Category Archives: Literary theory

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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Filed under Criticism, culture, Films, Historical Fiction, Literary theory, Literature, Reading, Writing

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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Filed under Careers, clarinet, Criticism, Education, Literary theory, Literature, Music, Reading, Retirement, Teaching, The Arts, Writing

New Feature: Book Reviews

The title is a misnomer of sorts: most contemporary book reviews, I’ve noticed, are little more than marketing ploys designed to get you to buy the book they’re reviewing. If the reviewer is quite brave, the review might actually critique the book, but the point remains the same: to weigh in on a book that has grabbed, or wants to grab, the attention of a large body of readers.

That is not my goal in writing book reviews.

Am I alone in wailing and moaning the lost art of reading? Certainly not. Yet I am advocating here a certain kind of reading, a way of reading which demands thoughtful yet emotional responses to a book. This kind of reading and critiquing is not systematic, like a college paper; it is not formulaic and profit-generating, like a Kirkus book review; and it is certainly not aimed at gaining a readership for a book, or for this blog, either, for that matter. I am simply modeling the behavior I would like to see in other readers. I want to log my emotional and intellectual responses to certain books, to join or create a critical discussion about the the works I’m reading. Some of these works will be current, but many more will be older. As I used to tell my literature students, I specialize in works written by long-dead people. Long mesmerized by the works from the nineteenth century and before, I have, one might say, a severe case of century deprivation.

But today I am starting with a book by Susan Sontag, The Volcano Lover: A Romance. Published in 1992, it is a historical novel set in Naples, Italy, at the end of the eighteenth century, focusing on Sir William Hamilton and his second wife Emma, destined to become the mistress of Horatio Nelson.

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Image from Wikipedia

Let me say that I have never read many of Sontag’s essays, and now I feel I don’t really have to, because this book seems in many ways much more a essay than a novel. There’s a good story in the lives of Sir William, Lady Hamilton, and Lord Nelson, but Sontag pushes this story into the background, eclipsing it by allowing her narrator’s cynical distance to diminish the reader’s ability to connect with the characters and events portrayed in the novel. Sontag gets in the way of the story a great deal too much. Egotism has no place in the act of telling a story; unfortunately, this lesson is something many writers are slow to learn, and indeed, some writers never learn it at all.

The true protagonist of the novel emerges only in the last eight pages. Sontag has had her revenge on the prurient reader who has picked up this novel only to delve into the lurid details of one of the most famous threesomes in British history. She pulls out a minor character, one that has had only the most fleeting reference given her, and gives her some of the best scenes to narrate. By playing hide-and-seek games with her story in this way, Sontag regrettably implodes her own narrative.

In the end, Sontag is much too clever a story-teller, and this hurts her novel–irreparably, in my view. There is one sentence in the novel that I think is worthy of remembering, however. Describing Sir William long after her own death (yes, Sontag does this, time-hopping with impunity, apparently), his first wife describes him like this in a single-sentence paragraph: “Talking with him was like talking with someone on a horse” (376). That’s a clever description, and I will give Sontag her due by calling attention to it.

In the end, though, I am left feeling frustrated and annoyed by The Volcano Lover. I have no idea how it can be construed as a romance, just as I have no idea why this novel, with its sly undercurrent of critical attitudes–towards the characters, the actions, and perhaps even the very nature of novel-writing–should hold a reader’s attention. Sontag’s work, described on the jacket as “a book of prismatic formal ingenuity, rich in speculative and imaginative inventiveness and alive with delicious humor,” is in reality a self-absorbed narrative, filled with annoying commentary, strained attempts at originality, and a smug disregard for its readers’ desire to like the book they’re reading.

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Making Art in Troubled Times

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Image from the webpage of the Ashmolean Museum: http://britisharchaeology.ashmus.ox.ac.uk/highlights/alfred-jewel.html 

I will admit it: after the election in November, I succumbed to a sense of defeat. What is the point, I moaned, if autocracy and tyranny are not merely accepted but welcomed by the masses, if the great ideal of a democratic country is systematically dismantled before our eyes? Why bother with anything, much less with the last fifty pages of a novel that no one will ever read?

At the time, I was working through the last part of a story I’d begun a couple of years earlier, and I was ready to give it up, because, well, why would I finish it when the world as I know it is coming to an end? (My feelings arose not only because of the U.S. election results or the ensuing realization that a foreign power had tinkered with our “free elections,” but also because of the global rise of a dangerous populism, coupled with imminent global climate change.)

But a good friend gave me some advice, and I soldiered on and completed the draft. Right now, I am steadily working on it, revision after revision. And I am doing this not because I think my novel can change the world. It certainly won’t; it won’t be read by more than a hundred people, and that’s if I’m lucky.

But this short essay is not about the art of writing without readers; I will deal with that in a future post. For now, all I want to do is to encourage everyone who reads this blog to go on and continue their artistic activities. I say this not as a writer, or even as a reader, but as a scholar. And I have a very simple reason for doing so.

Art is the residue left by human culture. When civilizations disappear, when lives and institutions have crumbled into the dust, what remains is the art they created. Some of this art arises from genius, like the works of Mozart and Shakespeare; some of it comes from normal people, like the rest of us. But we need it all–every last scrap of it, not only the wonderful pieces that make us cry with joy or sadness, but even the average and ungainly works of art, because even bad art is an expression of human experience, and in the end, it is the experience of being human that binds us together on this lonely little planet.

So go ahead with your art. Draw, paint, weave, write, compose or play music. Do not worry that you are fiddling as Rome burns. Rome will, ultimately, burn–history tells us that. But what is left behind are wonderful murals that will take your breath away, mosaics, epic poems, statues and monumental structures. Don’t worry about whether your art will be appreciated; it is the act of making it that is important, not whether or not it is celebrated. Think of that lonely monk who produced Beowulf; he  was probably scared shitless that his Anglo-Saxon culture would be erased by the next Viking invasion, but he fought off this feeling of futility and kept going, thank goodness. Remember his small act of courage, try to emulate it, and above all, keep going.

Do not be afraid of working in the darkness; you may not be able to dispel it, but your work could provide light for others, not only now, but in the future as well.

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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Revision

 

Fair warning: this post is not political. It is for all the writers out there who hate revising their work.

Guys, I know the feeling. You labor over something for weeks, months, even years, and when you reach the end, or what you think is the end, it’s so very tempting to stop, put down your pen or push aside your keyboard, and break out the champagne. You love what you’ve written, if only because (1) it’s finished and (2) it meets your expectations, which, let’s be honest, have been systematically lowered throughout the duration of your project. The last thing you want to do is pick over every word and line you’ve sweated over in a pointless effort to tear it apart.

I used to feel that way, too. In fact, I suppose a pretty substantial part of me still does. But today, on the eve of 2017, at the end of a year that so many people are calling a very bad year, if not a catastrophic one, I pause in my own revision work to offer other writers a new way of looking at revision.

I am learning to love this part of writing, because I see it as a perfect marriage between creativity and analysis. Note that I am  using the word “analysis,” not the word “criticism,” because that’s too negative for what I think we do in revision. The job of revision is to help make something better, not to tear it apart. (Tearing it apart should come later, during the critical review, but only in as much as the critic must tear something apart in order to see what it’s made of and how it works. A good critic will always put the work back together again after she does the work of criticism.)

My secret to loving revision, then, is this: Revising a work must involve a willing, enthusiastic attitude. The writer must regard the task of revising with excitement, because it is this part of writing that really shows the essence of craftsmanship, that separates those who write for fun (whether they are published authors or not) from those who write because they are compelled to do so. But how can a writer change their attitude about this pain-in-the-ass time sink? I’ve devised a very simple solution. Instead of hoping that your work contains few mistakes and needs minimal revision, you should assume that it houses many mistakes, some of them not easy to find. Rather than bewailing the need to revise, growing bored and frustrated with finding topical errors, learn to use revision as a sonar device to locate the buried as well as the superficial mistakes. Once found, even deep mistakes are usually fairly easy to fix–much easier to fix than most writers would think. I’ve found that when you let go of the inherent desire not to have to fix something and give yourself over to the idea that fixing it is not only a good thing to do, but an entertaining and satisfying aspect of the nature of the job, revision loses its drudgery. It becomes a pleasant and in some ways delightful stage in the work of creation, and it invites the best use of problem-solving tactics–and creativity–a writer possesses.

There you have it. Stop avoiding revision. (You know you have.) Change your attitude–for real. Love revision and all it offers. Because it’s revision, and not the mere act of writing itself, that makes us real artists. Any third-grader can write. Only a real writer has the ability, and the drive, to revise.

–Offered on this last day of 2016 with a minimum of revision

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In Praise of Bad Novels

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I read a lot. Not as much as my husband seems to think, but a respectable amount nonetheless. This year I am keeping track, and since January 1st, I’ve read fifteen books. That’s three books a month, a figure that includes one audio book but does not include the four books I’ve read for reviewing purposes. And among those books, I’ve found two books that I think are actually bad novels. Surprisingly, these two bad novels are by acclaimed authors–authors whose works I have enjoyed, recommended, and highly admired. Hence today’s topic: why reading a bad novel isn’t an utter waste of time.

Many of us have had those moments in which we spend a good chunk of time resolutely plowing through a New Yorker short story only to complain afterwards, muttering something like, “That’s an hour of my life I’ll never get back.” And the same could be said about these two novels. Reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans and listening to Umberto Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana left me frustrated and perplexed until I began to think about bad novels. After several days of thought, I began to see the value of reading books that simply don’t measure up to our standard of writerly quality.

Don’t get me wrong: while in the midst of these two books I kept reading and listening precisely because, knowing the authors’ other works, I expected things to take a turn for the better. When they didn’t, I grumbled and complained, and marveled at the insipidness of the stories being told. I finished Ishiguro’s novel thinking, “That’s strange–it never did get any better. Where is the writer who produced two of the finest novels of the last thirty years?” I finished Eco’s in even worse shape, thinking, “At least I knitted several dishcloths while I spent fifteen hours [!] listening to this thing.”

imgres-2So why would I celebrate bad novels? There are a number of reasons. First, there’s value in reading a body of a writer’s work, just as it’s worthwhile to watch a body of a director’s films. Watching the ebb and flow of good writing within one author’s body of work is instructive: it shows us readers that all writing is experimental, even the writing created by excellent and talented writers. Second, it makes us question our values. What makes a novel bad rather than good? Is it predictability and relying on telling rather than showing, as in When We Were Orphans? Or could it be long-winded musings that interrupt and detract from the real narrative, leaving readers with a shaggy-dog story rather than an enriching experience, as in The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana? Would we judge these books as harshly if we didn’t know the authors’ other works, masterpieces in their own right? These questions may not have clear answers, but they are certainly worth considering.

And for those writers out there (and aren’t all of us writers, even those of us who don’t regularly produce manuscripts or succeed in getting our work published?), I’d offer this thought: considering bad novels gives us hope. If Kazuo Ishiguro can miss the bull’s-eye, even after he wrote The Remains of the Day, then we can certainly forgive ourselves for not coming up to snuff. We can continue to labor at our work, trusting that, like Ishiguro, we can still produce some wonderful work, a heart-breaking novel like Never Let Me Go, jaw-dropping in its artistry. Using Eco’s example, we can say to ourselves that our present work may not be quite the thing, but that another, beautiful piece of writing lies within us, struggling to come out.

And most important of all, we can remind ourselves that all stories are significant, and that even the not-so-good ones deserve to be told–and read.

 

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Why I’m Trashing My Novel

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Sometimes when you write a draft of a story in your head, you go back and read it and see all the flaws in it. That’s normal; artists rarely produce good work on the first g0-round–although there is that story about Mozart showing his latest score to Salieri, who asked to see the rough copy. Mozart replied that he was looking at the rough copy. When Salieri asked where the cross-outs and emendations were, Mozart stared at him, puzzled. “The mistakes!” said Salieri, losing patience with his young colleague. “Where’s the copy with all the mistakes?” Mozart looked at him in amazement, and finally said, “Why on earth would I want to make mistakes?”

See what I did there? In an essay about writing and revising, I inserted a little story. It’s not original–I picked it up somewhere, probably from my music teacher. And it may not even be very good. But the point is that most people, other than Mozart, make mistakes as they write their stories, and that’s what revision is for. However, every once in a while you read what you’ve written, and you say to yourself that you just can’t go on with it. There can be many reasons for this: flawed writing, trouble with dialogue, problematic plots. But when you’re thoughtful and intentional about writing (which may itself be a problem in producing a story), you analyze what went wrong. It probably won’t help the draft you’re contemplating–you’ll probably still have to relegate it to the trash pile–but it may help you from making the same mistake again. In the hope of helping other writers out there, I thought I’d offer this bit of advice to those writers who have decided to end the struggle.

Before I offer it, however, I’d like to say that all would-be novelists who pull the plug on their novels should be thanked, even celebrated, for their decision. There are far too many novels out there, and those of us who decide to shit-can ours are doing a favor for our friends and family members, and for the unsuspecting public who might actually buy our poorly written and executed novels. We should be lauded, not pitied, for our decision to end the struggle. We are doing a service to readers by not adding to the morass of bad literature already cluttering up our bookshelves. Our self-denial is somewhat heroic.

But all this aside, I believe that good stories should have two qualities: they should be interesting, and they should be authentic.

What does this mean? “Interesting” is easy enough to define: a story should be intriguing enough to make us want to know more. What happens next? Who does what to whom? Yet it’s good to realize that “interesting” is a quality that will vary from reader to reader. My husband may find dramas with lots of explosions and bloody confrontations interesting, but they put me to sleep. I find Victorian novels delightful, yet he has never made it through one yet. “Interesting” is so relative a term that we will just leave it out here for other critics to dissect.

“Authentic” is another matter altogether, although it is just as difficult to define. It bears no relation to reality; rather, it is connected to Hemingway’s dictum that a writer must write “one true sentence” to be successful. By “authentic,” then, I mean that  the writer must be true to herself. This is much harder said than done. You have to put yourself into your writing, which is often uncomfortable and scary, because you can’t hide behind the writing. You have to reach into yourself and lay it on the line, and that in itself is so much harder than simply telling a story. My little story about Mozart above may be interesting (to some), for example, and it is authentic enough for its purpose (to illustrate a point), but it’s not really authentic because there’s too little at stake in the telling of it.

My aborted novel contains some seventy pages. On reading it, I found that it has an interesting idea, but it fails the authenticity test. It’s not “true” enough; I haven’t invested enough into the telling of the story. I might have been able to fool some readers into thinking it was authentic, but there are too many books out there that are authentic to try to produce one that fails in this category. And these days, those of us who self publish must be especially vigilant; there are already enough books in the world that need to be read, so why add to the chaos?

I may take up my idea again and try to make a novel out of it, but for now, I’ve learned my lesson, which is that writers have to strive for authenticity in their narratives. And that, I think, is an important enough lesson to share with others.

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Correction to an Earlier Post: Why I Like Go Set a Watchman

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In a previous post, I maintained that the newly discovered book Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee was merely a rough draft for To Kill a Mockingbird.

I need to correct that. I will admit, after reading Go Set a Watchman, that I was wrong, for a number of reasons. To be honest, I’m surprised, after thinking about this for a while, that no one called me on my inherent hypocrisy. In that earlier post, I maintained that because To Kill a Mockingbird was the result of editing and wound up being the published novel, it is superior to and actually eclipses Go Set a Watchman. This reflects a faith in publishers and editors that I don’t really have. In fact, I think serious readers should question the power vested in publishers to make the decisions about what they will read. I now think that Go Set a Watchman deserves to be read as a work on its own right–not because of its quality, or because of its importance, but simply because it is a novel, however flawed, written by an important writer of the mid-twentieth-century United States.

How flawed is Go Set a Watchman? It certainly is not a masterpiece of writing. But then again, neither is To Kill a Mockingbird, whose value rests not in its well-crafted sentences or dramatic dialogues, but rather in the fact that it is a relatively simple but powerful story that appeared when its readers needed it most. However, Go Set a Watchman, unlike To Kill a Mockingbird, violates the one rule that every creative writing student must learn: show, don’t tell. Lee spends much too much time telling her reader about Jean Louise, rather than showing us her in action, particularly in the beginning of the book. In addition, the dialogue, written to reflect a Southern drawl, almost always seems inauthentic and affected, and there are large sections that become preachy rather than dramatic or revealing.

So with all those criticisms, what is there to like about Go Set a Watchman? I find several things in this category. First, it shows us an independent-minded young woman observing the world around her. The Jean Louise Finch presented in this novel is grown up, no longer a cute, ungendered tom-boy; she is now a woman, one with a sexual past, present, and future, who sleeps in pajama tops only, with no apologies. As a female reader, I find this aspect of her character refreshing and revealing. Second, it presents Jean Louise with an intellectual and moral dilemma, which she is able to work through with the help of her Uncle Jack. If we readers can stay with the dialogue, we are rewarded with the understanding that Scout actually emerges as Atticus’s ethical superior. We discover that this novel is the story of how a woman is able to perceive that her childish worship of her father is misplaced, and that she must make up her own mind about things such as the relations between white and black Southerners. In a sense, then, Go Set a Watchman is a woman’s coming-of-age story, in which Scout must learn to function in a complex world without Atticus, without Jem, without Dill, and without her almost-boyfriend Henry Clinton.

Maybe the reason the novel changed so much from its original version is because the United States didn’t want a female coming-of-age story in 1963. In the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, it wasn’t ready for such a story; all it wanted at that time was a simple fable, which To Kill a Mockingbird, in its simple and spare narration, delivers beautifully. And certainly there’s a great deal of clutter in Go Set a Watchman, but a lot of it is clutter that I like. For example, the character of  Dr. John Finch, Atticus’s brother, with his obsession with Victorian literature, is powerfully appealing to a Victorian scholar like me. Because of Uncle Jack, this book is much more literate than To Kill a Mockingbird, which is perhaps another way of saying it’s filled with clutter. References to Bishop Colenso and Lord Melbourne are welcome to me, but probably to few other readers. I especially liked this sentence: “you and Jem were very special to me–you were my dream-children, but as Kipling said, that’s another story…call on me tomorrow, and you’ll find me a grave man.” References to Romeo and Juliet (in which Mercutio, wounded by Tybalt, says, “call on me tomorrow, and you’ll find me a grave man”) are not hard to find, and Lee gives away the Kipling quote, but a nod to Charles Lamb’s  sad and beautiful essay “Dream Children: A Reverie” is as delightful as it is rare.

So, in a nutshell, my earlier post was misguided, if not completely wrong about Go Set a Watchman. To Kill a Mockingbird is a book of its time, perhaps the most important book of its time. And, while Go Set a Watchman may not be a book for all time, while it may only be of interest to readers today because Harper Lee wrote it, it is a solid and fascinating book, and I am glad that I read it.

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On Lost Voices

A few days ago, an article appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Carlin Romano that discussed H.J. Jackson’s book Those Who Write for Immortality. Jackson’s book talks about literary fame and how it occurs, and Romano’s article introduces some interesting, and troubling, ideas. For example, what if, as Jackson suggests, we remember Wordsworth and Coleridge not because they are eminently good poets, but because their poetry is easier to anthologize and illustrate than the works of Robert Southey or Leigh Hunt? Many good writers fall by the wayside, Romano seems to argue, simply because they are not convenient to read.

This makes me question my own work as a teacher in years past. One of the things I’m proud of is my attempt to help my students understand Romantic poetry and feel comfortable with it. Of course, I emphasized Wordsworth and Coleridge, because they are so accessible and so easy to identify with, considering their love of simplicity and Nature with a capital “N.” What’s not to like about that, after all? But recently, while reading the letters of Charles Lamb, a literary figure who was once loved for his essays and is now only known for his pseudonym (any crossword addict knows that “Lamb’s alias” is “ELIA”), I discovered a rebuttal of all the nature-worship perpetrated by Wordsworth and Coleridge.

Charles Lamb

Charles Lamb

Of course, any student of Romantic literature will remember lines like “Henceforth I shall know / That Nature ne’er deserts the wise and pure; / No plot so narrow, be but Nature there, /…and keep the heart / Awake to Love and beauty!” (“This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” by S.T. Coleridge). This is also the poem in which Coleridge addresses Lamb himself (much to Lamb’s chagrin) not once but three times as “My gentle-hearted Charles,” telling him at one point, “thou has pined  / And hungered after Nature, many a year, / In the great City pent, winning thy way / With sad and patient soul…” (28-31). Lovely as those lines are, there was at least one reader who was unimpressed by them. Lamb himself wrote to Coleridge on August 6, 1800, “For God’s sake (I never was more serious) don’t make me ridiculous any more by terming me gentle-hearted in print, or do it in better verses.” Apparently, Coleridge heeded Lamb’s plea, and never again addressed him in a poem.

Five months later, Lamb writes to William Wordsworth an interesting, chatty letter in which he brings up his view of nature, which runs counter to all Romantic ideology, ending in a paean to city life worthy of Dickens or Thackeray some fifty years later: “Separate from the pleasure of your company, I don’t much care if I never see a mountain in my life. I have passed all my days in London, until I have formed as many and intense local attachments as any of you mountaineers can have done with dead Nature. The lighted shops of the Strand and Fleet Street; the innumerable trades, tradesmen, and customers, coaches, waggons, playhouses; all the bustle and wickedness round about Covent Garden; the very women of the Town; the watchmen, drunken scenes, rattles; life awake, if you awake, at all hours of the night; the impossibility of being dull in Fleet Street; the crowds, the very dirt and mud, the sun shining upon houses and pavements, the print shops, the old bookstalls, parsons cheapening books, coffee-houses, steams of soups from kitchens, the pantomimes–London itself a pantomime and a masquerade–all these things work themselves into my mind, and feed me, without a power of satiating me. The wonder of these sights impels me into night-walks about her crowded streets, and I often shed tears in the motley Strand from fulness of joy at so much life. All these emotions must be strange to you; so are your rural emotions to me.” Lamb’s letter continues to contrast his view of the poetic with Wordsworth’s, ending, “So fading upon me, from disuse, have been the beauties of Nature, as they have been confinedly called; so ever fresh, and green, and warm are all the inventions of men, and assemblies of men in this great city.”

Old Covent Garden Market, by Georg Johann Scharf, 1825 (source: Wikipedia)

Old Covent Garden Market, by Georg Johann Scharf, 1825 (source: Wikipedia)

This passage is more than striking; it’s a gobsmacking refutation of the Nature-worship that I have, for many years, erroneously taught was part and parcel of the literary landscape of early 19th century Britain. So here’s a public apology to all my students, with this little piece of cautionary advice: H.J. Jackson may well be right. Rather than teach the old stand-bys, we ought to be engaging in our own recovery projects to introduce more readers to the jewels that we’ve let slip through our fingers.

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What’s all the fuss about Atticus?

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The latest buzz about Harper Lee’s newly published novel, the predecessor to To Kill a Mockingbird, is that Atticus Finch is portrayed not as the moral champion of racial equality, but rather as a racist. Before this piece of news takes over all of our Facebook newsfeeds, however, let’s just remember one thing.

It really doesn’t matter.

I have not yet read Go Set a Watchman, although I intend to. But I know that whatever is contained in that novel has little to do with the work that ultimately became To Kill a Mockingbird. In other words, the Atticus who appears in the former work is only tangentially related to the Atticus who appears in the latter work. No matter what the news articles tell us, Go Set a Watchman is not a full-fledged literary work: because it was not published, because it was in fact rejected by editors, we must regard it as a rough draft of sorts, a work in progress, and not as a work on its own.

In fact, I find the popular interest surrounding the publication of Go Set a Watchman puzzling, because this embryonic version of Harper Lee’s masterpiece should really be of interest only to literary scholars and critics. The fact that it has grabbed media attention is frustrating but predictable. To Kill a Mockingbird is an iconic novel, after all, emblematic of the United States at a certain point in time. Moreover, having published her one great novel, Lee never published another; and so she herself is a tantalizing mystery, much like that other one-hit wonder, Emily Bronte, author of Wuthering Heights.

But the truth is that because Go Set a Watchman is simply a kind of rough draft for To Kill a Mockingbird–nothing more and nothing less–the only people who should be interested in this work are literary scholars, those people who crawl around musty libraries studying literary minutiae, debating whether the first ending of Great Expectations is superior to the revised one that Dickens ended up with–in other words, people like me. And the only reason that the media is showering attention on this book is that an anti-intellectual culture cannot understand scholarly interest, and so Go Set a Watchman must be presented not as a type of juvenilia, not as an early (rejected) version of a masterpiece, but rather as a work in its own right. And what is surprising about this? After all, there is nothing to wonder at in this kind of attitude arising out of a society that places greater value on sports facilities than on libraries. The $27 price tag tells the entire story,

So don’t worry about whether Atticus Finch is racist. He isn’t. The only Atticus Finch that really matters is the one that appears in To Kill a Mockingbird. On the other hand, if you just have to worry about something, consider worrying about the fact that fifty years after the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, we still haven’t solved the problem of race in this country. Unlike Dickens’s books, which sometimes provoked real social change , Lee’s work still reflects a reality in our world that we are unwilling to contemplate. And that’s something to worry about for sure.

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