophon or copyright page may be the driest page of all front matter, but again, I glean something from it: “Copyright 1946, 1985 John Hersey.” Not everyone who picks up Hiroshima will recognize Hersey wrote it in the immediate aftermath of the bombing; that’s worth knowing before reaching the first page. Another tidbit to be learned: “The entire contents of this book originally appeared in The New Yorker,” additional historical context.

Then a modest table of contents. Five chapters numbered, each with a brief summarizing phrase that, even before reading the rest of the book, acts as a primer on the history Hersey records: “A noiseless flash.” “The fire.” “Details are being investigated.”

Only upon turning the table of contents does the first page of the first chapter arrive. If I’d downloaded Hiroshima to my Amazon Kindle, this would be the first page presented. I would have been robbed—look again at the experience I’ve accumulated perusing the book’s cover and front matter.

I’m not blasting ebooks or declaring them dead or a horrible experience. I’m suggesting Amazon has made a questionable design decision, and one easily corrected. A simple option in the Settings would be enough to satisfy me.

Update: More on Hiroshima, John Hersey, and book covers here.

“Never open a book with weather”

"In the Rain", Sascha Kohlmann (CC BY-SA 2.0)

“In the Rain”, Sascha Kohlmann (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Every profession, hobby, and field of study has its share of lore, that is, its own body of unsubstantiated knowledge distributed by word-of-mouth and emails, often winding up in textbooks and reference material. Most “common knowledge” is lore. Everybody knows that Macs can’t get viruses—but they can get malware, and they do. Everybody knows that the French eat better than Americans—but watch the Parisians line up at McDo’s for their Quarter Pounders and pomme frittes. There’s even office lore, the shared knowledge of how to unjam the printer and get around that bug in Excel. The thing about lore is, even if it’s accurate, no one knows why. If it works, the lore is reinforced; if it doesn’t, the lore may still survive. Lore is superstition for a modern world that thinks it’s shaken off superstition.

Lore shared among fiction writers is the worst. These received chestnuts of “wisdom” that all writers must adhere to continue to go unchallenged, both individually and as a body. Why is that? Why are we as writers so beholden to a list of unproven, unsubstantiated do’s and don’t’s?

Inevitably this writing lore is attached to the name of some Big & Important Author. If Carver or Faulkner or Flaubert said it, it must be true—or, more significantly, it must be deep and thoughtful. Another reason for the bulletproof status of this lore is that their rules are regularly reprinted in definitive texts and repeated by other authoritative authors.

Lore replaces thought. Instead of considering each and every sentence in your story, examining word choice and sentiment and motivation, lore is a handy feather-stuffed cushion to fall backwards onto. Lore in writing becomes a shortcut in an art form that is all about decisions. Ignorance of lore is to risk ridicule from peers and scorn from editors. Defying lore is to take a risk. That’s why it’s passed around so earnestly in workshops, writing groups, and creative writing classes.

It doesn’t help when a reputable literary bastion collects and collates this body of lore into a central location, even using the long-sapped form of the Top Ten list to help the practitioners organize their thoughts. Now, not everything on these lists is lore—plenty of it is hard-learned personal wisdom—but inevitably someone (“Elmore Leonard” being that someone) invokes that tired hand-me-down: “Never open a book with weather.” I’ve heard it phrased so many different ways I’ve lost count (maybe I should make a Top Ten list), but every variation involves “never”, “open”, “book” (or “story”), and “weather”. (The Guardian cribbed his list from The New York Times, incidentally.)

Elmore Leonard isn’t so stupid as to pronounce this absolutism and move on. He offers a justification (“If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long”) and an exception (“If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want”). When you contemplate both of his exceptions, suddenly that “never” in “never open a book with weather” melts away like the warming Kilimanjaro snow.

Speaking of, this is what Hemingway wrote to John Dos Passos:

Remember to get the weather in your god damned book—weather is very important.

Hemingway managed to open “A Very Short Story” with a mention of the weather:

One hot evening in Padua they carried him up onto the roof and he could look out over the top of the town.

Here’s his rule-breaking opening to “In Another Country”:

In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more. It was cold in the fall in Milan and the dark came very early. Then the electric lights came on, and it was pleasant along the streets looking in the windows. There was much game hanging outside the shops, and the snow powdered in the fur of the foxes and the wind blew their tails. The deer hung stiff and heavy and empty, and small birds blew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers. It was a cold fall and the wind came down from the mountains.

Papa again, in “Cross-Country Snow”:

The funicular car bucked once more and then stopped. It could not go farther, the snow drifted solidly across the track. The gale scouring the exposed surface of the mountain had swept the snow surface into a wind-board crust.

I could go on. In fact, if you think of a story’s title as its true opening, Hemingway is even more guilty: “The Snows of Kilamanjaro”, “Cat in the Rain”, “After the Storm”, even perhaps The Sun Also Rises.

You might object that these openings are reflected in Leonard’s exceptions and provisos, but the lore of “never open a book with weather” that gets passed around somehow fails to mention any of them. Someone brings a story into a workshop that opens with rain drizzling onto a window pane and someone else pounces on the faux pas.

Worse, the lore of “never open a story with weather” is often misattributed to Hemingway, which is crazy: the man made a career and an unstoppable reputation based on writing about the outdoors. A writer of outdoors adventures would never respect “never open a story with the weather”—it’s like a mystery writer admonishing “never open a story with a murder.”

The prohibition against opening with weather is one more bit of lore designed to mystify and codify the craft. It bedazzles young writers who commit it to memory as the key to publication, and it offers easy ammunition to every hack who’s gone into a workshop oh-so-smug in the knowledge of why the story up for review is mortally flawed.

Twenty Writers: Yoshihiro Tatsumi in retrospect

See my Introduction for more information about the “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books” project. The current list of reviews and essays may be found at the “Twenty Writers” home page.


Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Tokyo, 2010. (Yasu. CC BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia Commons)

Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Tokyo, 2010. (Yasu. CC BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia Commons)

Last night I learned Japanese manga artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi had passed away at the age of 79. Revered as the grandfather of gekiga (a darker form of manga, akin to graphic novels or alternative comics here in the United States), Tatsumi was known in Japan for his urban, noirish comics featuring a gamut of characters, from gangsters and back alley hoods to college students and office workers. Only in the last ten years did he became well-known in the North America (and perhaps elsewhere) due to new translations of his work published yearly by Drawn & Quarterly and edited under the guiding hand of Adrian Tomine (Optic Nerve, Shortcomings).

I don’t think I can express how much I enjoyed Tatsumi’s work or how his comics encouraged and shaped my own writing. I did not come to his work via manga (a form I honestly don’t know much about) but rather by accident while browsing the shelves at a local bookstore. The cover—a lone man in a raincoat receding down a seedy nighttime alleyway, his back to the viewer—led me to pick up The Push Man and Other Stories and read the first story, then the next, then the next. I promptly purchased the copy, returned home, and read the entire collection in one sitting. My only disappointment was that none of his other work was readily available in the U.S. at the time. (My novella Everywhere Man gets its name from Tatsumi’s Push Man, and takes a few other cues as well.)

It was remarkable, this voice from Japan whose stories respected their source culture while also digging up explosive emotional power directed at that same culture. Tatsumi’s minimalist style and quiet stories of “average” people are often compared to Raymond Carver, but they’re also deeply infused with American noir and crime fiction. Themes of sexual frustration and violence and emasculation are rampant in Push Man and elsewhere. His characters often seem like Japanese counterparts to Jim Thompson’s West Texas oilcatters and door-to-door salesmen: disposable men on the edge of breakdown or abandonment, with few choices other than to jump on the accelerator and push through their troubles rather than backpedal out of them. They rarely succeed. Tatsumi’s characters live in cramped rooms, cramped even by Japanese standards, usually only large enough for a futon and a hot plate. They sludge through dead-end jobs while watching from afar Japan’s miraculous economic boom of the 1960s and 70s. They aren’t preoccupied with death, they fear being erased. I have the idea these stories were intended for the same kind of audience Jim Thompson wrote for, young lonely men who felt shut-out from the American—or Japanese—Dream.

The Push Man and other stories (2005)

The Push Man and other stories (2005)

When recommending Tatsumi to friends, my trouble has always been what not to recommend. Of Drawn & Quarterly’s offerings, perhaps only the autobiographical A Drifting Life and Black Blizzard (penned when Tatsumi was 21 and the source of some embarrassment for him when reprinted) are reserved for Tatsumi completists. Otherwise the English editions we have available represent an impressive body of work which, as I understand it, remains an incomplete record of his full output.

In Push Man‘s stories, each limited to eight pages, Tatsumi deftly compresses grim situations down to their bare minimum and yet manages to leave himself the occasional panel for bleak panoramas of late-1960s Tokyo, its late-night bars and red light districts and walk-up ramen stands. The artwork is sometimes cartoony—even clunky—but the emotional force of his characters’ desolation carries through page after page. In later collections (Abandon the Old in Tokyo, Good-Bye, and Midnight Fishermen) the young men’s magazines Tatsumi was writing for opened up more pages for his work. His pen improves in these collections, trending toward photorealism and employing heavier use of shadow and contrast. These tightly-wound tales sometimes suffer from the breathing room four or eight additional pages allowed, but each collection stores more than a few gems.

A Drifting Life (2009)

A Drifting Life (2009)

Tatsumi’s autobiographical A Drifting Life is his most ambitious work translated to English, and perhaps his most ambitious work of all. Intense but careful to withhold the most personal details of his life from the reader, Tatsumi lays out his formative years and how he entered the manga field while in elementary school. Each stage of his life is a new round of jousting with manga as an art form, tackling a narrative outlet he found liberating and yet restrictive and overly commercial all the same. I wish more time was spent on the side story of the manga rental industry in postwar Japan and its power to create and demolish artistic reputations. Some of the editors and publishers Tatsumi fought with sound straight out of Hollywood’s star system, right down to the shoddy treatment writers on both sides of the Pacific endured to produce consumable work week after week.

Still jousting with the strictures of manga at the age of 74, Tatsumi published Fallen Words, eight “moral comedies” inspired by rakugo, a venerable form of Japanese performance where a seated speaker narrates a story with a fan and a cloth as props. Rakugo performers will often tell stories that have been repeated for over a hundred years; the art is in the retelling and voices and mannerisms and novel uses of the props themselves. Tatsumi took this verbal art form and produced visual versions that depicted them in their original Meiji- and Edo-era settings: “I attempted to take rakugo, where laughter is supreme, and to tell the stories in the visual language of gekiga,” an art form not known for its comedy. Some stories rely on twist endings that don’t quite work, some on puns that only makes sense to Japanese speakers, but the book as a whole demonstrates the kind of experimentation Tatsumi was willing to engage in right to the end of his career.

Fallen Words (2009)

Fallen Words (2009)

When I was a graduate student teaching undergraduates creative writing, I included one story from Push Man as required reading. “Make-Up” remains my personal favorite of his work. It involves a young office worker living with an older woman, a bar hostess. When she’s gone at night, the young man dons a kimono, applies her cosmetic, and takes to downtown Tokyo passing as a woman. Not only is it remarkable the ease with which Tatsumi tells this nuanced story (another woman falls in love with him as a woman), it’s also surprising the sensitivity and compassion he offers his main character without falling into bathos. Some of the students tripped up on the simple lines of Tatsumi’s pen, some had trouble with the quietness (entire pages lacking a line of dialogue), but many gripped that something interesting and surprising was going on, right up to the ambiguous ending that opens up rather than shuts down the story.

Tatsumi’s work is often criticized as heavy-handed, cliched, and moralizing, which is arguable for his earlier output (such as Push Man) but is not so easily asserted with Drifting Life or Fallen Words. My response is to look at the boldness of the subject matter, the narrative distillation of complicated situations converted to deceptively simple panels on the page, and his early mastery of story structure. Each page of “Make-Up” is a self-contained scene, as perfect as a zen koan. It’s harder than it looks. That’s what I think Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s detractors are missing. This was not a natural talent who slipped into the form with ease, but one who struggled with it and attacked its firmaments, sometimes with mediocrity, sometimes brilliantly, but always thinking of his next push forward.

More on Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s passing: Adrian Tomine, Paul Gravett, Bleeding Cool.

What happened to Longform.org?

Longform.orgWay back in 2008, Michael Agger wrote for Slate “How we read online”, a State of the Union on the dreadful shape of Web journalism. Agger’s piece enumerated the accepted practices of online writing that had been pounded into place by the invisible fist of SEO Darwinism: short paragraphs, quick sentences, lots of boldface to anchor attention, and plenty of bullet lists to attract eyeballs. Add a dash of in-the-know sarcasm and a pinch of holier-than-thou smarm, bake until bubbly hot, and you had Internet journalism circa 2008. Nothing mindblowing in Agger’s piece, nothing particularly damning either, just an observer stopping for a deep breath, looking backwards to 1997 (or so), and uttering, “This is where we’ve arrived after ten years?” If you enjoy reading, Agger’s article was a discouraging summary of your options online.

Hence my excitement in 2012 when I discovered Longform.org, an aggregator site of digital long-form journalism reliably curated by the University of Pittsburgh’s writing program. The site updates daily with links to long essays (over 2,000 words) published around the Web. A concise capsule summary accompanying each link provides just enough context to know if a story is your bag of oats. It’s a bit damning of our culture that 2,000 words counts as “long” when not so long ago Time or Newsweek would have categorized that as a filler article, but so be it: in 2012, Longform curated the Web I wanted to experience.

Longform’s bread-and-butter essays were willing to breathe and go in-depth, allowing the author time to wander a bit off the path and stretch out to take in the long view of things. They were the kind of articles that made you leave the browser tab open so you could come back to them later. The kind of material you would share with friends when you met them in the real world, not merely the clickbait that you dumped into your Facebook feed to further burnish your online persona.

Some examples of great work introduced to me by Longform includes “Cigarettes and Alcohol: Andy Capp” from PlanetSlade, James Surowiecki’s “A Brief History of Money” from IEEE’s Spectrum, and the Wikipedia article on the Taman Shud mystery, easily the strangest true crime story you’ll ever read. (Longform’s capsule: “An unidentified body found near the beach in Australia in 1948. An unclaimed suitcase. A coded note.”)

I could name a dozen more great articles Longform introduced to me, but these three form a snapshot of the Internet they were curating in 2012. In aggregate, Longform’s recommendations acted as a collective refutation of Michael Agger’s 2008 pronouncement: The Web doesn’t have to be written in smarmy bulleted shorthand. Longform proved people were ready to read substantial work online. (The years 2011–2012 may go down as the tipping point for the general acceptance of electronic-only written long work, not just long-form journalism, but also ebooks and the legitimization of short story and poetry web sites.)

The above snapshot of recommendations also points to something even more exciting about Longform’s aesthetics, namely their openness to a wide variety of sources. All comers were welcome under the Longform umbrella (or inside the Longform lighthouse, in deference to their logo). PlanetSlade is journalist Paul Slade’s personal web site, a kind of blog of essays he’s been unable to place with magazines, digital or otherwise. Spectrum is the mouthpiece of IEEE, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, hardly a purveyor of mainstream journalism. Everyone knows Wikipedia, but for Longform to pick one of its entries as a worthy read for the serious-casual reader is, I think, their boldest statement yet.

Today, nearing the end of 2014, Longform is going stronger than ever. They’ve ramped up their staff (sixteen editors, interns, and support staff according to their About page), offer a slick iPhone/iPad app with social media features, produce a podcast, and have promised lots more to come. If Longform is a weather vane, long-form journalism on the Internet should continue to enjoy sunshine and blue skies.

So why do I feel like a plaid-wearing hipster complaining he just heard his favorite college-radio band on a Top 40 station? I’ve not seen Longform make anything close to a bold statement in over a year. What happened to Longform?

Longform’s recommendations for personal blog posts or independent ezines seem far-off memories. Oddities like Spectrum are now rarities. Lately, Longform’s daily march of fresh links are a bland cavalcade of sturdy name brands: GQ, The Baffler, The Atlantic, Businessweek, and Grantland, just to name what I see on their home page as of this moment. There’s a couple of odd ducks in there (The Chronicle of Higher Education, Eurogamer), but they are dying echoes of what Longform once was and would like to pretend it remains.

Longform’s saving grace is their fiction recommendations, a nice touch that keeps the flame alive for those of us not regularly producing non-fiction. But like its nonfiction staples, Longform appears to have its favorites for sources of fiction—I’m looking at you, Collagist and Atticus Review.

The homogenization of Longform’s picks is the most discouraging aspect of this shift. Today’s Longform is less varied and less quirky than the past, now more topical and aligned to the 24-hour news cycle of crisis-mode journalism. Longform’s greatest asset in 2012 was the element of surprise tinged with humor. You simply don’t read articles about Andy Capp or killer truck drivers very often. Longform put a much-needed spotlight on these great unusual stories and their writers. It seemed to revel in finding that story you never would have heard about before. Today’s Longform links to that dialogue between Frank Rich and Chris Rock, but let’s not fool ourselves: you were bound to hear about it anyway. Longform didn’t bring much to the table in that instance.

It’s not that Longform should banish mainstream journalism from their daily feed. There’s a place for big-name journalism, but considering those organizations’ resources, I would raise the bar on them to make room for other voices to enter the conversation. For example, Grantland‘s piece on Don King is astonishingly human and one of the best reads of last year. It remains a singularity in Grantland‘s publishing history (which is largely NBA trade analyses and movie retrospectives). Grantland attempted to surpass it in November with a tepid, torpid piece on sumo wrestling best remembered as a technical demonstration of HTML 5’s feature set, but Longform featured it anyway.

I keep returning to the word curation. A trendy term and overused at the end of 2014, but if there’s ever a Web site it applies to, it’s Longform. Digital curation is what Longform provides; curation is how it should be judged.

Here’s what I mean by curation. The Louvre is the most exhausting museum I’ve ever visited, a leafblower of art and artifacts aimed straight at your visual cortex. Yet the smaller, more modest British Museum is the better experience. Why? At the British Museum, traveling from room to room feels like thumbing through a pocket-sized guide of Western history. Empty space and shadows counterpoint masterpieces. When a room is busy with artwork, it’s busy like a rural British garden, that is, rigorously cultivated to appear untended. The British Museum’s success is the result of considered decisions, the curators picking and choosing with care from all the cultural riches available to them. The assembled pieces form a cogent experience, and so what’s left out is as vital as what’s included.

Yesterday, Longform’s curators offered to their audience an article with the Upworthy-esque title “This Doomed Alaskan Village Shows Just How Unprepared We are for Climate Change”. This is the straw that broke my back. I haven’t read the piece so I can’t comment on its quality, but everything I’ve come to dread about Longform is encapsulated in this recommendation. The breathless headline—juicy and primed for sharing on Facebook—tells me this not the long view, but instead urgency reportage, the journalistic equivalent of grabbing someone by the lapels and shaking them while demanding Don’t you care? And it’s Longform pushing another politically-charged piece in a time when we’re subjected to non-stop political cattle-prodding from all sides. It may be a beautiful story, it may be an important story, but as a piece of an assembled whole that’s rapidly losing my attention, maybe it’s time for me to find a new curator.