Originally published May 11, 2006.
One morning a few weeks ago, I was cruising the Books section of the NYT online and saw that the Pulitzer Prize Winners for 2006 had been announced. I don’t pay much attention to prizes because so many good books are overlooked every year (really, it’s so much worse than films). This year’s winner was March, by Geraldine Brooks. The runners-up were The March by E.L. Doctorow and The Bright Forever by Lee Martin.
Lee Martin?! Not THE Lee Martin?!
I know. You’re wondering right now, “Who the hell is Lee Martin?”
Lee Martin was one of my professors in graduate school. Before I decided not to pursue my Ph.D., I was vacillating between Creative Writing and 18th c. British Lit. (With interests like that, can you imagine the kind of novels I might turn out? I could very possibly bring back the 1500 page epistolary novel! How exciting!) I took a class on the personal essay from him, but I never got a chance to take one of his fiction workshops. We also worked together on the school’s literary journal.
In a sea of neurotic academics (this includes the students, mind you—even me), Lee was a thoroughly regular guy. At least, that’s the way I remember it. He and his wife Deb were friendly, thoughtful people. Lee didn’t come to campus with his briefcase full of personal problems to dump on his desk and share with his students. Many other profs in the program were heart-on-their-sleeve types (although also nice people, I should mention). We knew a lot about their lives, often times more than we wanted to know. I’ll say it: Lee seemed boring by comparison. He wasn’t on his fourth wife, he wasn’t seducing his students, he didn’t have problems with alcohol or drugs, he wasn’t sleeping with other faculty members, etc. You know, the “usual” academic behavior.
For a long time, eccentricity or emotional strangeness, to me, seemed necessary to “being a writer.” Many people tried hard to cultivate weirdness. Being more on the “normal” side of things, I probably tried harder than anyone. I was in the “I’m overwrought and depressed, and I feel too much for life” category. I look back at it now, and I was just silly. Silly and young. But I carried vestiges of this attitude far into my thirties, and it affected my taste in literature, and definitely my own writing, to an extent that was almost debilitating.
Writing programs in and of themselves are not bad things. They can be very helpful. But for young people trying to figure out who they are and develop their talent, they can sometimes be more harmful than helpful, I think. Why? Oh, there are many essays and editorials out there that explain it better than I can. But in a nutshell, I think young writers are encouraged to write a certain way, and this discourages them from finding an actual voice. If the professor, often a published writer, stands up and extols the virtues of THIS latest book of short stories, or THIS novel, then I can guarantee you that 90 percent of the class will try to write the same way (the other 10 percent will try to write just like the professor, or else write science fiction). They will take whatever material they have and force it to fit, or else they will just mimic. (Mind you, I’m not necessarily talking about fine programs like Iowa…except that if you read as many literary journals as I do, you will find that you can spot those writers easily as well—but that’s another show.) I don’t think they do this consciously. Come on…Any of you who were out there writing in the 90s, how many of you didn’t write SOMETHING in the second person, a la Lorrie Moore or Tim O’Brien? You know you did.
And it’s okay. It’s one way to learn. But that’s the problem: it’s ONE way to learn. And for some people, not a good way, because when they’re out of school, they’ll keep churning this stuff out, trying to make it work, and never get published, and never figure out why. (And in case you are thinking I just described myself, no.) I am talking about the writers whose stories I read when I worked with Lee at the journal. Thousands and thousands of stories people probably poured their hearts into, ruined relationships over, missed work for, remained sleepless for weeks over.
Most of them were god-awful. Some of them were pretty good. These were usually the ones I picked and dragged over to Lee, like a cat bringing its owner yet another dead sparrow. Look what I brought you! Isn’t it the best thing ever?! When I say “quite good,” I mean “what I had been groomed by my professors and peers to believe was a good story,” which meant “like Raymond Carver, like Lorrie Moore, like A.M. Homes, like Antonya Nelson, like Flannery O’Connor” and so on. All great writers who write great stories (well, except maybe A.M. Homes), don’t get me wrong. And Lee would very kindly place them in his pile to read and accept or reject.
But the really good ones, he picked. He picked them, I think, because so much more than me, who at the time had finished something like a grand total of four short stories, he recognized the original voice, and he knew what it took to let it out, to let people see it, and to have it be rejected over and over again. Mind you, I didn’t think they were the best stories. They weren’t flashy, they didn’t always contain the odd, disturbing details and asides I enjoyed, sometimes the language was too plain (this was the age of the meta-narrative, after all…verbal trickery rules! Everyone wanted to be Lawrence Sterne, even if they didn’t know it.), the plots and endings simple.
I remember being in Lee’s office one day (or more likely, I remember an amalgamation of days in Lee’s office as one particular day), and we were talking about the book he was working on at the time (which, I believe, was Quakertown…I am ashamed to say I haven’t read it yet). He was having a little bit of writer’s block. He complained a little that he couldn’t get a story accepted by Doubletake. He mentioned that a certain writer, whom I worshipped at the time, had refused to write a blurb for his latest short story collection (The Least You Need to Know…very good, read it).
And that was the day I remembered, years later, reading that his latest book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. LEE MARTIN! I know him! I cruised around on the Internet for reviews, looked through the NYT archives, and what did I come up with? Almost nothing! Who to blame? His agent? His publisher? His publicist? Does he even have a publicist? If so, she should be fired! All that work and a big nomination…where was all the attention? The hype?
I hope the runner-up mention gets him the readers he deserves, because this is a wonderful book, people. It’s a bit of a mystery, both in the traditional “whodunit” sense and in the sense that we are all sometimes mysteries even to ourselves. The writing itself is stunning in its emotional clarity. I found myself going back through and reading some sections over and over again just because the lives of the characters were rendered in such amazing language. I am sure he poured his heart into this book, and it shows. It’s a quiet book in so many ways, but it’s also a little scary and quite dark. Congratulations Lee!
I really hope you will read this book, and I also hope you will share other books you have found by authors who might be overlooked, or eclipsed by the James Freys of the world, who get our attention even when they don’t deserve it.
*photo from randomhouse.com