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'Before We Get Started'

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, January 23, 2005; Page BW02


A Practical Memoir of the Writer's Life

By Bret Lott

Ballantine. 210 pp. Paperback, $13.95

Let us acknowledge at the outset that while the departments of "creative" fiction and nonfiction are relative newcomers to the literary landscape, the notion of writing as a job rather than a calling -- something to be pursued for careerist rather than purely artistic motives -- has been around for a long while. To this day the defining work on the subject is George Gissing's novel New Grub Street (1891), in which the cynical pursuit of literary renown is portrayed to devastating effect, and Jack London's underrated Martin Eden (1909) explores similar themes with similarly mordant results. The literary hack, first cousin to the journalistic hack, wasn't exactly born yesterday.

Still, the rise of the writing schools has added whole new universes of meaning and possibility to hackery, a word that demands redefining above and beyond (or below and beneath?) its present meaning as, according to Webster, "a bullock cart" used in India. A career as a writer of fiction can now be pursued with precisely the same single-minded calculation as a career as a writer of insurance policies or medical prescriptions. Like business school or medical school, writing school now provides all the hoops through which the aspirant must jump and all the gradations by which accomplishment is measured. In what has been called the credentialed society, writers are now as credentialed as everyone else.

As evidence of the state to which matters have declined, one could hardly do better -- or worse -- than to read Before We Get Started, which Bret Lott has subtitled "A Practical Memoir of the Writer's Life." Smug, self-referential and self-obsessed, literal-minded and careerist to a fare-thee-well, Lott indicts himself -- and by implication all those who dance with him in the assembly-line daisy chain -- on every page of this genuinely repellent book. Formerly a salesman for RC Cola, Lott stumbled into a writing course, "the only class with an opening at my local community college" in California -- he seems not to have had a scintilla of interest in writing before that -- and decided that this was the career for him: putting his very own name at the top of big piles of words. He did all the obligatory stuff -- the seminars, the critiques, the Master of Fine Arts -- and eventually published a number of short stories and a handful of novels that the world, in its wisdom, mostly managed to ignore.

Then he hit it big. Reaching down from the Firmament, Oprah Winfrey anointed his novel Jewel (1991) as a selection for her book club in 1999, back when she was still choosing books by contemporary writers rather than the classics (or would-be classics) to which she has more recently turned. Faster than you can say "Danielle Steel," the book was rushed back into print and became astonishingly successful, selling to date something on the order of a million copies.

Way to go, Bret Lott. Any writer who achieves that kind of success deserves a pat on the back and a tall cool one, compliments of the house. Lott, though, clearly has let success go to his head. Though his prose is ordinary at best and gag-inducing at worst, and though his fiction rarely rises above sentimental tear-jerking, Lott has persuaded himself that he is "a literary writer," "a literary author," and has taken on all the airs to which he apparently believes this distinction entitles him. He travels every stop on the circuit, teaching at one "low-residency M.F.A. program" after another, and now he has the gall to offer himself as a literary exemplar whose "writer's life" provides a beacon that can guide to the literary promised land all those who dutifully follow it.

Yes, people who aspire to be writers are like people who aspire to anything else: They need help. Over the years some exceptionally good books have been written about the art and craft of fiction -- I think in particular of Flannery O'Connor's Mystery and Manners and Eudora Welty's One Writer's Beginnings -- but they deal with large issues rather than niggling details. They don't say, implicitly or explicitly: Do as I advise and you can be just like me. They understand that serious writing done in the hopes of making literature is a mysterious process the precise nature of which is hidden within the individual writer's heart and mind, and that this process cannot be transferred -- least of all in a classroom or a writers' colony -- from one person to another.

Lott doesn't see it that way at all. He makes the obligatory gestures to modesty ("my motto," he says, is "I know nothing," which he repeats so often you know he doesn't mean a syllable of it) and to the obvious truth that "inspiration" is "unteachable," but at core this "writer's life" is the testament of one who has lockstepped his way through the academy and is nothing more than a die-stamped product of its assembly line. He mentions in what clearly is intended to be a mocking way the "rarified, even incestuous, world of a college campus," yet that world is precisely where he has spent almost all his days since he forsook the fizz of RC Cola for the elixir of literature. He hangs around with all the other campus writers -- the pages of Before We Get Started are littered with their names: Jayne Ann Phillips, Tobias Wolff, Charles Baxter et al. -- and worships at the shrine of the late Raymond Carver, though he tells us in all smarmy modesty that "I was never a member of that hallowed group of people who knew him closely enough to call him Ray."

Any claims Lott makes of being a serious, "literary" writer are thoroughly exploded by his penultimate chapter, "The Most Fragile Book," in which he tells how his writing teacher at the community college, "a wild-haired, Harley-riding poet/professor from Cal State," told his students to read "a book I'd never heard of," The Catcher in the Rye. Talk about epiphanies! The blinding light that greeted Saint Paul on the road to Damascus was a dim bulb compared to the firestorm that J.D. Salinger's stupendously overrated little novel ignited in the fluttering heart of young Bret Lott. It was "this amazing book, this totally true book, this genuinely real book," the book "was about me, the me that'd been drifting what felt so many years," and he reread it "four or five more times during the next several years, holding it dearer each time, admiring it more the deeper I went into my own life as a writer."

It's hardly a surprise, therefore, that Lott went on to become a writer of novels and stories in which easy sentimentality dominates and ineffectual men often play significant roles. It is an essentially adolescent, even childish view of the world, one nurtured by Holden Caulfield in "the most fragile book I have ever read. Fragile, because in the initial rush of its ferocious beauty, the young who read it -- myself included -- can see Holden as their spokesman against the machine, yet in the same instant Holden is himself utterly breakable, because beneath that fearless veneer bent on exposing the world in all its pretension, is a fearful child."

To which can only be said: Oh, grow up. The Catcher in the Rye may have its uses for the adolescent reader -- indeed, it seems to have become an obligatory part of the American rite of passage -- but there's precious little in it for the mature adult. That Lott hasn't gotten beyond it suggests nothing so much as arrested adolescence and makes all the more dubious his claim to have sound counsel for aspiring writers. But then it's hard to take seriously the counsel of a writer who can't write. To wit: "And then I glanced to my left to see a student with her nose wrinkled up, as though smelling something false. She wasn't one of those kinds of belligerent students, either, those sorts who think they know something going in and so rebut everything that comes out of your mouth in order to hold together the sad and tattered last shred of the nomad's tent their understanding of writing has become." Not bad enough for you? Try this: "The image that came to me that wanted to begin itself once I'd finished [writing] The Man Who Owned Vermont, the picture in my head that seemed to want the next novel -- and this is how the beginning comes, as some image unbidden, something I see happening that intrigues me enough to make me want to follow it out to whatever end it seems to find of and for itself -- was of a woman standing inside an empty house, her hand at a window, outside the window, thick woods."

Anyone who proposes to study writing under the author of those words may also want to study business ethics under Kenneth Lay, Jeffrey Skilling and Andrew Fastow. •

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.

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