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Count Zero

November 4, 2010

No pages this morning – I have much, much more reading to do before I know WTF I’m talking about, as Bronzino is to arrive in Pisa in the next pages and I need to get more info on Luca Martini, what draining marshes entails, how the Medicis ended up ruling Pisa, what the court is doing there and not in Florence, more about Eleanor of Toledo, and I have to think about Bronzino’s relationship with the Duke.  There’s some good red meat in the story of the portrait of the Duke as Orpheus, which unlike the public portraits was intended to be seen only by Eleanor – a gift to her at their wedding, or before it, to show her a sensuous, desirable and desiring Cosimo, most unlike the “masked man” of the official portraits.  Here’s a comparison between the public and private faces of Cosimo:


I think Bronzino strikes just the right tone with the Orpheus, given the restrictions placed on him by the subject.  As Brock notes, the picture calls up both Orpheus and Hercules – the message to Eleanor is, “Now that I’ve subdued the Hounds of Hell and finished Twelve Labors of Hercules, I’m ready to have a little fun, baby.”

The general artistic consensus that’s damned Bronzino to obscurity for so long is that his faces are “lifeless,” but the more I look at his private works, the more I think that the lifelessness in most of the portraits was a mandate of the time.  Back then a smile on a woman meant easy virtue; on a man, weakness – to the nobility, an expressive face was the Janet Jackson Nipple of their time.  This opens the door to me to “invent” other portraits, private and unseen and lost to time, which would still be in line with the other work Bronzino did in his “private” pictures.

There’s a pretty good article on that probably goes a little too far in condemning NaNoWriMo, but Laura Miller makes some good points about the overall folly of the project.  The project urges you to “forego the endless tweaking and editing and just create,” even encouraging you to write “a lot of crap.” 

I am not the first person to point out that "writing a lot of crap" doesn’t sound like a particularly fruitful way to spend an entire month, even if it is November. And from rumblings in the Twitterverse, it’s clear that NaNoWriMo winners frequently ignore official advice about the importance of revision; editors and agents are already flinching in anticipation of the slapdash manuscripts they’ll shortly receive. "Submitting novels in Nov or Dec?" tweeted one, "Leave NaNoWriMo out of the cover letter … or make it clear that it was LAST year’s NaNo." Another wrote, "Worst queries I ever received as an agent always started with ‘I’ve just finished writing my NaNoWriMo novel and …’"

As someone who doesn’t write novels, but does read rather a lot of them, I share their trepidation. Why does giving yourself permission to write a lot of crap so often seem to segue into the insistence that other people read it? Nothing about NaNoWriMo suggests that it’s likely to produce more novels I’d want to read.

Miller also makes a point that reminds me of that essay I want to write – my Anti-Shirkey, a celebration of the consumer, the non-producer, the one who makes it financially possible for the rest of us to make a living doing this.  Bemoaning the ever-decreasing readership of novels:

Rather than squandering our applause on writers — who, let’s face, will keep on pounding the keyboards whether we support them or not — why not direct more attention, more pep talks, more nonprofit booster groups, more benefit galas and more huzzahs to readers? Why not celebrate them more heartily? They are the bedrock on which any literary culture must be built. After all, there’s not much glory in finally writing that novel if it turns out there’s no one left to read it.

NaNo has been a tool to get me started on a novel, and I believe I am well and truly started again, having found something that is a more intellectual, less emotional project than the Alex book (insert psychological observation here on my attraction to Bronzino and the idea of the “emotionless” public mask).  I like the idea that you have a goal to meet, but like weight loss (13 pounds so far), steady productive progress is better than crash dieting – or crash writing, just tossing shit at a wall to make a word count.  (“This isn’t writing, it’s typing!” in the words of Truman Capote.)  NaNo forced me to think of a novel idea in a hurry, or at least it germinated an idea in my head that’s been there since I saw the Young Man at the Met  in March.  So as long as I keep writing, it’s done its job.  But I will “sell no wine before its time,” to quote Orson Welles in the old commercial. (“It took Margaret Mitchell seven years to write Gone With The Wind,” he rumbled, but like the wine being pushed, seven years’ labor didn’t make that good, either.)


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