Tom Bissell's Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creations represents the best of what an essay collection can offer: incisive observations about a wide range of intriguing topics, intelligent social commentary that refrains from didacticism, and a good sense of comedic timing. Bissell's essays are characterized by impressive eclecticism. He discusses established cultural figures like Ernest Hemingway, David Foster Wallace, and Werner Herzog, as well as less conventional subjects, such as Tommy Wiseau (the auteur responsible for the cult film The Room), the Underground Literary Alliance, and Jennifer Hale, “the Queen of Video-game Voice-over.” While these topics might seem incurably disparate, Bissell's interest in the process and consequences of creation provides a framework which links them together.
When cultural critics, like Bissell, release essay collections, I always look forward to the ensuing game of mental hopscotch. It is always entertaining and enlightening to take a condensed tour of another person's obsessions and fixations, keeping an eye out for recurring patterns as they leap from topic to topic. In Bissell's case, Magic Hours is organized in chronological order, rather than by theme. This structural feature allows the reader to appreciate how Bissell's style has changed and developed over the past decade. I'm looking forward to reading more of Bissell's work, especially Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter and Chasing the Sea.
One of Bissell's central concerns in Magic Hours is the fragility of creation, especially when it comes to literature. In the opening essay, “Unflowered Aloes,” Bissell investigates the absurdly unpredictable mechanisms that relegate one writer to obscurity and another to immortality. By tracing the fascinating circumstances responsible for the canonical status of Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Herman Melville, Bissell exposes the precarious nature of literary prominence. As Bissell notes, book lovers tend to adopt a naïve attitude when it comes to the correlation between quality and visibility: “Yes, we console ourselves, great work may be greeted with scorn and may even disappear altogether for some stretch of time, but the slow process of literary recognition assures that the sweetest cream eventually rises to the top.” The fact that such great figures in American literature are known today because of miraculous accidents destabilizes that assumption and reminds us that even gifted writers cannot assume that sheer talent will guarantee their survival.
For me, one of the most surprising essays included in Magic Hours was “Writing About Writing About Writing.” This particular essay features an amusing and slightly bitter deconstruction of various kinds of advice given to aspiring writers. I'd never give much thought to the type of discourse embedded in these instructional texts, but Bissell makes some excellent observations about the different messages would-be writers receive from the writing guide industry. Bissell doesn't merely mock ridiculous advice, however. He also describes genuinely helpful texts, such as John Gardner's On Becoming a Novelist. Eventually, he pinpoints what seems to make books like Gardner's useful: “Many of the best books about writing are only incidentally about writing. Instead, they are about how to live.” It's a fitting observation for Bissell to make, since he seems to emulate that approach in his own book.
On a basic level, the variegated observations contained in Magic Hours illustrate how minute choices determine our development as readers, writers, spectators, and thinkers. The nature of artistic expression is constantly shifting, and can be influenced by seemingly inconsequential things. I think this sentiment is best reflected in the concluding lines of “Unflowered Aloes”: “…I cannot help but imagine that literature is an airplane, and we are passengers on it. One might assume that behind the flimsy accordion door sit pilots of skill and accomplishment. But the cockpit is empty. It has always been empty. The controls are abandoned. One needs only to touch them to know how mutable our course.” Magic Hours is not just about “Creators and Creation,” it is also about how life and art are bound together in a frustrating, hopeful, toxic, and exhilarating symbiosis.