Review: Writing Beat and Other Occasions of Literary Mayhem by John Tytell

Review by A.K. Mayhew

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writing beat cover typewriter on roadIn the most frustrating chapter of Writing Beat, “Hemlock or Ambrosia: Writing and Editorial Process”—one in which the reader may, ironically, ask, “Where is the editor?!”—Tytell shares writer and Jack Kerouac’s lover Joyce Johnson’s early feedback on his own writing: “She complained that sometimes my language sounded too passionate, too rambunctious, too infatuated with my own linguistic overreaching…” Johnson’s critique will sound familiar to any reader of this strange mix of a memoir.


Writing Beat and Other Occasions of Literary Mayhem (Vanderbilt University Press, 2014) has a rather unclear premise of memoir, a short analysis of the legacy of the Beats, and subtle instruction on nonfiction writing, though “subtle” is the key word in the latter. The book reads as a collage of Tytell’s impressive stories of interviewing and writing about the Beats and writers such as Ezra Pound, Norman Mailer, and Henry Miller during his career and again, a critique of the Beats (which is rather out-of-place smack dab in the middle of the book).


At times Tytell’s writing is glorious, as rich and beautiful as the Beats he is an expert in. At other times, he is clearly taken away by the sound of his own voice[1], delving into dangerous territory of earnest hyperbole, unnecessarily inflated language, and self-serving, self-centered cynicism posing as sarcasm. It’s difficult to discern how much of this is a dry humor, or mere bitterness—most likely, a combination of both.


For example, in the chapter mentioned above, Tytell is reflecting on the editorial process, most of which involves passages whining about his unpleasant experiences, again not just inspiring notes in the margin of “Where is the editor?” but also “Why do we care?”[2] One passage of many to illustrate the point: “He [Don Wise, an editor] congratulated the research that supported my history of wallpaper—he praised its elegance!—but complained that my language was too fastidious because I had failed to employ any clichés! He had the piece entirely rewritten by one of his trained subordinates, probably an expert in baking buttery croissants, to the extent that it was quite unrecognizable by me. My only consolation was the compensation, though the check seemed somehow redolent of grease.” Granted, some readers may love Tytell’s writing style, but it will also be a turn-off for many. In either case, there is not much for a reader to glean from such passages.


Also, the “collage” and anecdotal approach to this book leads to introductory repetitive—many sections reintroduce the Beats in one or two sentences, or repeat information of Tytell’s career path, making it perhaps more satisfying to pick up and read bit by bit, every once in a while, than straight through.


But when this book is good, it is really good, and it gets better once the reader forces her way through the first section. Tytell essentially grew up alongside the Beats, and for a Beat fan from a younger generation such as myself, his stories of drinking with Lucien Carr, hanging out with Allen Ginsberg, and more are marveling. Part Two of the book moves away from Tytell’s personal experiences to closer readings of the three main Beats: Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs, reflecting not just on their history but their legacy, including analyses of the recent movies such as Walter Salles’ On the Road, and biographical critiques. This section is a strange interjection, making this book feel more like a combination of two shorter books.


In approaching Writing Beat, it’s important to keep in mind that, intentional or not, this book is more for Tytell than for any audience. Tytell ends the book reflecting on 2666 by Roberto Bolano. Continuing in the subdued tone the last third of the book, as if he has gotten his complaints out of the way, Tytell becomes melancholy and wonders to what extent Bolano was feeling “the deeply centered yet submerged desire to leave some trace behind,” and notes that “even colossal achievements…are only…dancing dust motes on our human path.” Tytell is transparently writing about himself. Writing Beat is difficult to recommend, but most likely serves its purpose as cathartic writing, ultimately probably looking best on the author’s bookshelf than anyone else’s.


[1] That said, this reviewer hypocritically suspects she too sometimes get carried away by the sound of her own words.

[2] To be fair, Tytell puts in a seemingly forced effort to be nice in this chapter: “I do not mean to apply that the editor is the perennial antagonist. Many writers, and I include myself, have worked as editors, through university positions, if one is lucky enough to be able to find them, do afford any writer more time to do the work. An editor’s differing point of view can have intrinsic value serving to sharpen an argument of clarify its causes. An editor can sometimes see the logical flaw of which you were unaware, or may suggest a path you just could not discern.”

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

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