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How I Became a Writer, Part 3

And now, as promised, the last installment on how I became a writer.

By the time I was in high school I knew I wanted to be a writer. I also knew that I needed to read as much as I could, and, with an older brother in college who evicted me from my bedroom each summer when he came home and left his previous semester’s English syllabi laying around, it was not difficult for me to devise a reading plan to fill out my knowledge of literature. For example, I declared tenth grade the year of the Russian novel; during that year, I read War and Peace, Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov, and The Idiot. It was an ambitious undertaking, and I neglected my math and science classes to achieve it.

But I worked hard at the task I set myself. For example, one day in Band class (I was an underachieving clarinet player), the instructor was going through a piece with the flute section. Earlier that month, I had found a fantastic copy of The Brothers Karamazov–hardbacked, with two columns of print on each page–and I found that it fit perfectly on my music stand.

Usually I would put my sheet music on top of the book to camouflage my reading, but I had reached a really rivetting section (a chapter called “Lacerations”) that morning and I was oblivious to pretty much everything around me. I didn’t realize that Mr. Wren had crept up behind me and was, along with everyone else in the band, watching me read. When I finally realized the entire room was silent, with no flutes playing dissonant notes and no baton clicking out a rhythm on the conductor’s stand, I looked up to see what was going on, and met Mr. Wren’s small blue eyes peering at me. I expected to be duly chastised, but all he said was, “Lacerations? Do I need to send you to the counselor?” Mortified, I shook my head and shoved my book beneath my seat.

This is merely a long-winded way of demonstrating that I was a dedicated reader at a fairly young age. I tried to create a system, a reading method, but when I reached college, I realized how very inadequate my system was. My subsequent years in graduate school were probably an attempt to fill in the gaps of my literary knowledge. That attempt also ended in relative failure. I got a master’s degree and filled in a few of the many gaps left by my undergraduate education, then continued on to the Ph.D. level and filled in a few more. I was still very imperfectly educated in terms of English literature by the time I received my Ph.D., but thankfully education has no definitive endpoint. And if one becomes a generalist, as one must at a community college professor, then one can continue to add to one’s knowledge year after year after year. Even now, some years after retiring, I am still working hard to fill in those gaps.

But of course all this reading derailed me from becoming the writer I had originally planned to be. In other words, the preparatory work I set myself that was designed to make me a good writer eclipsed the desire to write for a great many years. There was, after all, so very much to learn and to read! I decided that if I had to choose between writing and reading, I would opt for reading, because I wanted to know what was out there. I guess you could say that my quest to perfect my knowledge of English literature (certainly an impossible task) has never been anything more than mere nosiness.

I would still pick reading over writing any day. In fact, most days I usually do. There is still so much to read, so many gaps to fill. For me, reading comes first, and it always will. I write to show that I am reading, that I am paying attention to what is out there. In the end, I write not because I love story-telling , but rather because I love the stories we’ve told throughout the ages so much that I cannot keep myself from adding to the ever-growing collection of them that makes up human culture.

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How I Became a Writer, Part 2

As I recall, my first real attempt at critical writing involved a book review of Jack London’s The Sea Wolf, written in third or fourth grade–I’m not sure which. Why did I pick an obscure novel by a largely forgotten American writer? I believe it was because I had read White Fang (or was it The Call of the Wild? or perhaps both?) earlier that year and felt that writing a book review about a book I’d already read seemed to be cheating, so I found another book by Jack London. Perhaps this was my first foray into literary studies. I didn’t really get much from The Sea Wolf, unfortunately. My book review basically argued that London’s use of curse words within the narrative was a distinctive feature of his writing. I have no idea whether or not this is true, never having gone back to read The Call of the Wild, White Fang, or The Sea Wolf again.

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Some more recent critical writing

This was, if I recall, the year I had requested to be allowed to bring in the Bible for independent reading. My request was denied, which was a good thing. Mrs. Cirillo (or was it Mrs. Moss?) was right to curtail my outrageous desire to be a precocious reader. No one who spells the word “universe” with almost every letter of the alphabet, as I did back then, has earned the right to be a waywardly precocious reader. As for writing, we were allowed to make a book that spring, and I chose to write an elegy about my parakeet Dinky, who had dropped dead on Christmas morning. (This, coupled with the fact that during the Easter pageant at my church that year I was chosen to play the donkey that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on, may account for the fact that I later converted to Judaism.) The little book, which I can no longer locate, itself is nothing special, but it may be telling that the “Note About the Author” (written in a pretentious third person) at the end of the book refers to its author’s ardent desire to become a writer.

After this, there was a long spell of forgettable short stories, poems, and other forced writing assignments. But then, in my senior year of high school, I was nominated by my long-suffering English teachers to compete in a nationwide writing contest held by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). The contest had two components: first, a prepared story (mine was some atrocious story about Brian Boru, King of Ireland–even the passage of fifty years cannot erase my shame at having concocted it) sent in ahead of time, and second, an on-demand essay. I remember being pulled out of algebra class on a April morning in 1976, ushered into an empty classroom, given pencil and paper, and losing myself in an essay in which I mused on my relation to my birthplace–Brooklyn, New York–a place I had moved away from some nine years earlier. I also remember that I left the classroom feeling somewhat pleased that I had mentioned my grandmother, who still lived in Brooklyn, noting that she was in fact the last thread that drew me back to my birthplace summer after summer. Somehow, I was surprised but not shocked when, an hour or so after I got home from school that day, my father called to tell me that my grandmother had died that morning. It didn’t take me long to figure out that she had probably died while I was actually writing my essay. (Two days later, I received an Easter card in the mail from Grandma. She always had great timing.)

I won the contest despite my dreadful story about Brian Boru, and was chosen as one of 26 students from Texas to win the NCTE Writing Award in 1977. It wasn’t such a big deal. While it may have helped me get into college, I have to admit that I completely forgot that I’d won such an award until a few years ago, when I was cleaning out some old papers. It came as something of a shock to me to realize that I had been involved with the NCTE years and years before I myself became a teacher of English and a member of that organization.

I have not gone into detail about the short stories I wrote in my high school years, because they are too pedestrian to stand out. Everyone writes those kind of stories. I was, however, quite a letter writer in those days, stealing funny bits from P.G. Wodehouse and other comic writers and inserting them into my letters to my parents and siblings. Below is a letter I found while visiting my mother last year. (Obviously, she recognized my genius–or she decided to save it as evidence that time travel really happens.)

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Once again, I’ve made less progress on this project than I had anticipated. That leaves one more post (I promise–just one more!) to bridge the gap between my young adult and middle age years, and how I postponed my writing career (such as it is) by making a study of literature and becoming a professor of English.

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How I Became a Writer, part 1

I cannot remember a time in my life when I didn’t want to be a writer. Perhaps I didn’t care about writing back when I was too young to understand what being a writer meant–before I’d really learned to read, in those days when, as a young child, I read only the books  that were placed in my willing hands, those rhyming, oddly illustrated children’s books that were so common in the 1960s. It’s quite possible that back then I didn’t have a hankering  to join what I have come to consider the Great Conversation, that I was content to look and pass, not feeling compelled to offer something–some small tidbit at least–to the exchange of stories and ideas that has gone on for centuries now.

My first memory of reading was from the Little Bear books, which my father, an accountant, got by the cartload, since he worked for the publisher (I think?). I am confused about this, however. It’s just as likely that we had a surplus of these books laying around our house. I was the youngest of three children, after all, so it makes sense that children’s books would pile up, and that they would be handed off to me. I don’t remember actually learning to read, but I do remember the laughter that ensued when I tried to sound out “Chicago,” as well as having to struggle with the word “maybe,” which I pronounced incorrectly, with the accent on the “be” and not the “may.”

But these books certainly didn’t enchant me. That would have to wait for some years. In the meantime,  I remember seeing a copy of Julius Caesar on our dining room table, with its cover illustration featuring a lurid, bloody toga attracting more than a mere glance at it, and although I didn’t try to read Shakespeare’s misnamed tragedy, it couldn’t have been mere coincidence that I became enamored of the story of Caesar and Cleopatra, to such an extent that I would wrap myself in striped beach towels and stomp through our Brooklyn duplex declaring, in all seriousness, “I wish to be buried with Mark Anthony.” My elaborately crafted Cleopatra-fantasy imploded, however, when I convinced my second-grade class to put on a short play about Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, and Mark Anthony. (Is it possible that I wrote the play myself? That seems unlikely, but I cannot imagine that many age-suitable plays on that subject were available.) I was over the moon–until I got the news that I was to play Julius Caesar. And that was the end of that fantasy, much to the relief of my family.

The books that did grab my attention were a set of great books that my grandmother had20171225_142442 bought for her two children back in the 1930s: a set of all of Dickens, all of Twain, and some odds-and-ends, such as William M. Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, as well as a full set of encyclopedias. (I still have a few of the Dickens works, but most of the books were destroyed in a flooded warehouse back in the 1990s.) I am sure that my grandmother’s purchase was an investment in wishful thinking: I would swear an oath that neither my uncle nor my father ever read a word of these books. I am equally sure that I, feeling sorry for the books (which is something I still do–and explains why I sometimes check out books from the library that I have no interest in but will read because I think someone should pay them some attention), picked a few of them off the dusty shelf one summer and began to read them. I remember reading, and delighting in, Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad long before I ever read Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn.

As the youngest child in the family, I was frequently left to my own devices, and that was fine with me. But I think I might have been a little lonely, a little too strange for children my own age, and this was something that my parents wouldn’t have noticed, not back in the 1960s and ’70s, when there was less attention placed on the lives of children. So it’s natural that the books became my friends. When I visited my father after my parents got divorced (there was no joint custody back then, which was delightful for me, as it meant that I was able to stay with my father in NYC for a huge swath of the summer vacation), I started reading through the set of Dickens. In doing so, I found a whole new set of friends and family. Even today, when I open a Dickens novel–any Dickens novel–I feel like I am at a family reunion full of quirky, oddball relatives. It is a wonderful feeling.

This oddly rambling blog post is doing a fine job of explaining how I became a reader, but it is completely missing what I set out to do: explain how I became a writer. That, I can see now, will have to wait for another post.

 

 

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Teaching Behind the Lines

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

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

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

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

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

Here is my list:

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

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

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

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Three Things I’ve Learned from Kazuo Ishiguro

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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On Self-Publishing and Why I Do It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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