Tag Archives: literature

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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My Literary Discovery of the Year: Laughing Whitefish

For me, discovering an important book that I’ve overlooked is one of the most pleasurable parts of the reading life.  I used to use the classroom to share my findings with students–who, I’ll admit, for the most part didn’t really care about my discoveries–but now, since I’ve retired, I’m forced to use The Tabard Inn to record them for a posterity which probably doesn’t really exist. That’s ok, because I feel it’s my duty, if not my destiny, to read forgotten books, to encourage these literary wallflowers and buried masterpieces to take their place in the spotlight, so to speak, even if no one is in the audience.

I’ve discovered a number of fine books through having absolutely no discipline in my reading the last few years. But I count Laughing Whitefish, by Robert Traver  (McGraw Hill, 1965), among the most significant of my discoveries. My readers may recognize Robert Traver as the author of the book Anatomy of a Murder, which was made into a racy film starring James Stewart in 1959: the star’s father, believing the film to be immoral, actually took out an advertisement in his paper to ask people not to see it. You can see the unusual trailer for the film below:

Much attention has been given to Anatomy of a Murder, but I’ve seen virtually nothing about Laughing Whitefish, which is actually a great deal more important than Traver’s earlier book. In fact, I will make the claim here that this novel is every bit as important in its way as To Kill a Mockingbird, which was published five years earlier. Laughing Whitefish is based on real events and is based in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula; it takes place in the late nineteenth century and focuses on a lawsuit in which a Native American sues a mining company for breach of contract. Like Lee’s mythic condemnation of the inequalities between blacks and whites in the first half of the twentieth century, Traver’s book addresses the evils done to Native Americans during the settlement of the United States. And it does this in impassioned language. Take, for example, these words spoken by the first-person narrator:

It seems passing strange that we whites in our vast power and arrogance cannot now leave the vanishing remnants of these children of nature with the few things they have left….Can we not relent, for once halt the torment? Must we finally disinherit them from their past and rob them of everything? Can we not, in the name of the God we pray to, now let them alone in peace to live out their lives according to their ancient customs, to worship the gods of their choice, to marry as they will, to bring forth their children, and finally to die? Can we, who for centuries have treated the Indians as dogs, only now treat them as equals when they dare seek relief from injustice in our courts?….I am the first to concede that whatever you may decide here will be but a passing footnote in the long history of jurisprudence, that the pittance we are jousting over is but a minor backstairs pilfering in the grand larceny of a continent. (202)

These are difficult words for a white person to read, but I believe it is important for every American to read them, because they present the situation as clearly as Harper Lee did in To Kill a Mockingbird. The question is, why is it that we know Lee’s work, but not Traver’s? I would suggest that Laughing Whitefish be made required reading in public schools, because it is just as important a book as To Kill a Mockingbird.

No one has a monopoly on misery in this country. But the first step in solving a problem is admitting it exists. The second step is exploring its origins. What a different world we might be living in today if, instead of making a film of Anatomy of a Murder, Otto Preminger had made one of Laughing Whitefish.

 

 

 

 

 

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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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Some Thoughts on Anna Karenina

Image from Wikimedia

Image from Wikimedia

One thing I’m looking forward to doing as a retiree is reading anything I like, whenever I like. I do a good deal of reading, and to be honest, I began this free-wheeling practice in my reading several years ago: in this way, I have made some very rewarding discoveries. I’ve read several of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels, and I am particularly grateful for this discovery, since I consider him a very fine novelist. I’ve read some of Jane Gardam’s works, and Laurie Lee’s memoir Cider with Rosie, and, in an effort not to focus exclusively on British writers, I picked up Mind of Winter by Laura Kasischke, and was disappointed in its narrative trickery. All of these books are firmly outside the realm of 18th and 19th century British novels (my area of specialization), which is the point–now I have the time to read indiscriminately, pointlessly. It’s the readerly equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet, and, before I settle into a routine in my retirement, I intend to gorge myself with shameless abandon.

Even before the end of the semester several weeks ago, I began Anna Karenina, a serious undertaking. I am not sure I would have had the heart to begin the task if I had read a hard copy of the book, but I read it on my Kindle, which mercifully disguises the real length of a work, and instead provides you with a virtual pep talk by showing you how much of the novel  you have read. At any rate, I was 73% of the way through the novel before I decided that it was, indeed, a great novel, perhaps one of the ten greatest novels (a list that will undoubtedly become a future post). Here are a few disjointed thoughts about the work, in a format that proves that Buzzfeed and Clickhole have corrupted even those of us who are trying to create serious criticism.

  • The novel is misnamed. Like many of Shakespeare’s plays (another future post), the novel is not primarily about Anna Karenina; it is just as much about, and in my view, much more about, Konstantin Levin. Perhaps this is a result of Tolstoy’s manner of writing the novel: like Dickens’s great works, it was published as a serial novel in a magazine. I have often compared this form of writing to jazz improvisation. There is a fundamental line of melody, a basic story or plot, but the musician/writer is allowed, even expected, to riff on this line. In some cases–Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop is a good example–the basic plot becomes much less interesting than one of the improvised riffs (yet another future post). I would argue that Anna becomes somewhat less interesting than Levin, perhaps because her trajectory is more predictable.
  • Why is Anna’s path so much more predictable than Levin’s? It’s because Tolstoy is heavy-handed on the symbolism. From the moment Vronsky and Anna meet, there are clues to what will happen: the death of the worker who is crushed by the train occurs at their first, sexually charged meeting, after all, and the race in which Vronsky loses his favorite horse is rife with foreshadowing. This lacks subtlety, of course, but I can forgive Tolstoy because of the time in which he wrote, since subtlety is clearly an acquired taste and will wait for post-modernism to develop fully. At any rate, we can see where Anna is going–there is only one outcome for her, after all–but Levin’s story is full of questions. Will he marry Kitty after all? Will their marriage survive the early days of learning to live with each other? Will Kitty die in childbirth? How will he react to being a parent? All of these questions drive us forward in the novel, wanting to know the answers. With Anna, on the other hand, we know that disaster awaits her, and we cannot resist watching it unfold, waiting for the train wreck (forgive the pun) to happen.
  • The link between the two plot lines is the story of Stepan Oblonsky’s infidelities. Tolstoy is able to create a round character out of Stepan, however, and he becomes more than a simple plot link. This is a testament to his ability to tell the story in an artistic, yet natural, way. Perhaps this is what I admire most about Anna Karenina: the ease with which Tolstoy connects his stories, the balance he creates between them, allowing him to hold up Anna’s final view of the world as the opposite of Levin’s. She sees the world as hateful and dark, while Levin, in the final chapters of the novel, sees it as bright with possibility, with a  spiritual  and philosophical generosity that outshines the darkness of Anna’s end.
  • The portraits of marriage and relationships that Tolstoy creates in the novel are excellent. From Kitty and Kostya’s difficulties in the first months of marriage to Vronsky and Anna’s descent into something like hatred for each other, Tolstoy works from life. I last read this novel when I was a teenager, some forty years ago, before marriage. I wish now that I had read it several times since then, because I think it might have helped me. Somewhere I once heard about a person–I forget who–who reads Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa every year. I don’t think I could handle reading Anna Karenina on a yearly basis, but maybe reading it every decade would have been a good idea.
  • Finally, one last note: I admire the deft way in which Tolstoy can express contemporary views and existential questions through the internal discourse of his characters. This is something that Hemingway tries to do in For Whom the Bell Tolls with much less success; in fact, that novel basically fails, in my view, at the point when Robert Jordan muses on the political questions and disharmonies he’s witnessed. Hemingway just cannot pull it off, but Tolstoy can. For this reason alone, Anna Karenina is worth reading. While it may not be subtle as far as the use of foreshadowing goes, it is quite subtle in its representation of the universal and local questions of the day.

These are just a few thoughts about the novel as I adjust to retirement. All of which just goes to show you: old teachers don’t stop lecturing. They just start writing.

 

My new feline friend, named Leo Tolstoy

My new feline friend, named Leo Tolstoy

 

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On Mondegreens and Willful Misunderstandings

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia–Lucy the Australopithecus 

Once in a while, I hear about a new movie that I really want to see. It doesn’t happen often, because I really prefer old movies to new ones; I’m happiest when watching a movie from the 1930s or ’40s, and it takes a bit of gumption for me to sit down to watch a movie in color–a fact that really throws my students for a loop. Action and superhero movies bore me, and I usually end up falling asleep during them, or checking my wristwatch several times throughout the film.

But once in a rare while, I hear about a movie that really sounds interesting. The operative word here is “hear”: what I really do is hear the title, then ignore the movie’s description and single-handedly create a movie that I’d really want to see. The most recent example is the film Lucy, starring Scarlett Johansson. Now, a very quick internet search brings you to the official site, but that’s not the movie I envisioned when I heard the title. Somehow, I decided this movie was going to be about the discovery of Lucy, the hominid remains that shook up the world of anthropology in the 1970s. I created an entire plot in my head, which, while shadowy and only partially formed, revolves around archeologists. It’s set in the dry, dusty plains of Africa, where the drama emerged from a slow process of discovery, perhaps involving scholarly rivalry and personal conflicts, and maybe even a love story. This Lucy is, in my warped view, a recipe for a wonderful film, and every time I bump into the real film’s advertisements, I find myself quickly dismissing them, overwhelmed by a sense of ineffable disappointment.

Years ago, I did the same thing with the film Glengarry Glen Ross, which I decided was a film about Americans on a fishing trip to Scotland. It was a little like Deliverance, without the violence; perhaps it would be better to say that my sense of the film was that it was like Brigadoon, minus the magic and the music. Apparently, I couldn’t be further off in my characterization of the film.

I think we need a word to describe this type of willful misunderstanding, where, like Wordsworth in his poem Tintern Abbey, we encounter films which we “half create” (line 106) making unique alternative-reality films that exist only in our own minds. After all, because these alternative films arise from a misunderstanding, they’re not that much different from a mondegreen–a misunderstood song lyric, and there’s a whole slew of websites devoted to them. (You can read about them here and here.) Everyone has a mondegreen story to tell, usually involving a small child. For example, my daughter asked me, when she was five years old, why, in the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” the lamb’s fleas were white as snow, since the fleas on our little Sheltie were definitely black. Was it a different kind of flea? Or were Geordie’s fleas simply dirty?

At any rate, this topic has me thinking about the ways we misunderstand the things we hear about, and, because I deal with the written word so much, the things we read. Don’t worry–I’m not going to launch into a critical essay (though I am tempted to talk about Much Ado about Nothing, a Shakespeare play that focuses on the way we misread people and texts). Instead, I’m going to bring up a memory from my early childhood. My parents, in an apparent effort to provide their three children an introduction to the great books, bought us a volume of stories entitled something like “Great Stories of the World.” In this volume was a short synopsis of myths and legends mixed helter skelter, arranged with no attention to provenance or significance. Thus Beowulf, the first story in the book, was followed by an adventure involving Pecos Bill. I probably never made it past these two stories, which is why, as a graduate student studying Old English, I always felt I was missing something–until I realized that I was waiting for Pecos Bill to come in at the end of  Beowulf and slay the dragon, saving Beowulf and giving him a ride back to his mead-hall on a cyclone.

I’m not sure whether other readers have this experience, but I do remember a fellow graduate student explaining that, like most of us Victorianists, she had seen the movie Oliver! well before she ever read the novel. During the movie, she explained, after Bill Sykes beats Nancy so savagely, she watched, transfixed, and noticed that although Nancy’s body is obscured behind a wall, she could detect her leg moving–and so as a small child, she decided that Nancy was not dead. Wounded, perhaps severely, but not dead. That impression, she explained, held sway each time she re-read the novel, and she had trouble convincing herself that Nancy had indeed been killed by her vicious boyfriend.

So I issue a call to readers–two calls, in fact. Have you ever misunderstood something in a film or a book and preferred your misunderstanding to the reality? And, if so, do you have a suggestion for what to call this situation? I look forward to your responses!


 

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On Mermaids, Hobbits, Dwarves, and Trolls

J  R  R Tolkien

JRR Tolkien, from wikipedia.org

Today is Tolkien Reading Day, so I’m going to talk a bit about The Hobbit, which is much more–and much less–than it appears to be. Obviously it’s Bilbo’s journey to the Lonely Mountain to defeat Smaug the dragon—he goes, as the subtitle tells us, both there and back again—but on the way he finds himself, or rather, a version of himself he never knew existed: a courageous little hobbit who gambles with a fortune he really has no claim to, and he manages to survive it all. He grows in several ways, so in The Hobbit, we see the development of a hero. But there are a few things in the novel that I find frustrating, and one in particular, so forgive me if I take the opportunity to get this off my chest.

I’m going to begin by referring, as Barbara Bush did in her extremely successful commencement speech at Wellesley in 1990, to a now famous story from Robert Fulghum’s book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. You’ve probably heard it before: Fulghum is leading a group of children who are playing the game “Giants, Wizards, or Dwarfs” – a life-size version of Rock, Paper, Scissors. The children are instructed to choose what they will be in the game and then go stand with their peers. As they make their choices, a little girl walks up to Fulghum, taps him on the elbow, and asks, “Where do the Mermaids stand?” When Fulghum informs the girl that there are no Mermaids in the game, she surprises him by replying, “Oh yes, there are. I am one!”

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A Mermaid, John William Waterhouse, 1901 From wikipedia.org

Both Fulghum, and later Bush, use this story to celebrate the independence and creativity of a little girl who refuses to be categorized, who thinks outside of the box, even though any teacher could tell you that this girl, charming as she is in the story, will probably cause quite a few headaches for those around her as she grows older. But what Fulghum’s and Bush’s story both seem to miss is that among Giants, Wizards, and Dwarves, there are no female roles. I mean, what’s a girl to do when faced with a game like this, after all? Mermaids do seem like the only option.

I bring this up because we have pretty much the same problem in The Hobbit. I’ve read it many times now, and yet I know a lot of people who have never read the book, or who have started it and never made it through. I’m beginning to think I know why: at least one reason may be because there aren’t any women in the book. None. Bilbo’s mother, Belladonna Took, is mentioned within the first few pages of the novel, but only as a conduit for some adventurous Tookish blood to make it into her son’s prosaic make-up.

So, in the absence of women, what do we do, those of us who are women readers? In other words, if this is a world where there are only hobbits, dwarves, elves, and wizards, and none of them are women, then where in Middle Earth are we supposed to stand? Given this problem, it’s kind of surprising that any women read the novel at all. The really remarkable thing about The Hobbit, then, isn’t how many people haven’t read it, but how many people have.

I wanted to explore this lack of female representation, coming from my frustrating foray into Western films last week. To begin with, I think I can tell you where Tolkien’s lack of women characters originates—it’s pretty easy to see, and it isn’t from Tolkien’s personal life. The fact is, Tolkien was really an anachronism, writing in 1937. By this I mean that he may have been writing a children’s story, but he was borrowing heavily from his area of professional expertise: Old English literature. In The Hobbit, we see a riddle game (The Exeter Book, written in Old English, contains close to 100 riddles, and Tolkien, as a professor of Anglo Saxon, would have known these intimately). We also see elements that are clearly borrowed from Tolkien’s great, lifelong, passion: Beowulf; in fact, as you can read here, Tolkien’s 1926 translation of Beowulf is set to be published for the first time in a couple of months. Like The Hobbit, Beowulf has a dragon, a thief who provokes the dragon, several monsters to kill, and very few women. Beowulf doesn’t concern itself with women; they come into the story, more frequently than in The Hobbit, but they don’t really achieve much, and they don’t stay long. For the most part, it seems women just weren’t considered worth writing about in Old English.

Another way of looking at it is to say that it’s not that women are excluded from The Hobbit: it’s just that they’re not represented. There’s a subtle difference here, actually. The default gender in The Hobbit is male; Tolkien is not interested in the relationship between the sexes, because this story is for children, and sex—as we all know—is not for children. (Or is it? Tell that to Disney, which thrives on marketing sex for children—a mostly sanitized version of sex, but sex nonetheless). Tolkien was clearly looking for a purer form of escape than Disney ever did, however, and he purged his created world of sex in the crudest way possible: by eliminating women from the story completely.

So, to sum up my point so far, in this children’s story that repudiates gender relationships (goodness knows Tolkien has all he can handle negotiating the relationships between the elves, dwarves, men, and goblins in The Hobbit), we have virtually no female characters. But is this really a problem for female readers? Strangely enough, I’d say not really: it might be a problem for very young female readers, but for the most part, women learn pretty quickly in their reading experience not to expect books that highlight the female point of view. For every Jane Eyre, there are five David Copperfields. True, these days young adult literature is changing and there are so many more books written from the point of view of girls—but this is a recent development. Back when I went to school we had to read A Separate Peace and Lord of the Flies—and neither book has any active female characters. It’s no wonder I wasn’t crazy about my high school English classes.

Thankfully, children’s literature has changed, but The Hobbit hasn’t. It persists in the intentionally gender-free (that is, male) world Tolkien created, and its female readers have to do a great deal of work to identify with the characters in the story. We’re probably not even aware that we are doing this work, either. Like many other things we do, it comes naturally to us now—this ideological cross-dressing we do so well in so many parts of our lives. When we read, women often think like men, not because we want to, but because we have to in order to enter the text.

Hobbit_cover

Image from wikipedia.org

This may sound like a criticism of Tolkien, and perhaps it is, but I think there is good to be gained from reading The Hobbit. First, readers need to notice what isn’t in a text as well as what is in it. If we want to gain from our reading practice and return to our world richer from the experience of reading—which is the only justifiable excuse for reading as much as I do, then we need to see what’s been left out of a story to make it work. (This is basic deconstruction, left over from the 1980s, but it still holds true today.) Second, noting the lack of women in The Hobbit shows us just how powerful a reader’s mind is, in that woman have been able to read, study, and enjoy the book for over 80 years now despite the fact that we’re not represented in it. Third, it’s possible that women readers appreciate The Hobbit precisely because there are no women in the story, as a form of fantasy escape—especially if you have a household full of teenage daughters.

Mostly, though, I want to point out that Tolkien, for all his talent and imagination, went just so far and no further in his creative work. Unwilling to deal with gender issues in his story, he simply avoided them by omitting women completely. Can we say that his friend C.S. Lewis did any better? Not in his space trilogy, and many readers would argue he did even worse in The Chronicles of Narnia (the problem of Susan). But late in life, Lewis engendered a world that turns on a woman’s perspective in a book that should satisfy the demands of any long-neglected female reader: Till We Have Faces, told from the point of view of a woman. It makes me wish that Tolkien and Lewis hadn’t drifted apart, because I’m convinced that Tolkien could have learned a thing or two from his friend Jack if he’d only been willing to listen to him.

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The Educated Imagination, part 2

I’m doing a lot of what I call “little writing” these days, probably as a diversion from the bigger task that I should be engaged in–revising an early novel in order to make it publishable. This revision is something that I used to think would happen, if it happened at all, at the request of a publisher/editor. But in light of the decision I’ve made to use Kindle and CreateSpace publishing and sell through Amazon, I need to submit all my work to rigorous self-editing. And so, instead of buckling down and doing this work, which is daunting even to me, a hardened writing teacher, I’m pretty much wasting time by playing around with literary theory–and not even current literary theory, but decades-old theory that no one reads anymore.

It’s the writerly equivalent of cleaning the refrigerator: tumblr_l6ooy56juF1qctkclit takes up time, it’s not completely self-indulgent, and it postpones the moment that you have to sit down and actually write. Like cleaning the refrigerator, no one ever thanks you for what you’re doing, but you feel good about it afterwards.

So here’s the second part of my analysis/review of Northrop Frye’s excellent little book The Educated Imagination, which I put in the same category as C.S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism. I have only a couple of things to point out, the first of which is based on this statement by Frye:

“The fundamental job of the imagination in ordinary life, then, is to produce, out of the society we have to live in, a vision of the society we want to live in. Obviously that can’t be a separated society, so we have to understand how to relate the two.”

This is a rich statement, one which could be examined in the light of desire (for example, “I don’t want to live in 21st-century America; I would rather live in Georgian England, which is why I’m reading this Regency romance”). It could also be examined with a view towards social change (what might have been called, in Frye’s day, “social improvement”), in which we readers are charged with the task of identifying problems in our society or culture and addressing them. But I think the key phrase is this: “we have to understand how to relate the two.” So let me focus on this for a moment in the next paragraph, because I think this is where our society–anti-intellectual as it is–falls very short in the way it addresses literature.

Let’s take a topically popular example of literature: the Game of Thrones series. Many people find it entertaining. I won’t discuss its relative merits or shortfalls, but I will point out that the problem with our consumer culture is that we simply imbibe the story, then file it away. Oh, we might talk about the “Red Wedding” episode at the water cooler (read: Facebook) on Monday morning, but we don’t really stop to figure out how this story, with these characters, and this particular plot, actually fits into the lives we have to lead. My theory is this: when literature is separated from its intrinsic value, when it exists purely as commodity (how many people can we get to buy this book?), it becomes separated from the question of how to relate what we read into how we live. Thus our activity becomes purely escapist reading, which I am not entirely condemning. However, I’d argue that anything we read in this way–be it The Hunger Games or Othello, will lose a great deal of its value. When we consume works simply to be entertained, it’s much like putting filet mignon into a smoothie solely for its protein value or mixing a Taittinger champagne in a wine spritzer. In other words, we lose the real value of the thing in by failing to give it the proper attention. Our culture today encourages this kind of activity, however, and it’s up to us, the serious readers out there, to guard against this tendency.

Frye saves his best statement for the final few pages of the book, a statement that must have sounded as conservative when it was written in the 1960s as it does today, but one which really bears some close consideration:

You see, freedom has nothing to do with lack of training; it can only be the product of training. You’re not free to move unless you’ve learned to walk, and not free to play the piano unless you practice. Nobody is capable of free speech unless he knows how to use language, and such knowledge is not a gift; it has to be learned and worked at…. For most of us, free speech is cultivated speech, but cultivating speech is not just a skill, like playing chess. You can’t cultivate speech, beyond a certain point, unless you have something to say, and the basis of what you have to say is your vision of society.

Frye has got it exactly right: too many people claim their right to free speech without adding anything valuable to our culture and our society. We see this in the political world all the time; pundits, politicians, and, in recent years, media commentators insist on their right to free speech while saying nothing of value. We know this, because no real dialogue ever takes place. In 25 years of being involved in higher education, I’ve never seen a better explanation for the value of education. Frye’s point is this: in order to participate fully in our grand experiment of democracy, we must train ourselves to the task. Yet this training takes time, dedication, and a sense of responsibility, which are things we seem to be short of these days.

So we’ve reached the end of my brief analysis of Northrop Frye’s The Educated Imagination. Next week, I’ll take a look a break from this heavy intellectual stuff and discuss a few films that, despite my best intentions, I was unable to get through. Please check back then!

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On Rediscovering Forgotten Books: Northrop Frye’s The Educated Imagination

A couple of years ago, one of my colleagues retired and began cleaning out his office. He had a stack of books on the floor beside his desk, and he invited me over to claim first dibs on any of the books I wanted. Because I teach English and Speech at a community college, taking any of these books, which were clearly left over from my friend’s days in graduate school (back in the late 1960s, I’m guessing) was a monumental indulgence for me: I knew I would not be using them in my composition or speech classes. But I’m a sucker for homeless dogs and books, as I have mentioned in an earlier post, and so I took about ten of them and found places for them on my crowded bookshelves.

One of these books is a small volume called The Educated Imagination, by Northrop Frye. I’m not sure why I picked it out, but it’s probably because I remembered reading Northrop Frye during my own grad school days (late 1980s). Frye is famous for creating archetypal criticism; before there was Joseph Campbell, in other words, there was Northrop Frye. I had never heard of this book, however, and picked it up on a whim.

I didn’t open the book for about a year and a half, but about two months ago, I began to read it. It’s actually a wonderful series of essays. The Preface tells us that it was originally a series of radio programs.
Here’s the really interesting part: the series was called “The Massey Lectures” in honor of a former Governor-General of Canada. That’s pretty cool in and of itself, but because my mind is a magnet for largely unimportant information, I know that The Right Honorable Vincent Massey may have been an important lawyer, diplomat, and Canadian statesman, but he was also the older brother of Raymond Massey–that’s right, the actor who played Lincoln before Daniel Day-Lewis did. masseyThe Masseys were one of the most influential families in Toronto, partly because they owned Massey-Ferguson Tractors. This is all, as I said, largely unimportant, but it does provide some colorful background information for the book.

Here’s a sample of the kind of wisdom that appears quite plainly on the pages of The Educated Imagination. In the second chapter, called “The Singing School” (taken from William Butler Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium“) Frye explains that literature is a tool for both self-discovery and escapism–at the very same time–although these two things seem to be the opposite of each other: how can one discover one’s place in society while one is actively engaged in forgetting that place by looking at society from the distancing prism of literature? Yet, Frye implies, this double duty is one of the most important functions performed by literature.

However, in the next chapter, called “Giants in Time,” Frye seems to correct his earlier statement by saying that literature is not really escapist after all: “Literature,” he tells us, “does not reflect life, but it doesn’t escape from life or withdraw from life either; it swallows it. And it won’t stop until it’s swallowed everything…. If even time, the enemy of all living things, and to poets, at least, the most hated and feared of all tyrants, can be broken down by the imagination, anything can be.” I had to stop and re-read that statement several times, because for me, a scholar/critic/theorist/writer, this is a ground-breaking idea. Think about it: we writers don’t read or write to escape from life. Rather, we read stories and write stories because we want more of life. We engage in these activities not because we want to escape from life, but because we want to gorge ourselves on life itself. Like No-Face in Hiyao Miyazaki’s film Spirited Away, we want to swallow it all–stories, cultures, history, even time itself–in order to be part of the great conversation that is life as we know it. Spirited_Away__colored__by_DarkKenjie

That is a powerful idea, and one worth pausing over. I’ll be back in a couple of days with a few more comments on the second half of this important and overlooked book.

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Why Bookstores Might Be the Enemy

Here’s an interesting tidbit I’ve discovered about myself: while I love libraries, I don’t like bookstores. And yet I should adore bookstores, since my professional life is based on reading (I’m an English professor) and since I read incessantly. In fact, one of my favorite cocktail party questions is this: If you had to choose between never writing another word or never reading another book, which would you choose? Most of my friends choose the former: for them, writing is of paramount importance. They hesitate a bit when making their choice, it’s true. But for me, there is no hesitation, because there is no choice: it’s far more important for me to read than to write.

And so I should love bookstores; after all, when I’m in one, I’m surrounded by what I love. But that’s not the case. The truth is, I never leave bookstores filled with satisfaction and pleasure, even when I buy an armload of much-desired books. It’s only recently dawned on me, in fact, that I must not really like bookstores at all, because I often leave them feeling depressed and anxious. Once I realized this, however, it didn’t take me long to figure out why.

Let me stop for a moment and explain that I do in fact love libraries. I can sniff them out in a town I’ve never been before and locate them (despite the fact that I have a deplorable sense of direction) with as much ease as a Ring-wraith sniffs out Frodo when he’s carrying the Ring. And once inside a library, I especially love checking out old, forlorn copies of books that no one reads anymore.

So what is the difference between libraries and bookstores?

It’s an easy question: the answer is money. Libraries need money to run, of course, but they don’t make money off the books they lend. That’s why I never mind paying late fees–and I’ve had some whoppers–to libraries for the books I’ve checked out. On the other hand, bookstores make money off of books; they turn books into commodities. For me, that’s an ugly process, one that I abhor. That’s one reason I won’t proclaim–here or anywhere else–my love of books or brag about how many books I have. (I will brag about the lonely orphans of second-hand books I have occasionally brought home, however, and kept close to me through the years: The Complete Works and Letters of Charles Lamb, the poor, neglected thing, and a 1963 edition of Waverley with cute colored-pencil illustrations).

And so, from now on, to get a sense of peace, of timelessness and of the pleasure that comes of these things, it’s the library I’ll be heading to, not my local independent bookstore. And when I hear the local bookstore tout itself as a mainstay of culture in my community, I’ll be thinking about the unpleasant nature of the publishing industry, the difficulty encountered by writers of all varieties and talent levels, and the intense competition for attention waged by all of the above entities. I’ll disappear into the stacks, turn up yet another unloved copy of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and I’ll remember that bookstores themselves might just be the enemy of all writers and readers who truly love books.

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