A time for onanism, a time for &$%#^

I’m not sure how it all happened, really, but about two years ago, I became a cog in a book-trafficking machine. The process started with a local library that couldn’t handle all the book donations it received. A friend of mine, outraged that the books would go to waste, started picking them up and distributing them to various places, including the college where we both worked. When she left her job, I took over her duties, both official and unofficial. So for the past two years, I have been getting books from her to bring to school, which are then placed on a free book cart for anyone to take or contribute to.

Because I’ve been getting first crack at the books for this entire time, I’ve had to buy new bookshelves to house my burgeoning collection of books, which is increasing at an alarming rate. I’ve found a few gems, and I’ve also ended up with books that I may not have otherwise picked up. One of the more recent examples of this is Steve Martin’s Shopgirl. It’s a slim volume, and I’ve always thought that Martin is an extremely talented and intelligent performer. I thought I’d see how he did with fiction-writing. 

In a word: meh. Okay, so maybe that’s not technically a word, but it does a pretty good job at conveying my interpretation. There are both positive and negative qualities to the book, but none of them are really strong enough to elicit a strong reaction either way. If pressed to translate my one-word review into an actual word, I’ll use ‘middling.’

I’ll grant Martin a few things: he writes about L.A. society, a topic he is intimately familiar with, I imagine, and so the characters feel convincing. Additionally, the story was crafted well enough to keep me interested in reaching the end. Finally, his prose has an interesting voice – descriptive, often subtle, and almost erudite at times.

His attention is on creating fleshed-out characters, which he does better than some, but still with some awkwardness and an over-reliance on telling rather than showing. The narrator is too omniscient and we read long descriptions of what each character is thinking, but also analyses of the personality traits that are being developed in that scene. In other words, he gives us too much, and there’s not anything left to wonder about in terms of the characters’ growth. Because the narrator is so pushy about explaining all facets of the characters, the plot becomes predictable, making the pacing seem too slow and the resolution too neat and convenient.

The most interesting detraction came in sudden cracks – most likely intentional – in Martin’s prose. What seemed abrupt, almost inappropriate, was Martin’s insistence on inserting explicit, vulgar words in the midst of more restrained, carefully-written passages. It felt too harsh, like he was forcing the issue. I suppose the point was to finally show something about the character – that to avoid any emotional entanglements, he ‘fucked’ women, and didn’t ‘make love’ until he was more involved in the relationship. This, I imagine, was supposed to add complexity to the relationship that was developing between the characters.

I get that. I really do. And I also have no problem with the word ‘fuck.’ In fact, I have a bit of a potty mouth. On a typical day, I’ll curse plenty, and when pushed, I could let out a stream to make a sailor blush. And yet, I started fervently wishing that Martin hadn’t used that technique so I wouldn’t have to read the word anymore. It was an issue of context. It seemed too out of place, too startling next to his other vocabulary choices. I may allow myself the indulgence of some off-color language in my spare time, but there are times when it’s unnecessary and unwelcome, and at those times, I shut my potty mouth. I even find it a bit jarring to write it for this post.

It’s not like Martin didn’t know other ways to allude to sexual matters or feelings. This sentence appears on page 45:

“A sunset of flesh and fabric, which sent him into an onanistic fit.”

At first I didn’t realize that I was reading a more nuanced reference to sex because I actually didn’t know what onanistic means. I had to turn to my dictionaries.

Webster’s defines onanism as “interrupted coition // masturbation”. My OED dates the word from the early 18th century, and places its origins with the Bible, in particular, Genesis 38:4-10:

“She became pregnant again and bore another son and named him Onan. Again, she had a son and named him Shelah. Judah was at Achzib when the boy was born. For his first son Er, Judah got a wife whose name was Tamar. Er’s conduct was evil, and it displeased the Lord, so the Lord killed him. Then Judah said to Er’s brother Onan, ‘Go and sleep with your brother’s widow. Fulfill your obligation to her as her husband’s brother so that your brother may have descendants.’ But Onan knew that the children would not belong to him, so when he had intercourse with his brother’s widow, he let the semen spill on the ground so that there would be no children for his brother. What he did displeased the Lord, and the Lord killed him also.”

Of course, I was instantly assaulted by Monty Python songs getting stuck in my head, but otherwise, I was struck at how Martin could use a relatively uncommon word with Biblical references in one chapter, and then revert to ‘fucking’ in several other chapters. It felt like a cop-out, a cheap trick to simply shock the reader, or at best, an over-reliance on a technique that should be used very sparingly to achieve its desired effect. More academic or even clinical word choices like onanism or even intercourse could more effectively reflect the emotional distance of his character because they would be more in keeping with the way Martin wrote those characters when not using vulgarity.

As Coco Chanel admonished us, “Less is more, darling!”

9 thoughts on “A time for onanism, a time for &$%#^

  1. As one of your other commenters suggested, if you put your literary efforts into writing a book, I’m sure it would be outstanding.

    Do you find that once you open your mind to critical reading of a book, in which you not only absorb the content the author conveys but the method of delivering that content, your enjoyment of it is lessened?

    I certainly appreciate a particularly artful example of prose, but recently found that a story (The Rose Labyrinth, Titania Hardie) that should have been engaging, if I had just let it wash over me, was merely frustrating as I observed just how hard the author was trying to be Dan Brown. Pity.

    • Y’know, I do think that the habit of reading critically ruins some books for me, and that is a shame. I think it’s one of the reasons that I so disliked The Help even though everyone else seemed to have loved it. On the other hand, I think that it has also made me a lot more appreciative of the really talented authors. Over the years, I’ve developed a sort of theory about writers – at least fiction writers. I divide them in my head into ‘storytellers’ and ‘writers’. The storytellers are people like J.K.Rowlings. The Harry Potter books are great, but honestly, the writing itself is nothing spectacular. She’s skilled enough, however, to make the language unobtrusive, and so we focus on the story and how compelling it is – and it really is a fantastic story and I give her all the credit for that. The ‘writers’ are people like Hemingway or Poe, or one of my more modern favorites, Vikram Seth. The writing itself is so wonderful and luxurious that you can just sink your teeth into it. The best books, I find, combine great prose with a compelling story, but I’ve learned to appreciate books that really focus on one or the other.

      The problem I’ve found is that reading critically makes me that much more aware of how many books get neither aspect right. Or one aspect is okay but the other is so horrendous that it ruins the enjoyment of the other. That’s why I didn’t like…and really, borderline hated…books like The Help. I thought the story had great potential but the writing sucked all the life out of it. Plus, she copped out way too many times in the story as well. And on the opposite side of the coin, I disliked Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi : although the writing was engaging and sophisticated, the story dragged and the characters were extremely unlikeable.

      So yeah, a lot more books end up being disappointing, but I think critical reading makes the lows even lower, but the highs are also higher.

    • Oops, I hit enter too soon. Well, not like I hadn’t rambled long enough…;)

      I really appreciate the compliment! As I said, I’ve dreamed of writing a book since I was a kid. I think my first attempt was a 35-page science-fiction story when I was 12, and the beginnings of a biography of my “grandmother” when I was 14 (she wasn’t my biological grandmother – just the mother of my mother’s best friend). I’ve been poking around to see what opportunities there are for me to write and publish, and as my semester winds down, I plan to investigate a bit more seriously. I think I’m finally ready to believe that I can do it :)

  2. I agree about the two categories of writers, but I don’t care at all about “the story”. I like books where apparently”nothing happens”. If only the mind “happens”, it’s enough for me. To tell the truly truth, stories bore me.
    I enjoyed your post, because I could feel someone behind the screen, behind the words, in between the lines, and that’s precisely what I like and am looking for in a book or a picture or any work of art : a look, “un regard”, that is special to a particular person living on Earth at that special moment.

    • I do have less patience for just “stories” but if I find myself already involved in a book, I’ll finish it if the story is interesting enough and the language is not too annoying. But I suppose part of that is also my stubborn nature: I hate leaving a book unfinished. One of my favorite short stories is Kate Chopin’s “Story of an Hour”. I know it’s in every anthology and taught in countless English classes, but it’s such a wonderful example of a story in which, as you say, “the mind ‘happens'”. The prose is so tight and conveys such a powerful meaning that I almost can’t help but include it on my syllabuses. It doesn’t matter how many times these students may have read it before because there is always something new to discover each time the story is read.

      And thank you for the wonderful compliment! It means a lot.

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