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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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The Art of Reading

 

The Library by Elizabeth Shippen Green, from https://thesleeplessreader.com/about/fellow-readers-favorite-paintings-of-women-reading/

The Library by Elizabeth Shippen Green   Image from The Sleepless Reader blog

 

“I sometimes think that good readers are poets as singular, and as awesome, as great authors themselves.”  –Jorge Luis Borges

 

“In short, reading is directed creation.” –Jean-Paul Sartre

As the number of blogs and podcasts about writing multiply with Malthusian abandon, overpopulating our digital feeds, the topic of reading seems much less popular these days. Of course, there are the articles published in the various newspapers and magazines stating that science bears out what every English teacher has always suspected: the act of reading makes us more sympathetic and thus better people. (You can read articles of this kind here and here and here.) But are these articles enough to make us better, more serious, “literary” readers?

Apparently not. And the reason is simple: the creation of better human beings is not the sum-total of what reading offers us. In other words, reading literature is too important an activity to engage in just because it might make us better or more moral people.

That might seem an incendiary statement, but I don’t mean it as one. In fact, I am echoing C.S. Lewis, who wrote in his short book An Experiment in Criticism, published in 1961 and thus one of the last things he wrote, “I have rejected the view that literature is to be valued (a) for telling us truths about life, (b) as an aid to culture. I have also said that, while we read, we must treat the reception of the work we are reading as an end in itself.” But this, he has said earlier, is precisely what most readers simply cannot do.

In this book Lewis theorizes that there are two kinds of readers: the unliterary readers (whom he calls “users“), and the literary readers (whom he calls “receivers.” Users tend to, well, use books to achieve a desired end: entertainment, escapism, gathering information. In fact, it’s not too far-fetched to theorize that the epidemic rise of unreliable news is due to the fact that there are too many users in our society and not enough receivers. According to Lewis, “the most unliterary reader of all sticks to ‘the news.’ He reads daily, with unwearied relish, how, in some place he has never seen, under circumstances which never become quite clear, someone he doesn’t know has married, rescued, robbed, raped, or murdered someone else he doesn’t know.” It’s just possible that these readers and the demand they place on profit-seeking media are skewing the type of reading that is available to us, leaving receiving readers out in the cold and clogging up our news feeds with sensationalist tripe. These users, Lewis might say, would be better off reading mystery, spy, or some other kind of thrilling novels, but their desire for “the news” precludes them from doing so.

Receivers, those who read in a literary way, exert their critical and imaginative faculties to treat the book as an end in itself, not as a link in a chain leading to a desired end. They give themselves fully to the experience of reading. As Lewis says, those of us who want to be receiving readers “must empty our minds and lay ourselves open.” Such readers, few though they may be, can change the way they see things, and in this way, they can help to change the world itself.

Yet the idea that reading makes us better people puts the whole activity of literary reading at risk, co-opting it for some kind of greater, communal good, which is in my view putting the cart before the horse. In other words, reading may be good for human beings, but it certainly won’t be if reading is relegated to the role of making good human beings. This kind of utilitarian advocacy of reading is dangerous. We have already lost so much to utilitarian ideas. In our universities, composition classes have been usurped to create students who can write discipline-specific reports and papers, not essays that allow for exploration and expression. In fact, college itself has become a mere step in the path to obtaining a good job (with the irony that going to college does not necessarily lead to a good job and almost certainly leads to the acquisition of debt). And of course there are those who argue that art must have a political dimension to be relevant. So many intellectual and artistic activities have already been offered up on the altar of utilitarianism. Must we really give up the act of reading, too?

My point is this: only in pursuing these activities in and of themselves–for example, in reading for the sake of reading, in educating oneself for the sake of being an educated person, in painting in order to depict the world, whatever shape it takes–only by doing these things freely, without the thought of some added benefit, can we engage in truly imaginative activities. We should be far beyond the point of saying that reading is good for us, that it makes us better human beings. That’s the kind of thinking that went out of fashion with the death of Jeremy Bentham (whose embalmed body presides over University College London). Instead, we should be asking ourselves this: how do we become better readers? And perhaps more importantly, how do we turn using readers into receiving readers?

Reading is something of a holy act when we do it freely, because it marries the ability to sound out words with the use of our intellect and our imagination, connecting us with the past and propelling us into the future. As Sartre says, “reading is a pact of generosity between author and reader. Each one trusts the other; each one counts on the other, demands of the other as much as he demands of himself.” Reading, as Borges says above, is its own art form. If we acknowledged this, we would be much less tempted to assign it additional value; reading would be enough in and of itself.

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Making Art in Troubled Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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Postscript to Previous Post

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

Tolkien, the story goes, wrote the first words of The Hobbit in the pages of a student examination blue book. He had been grading examinations as a form of part-time work, and, exhausted by the monotony of the task, he celebrated his discovery of a blank page in the book, untouched by the student’s ink, by writing the words “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

I am far luckier than Tolkien. I received the following essay from a student (who gave me permission to post it here) as a final exam. It is a lovely way to end my final semester at the community college where I teach. Thank you, Cari Griffin, for summing up my attitude towards the study of literature in such a humorous and appropriate way. Indeed, I am a very lucky teacher. After all, a doctor is only as good as his or her companions.

 

 

27 April 2015

“Doctor” Shumway:

For nearly two years, I have been your companion as we have traveled through space and time. Your Tardis is not a blue Police box; it is your classroom, and you are “The Doctor”; a madwoman with a YouTube account. Though there was never a fez involved, exploring foreign lands, examining history, and best of all, discussing literature has allowed for, myself, at least, great understanding of the space-time continuum as it pertains to the literary world.

There can be no question that our travels, having begun in September of 2013, frequently took us to England. I think we can both agree, it is our favorite stop. Whether it has been a visit with the Anglo-Saxons, an exploration of medieval England, several visits with our favorite playwright, William Shakespeare, or an extensive amount of time spent in 19th century Great Britain, each visit afforded us an opportunity to see British history and its inhabitants in a new way. We lacked only our tea while we observed an Abbey, paid a visit to Thornfield Hall, or grasped the devastation of World War I.

We were not always in England. We’ve been to France with a philosopher, to Spain within American, and Germany to witness the beginning of the Romantic Movement. We saw 17th century Turkey through the eyes of an English woman, visited Japan at the turn of the 20th century, and briefly stopped in Imperial Russia. The authors we have covered acted as conductors, providing the means for us to travel. Their voices allowed us to see into their worlds, to spend time in their society, to have a momentary glimpse of a fixed point in time. We have seen revolutions, oppression, and inequality in many of the places we have visited, but always, the voices of those authors who have guided us cried out for equality, rallied for peace, and asked us to question, alongside them, our purpose within our community, our country, and our society, just as they did the same in theirs. Together, on our journey, we have celebrated the individual, applauded the growth of the female author, recognized brilliance, and felt the influence of those long ago voices within our modern society.

It was not just the authors that we met. We examined the world around them. We studied the era in which they lived: we viewed their art, heard their music, and, ultimately, questioned the validity of their place within the literary canon. Perhaps we did not always embrace them as friends, but we did not leave as foes. No. Our relationship with these authors, however brief, brought us a little closer to our fellow man, allowed us see into his or her own world through their eyes, and, to realize they are very much like us, though they lived in a far different world than the one we inhabit now.

As our journey nears its end, you ask, “why?” I interpret this as, “why take the journey? “My answer is quite simply this: we must. For anything less than a madman in a blue box landing in our backyard, we have no other way to reach across time and space, to look at a moment in man’s history, and have an opportunity to see that moment through a different set of eyes. Yes, Doctor Shumway, literature is our Tardis through space and time. We have an obligation to not only understand our place within our own culture, in history, but our fellow man’s place and his culture as well. After all, “We’re all stories, in the end” (The Eleventh Doctor).

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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

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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.

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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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Star Trek ,The Prime Directive, and Literary Studies

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For the past few months, I’ve been undertaking my own private, systematic study of Star Trek–not the movies, or the Next Generation, or any of other spin-offs, but the original series. It began as a way to lure me into mundane chores, like ironing, during which I would watch the first few episodes; then it morphed into a means of occupying my mind while pedaling an exercise bike. I’m happy to report that in the last couple of months I’ve lost about ten pounds, more or less, as I pedaled my way through various adventures with Mr. Spock, Captain Kirk, Lieutenants Uhura and Sulu, Lieutenant Commander Scott, and the irascible Dr. McCoy.

I’ve learned a couple of things during this rather pointless but driven exercise. First, and most surprising, even those of us who were alive in the ’60s, we who remember the first-run reruns of the series, have seen far fewer episodes than we think we have. Oh, sure, we all remember “The Trouble with Tribbles,” but do we remember the episode in which Spock has to answer a call of nature (i.e., a mating ritual–which is to say he goes into a terrifying version of Vulcan rutting season) and nearly kills Kirk? Do we remember the first episode in which the famous Vulcan mind meld was ever used (“The Devil in the Dark,” Episode 26 of the first season)?

And what about the Prime Directive–a concept so compelling that it informs each iteration of Star Trek?

You can look up the Prime Directive in Wikipedia, and you’ll get a nice informative take on it there. In fact, if that’s what you want, you should probably stop reading this now and hop on over to it. While you might get a more systematic understanding of the concept there, you would miss my attempt to connect The Prime Directive with literature and writing, so I’m hoping you’ll stick it out for the rest of this post.

What I’ve found is that in the first season of the series, the Prime Directive is relatively unimportant, just a tidbit tossed in during random episodes. It’s first mentioned quite casually by Mr. Spock, as a regulation requiring non-interference in alien cultures, but only, he says, for living, creative cultures. It’s apparently perfectly acceptable to interfere with cultures that are neither living (what would that look like? isn’t the very definition of “culture” something that is dynamic and subject to change and thus living?) nor creative. The question is, of course, who determines whether a culture is living and creative? A few minutes later in this episode (“Return of the Archons,” Episode 21), Captain Kirk redefines the Prime Directive in Utilitarian terms: it is “the good of the body,” he says, going on to philosophize, “without freedom of choice there is no creativity, and without creativity, the body dies.” This is amended once more, only a few minutes later, when Kirk tells the evil robot Landru, “The evil must be destroyed: that is the Prime Directive. And you are the evil! Fulfill the Prime Directive!”

What we have here, then, is a mess of competing, non-aligning definitions, all iterated within a few minutes during one episode. (I’ll leave the connection between the Prime Directive as presented here and Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics to real science fiction scholars.) It’s remarkable that the concept of the Prime Directive is so unstable that within a single episode–indeed, within a ten-minute span of a single episode–it changes three times. Only late in the second season will it attain the kind of stability and prominence that gives rise to our lasting notion of the Prime Directive. In Episode 27, “Errand of Mercy” — an embarrassingly implausible episode that deserves critical attention only because of how it redefines the Prime Directive–we see Captain Kirk’s reaction to his dawning realization that the Starship Captain of the Exeter, Ron Tracy, has violated the regulation. He declares in a solemn voice that Captain Tracy has “been interfering with the evolution of life on this planet. It seems impossible: a star captain’s most solemn oath is that he will give his life, even his entire crew, rather than violate the Prime Directive.” Kirk’s sense of awed distress drips with drama and significance.

This episode, which is quite bad in and of itself and is based on a rather stupid allusion to the Cold War, becomes important in that it is responsible for the first serious definition of the Prime Directive.

Okay–fine. So what does it have to do with literature?

First, it shows us how concepts change and develop over time. It demonstrates that history–even the paltry history of a television series made 50 years ago–is not static, but is itself unstable, changing, and growing if we look at it closely enough. It also shows us that anything is a text that can be analyzed: a television show, a concept introduced by that show, even our attitudes towards that show. It illustrates that there is value in analyzing even (perhaps especially) those things we think least “artistic,” because, functional and practical in nature, they inform the way we think about a lot of different things. And finally, in terms of literary studies, it shows us that there is great value in studying an entire body of work, such as an entire television series, or all of Hemingway’s novels, or the films of Alfred Hitchcock, because when we do engage in this long (and often tedious) work, we are rewarded with greater insight into the ways in which ideas, themes, and the work of art itself develops.

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