Most fiction writers don’t read much poetry, let’s be honest. I confess I don’t read much contemporary American poetry myself. So much of it is either incomprehensible–even to someone who has a higher degree in Creative Writing–or pretentious, or simply tedious in its insistence on the usual woke themes. However, this past few weeks I’ve been reading the Oxford Library of English Poetry, a three-volume anthology edited by John Wain, and have found it not only immensely pleasurable, but also, I believe, useful.
Let’s take the pleasure part first. This anthology contains no American verse, and as Wain himself admits, there have been many great American poets. If you were to make an anthology of the best verse in English, a number of them would have to be included: Whitman and Emily Dickinson are two obvious giants.
Alan Cheuse’s 1982 lyrical biography of John Reed is mistitled. While the title refers to Reed’s fellow travelers of the cultural and political upheaval that took place during the first decades of the 20th century, it is Reed’s life story that Cheuse has told no doubt because Reed in many respects was one of the main players in that era’s story.
Reed is best known for his Ten Days That Shook the World, the story of the Communist takeover of the Russian Revolution. Before travelling to Russia where he passed away in October 1920 from typhus, however, he had chronicled for alternative magazines like The Masses, the labor movement wars in the U.S. and the rise of the socialist movement in the U.S.
“She knew, to the moving of a feather, what she could do with him and what she could not. Her immediate wish was to enable him to draw all possible pleasure from his triumph of the day, and therefore she would say no word to signify that his glory was founded on her sacrifice.” –Anthony Trollope, Golden Lion of Granpère
Every inch the Victorian novelist, Trollope regarded female self-sacrifice as a cardinal virtue. And yet he was surprisingly ahead of his time–and ahead of other male writers–in exploring the problems of identity, self-worth and self-assertion among his female characters. He was sharply aware of the untenable and unethical oppression of women in patriarchal Victorian society. His scores of novels relentlessly explore this problem.
Oh no, I thought, as Dominic Hoffman read the opening lines of Yaa Gyasi‘s Homegoing with what struck me as an African accent. Thanks to the narrator’s accent, I am going to struggle to understand this audiobook. Plus I was miffed to hear a man narrating a book written by a woman and following a matrilineal lineage.
My next audiobook experience evoked similar reactions. In Say Nothing, Belfast actor Matthew Blaney uses a thick brogue to read Patrick Raddon Keefe’s “true story of murder in mystery in Northern Ireland.” This time whether the voice was recognizably male or female didn’t bother me, however: gender seemed less central to the narrative, which involves a woman’s kidnapping, plus backstory about the IRA during the Troubles.
Feud! This week one of my favourite authors, Martin Amis, said in an interview (in the Evening Standard, 21 October 2020) that he had not read the latest Booker Prize winners because ‘You don’t feel a literary push behind it. It’s politics, it’s sociopolitical considerations rather than literary like the Nobel.’ He also said that ‘To read your contemporaries, let alone your juniors, is an uneconomical way of dividing your reading time.’ So how did Bernardine Evaristo, the Booker winner, react to this?
Just two days later, in the same British newspaper, Evaristo lashed out: ‘Amis seems to belong to the school of privileged male writers of a certain generation who have benefited from a white, patriarchal society for decades.’
Are writing and sex connected?
Is there a connection between writing and sex? Between selling one’s skills as a writer and being a prostitute?
I opened the door to my husband’s psychoanalytic office, a neutral ground where I could meet with my own clients, writers (or potential writers) that needed help. I was about to enter into the complexities of narrative with a young man who would graduate from college soon as a computer major. Yes, the poor guy had been bitten—not by the Zika mosquito carrier but by the writing bug.
He’d emailed me for help after taking his first writing workshop with a fellow writer whom I know from an on-line critique group. She’d recommended me as a writing coach.
Does hearing a book meant to be read with the eye change the author’s intent—or your experience of the book? Have any books changed for you when you read them versus heard them or saw them as a movie?
I asked these questions in last month’s blog. The result was a lively Facebook conversation–and lots of strong opinions.
I’m Not Alone
Last month I noted a clear split in one of my book club’s regarding Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House. Those who had read the book found it disorganized and could not identify with (or even identify) the protagonist. People who listened to Tom Hanks read the book (myself included) had no issues.
Are You Destined for Literary Success?
Just fill in our quiz, all you talented wordsmiths, and find out!
- How talented are you? Be brutally honest, babes! a. Off the charts – right up there with Dan Brown and Lee Childs b. No genius, but I know my craft, and work my ass off c. Martin Amis or Salman Rushdie would like my work if they knew it d. I don’t know crap about grammar or spelling, but hey, that’s what editors are for, right?
- How much training do you have in Creative Writing? a. Bachelor’s degree b. MFA c. PhD d. I went to a summer workshop and slept with one of the tutors
- Your social media presence a. rivals Kim Kardashian’s b.
Do you have too many books? I know I do. When I retired and downsized to a condo, I divided my book collection between the condo and a summer home with enough to fill multiple bookcases in each building. I even built a bookcase into a closet in the condo.
Some of you might be saying you can never have too many books, but why keep books you have already read and don’t intend to read again?
Okay, you might keep some books for professional, religious or family reasons, and if you have one signed by a famous author, you might be thinking about passing it on to your children or grandchildren. But what about those books you read so long ago you can’t remember what they were about?
Because I love reading novels and short stories, authors of fiction have always been my idols. I’ve met many of them at book signings and had the pleasure of interviewing several for this blog. For the most part, I’ve always found authors to be engaging and extremely gracious. But I’ve never been as excited about meeting an author as I was the day I met Betty Smith.
Smith’s novels were extremely popular in the mid twentieth century, although you don’t hear as much about them now. Her most famous novel, the one that earned her a place in the ranks of respected authors, is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, published in 1943 and recently named a PBS Great American Read Top 100 Pick.
I’ve been trying to move more lately for health reasons. Instead of scribbling at my desk 10 hours straight—or curled up nose in book—I’m trying to walk whenever possible. That is changing my reading experience, inclining me to audiobooks. It’s also making me wonder: does hearing a book change the book?
Fighting the Audiobook Prejudice
I harp on audiobooks a lot in this blog. But the subject continues to intrigue me, undoubtedly because it’s such a big part of the reading experience these days. And I have to admit to a prejudice: I grew up thinking that reading with the eyes is somehow intellectually and morally superior to reading with the ears.
I recently finished reading Fielding’s chef d’oeuvre, Tom Jones, first published in 1749, and running to over 750 pages in the Norton Critical Edition—without the critical essays at the end. So by contemporary standards it’s a whopper, and that in itself may be why sufficient reason why so few people, apart from English Lit. students, have read it. (And have they? I suspect half of them merely skim it.) And yet, with some reservations, I very much enjoyed reading it, and benefited from the experience quite a bit. In this thumbnail review, I shall consider some of the reasons why people may shy away from it, and try to show what they’re missing.
First, it was written nearly three hundred years ago, so some will be wary of the ‘old English.’
Chosen by a book club I belong to, due to the volumes of praise attached to the front and back cover, I anticipated a more compelling story than The Little Stranger turned out to provide. I’ll try to explain why.
The Little Stranger is described as a modern gothic novel. The author inserts story elements that cannot be explained by standard logic––the vision of a ghost and events for which there is no rational explanation and for which Waters provides no justification.
Readers may feel comfortable with unresolved gothic tropes. I don’t. The key question is whether these elements are critical in determining the story’s outcome. If they are, all the more reason that I, as a reader, feel they need to be explained either by providing a rational cause or by a theory that says in this world, ghosts exist.
Where do fictional characters come from? I’ve been asking myself that question for as long as I’ve been writing, but the complete answer still evades me. The process is as mysterious as the origins of life itself, maybe even more so. At least we know that life on earth evolved from some primordial soup. But what concoction serves as the foundation for those who inhabit our stories?
Seeds come to mind. Seeds give birth to plants and other living things. Humans start as a kind of seed. And so do our creations. As writers, we have experienced multiple settings and experiences. We’ve connected with many different types of people. All of those contacts can provide us with material that we sift through, plant in our fictions, and watch grow.
Let’s face it: plenty of writers are rubbish. I’m afraid I despise, deplore, or simply detest quite a lot of them. They include:
Writers with no sense of humour;
Writers who think they mustn’t offend anyone;
Writers who believe the purpose of fiction is to edify their readers;
Smug, self-righteous, or sententious writers;
Writers with an overt or covert political agenda (especially the latter);
Writers who are toadies, lickspittles and arse-kissers;
Writers who admire (or pretend to admire) other writers because they are successful;
Writers who believe that an MFA or PhD in Creative Writing qualifies them to write;
Writers who believe that a writer’s colour, religion, sexual orientation, sex (or gender!) qualifies anyone to write;
Writers who whine about their white privilege;
Writers who don’t bother to learn the rules of English usage or spelling;
Writers who don’t think it’s important to read the canon;
Writers who think the canon needs to be decolonised;
Writers who think it’s necessarily important to read the latest literary prize winners;
Writers who are ignorant of history and philosophy;
Writers who think their drug experiences are interesting;
Writers who believe that their experiences as victims is fascinating and important;
Writers who despise other writers because they are not, or were not, morally pure;
Writers who follow the latest trends and write for the market;
Writers who think that their ‘platform’ is important;
Writers who believe that writers are essentially social engineers;
Writers who are certain that their values and views are correct;
Writers who can’t think for themselves (at the current time, the majority, sad to say);
Writers who watch more TV or movies than read books;
Writers who want the writer’s ‘lifestyle’;
Writers who think their job is always to be kind;
Writers with no imagination (a surprisingly large proportion);
Writers with no ear for language (incredibly, the majority, whether ‘literary’ or otherwise);
Writers who think literary agents know more about literature than they do;
Writers who believe that the world needs their novel;
To sum up: Writers who are not artists, but hacks or halfwits.
Did you know that “Refusenik” Natan Sharansky and his supporters played a major role in bringing down the Soviet Union? Sentenced in 1978 to 13 years of forced labor for the crime of being a leader of the international human rights movement and seeking to emigrate to Israel, Sharansky’s refusal to confess to his “crimes” became a touchstone in the West for those opposed to the totalitarian regime’s repressive policies at home and abroad.
Once freed, Sharansky became a leader in Israel. He helped form a political party that gave voice to Russian émigrés, served in two governments and was chairman of the Jewish Agency for nearly a decade. His record, personal appearances and writings should have made him a bigger star than he is today.
(Yes, the rhyme is deliberate.) Well: is it Covid-19? Maybe it was, a bit. At first. People’s routines were upset, they felt anxious, under-stimulated, and possibly other things seemed more important. But what kind of excuses are those? Crap ones. More serious, possibly, is the furore over George Floyd’s death and racism in recent weeks. Not only has there been unrest in the US and the UK, which at times has seemed to threaten the very fabric of society, but also, black writers have been demanding a more prominent role. (I say black writers rather than ‘diverse writers’ because by far the most vocal writers have been black, and most of them seem to have been pointing specifically to under-representation by African-Americans (in the US) or Afro-British (in the UK).
What major federal policy has every president from Lyndon Johnson to Barak Obama agreed on? Answer: Advancing educational opportunity as a path to societal equality. They may have differed on how to expand schooling, but not that it was a goal to be achieved in order to reduce social inequality. Why then have the results not lived up to the promise? The answer is simple according to Fredrik deBoer: schooling can never produce social equality––not because we don’t spend enough or because teachers aren’t good enough. It’s because not all people are academically talented.
Marshaling studies that expose the raw underbelly of schooling’s failures on top of insights from his personal experience as a teacher, and capping that off with a measure of behavioral genetics, deBoer concludes, “as long as our education system creates winners, it will also create losers.”
I’ve recently finished reading Susan Choi’s A Person of Interest, and mathematics professor Lee, the main character, continues to live on in my imagination. It’s as if he actually inhabits the external world and was intimately interacting with me during the time I read the book. Lee is Asian American, though his origins aren’t a main focus in the narrative, and it’s never made clear just where he was born. Still, though he ends up being an outsider at the university where he teaches and in his wider community, that stance seems more to do with his irascible personality and natural aloofness than with him being racially distinct.
Of course, you could argue that these qualities may be the result of Lee never quite fitting in because of his Asian origins.
It turns out I’m not the only one having trouble reading lately. The struggles to get through a book seem pervasive as so many of us shelter in place–even for hardcore bookworms.
READERS HAVING TROUBLE READING
With all the holes in my calendar during the COVID-19 pandemic, I thought I’d be ripping through my library. Instead I find it hard to concentrate. So last month I asked if this sounded familiar.
It certainly did with most of my Facebook friends. Many reported having trouble reading as well. Most–many of them serious readers and some of them professional writers themselves–confirmed that they are having trouble concentrating on books these days.
I have yet to read an entire book during this pandemic
To my friend Nancy, having so much time to read ironically makes reading less precious, and less desirable.
Since I started my writing career almost a decade ago, I have dabbled in reading most genres–historical fiction, thrillers, horror, mystery, and so forth. Reading other authors’ works is vital to discovering one’s own style of writing, a process that constantly evolves. Literary fiction, which stands apart from genre fiction in that it tends to be more didactic and serious, has become my preference in terms of a favorite type of novel.
Literary fiction usually focuses on characters’ internal struggles, which resemble the conflicts of real life. In The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, protagonist Holden Caulfield dislikes fake individuals, who act superficially and represent one of the ills of society. He constantly brings up this theme of superficiality, which inevitably makes the reader dwell on it.
She didn’t do an MFA in Creative Writing, let alone a PhD. She didn’t even have a BA in it. Or in English. And yet Jane wrote the initial draft of Sense and Sensibility when she was 18, and had finished Pride and Prejudice by the time she was 20. Astonishing? Yes. So how did she do it? Did she follow the advice of the self-appointed writing gurus—who tell you that if you can’t do a degree in the subject, you need to attend expensive conferences, join writing groups, get professional editors? No, none of that. So how on earth did she learn her craft?
By reading and writing. I’m not an Austen scholar, but I know that in the late eighteenth century England’s public libraries had not yet been founded, so it’s fair to assume that most of her reading was done in her father’s library.
My new novel, When Enemies Offend Thee, was released on March 1—a happy, ebullient time until 11 days later when the governor of Pennsylvania closed all non-essential businesses, including bookstores, and issued a stay-at-home order for my part of the state. Consequently, my book launch party was canceled along with any readings and book signings I had scheduled for the foreseeable future. And so it remains.
I don’t know when I’ll be able to connect with readers in person, which is one of my favorite things about being an author. There’s nothing better than talking with readers about their thoughts on characters, motivations, and plot development.
And then there’s the challenge of letting readers know about When Enemies Offend Thee with no parties, signings, or readings.
Like many friends, I thought a small silver lining of the COVID-19 shut-ins would be a chance to do a lot of reading. I was wrong.
I’ve been shut in for about 6 weeks now, and I’m still only on book number two. I haven’t made much progress on my backlog of magazines and journals either.
It’s Not Just Me
It turns out I’m not alone. Many friends have reported the same problem. They have plenty of time, and yet it seems to be consumed by Zoom calls and cleaning, daily walks, and the treacherous task of getting groceries.
It’s hard to keep your mind on the books when CNN keeps featuring Dr. Fauci.
Plenty of Books
Part of the excuse is that libraries are closed.
A proliferation of reading lists has appeared since quarantine began: ‘comfort reading’ (Susan Hill), lists about pandemics, lists of new novels (nearly all by women) and so on. But isn’t this a good time to catch up on our serious reading? I recently mentioned to a friend, novelist David Joiner, that in The Pregnant Widow, the protagonist Keith Nearing manages to read practically the whole canon of the British novel in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (in fact up to about 1920) during a single long vacation, while he stays at a castle in Italy with a bevy of nubile young women, one of them named Scheherazade. DH and Frieda Lawrence were once guests at the same castle, which happens to have an excellent English library.