February 2010 Archives

An OBE for James Willson

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James_Willson.jpgOver the course of the last three novels I've written, I've found that going on-site to a location helps me write about the events that I imagine to have taken place there.  For the first and third novels, Portnoy's Daughter and Waiting for Love Child respectively, "going on-site" never got more complicated than having drinks at a particular bar that crops up in the novel, or playing laser tag at the People's Liberation Army facility.  "On-site research" was more involved, however, for my second novel, The Swing of Beijing: I traveled through Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and crossed back into China through the Torugart Pass . . . all to write passages that are no longer part of the novel.  No matter: I was honing my methodology.

Therefore, for my fourth novel, which takes place during WWI in British East Africa, I knew that I'd be criss-crossing the territory covered by the British and German armies.  In an earlier blog post, I wrote about my journey to the Narosera River, where Lord Delamere had camped out to recruit Masai scouts just after the start of the war.

This week I returned from a trip to Tsavo West, where most of the troops and action during the war took place.  On this research trip, I was incredibly lucky to have James Willson (pictured above) as my guide to the numerous forts and battlefields that we toured.

The East African front during WWI is not one that is well known.  (Indeed, Ross Anderson wrote a book about it called The Forgotten Front.)  Although ruins of forts and battlefields exist, no effort is made to demarcate, preserve, develop or commemorate the sites in Kenya.  (Imagine Gettysburg as a deserted, overgrown field, without tour guides, memorials or any public awareness of its significance.)  No one - not the British military, nor the Kenyan military, nor the history curricula of either country - is interested.

Shard_of_Rose's_Lime_Juice.jpgWith the exception of James Willson, that is.  The world's expert on these sites, Willson has discovered and/or explored numerous areas of significance to WWI, including Fort Mzima, Crater Fort, Maktau and Salaita.  Having read deeply on the subject, Willson is able to identify and map the different areas in the forts (trenches, command centers, parade grounds, tent encampments, etc.), and he has encyclopedic knowledge of the debris common at these ruins (shards of glass from Rose's lime juice bottles [pictured right], South African beer bottles, crushed tins that held bully beef, etc.).

Command_Center_at_Maktau.jpgWith Willson's guidance, the experience of soldiers in WWI clarified in an extraordinary manner.  We drove the route that soldiers marched, in the heat of the day, on their way into battle at Murka.  We picked our way through overgrown brush at Fort Mashoti that the soldiers had clear cut.  From the command center at Maktau (pictured left), we surveyed the landscape on which British soldiers spied approaching German raiding parties.  

However much my on-site research had been useful writing previous books, their value is proving inordinately greater on this fourth book (my first work of historical fiction).  Thanks to Willson, my capacity to write battle scenes and other passages involving soldiers and military encampments has received a vast boost, far beyond anything I could have achieved through book research alone.

Willson's own research has been conducted entirely as a labor of love, independent of any research or academic institution and without any funding.  His knowledge is of incredible value both to our understanding of the past and to our present.  (Many of the issues that the British military faced during WWI - including troops from multiple locations speaking mutually unintelligible languages, and horrendous supply chain challenges - are currently faced by the US and British militaries in Iraq.)  What Willson knows has the potential to enrich many areas of human endeavor, including military strategy, literature and history.

We can only hope that the contents of Willson's brain will be adequately indexed in the coming years, so that his knowledge will be available to future generations.  Willson has written a book that should be forthcoming within the year or so, but his familiarity with the Tsavo landscape and the WWI sites cannot be fully conveyed in a book.  With luck, perhaps enough people will learn the lay of the sites from Willson, so that - when and if funding for preservation and memorialization becomes available - adequate knowledge underpinning those efforts will exist.

In the meantime, the cause of preservation, perpetuation of knowledge and honoring the dead will be well served by honoring the living.  In recognition of his contribution to humanity and history, James Willson deserves an expression of our gratitude.  While this blog post is certainly inadequate, an OBE seems about right. 

Don't Marry Him

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Lori_Gottlieb.jpgReviews of Lori Gottlieb's new book Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough, along with Gottlieb's original Atlantic article (on the book is based), miss an important opportunity for addressing a serious problem in American society.

In her Atlantic article, Gottlieb calls the problem one of the "most complicated, painful, and pervasive dilemmas many single women are forced to grapple with nowadays: Is it better to be alone, or to settle?"

In her review of Gottlieb's book in The New York Times Book Review, Amy Finnerty describes Gottlieb's restatement of the problem as follows:

Gottlieb makes a case that many women today end up alone because they hold men to insanely high standards. . . . She convinces us that we women are simply too fussy, entitled and downright delusional about our own worth in the mating marketplace. We overanalyze and seek undiluted sexual and intellectual fulfillment, thus setting men up for failure.
But both formulations of the problem miss the point.  Gottlieb is closest to the real issue when, in her Atlantic article, she observes:

I've been told that the reason so many women end up alone is that we have too many choices. I think it's the opposite: we have no choice. If we could choose, we'd choose to be in a healthy marriage based on reciprocal passion and friendship. But the only choices on the table, it sometimes seems, are settle or risk being alone forever. That's not a whole lot of choice.
Sadly, Gottlieb doesn't expand upon this insight.  Neither female pickiness nor a sense of being forced to choose between settling and solitary lives is the problem; these phenomena are side-effects of the real problem: American men aren't well-matched for America's post-feminist women.

The most serious failure of feminism was to ignore the fact that gender roles are relational.  Men's and women's roles fit together like puzzle pieces (or like yin and yang).  Radical alteration of one of the roles requires a similar level of change in the other role for the two roles to continue to be compatible.  Feminists devoted extensive thought, theory and action to the cause of revising a woman's role; to the extent that the gave any thought to men's roles, however, they seem to have assumed that men would adjust.

Men have not adjusted.  While women struggle under extraordinary social pressure to be educated and sociable, have careers and families, be sexy and mothers, be emotionally competent and financially wise, men grapple with the sense of being intimidated by women, of feeling inadequate and fearing they are a disappointment to the beloved women in their lives.  In my experience, they deal with this complex of issues by taking refuge in extended adolescence and staying stoned a lot.

In this context, settling - as Gottlieb advises - is insanity.  As anyone who has lived through a divorce (or who has witnessed parents get divorced) knows, a bad marriage causes vastly more damage that no marriage.  And if a society is grooming men who aren't suited to the women that the society is producing, the choice is not between settling and solitude, but between a bad marriage and a decent life.

I'm not alone in either my conclusion or my analysis: two hundred years ago Jane Austen wrote a more persuasive argument than this blog post can offer in her novel, Pride and Prejudice.  As any reader of that novel can recognize, American women live today in a world where too many of the men are Wickhams, the con artist scourge of Pride and Prejudice.  By the conclusion of that novel, Eliza Bennett has learned that her own haughtiness and preconceived notions had prevented her both from seeing the dangers of the charming Mr. Wickham and the goodness of the more remote Mr. Darcy, her future husband.  

Gottlieb would have American women unlearn the lesson of Eliza Bennett - would have American blind themselves to the unsuitability of the available partners out of their prideful need to get married and their prejudice against carving out a satisfactory life for themselves beyond the bounds of marriage.  Gottlieb urges American women to settle for Wickham.

Jane Austen has already illustrated the perils of that choice.

(Picture of Lori Gottlieb from The New York Times Book Review

The accidental jester

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B_Cole_and_Cranworth.jpgStorytellers don't have to be reliable to be entertaining.  Great narrative voices can be widely off the mark - P.G. Wodehouse's marvelous Bertie Wooster is an example - and yet their own haplessness with facts and reality only deepens our delight in hearing what they have to say.

Lord Cranworth is an interesting example of an entertaining, unreliable narrative voice.  Unlike Bertie Wooster, who is fictional, Lord Cranworth was real.  And diverting further from Bertie Wooster, whose lack of reliability was the conscious intent of his creator, Cranworth didn't mean to be unreliable.

Cranworth has become unreliable in part because the passage of time has rendered so many of his opinions politically incorrect.  "I dislike making contact with a black race which emphatically dissents from the superiority I claim for my race and colour," he writes of Ethiopians.  (Lord Cranworth, Kenya Chronicles 178 (1939)).

But Cranworth has also become unreliable because his account of factual events diverges from other contemporaneous accounts.  Here, for example, is Cranworth's version of the events leading up to the deportation of Galbraith Cole:

Galbraith Cole was one of the earliest pioneers, a brother-in-law of Lord Delamere, and deservedly one of the most popular inhabitants both with black and white.  He had suffered repeatedly from thefts of cattle and sheep from his farm on Lake Elmenteita [sic], abutting the Masai Reserve.  One day he caught a party of Masai red-handed driving off his sheep, and, having a rifle, fired a shot to frighten the delinquents.  By an unfortunate mischance the shot struck one of the party, who subsequently died.  The Government were placed in a position of difficulty.  No local jury would, or indeed could, convict Cole of any major crime, and the tribe in question, with whom the punishment for cattle-stealing from time immemorial had been death, saw no justifiable grounds for complaint.  On the other hand, a considerable opinion at home said that in the interest of our own rule and good name an example must be made.  And again it is hard to dissent from that view.  The Governor decided that it was a case for deportation, unpopular though the course might be.
(Kenya Chronicles at 64).

His account omits several salient facts that Karen Blixen mentions about the event:

When Karen Blixen lectured at Lund University in 1938 she gave an example of Galbraith Cole's unswerving conviction, which a man of less fibre would have easily betrayed.  Like the Masai he had killed, he paid his price without question:

The Judge said to Galbraith, 'It's not, you know, that we don't understand that you shot only to stop the thieves.' 'No,' Galbraith said, 'I shot to kill.  I said that I would do so.'

'Think again, Mr. Cole,' said the judge.  'We are convinced that you only shot to stop them.'

'No, by God,' Galbraith said.  'I shot to kill.'  He was then sentenced to leave the country and, in a way, this really caused his death.
Errol Trzebinksi, Silence Will Speak 76 (1977) (quoting Donald Hannah, Isak Dinesen and Karen Blixen: the mask and the reality 35-36 (1971)).

In highlighting this disparity, I am not so much interested in which version is accurate, but in the relationship between an accurate grasp on facts and the formation of opinions that endure the test of time.  My guess is that Cranworth wasn't just unlucky that public opinion shifted away from his conviction of white superiority; rather, I hazard that a certain disposition on his part to tamper with facts supported the formation of opinions that could not survive the eventual triumph of reality.  Hence, the man could write of his early years in British East Africa:

Settlers were coming in with a steadily increasing flow.  New, beautiful and undeveloped territories were being discovered and occupied.  New crops were being tried out and new possibilities became probabilities almost monthly.  Land values improved with great rapidity and the native population became more prosperous and infinitely happier and safer.  No stigma rested at that time on the white settlers for the work that they were doing.
(Kenya Chronicles at 29 (emphasis added).)

Amusing to read now, but not very credible.

(Photo of Berkeley Cole and Lord Cranworth from Kenya Chronicles)
worlds_best_technology.jpgIn a recent, ranging Huffington Post entry, Andrew Zack opines:

[N]o one believes that the days of paper books aren't numbered.  It will take a couple of generations for kids to be fully separated from paper books and adults ready to read everything on a tablet of some kind, but I wouldn't recommend anyone more than a decade from retirement invest in starting a bookstore.  We are experiencing the beginning of the end of paper books right now.  The brick-and-mortar store and the paper book will disappear faster than you might imagine.
I can only hope that provincialism and myopia disappear faster than we might imagine.  From his statement, Zack appears to be unaware that much, if not most, of the world lives in locations where electricity is unreliable, broadband is unavailable and devices like iPods - let alone tablet computers - are prohibitively expensive.  The fragility of electricity-dependent devices will only be compounded by ensuing climate change-related disasters and environmental upheaval.  (Even without abnormal weather conditions, I've been amazed at the amount of insect life that I've had to dislodge from my laptop's keyboard and screen while working in Kenya.)

A book, on the other hand - as J.M.G. Le Clezio observed in his Nobel speech - is an "ideal tool.  It is practical, easy to handle, economical.  It does not require any particular technological prowess, and keeps well in any climate."  He might also have added that a book is less likely to be stolen than a Kindle, that it won't clog up a landfill or contaminate a water source with its toxic e-waste, and that reading off a screen of any kind, no matter how gentle on the eyes, is less versatile than reading from a book.  (Try reading off a screen in the bathtub.)

All of which is to say: the future is about versatility.  The world's economic, environmental, cultural, technological and knowledge-management conditions are, and will continue to be, in flux.  Successful navigation of the field will require adaptability and flexibility above all other skills.  In this context, books will always have a place.

What is misplaced are smugly confident predictions premised on demonstrably-incorrect assumptions of never-ending prosperity. 

(Image of the world's greatest technology from the MIT Libraries blog)

Starter of conversations, killer of poets

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Samuel_Johnson_NYT.jpgPublisher's Weekly recently hosted a panel as part of its "Think Future: What's Next in Publishing" discussion series on the question of "Will Book Reviews Still Matter?"    

I didn't attend the event, and I don't know what was said, but a fair guess is that the discussion, like the animating question, was of a piece with other expressions of the massive insecurity in the industry right now: will people read books in the future?  Will book stores continue to exist?

Not being one who views change as synonymous with annihilation, I am comfortable projecting the continued existence both of books and book stores.  My relaxed optimism extends with even more confidence to book reviews - though I might wish it to be otherwise.  Here's why:

Short of folks stuck in ski chalets during blizzards who are driven by boredom to peruse the only book on hand, people's choices in reading materials are rarely random.  They're usually guided by some previous knowledge about the book.  Their friend recommended it.  They've heard good things about the author.  The book got good reviews.

Although a friend's recommendation, or a prior positive experience with the author's work, will likely remain more influential than reviews are to an individual's purchasing decision, reviews are nonetheless likely to continue to be important for sales.  Reviews start a public conversation about a book, as well as setting the agenda for that conversation, and such conversations prime an audience's appetite for the book.    

Conversation, whether in meat-space, virtual space or mental space, is vital for any book marketing effort because conversation is the social corollary to the private act of reading.  Most of us are social animals and most of us, therefore, want to talk about what we read.  In communities with a relatively high level of literary output, but without apparatus for sparking public conversation about books - for example, in Nairobi, where I've never seen a single book review, bookstores lack the space to accommodate book readings and the Internet hasn't picked up the slack - books don't sell.

So conversation is necessary.  And, though any glance at the line-up of television pundits might lead one to another conclusion, conversation (even in America, even today) is a skill.  Good conversationalists have thought-provoking, witty and passionate things to say.  Poor conversationalists - which includes most of us at some moment or another - can nonetheless function tolerably if they have the decency to quote (with or without attribution) that which they've heard good conversationalists articulate.

Reviewers, if they excel at their jobs, are good conversationalists who provide book-meat to the public for roasting, mastication and regurgitation.  Reviewers thus serve a critical social function that will in some form transcend the rapid (and foolish, in my opinion) disappearance of book review sections in newspapers.

The question to my mind, therefore, is not, "Will Book Reviews Still Matter?" but "What are the media platforms from which book reviews will be disseminated?"  

If the answer is (as it likely will be), "the Internet," then we will probably see a similar pattern to that which has emerged elsewhere online: faced with overwhelming choice and no editorial filter, netizens will default to trusted familiar voices.  We will see, not a diminution in the importance of book reviews for book sales, but an increase in the importance of certain online reviewers' opinions about books.

And as anyone with even passing familiarity with Lord Byron's poem "Who Kill'd John Keats?" knows, concentration of the critics' power is never a positive development.   

(Image of Dr. Samuel Johnson, in Harold Bloom's words, "the most eminent of all literary critics," from The New York Times)  
Red_Strangers.jpgIn Richard Dawkins' Introduction to Elspeth Huxley's Red Strangers, he calls the novel "anthropologically illuminating," and that phrase struck me as the most insightful of the compliments he bestowed on the book ("epic," "gripping," "moving" and "humanistically mind-opening" among them).  

Red Strangers recounts the history of Kenya from 1890-1937 through the eyes of three generations of Kikuyu men: history, still written by the victor, but seen through the eyes of colonized, as that perspective is imagined by the colonizer.  

The ambition of Red Strangers is huge, and I have great admiration for the project.  With Red Strangers, Huxley courageously undertook an "experiment," as she put it in her Foreword, to record "the way of life that existed before the white men came" because "within a few years none will survive of those who remember" those days.  (Red Strangers was published in 1939.)  The experiment was unquestionably worthwhile, and the record she has created is of tremendous historical and anthropological interest. 

Nonetheless, Red Strangers suffers two serious flaws.  First, Huxley's storytelling is overshadowed by her agenda.  She wants to describe a bygone society and explain its reaction to the appearance of the colonists more than she wants to tell us a story.  As a result, events occur without narrative pay-off:  Muthengi seduces his adopted sister Ambui . . . but nothing happens as a result.  Matu runs away to live with the Athi people for some time . . . but we never find out why this matters for the plot.  A conflict erupts between the Kipsigis and the Kikuyu on Marafu's farm . . . that goes nowhere.  More disturbingly, the book has the "one thing and then another" feel of poorly-written historical treatises.  Events appear in the Red Strangers because they correspond to actual historical events that happened, not because they advance the plot.

Second, Huxley attempts to describe to a literate society a world that was preliterate, from the point of view of the preliterate.  I am not sure that this goal is achievable.  The thought processes and consciousnesses of preliterate peoples is different from that of literate, modern peoples, and I am not convinced that either methodology can be transmitted directly, that is, without an intervening process of interpretation.  As Huxley herself posits, "[t]he old Kikuyu . . . cannot present their point of view to us because they cannot express it in terms which we can understand."  To circumvent this problem, Huxley has chosen to depict "old Kikuyu" who express their point of view in terms we can understand; in other words, she has created a hybrid character who never existed: a Kikuyu from a preliterate, precolonial society who nonetheless communicates in a literate, post-colonial way.  Unsurprisingly, this character is unsatisfactory.  He (because all three generations of Kikuyu protagonists in Red Strangers are men) doesn't come across as resourceful, intelligent, reflective . . . or believable.  Rather, he's flat and two dimensional.

Following the lead of Dawkins' "anthropologically illuminating" comment, I would guess that a better vehicle for the information Huxley wanted to convey would have been the long-form personal history, something like Marjorie Shostak's Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman, a compelling page-turner about a Kalahari bushwoman.  Nisa is an anthropological text, and I suspect that Huxley - who disclaimed any anthropological rigor in Red Strangers - avoided that option because she didn't want to be accused of sloppy scholarship.  All the same, Nisa succeeds where Red Strangers fails.  Although Nisa came from a preliterate society, and although her story was being told through the agency of a literate academic, Nisa comes alive in her book in ways that Muthengi, Matu and Karanja never do in Red Strangers.  A novel, after all, must have a story; but a personal history must only have a life.

(Image of Red Strangers from Fantastic Fiction)     

J.D. Salinger: a voice in search of a story

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Salinger_with_Erik_Ross.jpgThe mystique of J.D. Salinger's isolation, and the enduring popularity of The Catcher in the Rye - along with the consequent public fascination with his freakishness and super-success - often eclipse Salinger's writing itself.  

Perhaps the man intended some such result.  As Lillian Ross recalls in The New Yorker:

Over the years, Salinger told me about . . . trying to stay away from everything that was written about him. He didn't care about reviews, he said, but "the side effects" bothered him. "There are no writers anymore," he said once. "Only book-selling louts and big mouths."
Plainly, the less examination of his writing, the better.

Salinger stopped publishing a short while after the critics turned on him.  As Janet Maslin recounts in The New York Review of Books, "[b]y the late Fifties, . . . Salinger was no longer the universally beloved author of The Catcher in the Rye; he was now the seriously annoying creator of the Glass family."  

Maslin goes on to rehabilitate Salinger from the condemnations of John Updike, Joan Didion and Mary McCarthy among others:

Today "Zooey" does not seem too long, and is arguably Salinger's masterpiece.  Rereading it and its companion piece "Franny" is no less rewarding than rereading The Great Gatsby. It remains brilliant and is in no essential sense dated.  It is the contemporary criticism that has dated . . . [and] now seems magnificently misguided.
And, in the aftermath of Salinger's recent death, many - including Michiko Kakutani, Adam Gopnik, and Charles McGrath - have published laudatory assessments of his talent and work: 

  • Kakutani in The New York Times:  What really knocked readers out about "The Catcher in the Rye" was the wonderfully immediate voice that J. D. Salinger fashioned for Holden Caulfield - a voice that enabled him to channel an alienated 16-year-old's thoughts and anxieties and frustrations, a voice that skeptically appraised the world and denounced its phonies and hypocrites and bores.
  • Gopnick in The New Yorker: Has any writer ever had a better ear for American talk?
  • Charles McGrath in The New York Times:  [Nine Stories] were remarkable for their sharp social observation, their pitch-perfect dialogue . . . and the way they demolished whatever was left of the traditional architecture of the short story - the old structure of beginning, middle, end - for an architecture of emotion, in which a story could turn on a tiny alteration of mood or irony.
But the recent reversal in critical opinion misses one big, valid critique: Salinger couldn't tell a story.  

That he had an authorial voice, that he had an ear for dialogue, that he had an eye for detail - all these talents are undisputed.  But as John Updike observed in a 1961 New York Times review of "Franny and Zooey," plot escaped Salinger:

Few writers since Joyce would risk such a wealth of words upon events that are purely internal and deeds that are purely talk. . . . As Hemingway sought the words for things in motion, Salinger seeks the words for things transmuted into human subjectivity. His fiction . . . pays the price . . . of becoming dangerously convoluted and static. A sense of composition is not among Salinger's strengths.
Indeed, time and again, reviewers use terms like "prose-poem" (Updike), "fables of otherness," "fairy tales," "Greek myths" and "Bible stories" (Maslin), and "stories within stories" (Kakutani) to describe the praise-worthy in Salinger's writing.  Notably present in all these descriptions is the absence of a modern storytelling form.  Catcher affirms these descriptions with its episodic, "mythic journey"-like structure; its narrative is presciently suited to a series of blog posts about a rough weekend - but not to a novel.

Coincidentally, reading Jim Windolf's review of Last Words, by George Carlin with Tony Hendra, I stumbled on a description that described Salinger perfectly:

Although Carlin spent roughly five decades performing with nothing but his brain, his mouth and a microphone, he was never much of a storyteller.  Unlike Pryor and Bill Cosby, who made their names as yarn spinners, he did his best work as a secular preacher.
"A secular preacher" he was: Salinger perennially preached the message, aptly summarized by Gopnik,

that, amid the malice and falseness of social life, redemption rises from clear speech and childlike enchantment, from all the forms of unself-conscious innocence that still surround us (with the hovering unease that one might mistake emptiness for innocence).
Given the superficial, sentimental nature of this bit of "good news," my bet is that Salinger will not be remembered for his agenda.  But Salinger should be remembered for his literary innovation, a point on which Maslin dwells.  Apropos of Salinger's fall from grace with the critics of the 1950's and 60's, Maslin posits that:

negative contemporary criticism of a masterpiece can be helpful to later critics, acting as a kind of radar that picks up the ping of the work's originality. The "mistakes" and "excesses" that early critics complain of are often precisely the innovations that have given the work its power.
She then goes on to identify Salinger's innovation as the creation of "offensive" characters whose negative reception by the audience hammers home the point that the characters are unable "to live comfortably in the world."  

Here I must part ways with Maslin.  Although I agree that Salinger is innovative, I think Maslin is missing the true nature his innovation.  Her resistance to criticism that highlights Salinger's inability to plot (she mocks Maxwell Geismar's assessment of "Zooey" as "interminable," as well as George Steiner's critique that it was "shapeless") simultaneously deprives her of the ability to name his accomplishment: using oral story-telling traditions and techniques to tell modern stories in which plot was replaced by shifts in psychological states.

"Fables," "fairy tales," "Greek myths," "Bible stories" - epic poems (prose or verse) and "stories within stories" - are all forms originating in oral, pre-literate societies.  Episodic, rambling, redundant - indeed "shapeless" and "interminable" - are all adjectives applicable to the genre.  However, the content of these stories often features extensive action and explicit violence - events that create stark mental pictures for the audience of listeners.   Transmuting "words . . . into human subjectivity" is not a strong point of these types of stories.  Even the idea of "human subjectivity" was different in oral, pre-literate societies, all of which were communal.  Their subconscious was "collective" (according to Jung), and their stories distilled the "archetypal," not the "individual."

Salinger, whether intentionally or otherwise, used ancient forms as a vehicle for modern content.  To the extent that he innovated, this combination is his contribution. 

And, like other innovations of a certain type - the cigarette filter made from cheese comes to mind - its primary function is cautionary: it doesn't work.  Modern plot structures provide a much better framework for telling stories involving individual psychological development (as well as balancing the story with action and ensuring sustained interest over the length of the tale). 

Devotees of Salinger don't read him because he redefined the way modern stories are told.  Rather, fans flock to the Salinger tent for the same reasons that any traveling preacher attracts crowds: because his voice resonates with them, and because they are predisposed to his sappy message.

(Photo of J.D. Salinger with Erik Ross from The New Yorker)    

Diagnosing the cause of memoir fever

Memoirs.jpg"Why do you think memoirs are so popular these days?" my friend Gabi asked me roughly ten weeks ago.  I told her that I hadn't given the question much thought.  She had, however, and her conclusion (I'm summarizing) was that people these days are too stupid for novels: society, to paraphrase her view, is dumbing down to the point where the only stories that grip are elevated gossip.

I was dubious, as I am of all claims that society is getting dumber.  From what I can see, society has always been composed of a healthy majority of idiots.  In any event, I've never been convinced by comparisons between today's reading population and that of times past because literacy rates are so much higher now.  You can't expect literate morons to gravitate to the same fare as literate non-morons, and incorporating so many of these morons into the literate population (a development which I fully endorse) was bound to change the overall mix of reading options.

But I continued to mull Gabi's question, and I was still mulling when Daniel Mendelsohn published his review of Ben Yagoda's book, Memoir: A History, in The New Yorker.  Mendelsohn, like Gabi, suggests that the recent glut of memoirs "may be filling a gap created by the gradual displacement of the novel from its once central position in literary culture."  Although Yagoda apparently doesn't speculate about why such a displacement is occurring, Mendelsohn has a theory.  Televised talk shows, reality TV and the confessional Internet culture, Mendelsohn conjectures, may be creating an audience that cannot identify with protagonists who don't claim to be "real":

Indeed, shows like Winfrey's, with their insistence on "real" emotions, may themselves have created an audience for whom fictional emotions are bound, in the end, to seem like little more than "dramatization without illumination." If you can watch a real lonely woman yearning after young hunks on a reality dating show, why bother with Emma Bovary?
Although, as numerous recent memoir fakes have demonstrated, "real" protagonists often tread into fictional territory, modern audiences (according to Mendelsohn) may find such protagonists easier to sympathize with (and to forgive) than fictional characters.

I am as intrigued by Mendelsohn's explanation, but ultimately as skeptical of it as I am of Gabi's.  Certainly, "real" stories have an allure that the fictional will always lack, but the notion that an audience's ability to relate to characters depends on the claimed truthfulness or fictional nature of the story doesn't (intuitively) strike me as persuasive. 

More likely, in my opinion, is that people are becoming conditioned to expect certain narratives in certain media: quite possibly people are gravitating towards TV and Internet content that delivers some semblance of "the real" - 24 hour news stations, reality TV, infotainment, documentaries, nature programming and, of course, talk shows.  Television and dynamic Internet leave less room for the imagination than a book; demanding that such media deliver narratives that, likewise, are composed of more facts and less fantasy is (to my mind, misguided, but nonetheless) an understandable expectation.

But if people aren't becoming too stupid for novels, and if television and Internet narrative expectations aren't infecting books, then what explains the recent outpouring of published memoirs?  The most credible supposition, to my mind, builds on a point Judith Shulevitz made in her review of Yagoda's Memoir in The New York Times Review of Books.  She argues that memoirists, whether liars or oracles (or, more likely, something in between), appeal:

(1) because [they] might become . . . friend[s]; (2) because we might learn something useful; and (3) because we can't help being curious about the ways other people go about reflecting on themselves and justifying their existence.
At this historical moment, those last two reasons are intensely salient.  The modern world demands much of its denizens.  People must be educated and informed.  They must be physically fit and attractive.  They must be healthy and engaged in the world.  They must have families and jobs.  They must be sexy and productive.  They must be prosperous and environmentally-sound.  They must be free of prejudices and self-aware.  They must be mobile and simultaneously rooted in family and community. 

No other time in history has demanded as much of its people.  Typically, in past ages, societies have been content to let their women occupy one limited realm, their soldiers another, and they restricted similarly their wise men, merchants, rulers, wealthy and poor.  These groups all had roles that were, generally speaking, well-defined; and these roles required skill sets that were, generally speaking, within the capacities of their players to learn within a relatively short time.  Not so today: "unbounded" is le mot just with respect to social roles.  Everyone must be everything.  And the necessary skills for such high-level functioning require more time, training and experience to acquire than most of us will ever have.

The current popularity of memoirs, to my mind, relates to these social demands.  Memoirs tantalize readers with the promise of answers to their stress-inducing question: how do you do it?  How do you meet social expectations in this day and age?  Can someone else - someone successful enough to merit a published book about their life - tell me what I'm supposed to do?

Historically, of course, seekers of such information turned to (among others) the witch doctors, elders, gossips and teachers of their day.  They might also seek second opinions in the works of their relevant epic poets, myth makers, and story tellers (playwrights, novelists, etc.).  

Usually, of course, the advice of the witch doctor contingent was oral and unrecorded, so quite possibly we undercount the extent to which it was relied on by past generations.  Today, of course, the modern equivalents of the witch doctors (Jack Welch, Rick Warren, Sarah Palin, etc.) have many mass platforms and outlets on and by which to promote and record their answers to the pressing question: how do you do it?  So perhaps we now overcount their importance.  

Regardless, if today we are seeing a supposedly ahistorical reliance on the witch doctors, et al., and a corresponding decline in reliance on the epic poets and their ilk, perhaps the reason is not the audience's intelligence, nor its capacity for identifying with fictional characters, but the content of the fiction on offer.  Surely fiction that enfolds the breadth of this global moment and provides fodder for rumination about the modern predicament is not penned by MFA graduates enjoying suburban lives underwritten by their jobs teaching in MFA programs?

(Image of title page of Benjamin Franklin's memoirs from the website of The Library Company of Philadelphia)

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This page is an archive of entries from February 2010 listed from newest to oldest.

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