Did Madame Defarge Knit Pussy Hats?

knitting picture

Sketch by Harry Furniss (1910).  Image scanned by Philip V. Allingham and located on the Victorian Web

Last night, in shameful parody of democratic rule, the U.S. Senate passed a sweeping tax bill that undercuts the middle and lower classes, eviscerates health care, and attacks education–all while giving more money to the very entities that need it least: the wealthiest portion of the population and the corporations they control.

Instead of analyzing how this happened, or why the people we elect have sold us out to the people who keep them in office–their political campaign donors–I will make some grand generalizations here to shed light on how the United States has become what it is today, on December 2, 2017: a plutocracy.

Let’s start with history: in the late Bronze Age (1200 BC or so), the growth of powerful societies was carefully controlled by a simple custom. Simon Stoddart, Fellow of Magdalene College, Oxford, speaking on In Our Time, a BBC 4 radio podcast, explains that in these societies, “it was not permitted to become too powerful,” and if a king did attain too much wealth, he was expected to throw a huge feast to dispense his wealth, or even bury excess wealth in a hoard. Doing this would gain the king prestige and restore economic balance to the region, but it would also lead to some instability in succession, because great wealth could not be inherited. Yet the custom was apparently  practiced by European Bronze Age societies as a levelling mechanism, to prevent one person or family from becoming too powerful.

Now why on earth would a powerful king consent to this kind of rule? The answer is simple: it was the custom of the time–he could not avoid doing so. And why was there such a custom? My guess is that early societies, living close to nature, observed  a natural balance in the world they lived in, and they knew that no good could ever come from upsetting this balance. Think of it this way: early societies observed first-hand what happened if there were too many lambs born in a certain year, or if too much rain fell on crops–or if one man became too powerful.

Human societies unlearned this lesson when they became less reliant on the natural environment they inhabited. By the early modern age (1500 or so), people were beginning to control nature to meet their needs. Transportation was easier, so if you depleted your farm’s soil, you might move to another one. You could drain bogs to make more arable soil on which to grow more crops and raise more livestock. You could even, as so many people were beginning to do, move to the city and try your hand at making a living completely divorced from the cycle of nature.

By the late 1700s, we see the beginnings of  the massive growth in urban areas that will characterize the world we live in today. It is no coincidence that we also see the rise of capitalism–as a philosophy and as a practice–at this time. And while the idea of capitalism is based on balance–the invisible hand adjusting the scales–it’s clear now that such an invisible hand was more wishful thinking than reality.

My point is that we have lost any notion of the need for balance in our political and economic systems. We have forgotten that when the very wealthy take more than they can possibly use, they leave other people in penury. Certainly the wealthy people have forgotten this law of nature and are simply grabbing all they can while the grabbing is good. The real problem is that too many people in the United States have identified with those wealthy people (how this has happened is interesting but must wait for another post), trusting that if the very wealthy are taken care of, they will be taken care of, too.

This tragically flawed logic is like thinking that in a shipwreck, if a powerful and athletic man manages to secure a place on a lifeboat, he will always make room for–in fact, he will always exert himself to save–the women, children, and less fortunate men who are still waving from the deck as it sinks below the waves. But here’s the problem: exerting oneself to save others demands a strong sense of either ethics or altruism, both of which seem to be lacking in the American upper class.

I don’t have any answers or solutions to offer. We live in dark and troubled times. To say that I despair for my country is not an exaggeration. Indeed, I never knew how much love I had for this country, this grand and imperfect experiment in democracy, until last year, when I witnessed what I think now might be the first chapter of  its descent into decay and destruction. Last night, while we were sleeping, we may well have seen the second one.

But I do know one thing: one way or another, balance will be re-established. It may be a somewhat orderly process, in which case we will see a great deal of corrective legislation coming from a newly elected Congress in the early months of 2019…. Or it may come after a long, destructive, and painful struggle, with lives lost and ruined in the process.

Either way, fasten your seatbelts, Americans. It’s going to be a bumpy night.

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Teaching Behind the Lines

French resistance fighters putting up posters

French Resistance Fighters putting up posters.  Image from “History in Photos” Blog (available here)

It’s been a year now since the election, and here I am, still fighting off a sense of futility and hopelessness about the future. During that time, the United States has pulled out of the Paris Accord in an astounding demonstration of willful ignorance about climate change, suffered a spate of horrific mass murders due to lax gun laws, and threatened nuclear war with North Korea. Suffice it to say that things are not going well.

But I should point out that the emphasis in my first sentence should be on the word “fighting,” because that’s what I’m doing these days: in my own small way, I’m waging a tiny war on some of the ignorance and egotism that seems to be ruling my country these days. Somewhere (I can’t find it anymore, and perhaps that’s just as well), the French novelist Léon Werth said that any action taken against tyranny, no matter how small, no matter how personal, helps to make things better. I’ve taken his words to heart, and I’m using this space to take stock of what I’ve done in the last year. I do this not to brag–far from it, because I know I’ve done far too little–but to remind myself that although I feel powerless too much of the time, I am not quite as powerless as I seem.

Let me begin, however, by saying what I haven’t done. I have not run for office. I did that in 2012, perhaps having had an inkling that things were not going well in my part of the country, but I was crushed by an unresponsive political system, apathy, and my own supreme unsuitability for the task. I am not ready to run for office again. In fact, I may never be ready to run again. I did write about my experience, however, and over the past year, I have encouraged other people, specifically women, to run for office. I’ve talked to a few activist groups about my experiences, and perhaps most important of all, I’ve donated to campaigns.

The thing I’ve done that merits any kind of discussion, however, is what I would call “resistance teaching”: going behind the lines of smug, self-satisfied ignorance, and using any tools I have to fight it. I still believe, naive as I am, that education can fight tyranny, injustice, and inequality. So I have engaged in a few activities that will, I hope, result in creating discussions, examining benighted attitudes, and opening up minds. I haven’t done anything too flamboyant, mind you–just a few actions that will hopefully develop into something more tangible in the months to come.

Here is my list:

  1. In spite of feeling gloomy about the future, I’ve continued with my writing, because I felt that even in difficult times, people should concentrate on making art. I self-published my second novel, and I wrote about it here, explaining why self-publishing can be an act of resistance in and of itself.
  2. I began to translate a novel about WW I, written by Léon Werth. I am now nearing my second revision of the translation. I have submitted a chapter of it to several fine magazines and received some nice rejection letters. I will be using my translation to present a short paper on WW I writing and Hemingway at the International Hemingway Conference in Paris this summer.
  3. I’ve traveled–quite a bit. I went to Italy, to Wales, to France, to Dallas, to Boston, and some other places that I can’t remember now. Traveling is important to open up barriers, intellectual as well as political. For example, in France I learned that while we Americans thought of Emmanuel Macron as a kind of savior for the French, he was viewed with some real skepticism and even fear by his electorate. Sure, he was better than Marine LePen–but he was still an unknown quantity, and most French people I met expressed some degree of hesitation about endorsing him.
  4. I directed a play for my community theatre group. Although it was hard and very time-consuming, I discovered that I really believe in the value of community theatre, where a group of individuals come together in a selfless (for the most part) effort to bring the words and ideas of a person long dead back to life. So what if audiences are tiny? It’s the work that matters, not the reception of it.
  5. I gave a talk at the C.S. Lewis Festival, which you can read here. It was fun and stimulating, and I remembered just how much I enjoy thinking and exploring literature and the ideas that shape it.

All of these things are fine, but I think the most important thing I’ve done in the past year is going back into the classroom again, this time as a substitute to help out some friends, but also to engage in what I think of “resistance teaching.” As a substitute professor, as a lifelong learning instructor, I can engage students and encourage them to think without being bound by a syllabus or any other requirements. I can get behind the lines of bureaucratic structures and work to create an atmosphere of free discussion and intellectual exploration. It is small work, and it may not be very effective, but I have taken it on as my own work, my own idiosyncratic way of combating the heartless ignorance, the dangerous half-assed education that prevails in our society.

I have always loved the idea of Resistance Fighters. I just never thought I’d be one myself.

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On the Relationship of Myth and Story

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Image from the lotr.wiki.com

Please note: This is a very long post. It is based on a talk I gave yesterday (October 28, 2017) at the C.S. Lewis Festival in Petoskey, Michigan. Consider yourself warned!

 

The study of myth seems to me to take three different paths:

  • Anthropological / Archeological: the study of classical mythologies (Bulfinch’s Mythology, Edith Hamilton)
  • Religious / Transcendent: the spiritual meaning of myth (Karen Armstrong, Joseph Campbell, Sigmund Freud)
  • Structuralist: the study of the same structures that recur in myths (Northrop Frye, Joseph Campbell, Roland Barthes)

This is all interesting, but I would like to back up a moment. I feel like I’ve arrived a dinner party, and that somehow I missed the first two courses. I feel as if I might get some kind of mental indigestion if I don’t start over at the very beginning.

The fact is, I want to know something more fundamental about myth and its function.

  • I want to know what it is and how it works.
  • Specifically, I want to know what distinguishes myth from other forms of story-telling.

Because for me, Story-Telling is what distinguishes human beings, homo sapiens, from all other species on this planet, as far as we know.

  • Studies have shown that crows have memories
  • Studies have shown that chimpanzees use tools
  • Philosophers are now beginning to agree that animals do indeed have consciousness

But we—we should be known not as homo sapiens (wise man, the man who knows), but as homo narrans—the speaking man, the man who tells, who narrates—story-telling man.  Because it is clear to me that we humans communicate largely through story-telling, and this story-telling function, this tendency to rely on narration, is what makes us human.

I’m going to ask you to bear with me for a little while as I tease this out. I’d like to say that by the end of this essay, I’ll have some answers to the questions I posed (what is myth, and how does it work, and what is the difference between a really good story and a myth)—but I’m pretty sure I won’t. I may, however, ask some more questions that might eventually lead me to some answers.

So here goes. To begin with, a few people who weigh in on what myth is and what it does:

Roland Barthes, the French post-structuralist literary theorist, says that myth is a type of speech, a system of communication, a kind of message. In a way, Barthes and JRR Tolkien are not really different on this point, incredible as it is to think of Barthes and Tolkien agreeing on anything at all, much less something so important to each of them.

  • They are both incredibly passionate and devoted to the concept of language
  • Barthes, in his book Mythologies, which I have shamelessly cherry-picked for this essay, says that the myth’s objective in being told is not really important; it is the way in which it conveys that message that is important.
  • He says that “the knowledge contained in a mythical concept is confused, made of yielding, shapeless associations” (119).
    • But this isn’t as bad as it sounds, because myths actually don’t need to be deciphered or interpreted.
    • While they may work with “Poor, incomplete images” (127), they actually do their work incredibly efficiently. Myth, he says, gives to its story “a natural and eternal justification…a clarity which is not that of an explanation but that of a statement of fact” (143).
    • Myth is a story in its simple, pure form. “It acts economically: it abolishes the complexity of human acts, it gives them the simplicity of essences…” (143).
  • You can see how this view of myth kind of works with the myth-building that Tolkien does in The Lord of the Rings, which works with simple efficiency, whose very images are incomplete to the point of needing clarification in Appendices and further books like the Silmarillion. Yet even without having read these appendices and other books, we grasp what Tolkien is getting at. We know what Middle-Earth is like, because the myth that Tolkien presents needs no deciphering, no real interpretation for us to grasp its significance.

Tolkien, I think we can all agree, was successful in creating a myth specifically for England, as Jane Chance and many other scholars have now shown to be his intention. But is it a novel? Some might argue it isn’t—myself included. In fact, what Tolkien created in The Lord of the Rings is less a myth (I would argue that we only use that term because Tolkien himself used it to describe his work and his object—think of the poem “Mythopoeia,” which he dedicated to C.S. Lewis) than it is a full-blown epic.

For my definition of epic versus novel, I’m going to my personal literary hero, Mikhail Bakhtin, a great thinker, a marvelous student of literature, a man who wrote with virtually no audience at all for many years because he was sent into internal exile in the Soviet Union. In his essay “Epic and the Novel,” Bakhtin attributes these characteristics to epic:

  1. It deals with an absolute past, where there is little resemblance to the present;
  2. It is invested with national tradition, not personal experience, arousing something like piety;
  3. There is an absolute, unbridgeable distance between the created world of epic and the real world.

The novel, says Bakhtin, is quite the opposite. It is new, changing, and it constantly “comes into contact with the spontaneity of the inconclusive present; this is what keeps the genre from congealing. The novelist is drawn toward everything that is not yet completed” (27).

I think the three characteristics of epic described by Bakhtin do in fact match up nicely with The Lord of the Rings: absolute past, national tradition, distance between the actual and the created world. But here’s another thing about epic as described by Bakhtin: “The epic world knows only a single and unified world view, obligatory and indubitably true for heroes as well as for authors and audiences” (35).  It would be hard, indeed impossible, to imagine The Lord of the Rings told from a different point of view. We need that distant narrator, who becomes more distant as the book goes on. As an example, imagine The Lord of the Rings told from Saruman’s point of view, or from Gollum’s. Or even from Bilbo or Frodo’s point of view. Impossible! Of course, we share some of the point of view of various characters at various points in the narrative (I’m thinking specifically of Sam’s point of view during the Cirith Ungol episode), but it couldn’t be sustained for the whole of the trilogy.

The interesting thing here is that in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien took the novel form and invested it with epic. And I think we can say that against all odds, he was successful. On the other hand, C.S. Lewis, in his last book Till We Have Faces, took a myth (the story of Cupid and Psyche), which is certainly more closely related to epic than it is to novel, and turned it into a successful novel. This isn’t the time and place to talk about Till We Have Faces, although I hope someday that we can come together in the C.S. Lewis Festival to do that very thing, but I couldn’t help mentioning this, because it’s striking that Lewis and Tolkien, while they clearly fed off each other intellectually and creatively, started from opposite ends in writing their greatest creative works, as they did in so many other things. It’s almost amazing that you can love both of them at the same time, but of course you can. It’s the easiest thing in the world to do.

But I’m losing the thread of my questions here. What is myth? Can we actually have modern myths? Can someone actually set out with the intention of creating a myth? And can a mythic work spontaneously just happen? Another question needs to be posed here: if this long book, which is probably classified in every bookstore and library as a novel, touches on myth but is really an epic, can a novel, as we know it, become a myth? This forces us to tighten up our definition of what a myth is and asks us to think about what myth does.

Karen Armstrong, I think, would say yes, to all three of these questions. In her book A Short History of Myth, Armstrong follows the trajectory of myths through time and argues that the advent of printing and widespread literacy changed how we perceive and how we receive myth. These developments changed myth’s object and its function—and ultimately, it changed the very essence of myth.

Armstrong points out that myths and novels have similarities:

  • They are both meditative
  • They can both be transformative
  • They both take a person into another world for a significant period of time
  • They both suspend our disbelief
  • They break the barriers of time and space
  • They both teach compassion

Inspired by Armstrong and by Bakhtin, I’m going to go out on a limb here and make a stab at answering my questions. And I’ll start by defining a modern myth as a super-story of a kind: a novel (or a film, because let’s open this up to different kinds of story-telling) that exerts its power on a significant number of people. These stories then provide, in film professor and writer Stuart Voytilla’s words, “the guiding images of our lives.”

In short, a modern myth has these characteristics:

  1. It belongs to a certain place and time. Like epic, it is rooted in a time and a place. It might not be far removed from the actual, but it cannot be reached from the actual.
  2. It unites a group of readers, often a generation of readers, by presenting an important image that they recognize.
  3. It unites a group of readers by fostering a similar reaction among them.
  4. It contains identifiable elements that are meaningful to its readers/viewers. Among these might be important messages (“the little guy can win after all,” “there’s no place like home,” the American Dream has become a nightmare”).

In other words, a mythic story can be made intentionally, as Star Wars was by George Lucas after he considered the work of Joseph Campbell; or it can happen accidentally. Surely every writer dreams of writing a mythic novel—the Great American novel—but it’s more or less an accident. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was a mythic novel of American, until it was displaced by To Kill a Mockingbird.  And I would note here that having your novel go mythic (as we might term it—it is, in a way, like “going viral,” except mythic stories tend to last longer than viral ones) is not really such a good thing after all. Look at Harper Lee—one mythic novel, and that was the end of her artistic output—as far as we know. A mythic novel might just be the last thing a great writer ever writes.

Anyway, back to our subject: a  modern myth gets adopted rather than created. Great myths are not made; they become. So let’s’ think of a few mythic novels and see how they line up with my four characteristics:

  1. Frankenstein
  2. Star Wars
  3. The Wizard of Oz
  4. The Great Gatsby or Death of a Salesman—take your pick.
  5. Casablanca
  6. The Case of Local Myths—family or friend myths, references you might make to certain films or novels that only a small number of people might understand. A case in point would be the re-enactments of The Rocky Horror Picture Show that take place each year around Halloween.

In essence, my answer, such as it is, to the questions I posed earlier comes down to this:

Modern myths are important stories that unite their readers or viewers with similar emotional and intellectual reactions. Modern mythology works by presenting recognizable and significant images that unite the people who read or view them. As for what distinguishes modern myths from other forms of story-telling, what tips a “normal” novel or film over into the realm of “mythic”—I don’t have an answer for this. I only have a couple of vague, unformed theories. One of my theories is this: Could one difference between myth and the novel (“mere” story-telling as such) be that myth allows the reader/listener to stay inside the story, while the novel pushes the reader back out, to return to the actual world, however reluctantly?

And let’s not forgot what Karen Armstrong wrote about myth: “It has been writers and artists, rather than religious leaders, who have stepped into the vacuum [created by the loss of religious certainty and despair created by modernism] and attempted to reacquaint us with the mythological wisdom of the past” (138).  Armstrong’s closing sentence is perhaps the most important one in the book: “If professional religious leaders cannot instruct us in mythical lore, our artists and creative writers can perhaps step into this priestly role and bring fresh insight to our lost and damaged world” (149). With this in mind, perhaps it’s time to go and read some more, and find more myths that can help us repair and restore ourselves, our faith in our culture, and in doing so, the world itself.

 

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On Directing a Play

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Richard Chamberlain and Eileen Atkins in a television production of Christopher Fry’s The Lady’s Not For Burning  (1974).

From early August until now, I have been lucky enough to be involved with a community theatre’s production of The Lady’s Not For Burning. I am, at least in name, the director of the production, despite having very little experience in acting. I rose through the distaff side of theatre productions, having started out as a fairly excellent audience member, then graduating to backstage functions such as handling props and set changes, and finally taking the plunge and directing a play myself.

The best thing about directing a play is that you can, for once in your life, make people experience a piece of literature that you think is worthwhile. As an English professor, I spent most of my professional life begging my students to read things like Keats, Eliot (George, not T.S.!), and Dickens–and being soundly ignored most of the time. But now, I can be satisfied that some 100 or so people, perhaps more if audiences pick up during this, our last week of performances, will be introduced to this play. (I am, of course, counting the actors, set crew, sound crew, and producers in that 100 people.) I have to admit I feel pretty good about making people aware of this play, even if they aren’t as enthusiastic about it as I am.

I picked The Lady’s Not For Burning for several reasons, which I will explain below. But like most everything else in my retired life, I encountered it in the first place through random serendipity. When Margaret Thatcher died several years ago, the news media played and re-played a snippet of what was perhaps her most famous speech, in which she declared, referring to her stance on the Falklands War, “The lady’s not for turning.” This made me curious about the dramatic work she was referring to in her clever word-play, and so I checked it out from the library and read it, surprising myself by actually liking it…a lot. I told myself at that time that if I ever got the chance to make a new generation of  readers aware of it, I would take that chance.

The Lady’s Not For Burning was written in 1948 by English poet and playwright Christopher Fry. Delightfully absurd, it deals with the theme of existential despair, ultimately defeating it through a blend of physical and conversational humor, but most of all, through the power of love. Set in the middle ages, from the opening moments of the play we watch Thomas Mendip, a recently discharged soldier who has seen too much of battlefields and human misery, as he tries to get himself hanged in an effort to end a life he can no longer bear to live. Yet it is his misfortune to have arrived in Cool Clary, a dysfunctional village that is in the midst of a witch-hunt. Within a short time of his arrival, a young woman (Jennet Jourdemayne) appears, trying with all her might to convince the town elders that she is not guilty of witchcraft. Unlike Thomas, she has gotten into the habit of living, and she is not inclined to give it up so easily. The rest of the play follows the fortunes of these two people, one who wants to end his life and the other who desperately wants to live, two individuals caught up in a world whose vicissitudes they cannot fully understand, all against a backdrop of hilariously ineffective and hare-brained villagers.

As I mentioned above, I found The Lady’s Not For Burning delightfully funny when I first read it, but I have come to know the play a great deal better over the last few months, as I watched the cast of hard-working amateur actors spend hour after hour memorizing lines, getting thrown about on stage, and strutting about in strange clothing. I have learned a great deal along the way, but two things stand out. First, I know now that the play is even funnier than I first thought it was. But the second thing I learned is that it also exhibits a deep sadness that seems to fit the times we live in. After all, the world is all too often not a pretty place, as Thomas readily tells us. In fact, it’s frequently a downright ugly place. However, it is possible to find beauty, and humor, and love, upon this imperfect planet we inhabit, and I believe that if we have a duty in this life, it is to find and celebrate such things in the midst of suffering and death. In the end, it is the relatively minor character Nicholas Hebble who utters the words that embody the crucial message of the play: “The best thing we can do is to make wherever we’re lost in / Look as much like home as we can.” These lines are echoed by Thomas Mendip at the very end of the play, when he offers to help Jennet Jourdemayne find her way home, though neither one of them has any idea where on earth that home could be.

In a way, I feel that the actors, stage crew, producers, and I have also been trying to find our way home, to a definitive view of the play that is several months in the making. We may have gotten lost, but we have kept each other company, and we can be satisfied that we have done our best, I think. I will be glad when the play is over and I have my life back again, as I’m sure all members of the cast and crew will be, but I will also always be grateful for an opportunity to work closely, not only with a great group of people, but also with this overlooked piece of literature–to be able to study it, understand it, and appreciate it in a way that I could never have done without getting involved in an actual stage production.

 

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Three Things I’ve Learned from Kazuo Ishiguro

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Image from the New York Times (October 5, 2017)

 

I had actually planned this post a couple of days before my favorite living writer, Kazuo Ishiguro, won the Nobel Prize in Literature (announced on on October 5th). So, along with the satisfaction and sense of vindication I felt when I woke up last Thursday morning and discovered that he’d been awarded the Prize, I also felt a sense chagrin at being late in making this post. After all, I could have gone on record about Ishiguro’s talent days before the Nobel committee made its announcement. Still, better late than never, so I will offer my belated post now, and explain the three most important things I’ve learned from Ishiguro over the years.

The most important thing I’ve learned from Kazuo Ishiguro is this: great writing often goes unnoticed by readers. (This point, of course, is now somewhat diluted by the fact that Ishiguro has indeed won acclaim for his work, but I think it deserves to be made all the same.) I remember reading Never Let Me Go about eight years ago and being gob-smacked by its subtle narrative brilliance and its emotional resonance. And yet I’ve met many readers of the book who, while affected by the narrative, seemed unimpressed by Ishiguro’s writerly achievement. It’s almost embarrassing that my reaction to the novel was so different than other people’s. Could I have gotten it wrong, somehow? Was it possible that Never Let Me Go really wasn’t the masterpiece I thought it was? While I considered this, I never once really believed I had made a mistake in my estimation: it is a tremendous book. The fact that few other people see it as such does not change my view of it. It simply means that I see something in it that other people don’t. Hence my first object lesson from reading Ishiguro: genius isn’t always obvious to the mass of readers out there. Perhaps it just isn’t that noticeable with so many other distracting claims for our attention.

The second thing I’ve learned from Ishiguro also stems from Never Let Me Go: genre doesn’t matter. When you really think about it, categorizing a work based on its plot is a silly thing to do, and yet we are firmly locked into that prison of categorization, since almost all bookstores and libraries, as well as readers, demand that every work fit into a narrow slot. I commend Ishiguro for defying the convention of genre, incorporating elements from both science fiction and fantasy into realist narratives. In my view, the sooner we break the shackles of genre, the better. Good, responsible readers should never restrict themselves to a certain genre any more than good, imaginative writers should. A certain amount of artistic anarchy is always a good thing, releasing creative juices and livening things up.

And finally, the third thing I’ve learned is this: a good writer does not hit the bull’s eye every time he or she writes. The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go are truly wonderful books. An Artist of the Floating World is promising, but not nearly as good as Ishiguro’s later works.  The Buried Giant, I’d argue, is a failure–but it is a magnificent failure, one whose flaws emanate from the very nature of the narrative itself, and thus it transcends its own inability to tell a coherent story. I’ve learned from this that a writer should never be afraid to fail, because failing in one way might be succeeding in another, less obvious, way. This is as good a place as any other to admit that I have never been able to get through The Unconsoled. And as for When We Were Orphans–well, the less said about that disaster of a book, perhaps the better. I can’t imagine what Ishiguro was thinking there–but I will certainly defend his right to fail. And I am thankful that even a writer with such talent as Ishiguro does, from time to time, fail–and fail big. It certainly gives the rest of us hope that while we fail, we can still aspire to success.

I will close by saying that I am grateful to Kazuo Ishiguro for the wonderful books he’s written. If you haven’t read any of them, you should–and not just because some panel gave him an award. But I am just as grateful to him for the three important lessons he has taught me about the nature of writing.

 

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On Self-Publishing and Why I Do It

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Let me get one thing straight right from the get-go: I know self-publishing is not the same thing as publishing one’s work through a legitimate, acknowledged publishing company. I also know that self-publishing is looked down upon by the established writing community and by most readers. In fact, for the most part I agree with this estimation. After all, I spent much of last year writing freelance book reviews for Kirkus Reviews, so I know what’s being published by indie authors: some of it is ok, but much more of it is not very good at all.

Knowing this, then, why would I settle for publishing my novels on Amazon and CreateSpace? This is a tricky question, and I have thought about it a great deal. Whenever anyone introduces me as an author, I am quick to point out that I am, in fact, just a self-published author, which is very different from a commercial writer. (And if at any time I am liable to forget this important fact, there are enough bookstores in my area that will remind me of it, stating that they don’t carry self-published books.) When I meet other writers who are looking for agents, I do my best to encourage them, largely by sharing with them the only strategy I know: Be patient, and persist in sending your queries out.

So why, since I know all this, do I resort to self-publishing my work? I’ve boiled it down to four main reasons.

First of all, I self-publish because I am not invested in becoming a commercially successful writer. I write what I want, when I want, and when I decide my work is complete, I submit it to an electronic platform that makes it into a book, which I can then share with family and friends and anyone else who cares to read it. In other words, for me writing is not a means by which to create a career, celebrity, or extra income. I have long ago given up the fantasy of being interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air; my fantasies are more mundane these days.

Second, I do not need to be a commercial writer, with a ready-made marketing machine to sell my books, because I am not hoping to make any money from them. Rather, I look upon writing as a hobby, just as I look upon my interest in Dickens, Hardy, and the Brontes as a hobby. I am helped here by having spent many years engaged in academic research, a world in which publications may win their authors momentary notice, but certainly not any money, unless one happens to sell out to the lure of literary celebrity, as Stephen Greenblatt has. I have a few publications out in the academic world, but no celebrity and certainly no money to show for them–and I am totally fine with that. In my creative writing, I am lucky enough to have a hobby that satisfies me and costs me relatively little–far less, in fact, than joining a golf or tennis club would cost.

The third reason that I self-publish my work is that I actually enjoy doing so. There are some aspects of publication that have surprised me. For example, I have found that I really enjoy working with a great graphic designer (thanks, Laura!) to develop the cover of my novels. It is an extension of the creative process that is closely related to my work but something that I could never do myself, and this makes me all the more grateful and fascinated as I watch the cover come to life and do its own crucial part to draw readers into the world I have created.

As a retired writing professor, I realize how important revision and proofreading is, and to be honest, this is the only part of self-publishing that gives me pause, because I worry about niggling little errors that evade my editorial eye. But for the most part, I am old enough now to have confidence in my writing. Plus, the beauty of self-publishing is that it is electronic: if there are errors (and there are always errors, even in mainstream published books), I can fix them as soon as a kind reader points them out. So I suppose the fourth reason to self-publish lies in the fact that it is so very easy to do it these days.

These are four good reasons for me to self-publish, but the most important reason is that I apparently love to write, and self-publishing allows me to do this without worrying about submitting the same piece of work over and over again to agents and publishers, stalling out my creativity. While at the Bronte Parsonage Museum this past summer, I picked up a card that expresses how I feel about it, a quote from Charlotte Brontë: “I’m just going to write because I cannot help it.” (It is a testament to my literary nerdiness that I happen to know that this quotation comes from Brontë’s Roe Head Journal, but strangely enough, before I encountered it on a greeting card I never realized that it applied to myself as well as to Brontë.) In my idiosyncratic view, self-publishing allows the reader to decide whether a novel is worth reading, rather than punting that responsibility over to an overworked and market-fixated literary agent or editorial assistant. I am willing to trust that reader’s judgment, even if it means I will never sell many books.

And so today, as I am releasing my second self-published novel (Betony Lodge, available on Amazon and CreateSpace–and this is my last attempt at marketing it here on my blog), I am fully aware of the stigma of self-publishing, but I realize that what’s right for other writers may not be right for me. Today, then, I am taking my courage into my own hands and pushing that key to make the book go live.

And tonight I will be making my own champagne toast: here’s to living in the 21st century,  when digital publishing makes authors of us all!

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A Reader’s Dilemma: On Books and Racism

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Image from Wikipedia

What does one do when one is reading a book that is entertaining but turns out to be blatantly racist? Does one stop and refuse to read it? Does one relegate it to the status of those books which, as Dorothy Parker famously said, deserve not to be set aside lightly, but thrown with great force? I pose this question as an ethical problem, not merely as a matter of taste.

 

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Wikipedia image

The book in question is Mr. Standfast, by John Buchan, a man more famous as the author of The Thirty-Nine Steps, which was made into a movie by the young Alfred Hitchcock some twenty years after its publication. John Buchan was a career diplomat who served in South Africa in the aftermath of the Boer War and as an intelligence officer in WW I. He is perhaps most famous, however, for becoming the Governor General of Canada in 1935, and by most accounts, he did a good job, as evidenced by his declaration, as Doug Saunders reports in this article, that Canada’s strength as a nation depends on its cultural diversity.

 

As one of his first public acts, Buchan created the Governor General’s Literary Awards, among whose later recipients number Michael Ondaatje, Alice Munroe, Margaret Atwood, Yann Martel, and Rohinton Mistry. By most accounts, then, Buchan was a fairly good guy, a champion for diversity and the arts, and a pretty good story-teller. So what am I to feel and to think when the first-person narrator of Mr. Standfast expresses open derision and contempt for conscientious objectors? Or when I read passages in which he makes fun of certain characters’ profound desire for peace, for an end to the debilitating war that has cut short hundreds of thousands of lives, hopes, and aspirations, an end to a war that has robbed not one but several generations of their hopes and dreams? What am I to feel when I see another passage which documents a disgusting contempt for the budding African movement towards self-determination, lines so replete with a complacent sense of superiority that I hesitate even to bring myself to quote them here? Such lines are particularly offensive to me because I have been reading Njabulo Ndebele’s excellent book, Fools and Other Stories, which offers a compelling view of life in Soweto, South Africa. So it infuriates me when Hannay, the narrator of Buchan’s novel, reports on “a great buck nigger who had a lot to say about ‘Africa for the Africans.’ I had a few words with him in Sesutu afterwards, and rather spoiled his visit.” It is significant, I’d argue, that the narrator offers neither the Sesutu words themselves, nor a translation, nor even a summary of them, an omission that renders his boastful declaration of a logical victory over the African speaker both empty and bombastic.

And yet I don’t think the answer to my anger and dismay about this is to throw Mr. Standfast across the room. Or perhaps it is to do just that, but then to go and pick it up again, after my temper has cooled, and go on reading it. Certainly my enjoyment of the novel will be less than if I had not encountered such ugly things in the narrative. After all, I would like Stevie Smith’s poems much better if I hadn’t come across baldly antisemitic sloganism in her Novel on Yellow Paper. (As it is, I like Smith well enough to have named one of my cats after her.) Rather, I think the lesson to be learned here is that racism comes in many forms; that, in all probability, it resides in every single human being. Furthermore, we must remember that we cannot eradicate racism by simply looking the other way, by trying to ignore its presence–either in our heroes or in ourselves.

Only by confronting racism dead on, by calling it by its true name without trying to excuse it, can we quash it when it rises up, as it will continue to do for the next few generations at least. At the same time, we cannot afford to dissimulate, as the Introduction to my edition of Mr. Standfast (Wordsworth Classics, 1994) does when it attempts to excuse Buchan: “Some of the language and many of the attitudes find little favour today,” the anonymous editor explains, “and have prompted some commentators to label Buchan with a number of those epithets that are fashionable among the historically illiterate. It should be remembered that Buchan was a high Tory politician, and also that the views he expresses are relatively liberal for his time.” No–this isn’t good enough. Let us admit once and for all that in this book at least, Buchan wrote as if he was a deplorable racist.

But let us also admit that the novel in question is a mere snapshot of him taken in 1919, and that it is unfair to judge the entirety of his life by this snapshot. It’s possible that he changed by the 1930s; but even if he didn’t, we can learn from his example. We can look at his works and see how very far we’ve come, and we can, without dissimulation or censorship, confront his racism for what it is: we can critique it, we can condemn it–and then we can move past it. If we choose not to, if we set the book down, then we miss out on the experience of reading it, and I’d say that would be a victory for racism, because it would shut down our capacity to explore human experience in its great variety.

I am not willing to foreclose on  such experiences. I believe that I am strong enough as a reader, indeed, as a person, to encounter racism in literature and to move past it so that I can gather a more complete picture of human culture, not as it should have been, but as it was. Distasteful as it can be to read reflections of ugliness, we must continue to do so if we want to try to understand our past and to control both our present and our future.

For me, it’s simply a matter of honesty. And so I will grit my teeth, shake my head, and continue reading Mr. Standfast. If it’s a good book, or even a spectacularly bad one, I may even write about it here in a few weeks.

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Buchan and Hitchcock, image from the Hitchcock Zone Wiki

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An Elegy for Pat McGee

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Stock Photo of Apple I from Getty Images

I am not particularly good at keeping up old friendships: time, distance, and differing life circumstances often seem to divide me from my past, which includes all the friends that I’ve had in different periods and places during my life. Yet I remain curious about my friends, and, while I rarely think of re-kindling a friendship through awkward online or actual encounters, I am only human, and so I do sometimes use the internet to find out what some of my old friends are up to.

The other night, when I was riding shotgun during a long trek home from downstate, I looked up, for some reason, my friend Pat McGee, whom I had last heard from some seven or eight–perhaps even more–years ago. Having recently started graduate school at a somewhat advanced age, he called me, knowing I taught at a community college, to see how I managed juggling several class preparations. I remember only the long silence that followed when I told him I was responsible for five courses a semester. Actually, I don’t think I offered him much help in his attempt to manage his two classes per semester–and perhaps I was rather stingy with sympathy as well.

I’d looked him up because I wanted to see whether he’d finished his program and which educational institution he’d ended up at. What I found instead, however, was profoundly troubling: an obituary for James Patrick McGee, dated 2015. The idea that Pat had left this life without me knowing it has been something of a shock to me ever since then. An even greater shock was that aside from this obituary, which was very perfunctory, with no details, Pat seemed to have left very little trace of his life at all on the web.

I am going to do my small part to rectify that.

I first met Pat many years ago, when I was a freshman at Rice University. He was much, much older (I now know that he was only nine or ten years older than me, but of course, when you’re eighteen, that seems like so much more than a mere decade). Although he was an old guy, he still hung around Rice, probably for one simple reason: he was a nerd, a computer geek, way before there was such a term in our cultural vernacular. Because computer science wasn’t even a discipline back in the 1980s, much less a major, Pat had stayed on at Rice after getting his Bachelor’s Degree to get a Master’s Degree in accounting. Then he kind of just hung around campus looking for good conversations and interesting people.

With his black-framed glasses, short-sleeved shirt, and pocket protector, Pat looked like the quintessential 1960s NASA programmer. But he had a lot more personality than one might first presume. In fact, I have several distinct memories about Pat to share in this elegy.

Pat McGee loved Chinese food, and he had been to a great many of the Chinese restaurants in Houston. If you wanted to know anything about Chinese food, or about where to get the best Szechuan food on a Sunday afternoon, Pat was your man. I’d been going to Chinese restaurants all my life, for example, but it was Pat who introduced me to moo shoo pork.

Another tidbit about Pat McGee: I first saw a personal computer–or something like it–at Pat’s house. “Come here, Suzanne,” he said one day. “I want to show you something.” Ordinarily, I’d have been wary of a man, even one who wore a pocket protector, beckoning me to his bedroom. But this was Pat, and I knew there were no ulterior motives. He pointed me towards his desk, where an old Panasonic portable television sat. Then he opened the right-hand drawer, where a jumble of metal boxes and wires lay tangled together. “What is it?” I asked. I wish I could say that he stared at me and said, “It’s the future,” or something significant like that, but I honestly can’t remember his answer. I just remember thinking he was spending a lot of time on something that had very little practical value–but then again, that was pretty much what Pat did, so I guess it’s natural that I didn’t really pay attention to his explanation of a device that would soon change the world.

A third memory: Pat had many jobs during his lifetime, but two of them were really interesting. In the 1990s, he worked as a computer programmer of some kind at Sandia National Laboratories, which focuses on nuclear national security. Later on, he worked for the Internal Revenue Service. Guess which job required him to take an oath of lifelong secrecy? It was the IRS, which tells you something about our government’s priorities.

The last memory I’ll share here is simply this: I first saw the Rocky Horror Picture Show in Pat’s living room, with a handful of other young people. It was a scratchy, out-of-focus bootleg copy of the film, and it was like nothing I’d ever seen before. To be honest, I wasn’t able to follow the plot. Then again, there isn’t much of a plot in that movie, so perhaps I didn’t miss that much.

These are my memories of Pat McGee, and, in the absence of any other kind of accessible testament to his existence, it seems important that I share them in some form, no matter how inconsequential. And I’ll just add this: as we move into our middle years, it’s not at all uncommon to think about mortality–our own and that of our loved ones. That’s to be expected. But surprisingly, it’s the deaths of those people we once knew, those one-time friends who played a role in our lives for only a short time and then disappeared into a quickly receding past life, that can blindside us, pulling us up short and making us realize with a dull shock how temporary this life is, and how transient our passage through it can be.

And so I offer my elegy for Pat here. I realize how inadequate the gesture is, yet I cannot refrain from making it. Sometimes we wave goodbye after the train has left, when no one is there to see our handkerchief flying in the breeze. It’s just human nature to do so.

So long, Pat McGee. Thanks for the memories.

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My Short, Tragic Career as an Independent Scholar

 

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Several months ago, I had what seemed like a fantastic idea: now that I was retired from teaching English at a community college, I could engage in critical research, something I’d missed during those years when I taught five or more classes a semester. I had managed to write a couple of critical articles in the last few years of my tenure at a small, rural two-year college in Northern Michigan, but it was difficult, not only because of the heavy demands of teaching, but also because I had very limited access to scholarly resources. Indeed, it is largely due to very generous former students who had moved on to major research institutions that I was able to engage in any kind of scholarly research, a situation which may seem ironic to some readers, but which is really just closing the loop of teacher and student in a fitting and natural way.

And so last fall, on the suggestion of a former student, I decided to throw my hat in the ring and apply to  a scholarly conference on Dickens, and my proposal was chosen. In time, I wrote my paper (on Dickens and Music– specifically on two downtrodden characters who play the flute and clarinet in David Copperfield and Little Dorrit, respectively) and prepared for my part in the conference.

It had been close to 25 years since I had read a paper at a conference, and so I was understandably nervous. Back then, there was no internet to search for information about conference presentations, but now I was able to do my homework, and thus I found a piece of advice that made a lot of sense: remember, the article emphasized, that a conference paper is an opportunity to test out ideas, to play with them in the presence of others, and to learn how other scholars respond to them, rather than a place to read a paper, an article, or a section of a book out loud before a bored audience. Having taught public speaking for over a decade, I could see that this made a lot of sense: scholarly articles and papers are not adapted to oral presentations, since they are composed of complex ideas buttressed by a great many references to support their assertions. To read such a work to an audience seemed to me, once I reflected on it, a ridiculous proposition, and would surely bore not only the audience, but any self-respecting speaker as well.

I wrote my paper accordingly. I kept it under the fifteen-minute limit that the moderator practically begged the panelists to adhere to in a pre-conference email. I made sure I had amusing anecdotes and witty bon mots. I concocted a clever PowerPoint presentation to go with the paper, just in case my audience got bored with the ideas I was trying out. I triple-spaced my copy of the essay, and I–the queen of eye contact, as my former speech students can attest–I practiced it just enough to become familiar with my own words, but not so much that I would become complacent with them and confuse myself by ad-libbing too freely. In short, I arrived at the conference with a bit of nervousness, but with the feeling that I had prepared myself for the ordeal, and that my paper would meet with amused interest and perhaps even some admiration.

It was not exactly a disaster, but it was certainly not a success.

To be honest, I consider it a failure.

It wasn’t that the paper was bad. In fact, I was satisfied with the way I presented it. But my audience didn’t know what to do with presentation. This might be because it was very short compared to all the other presentations (silly me, to think that academics would actually follow explicit directions!). Or it could be because it wasn’t quite as scholarly as the other papers. After all, my presentation hadn’t been published in a journal; it was, as C.S. Lewis might have called it, much more of a “supposal” than a fully-fledged argument. Perhaps as well there was something ironic in my stance, as if I somehow communicated my feeling that research in the humanities is a kind of glorified rabbit hunt that is fun while it lasts but that rarely leads to any tangible, life-changing moment of revelation.

Yet this is not to say that humanities research is useless. It isn’t. It develops and hones all sorts of wonderful talents that enrich the lives of those who engage in it and those who merely dip into it from time to time. I believe in the value of interpreting books and arguing about those interpretations; in fact, I believe that engaging in such discussions can draw human beings together as nothing else can, even at the very moments when we argue most fiercely about competing and contrasting interpretations. This is something, as Mark Slouka points out in his magnificent essay “Dehumanized,” that STEM fields cannot do, no matter how much adminstrators and government officials laud them, pandering to them with ever-increasing budgets at the expense of the humanities.

And this is, ultimately, why I left the conference depressed and disappointed. I had created, in the years since I’d left academia, an idealized image of it that was inclusive, one that recognized its own innate absurdity. In other words, sometime in the last two decades, I had recognized that research in the humanities was valuable not because it produced any particular thing, but because it produced a way of looking at the world we inhabit with a critical acuity that makes us better thinkers and ultimately better citizens. The world of research, for me, is simply a playground in which we all can exercise our critical and creative faculties. Yet the conference I attended seemed to be focused on research as object: indeed, as an object of exchange, a widget to be documented, tallied, and added to a spreadsheet that measures worth.

Perhaps its unfair of me to characterize it in this way. After all, most of the people attending the conference were, unlike me, still very much a part of an academic marketplace, one in which important decisions like tenure, admission to graduate programs, promotions, and departmental budgets are decided, at least in part, by things like conference attendance and presentations. It is unfair of me to judge them when I am no longer engaged in that particular game.

But the very fact that I am not in the game allows me to see it with some degree of clarity, and what I see is depressing. One cannot fight the dehumanization of academia, with its insistent mirroring of capitalism, by replicating that capitalism inside the ivy tower; one cannot expect the humanities to maintain any kind of serious effect on our culture when those charged with propagating the study of humanities are complicit in reducing humanities research to mere line items on a curriculum vitae or research-laden objects of exchange.

I can theorize no solution to this problem beyond inculcating a revolution of ideas within the academy in an effort to fight the now ubiquitous goal of bankrupting the study of arts and humanities, a sordid goal which now seems to characterize the age we live in. And I have no idea how to bring about such a revolution. But I do know this: I will return to my own study with the knowledge that even my small, inconsequential, and isolated critical inquiries are minute revolutions in and of themselves. As we say in English studies, it’s the journey that’s important, not the destination. And in the end, I feel confident that it will take far more than one awkward presentation at a conference to stop me from pursuing my own idiosyncratic path of research and inquiry into the literature I love.

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Border Country

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I have fairly sloppy reading habits these days, moving randomly from one book to the next, choosing them for the slightest of reasons. A couple of weeks ago, I was in Wales, and I stopped in a bookstore. This bookstore was not in Hay-on-Wye, which is noted for its bookstores and its annual literary festival; frankly, I found Hay-on-Wye to be too commercial and couldn’t get out of there soon enough. Rather, it was a small bookstore in Crickhowell, in South Wales, which, it turns out, was a place that Tolkien visited on a holiday as a young adult and whose influence can be found in The Hobbit.

Whenever I go into a bookstore, I feel obligated to purchase something. For me, it’s like getting a table in a restaurant: you wouldn’t go in at all if you didn’t mean to buy something. And, because I was in Wales, and because the bookstore had a wonderful collection of Welsh books written in English, I picked up a novel by Raymond Williams called Border Country. I chose it because I am a retired English professor and am familiar with some of Williams’s critical work. I was hoping it would be a good book, because I always root for scholars who write fiction, being one myself.

I will simply say here that Border Country surpassed any hope I had that it would be an interesting book to read on vacation. It really is a fine novel, a beautiful and thoughtful narrative in which Welsh village life is depicted against the background of labor struggles, the clash of generations, and the difficulty involved in leaving one’s home and then returning to it.

Williams creates a subtle story with a strong narrative pull, largely because of the lively, interesting characters he presents. The protagonist is a professor of economics who lives in London with his wife and two sons; he must return to the Welsh border country, however, because his father has had a stroke. But “border country” also refers to the space that Matthew Price (called “Will” back in his hometown of Glynmawr) occupies within his own world: neither fully in the cosmopolitan world of London intellectuals (we get only a glimpse of his life there) nor in the village of his birth, Matthew is caught between worlds and a strange, palpable dysphoria ensues.

Yet the novel does not dwell on this unease. Rather, it provides flashbacks to an earlier time, when Matthew’s father Harry first arrives in Glynmawr to work as a railway signalman with his young wife Ellen, and in doing so it recounts the struggles involved in making a life in that beautiful and rugged country. The novel, true to its form (and no one would know that form better than Williams, who was a literary scholar of the highest merit), presents a varied and beautiful mix of narratives, woven together so subtly and with such artistry that the reader moves effortlessly between them.

I am new to Welsh literature, but I have learned this from Border Country: reading Welsh novels means reading about the Welsh landscape, with its rough yet welcoming mountains, where life is difficult but well worth living. Williams manages to get that feeling across to the reader in his simple, almost elegiac tone. The threads of the story keep us turning the pages, but the message of the book will stay with us long after we finish reading.

This is a novel that deserves to be read. It is both a pleasure and a pain to say that: a pleasure to discover a hidden gem, and a pain to realize that this gem has been obscured by newer, less deserving but flashier novels, and has only been revealed by the undisciplined, random choice of a reader strolling into a bookstore looking for something to read while on holiday in Wales. So I’m doing my part to gain it the readership it deserves by saying here: get this book and read it. You will be glad that you did.

Border Country, Raymond Williams

Parthian, Library of Wales, 2017

 

 

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