Monday, July 31, 2006

Review in Word

The July/August 2006 issue of Word: Canada’s Magazine for Readers + Writers is now available online. It includes my review of Stolen by Annette Lapointe, a first novel which is one of the best books that I’ve read so far this year. To read what I wrote about it, click here. Note that you have to download the magazine in pdf format in order to read it.

Toronto Book Bloggers

A social gathering of Toronto litbloggers is in the works. If you're interested in attending such an event, contact Heather at The Library Ladder to get yourself added to her mailing list. I think that it will be good fun to get to meet one another and share a bit of book talk in person.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Russell Banks on Research and the Novelist

Russell Banks on research and the novelist:

Let me try to wrap this up more or less neatly by returning to my claim that I don’t do research. I can’t. I mustn’t. Not in the way that people who don’t write novels do research. For a novelist, research must always and exclusively serve the purposes of one’s characters, one’s narrative forms, story, theme, plot, and style. Not vice-versa. From my point of view, scholars and journalists have got it all backward.

From Russell Banks, “On Research” in Constance Rooke, ed., Writing Life: Celebrated Canadian and International Authors on Writing and Life (McClelland & Stewart, 2006).

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Cynthia Ozick on Freedom of Imagination

Cynthia Ozick on freedom of imagination:

[N]o writer of stories should be expected to be a moral champion or a representative of “identity.” That way lies tract and sermon and polemic. When a thesis or a framework—any kind of prescriptiveness or tendentiousness—is imposed on the writing of fiction, imagination flies out the door, and with it the freedom and volatility and irresponsibility that imagination both confers and demands. I have never set out to be anything other than a writer of stories.

From “Cynthia Ozick” in Diane Osen, ed., The Book That Changed My Life: Interviews with National Book Award Winners and Finalists (2002).

Friday, July 28, 2006

Just One Book?

Sylvia has tagged me to participate in the one book meme. I’m a promiscuous reader and so find it rather difficult to restrict myself to just one book in any category. But, never one to pass up an opportunity for introspection on my reading habits, I'll give it a go.

1. One book that changed your life:

Man Descending by Guy Vanderhaeghe. I read this brilliant book of short stories when I was sixteen. I’d read short stories in anthologies before then but this was the first collection by an individual author that I read cover to cover. Man Descending awakened me to the power of the short story form. The fact that Vanderhaeghe is from my home province of Saskatchewan and set many of his stories there had a huge impact as well. This was world-class writing emanating not from New York or London or Paris, but from right there at home. I credit Vanderhaeghe’s book with setting me on the path to becoming not just an avid reader of short stories but also a writer of them.

2. One book that you’ve read more than once:

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. This is my favourite of Spark’s novels and I get something more from it on each rereading.

3. One book you’d want on a desert island:

I have few outdoor survival skills so I should opt for a non-fiction title full of the sort of information that I’d need to stay alive on a desert island. Sticking to the literary theme though, if pressed to restrict myself to a single book I think I’d get the most mileage out of a short story anthology. Something along the lines of The Art of the Short Story which contains stories by fifty-two great writers together with some of their musings on the craft of writing. Lots of different voices to sustain me through my lonely vigil!

4. One book that made you laugh:

Mean Boy by Lynn Coady.

5. One book that made you cry:

If I had remembered how bleak L.M. Montgomery's Mistress Pat gets toward the end, I wouldn’t have chosen it for my airplane book en route to the Montgomery conference that I attended recently. I wept right there on the airplane, no doubt much to the consternation of the passenger sitting next to me.

6. One book that you wish had been written:

Betsy’s Bettina by Maud Hart Lovelace, the never-written eleventh book in the Betsy-Tacy series. I concede that Lovelace made a sound artistic decision in ending the series at the moment of the U.S. entry into WWI, before the experience of that war irrevocably changed the lives of Betsy and her crowd. But I would still like to know if Joe survived the war, and how Betsy’s writing career proceeded during and afterwards, and whether she ever had the daughter that she planned to name Bettina. Not that I want someone other than Lovelace to write that book now mind you. I abhor sequels written by someone other than the original author.

7. One book that you wish had never been written:

I could name a few books that I wish I hadn’t read but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I wish they had never been written. Just because I didn’t like them doesn’t mean that others who did or would should be deprived of their enjoyment. I’m not sure that I would wish out of existence even those books full of political ideas that appal me. I struggle with this issue, but I’m inclined toward the view that it’s better to have the ideas out in the open where they can be combated as opposed to leaving them to fester beneath the surface.

8. One book you’re currently reading:

This All Happened by Michael Winter.

9. One book you’ve been meaning to read:

Mulligan Stew by Gilbert Sorrentino.

10. Now tag five people:

Oh sure, now I get to pick five. If they’re inclined to participate, I’d be curious to hear from Jennifer, Heather, Patricia, satyridae, and Melissa on this one, and also from any other readers who are interested.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Dawn Powell on Writing New York

Dawn Powell in a diary entry dated February 12, 1934, as she embarked on the novel that became Turn, Magic Wheel:

I want this new novel to be delicate and cutting—nothing will cut New York but a diamond. Probably should do a night job on it as on Tenth Moon—it should not be a daylight book but intense and brilliant and fine like night thoughts. No wandering but each detail should point to the one far-off star and be keyed by Lila’s own waiting excitement and preserved youth. It should be crystal in quality, sharp as the skyline and relentlessly true. No external details beyond the swift eager glance over the shoulder.

From The Diaries of Dawn Powell 1931-1965 (Steerforth Press, 1995).

Terry Teachout on Dawn Powell

I’ve finally acquired a copy of A Terry Teachout Reader. Having already become a fan of Teachout’s writing through About Last Night, I’d have picked it up in any event. But what a marvellous extra lure to find, when I cracked it open, that the first essay in the book is about Dawn Powell, one of my favourite writers. Teachout’s essay originally appeared in The New York Times Book Review in 1995 when The Diaries of Dawn Powell 1931-1965 were first published. In it, he beautifully sums up why you may not be familiar with Dawn Powell’s work and, if so, why you will want to rectify that immediately:

Reading My Home is Far Away, one inevitably wonders why Powell never found an audience. The most likely reason is that her books are devoid of the earnestness that has always been for most Americans the only sure sign of true art. Like all satirists, Powell was in deadly earnest, but she never saw any reason to be tiresome about it. Her touch was light, her tone whip-smart, a pair of attributes that confused even so shrewd a critic as Diana Trilling, who gave The Locusts Have No King a mixed review to which Powell replied in her diary, “Gist of criticisms (Diana Trilling, etc.) of my novel is if they had my automobile they wouldn’t visit my folks, they’d visit theirs.” Trilling is nobody’s fool, but she went to see the wrong family. Dawn Powell was one of America’s best novelists, and if there is any justice—a proposition at which she would doubtless have laughed wildly—she will soon receive her due.

I don’t think that Powell has yet received her due, but the release of her diaries in 1995 and the subsequent return to print of many of her novels certainly broadened her audience. I was among the readers who found their way to her fiction through the diaries. I read them along with several of her New York novels round about the time of my first visit to New York, and they became thoroughly bound up in my love affair with the place. The Golden Spur, set mostly in Greenwich Village, is a particular favourite. After I read it I bought several copies and for a long time pressed them upon friends and acquaintances whenever a birthday or some such occasion provided me with an opportunity for Powell proselytising.

I’m plotting now to revisit my favourite Powell novels and to search out those that I haven’t yet encountered. I’m also looking forward to reading more of A Terry Teachout Reader. Clearly it’s going to be one of those dangerous books that propels me towards many other books, not to mention CDs, films and various other art forms…

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Chekhov’s Six Principles for Story Writing

Anton Chekhov’s six principles for story writing, as articulated in a letter to his brother Alexander dated May 10, 1886:

1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature;
2. total objectivity;
3. truthful descriptions of persons and objects;
4. extreme brevity;
5. audacity and originality: flee the stereotype;
6. compassion.

Quoted in Richard Pevear’s introduction to Anton Chekhov, Stories (translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, 2000).

Criteria for Culling the Collection

I have a great deal of trouble getting rid of books, any books. It even makes me anxious to read of other people divesting themselves of portions of their personal libraries. During my recent book reorganization, I agonized for some time and managed to come up with only one modest cardboard box full of books that I was willing to relinquish: outdated computer manuals and exercise books, cookbooks I’d never used, mystery novels that I'm unlikely to reread now that I know the identity of the murderer, and the odd duplicate fiction or poetry title that I’d inadvertently acquired.

But post-reorganization, for the first time in my life, all of my books are out of storage and on display. I’d like to keep it this way, yet the likelihood of my book collection ceasing to grow at this point is nil. Clearly, I’m going to have to buck up and come up with criteria that I can live with for the occasional culling of my collection.

I’ve found some inspiration in Lewis Buzbee’s The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop. Here’s a man who is as nuts about books as I am; more so if that’s possible. Yet he’s managed to come to terms with the need to let go of once-cherished volumes along the way:

As a bookseller and a rep, I’ve had many more thousands of books in my possession than my shelves at home would indicate. At one time, I tried to keep them all, but that quest soon became impossible; I now only keep the ones I’m sure I’m going to reread, the ones I’m definitely going to read before I die, and the ones I can’t bear to part with because of an aesthetic or emotional attachment.

This strikes me as a plausible blueprint for deciding which books stay and which go. The first category, the ones I’m sure I’m going to reread, is fairly easy to determine. I can see myself running into a bit of trouble with the second category though as I realize that I’m wildly over-optimistic about the number of books I’m capable of reading in my lifetime. And the third, well, my emotional attachment to many of my books runs deep, particularly the childhood favourites. I’m glad that Buzbee gives weight to emotional and aesthetic attachment though; it’s a nice change from the television organization gurus who lose me every time they force a tearful packrat to winnow his or her book collection down to a shelf or two.

Buzbee is also inspiring when he writes about the fate of the books he relinquishes, the majority of which are destined for used-book stores:

For me, one of the great things about selling my books is that I know the ones I’ve sold can now begin an entire new existence. No longer relegated to my shelf or worse, a box in the garage, these books can go to a new home, possibly staying forever, possibly being traded in once again.

“Used bookstores,” he concludes, “represent recycling at its best, a powerful and useful endeavor that’s important to both our cultural and material lives.”

One of the reasons that I find it so difficult to get rid of books is the spectre of them languishing in landfill. The idea of sending them back into circulation instead is very appealing to me. I know that no one else wants those outdated computer manuals and exercise books that I’ve consigned to the cardboard box. But there are some other fine books in my collection that I could bear to donate to Goodwill in the hope that they’ll wind up in the hands of another happy reader. Giving away books and throwing away books are two entirely different matters.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Lisa Moore on Writing from the Midst of Domestic Life

Lisa Moore on writing from the midst of domestic life:

Virginia Woolf needed a room of her own. I need this house with its creaking staircase and the dryer tumbling and the lingering smell of cooking. The very faint sound of my husband practising guitar on the third floor. I need the chaos children bring to a life, the sensuality they bring and the imagination. I need the street outside too.

Lisa Moore (with Eva Crocker), “Yolk” in Constance Rooke, ed., Writing Life: Celebrated Canadian and International Authors on Writing and Life (McClelland & Stewart, 2006).

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Ego and the Essayist

As far as word-of-mouth recommendations go, it seems that for me all it takes is two separate positive mentions from sources that I trust to prompt me to pick up a book. The first plants it in my consciousness, and the second propels me towards the bookstore or the library to seek out a copy. This makes me sound like an easy sell, but note that I didn’t simply say two positive mentions. I said two positive mentions from sources that I trust. A magazine advertisement combined with a lukewarm review in the Globe and Mail is not going to do the trick. But garner enthusiastic reviews from a few of the sites on my blog roll, and there’s a good chance that you’ve got yourself a sale.

The latest example of this phenomenon in action relates not to a hot new release but to E.B. White’s 1977 collection of essays. First I came across a passing mention of the book in Lewis Buzbee's The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop (a wonderful bookseller's memoir about which I promise a post soon) and noted it down. Then The Literate Kitten listed it in her response to Dorothy W.'s recent request for essay recommendations. That was enough for me; I went out and acquired a copy.

I’m thoroughly enjoying White’s essays. It’s too early in my reading for a post on the collection as a whole, but I wanted to share a couple of excerpts from the foreword given their connection to recent litblog discussions about the essay form.

Of the essayist White writes:

The essayist is a self-liberated man, sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest. He is a fellow who thoroughly enjoys his work, just as people who take bird walks enjoy theirs. Each new excursion of the essayist, each new “attempt,” differs from the last and takes him into new country. This delights him. Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays.

He’s having a bit of fun in the reference to self-centeredness but not entirely so. A few paragraphs on, he follows up on this point:

I think some people find the essay the last resort of the egoist, a much too self-conscious and self-serving form for their taste; they feel that it is presumptuous of a writer to assume that his little excursions or his small observations will interest the reader. There is some justice in their complaint. I have always been aware that I am by nature self-absorbed and egoistical; to write of myself to the extent I have done indicates a too great attention to my own life, not enough to the lives of others.

I haven’t yet read enough of White’s essays to judge whether that’s a fair statement about his work. But I don’t accept it as an accurate reflection of essayists in general. Some of my favourite essayists do indeed depict their own lives in minute detail and do so in very compelling fashion. But many turn their gaze not on themselves but outward. Very often it is precisely their keen attention to the lives of others that makes their work so interesting. Of course, that doesn’t mean the essayist is absent from the text. I agree with Dorothy W. and Danielle that an engaging voice is paramount in the essay form. But often what makes an essay work is not the reader’s interest in the essayist but rather the essayist’s interest in his or her topic. We don’t need to be convinced that the essayist is interesting so much as we need to be convinced that he or she is interested. A good essay has the capacity to infect the reader with the same curiosity that grips the writer.

What do you think? Must the essayist be an egoist?

Friday, July 21, 2006

Marilynne Robinson on Reading and Consciousness

Marilynne Robinson on reading and consciousness:

But reading a book is a much deeper thing than interpreting a series of signs. Words can inform, but they can also enlist, and it is this power to engage consciousness, so that a fiction becomes the reader’s own experience, that is remarkable. There is a power, as of ritual or initiation, which claims a place in deep memory, and which remains integral and complex. Every novel we call great has by now a penumbra of interpretation surrounding it. But at the core of it all is the irreducible complexity of the fiction itself, for which no equivalent language can be found. This is the music that has as its instrument the consciousness of the reader.

From Marilynne Robinson, “On the Reader: An Excerpt from an Essay in Progress” in Constance Rooke, ed., Writing Life: Celebrated Canadian and International Authors on Writing and Life (McClelland & Stewart, 2006).

Not Worth the Investment

Liz Perle, Money, A Memoir: Women, Emotions, and Cash (Henry Holt and Company, 2006).

In the prologue to Money, A Memoir, Liz Perle states that she hopes the book “will encourage women to take a look at their own complicated feelings about money and what money means to them” and thereby “move closer to liberating ourselves from the fears and fantasies that keep us from asking to be paid what a job is worth, or from saving for our retirement, or that leave us mired in intractable debt.” She explains her decision to write a memoir on this topic rather than a self-help book in these terms:

Because for me, there’s no better way to examine life’s troublesome questions than through the show-and-tell of others’ experiences. Because all the theory and how-to books either scared me, or shamed me, or, to be honest, put me to sleep. Because I’m not the kind of person who has ever had a lasting transformation from a self-help book.

Perle’s Money is indeed a memoir but it's also thoroughly laced with self-help style analysis. The memoir part of it is often compelling. But the analysis, for the most part a crude amalgam of 1980s feminism (of the Carol Gilligan In a Different Voice variety) and biological determinism, undercuts the whole book.

Let me offer up several excerpts to illustrate my point:

- “Women relate to money much differently than men do. There are many reasons large and small why this is true. When I ask Stephen Goldbart, a prominent psychotherapist […] about these differences, he tells me that they are ancient and deeply embedded psychologically and biologically in both sexes. These differences are so old, so deep, and such a part of our basic wiring that they cannot be ignored.” (pp. 25-26)

- “Brizendine pointed out that three hundred million years of brain development informs my Inner Stewardess and her drive to mollify. She reminded me that women are hard-wired for behaviours that are affiliative.” (p. 73)

- “Thus a huge part of the Mommy Wars lies not only in the conflict of roles, identities, even ways of valuing ourselves, but in an intractable standoff between two biological imperatives: the need to love and reproduce and the need to have an income.” (p. 90)

- “There’s another distinctly female force at work that affects our salaries. It goes back to our hardwiring. Since it is in the nature of women to survive by keeping relationships and networks in working, mutually supportive order, behaviours that might involve pitting one person against another—even in the name of making more money—are not going to feel right or comfortable.” (109)

Perle acknowledges early on that such statements are rife with generalizations about sex and gender, but proceeds blithely on in this vein regardless: “These may be gross generalizations, but that doesn’t make them any less true.” (p. 31) With this rhetorical move, Perle renders her book part of the problem rather than part of the solution. For it seems to me that much of the trouble that women experience in relation to money is linked to precisely these sorts of generalizations—whether it’s parents, spouses, bosses, or women themselves buying into them. Thus it strikes me as both ironic and futile to attempt to use such generalizations to illuminate the problem. Women’s relationship with money is a complex subject which demands a much more complex analysis than this.

Perle’s book isn’t all bad. As I said, I found her own financial story quite compelling and this narrative kept me reading to the end. Her moment of epiphany in the midst of negotiating a child-support agreement resonated with me:

Two things were clear: I needed money. Absolutely. But what I definitely could no longer afford was an indirect, somewhat coy, and extremely emotional relationship with money. It was time to separate what a dollar could buy emotionally from what it purchased at the grocery store. There were emotional needs and material ones, and I wasn’t going to be able to distinguish between them if I didn’t face the fact that I could no longer afford to play the “Oh, I don’t talk about money” game or pretend that money wasn’t important to me. I was going to have to own up to my material desires and make some peace with them.

Linked to that final point, there are some very interesting insights threaded through the book about the tendency of many in modern American society to experience want as need.

Clearly Perle could have written a much smarter book about women and money and I wish that she had done so instead of reverting with such frequency to assertions about men's and women’s hardwiring. Rather than thinking more deeply about my own fraught relationship with money when I closed the book, I congratulated myself on having made the sound financial decision to borrow this one from the library rather than buying a copy to keep.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Which Authors Dominate Your Bookshelves?

I did reorganize my books. I mixed the fiction and poetry together, arranged alphabetically by author, then added in any essays, journals, diaries, letters, and biographies by or about the authors. I kept the children’s literature in its own section but there too I integrated other material by or about the authors. The rest of the non-fiction is still divided into various sections by subject.

The chief drawback of the reorganization is that my books seem to have multiplied in the process. When I was done, all of the bookcases were full, yet my travel and art books were homeless, sitting in stacks on the dining room floor. I either had to get rid of some books or get another bookcase. I’m sure you can guess which option I chose. I thought I’d run out of wall space, but I got out the tape measure and figured out that I could squeeze one more bookcase into my office. The deed is done now: one more bookcase, bought, built and filled. As you can see from the photo above, I seem to have transformed my office into a library.

There are two things that I particularly like about the new arrangement. First, I think I’m much more likely to delve into the poetry books now as these generally slim volumes are much easier to see when they’re interspersed with thick novels and biographies than they were all squashed together in a clump. Second, as I anticipated, it’s very satisfying to see all of the books related to individual authors lined up next to one another. Here are the authors who dominate my bookshelves (arbitrarily defined as those whom I own five or more books by or about): Margaret Atwood, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robertson Davies, Emily Dickinson, H.D., Neil Gunn, Margaret Laurence, Mary McCarthy, Alice Munro, Anais Nin, Sylvia Plath, Jean Rhys, Muriel Spark, Robert Louis Stevenson, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Virginia Woolf. In the children’s literature section, there are even more authors that meet the criteria given the preponderance of series books in my collection: Louisa May Alcott, Lloyd Alexander, L. Frank Baum, Judy Blume, Enid Blyton, Susan Cooper, Elizabeth Enright, Madeleine L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, Maud Hart Lovelace, Lucy Maud Montgomery, E. Nesbit, J.K. Rowling, Noel Streatfeild, P.L. Travers, and Laura Ingalls Wilder. In the non-fiction sections, only these heavyweights qualify: Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Karl Marx.

Which authors dominate your bookshelves?

Update on Short Story Discussion Group

More than twenty people have expressed an interest in joining the short story discussion group that I proposed last week, so it’s definitely a go. I’m really looking forward to exploring a range of classic short stories in such excellent company.

Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) has been credited with revolutionizing the form and thereby ushering in the golden age of the modern short story. William Boyd goes so far as to say: “Perhaps all short stories written after Chekhov are in one way or another in his debt.” So “The Lady With the Dog”, regarded by many as Chekhov’s best story, seems a good starting point. We’ll begin our discussion with it on August 8, 2006.

I’m setting up a dedicated blog for the group and I’ll post a link to it here shortly. In the meantime, I’ll consult via e-mail with those that have expressed an interest in participating about how we’ll organize our discussion and about what other stories we’ll include on our reading list. (If you’d like to be consulted on these questions but haven’t made your e-mail address available, please send it to me.) Of course, it’s not too late to join in this venture. Anyone who wishes to do so is welcome to read along with us and chime in on our discussion at any time.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Flannery O’Connor on Hope and the Novel

Stefanie’s excellent post on reading and hope at So Many Books prompts me to offer up another excerpt from Flannery O’Connor’s marvellous essay collection:

People are always complaining that the modern novelist has no hope and that the picture he paints of the world is unbearable. The only answer to this is that people without hope do not write novels. Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I’m always highly irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system. If the novelist is not sustained by a hope of money, then he must be sustained by a hope of salvation, or he simply won’t survive the ordeal.

People without hope not only don’t write novels, but what is more to the point, they don’t read them. They don’t take long looks at anything, because they lack the courage. The way to despair is to refuse to have any kind of experience, and the novel, of course, is a way to have experience.

From Flannery O’Connor, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (1969).

I’ve only read two of the essays so far and have already decided that this collection is indispensable. Yesterday I bought myself a copy and returned the library copy with which I began.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Alice Munro on How She Writes a Story

Alice Munro on how she writes a story:

So when I write a story I want to make a certain kind of structure, and I know the feeling I want to get from being inside that structure. This is the hard part of the explanation, where I have to use a word like “feeling,” which is not very precise, because if I attempt to be more intellectually respectable I will have to be dishonest. “Feeling” will have to do.

There is no blueprint for the structure. It’s not a question of, “I’ll make this kind of house because if I do it right it will have this effect.” I’ve got to make, I’ve got to build up, a house, a story, to fit around the indescribable “feeling” that is like the soul of the story, and which I must insist upon in a dogged, embarrassed way, as being no more definable than that. And I don’t know where it comes from. It seems to be already there, and some unlikely clue, such as a shop window or a bit of conversation, makes me aware of it. Then I start accumulating the material and putting it together. Some of the material I may have lying around already, in memories and observations, and some I invent, and some I have to go diligently looking for (factual details), while some is dumped in my lap (anecdotes, bits of speech). I see how this material might go together to make the shape I need, and I try it. I keep trying and seeing where I went wrong and trying again.

From Alice Munro, “What is Real?” (1982); reproduced in Dana Gioia & R.S. Gwynn, eds., The Art of the Short Story: 52 Great Authors, Their Best Short Fiction, and Their Insights on Writing (2006).

Friday, July 14, 2006

Off on the Wrong Foot

I’m not doing well with David Lodge’s fiction. His novella Home Truths didn’t work for me, but I’ve been told that his novels are much stronger and I resolved to give them a try. I’ve begun with Nice Work since it was the first of the three that I put on hold to arrive at the library. It came recommended by some very discerning readers, so I’m sure that it will pick up. But I’m only twenty pages in, and already Lodge has employed three scenarios/devices of which I am very weary.

First, there is the obligatory peeing scene. What is it about male characters of a certain age that we must, within pages of meeting them, accompany them to the toilet for a pee? In Nice Work, we get two paragraphs of peeing a mere page after we first encounter middle-aged executive Victor Wilcox. To be fair, it’s not Lodge’s fault that I’m weary of this. It’s the first time I’ve witnessed it in one of his books, and the other examples that come to mind are from novels that were published later (Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version and Ian McEwan’s Saturday). Nevertheless, I would prefer to have the protagonist’s humanity/vulnerability signalled to me in a more novel way.

Shortly after the peeing ceases, Vic shaves, and he is described to us as he appears to himself in the mirror. Is this not unforgivably cliché? The sort of thing that creative writing students are told to avoid at all costs?

Finally, at the close of the first chapter, there is the ridiculous breast simile. Vic has a colleague who is a bit of a stage mother and she is forever pressing the portfolio of her would-be model daughter upon him. On the morning that the novel opens, Vic is startled by recent, um, developments in the latest set of photographs:

The pouting weak-chinned face under the blonde curls is familiar enough, but the two huge naked breasts, thrust towards the camera like pink blancmanges tipped with cherries, are a new departure.”

Pink blancmanges tipped with cherries? I admit that I have very little experience with blancmange and it may well be customarily served in a distinctive breast-like shape. But a wobbly pudding doesn’t strike me as a particularly apt comparison for seventeen-year-old breasts. And I could have done without the cherries. I have yet to see nipples that approximate the shape or the colour of cherries.

Here too though it’s not so much this particular passage that gets to me as it is the ubiquity of such ridiculous breast similes in contemporary fiction. I won’t offer up further examples as I’m sure the above-quoted passage will bring me more than enough misdirected google traffic on its own—visitors who will no doubt be as dissatisfied with what they find here as I am with the first chapter of Nice Work.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Flannery O’Connor on the Meaning of a Story

Flannery O’Connor on the meaning of a story:

When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you to experience that meaning more fully.

From Flannery O’Connor, “Writing Short Stories” in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (1969). (Thanks to The Literate Kitten for recommending that I read this wonderful collection of essays!)

Toronto Event: Eileen Myles

I can’t begin to tell you how excited I was to hear that Eileen Myles is reading tomorrow night in Toronto: Friday, July 14th, 7 pm at This Ain’t the Rosedale Library (483 Church Street). Myles is a legendary poet who also writes kick-ass fiction including, my favourite, a brilliant novel titled Cool for You (Soft Skull Press, 2000). The New York Times has described her as "a cult figure to a generation of post-punk females forming their own literary avant garde" and Bust magazine has dubbed her "the rock star of modern poetry." To learn more about her and read some excerpts from her work, check out her website.

Two fine Toronto writers will be reading along with Myles on Friday night. Zoe Whittall and Lisa Foad will be offering tantalizing previews of their forthcoming books, titled The Emily Valentine Poems and Violent Collections, Anxious Supplements respectively.

If you’re in the Toronto area, don’t miss this opportunity to hear these fabulous writers read!

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Studying the Short Story

In a recent post, Stefanie of So Many Books wrote of her frustration with Frank O’Connor’s The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story and concluded, along with a number of those who commented on her post, that the only way to gain a full understanding of the form is to read a lot of short stories. I enjoy reading articles and books about the form, but I agree that the most important thing is to read the stories themselves. The critical literature may enhance our reading of stories but it certainly doesn’t serve as a substitute for them nor, I’m sure, would any of us want it to.

Despite this conviction, it occurred to me that I have never attempted to systematically study the work of the acknowledged masters of the short story. I’ve read a lot of short stories—contemporary stories but also stories by the likes of Anton Chekhov, Guy de Maupassant, and Ernest Hemingway. My bookshelves groan with the collected stories of various distinguished writers. I’ve dipped in and out of these weighty tomes, but I’ve never read them straight through, cover to cover, so as to get a proper sense of each writer’s chronological development or of their entire oeuvre.

Stefanie’s post has galvanized me to embark on this sort of systematic study. I’ve pulled down off the shelves The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford, Fifty Stories by Kay Boyle, and Where I’m Calling From: Selected Stories by Raymond Carver. I went out yesterday and bought The Stories of John Cheever and The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel from my favourite indie bookstore, and I ordered Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield's Selected Stories, and The Collected Short Stories by Jean Rhys online.

I plan to work my way through each of these books one at a time at a rate of at least one story per day. One at a time so as not to mix up the authors with each other, and one per day because any short story worth reading is worth mulling over for a while before moving on to the next one. I’ve begun with Jean Stafford, though I did cheat yesterday and read the first story in the John Cheever collection over lunch right after I bought the book. I’d never read any Cheever before and just that one story (“Goodbye, My Brother”) bowled me over. Note that the collection is arranged chronologically, so “Goodbye, My Brother” is one of his earliest stories, one of the ones that he describes in the preface as immature and at times embarrassing. My head may explode when I get to those that he considers mature and accomplished. How did I get to this stage in my life as a devoted reader and writer of short stories without having read Cheever? (Thanks, by the way, to Patricia Storms whose recent post at BookLust on Cheever’s story “The Swimmer” and the movie version thereof prompted me to put this collection on my must buy list!)

It occurs to me as I embark on this grand plan that it would be wonderful to participate in a short story discussion group as an adjunct to my solitary study. I have in mind a reading group along the lines of the Slaves of Golconda, dedicated to reading and discussing one short story per month. (This may not seem terribly ambitious, but I’m aware that there are a number of litblog reading groups going on at the moment, and that many of you are participating in more than one of them.) At that pace, we could work our way through a series of classic stories in leisurely fashion: Chekhov’s “The Lady With the Dog,” James Joyce’s “The Dead,” Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” Jean Rhys’s “Let Them Call it Jazz,” Jean Stafford’s “In the Zoo,” Frank O’Connor’s “My Oedipus Complex,” John Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” plus stories by Isaac Babel, Katherine Mansfield, Kay Boyle, Grace Paley, Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor, Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, and others.

If you would like to participate in such a venture let me know via e-mail or the comments section, and I will endeavor to get something organized.

How Do You Organize Your Books?

I’ve been thinking about rearranging my books. This is how they’re organized now:

In the living room, there are two bookcases containing mostly fiction and some poetry.

In the dining room there are three bookcases. The first contains individual biographies; the second group biographies, travel, art, and photography books; and the third cookbooks, health and fitness, gardening, and home repair books. Sadly the third bookcase is mostly aspirational; we rarely consult those books.

In my home office, there are three bookcases. The first contains books related to my doctoral dissertation. I finished the dissertation a couple of years ago but I’m still working on transforming it into a book so I keep all my reference material handy. (My other work-related books are consigned to my office at work—law, political theory, sociology, gender and sexuality studies and so on.) The second contains essays, literary criticism and books about the craft of writing, plus odds and ends in categories in which I don’t have enough books to require a bookcase of their own (for example, religion, psychoanalysis, history). The third contains books that are related to research for two novels and one non-fiction book that I’ve been plotting to write for a while (my collection of books about Scotland is housed here).

My beau isn’t as bookish as me, but he has one bookcase in his office that contains mostly music and business books.

In the spare room there are two bookcases that contain my children’s literature collection. These books are not in exile in the spare room—I’ve put them there because I envision my nieces visiting and feeling at home sleeping in that room among familiar books.

In the hallway, there’s one bookcase for library books, books borrowed from friends, and books that have been sent to me for review. I’ve learned that library books need their own bookcase; otherwise they’re apt to get lost among the rest, particularly since some of my own books are ex-library ones that still bear call numbers on their spines.

In the bedroom, we each have a shelf next to the bed for books we’re in the midst of reading. In addition to those, there’s one bookcase that’s not assigned to any particular category. This is our most recently acquired bookcase and I just filled it randomly with books that had been stored in boxes plus some newly purchased ones that had been languishing in heaps on the floor.

The fiction and biographies are in alphabetical order by author and subject respectively, while the rest are just random within their categories.

That final bookcase in the bedroom demonstrates the breakdown of the system. I have too many books for my designated bookcases, particularly in the fiction, poetry, and biography categories. So the time is ripe now to rethink the categories.

One change that I’ve been considering is bringing together books by author and subject, categories be damned. Wouldn’t it be nice, for example, to have Virginia Woolf’s novels, essays, and diaries all together, with biographies of her alongside them, instead of having them dispersed over three different locations? And to have James Schuyler’s diary, his collected poems, and his novel together in a clump instead of just one lonely volume each in the biography/poetry/fiction sections? But how would I integrate that with everything else? I don’t think that I want my travel books filed by author, for example. I’d rather have those organized geographically. And what about those group biographies? They can’t be in several places at once. And I do like having bookcases devoted to different writing projects in my office. In fact, I’ve been fighting the impulse to colonise more of the books from elsewhere into them. For example, moving the fiction and poetry books by Scottish authors upstairs to take their place alongside the rest of the Scotland collection in my office. But then, surely I don’t want to get all nationalistic about fiction, segregating those fine Scottish writers in my office rather than leaving them to mingle with their literary peers in the living room.

I mentioned today in a comment on Stefanie’s short story post at So Many Books that I enjoy the making and breaking of categories when it comes to different literary forms. Evidently, I rather enjoy the categorization game when it comes to books as physical objects as well.

How do you organize your books?

Bernard Malamud on Revision

Bernard Malamud on revision:

First drafts are for learning what your novel or story is about. Revision is working with that knowledge to enlarge and enhance an idea, to re-form it. D.H. Lawrence, for instance, did seven or eight drafts of The Rainbow. The first draft of a book is the most uncertain—where you need guts, the ability to accept the imperfect until it is better. Revision is one of the true pleasures of writing.

From Bernard Malamud, “The Writer at Work” (1974); reproduced in Alan Cheuse & Nicholas Delbanco, eds., Talking Horse: Bernard Malamud on Life and Work (1996).

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Susan Cooper on the Mystery of the Creative Process

Susan Cooper on the mystery of the creative process:

Who knows where the ideas come from? Who knows what happens in that shadowy part of the mind, something between Plato’s cave and Maeterlinck’s Hall of Night, where the creative imagination hides? Who knows even where the words come from, the right rhythm and meaning and music all at once? Those of us who make books out of the words and ideas have less of an answer than anyone. All we know is that marvelous feeling that comes, sometimes, like a break of sunshine in a cloud-grey sky, when through all the research and concentration and slog—suddenly you are writing, fluently and fast, with every sense at high pitch and yet in a state almost like trance. Suddenly, for a time, the door is open, the magic is working; a channel exists between the page and that shadowy cave in the mind.

From Susan Cooper, “Seeing Around Corners” (1976); reproduced in Dreams and Wishes: Essays on Writing for Children (1996).

Monday, July 10, 2006

Mordecai Richler on Writing and Recognition

Mordecai Richler on writing and recognition:

Nobody is more embittered than the neglected writer and, obviously, allowed a certain recognition, I am a happier and more generous man than I would otherwise be. But nothing I have done to win this recognition appals me, has gone against my nature. I fervently believe that all a writer should send into the marketplace to be judged is his own work; the rest should remain private. I deplore the writer as personality, however large and undoubted the talent, as is the case with Norman Mailer. I also do not believe in special license for so-called artistic temperament. After all, my problems, as I grudgingly come within spitting distance of middle age, are the same as anybody else’s. Easier maybe. I can bend my anxieties to subversive uses. Making stories of them. When I’m not writing, I’m a husband and a father of five. Worried about pollution. The population explosion. My sons’ report cards.

From Mordecai Richler, “Why I Write” in Shovelling Trouble (1972).

On a basic level, I share Richler’s conviction that “all a writer should send into the marketplace to be judged is his own work” and that “the rest should remain private.” But I am left with questions. Is it possible to act consistently with this conviction in the contemporary marketplace and still sell a reasonable number of books? Richler managed to keep his family life scrupulously private throughout his career. But it seems to me that, at least in the Canadian context, he ultimately came to embody the “writer as personality” that he once deplored. Did this happen in spite of him, or did he contribute to the cult of personality? His public profile had as much to do with his political writing as with his fiction but that’s still “his own work” not “the rest.” Of course, it also had to do with his predilection for stirring up trouble. Where exactly does the line between one’s “own work” and “the rest” fall? This seems to me a very complicated question, particularly for those who write non-fiction as well as fiction.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Home Truths: David Lodge’s Novella

I’ve become enamoured of David Lodge’s essays of late, and have been meaning to try some of his fiction. I came upon his Henry James novel, which I’ve been curious about, on the library shelf the other evening. But I was in the mood for more of a comic novel, so I passed that one by for the moment and opted instead for Home Truths. Described on the back cover as a “delicious novella” that “brilliantly examines our culture of celebrity and the conflict between the solitary activity of writing and the demands of the media circus,” it seemed just the thing. I could certainly see the comic possibilities in a scenario pitting a nearly forgotten novelist and a successful screenwriter against a vicious celebrity interviewer, and I was intrigued by the fact that the book was explicitly billed as a novella rather than as a short novel. This struck me as unusual in a market in which the novel is valued above all other forms of fiction.

I confess that despite my preoccupation with genre distinctions, I’m not altogether sure what the parameters of the novella are. Is it a very long story, or a short novel? Does it have more in common with the former form or the latter? Or is it its own genre with wholly different rules and expectations attached to it? Alas, I come away from Home Truths none the wiser for the simple reason that it’s not really a novella. It’s an adaptation of a play which Lodge undertook because he didn’t think that the work had reached a wide enough audience in play form. I get the impression from his explanatory afterword that he stuck the novella label on it because he knew it didn’t qualify as a novel, not because he’d given any thought to the novella as a distinct form.

Here’s the key excerpt from Lodge’s afterword:

I had always envisaged the new Home Truths as a novella rather than a novel, a short book that would retain the dramatic structure and texture of the original play. One reason, perhaps, why the adaptation of plays into prose fiction is comparatively rare is that the average play would have to be considerably expanded to reach the length of the average novel—but such expansion risks destroying the essential quality of the original, its dramatic concentration on a few decisive moments in the lives of the characters.

In the second sentence, Lodge seems to suggest that there is a distinction between the novel and the novella which goes beyond word count, that the novella has more in common formally with the short story than the novel (“dramatic concentration on a few decisive moments in the lives of the characters”). But the first sentence does not seem to me to describe the novella, apart from the “short book” bit (“a short book that would retain the dramatic structure and texture of the original play”). What he is describing there is simply an adaptation of a play and ultimately that’s how his book reads. It has not moved beyond its original form to become something else.

Home Truths is made up almost entirely of dialogue. The dialogue is interspersed with occasional passages of description that are well enough written in and of themselves, but they’re not properly integrated into the book. As a consequence they read like descriptions of the set of a play; they are clunky asides rather than integral components of the story. Without actors to bring the dialogue to life, the whole thing comes off as rather hollow. Home Truths has its strong points. The dialogue is sharp; the ideas are engaging; it’s funny and smart. I’ll bet it was a great play. But formally it doesn’t hold together as a novella. I think that Lodge would have done better to publish it as a play rather than stretching his material in a way that doesn’t do it justice.

Clearly Home Truths was a bad pick for my introduction to Lodge’s fiction. I know there are lots of Lodge fans out there. What should I read to get a better sense of what Lodge is capable of in fiction? I do intend to read Author, Author at some point, but I’d still like to begin with one of his earlier comic novels. Any recommendations?

W. Somerset Maugham on a Writer and his Characters

W. Somerset Maugham on a writer and his characters:

A character in a writer’s head, unwritten, remains a possession; his thoughts recur to it constantly, and while his imagination gradually enriches it he enjoys the singular pleasure of feeling that there, in his mind, someone is living a varied and tremulous life, obedient to his fancy and yet in a queer wilful way independent of him. But when once that character is set down on paper, it belongs to the writer no more.

From W. Somerset Maugham, “Preface,” Cakes and Ale (1930).

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Cynthia Ozick on Writers and Impersonation

Cynthia Ozick on writers and impersonation:

The idea of impersonation, I think, is central both to how writers think and imagine, and to what they write about. Not that all writers are drawn to impersonation as a theme; but all writers enact impersonation in the invention of character. One caveat: Writers who are impersonators in life cannot be honest writers of fiction. The falsehood will leach into the work. […] The imagination that deals with fictive authenticity depends absolutely on personal authenticity, because fiction depends on clarity of seeing. If you are not lucid about yourself, you are not going to be lucid about anything.

From “Cynthia Ozick” in Diane Osen, ed., The Book That Changed My Life: Interviews with National Book Award Winners and Finalists (2002).

Friday, July 07, 2006

Writing from a Childhood Home

One of my favourite facets of About Last Night is Terry Teachout’s occasional bulletins from his childhood home in Smalltown, USA on his returns there to visit his mother.

In a recent such post, he contrasted his usual workspace in his Manhattan apartment with that from which he was writing that week in his mother’s house:

In Smalltown I sit at a rickety, ink-stained card table that’s as old as I am, set up next to the bed in which I slept as a teenager. When I glance up from my iBook, I see a homemade bookshelf (my father built it) full of tattered paperbacks, a complete set of Reader’s Digest Best-Loved Books for Young Readers, and a short stack of dusty 45s by such artists as Ray Anthony, Rosemary Clooney, Billy Daniels, Vic Damone, Stan Kenton, the McGuire Sisters, and Jo Stafford. A chromolithograph of Abraham Lincoln hangs on the wall behind me. To my left is a telephone with a dial. The only modern things in sight are the laptop computer on which I’m writing these words and the iPod on which I listen to music, both of which I brought with me.

I come from a small city in the middle of the Canadian prairies rather than a small town in the United States, but Teachout’s descriptions of returning “to Smalltown two or three times a year, each time returning to the same room in the same house in the same neighborhood, a block from my elementary school and three blocks from my high school” vividly evoke for me the same fond nostalgia that I often experience on my own trips home.

Teachout’s contrast of workspaces got me thinking about a distinction in our experiences though. I’ve realized in recent years that I can no longer write in my childhood bedroom.

The room that I stay in when I visit my parents is the same room in which I read and reread countless wonderful books throughout my childhood, adolescence, and teenage years. It’s the room in which I devoured Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy books and L.M. Montgomery’s Emily books, and aspired to become a writer along with Betsy and Emily. It’s the room in which I scribbled hundreds of dreadful (though deeply-felt) poems, and made my first attempts at fiction. It’s the room in which I squirreled away my first rejection letters and later celebrated my first acceptance letter from a literary magazine.

You would think that returning to that room would return me to my writing roots, that that space would be suffused with creative energy. Yet when ensconced there on a trip home I find myself unable to write anything beyond the most mundane of journal entries. Trying to write a story as an adult in that room is the closest I’ve come to writer’s block.

I’ve begun to wonder if returning to that room has an infantilizing effect. Perhaps in the same way that some people revert to childish petulance in adulthood when they interact with siblings in the presence of their parents, I revert to adolescent writing in my teenage bedroom. The experience and craft that I’ve acquired in the intervening years, tools that I need to write the fictions that I write now, temporarily abandon me.

That said, those visits home feed my writing in another way. I don’t write while I’m there but afterwards, inspired by conversations with my parents and by simply having lived again on the site of vivid memories for a few days or weeks, I write furiously when I get back to my current home, half a continent away.

Bernard Malamud on Plot and the Beginning Novelist

Bernard Malamud on plot and the beginning novelist:

Some writers nowadays are discouraged from plotting because they feel that plots are as a rule unoriginal, thus passé; they are content to work with what is called the plot-germ, and as Ortega y Gassett suggests, place most of their emphasis upon the characters; often they seem to be more concerned with background than anything else. I would urge the writer not to give up on a plot before he has really worked at it. Plot, if handled well, can be sheer poetry. It will help create the sense of the mystery of human life, the unknown, almost unknowable things that enter into our lives. Walk into the next room and your destiny may be changed. You can achieve some of that feeling from characterization, but plot intensifies it.

From Bernard Malamud, “Beginning the Novel” in Alan Cheuse & Nicholas Delbanco, eds., Talking Horse: Bernard Malamud on Life and Work (1996).

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Alfred Kazin on the Role of the Critic

Alfred Kazin on the role of the critic:

What I ask of a critic is that he usefully show the impact on his own consciousness of another's artistic power. If the critic cannot reveal to others the power of art in his own life, he cannot say anything useful or even humane in its interest. He will scrawl, however learnedly, arbitrary comments on the text.

From Alfred Kazin, “To Be a Critic” (1981) in Ted Solotaroff, ed., Alfred Kazin’s America: Critical and Personal Writings (2003).

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Alfred Kazin on Delmore Schwartz

I’ve written here before about the exalted place Delmore Schwartz’s story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” holds in my pantheon of literary excellence. While browsing in the university bookstore at lunchtime today, I picked up a copy of Alfred Kazin’s America: Critical and Personal Writings on the strength of the short essay it contains on Schwartz. Here’s what Kazin wrote about my favourite short story:

“In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” was straight, beautiful, haunting. It was a little masterpiece that used up a man’s whole life before he had lived it. It was the greatest fable I was ever to read of “our experience.” It was the one work of Delmore Schwartz’s life that had the power of a dream and it remains with me as if I had dreamed it myself.

In invoking “our experience,” Kazin is referring back to his description of the story as “the classic story of the Jewish son unable to escape the history represented by his family.” I don’t share that experience, but nevertheless Kazin perfectly encapsulates my feelings about the story in writing: “it remains with me as if I had dreamed it myself.” If you haven’t yet read Schwartz’s story, I urge you to do so.

I’d heard of Alfred Kazin before of course, but I think that this essay is the first bit of his work that I’ve read. Given our accord on the jewel of Schwartz’s oeuvre, I anticipate finding much of interest as I read my way through the rest of this collection of Kazin’s critical writings.

Story in Grain

The latest issue of Grain magazine, dedicated to the theme of “Scorn” and featuring an arresting painting by Tamara Bond on the cover, is on newsstands now. One of my stories, “Open All Night,” appears in it. Not long ago, a story of mine was included in Kiss Machine’s “Shame” issue; now I’ve got one in Grain’s “Scorn” issue. What do you suppose that says about me and my work?

In any event, it's clear from the content of the issue that the theme of scorn makes for some great writing. No excerpts are available online as of yet, but if your local bookshop, magazine store, or library carries Grain magazine, I encourage you to check it out.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Treasured Tomes

One of my most treasured possessions is a book that I can’t read: a Scottish Gaelic bible published in 1826. I'm not a religious person and the bible is not a family heirloom. In fact, I bought it on Ebay from a very nice bookseller in Cape Breton. But it was genealogical research that sparked my interest in it.

I put in my winning bid after determining from census data that a branch of my family had lived in the region of Scotland where the bible was distributed, and that their first language was Gaelic. The fact that they could have read it was enough to imbue it with a little magic in my eyes.

Shortly after I bought it, I signed up for Scottish Gaelic lessons. Alas I didn’t stick with them long enough to retain much of what I learned. I remember only the bare essentials (that "Hallo. Ciamar a tha thu?" means “Hello. How are you?") and a few obscure details (that the literal English translation of the phrase that means “I have a hangover” is “I have the eyes of a lobster”).

But having once again unearthed my Scottish Gaelic bible, I’m planning to sign up for more lessons in the fall. In the meantime, I resolve to locate a book-repair person who can advise me on how best to preserve this fragile tome.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Lost and Found

You may recall that just ten days ago I decided the copy of The Diary of James Schuyler that I thought I owned was a figment of my imagination. I bought another in The Reading Well Bookstore in Charlottetown.

Tonight, while shifting around some of my belongings, I found six boxes of books hidden away at the back of the closet under the stairs. I have a vague recollection of tucking them out of the way there when we first moved in with the intention of unearthing them when we acquired more bookcases. In the meantime we have acquired more bookcases, but also many more books to fill them…

I’ve only cracked open one of the boxes, but sure enough there was a copy of The Diary of James Schuyler right on top. If there are any Schuyler fans out there who would like to have my duplicate copy, leave me a comment or send me an e-mail. If more than one person expresses an interest in the book, I’ll do a draw for the lucky name.

Update: Several people have expressed an interest in my duplicate copy of The Diary of James Schuyler. I'll keep taking names until the end of the day on Wednesday, then determine who gets the book by drawing a name on Thursday morning.

Delmore Schwartz on a Problem of Poetry

Delmore Schwartz on a problem of poetry:

One of these problems concerns itself with how much poetry one ought to write and how much one ought to publish. After much reflection, I’ve decided that one ought to write as much as possible and publish as little as possible. The latter conclusion follows from the glum fact that most poetry is likely to be bad, if judged by any standards which would justify the assertion that some poetry is good. On the other hand, one ought to write as much as possible banking on the law of averages because, among other reasons, there is no way of telling in advance whether the poem one writes is going to be good. Moreover, the writing of bad poems is for many poets a way of arriving at the writing of good poems. By publishing only work which one is reasonably comfortable about, or work which is in an idiom one no longer cultivates, one avoids the remorse of looking at one’s bad poems in print and the paralyzing effects which may ensue. Horace advises one to wait for nine years before publishing a poem, and a very gifted modern poet told me that it is best to publish as much as possible, for one can always write more poems. Both pieces of advice may be good for some poets or good under certain conditions, but for most poets to wait, to be patient, to re-write and to keep looking at one’s poems is the best possible method of procedure, if one is interested in writing good poems rather than in being regarded as a poet. There is nothing wrong in wanting to be known as a poet, but the desire to write good poems is more fruitful in the long run.

From Delmore Schwartz, “Poetry is its Own Reward” (1950); reproduced in The Ego is Always at the Wheel: Bagatelles (New Directions, 1986).

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Muriel Spark’s Masterpiece

One of the marks of a great book is the extent to which it bears rereading. I was bowled over by Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie on first acquaintance many years ago. I’m now on my fourth read, and my admiration for and appreciation of it increase each time.

Having recently spent three weeks in Edinburgh, it’s no surprise that on my latest read through I was particularly struck by the sense of place that Spark evokes in the novel. You don’t have to know Edinburgh to appreciate The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but knowing The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie certainly helps one to more fully appreciate Edinburgh. It’s set primarily in the 1930s in the Morningside district which boasts respectable schools full of middle and upper class pupils whose mothers dress not too ostentatiously in tweed and address their daughters as “dear” rather than “darling” in clipped Edinburgh accents. Yet just a short walk across the Meadows, the squalor of the Old Town slums serves as a counter point, so distinct as to offer Sandy Stranger “her first experience of a foreign country, which intimates itself by its new smells and shapes and its new poor.”

Miss Jean Brodie, we are told, though an arresting presence at the Marcia Blaine School, is not unusual for her time and place:

There were legions of her kind during the nineteen-thirties, women from the age of thirty and upward, who crowded their war-bereaved spinsterhood with voyages of discovery into new ideas and energetic practices in art or social welfare, education or religion.

These progressive spinsters co-exist with other legions, for example, the unemployed men waiting for the dole that Miss Brodie and her girls encounter on their walk through the Old Town:

A very long queue of men lined this part of the street. They were without collars in shabby suits. They were talking and spitting and smoking little bits of cigarette held between middle finger and thumb.

This trip through the Old Town has an enduring impact on Sandy at least:

And many times throughout her life Sandy knew with a shock, when speaking to people whose childhood had been in Edinburgh, that there were other people’s Edinburghs quite different from hers, and with which she held only the names of districts and streets and monuments in common. Similarly, there were other people’s nineteen-thirties.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie doesn’t just invoke these multiple Edinburghs of the 1930s; it also situates it in the distant past, the immediate past, the immediate future, and years hence. We get a sense of Scotland’s romantic and dark history (at least the popular version thereof) in Sandy’s references to Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Kidnapped and also in the kinship that Miss Brodie claims with the infamous Deacon Brodie, a historical figure and also the model for RLS’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This Edinburgh is shaped by the recent experience of the Great War and by the current experience of the depression. It is an Edinburgh tied to Europe (“We are Europeans,” Miss Brodie proclaims) where the rise of fascism is evident. We also get a peek at a future Edinburgh from which the Old Town “slums have been cleared.”

This brings me to the second aspect of Spark’s writing on which I want to focus here. There was an interesting discussion recently on Dorothy W.’s blog about what qualifies as experimental writing. I don’t know whether Spark is lauded in the critical literature as an experimental writer; if she isn’t, she ought to be. In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, first published in 1961, Spark breaks many of the conventions of the novel to brilliant effect.

I’ve already hinted at the way Spark plays with time. In 1963, Frank O’Connor wrote: “[T]he element of Time is [the novelist’s] greatest asset; 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.” Spark flouts it in dramatic fashion in this novel. The girls of the Brodie set are sixteen when the novel opens, but soon we move back to age ten when they first encountered Miss Brodie. Their ten-year-old selves are continually illuminated by what comes later (the various things that they are said to be “famous for” at age sixteen). At intervals we move forward again to sixteen, and still further forward into the girls’ adult lives. For example, as early as page 15, we learn how the entire life of poor Mary Macgregor (“whose fame rested on her being a silent lump, a nobody whom everybody could blame”) unfolds. There are various moments when suspense seems to be building (for example as to the identity of Miss Brodie’s eventual betrayer), then the ending is abruptly given away. Spark swoops back and forth through time at will and it works.

Spark similarly plays with perspective. The third person narration moves in and out like a camera with a zoom lens. The novel begins with wide-angle shot (simply boys and girls talking outside the Marcia Blaine school), zooms in a little closer (the girls in question are revealed to be the Brodie set), then closer still (to deal in turn with the individual girls by name). This is not an uncommon progression at the opening of a novel. But having thus honed in on the individual characters, Spark doesn’t stay there, but continues to move in and out to dazzling effect. To the extent that we get inside any one character’s head, that character is Sandy Stranger. But the novel doesn’t unfold simply from Sandy’s perspective. The effect of the constant shifts is to give us the opportunity to view the characters, foremost among them Miss Brodie, from multiple angles, through the eyes of different characters at different moments in time, as well as from the perspective of a distant omniscient narrator. Consider, for example, these sentences:

This was the first winter of the two years that this class spent with Miss Brodie. It had turned nineteen-thirty-one. Miss Brodie had already selected her favourites, or rather those whom she could trust; or rather those whose parents she could trust not to lodge complaints about the more advanced and seditious aspects of her educational policy, these parents being either too enlightened to complain or too unenlightened, or too awed by their good fortune in getting their girls’ education at endowed rates, or too trusting to question the value of what their daughters were learning at this school of sound reputation.

With each qualification, yet another perspective is opened to us.

Given Spark’s penchant for very short novels, it's tempting to describe her writing as spare or minimalist. Certainly she gets a lot of mileage out of a very few words. But the effect is not one of spareness or minimalism. On the contrary, she manages to accumulate an extraordinary level of detail. One of the ways that she does this in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is through repetition of key words or phrases: “the boys and their bicycles,” what each of the Brodie set is “famous for,” Miss Brodie’s “prime,” the “crème de la crème.” Each time these words and phrases are repeated, they serve to conjure up again all that has gone before and somehow add to it. The repetition gives Spark’s prose a wonderful rhythm, and also gives the novel great depth and richness.

In a 1996 interview, Spark expressed some frustration over the extent to which the success of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie had overshadowed her other novels. She did not consider it her best work. I won’t venture to rank it against her other novels. But I have no hesitation in describing it as a masterpiece that is entirely worthy of all of the attention it has been accorded.

For other takes on The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, click over to the Slaves of Golconda group blog. To join in a discussion of the novel, click over to the forum at MetaxuCafé.