Monday, January 19, 2009

Just For One Day

Just for one day, I will close my ears to the grumbling and the pessimism and believe with the hopeful innocence of a child that the world is about to get better, not because our new President will make it so, but because we will.

Just for one day, I'll close my eyes to the troubles that plague us, and think only about the power and the good that I've seen is possible when enough of us believe and put our hearts together and lend our hands to the work.

Just for one day, I will have this wish that many call naive but that I am yearning for with all my heart.

Steve at On the Slow Train has a beautiful post up about two train journeys that got me thinking about trains and now this song won't leave me. One version, from Yusaf Islam (Cat Stevens) at the 2006 Nobel Concert, and one from Cat Stevens in 1976.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Books I Read in December 2008 -- Part I

The number of books I read in December surprised me and consequently, I’ve procrastinated about writing up this post. In honor of author Carleen Brice’s project, White Readers Meet Black Authors, I have a number of discoveries to share.

The Fall of Rome, by Martha Southgate follows the complex relationship between three characters at an exclusive boys’ school in Connecticut. Jerome Washington, the school’s only Latin teacher and only black teacher is a reserved, complex character. He keeps to himself and his views about society and race are so conservative that I couldn’t help thinking about Clarence Thomas as I read. As the faculty’s only minority, he is called upon to help recruit a more diverse student body, and he does so out of loyalty to the school, but he is clearly uncomfortable in this role. He is not an advocate of anything that resembles affirmative action, and his attitude toward the tiny number of minority students in the school nears contempt. He’s worked hard to get to the respected position he holds and is loathe to see anyone that he views as undeserving getting special treatment. One gets the impression that he’d prefer that the color of his skin would go unnoticed and he appears to resent the young black students who embrace popular black music and culture – as if it reflects negatively on him.

Jana Hansen is a new teacher who has left an urban public school to join the faculty. Middle aged, white and recently divorced, she finds Jerome Washington enigmatic and attractive. Unlike Mr. Washington, she is anxious to help bring a more diverse blend of students to the school.

Rashid is new to the school. A black student from Brooklyn, Rashid has worked hard to gain entrance and earn a scholarship to an elite school as his older brother did before him, but Rashid’s brother is tragically killed just prior to Rashid’s enrollment, and his family is shell shocked. His parents don’t want to call attention to the tragedy and the assumptions people might make about it and they don’t tell the faculty about the senseless killing of their son. Lost in their own grief, they are unable to provide Rashid with emotional support and Rashid is left alone in a challenging academic environment, struggling to keep up and dealing with the loss of his brother in isolation. Rashid finds some companionship in his roommate, who is also black, but who hails from a wealthy, accomplished family and is academically and socially comfortable in the upscale prep school.

Mr. Washington lost a brother too and on the surface, would appear to be an ideal mentor for Rashid; however, Jerome Washington views the death of his brother during the commission of a crime as a source of shame and this emotion extends out to the black scholarship students who he cannot seem to view without painting them with the same brush with which he viewed his brother.

“After I returned east and took up my duties at Chelsea, I put Isaiah’s death out of my mind. I never think about it anymore. That is as my mother would have it. That is, I’ve come to believe, how it should be. I can’t bring him back. I couldn’t save him. Neither could she. Why he couldn’t fight harder to save himself, I will never know. That was why I feared Jana’s faith in young Mr. Bryson might be misplaced, save for his talent as a runner. As the season wore on, it was becoming more and more apparent that he was the kind of athlete a coach might see once in a lifetime. He had almost no awareness of his gift, which made it even more impressive. While I was not wholly in agreement with Jana about his chances, I thought we should work to save him if only to encourage that ability. It would only wither and die at some squalid city school. And if, by some happy chance, Jana was right about the rest, that his work could be brought along…well, so much the better. I guess I should say, too, that though I thought it unwise to indicate so, I was somewhat impressed by the way he confronted me about calling on him in class. I had been overlooking him, simply out of my belief that he would not be with us long. I also felt it particularly important that our Negro students realize that the world would give them no quarter. Why should I?”

The intersection of these characters leads ultimately to disgrace and shame for one of them and salvation for another. Martha Southgate is a gifted writer and this novel is an important one. It illustrates how deeply our issues with race go. It’s complex and the issues are not black and white, but extend into shades of gray that reflect generational and socio-economic differences between and within our races. This is a must read for anyone hoping to gain a deeper understanding of the evolving complexities of race in America.

The Maytrees, by Annie Dillard was one of my favorite novels this year. I wrote an extended review of it last month and you can find it here .

Like Trees, Walking, by Ravi Howard. When the phone rings at the home of Paul and Roy Deacon, sons of the family owned Deacon Memorial Funeral Home in the early morning hours of March 21, 1981 it is not a routine call. Nineteen year old Michael Donald, a close friend of Paul had been found hanging in a tree in downtown Mobile, Alabama. This fictional tale of an actual event that happened in Alabama is a painful journey for two brothers who are otherwise leading a normal teenage life. It has fallen onto Roy, the main character to take over his father’s business. Deacon Memorial Funeral Home has buried the loved ones of Mobile’s black families for over one hundred years and Paul has already rebelled and made his intent clear that he will not be going into the family business. Roy, who has been working with his father since his early teenage years, brings an unusual, intimate perspective to the deaths that are a natural part of life, but Michael Donald’s brutal murder tests Roy’s ability to continue on in the business he doesn’t want to be in, but feels obligated to continue, for his father’s sake. The response to the murder is inept and devastating, the police focusing on the possibility that the lynching was the result of a drug deal that had gone wrong.

“’I assure you, the Mobile Police Department is going to do all we can to figure this out.’ The sad part was that he probably meant it. He stood tall, as though his posture made the assurance that much stronger. It didn’t matter what he said, because the truth of it was playing out behind him, the Mobile police milling about the block in slow and steady chaos. The only crime scenes I’d seen were on the news and on cop shows. There was always a slew of police officers knocking on doors, canvassing the area, and pursuing the guilty parties with prime-time tenacity. Nothing of the like seemed to be happening on Herndon Avenue. The gathered authorities were taking their turns looking at Mobile’s first lynching in sixty years. Before we left Detective Wilcox, my father made one request. ‘Cut that boy down before his mother gets here.’”

There are many poignant passages throughout this novel. Roy and Paul's grandfather, although he'd been retired ten years shows up to help prepare the body of the dead boy:

"My grandfather had been stifled by the shaking in his hands and a memory that sometimes failed him. We worried that he wouldn't be able to live alone much longer, but as he worked around Michael's head, stitching the ruptured skin and reshaping his face, his hands were steady and his memory was sound.

He remembered things we had never known. How to dress rope-burned skin. How to wire a neck, broken and distended, to make the bones straight again. Arrange the high, starched collar and necktie so they hid the marks that makeup could not conceal. I watched him as he worked, cradling Michael's head in his hands. He held it like he held mine in the waters along the bay, on the summer afternoon he tried to teach me to float. I floated for a while, but when I opened my eyes and realized his hands were gone, and what I felt along my neck and back was just a memory of his fingers, I sank like a rock."

The story follows the activity that ensues in the aftermath of the murder and the mark that a tragedy such as this leaves on everyone it touches. It illuminates how much and how little had changed in the American South in 1981 and shows the impossibility of healing when it seems that there will be no justice.

Push, by Sapphire was an uncomfortable, painful reading experience. Claireece “Precious” Jones is an overweight, illiterate black sixteen year old girl who is pregnant with her second child. She delivered her first at twelve and her father is the father of both of her children. Her mother is an abusive, jealous, reclusive figure who offers Precious neither protection nor love and she abuses Precious verbally, sexually and physically. This first novel is by the poet and performance artist, Sapphire. Sapphire spent time teaching literacy in Harlem, which makes this story with all of its broken characters all the more heartbreaking. Through the intervention of her school’s principal, Precious is sent to attend a literacy program and encounters a teacher who finally helps Precious to learn to read and to understand that she has value and a future. When Precious first goes to the alternative school, she’s given a test to determine if she should be in the G.E.D. class, which requires reading at the eighth grade level. She does not qualify.

“For me this nuffin’ new. There has always been something wrong wif the tesses. The tesses paint a picture of me wif no brain. The tesses paint a picture of me an’ my muver – my whole family, we more than dumb, we invisible. One time I seen us on TV. It was a show of spooky shit, an’ castles, you know shit be all haunted. And the peoples, well some of them was peoples and some of them was vampire peoples. But the real peoples did not know it till it was party time. You know crackers eating roast turkey and champagne and shit. So it’s five of ‘em sitting on the couch; and one of ‘em git up and take a picture. Got it? When picture develop (it’s instamatic) only one person on the couch. The other peoples did not exist. They vampires. They eats, drinks, wear clothes, talks, fucks, and stuff but when you git right down to it they don’t exist. I big, I talk, I eats, I cooks, I laugh, watch TV, do what my muver say. But I can see when the picture come back I don’t exist. Don’t nobody want me. Don’t nobody need me. I know who I am. I know who they say I am – vampire sucking the system’s blood. Ugly black grease to be wipe away, punish, kilt, changed, finded a job for.” I wanna say I am somebody. I wanna say it on subway, TV, movie, LOUD. I see the pink faces in suits look over top of my head. I watch myself disappear in their eyes, their tesses. I talk loud but still I don’t exist.”

Sadly, despite the tremendous progress Precious makes in learning to read and finally being able to leave her mother’s apartment to care for one of her two babies (the first has Downs Sydrome and has been with her grandmother since she was born), Precious begins to “age out” of the system and the social workers involved in her case are more motivated to see her get into the workplace as a home worker, taking care of the elderly than they are in seeing her achieve her G.E.D. or something better. Precious learns that she’s H.I.V. positive, the final legacy from her abusive father. Despite all this, the book ends on a hopeful note.

It comes as no surprise that Sapphire became the center of some degree of controversy over the work. As a result of her well-publicized half-million-dollar advance from an "establishment" publisher, there were some subtle political connotations since her work seems to portray the black male, and urban blacks in general, in a negative light.

Coincidentally, this book was recommended to me when I expressed an interest in reading Erasure, by Percival Everett. Read Push first and Erasure will make more sense to you. Erasure is about a black writer who writes purely literary fiction touching on themes about art and theology, but he can’t get a break. His would-be publishers complain that the work isn’t “black enough”. From reviewer Bernard W. Bell:

“Because his own most recent experimental novel has been rejected by publishers as not black enough, Monk is outraged at the national success of Juanita Mae Jenkins, an amateur black middle-class writer with little knowledge and less actual experience of living in an urban black community, and at her exploitative first novel in the neo-realistic vernacular tradition of the ghetto pulp fiction of Robert ‘Iceberg Slim’ Beck and Donald Goines, We's Lives in Da Ghetto. With self-righteous indignation, Monk, under the pen name Stagg R. Leigh and with little or no intellectual, aesthetic, and ethical distance between himself and the implied author of Erasure, writes MyPafology, an outrageously scurrilous parody in eye dialects, and its authenticity and authority are acclaimed by white editors and critics as well as a popular black TV talk-show hostess as a commercial and critical prize-winning success. In contrast to Monk's judgment that the parody, whose title Leigh has blatantly insisted that the publishers change to Fuck, is ‘offensive, poorly written, racist and mindless,’ the white judges on the Book Award Committee consider it ‘the truest novel’ that they have ever read. ‘It could only have been written by someone who has done hard time. It's the real thing.’ Ultimately, the huge commercial success of the parody and pseudonymous Stagg R. Leigh, engineered by a multi-million-dollar movie contract and the Book Club of Kenya Dunston, the nationally popular TV talk-show hostess, results in Monk's complicity with the media in the erasure of his integrity and individuality.”
I’ll make no judgment about the quality of the story or the writing as they're both so unconventional I have no basis for comparison. I will say that once I started reading, I couldn't put the book down. At times, the intentionally terrible grammar and spelling were a challenge.

From a social consciousness perspective, it brought me to the very crux of the tension that we feel all across the country right now. I’ve pondered the opposing points of view and I believe it comes down to the ideological differences in our answers to the simple question: Am I my brother’s keeper? The protagonist in Push and both of her children, the products of incestuous rape are completely unequipped to function as productive and self-supporting members of society, through no fault of their own. Some of us believe that our society owes something to these children. Some of us don’t.

The second thing Push brought to the forefront of my consciousness was the question of what this type of novel says to and about black authors. I don’t think it’s fair to say that Sapphire should muzzle her art because it shows a side of urban life that isn’t flattering to black Americans and that may indeed further perpetuate stereotypes. The story represents the truth of thousands of people of all races. On the other hand, I can understand that the literary writer, who happens to be black would feel frustrated with the publishing business and a seeming unwillingness to publish or promote serious black authors. I can’t say, although I imagine it’s not unlike the struggle any literary writer faces in our market driven economy where popular fiction brings in all the revenue. I’d love to hear thoughts on this book and on this question.

I’ll continue reviewing my December reads in the next post…

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Joy of Slowing Down

Before I begin bloviating about slow reading and my adventures with Marcel Proust, I want to share some information and some links.

Timothy Hallinan, author of a number of novels, but most recently, The Fourth Watcher has got a fascinating series of guest blog posts on creativity going up each week. The first was by author Christopher West and on Sunday, the second post in the series, by Stephen Cohn, Emmy Award winning composer will be up. Tim has a whole series of guest bloggers lined up so check out these fascinating posts and comments on living a creative life.

Larramie, known to most as the muse behind the delightful Seize a Daisy has launched a new project and blog called The Divining Wand. Have a wish you want to make with your own personal fairy godmother? Curious? You should be. Check out the site and maybe one of your dreams will come true.

On a more serious note, Travis Erwin from One Word, One Rung, One Day lost his home and everything in it to a fire earlier this week. Thankfully, Travis and his family were not injured. Blogger Erica Orloff and friends have set up the Habitat for Travis site where you can help the Erwin family.

* * *

When I think about reading as a child, or more accurately, as a pre-adolescent and then a teenager when books made their deepest impressions on me, I recall a feeling of warmth and of hiding out with a book. It’s a fetal, curled up with bare feet memory. I have sense memories of sitting on beaches, disappearing into sofa cushions, elbow-propped face in hands underneath an oak tree or summer furniture on a breezeway or porch and I remember that nothing in the world existed but what was on the page in front of me and maybe the sound of waves crashing or leaves rustling. It seems I was always reading, but I don’t remember having lots of books. Most came from the library or were borrowed -- with or without the permission of their rightful owners. I was serially monogamous with books and in love with whatever I was reading at the time. I may even have needed a cooling off period, the space to grieve the book just finished before I turned to something new. I was depressed at learning I’d read the only book by an author whose words I couldn’t get enough of and frequently I started a book I’d only just finished all over again so that the experience didn’t have to end.

I don’t read that way anymore and I miss it. Rare are the times most of us have to slip away and spend hours reading. We grab a quick chapter at lunch or on the treadmill or before bed. We listen to books while we drive or when we’re drifting off to sleep. We don’t discover books in the same way we did as kids. Thousands of titles are competing for our time and attention and we’re in a race to read through the piles that spill over from our bed side tables onto stacks all around our homes. My unread books come from places they’d never have come from before. I never knew an author or bought a book written by anyone I knew before I started blogging, but I’ve read quite a few in the past two years. Recommendations used to come from a trusted few who knew my taste or through happy accidents browsing my local bookstore, but now I choose books I read about online more often than not.

I confess to frequently choosing novels based on their lack of heft, the pressure to work through the intimidating pile of unread books spurring me to just get through them. It’s not really a very satisfying experience and I sometimes feel guilty, thinking I haven’t given the author the time and care he or she put into the work.

There are a few books I keep on a special shelf that I know require more of me than the two or three days most books are allocated and at the start of the year, I decided it was time to read one of them.

Mention of the name, Marcel Proust brings about a wide range of reactions. Most people know him as the turn of the century French author of what some think is the greatest novel of the twentieth century. Since I watched the movie, Little Miss Sunshine, I’m afraid I can’t think of him without thinking of Steve Carell’s character. Proust's novel, In Search of Lost Time is actually seven separate books weighing in at something like 3,000 pages. Swann’s Way (the first book) is a manageable size at under 450 pages. I felt a little weird attempting the book, worried that I’d be too stupid to get through it and wondering if reading Proust and then attempting to talk about it made me seem pretentious. There is a freakish sort of competitiveness that I confess to living with. I’m not measuring myself against anyone else, which is why I don’t think competitive is the right word, but I do have a certain need to challenge myself. More than almost anything else, I was inspired by Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life (and everything else I’ve read of his) to give Proust a try.

January 1st, the took out a fresh notebook, a set of Post-It flags, a pen and a highlighter and I hunkered down, curled up, found a corner to hide in and I began.

In addition to a generalized intimidation factor, there are several things that make reading Proust challenging.

One is that the book was originally written in French, so there is always a danger that the translation may not have preserved the meaning and tone of the original or that the translations aren’t necessarily accurate. Many of the words used in the book are words that, quite simply, I am not familiar with. The version of Swann’s Way I’m reading was published in 2004 and by all accounts, the translation is excellent. The original book was published in 1913 and the story begins when the narrator is a child, so many of the references are to places and people who were well known (if you were French and of a certain social standing) in the late nineteenth century, but the translator has done the reader a great service by footnoting many of the references.

Swann’s Way is not structured like a traditional novel. Lydia Davis, the translator says:

“In fact, it does not set out to tell a linear, logically sequential story, but rather to create a world unified by the narrator’s governing sensibility, in which blocks of a fictional past life are retrieved and presented, in roughly chronological order, in all their nuances. A reader may feel overwhelmed by the detail of this nuance and wish to get on with the story, and yet the only way to read Proust is to yield, with a patience equal to his, to his own unhurried manner of telling the story.”

Those who’ve described Proust as difficult sometimes attribute the difficulty to his notoriously long sentences. Long sentences work when they’re called for. I have a certain affinity for authors who use them to good effect and he is one of them. From Lydia Davis again:

“Proust felt, however, that a long sentence contained a whole, complex thought, a thought that should not be fragmented or broken. The shape of the sentence was the shape of the thought, and every word was necessary to the thought: ‘I really have to weave these long silks as I spin them,’ he said. ‘If I shortened my sentences, it would make little pieces of sentences, not sentences.’ He wished to ‘encircle the truth with a single – even if long and sinuous – stroke.’"

In approaching Proust with such patience and such caution, I’ve learned that I would likely enjoy a great many other books more if I would take them a little more slowly. I’ve found that although I am taking what many would consider an annoying and painstaking route through Swann’s Way, it has put me into a pleasant rhythm and taught me how to read Proust.

Admittedly, the first fifty pages were slow going for someone accustomed to reading modern day novels where if a reader isn’t “hooked” within the first page, or paragraph or sentence (!) he might toss the book aside and look for something more exciting. But once I surrendered to Proust’s style, I found that I was committed to a narrator unlike any other I’ve ever read and I have been unable to put the book down – save the multiple times per page that I do stop to write down an unfamiliar word, or flip to the back of the book in order to read a footnote.

I have encountered many words I’ve had to write down and later research, but I’ve become much more aware of words that I am familiar with and that I assume I do know the meanings of, but in this slower, more patient approach I've come to realize that they may not mean exactly what I think they mean – often nuance is everything. I’ve written them down and looked them up too and have had a few surprises.

Here’s a sampling of some of the words I’ve encountered: architectonic, expatiations, metempsychosis, transvertebration (no luck finding this one), Merovingian, ferruginous, lorgnon, ignonimous, demimonde, cocotte, alienist, viaticum, otiose, desuetude, lacunae, reredos, chimera, porphyry, ashlar, annulated, crenellated, quatrefoil, cardoon, punctilious, sibylline, calash, chasuble, hymenopteran, palimpsest, sainfoin, and immanent.

To be fair, quite a few of the words relate to parts of churches or castles, plants, religious articles and archaic items no longer in use, but many of them are perfectly good words that we just don’t often see.

The words slow me down, but so do the hundreds of references to painters, sculptors, musicians, writers, Greek mythological figures, playwrights and other cultural and social references. Again, Lydia Davis has provided comprehensive notes to enhance the reading experience.

In terms of style, there is nothing especially difficult about Proust. In fact, once I gave in to him, I realized that Proust was teaching me how to read Proust and it is easy to stand back and see why the entire novel runs as long as it does. I have never read an author who was able to communicate sensory experience or the details of an emotional experience, or the odd interaction between human beings in social situations in the precise and exacting way that he does. I’ve never read characters who are more meticulously and perfectly described.

On the narrator’s elderly great-aunt, who has withdrawn to her bedroom, insisting that she's too ill to go out anymore:

“If Saturday, which began an hour earlier and deprived her of Francoise, passed more slowly than other days for my aunt, she nonetheless awaited its return with impatience from the beginning of the week, because it contained all the novelty and distraction that her weakened and finical body was still able to endure. And yet this was not to say that she did not now and then aspire to some greater change, that she did not experience those exceptional moments when we thirst for something other than what we have, and when people who from a lack of energy or imagination cannot find a source of renewal in themselves ask the next minute that comes, the postman as he rings, to bring them something new, even if it is something worse, some emotion, some sorrow; when our sensibility, which happiness has silenced like an idle harp, wants to resonate under some hand, even a rough one, and even if it might be broken by it; when the will, which has with such difficulty won the right to surrender unimpeded to its own desires, to its own afflictions, would like to throw the reins into the hands of imperious events, even if they may be cruel. Doubtless, since my aunt’s strength, drained by the least fatigue, returned to her only drop by drop deep within her repose, the reservoir was very slow to fill up, and months would go by before she had that slight overflow which others divert into activity and which she was incapable of knowing, and deciding, how to use.”

On Swann, who until this scene was not physically attracted to Odette:

“Standing next to him, allowing her hair, which she had undone, to flow down her cheeks, bending one leg somewhat in the position of a dancer so that without getting tired she could lean over the engraving, which she looked at, inclining her head, with those large eyes of hers, so tired and sullen when she was not animated, she struck Swann by her resemblance to the figure of Zipporah, Jethro’s daughter, in a fresco in the Sistene Chapel. Swann had always had this particular penchant for amusing himself by rediscovering in the paintings of the masters not only the general characteristics of the real world that surrounds us, but what seems on the contrary the least susceptible to generalization, the individual features of the faces we know: for instance, in the material of a bust of the Doge Loredano by Antonio Rizzo, the jut of the cheekbones, the slant of the eyebrows, altogether the very evident resemblance to his coachman Remi; under the colors of a Ghirlandaio, M. de Plancy’s nose; in a portrait by Tintoretto, the whiskers, the break in the nose, the penetration of the gaze, the congestion of the eyelids of Dr. du Boulbon. Perhaps because he had always continued to feel a touch of remorse that he had limited his life to worldly relationships, to conversation, he believed he could find a sort of indulgent pardon granted him by the great artists, in the fact that they too had contemplated with pleasure, introduced into their work, faces like these which give it a singular certificate of reality and of truth to life, a modern flavor; perhaps, also, he had allowed himself to be so caught up in the frivolity of the society people that he felt the need to look into an old work of art for these anticipated and rejuvenating allusions to current proper names. Perhaps, on the other hand, he still had enough of an artist’s nature so that these individual characteristics gave him pleasure by assuming a more general meaning as soon as he saw them extirpated, emancipated, in the resemblance between an older portrait and an original which it did not represent. Whatever the case, and perhaps because the abundance of impressions that he had been receiving for some time, and even though this abundance had come to him more with his love of music, had enriched even his delight in painting, he now found a deeper pleasure – and this was to exert a permanent influence on Swann in Odette’s resemblance to Zipporah as painted by Sandro di Mariano, whom people call more often by his popular nickname of Botticelli, since that name evokes, not the painter’s true work, but the idea of it that is vulgarized, banal, and false.”

It is quite an indulgence that I’ve asked of you, in citing these long excerpts, but I don’t think it’s possible to even begin to offer up a sampling of Proust’s work without providing long passages. If you are still with me, I thank you.

I’m beyond the halfway point in Swann’s Way and I’m already a little sad to know that it won’t be long until the book is finished. Fortunately, there is much more Proust to read.

This reading experience has gone far beyond merely exposing me to this great writer’s work. It has allowed me to slow down and savor words again.

Monday, January 5, 2009

A Reader's Growing Skepticism

There was a time in the very recent past when I was quite interested in reading books on some “best of” lists and even more interested in reading books with shiny medallions imprinted on their covers – specifically books that had been awarded the Pulitzer, or the National Book Award or the Booker Prize. With the thousands of books published every year, some credible filter has to exist that can distill the great from the good and the very best from the great. Certainly, some group of people exists who have the credentials, the supernatural ability to review the many worthy novels and apply stringent criteria to select the few titles each year that will be marked for all time as award winning literature. I was never 100% invested in this idea, but as time has passed and as I’ve read more of these books and more importantly, more of what’s been said about the prize winners, I have adopted a much more jaded view of the process and the results.

While it is true that I’m not the most educated or discerning reader alive, I get better all the time. I look at the list of books I read last year and I wish I’d read fewer titles and I wish I’d read them more closely. The reality is that most of us don’t know why we like what we like. I can list a dozen titles that I loved, but I can’t tell you exactly why I thought they were good.

I recently read a piece, published in The Atlantic in August of 2001 that has given me a great deal of pause. "A Reader’s Manifesto" is, in short, “an attack on the growing pretentiousness of American literary prose.” The author, B.R. Myers has been simultaneously attacked and praised for coming from completely outside the literary establishment with this manifesto. While I can’t say that I agree with everything he says and I find some of his criticisms to be arbitrary and not wholly representative of the authors he criticizes, he does make some excellent points and his examples are mostly on the mark.

It was interesting to reflect on two of the works he chose to attack (The Shipping News, by E. Annie Proulx and Snow Falling on Cedars, by David Guterson) because I remember falling in love with both novels when they came out, but I can’t dispute the specific criticisms he’s made.

What I can judge about the books and about myself as a reader in the early nineties is that there is much to like about the books. At the time I read them, there were probably phrases and sentences didn’t quite make sense to me or that I probably didn’t notice because I was ultimately taken in by the entirety of both stories, by the characters and by the preponderance of description and fine prose that did resonate. Good enough for me.

To Myers’ point, perhaps it should not have been good enough for those professional literary critics who should have been reading more closely, nor for the reviewers who lauded the books with unqualified praise.

He doesn’t hold back in his criticism of a number of other popular and celebrated authors, specifically Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo and Paul Auster. I will confess to feeling a shameful relief when I read what he had to say about White Noise. I finished that book with a particularly empty feeling and a sensation that I must have missed something because others thought so highly of it. Perhaps I didn’t.

I don’t like negative criticism. In fact, I’ve always thought less of the person who writes it. It’s so disturbing to me that I’ve unsubscribed to a number of blogs and stopped following several people on Twitter because the negativity casts a pall over my day that can literally keep me up at night. More and more negative criticism escalates into the low art (or entertainment might be a better description) form called Snark -- if that’s what the kids are still calling it these days; my distaste for Snark in general makes me see myself shaking a crooked old finger at the kids whose baseball has rolled into my yard, but that’s who I am. The fact that so many bloggers find it not only acceptable, but entertaining confirms my belief that my disdain for it is generational.

Thoughtful analysis of writing done well is just as useful, if not more so, and far more positive an endeavor. Annie Dillard does this to charming effect in Living by Fiction and James Wood uses quite a few nice examples in How Fiction Works.

I've come to be able to assess my opinion on a book based on some fairly simple criteria:

1. Story. There has to be a cohesive story no matter what the type of novel. Story is the lowest common denominator required of all types of fiction, regardless of genre.
2. Fine Writing. The writing has to be better than average for me to enjoy the book. Whether the prose is tight and spare or whether it is expansive and descriptive, it has to be good.
3. More. My personal preference is to get something that goes beyond story and fine writing. The novels I enjoy typically make some reference to society or culture (post 9/11 novels like Man in the Dark, or cold war era novels like Hoffman's Hunger, or anti-war novels like Slaughterhouse Five come to mind). Or the novel needs to leave me thinking about some philosophical question about the nature of existence or life or relationships (again, Hoffman's Hunger, Sophie's Choice (which did both), The Stranger, Swann's Way).

The majority of published fiction probably satisfies my need for story and for people who read purely for escapism, story is probably plenty. But for a novel to be elevated to what I'd consider literature, I think it needs to encompass all three of my criteria, and before deciding how well the author did at writing his or her book, I really need to understand what I believe he or she was trying to accomplish.

I would never judge a police procedural harshly because the main character wasn't pondering the meaning of his existence, for example -- which is not to say that a police procedural can't do that too.

But when done properly, there is something to be learned from a constructive negative assessment, whether I like it or not. The fascinating thing about negative criticism is that people only spend time lavishing it on works they feel have been unjustly praised and therein is the crux of the problem. (Let's assume we're not addressing silly negative criticism leveled at books that have accomplished what they set out to).

The author of a competently written book with an entertaining story is rarely attacked by a credible reviewer. Although it shouldn’t need to be said, I don’t count flaming comments (or glowing ones, for that matter) found in Amazon reviews to be credible, unless I recognize the contributor. In this age of frantic book promotion, there are very few authors and reviewers who have not heaped hyperbole on books that, while they may be good reads, are probably undeserving of the superlatives they get. And the more competition there is, the more the praise becomes meaningless and the more likely the Snark is to fly.

On a side note, one of my pet peeves about negative criticism is that too often it comes off as a personal attack on the author. Negative reviews often give me the sense that the reviewer is alleging that the author is perfectly capable of writing a great book, but instead has chosen to dupe the book buying public and cheat them out of their hard earned money by writing something substandard. I doubt this is ever the case with any author who aspires to write literary fiction. It may well be that there are some author brands that have become virtual book writing factories that crank out formulaic crap, based on what people seem to be buying and if that is indeed what those authors are doing then shame on the readers who keep buying those books.

I stand behind my opinion that The Shipping News and Snow Falling on Cedars are good novels, even though my recent read of "A Readers Manifesto" has spotlighted some chinks in the armor. Was The Shipping News the best choice for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer in ’93 and ’94? Was Snow Falling on Cedars the best of all the candidates for the PEN/Faulkner Award in ’95? I now wonder and I concede that maybe there were more worthy choices.

What I will concede to B.R. Myers is that those people who are charged with bestowing the highest literary recognition in the land have a solemn duty to closely read and analyze. I may not continue my habit of writing about every book I read. Perhaps I’ll save my positive thoughts for those books that have made a significant impression on me. To do anything else renders my opinion worthless, doesn’t it?

Myers published an entire book on his manifesto and this page has a number of links at the bottom to the many responses that both the Atlantic article and the book provoked. Interesting reading and I'd love to hear more thoughts on this.

Whether your tastes lean toward literary fiction and all its incarnations or more traditional genre fiction, have you defined your own criteria for what an exceptional book must do to impress you?

Thursday, January 1, 2009

A New Writing Year

Eudaemonia is all about reading and writing and with one year coming to a close and another beginning, I can’t help but look back to where I’ve been over the last year. Was it where I wanted to go?

I think it was.

Reading and writing are so intertwined for me that I can’t talk about one without the other. It was when I read Hoffman’s Hunger that I was hit hardest with the sense that I need to know much more, and not only about the mechanics of writing (although I continue to need that too). The book was written in 1989 by a Dutch author named Leon de Winter. The story takes place at the end of the cold war and drew heavily on the philosophy of Spinoza. I finished reading the book and immediately thought that it's the kind of book I wish I could write, but I can't.

It does not escape me that Hoffman’s Hunger fed a growing hunger in me for a deeper education. All signs this year led me to that conclusion, from my brief frenzied dive into modern economics, political history and American anti-intellectualism to my final December read of Annie Dillard’s Living by Fiction. I can’t disagree with this idea:

"The notion of the novelist as gifted savage dies hard, even in English Departments. (Perhaps it dies hard especially in English departments – for if Faulkner was a wise man of letters like thee and me, why have we not written great novels? Further, department scholars may doubt their own methods, their students, and especially their colleagues so much that they deny that anyone ever connected with that world could produce a novel worth reading.) It breaks our American hearts to learn that Updike was an English major. We wish to forget that Thoreau, like Updike and Mailer, was graduated from Harvard, and that Walt Whitman spent his life in his room studying and rewriting, and that Willa Cather lived among the literati in Greenwich Village, and that Melville left the sea at twenty-five. The will to believe in the fiction writer as Paul Bunyan is shockingly strong; it is emotional, like to will to believe in Bigfoot, the hairy primate who stalks the western hills, or in the Loch Ness Monster. In fact, by the time the media had worked on Hemingway, he was scarcely distinguishable from Bigfoot, or less popular – and Dylan Thomas, that sentimental favorite, was the Loch Ness Monster. The assumption that the fiction writer is any sort of person but one whose formal education actually taught him something is particularly strong in this country; our democratic anti-intellectual tradition and our media cult of personality dovetail on this point and press it home, usually with full cooperation from writers.

In opposition to all this romance, I say that academic literary criticism is very influential: students listen to critics. What student does not read fiction for one course or another? And who is writing fiction these days who has not been to college?"

Lest the writers who may be reading this take offense to such bold myth smashing, just think on it. She’s talking, of course about writers in the class of those she’s mentioned and like Bellow, Roth, Chekov, Borges, Chomsky, Dostoevsky, Ellison, Garcia Marquez, Hamsun, Joyce, Lessing, et al.

Not many writers come close to creating what these people have, and not many want to. The vast majority of readers who are not critics wouldn’t be interested in reading such works if they existed. But despite the small probability of creating what could be art and the even smaller odds that it might be read and appreciated, it’s still a bold, unrealistic and probably delusional aim for some.

It’s been a year now since I first began work on a novel called The Foundling Wheel and as of today, it’s treading water after twenty-four messy chapters and 52,973 words. In the beginning, I thought I’d finish a first draft in six months, and then I thought it would be a year. I haven’t added to it since early October, but I haven’t abandoned it. It’s still very much alive and I intend to finish it.

What’s given me trouble since the beginning is much larger than the story itself, although that’s given me problems too. If you were to ask me some time ago why I was writing it, I couldn’t tell you, nor could I say what I was trying to accomplish in the work, beyond simply telling a story. Sometimes telling a story is enough. For me with this, it’s not.

I can almost answer the question now.

I learned to trust myself much more this year. Oddly, (or at least I think it’s odd) I was not self-conscious about sharing my work with other people when I first began blogging and taking classes, but as time has passed, I’ve grown more confident in my ability to assess what I’m doing and less inclined to ask other people to do it for me. It stands to reason that until I’ve worked out what it is I’m trying to do and precisely how I’m going to do it that there’s no point in asking another person to judge whether or not I’ve succeeded.

What interests me most is – everything about human beings. I’m interested in philosophy, sociology, culture, religion and psychology. I’m interested in history and economics and technology. I know a little about a few things, but I want much more.

The subject matter for my blog posts will be much more focused in 2009. My reading choices will be much more intentional. I’m on a quest to educate myself on all of those things that, even if I had gone to college and pursued a liberal education as a girl, would not have had the impact on me then that they will now.

I’ll never be a scholar or an academic or an intellectual and I don’t aspire to any of those things, but I can be a more literate thinker.

Whether it makes me a better writer or not remains to be seen. I think it will.

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf