January 2011 Archives

This celluloid doesn't lie

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To my surprise, I found Peter Bogdanovich's film adaptation of Henry James' Daisy Miller an excellent augment to the novella.

The faithfulness of the adaptation is commendable and shows both Bogdanovich's confidence and his understanding of the story.  (The vast majority of the dialogue, for example, seems to have been transposed directly from James.)  As a result, the movie highlighted shades in the book that I'd perceived, but which I'd questioned out of concern that I was missing something, or that I was too ignorant of the historic period and Victorian writing generally to interpret them correctly.

For instance, based on the text, I didn't find Daisy sympathetic.  In fact, I thought her annoying, and Frederick Winterbourne's enduring infatuation with her struck me as difficult to fathom.  I was curious to see how the movie would handle Daisy's characterization, since an unsympathetic female protagonist is a hard sell in Hollywood.  (And, indeed, the critics seemed not to buy it, although they tended [unfairly in my view] to blame Cybill Shepherd.)  But Daisy was every bit as tiresome on the page as she is in the movie.

Reflecting on the film, I think part of the problem is that immature females can quite easily be intrinsically annoying and tiresome.  In my own writing, depicting women moving from states of relative immaturity to relative maturation, I've found myself becoming fed up with my own creations (my fault as the author - I own it - but a fault easily indulged given the reality).

But I also think Henry James missed an opportunity.  His Daisy Miller bears more than passing resemblance to Marianne Dashwood in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility.  Like Daisy, Marianne is also impulsive and emotional; she also cultivates an unwise attachment to an unsuitable man; and Marianne also suffers illness as the fallout of the relationship. 

But unlike Daisy, Marianne has depths that she reveals in the text.  Marianne is passionate, hard-working and unspoiled.  I got the impression that James expected us to like Daisy because she is beautiful and American, but those qualities are too superficial to inspire the reader's empathy.  (In this respect, Bogdanovich added a lovely touch when he had Daisy sing for Frederick, an episode that doesn't appear in the book, but which allows us to see Daisy's talent, as well as her beauty.)

And, unlike Daisy, Marianne doesn't die.  She marries a mature man, making a sensible choice that assures her a future both less romantic and more complicated than any situation in James' story.  Indeed, by comparison to Marianne's fate, Daisy's death looks mawkish and sentimental - another cheap, easy way of pushing the audience's sympathy buttons.

Bogdanovich handles the ending extremely well and, with Barry Brown's exceptional performance, manages to wring genuine regret from Daisy's death.  All the same, if the film seems like an over-expenditure on a slight tale, the cause seems to lie (and I say this with apologies to the Master) in the source material. 

(Image of Cybill Shepherd and Barry Brown in Peter Bogdanovich's film version of Daisy Miller from BAM)

If only all the memoirs were about pleasure...

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Much as I enjoyed Neil Genzlinger's hit piece on memoirs in this week's NYT Book Review, I humbly protest that I think he's misdiagnosed the problem. 

Genzlinger complains about "oversharing" in a culture where people have been encouraged to "grade inflate" their lives - to think their experiences A+'s, when they're really somewhere in the C- range.  As a result, people without anything to say are writing memoirs.

While Genzlinger no doubt has his finger on a live pulse in current American society, I don't think the issue is the authors: I think it's the publishers.  (See also the opening of Joyce Carol Oate's recent review of Paul Auster's novel, Sunset Park, in The New York Review of Books, in which she rhapsodizes about "the highly individualized, often short, lyric memoir of crises" that has burgeoned in the past few decades.)

Publishers want to invest in books that sell, and memoirs have an audience.  (I discuss why I think memoirs have such a robust audience base here.) 

However, as Genzlinger's annoyance attests, publishers don't seem to have a terribly refined notion of which memoirs will find an appreciative audience, and which will incur the public ire of prominent critics. 

At least part of this failing seems to be the Internet.  Publishers by now are accustomed to watching their profits sidle over to Internet-provided content, and they appear to have decided to try to move some of that content back into the print arena.  As Genzlinger observed, much of one of the memoirs he reviewed (Dis­aster Preparedness by Heather Havrilesky) would do better on a blog.

Similarly, publishers are investing in topics that garner extensive coverage online, with websites, bulletin boards, Facebook pages, etc., devoted to them.  Hence, we have the phenomenon Genzlinger decries of piles of memoirs being released on the same topic (e.g., autism, cancer, addiction, etc.).

This approach of Internet-driven decision-making about publishing content is misguided.  I'm going to go out on a limb with a totally untested, anecdotal observation here, but people don't necessarily want to find the same content on every platform.  I have friends who won't respond to an e-mail, but who are lightning fast on Facebook.  Among my ex-es is one who thinks text messaging appropriate for all manner of intense declarations that I might channel into an in-person or (at worst) a phone conversation.  And plenty of people will join a group, leave a comment, become a "fan" or otherwise evince interest in some topic online about which they do not want to read a book.

In broad strokes: books are deep; the Internet's superficial.  Content appropriate to one doesn't necessarily translate well.  Publishers should cultivate more sophistication about doing - and marketing - well what they do best, and leave the Internet to its own thing.

Of course, there is one content area in which book publishers shouldn't be shy about following Internet trends.  It's an area with a well-established pedigree in Western literature, and it nicely overlaps with the genre of memoirs.  The Internet may be for porn, but the book publishing industry is for Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure.

(Image of Phoebe showing Fanny how, from John Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, from the University of Michigan site)

Sisyphus was a writer

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Maya_Alexandri_in_a_cage_of_her_own_making.jpgP.G. Wodehouse repeated himself - jokes, similes, motivations, plots, quotes from poetry.  I love him so dearly that the repetitions don't bother me at all.  They're a quirk of a beloved - if soused - uncle, and if he didn't repeat himself, I'd ask him to, "Tell me the one about . . ."  

But I don't repeat myself, I thought.  I'm not writing in a genre, like Wodehouse (even if it is a genre of his own invention); each of my books is new and fresh and different and reflects the stupendous growth I've experienced since I finished my last book.

Well, ha.  Ha.  Ha.  And, for good measure, ha ha ha ha ha.  Rereading my second novel, The Swing of Beijing, this past week during the audio recording, I noted numerous instances of writing that I recognized - with a sigh and a resigned grimace - from later works, specifically my fourth novel, The Celebration Husband.  Certainly, the repetitions didn't rise to the P.G. Wodehouse level in either number or their verbatim quality, but I was plainly writing again, and around, and about, familiar themes.

In particular, a theme that manifested itself in similar terms in both books is the experience of feeling humbled before wonders, and how that humility is, in fact, empowering. 

I was interested to see this idea mentioned in Susan Neiman's recent NYT book review of Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly's All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age.  According to Neiman, Dreyfus and Kelly argue that
reading great works of literature allows us to rediscover the reverence, gratitude and amazement that were available in Homeric times.  These qualities, [the authors] believe, can be cultivated to provide a bulwark against the nihilism they rightly view as threatening our ability to lead meaningful lives in the 21st century.
. . . .
The reason so many of us feel so miserable is that we can neither find meaning in ourselves alone nor give up the longing to find it somewhere else.
. . . .
[The authors discuss] the Greeks, who were less reflective than we are, and less convinced that they were in control of the world. This left them open to experience a world in which things shine as works of art do, to feel gratitude not only for the bounties of nature but for human excellence in all its forms, itself regarded as a gift.
This quest after meaning, and finding its satisfaction in experiences of "reverence, gratitude and amazement" is a major theme in my life (and, unsurprisingly, my writing).  I hadn't thought I was trendy, or part of zeitgeist, but - worse - a cliché, but turns out I'm not only repetitive, but also unoriginal.  I better hope I at least write pretty.

So here's the writing: judge for yourself.  This first quote is from The Swing of Beijing, when one of the main characters, Tyler, is in a club listening to a jazz singer, called the Marquise:

     The Marquise was now doing her delightful version of "Take Five," in which she scat sang the signature saxophone solo.  Tyler closed his eyes again, enjoying the gravel-tinged honey that was the Marquise's voice, sweet and rough, simultaneously coating and caressing, and jutting against and ricocheting off of, the rhythm.  She sang the way she lived, accepting the rhythm - however strict, however unexpected - as a non-negotiable and nonetheless not letting it get in her way.  And, although neither she nor the song were Chinese, the Marquise's "Take Five" embodied Beijing for Tyler, better than any summation he'd encountered in any medium.  In her interpretation of the song - with its bizarre time signature; its odd drafting of the piano to do the work normally assigned the drums; her willful, beautiful occupation of melody; and the unbelievable way it melded these non-conforming elements to roll over Tyler with a soft power that submerged his individual existence into the flow of music - "Take Five" distilled Beijing, a city that in its near millennium of history had defied lack of water resources and a profusion of invaders, had witnessed profound progress in dark ages and starveling stagnation in eras of modernity, and throughout had inspired big imaginations to draw on its leviathan depths of potential and recreate it.  Like the song, Beijing humbled Tyler with the evidence of his meagerness and uplifted Tyler with its grace in enfolding him anyway; but most of all, it impressed Tyler with its capacity for strange and boundary-less change, a flexibility to which Tyler felt distinctly unequal.
Now compare that paragraph to these passages from The Celebration Husband (and this is a selection; there are other passages I could've excerpted), where the provocation for the experience of uplifting humility is not music, but the landscape:

    Looking beyond the station, Tanya absorbed the Eastern Rift Valley: game-rich forest and fertile farmland punctuated by the voluptuous protrusion of the extinct volcano, Mount Longonot, to the west.  Verdant green after the rains and dusty yellow during the dry season, Mount Longonot hid from Tanya's view Lake Naivasha, a vast stretch of fresh water so well integrated into the landscape that it often deceived observers into thinking it was part of the sky.  Augmenting the Valley's grandeur were the clouds, transformed by moody and variable weather into actors in an epic drama, involving much darkening and glowing, rearing up, rolling about, thunder-and-lightning sound effects, and honey-cognac lighting.
    Pitched midway on the escarpment that descends into the Valley, Kijabe afforded Tanya a prime vantage point for this spectacle.  As her eye roamed the scene, grey and gold clouds floated at eye level, so that the capacious sky seemed to arch overhead and then drop below her into the Valley.  Tanya had never before known the sensation of sky beneath her.  Kijabe elevated her; Tanya felt that the scenery demanded that she present a better, more noble self.
. . . .
    Arduously, achingly, she angled herself on her knees so that she faced Mount Kilimanjaro.  On the corridor of plain stretching before her, round white butterflies fluttered, their wings beating like nuns' wimples in a breeze.  Looking on the mountainous sanctum in the distance, Tanya saw that a cloud mass had swept over the snowy peak.  Her view of the colossus now occluded, Tanya remembered von Lettow-Vorbeck's remarks about Kilimanjaro's ability to dwarf an event as monumental as battle.  The mountain was so miraculous that it could remove any vastness from her perspective, even itself. 
    As it is with the mountain, let it be with me, she thought.  Let Kilimanjaro be my cathedral, let my perspective be guided by the light it filters onto me.  If war itself vanishes into the maw of the mountain, let me cast my pain upon it, and let my sorrows dwindle in its immensity.
    Then, still kneeling, Tanya bent her torso forward until her forehead touched the prickly ground.  She had seen Hassan bow this way during prayer, and the action had puzzled her.  She didn't understand how Hassan could willingly adopt a posture of such abject submission.  Now she imitated him intuitively.  She'd had no expectations of the movement; she had prostrated herself unthinkingly.  And yet, with this motion, she gained a sense of power.  Bowing to the mountain, Tanya was blessed with the insight that triumph, too, can emerge from surrender.
Seeing this theme emerge in different stories, in various words, written over four years of my life, I can feel how deeply I want my characters to undergo the liberation of humility, and how persuaded I am of edifying effects of such experiences.  I just hope audiences can bear with me (that I can bear with myself) as I write the same damned thing over and over again, trying (vainly) to pin the ineffable on paper.

Uncle Wodehouse, can you tell me the one about the peak in Darien?

(Photo of Maya Alexandri in the art cage of her own making by Andrew McConnell)

Really Rosie

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In a prior post, I speculated that I must have seen the movie, The African Queen, when I was a kid.  The book presents to the world an amazing, embodied female, smart and physically capable, optimistic, strong-willed and sexually alive, and I conjectured that the film must have had a profound influence on me. 

Having recently seen the film, I am now confident that I'd never seen it as a child.  And, in fact, had I seen it when young, it wouldn't have had the influence on me that I'd anticipated in the prior post.

As much as the film adheres closely to the novel's plot right until the end, John Huston's movie isn't as radical on gender issues as is C.S. Forester's book.  Yes, Rosie still steers the boat in the movie, but the film devotes little attention to the skill required of her to navigate The African Queen through the rapids.  The film makes Rosie's and Charlie's triumph over the rapids look like luck, whereas Forester's book attributes their success to the "lightning-calculating machine [that was Rosie's brain,] juggling with currents and eddies."

Similarly, the movie softens the dominance of Rosie's personality.  In the book, Charlie is unreflective and passive, and he responds positively to Rosie's initiative.  Forester refers to Rosie as the "captain."  In the film, on the other hand, Bogart - though very receptive to his first mate - never abdicates the leadership role.

As for the sex, forget it.  Contrast Forester's Rosie, big breasted, bursting with "ripe" femininity and "powerful" arms - an earth mother goddess, in other words - with Katharine Hepburn's near-skeletal severity.  Even if Hollywood mores hadn't limited the sexual possibilities for Charlie and Rosie, Hepburn couldn't have given us a Rosie who (as in the book) "actually enjoyed [sex], as no woman should ever dream of doing."

The movie's cowardice on gender issues is most apparent at its conclusion.  In the book, Charlie is apprehended wearing Rosie's underwear.  When the two are released, Rosie insists that they marry, and Charlie amiably agrees despite mentally registering (unvoiced) anxiety about the fact that he's already married.  In Forester's hands, "[w]hether or not they lived happily ever after is not easily decided."

I hardly need mention that, in the film, Bogart never dons Hepburn's underclothes.  And in the movie's cartoonish finale, Charlie asks the Germans to marry him and Rosie before they're hanged - a gesture that Rosie compliments for its sweetness.  I can imagine Forester looking confused and wondering where the heroine he wrote went.

The loss of Rosie is unfortunate because, in many other respects, The African Queen is a model of moving a book from page to screen.  Huston and his screen writers, James Agee and Peter Viertel, mostly succeeded in getting out of the way of messing up the story.  They allowed Forester's plot (gentle by film standards) to float (rather than drive) the film, thereby allowing time and space for the development of the wonderful chemistry between Bogart and Hepburn that keeps fans raving about the film.  Nonetheless, their collective imaginations stalled when the writing turned to Rosie's characterization. 

I conclude this blog post, therefore, in the same place I concluded the prior post: remake the film!  Or, better yet, read the book. 

(Image of Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen from The New York Times)

Facing the music in the audiobooth

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Over the past week, I've been recording an audiobook of my second novel, The Swing of Beijing.  Although I'd last read the book only two years ago, I remembered little of the details, and reading the book aloud has been an interesting experience.

My literary mentor, DM Thomas, wrote about the stresses and discoveries of re-reading all his novels, and his experience was much in my mind as I sat in the audio booth, reacquainting myself with The Swing of Beijing.

DM Thomas had been anxious that, upon rereading his works, he might find that his novels were "dead."  I wasn't worried about that, so much as discovering that the novel was crap.  Roberto Bolaño summed up my concern in one of the many breathtaking passages in his stupendous novel 2666

Ivanov's fear was of a literary nature.  That is, it was the fear that afflicts most citizens who, one fine (or dark) day, choose to make the practice of writing, and especially the practice of fiction writing, an integral part of their lives.  Fear of being no good.  Fear that one's efforts and striving will come to nothing.  Fear of the step that leaves no trace.  Fear of the forces of chance and nature that wipe away shallow prints.  Fear of dining alone and unnoticed.  Fear of going unrecognized.  Fear of failure and making a spectacle of oneself.  But above all, fear of being no good.  Fear of forever dwelling in the hell of bad writers. 
(p. 722.)  I am not immune to reading my own work and thinking, wait a minute, I know why this hasn't been published yet!  It's because it's no good.

Certainly, such thoughts and their variants crossed my mind when I was in the audio booth. 

But on the whole, I think those thoughts were too harsh.  Yes, some scenes were too complicated; writing them, I learned how to write scenes like them better in later novels. 

And, yes, some of the characters posed challenges for the reader - that is, me - in empathizing.  I still haven't fixed that issue to my satisfaction, but I could see my growth as a writer depicting difficult characters in empathetic ways, even from chapter to chapter in this book.

The turning point came in the second half of the novel, with a long monologue by a character named Gao Yi, a Chinese smuggler.  In truth, I'd forgotten the monologue in its particulars, and reading it I was captivated by its freshness, surprise and humanity.  Those characteristics are, of course, relative and - given the way I'd been feeling about the foregoing pages - I won't make any judgments about the absolute quality of the monologue; but I was confident that it wasn't "no good."

And after that monologue, I began to feel similarly about the writing that followed.  The Swing of Beijing is not a masterpiece by any stretch.  Maybe not even worth publishing beyond the audiobook version - maybe not of interest except as a record of my growth as a writer (and possibly only of interest in that respect to me).  But it's not "no good."

Then again, to quote DM Thomas assessing his own novels, "Who could ever trust an author's own view of his work?"

Tarik_Jarras.jpgAt the end of the reading, my sound engineer, Tarik Jarras, said that he wanted to know more about the characters, and that maybe I should write a sequel.  Bless him.      

(Image of Maya Alexandri taken by Tarik Jarras; image of Tarik Jarras taken by Maya Alexandri)

Hopeless romantic

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Bartle_Bull&Ana_Cristina_Alvarado.jpgI admit it: my idea of a romance novel is The Fountainhead

Which is not to say that the genre didn't once grip me.  I read Jean M. Auel's The Clan of the Cave Bear when I was eight, and I was duly scandalized by her The Valley of the Horses when I was nine, and after that there was the aforementioned Fountainhead, and then my interests focused elsewhere (with a brief detour to read Bernard Cornwell's The Fallen Angel on the recommendation of a dear friend). 

I'm not judgmental about romance novels or the women who read and love them.  Rather, romance novels - along with all genre fiction - just don't ring my bell.  Genres by their nature are rules-based (whereas I believe life is random).  Genres simplify life in all its messy complexity, and somewhere in the simplification my attention wanders.

That said, I was surprised and interested to learn that there are romance novels for men.  I am aware that they're not marketed as such, but reading Bartle Bull's The White Rhino Hotel, I slowly realized that I was in possession of a genuine romance novel for men. 

The novel's hero, Anton Rider, leaves his adopted gypsy clan in England for the freedom of East Africa, where he uses his strong and luscious body to hunt, rescue friends and maidens, wrestle and fight, and pan for gold.  A virgin who is initiated into the society of the sexually active by an irresistable and insatiable older Portuguese woman, Anton is well-intentioned, uncorruptable and reticent about his machismo.  The White Rhino Hotel's meandering story line is more a series of scenarios in which Anton can pose pretty than an engine that drives a narrative.    

Of course, no reason exists why men, like women, shouldn't enjoy genre romance novels.  We all know that men - like women - enjoy looking at stylized, idealized photos of themselves (e.g., GQ, Men's Health).  But in reading The White Rhino Hotel, I learned something about myself: when it comes to men posing pretty, I prefer the photos.

If I'm going to read about men posing pretty, at least let them be pumped full of the steroids of an over-simplistic ideology masquerading as the "philosophical theory" of Objectivism. 

(Image of Bartle Bull and Ana Cristina Alvarado from New York Social Diary)

The East African Novel

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Quick: what play involves an incestuous uncle, a sword fight to avenge the honor of a family member, a poisoned goblet of wine drunk by an unintended victim, and a pile of corpses at the play's close?  (If you said, Hamlet, that's a correct answer, but not the play about which I was thinking.)  I'm referring to Thomas Middleton's Women Beware Women, a kind of Jacobean Desperate Housewives, absent the suburbs, and plus verse. 

Women Beware Women and Hamlet, side-by-side, illustrate how playwrights of the late-Elizabethan, early-Jacobean era manipulated certain standardized or formulaic set pieces in order to craft their stories.  The fluency, eloquence and sophistication with which they maneuvered these story components, as contrasted with their originality in devising new components for the story, constituted their skill.  (Hence, Shakespeare borrowed plots from other sources, rather than making up his own.)  This mode of story telling is, in fact, quite ancient: Walter Ong describes how oral poets of Homer's time composed epic poems using "standardized formulas . . . grouped around equally standardized themes, such as the council, the gathering of the army, the challenge, the despoiling of the vanquished, the hero's shield, and so on and on."  (Orality & Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, p. 23.)

So I felt an odd delight when I realized that, quite unconsciously, I'd been working in the same tradition on my latest novel, The Celebration Husband, which takes place in East Africa during the first three months of World War I.  Upon hearing that I'd written this novel, a friend gave me his seriously tattered-jacketed copy of Bartle Bull's Africa adventure, The White Rhino Hotel.

Reading The White Rhino Hotel, I felt an intriguing sense of recognition.  The novel contained many familiar scenarios, as if Bartle Bull and I had attended the same writing seminar and had both completed the assignment to "write a scene in the following circumstance: East Africa, nineteen-teens, go."

My novel contains: (a) a lion attack, (b) people captivated by the sight of wildlife, (c) crossing Kenya on a train, (d) riding around Kenya on a motorcycle, (e) farmers bemoaning the punishing conditions from which they are attempting to coax agricultural produce, (f) Masai and Kikuyu warriors in oppositional confrontation, (g) descriptions of bush cooking, (h) references to hunting safaris, (i) invocation of the classics, (j) a woman facing down a potential rapist, (k) a close friendship between a smart black African and a naive white colonist, and (l) arcane explanations and depictions of equipment and weaponry.

Every one of those elements appears in The White Rhino Hotel

I can think of a number of reasons for this overlap.  Bull and I might have read the same authors and texts in our research (e.g., Lord Cranworth, Elspeth Huxley, Karen Blixen, Beryl Markham are all fairly ubiquitous as sources on East Africa in the early twentieth century).  Also, these elements all correlate to regularly-occurring events in the reality of East African life between 1914 and 1921 (when The White Rhino Hotel ends), which is why they might crop up repeatedly in the relevant historical texts or stories handed down over the generations.

In short, these elements have become standard set pieces, the lion attack analogous to the Elizabethan / Jacobean sword fight.  They are (what in copyright law is referred to as) mise-en-scene: essential or stock elements of a particular genre.  See, e.g., Universal City Studios v. T-shirt Gallery, Ltd., 634 F. Supp. 1468, 1474 n.5 (S.D.N.Y. 1986).

I hadn't seen my writing from this perspective before, and - although to our novelty-centric culture, the prospect might be threatening or induce a sense of competitiveness - I found unexpectedly comforting aspects in it.  In contradistinction to the isolated novelist in a cottage in Naivasha, which I was for the duration in which I wrote The Celebration Husband, I felt myself in a tradition of storytellers captivated by East Africa in the early twentieth century, all of us sorting and reordering standardized story components of The East African Novel in our individual attempts to ignite the magic of suspension of disbelief.

In a surprising way, it felt good.

(Image of Bartle Bull and the cover of his novel, The White Rhino Hotel, from The New York Times and Fantasticfiction.co.uk respectively)

Whither the women of the 1%?

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Dale_Peck.jpgIn the course of a New York Times book review of the two recently-released translations of the work of the late Austrian author Thomas Bernhard, novelist, critic and literary infant terrible Dale Peck drew a distinction between novelistic traditions.  The first, representing 99% (in his estimate) of Western novels, finds its roots in ancient Greek forms of storytelling and, in its journey through Rome, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Victorian Era, has evolved to chart the vicissitudes of "an increasingly representative cast of characters and behaviors." 

The second tradition
wends its way through various misfits, misanthropes and criminals constitutionally incapable of resigning themselves to the social contract: Cervantes's Don Quixote, Sterne's Tristram Shandy, Dostoyevsky's underground man, Knut Hamsun's self-starving doppelgänger in "Hunger."  In lieu of ­offering a rational critique of the world they inhabit, the antiheroes of the second tradition simply hate or reject it, just as their creators, far from seeing literature as a tool for cultural or even individual salvation, write only to give voice to a sense of alienation from oneself, one's peers and one's place in history.
The phrase "constitutionally incapable of resigning themselves to the social contract" delighted me - not least because of how deeply I identify with it - but also raised an immediate question: why were women authors absent from this disaffected 1%?  (I don't think the issue lies in Peck's list of examples; aside from Peck's very public philogyny, I can't think of a woman author who should have been included.)

The absence is noteworthy.  Women, after all, have very good reasons to reject the social contract.  Succinctly: we've been on the shit end of the deal - of every social deal - in Western history and maintain our sorry status in current times.  There's never been a Golden Age for women, a time during which it was good to be female.  We perennially do more to get less, find ourselves without outlets or mentors for our talents, and alone in our grief; and that's the fate of lucky women - the unlucky ones are the subjects of unremitting abuse, exploitation, degradation and violence.

So why doesn't literature by women reflect these inarguable facts?  Why aren't women writing characters that "hate or reject" the world?  Why aren't women authors writing "to give voice to a sense of alienation from oneself, one's peers and one's place in history"?

These are "big" questions, and a blog post is structurally incapable of admitting comprehensive (or even potentially worthy) answers.  Nonetheless, just as I struggle against other structurally-imposed constraints in my life, I'll attempt an inadequate (and possibly unworthy) answer here, one based on women's historic connection with the existence of the novel.

As Walter Ong explains in his masterwork, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, up through the nineteenth century, rhetoric-heavy academic training shaped literary style in the West, except in the case of female authors, who received no such training:

In medieval times and after, the education of girls was often intensive . . . , but this education was not acquired in academic institutions, which taught rhetoric and all other subjects in Latin.  When they began to enter schools in some numbers during the seventeenth century, girls entered not the main-line Latin schools but the newer vernacular schools. . . . Women writers were no doubt influenced by works that they had read emanating from the Latin-based, academic, rhetorical tradition, but they themselves normally expressed themselves in a different, far less oratorical voice, which had a great deal to do with the rise of the novel.
(pp. 111-12.)  And which no doubt had a great deal to do with the low esteem with which novels have been held since time immemorial - see, for example, this declamation by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey:

Although [novelists'] productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. . . . [T]here seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances that have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them.
(p. 22.)  Novels, in short, are a woman's medium.  Don Quixote notwithstanding (and Don Quixote to my mind is at least as much an example of a transitional epic poem as it is of an early novel), novels were largely invented, refined and patronized by women.  The prevalence of male novelists in the list of "greats" is just another yawn-inducing example of the achievement possible for a gender unsaddled by the lion's share of procreative and domestic work, a gender that moreover (and because of the foregoing advantage) has historically enjoyed the privilege of making the fucking list in the first place.

Which is to say, a novel (as contrasted with, say, a blog post) isn't a terribly logical medium for a woman's expression of hatred, rejection and alienation: it may be the Western cultural medium from which women are least alienated.  For a woman (or, at least, this woman), novels aren't either "a tool for cultural or even individual salvation," or a forum for voicing alienation: they are her metaphoric home, the place where she can experience unmolested enjoyment of her intellect and emotions.  A novel isn't about therapy or "salvation," but rather the mere necessities of existence: whether reading or writing one, in the confines of a novel, a woman finds a space in which she has penned the terms of the social contract. 

By the same token, fouling a woman's nest with vituperative hatred, rejection, mockery and self-pitying howls of alienation is exactly the kind of asshole behavior to be expected from a sensitive male genius writer.

(Image of Dale Peck from New York magazine)

This situation is critical

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Daumier_The_Critics.jpgThis week's New York Times Book Review ran an multi-piece special on "Why Criticism Matters," and I, for one, was delighted, despite the fact that the articles barely managed to say anything interesting. 

Two of the critics - Katie Roiphe and Sam Anderson - agree that critics have to write better than dimwit attention-mongers who leave opinions on websites, which - as an insight - ranks with the observation that a normal foot has five toes.  A third critic, Adam Kirsch, insists that "a serious critic is one who says something true about life and the world," which is the kind of subjective pseudo-deep remark that I'd expect from Khalil Gibran.  A pastiche piece excerpting quotes from great critics of the past includes some nuggets like Randall Jarrell's remark that "[c]riticism demands of the critic a terrible nakedness," and Oscar Wilde's invocation of "Beauty."

All of which made me giggle.  The reason criticism twists so uncomfortably between its insecure need to justify itself and its inability to offer that justification in anything like persuasive terms is because critics seem unwilling to name their true "value added": they know more.  They've read more of the books by the author under review than you, and especially I, have; they've had more discussions, thought more deeply, written more about the topic, seen more, done more and experienced more of relevance to the issue than you and I have.  Their opinion is an elite, expert opinion, and that's why it's useful.

It's also why the critics don't want to mention it.  Aside from the social faux pas inherent in establishing and brandishing such qualifications, elites and experts aren't having such a grand time of it in today's culture.  Glen Beck recently cast elites as the bad guys in his thriller, The Overton Window (a fact I myself wouldn't know if I didn't read a review of it in an elitist rag like The New York Review of Books). 

In addition to such bashing, elites have suffered a real diminution in power.  In the one passage of surpassing interest in the Book Review, Adam Kirsch made this point:

Like everyone, I wonder whether a general audience, made up of what Virginia Woolf called "common readers," still exists.  If it does, the readership of The New York Times Book Review is probably it.  But measured against the audience for a new movie or video game, or against the population as a whole, even the Book Review reaches only a niche audience.  Perhaps the only difference between our situation and Arnold's is that in Victorian England, the niche that cared about literature also happened to constitute the ruling class, while in democratic, mass-media America, the two barely overlap.
Critics used to pass judgment on the cultural representations of political power; now they're talking about artifacts of just another interest group.  The demotion is embarrassing.

Nonetheless, people still listen to experts and elites.  Knowing more still counts for much.  People may be stupid, but even stupid people know the difference between an informed opinion and an emotional one.  They may prefer one or the other on a given day, or depending on presentation - and America's is not a culture that appreciates a condescending, informed opinion - but people recognize a need for knowledge in their lives.

The critics offering highfalutin, vague and indirect explanations are working against themselves.  No one who talks eloquently around the elephant in the room can be deemed an authority.  Critics who talk honestly and openly about what distinguishes their contributions, and who do so in an accessible way, will find not only do they command authority, but that they've earned it.   
(Image of Honoré Daumier painting, "The Critics," from Artnet)

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This page is an archive of entries from January 2011 listed from newest to oldest.

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