Sunday, June 07, 2015

10 Minutes About Michael Cunningham Talking About Denis Johnson

I was listening to the New Yorker fiction podcast, where writers read their favorite short stories that have appeared in The New Yorker. This week was Michael Cunningham, who I feel like I recognize his name but I have no idea why.

Michael Cunningham was going to read Harold Brodkey's Dumbness Is Everything, but before he read the story he was talking about why he liked Harold Brodkey and he mentioned his use of language, which he (Michael Cunningham) found difficult to copy.  He mentioned that lots of writers mimic lots of other writers and specifically used the phrase You see a lot of fake Denis Johnsons out there.

Denis Johnson, you may or may not know, wrote the story Emergency, which is an amazing short story that you should read.  (You can read it here.)  Some Guy At Work told me about Emergency, and I listened to the New Yorker podcast of that story and was enthralled.  I eventually borrowed Johnson's Jesus' Son collection of short stories on audiobook, and was even more enthralled.  I would drive around listening to them last year, late at night when I took Mr F for his nightly rides to try to get him to sleep, while I was planning on leaving the law firm that was crumbling around me and hoping to make it through the end of the year without anything too terrible happening, and Johnson's stories about losers and thugs and lowlifes and poor people and the like just cut right into me, in a good way -- the way I guess an amputation of a leg might be a good thing, if you were going to lose it anyway, or the way I felt after I had the heart attack a few years ago and they took me in for surgery and patched me up.  Terrible to go through but worth it to get to the other side.

I was so caught up by the stories that I wanted to try to write my own Denis Johnson-esque stories, and I did, I think.  I wrote one about a third-shift cook in a diner in the middle of nowhere, and one about a guy who robs a bank, and a couple of others.  Most of them are awaiting publication in one form or another and eventually I'll probably have them out there to be read.

The thing that got me is, is it so bad that there are fake Denis Johnson stories? Or fake anyone stories?  Sometimes, when I read an author I like, like Nick Harkaway or China Mieville, I am just in awe of how good they are and I sort of mentally shake my head and think Oh man I could never do that, like watching that guy walk between those two buildings in Chicago last year.

Other times, I read a Denis Johnson or Philip K. Dick or Stephen King story or We Are Become Friends, this one story by the people who used to write A Softer World, and I think Neat, I'd like to try that. And is it wrong to try to work out what another author did and see if you can adapt it to your own?

I don't mean I'm just writing a story pretending to be Denis Johnson. I mean I like the feel of it and the look of it and the sound of it, and so I try to see how my own stories might work if filtered through that kind of lens instead of something else.  I think it makes me a better writer, and I cringe at the idea that writers are saying fake Denis Johnson about people like me, people that try out different voices and styles.

That's ten minutes.

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