Category Archives: Publishing

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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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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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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How I Spent My Winter Vacation

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It has been a long, dark winter for many of us. The key to surviving such bleak periods is keeping busy, and I am lucky to have found an absorping, yet perhaps a pointless, task. A project fell into my lap, and to explain how it got there, I have to go back to a very dark time indeed: Election Day.

In those days after the Election, I, like many other people, struggled to come to grips with a president who had not won the popular vote, who represented the very things that I have come to despise about my country, and who was, in short, an embarrassing representation of the intellectual and cultural vacuity that threatens the United States. I was in a dark place. I clutched at straws for salvation. One of the things I found online was a fine essay that I forgot to bookmark, which is now lost to me. But in that essay was a reference to the French writer Léon Werth, to whom Antoine St. Exupéry had written a moving dedication in The Little Prince.

My lost essay referred to Werth’s book 33 Days, which recounted the author’s harrowing journey to escape the German occupation of France in 1940. The book, it seems, was lost until 1992 and only translated into English in a few years later. (You can buy the book here, at Melville House Press.) After reading about Werth, I became interested in his second novel, Clavel Soldat (in English, Clavel the Soldier) which was published to some national acclaim in 1919.

I looked for an English translation, but could not find one, so I had my son, a student at Michigan State University, check out the original French version (which had to come out of “Deep Storage”–the very phrase sends shivers of excitement down this scholar’s spine). When at last he handed the book to me, held together with a string, and I held it in my hands, I was in for a shock: the pages had never been cut.

I knew what this meant well enough. No one, despite its presence in the MSU Library 20170402_163630from August 22, 1949, to the present day, had ever read this copy of the book. I now had a thorny ethical dilemma to resolve. Was it right for me to cut the pages, even if that meant that I would in all probability harm the book, perhaps destroying it? Like any other scholar, I respect the sanctity of the written word. And yet books are meant to be read, aren’t they? If I refrained from reading the book, wasn’t I doing the worst disservice possible to Léon Werth, by not reading a book over which he had labored? After all, I’ve done my own share of writing things no one can be bothered to read; I know how easy, perhaps inevitable, it is for a writer to become invisible. Looking at it from that perspective, I realized that I had no choice. I was compelled to read this book, to rescue it, at least temporarily, from complete obscurity.

Yet I was disturbed by the need to cut the pages, because it seemed somehow like a wanton act of destruction. And so I decided on a compromise of sorts. Though I am not a translator by any means, I can get by (je peux me débrouiller) in French, having majored in it in college some two thousand years ago. The last literary work I had translated was a mere twenty pages of  Mongo Beti’s Ville Cruel, which I had to do back in graduate school, but it was a cold, dark winter, Trump had been elected president, and I had to find something to keep me from succumbing to existential despair. It seemed clear to me that I was called on by some strange cosmic force to translate this novel into English, if only to prove that one person, at least, had read it.

And so I embarked on my translating work. I began some time after Thanksgiving, and each day I translated a few pages. It became a habit as well as a self-imposed duty. I used a cartridge pen (and at least 30 ink cartridges) to write by hand in a spiral notebook, in order to slow down the process of reading just enough to allow me some deliberation about wording. I relied on my very old Harrap’s French-English dictionary, a wonderful bookstand from A+ Bookstand with which to prop it up, a utility knife lent to me by my husband to cut the pages, and a total of three spiral notebooks. I resorted to on-line dictionaries as well when I came across difficult phrases.

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It was only when I was a third of the way through the translation that I began to suspect that no one had ever translated Clavel Soldat into English before. After all, 33 Days had only been translated in the mid 1990s; perhaps this novel had escaped the notice of international readers. I emailed the British Library to see if their copy was in English, as it was listed online; three days later, they emailed me back to say that it was, in fact, in French. At the moment, as I write this blog, I believe that I am the first person to attempt to translate Clavel Soldat into English.

Yesterday, I finished my first round of translating Clavel the Soldier. The task has taught me a great deal, even though I’m not quite sure what I’m supposed to do with the translation (after I’ve done my best to polish it). Through translating Werth’s novel, I’ve obviously learned a lot about World War I. I’ve also picked up a great deal of out-of-the-way information–for example, Peter Kropotkin is now my hero, although I’d never heard of him before. And I’ve learned that our age does not by any means have a corner on the market of despair and cynicism. Most of all, however, I’ve learned about patience, about the art of slinging words together as well as you can to communicate with a reader, and, more important than anything else, about the need to engage in creative acts even during the darkest times, even when you think that you might be the only person in the world who will ever acknowledge or celebrate them.

That’s a lot to take away from one simple winter project. As I said, I’m not sure what will become of my translation of Clavel Soldat, but I am very grateful to have discovered the novel and to have done my part, however fruitless, to bring new readers to it. It has been a humbling but enriching experience, and I look forward to refining the translation in the months to come. After all, winter is over. Spring is just beginning.

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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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A Teaser

Tomorrow, I leave for London on a trip that is mostly for leisure but partly to research my newest novel, as yet untitled, and only two-thirds written. Here is a short preview of that novel, which, a kind of ghost story, is really not much like my first novel, Effie Marten, at all. Take a look, and leave a comment to let me know what you think.

 

Chapter One

I’m not sure when the noises began, or why I first began to pay attention to them. All I know is that one morning, tired and hung-over, I hunched over my cup of coffee, breathing in its bitter odor, regretting the fact that I hadn’t been to the stores to buy any milk, or cream, or even non-dairy creamer, wondering how I would spend my day, when I heard a sigh so sad and plaintive it made me forget my own misery, and I sat up to look around, thinking Andrew hadn’t left yet for work.

“Drew?” I took a sip of the coffee, clenched my teeth at its unaccustomed bitterness, and swallowed. “Is that you?” There was no answer, so I stood up and walked to our tiny bathroom, pulling my robe tight around my nightgown. Flannel alone, I have learned, is not enough to keep out the chill of a January morning in England, especially when one lives in a sprawling mansion that has been converted to flats.

“Are you still here?” I glanced in the bathroom, took a quick peek into the spare bedroom we used as a study, and, cradling my cup in my hand, walked back to the kitchen. “I guess not,” I said aloud. Talking to myself was becoming a habit these days, one that I had not yet grown alarmed about.

I sat back down, set my cup down on the chic black dining table, and rubbed my pounding temples. What could that noise have been? Probably heating pipes or something like that. Back in the States, I’d lived in a variety of places that made sounds: shifting foundations, stiff winds, even small earthquakes could account for a lot of normal creaking household noises. England, too, must have its causes for these things, especially when one considered that everything was about a thousand years older here than in the United States.

Let’s face it, I told myself: there’s no chance at all that this beautiful old building is situated on top of an Indian burial ground, so just forget about it. I nodded, as if I’d said the words aloud, as if someone else had said them to me and I was agreeing with them, and lifted my cup to my lips. Drinking deep, I now welcomed the scalding bitterness of the coffee. It was real, unlike the sound that had set me on edge. It was something that appealed to the senses, something you could count on, something predictable and knowable. I took another sip, thinking that milk would have made the coffee better, but somehow less real. Sometimes, I said out loud, my voice echoing in the empty flat, bitterness was just what you needed to get you going.

 

 

I hadn’t been in England all that long, had been married even less time. My life up to this point had been pretty boring, in fact. A childhood in the suburbs of Houston, Texas. A stint at a large public university, followed by a meltdown of sorts—the usual kind, which consisted largely of wondering what I was doing with my life, how I was going to support myself, an in fact, what the point of life really was—during which I dropped out of school, relinquished my career goals of becoming a history professor, and moved back home in utter desperation. My parents were nice enough about it, but we all knew I couldn’t stay there long, couldn’t keep working as a secretary, no matter how noble (read: underfunded) the non-profit organization I worked for was. The money just wasn’t there, and although I wasn’t greedy by any means, I needed to have enough to live on my own. At 22 years old, I just didn’t want to be living in the bedroom I grew up in. After mulling it over for a year and a half, I decided the only solution was to return to school. It would buy me another year or so while I figured out how to manage the age-old problem: what would I do in order to make ends meet?

So I enrolled in a computer programming school—it wasn’t an academic program, but rather a training school of sorts designed to get people into the workforce quickly—that was located just across the freeway from my house. Actually, it was across several freeways, all of them crowded with SUVs and luxury sedans, it seemed to me, wending their way through traffic to make it to the next soccer game, or board meeting, or shopping trip.

I’d picked computer programming solely because I needed to be sure of getting a job after college. I’d had enough of the nobility of the liberal arts and how they prepared you for life, not work. Maybe if I’d been sure of getting into a fine graduate school and finding the funding to support me, I’d have been less bitter, but I’d spent too much time poring over placement data, and I knew how many history majors were out pounding the pavement looking for work. Many of them were finding it, too: as baristas, and convenience store clerks, and cell phone sales personnel.

But I’d done my research, and all the data suggested that the best field to enter was computer programming, the wave of the future. It had been the wave of the future for three decades now, and apparently was only just now coming into its own. That sounds kind of sketchy to me now, but at the time, I was desperate, and it was good enough for me. I have a good head for languages, and once I convinced myself programming was just another language, it seemed to work. I learned just enough and no more to become barely competent as a programmer, and that only by the end of the training module. Luckily, I had a job offer with a large oil company, which I took immediately, without listening to my conscience—or my heart.

So, by age 26, I finally had my first job and my career all laid out for me. True, I had no real love for what I did, but it was a solid paycheck, it was regular, and it was ample for my needs. All I had to do is make it the next 41 years to retirement, and I was set.

I actually got myself to believe that.

For a few weeks, anyway.

Within two months, I had had to sit myself down and give myself a stern talking to. Listen, Meg, I said. You have just what you’ve been wanting, what you decided you needed in life: a steady paycheck and time left over after the work day to pursue your own interests, whether those interests reside in medieval history, or knitting, or raising miniature pot-bellied pigs. After all, I insisted, it’s ungrateful to be bored, to yearn for something more. It was stupid to think that my work life should be fulfilling in the way that my daydreams dictated they should be. That was in books, in fantasies, in movies or television series, I told myself: real people, women with mothers who were medical transcriptionists and fathers who were accountants, people like that just didn’t get the kind of jobs that make them actually want to get up in the morning and go to work. I told myself to buckle down and settle in for a long ride.

So that’s what I did, and I was pretty much failing miserably at it when I got selected for a personnel training program, which entailed six months of further schooling, culminating with three weeks in Kansas City, all expenses paid.

I jumped at the chance.

True, Kansas City isn’t Las Vegas, or Orlando, or San Francisco. I suppose it’s a measure of my discontent that I was so enthusiastic about going to a place that lacked the glamor of the usual convention cities, but there it is. I enrolled in the training program, attended each class dutifully, learned my trade, and at the end of the six months, packed my bags, dropped my cat and my apartment key off at my parents’ house, and headed to Kansas City, which is where I met Andrew Markham.

How I met Andrew and ended up marrying him is another story altogether.

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My Life with Ernest (Part I)

About three years ago, after watching Julie and Julia and hearing a friend’s account of The Year of Living Biblically, I decided I was up for what I now call a self-induced pointless project, or SIPP for short. You know what I mean: a SIPP is a personal goal of some sort that isn’t based on getting healthy (like losing weight or training for a marathon), being creative (like writing a screenplay), or acquiring a skill (like learning to play piano). It took me a few weeks to figure out what I would take on as my SIPP, and then it came to me in a rush of insight: I would read all of Ernest Hemingway’s works in a year.

Well, of course, it didn’t pan out that way. Other things got in my way. In about the second month of my SIPP, I got completely sidetracked by running for state legislature (otherwise known as a PEPO–a pointless expression of political optimism), and that took up the better part of a year. (How that happened and what I learned during my campaign will become fodder for another post some day, I’m sure.) But now I find that this old SIPP has come back to me, this time in the form of a WIPP (Work-Induced Pointless Project): next fall, I’ll be teaching a class on Ernest Hemingway, and I need to prepare myself for the task. It’s going to be quite a challenge, since I am a Victorian scholar by training, but it’s got to be easier than campaigning for public office, so I’m totally up for it.

So, from time to time, I’ll be posting random musings about Hemingway here at the Tabard Inn.

Back when I first started, I began my quest by reading Jeffrey Meyer’s biography of the writer: Hemingway: A Life. I like reading biographies, but I find them unbearably sad, with their insistence on the heartache of living from day to day, month after month, year after year, until death ends all. (I am perhaps the only viewer who cried while watching De-Lovely, a largely forgettable bio-pic of Cole Porter. Don’t even get me started on La Vie en Rose.) I’ll gladly read a biography of any literary figure–Mary Shelley, Jane Austen, the Brontes–or even of a historical figure, like Elizabeth I. But for me, the Ur-Biography will always be Edgar Johnson’s two-volume biography of Dickens, which a friend from graduate school gave me as a gift many years ago. I’m probably dating myself when I write this, but my view is that no one does it better than Johnson, who mixes biographical facts with literary criticism in a thoughtful blend that makes it all look easy.

Unfortunately, Jeffrey Meyer is no Edgar Johnson; Hemingway: A Life turned out to be somewhat informative, but mostly confusing. Dates bled into each other as I worked my way through the chapters. Important events, such as the death of Hemingway’s grandchild, were glossed over, mentioned only once in passing and never picked up again. Through Meyer’s thorough but difficult-to-read biography, however, I was able to develop a basic sense of the body of Hemingway’s work and the shape of his life; predictably, it is monumentally depressing. Hemingway apparently peaked at a young age and then simply repeated the same old ideas again and again, hoping to hit pay dirt once more. (On the other hand, I did find it consoling to think that there are good things about never really peaking at all.) To make matters worse, Meyer seems downright antagonistic to his subject much of the time, which both surprised and confused me: why write a biography of a man, spending hours and hours on researching his life, if one isn’t simply ape-shit bananas over him? I could not answer this question, not even after finishing Meyer’s book, all 300-plus pages of it.

And where am I now in my quest? I’m steadily plowing through Hemingway’s short stories. And there are some beauties: “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” “Hills Like White Elephants,” “The Capital of the World.” Those are memorable stories, ones that stick in your head for days after you’ve read them. I was less impressed by “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” which seems too much like self-pitying autobiography. And to be honest, I’m bored by many of the Nick Adams stories, despite the fact that I know they have a huge following. My attitude no doubt owes something to my Brooklyn background. I imagine having a conversation with the young, Nick Adams-era Hemingway, entirely one-sided, in which I tell him, “So, Hem, you went fishing. You caught a trout. Maybe you didn’t. You were mean to some girl. Or she was mean to you. So what? Big deal! Life happens—no need to write a story documenting every detail of your life for some poor schlep of a reader. How would you feel if I made you read a story about my trip to the podiatrist? Or if I made you read about my search for some nice, fresh gefilte fish?” Yet I have to point out that during this excursion into Hemingway country, I’ve discovered a story I never knew, one which has become one of my favorites: “A Canary for One.” This story is an interesting exercise in which a first-person narrator suddenly appears halfway through the story, intruding himself and adding a snappy little ending worthy of Saki (H.H. Munro). Somehow–and I’m not sure how–Hemingway makes that one work well. I find myself wishing Hemingway had written more of these tricky little stories, and fewer of the bullfighting, war-time, or fishing stories.

Stay tuned for more posts on Hemingway and his work as I struggle, as usual, to stay one step ahead of my students.

ernest-hemingway-fishing1

Image from the blog Vintage Culture: http://www.vintageculture.net/ernest-hemingway/

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