Sunday, August 28, 2005

From the Archives: High School Reading

I’ve been away on holiday, during which time most of my reading consisted of fun but forgettable mystery novels. Hence the dearth of recent posts. However, I did unearth some interesting fodder for future posts while mucking about in my archives a.k.a. the boxes of papers that I’ve left languishing in my parents’ basement for the last twenty years. It seems I’m a bit of a pack rat, particularly when it comes to belongings that I’ve stored in basements other than my own. As far as literary memorabilia goes, I found I’d saved everything from my sixth grade language arts notebook (in which I carefully noted the difference between flat and round characters, and drew a diagram depicting the key elements of plot), to my high school creative writing dossier, to my university English essays. It was quite illuminating to read through it all and see just how far back many of my current literary preoccupations extend.

In today's post, I’ll share some snippets from a trio of high school book reports. As I remember it, they were written in connection with a creative writing class. The assignment was to choose three works of Canadian fiction and to write a critical assessment of each one. My selections were: Guy Vanderhaeghe’s Man Descending, Alice Munro’s Who Do You Think You Are? (published under the title The Beggar Maid in the US), and Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle.

In the first book report, I opined that Guy Vanderhaeghe would win the Governor General’s Award that Man Descending had just been short-listed for, and that the book would “launch a brilliant career for him.” He did and it did. I’ve reread Man Descending a couple of times in the intervening years, and I’ve also read all of Vanderhaeghe’s subsequent books save his most recent novel. He has become so thoroughly ensconced in the pantheon of Canlit greats in my mind that I had forgotten that I first read him when he was young and largely unknown. In retrospect, I’m pleased to have been a fan of this talented writer from the beginning.

If I’m impressed with my teenage prescience as regards Vanderhaeghe, I’m a bit embarrassed at having damned Alice Munro’s Who Do You Think You Are? with faint praise. I had some interesting things to say about the book, noting in particular the deftness with which the final story ties the collection together. But in my concluding sentence I deemed it merely “fairly enjoyable.” I’ve reread Who Do You Think You Are? more than once since then and have come to think of it as the hallmark of story cycle excellence. But apparently I was not bowled over by it as a teenager. Or maybe I just wrote lousy concluding sentences.

I was much more enthusiastic about Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle, pronouncing it “fascinating” and “one of the most interesting and entertaining books that I have ever read.” Oddly, though I seemed to be most impressed with this one on first reading, it’s the only one of the three to which I’ve never returned. Thus I can’t say how well my teenage assessment holds up. Perhaps now I’ll put it on my list of books to revisit.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Celebrating the Short Story

A new website dedicated to celebrating the short story has recently been launched in the UK. It’s an extension of the Save Our Short Story campaign which “aims to increase the profile, prestige and presence of the short story in our culture.” The site contains much of interest to readers and writers of short stories including news of publications, events, and contests, as well as musings on the short story form from an array of perspectives. The site makes available some fabulous free downloads including short stories by Katherine Mansfield, Jackie Kay, and Ian Rankin, and also Raymond Carver’s classic essay “Principles of a Story” (previously published as “On Writing” in his collection Fires: Essays, Poems, Stories and soon to appear in the September issue of Prospect magazine). I highly recommend a visit to the Story site.

Friday, August 26, 2005

The Writing Career of Gypsy Rose Lee

Despite my appreciation of crime fiction, burlesque, and strong minded women, I hadn’t heard of Gypsy Rose Lee’s The G-String Murders until my recent read of February House. My interest thus piqued, I put a copy of The G-String Murders on hold at the library, and posted a query on Dorothy-L to see what I could learn in the meantime about Gypsy Rose Lee’s career as a mystery writer.

I was soon told that the book is well worth reading, particularly for the way it brings the backstage world of burlesque to life, but that Gypsy’s authorship of the book has long been questioned. Jeffrey Marks, whose expertise on women crime writers of the 1940’s is considerable, summarized the controversy for me as follows: “There's been a lot of discussion about whether or not Gypsy wrote her own mysteries. Her family says that she did. The literary set believes that a magazine editor did. And many in the mystery field believe that Craig Rice wrote them. I'm not convinced, but they make a solid argument for it.”

It seems to me that in February House Sherill Tippins puts this controversy to rest. Her version of the writing of the book goes as follows. George Davis, fiction editor extraordinaire at Harper’s Bazaar, encouraged Gypsy to write the book and initially he lined up a ghostwriter for her. The ghostwriter was to be Dorothy Wheelock, then a secretary at the magazine, who had already written two mysteries of her own. But Gypsy wasn’t happy with the arrangement. She rejected Wheelock’s efforts because she didn’t feel that Wheelock had properly captured the details of burlesque life. Ultimately, Gypsy decided that she could tell the story better herself. This is when Davis invited her to join the ménage of writers living in the Middaugh Street house in Brooklyn. Working closely with George Davis, she completed the first two chapters of The G-String Murders before moving to Chicago to resume her burlesque career. But she continued to work on the book, often in stolen moments backstage, and to send installments to Davis for comments, until the novel was completed. So, the magazine editor to whom some attribute authorship is likely either Wheelock or Davis. But Wheelock's work didn’t make it into the final version. And while Davis was certainly deeply involved in the creation of the book, he served as midwife rather than as author. (I got the impression that it would have been less work for Davis to write the book himself than to wring it out of Gypsy, but the latter was the course that he took.)

As for Craig Rice, she is only mentioned in passing in February House as someone that Gypsy befriended in Chicago. If I’ve got the timeline right, this means that The G-String Murders was well underway before the two women met. And if Rice took over the writing at that point, why would Gypsy have continued to send drafts to Davis for comment? Given that he had initially suggested a ghostwriter, there would have been no reason to keep up a charade for him if she had ultimately chosen to go that route.

After I'd read Tippins' account, I didn’t have any doubt that Gypsy had penned The G-String Murders herself. Several reviewers have praised Tippins’ meticulous research in February House, noting that she has unearthed copious details of a little-known juncture in the lives of some otherwise very well known writers. I admit that I didn’t pore over the footnotes. But the detailed depiction of Gypsy’s writing process certainly rang true for me.

I’m off to read The G-String Murders for myself, and also to dig up a copy of Jeffrey Marks’ biography of Craig Rice to learn more about the friendship between her and Gypsy Rose Lee.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Writing Community

Sherill Tippins, February House (Houghton Mifflin, 2005)

I confess that I’m a biography junkie. My favourites are literary biographies that not only illuminate the lives of the subjects at their centre but also evoke the creative communities of which those subjects were a part. Brad Gooch’s City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara is a particularly stellar example. I came away from it with new insight into O’Hara, keen to reread his work, and I was also inspired to pick up books by the other poets of the New York School, and to seek out artwork by the denizens of the Cedar Tavern.

You would think then that biographies that focus on groups rather than individuals would be tailor-made for me. Alas, more often than not, I’ve found such books to be a disappointment. I like there to be a story in my life stories, and group biographies rarely have a sufficient centre to hold the narrative together. Frequently they degenerate into a series of individual mini-biographies that are only tenuously and rather artificially connected to one another.

Happily, February House by Sherill Tippins is that rare creature, a group biography that works brilliantly. It tells the story of an experiment in communal living when a group of young writers, artists, and musicians came together under one roof at 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn in the year leading up to the US entry into WWII. The instigator of the experiment was writer, editor and all-round literary impresario George Davis. Inmates of the household included Carson McCullers, W.H. Auden, Gypsy Rose Lee, Benjamin Britten, and Jane and Paul Bowles.

The genius of this book lies in its organizing premise. The Middagh Street household, the core members together with the many others who moved through or hung about on the fringes, adds up to a staggeringly large and diverse group for any biographer to contend with. But by maintaining a discrete focus on the particular place and time that brought the group together, Tippins is able to analyse their lives and work in sufficient detail to provide readers with new insight into each individual as well as into their connections with and differences from one another.

The group was drawn together by their creative aspirations and a common desire for a cheap and congenial space in which to pursue them. Yet there were significant distinctions between them: in their chosen art forms, in their creative processes, and in their politics and philosophies. Because she doesn’t artificially gather them together under the banner of a single school of thought, Tippins is able to treat the members of the Middagh Street household as a group without ever glossing over the very significant differences between them.

We see members of the household inspiring, encouraging and mentoring one another. Auden took snippets from the dinner table conversation and transformed them into some of his best poems. When Carson McCullers was stuck in the middle of what that was to become The Member of the Wedding, a childhood story from Chester Kallman (Auden’s lover) provided her with the moment of epiphany that got the novel back on track. Later, a couple that McCullers came across while frequenting the seedy bars of nearby Sands Street with Davis and Auden inspired The Ballad of the Sad Café. Under George Davis’ tutelage, Gypsy Rose Lee produced her first book, The G-String Murders: The Story of a Burlesque Girl. Over lengthy conversations in the parlour, Auden helped Jane Bowles to find the confidence to write her novel, Two Serious Ladies. We also see inmates of the house thwarting and impeding one another’s work. For example, Britten and Paul Bowles were driven mad by the sounds of each other’s pianos to the extent that Bowles, the more recent arrival, was ultimately evicted.

All of this was occurring against the backdrop of the war raging in Europe. Tensions between the members of the household were heightened given the very different ideas they had or were developing about the roles and responsibilities of artists in wartime. They (and their friends, family members, and colleagues) were very differently situated in relation to the war: there were European refugees, anxious to bring Hitler’s evil to the attention of apathetic Americans; expatriate Brits who were being soundly criticized by those at home who felt they were evading their responsibilities; and, of course, the not-yet-at-war Americans who were divided on whether and how their country should enter the fray.

In this hothouse atmosphere, some of the members of the household, for example McCullers and Auden, produced or conceived of some of their best work. For others, the year on Middagh Street was a failed experiment but nonetheless a formative experience. For example, Britten needed to make a break with Auden (after their disastrous collaboration on the operatta Paul Bunyan) and return to Britain before he hit his creative stride and wrote his first great opera, Peter Grimes.

February House fascinated me and left me wanting more. Not because the book was incomplete, but because Tippins so thoroughly drew me in that I feel compelled now to dig deeper into the lives of her subjects, to find out more about what happened to them before and after their Middagh Street days and, more importantly, to immerse myself in their work.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The Short Story, the Novel, and Essential Form

I’m in the midst of a Frank O’Connor immersion. I’m flipping back and forth between one of his short story collections (Domestic Relations) and his book about the short story (The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story), while another collection of his stories, his study of the novel, and a biography of him await me on the hold shelf at the library.

O’Connor caught my attention at the beginning of The Lonely Voice with this passage: “For the short story writer there is no such thing as essential form. Because his frame of reference can never be the totality of a human life, he must be forever selecting the point at which he can approach it, and each selection he makes contains the possibility of a new form as well as the possibility of a complete fiasco” (21).

Throughout the introduction, O’Connor defines the short story by contrasting it with the novel. The novel, he says, requires a hero with whom the reader identifies (16-17). The short story, on the other hand, has never had a hero. It has “a submerged population group” (17); it almost always contains a “sense of outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society” (18). The short story and the novel reflect different attitudes to society, different ideologies. “There is in the short story at its most characteristic something we do not often find in the novel -- an intense awareness of human loneliness” (18-19). On the form of the novel, he says: “the chronological development of character or incident is essential form as we see it in life, and the novelist flouts it at his own peril” (21).

I find myself agreeing with nearly everything O’Connor says about the short story, but disagreeing with most of his contrasting statements about the novel. I’m wondering though whether I would have disagreed with what he had to say about the novel in 1962, the year The Lonely Voice was published. My conception of what a novel is and what it can do is doubtless very much a product of the evolution of the form in the intervening decades. Though I jump back and forth across many decades in my short story reading, I’ve realized that most of the novels I read were written post-1960.

Just last week, Jason Cowley staked out the novel as prime territory for innovation. In an article in the Guardian, he declared the novel to be more versatile and flexible than any other art form. The article has generated some persuasive rebuttals in the blogosphere. See for example This Space and Bookish. But the disagreements centre not on Cowley’s assertions of versatility and flexibility but on the very conservative examples that he puts forward which tend to undercut rather than illustrate his point.

For my part, I’d like to think the formal possibilities of both the short story and the novel are wide open. Not that that makes the work of the short story writer or the novelist any easier. As O’Connor said, there is always the possibility of fiasco. But it does make both the writing and the reading much more interesting.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Genre Confusion

Continued Commentary on: Melissa Bank, The Wonder Spot (Viking, 2005)

I definitely wasn’t bowled over by The Wonder Spot in the way that I was by Bank’s first book, The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing. I can’t say precisely why without rereading the latter, but I think that I just didn’t like the main character, Sophie Applebaum, as well as I liked Jane Rosenal. Jane was smarter and funnier. Sophie has a wry, engaging voice, but her determined mediocrity frustrated and baffled me. This sounds like a subjective preference which is not a valid basis on which to criticize a book, but I think that my response to Sophie points to a deeper problem.

Over the course of the eight stories that make up the book, we track Sophie from age twelve well into her thirties. While her voice remains consistent over that time span, her character doesn’t. Of course one expects character development over the course of years, but that’s not what I’m referring to. I don’t mean that her character changes and develops. On the contrary, Sophie seems to stagnate through much of the book. I rarely understood why she made the choices that she made, and why she continued to make the same mistakes again and again. Just as Sophie the character keeps other people in her life at a distance with her wit, Sophie the narrator keeps readers at a distance. While I was entertained throughout, at the end it seemed extraordinary to have spent 300+ pages with a first person narrator and to have learned so little of her inner life.

When I say inconsistent, I really mean inconsistent, to the extent that in some of the stories I felt as if, were it not for Sophie’s trademark cigarettes and wisecracks, the main character could have been someone else entirely. Let me give you just one example. Two-thirds of the way through the book, in “Teen Romance,” Sophie takes an art class. In the twenty years we’ve already spent with Sophie, she gave no hint of an interest in art. What prompted her to sign up for this class? In the very next story (“The One After You”), Sophie spends a day with her mother and her brother Jack. Her mother and Jack decide to go to a gallery and they don’t bother consulting Sophie about which one because: “They knew I didn’t want to look at art; I’d go wherever they went and endure whatever exhibit they chose.” (244) What happened to Sophie the art student? A little later she mentions in passing that she took an art class once, but this seems tacked on as if calculated to gloss over the inconsistency for any reader that caught it.

Of course, the inconsistency only matters once the stories are strung together. Both “Teen Romance” and “The One After You” work brilliantly independent of one another. The latter is the strongest story in the collection. This brings me to the whole question of genre confusion that I raised in my previous post. Not the chick lit versus literary fiction debate, but the question of whether The Wonder Spot is a novel or a collection of short stories.

Before I had the book in my hands, I feared that the confusion among reviewers on this point stemmed from the marketing campaign. Had the publisher marketed a collection of linked short stories as a novel in an attempt to boost sales and, in so doing, done the author a serious disservice? The publisher had not. The word “novel” is not emblazoned on the cover or anywhere else. The Wonder Spot is presented unapologetically as a short story collection. So why the confusion?

Let me begin by expressing my complete lack of patience for those who view the novel as a higher art form than the short story and who thereby regard any short story collection as a failed novel. Janet Maslin doesn’t go quite this far in her review, but she comes close in referring to “the not-quite-a-novel format” and in expressing “doubt about whether Ms. Bank can write a more cohesive book, a full-fledged novel able to interweave narrative threads and add up to more than the sum of its parts.”

Meeting the book on its own terms, how does it hold up as a short story collection? Several of the stories can stand on their own as very accomplished, sometimes brilliant, short stories. But others can’t. I’m thinking of two in particular (“The Boss of the World” and “20th Century Typing”) that together comprise more than a third of the book. They’re well written and full of interesting detail but both read like excerpts from a novel. Structurally, neither works as an independent story.

It seems then that the stories need each other. This is why reviewers are looking for consistency, continuity and development. But that doesn’t lead to the conclusion that the book ought be judged as a novel. There is an in-between genre which is well-established in the US and elsewhere: the story cycle. This is where the The Wonder Spot fits.

Gerald Lynch cautions against judging the short story cycle by the standards of the novel as follows: “The series of flashes signals a different code altogether from the steady beam: the world as seen by stroboscope, held still momentarily, strangely fragmented at other times, moving unfamiliarly in the minds of readers accustomed to novels. The steady beam, itself an illusion, is here broken up, perhaps intentionally disrupted.” Indeed, he says that the short story cycle can be regarded as “an anti-novel, fragmenting the lengthy continuous narrative’s treatment of place, time, character, and plot.”

If this is so, what lends unity to the story cycle? On this point, Lynch quotes Robert Luscher: “As in a musical sequence, the story sequence repeats and progressively develops themes and motifs over the course of the work; its unity derives from a perception of both the successive ordering and recurrent patterns, which together provide the continuity of the reading experience.” Lynch adds: “In such a pattern, the first and last stories are of key significance, with the final story of the cycle being the most powerful, because there the patterns of recurrence and development initiated in the opening story come naturally to fullest expression.”

The foregoing bit of theorizing helps me to hone in on what works and what doesn’t work for me in The Wonder Spot. The strongest, most complex, and interesting aspect of the book is the unfolding relationships between Sophie and the various members of her family, particularly her brothers. Here we have the sort of repetition and progressive development described above as the hallmark of the story cycle. To a lesser extent, Sophie’s female friendships also get this treatment. We don’t meet the same friends threading their way through the narrative; rather one continually succeeds another. Sometimes this is a bit jarring. For example, when we meet Dena Blumenthal half way through the book and learn that she’s been a close friend of Sophie since grade school, we wonder why we haven’t so much as glimpsed her before. Nevertheless, there is a subtle evolution in Sophie’s handling of these successive friendships that provides a sense of progression throughout the book.

In contrast, Sophie’s work struggles and her romantic woes play out in a flat line. Here repetition just feels like repetition rather than any sort of cyclical progression. It becomes frustrating and a bit boring. There is a moment in the penultimate story, “The One After You,” when it feels as if Sophie might have moved forward, but the next story, “The Wonder Spot,” undercuts this. Sophie’s tone in the final story is more world-weary, but she doesn’t appear to have arrived at any new insights that make the latest romance seem any more likely to succeed than the last.

Turning to Lynch’s point above about the significance of the final story in a story cycle, I think that The Wonder Spot would be a more effective collection if “The One After You” had been given the final slot in the book, and the title story, “The Wonder Spot,” left out altogether. “The One After You” is a much stronger story in itself, but it also gives a sense of coming full circle and of moving forward. In it, Aunt Nora and Cousin Rebecca from “The Boss of the World” reappear and once again play host to the Applebaums. All of the key themes from the previous stories recur and are amplified here. As the closing story in the book, “The One After You” would have offered an appropriately complicated and tenuous sense of closure. Whereas, the actual final story, “The Wonder Spot,” is thin and unsatisfying.

The Wonder Spot is worth reading. It abounds with complex and engaging characters, evocative images, and beautiful sentences. But ultimately it's a flawed book.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Lit versus Chick Lit

Melissa Bank, The Wonder Spot (Viking, 2005)

I was keen to read this book for a few reasons:

1. I loved Bank’s first book, The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing. For months after I read it, I kept gifting copies to friends, family members, and even vague acquaintances because I wanted everybody to read it.

2. The early reviews of The Wonder Spot that I read seemed to be divided between those that deemed it an unsuccessful novel, and those that deemed it a successful collection of short stories. Why the genre confusion? I wanted to know which it was and what difference that made to a critical assessment of the book.

3. Finally, there was the frisson emanating from rumours of a literary catfight. I’d heard that Curtis Sittenfeld (author of the novel Prep) had written a scathing review of The Wonder Spot in the New York Times Book Review in which she allegedly called Bank a “slut.”

Let me begin with the least edifying trigger of my interest. It turns out that Sittenfeld didn’t call Bank a slut. Rather, she wrote a very negative review that began with the following ill-advised lines: “To suggest that another woman’s ostensibly literary novel is chick lit feels catty, not unlike calling another woman a slut -- doesn’t the term basically bring down all of us? And yet, with The Wonder Spot, it’s hard to resist.” I say ill-advised because it strikes me as sloppy to use a label to critique a book rather than focussing on the book itself. Sittenfeld did move on to a critique of the book, but the red flag she waved at the beginning ensured that any valid criticisms that she made in the rest of the review were lost in the ensuing controversy. Members of the chick lit community came down hard, not so much in defence of Bank as in defence of their genre. (I have to admit that I was a bit surprised to learn that there is a chick lit community. I had always thought that “chick lit” was simply a marketing label; I had no idea that a group of writers had embraced it as their own.)

In a very funny line-by-line deconstruction of the review, Jennifer Weiner suggests that it says more about Sittenfeld’s anxiety over how her own work is perceived than about Bank’s book. (Sittenfeld’s recent article in the Alantic Monthly may lend some credence to this theory.) Bank herself stayed out of the fray. When asked in an online interview what her thoughts about Sittenfeld were, she simply replied that she tried not to think about her.

For my part, I don’t care if The Wonder Spot is or isn’t labelled chick lit. As with any literary label, “chick lit” envelops good books and bad ones. The question that concerns me is whether The Wonder Spot is a good book. What are its strengths and its weaknesses? How does it hold up as a whole? I’ll take up these questions in my next post.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Scots Words

Scots-English/ English-Scots Dictionary Compiled by David Ross & Gavin D. Smith (Hippocrene Books, 1999).

I’ve been dipping into a Scots-English Dictionary lately. I picked it up to check the spellings of some Scottish words I used in dialogue in one of my stories. But that task done, I can’t stop browsing because I love these words. Here are some that I particularly like:

agley adv astray; awry; askew; obliquely. [This one’s well-known thanks to the famous line from Robert Burns’ To a Mouse: “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men gang aft agley.”]

bletherskite n babbler; braggart.

braw adj fine; handsome; splendid; admirable; worthy.

dreich adj bleak; depressing; dismal; drab; dreary; godforsaken; monotonous.

drookit adj soaked; drenched.

glaur n mud; ooze.

gowk n fool; simpleton. [In my experience (just overhearing it said to other people of course…), generally used as follows: “Ye daft gowk!”]

smirr n hazy rain. [I recently bought a wonderful Anthology of Scots literature that caught my eye thanks to its fabulous title: The Smoky Smirr O Rain.]

The particular appeal of these words to me is that each one sounds like what it means. That is, with the exception of “agley” which sounds very smooth and harmonious to me in complete contrast with its meaning. It’s a lovely word though.

This dictionary is a “pocket” one which unfortunately comes without a pronunciation guide. I may have to seek out a more comprehensive volume. Mind you, many of the words read like Scottish pronunciations of English words. But given the tangled provenance of these languages, who knows which came first. (Okay, some linguist knows, but I don’t.)

For a brief history of the Scots language click here. If you’d like to do some browsing of your own, you can find an online Scots-English dictionary here.