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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)

The language of literature

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Ngugi_wa_Thiong'o_reading.jpgNgugi wa Thiong'o writes in Gikuyu, the language spoken by the Kikuyu tribe in Kenya.  He translates his own work into English.  

His choice to do so, as he recognizes in a recent video interview with Granta deputy editor Ellah Allfrey, is not popular with the "new generation" of African writers, many (if not most) of whom write in English.  Ngugi wa Thiong'o reserves judgment of these young writers, acknowledging that writing in an African language decreases the chances of publication.  But he criticized the assumptions underlying African literary prizes:   

Look at prizes given to promote African writing . . . They all assume that African writing is only that which is in English.  They assume that European languages are the beginning or the only means by which the African imagination can work, and it's not true.
The question of the language of the imagination is an important and interesting one.  But in framing the issue as he does (and in attacking the faceless "they" to whom "assumptions" can be attributed), Ngugi seems to be setting up a straw colonist for attack and missing the key issue: whether to write in the language of an oral society.

All written literature builds on other writings, through references, allusions, quotations or outright copying (Shakespeare, for example, used other authors' plots).  A writer who decides to write in a language that has no literary canon deprives his or her work of the richness of that dialogue with preexisting literary works.  Attaining aesthetic quality in such a context is an even greater challenge than normal.

That "new generation" African writers are writing in European languages may not simply be a function of wanting to be published, as Ngugi wa Thiong'o suggests, but may result from what Binyavanga Wainaina identifies as a desire for recognition based on "the very 'aesthetic' of their work, not their political leanings or their arrival from a wayward 'Dark Continent.'"  In other words, Wainana urges recognition for quality writing, rather than for the identity or politics of the author - or the language in which he or she writes.  

To produce quality writing, all writers must translate the story in their imagination to words on the page.  And, in the end, the language of the imagination and the language of literature differ, even when both nominally occur in English.  (For instance, the imagination can operate in pictures, while literature uses words.)  

When the writer in question has a choice of languages into which to translate the story in his or her imagination, selecting a non-native language has time and again resulted in innovative works that enrich the language in which they're written (think Vladimir Nabokov, Isak Dinesen, Ha Jin).  Penalizing African writers for choosing English is likely to result in a loss both to English and to literature.

(Photo of Ngugi wa Thiong'o from his website)   

A literary lover

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Byron_Beppo.jpgIn Beppo, Lord Byron's verse play, the poet raises an intractable question: were 99 stanzas necessary?

A comic, bawdy Venetian adventure, Beppo ostensibly tells the tale of a woman, Laura, whose husband, Beppo, goes to sea and disappears without a word.  "And really if a man won't let us know/That he's alive, he's dead, or should be so," explains Byron.  So Laura takes a cavalier servente, an openly-accepted second husband.  Six years go by, and Laura and her cavalier servente are enjoying their life together, when - at a masked ball during Carnival - Laura catches the attention of a Turk . . . who turns out to be her husband.

Despite the drama of this situation, the plot is secondary to scene-setting and musings of tangential relevance.  In Beppo, Byron's digressions, quite self-consciously, rule the poem:  

. . . [F]or I find
Digression is a sin, that by degrees
Becomes exceeding tedious to my mind,
Byron complains in stanza 50.  Just thirteen stanzas later, he's moaning again:

To turn, -and to return; the devil take it!
This story slips for ever through my fingers.  
But however much Byron protests his poetic ADD, he devotes extensive energy to it.  As Jeffrey, writing in Edinburgh Review in 1818 observed, "This story, such as it is, occupies about twenty stanzas."  (My own count is not so condemnatory.  I allow the first 20 verses as appropriate background scene-setting, and I only count 27 or so verses of proper digression.  Nonetheless, even by my generous assessment, 47 verses of 99 do not advance the plot.)  

Explanations of Byron's digressions abound.  Jeffrey calls them "unquestionably by far the most lively and interesting parts of the work."  Harsh condemnation of the story then.

Jeffrey is not the only critic to slight Beppo's story.  Writing in The Guardian, Benjamin Markovits calls the story "scant" and explains the digressions in Beppo as follows:

The real hero of the piece is the poet himself . . . . [engaging in] a series of digressions on worldliness: on how to take pleasure from the world, on how to live.
While I agree with both these comments, I think in some sense they miss the larger picture of how the digressions deepen the reader's experience of the story and how the poem's constituent parts relate to the whole.  

If, as Jeffrey and Markovits suggests, the digressions don't relate to the story, but instead supplant the story, then my inquiry is irrelevant.  The constituent parts don't relate beyond allowing the story to serve as a frame for Byron's digressions.

But to explain the story in Beppo as a thin branch on which to hang the poet's "lively and interesting" observations "on how to live" seems (to my mind) to disserve Byron's skills as a storyteller.  Such an interpretation also fails to give meaning to the stanzas in which Byron calls attention to his own digressions.

My reading is that the digressions are integral to the story.  By calling attention to his digressions, Byron is signaling to the reader that they are not the sloppy tangents of a debauched mind, but deliberate and purposeful additions to the story.  Byron is telling the tale of a woman whose relationship with her cavalier servente is a digression in her marriage.  The digression is entertaining, worldly and broad-minded - just like Byron's digressions in the poem.  In Beppo, Byron is offering himself as cavalier servente to the reader; he is inviting his adoring fans to allow him to be a digression in their day, life, relationship.  (The poet isn't the hero of the poem; the reader is.) 

And, in the reader's acceptance of Byron's service, the reader is implicated in Laura's "sin."  Writing of immoral relations for a conservative British audience, Byron stealthily builds the reader's sympathy for Laura - as well as support for the poem's happy ending that allows Laura to escape without punishment - by inviting the reader to partake via literary effigy in Laura's naughtiness.  

Given such playfulness, 99 stanzas are not only necessary, but possibly insufficient.

(Cover of Beppo from

Waiting for the break

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Beth_Bauman.jpgReading a 2003 New York Times profile of author Beth Ann Bauman, I was struck by her perseverance.  At 38, Bauman had been living an impoverished life without publishing success for twelve years, despite an MFA in Creative Writing and a connection to Tina Bennett, a leading agent.  '''Everyone around her was getting published first,'' said Alice Elliott Dark . . . one of Ms. Bauman's teachers in a writing workshop. 'I've seen this happen to a number of really talented people. It's very flukey.'''

When her first story collection, Beautiful Girls, was finally published, Bauman's characters shared a common characteristic:

 ''All of the characters are waiting for something,'' Ms. Bauman said. ''They're all waiting for their lives to unfurl.''

Which is, of course, exactly what she has been doing all these years.

''I have,'' she agreed eagerly. ''I have been waiting, feeling trapped by my circumstances - the day job, never having enough time to write, wanting something larger and more comfortable, a better life. Maybe not a better life, but just wanting to arrive somewhere.''  
This account of Bauman's experience resonates with me.  I am familiar with that agony of feeling that my life is stalled until I can get a book published (although my fictional characters aren't "waiting for their lives to unfurl"; on the contrary, my fiction fairly bursts with people charging into adventure and the unknown).  And I feel acute indignation at the costs that Bauman has paid for her eventual success: they are unfairly high.  

At the other end of the spectrum - an author who met with success early and with super-success by the time she was Beth Ann Bauman's age - Elizabeth Gilbert on her website quotes Werner Herzog on the question of an artist's response to the costs involved with making art: 

Quit your complaining. It's not the world's fault that you wanted to be an artist. . . . [I]t's certainly not the world's obligation to pay for your dreams. Nobody wants to hear it. . . [S]top whining and get back to work.  
I am not persuaded.  Of course, in the literal sense of no one promising to pay us for our writing, Herzog is right.  But in the larger sense, he's wrong.  

Society does promise us baselines: our reasonable expectations for our lives.  The promise of these baselines is called the social compact, and it's not a new concept.  Indeed, anything recognizable as a society would be impossible without this compact.

In Masai communities, for example, females can reasonably expect to have multiple lovers, to be married and - unless they're barren - to have children.  They can also expect to have enough goats, sheep and cows to ensure that neither they nor their children will ever be hungry.  A woman whose life doesn't include these factors is unlucky or has been treated wrongly.

In American society, females can reasonably expect that if they work hard, their merit will be rewarded.  They can expect to be paid the same amount as their male peers for their work.  They can expect to be paid for their work - we don't condone unpaid labor in the U.S.  They can expect to enjoy a career and a family life.  A woman whose life includes hard work that goes unrewarded, lower-paid or unpaid labor, or labor that requires her to give up the enjoyments of family and children is seen - in many instances - to have been discriminated against.

Notwithstanding the social compact, Bauman, myself and (no doubt) countless other female writers are not seeing our entitlements honored.  Hard work doesn't have as much correlation with pay-off as does luck.  Women writers routinely work for free and are expected to do so; publishers think nothing of requesting rewrites without a contract in place to pay for them.  And many women writers find that a family (for many reasons) is out of the question if they want to write.

Complaining, as Herzog notes, is unattractive and often unhelpful, and I don't mean by this blog post to bellyache about the plight of women writers.  Rather, my aim is to enrich the storehouse of that most American of stories - that of triumph over unfair adversity - by saluting Beth Ann Bauman (and all the other similarly situated women writers) who are asked to run an unfair gauntlet, one that represents society's failure to uphold its end of the social compact.

(Photo of Beth Ann Bauman from MacAdam/Cage)  

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