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I don't think I'm competent to judge whether Karen Blixen is any good as a writer. I admire good plotting and page-turnability too highly. I fall in love with authorial voices that don't take themselves too seriously, that mock themselves, that deliver the heavy news with the light tone. I value substance over facade too much to venerate aristocracy.
In short, Karen Blixen probably couldn't speak to me with her writing, even if she was any good, which I can't tell whether she is. Certainly, she's maddening. In "Sorrow-Acre," the second story in Winter's Tales
, a five-page tangent about the 17 year-old bride of a 60-plus aristocrat - during which the young mistress yearns for someone who is never present and meditates on a flea's willingness (alone among creaturedom) to risk its life for her blood - leads nowhere. In "The Pearls," another story from the same collection, Henrik Ibsen makes a baffling appearance, and a cobbler's revelation that he added a pearl to the protagonist's necklace ruins her marriage - why that might be is anyone's guess. In "Alkmene," also from Winter's Tales
, a mysterious foundling child insists on watching an execution after her adopted father dies - she hints that the purpose of observing the spectacle is to deter her from committing murder like the condemned man - and then, upon receiving a marriage proposal from the story's narrator, claims that she herself has died, whereupon she moves to the country with her adopted mother and runs a sheep farm.
Reading Blixen's stories, I was reminded of Tim Parks' frustrated review of Anne Enright's The Gathering
in The New York Review of Books
. Enright's extraordinary talent, as I see it, is her bizarre ability to evoke the experience - captivation, terror, revelation, relief - of dreaming (in fact, her work fades for me after I close the covers, just as dreams do upon waking). But the ability of a dream to cast its spell on a non-dreamer is limited - indeed, to the outsider, a dream is often an easily-dismissed irrationality - and Enright, like all stylists, cannot be appreciated by a reader who doesn't get her style. (Imagine your consternation - to pace Tim Parks' - if what appears to be someone else's dream-babble won the Booker.)
But Blixen herself may have cut closer to the truth in her final story in Winter's Tales
, "A Consolatory Tale." In it, a character explains,
What exactly [the imposter to the Prince] has told the people I cannot report, partly because his sayings seem to be deep and twofold, so that those who have heard them do not remember them, and partly because he really does not say much. But the impression which he has made is sure to be very profound.
(p. 298.) Later, the imposter utters the following enigma: "Life and Death are two locked caskets, each of which contains the key to the other." (p. 303.) In other words, this imposter bore a striking resemblance to Kahlil Gibran (or his modern day incarnate, Paulo Coelho).
Stylist or fraud, that's the question.
(Photo courtesy of Tate Britain
Thinking over The African Queen, I have to marvel at C.S. Forester's ability to wring a plot out of action largely centered on keeping a rickety steamship afloat. Page after page finds Allnut "address[ing] himself to the engine," "haul[ing] out a panful of hot ashes and dump[ing] them overboard," "fill[ing] the furnace with fresh wood," "peer[ing] at his gauges," "haul[ing] in the anchor," etc. (p. 15). A critical sequence - for the plot and for the relationship between Rose and Charlie Allnut - occupying a full twelve pages of text - involves straightening a shaft and fixing a broken propeller (p. 122-134).
Yet the action never drags, I never got bored, and I was turning pages so fast that I finished the whole book in one sitting (or just about). I'm amazed and, frankly, not sure how he did it.
One reason that I can discern is the humor that Forester invests in his storytelling. His vivid descriptions of Charlie's antics keeping the boat afloat evoke images of Chaplin-esque physical comedy in the mind of the reader (or at least this reader). Charlie's speech about the impossibility of fixing the twisted shaft and the broken propeller (on p. 122) is laugh-out-loud funny.
Another reason is a quality I'll call "storyteller instinct." I've often listened to people relate interesting events in a way that makes me yearn for more absorbing conversation - something about the tax code maybe? Similarly, I've often been surprised at the laughter or expressions of fascination expressed by people listening to me recount some appallingly boring experience. It's not the content, but the way it's presented. C.S. Forester is apparently the kind of master craftsman of storytelling who can make the mechanics of rickety steamships scintillating reading fare.
C.S. Forester's plotting supports my hunch - or is it a preference? - that the plot's the thing that crowns a storyteller a king (with apologies to Shakespeare, Hamlet and those less silly than I).
I used to love The New Yorker. I remember feeling outraged the first time I saw Katie Rophie's name credited on a "Talk of the Town" squib because The New Yorker was my community, and I didn't want the author of The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism to be a part of it.
Sure, The New Yorker was brain candy compared to The New York Review of Books, and, yes, living overseas in China, I began to find some of The New Yorker's content less-than-compelling. Still, Jane Mayer, Seymour Hersh, Philip Gourevitch, Elizabeth Kolbert - and the many brilliant short stories - ensured that it was reliably worth reading.
Perhaps Lauren Weisberger's worshipful references to The New Yorker in The Devil Wears Prada were the turning point - or perhaps they were only the trigger that made me notice a change that had already occurred - but I've transitioned from a reader of every scrap of text in the magazine, to a picker-and-chooser of articles - and, finally, this morning to a disappointed former acolyte.
Sitting in Naivasha, surveying a drought-suffering landscape - including dwindling wildlife forced into ever-closer proximity with humans - I read the "Talk of the Town" from the May 4, 2009 issue (one of the hard copies I toted with me to Kenya). The section included stories about: Texans discussing succession after the provocation of an income tax raise; career counseling for laid-off Wall Streeters retooling for work in start-ups; Dolly Parton's NYC experiences; a paean to provincialism masquerading as an update on the reconstruction of the City Island Nautical museum after a fire; and a breezy piece about Peter Brant's new art gallery, and Jeff Koon's installation of his pieces in it. An assortment of articles more clearly documenting the mass lack of perspective on the part of a self-congratulatory "general interest" (so long as it's generally within a narrow range) audience doesn't exist.
Katie Rophie, The New Yorker is all yours. It isn't my community anymore.
What, exactly, does a reading list say about about a person? I wouldn't have thought a reading list would be as revealing as, say, a person's habitual dietary intake or fashion preferences. I don't know what feeds this visceral assumption: maybe the fact that another word for "reading list" is "syllabus"?
But try this:
- Most mornings, she ate a single-egg, cheese omelet, along with half an avocado and half a papaya for breakfast.
- She alternated between wearing cardigans over collared shirts and cotton Indian kurtas.
- In an eight week period during the summer of 2009, she read The New York Review of Books, The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, poems from Staying Alive, and White Mischief.
My opinion is either of the first two sentences is more revealing about the person's character than the third.
As often happens, however, my opinion seems to be in the minority. Though we have yet to see - so far as I am aware - a trend of biographies that unlock the secrets of the subject through the prism of their diet or their sartorial history (with exceptions, perhaps, for chefs like Julia Child and fashion designers like Coco Chanel respectively), we seem to be witnessing a spate of biographies that examine disparate subjects through the lens of his reading list.
I have already blogged
about Timothy Ryback's Hitler's Private Library: The Books that Shaped His Life.
Now we have Thomas Wright's Built of Books: How Reading Defined the Life of Oscar Wilde
. Both these books appear to share some similarities: in both cases, the libraries of their subjects were dispersed and unreconstructable - leaving both ventures, therefore, to wander into the speculative a bit more than might be advisable for a book-length project of non-fiction. Moreover, as the subtitles of both books make clear, these authors seem to think they can make the case that books moulded these great men and that their reading lists therefore deserve at least part of the credit, or blame, for the men's accomplishments or crimes.
The notion seems rickety to me. As Michael Shae makes clear in his review
of Built of Books
, much of Wilde's reading took place in the course of his "thorough classical education." But thousands of men who read Greek and Latin didn't go on to seduce young men and write The Picture of Dorian Gray
Similarly, Ryback catalogs Hitler's taste for reading military strategy, along with an assortment of lowbrow entertainment: right-wing pseudo-academic propaganda, pseudo-mystical polemics, and the usual smattering of porn, romance, and pulp. But this reading list doesn't explain why Hitler is responsible for the deaths of millions of people, while at least as many Republicans with comparable reading tastes are law-abiding, responsible citizens (if not the type you'd want to be determining your child's reading material at school).
Ultimately, I'm wading through a biography to learn what precisely allowed Wilde to use his classical education as a springboard to reach his creative apex, or what in Hilter's character responded so tragically to the malign influence of bad reading material. The reading list itself ought to be the periphery, not the center. It's a part of the backdrop - Victorian England; Germany between-the-Wars. That the reading list has become the focus of attention suggests an admission of defeat by the biographer: he doesn't have the answer I want to know.
It also suggests a fascination with books presaging - if not their extinction, then - their lessening influence: what were people like, back when they read books?
Is it a coincidence that, as people read less, they are also less able to dissect human character with precision?
In Louis Menand's review
of Mark McGurl's book, The Program Era
(in The New Yorker
), about the advent of creative-writing programs at universities and their impact on American literature, Menand poses the question, "Should creative writing be taught?" - a variation on the question that dogs the enterprise (as Menand well documents), "can creative writing be taught?"
Although, as a question of policy, asking "should creative writing be taught" may be a worthwhile inquiry when deciding how to allocate educational dollars, as a writer, I don't think the question of whether writing can be taught is relevant to whether writers should attend the programs. As Menand makes clear (if inadvertently), no one really goes to creative-writing programs to learn to write. They go:
- to engage with their readers' world ("university creative-writing courses situate writers in the world that most of their readers inhabit - the world of mass higher education and the white-collar workplace . . . . Putting [writers] in the ivory tower puts them in touch with real life.");
- to learn "craft" - e.g., discipline necessary for writing, general rules about sentence and paragraph structure, techniques for plotting, etc. - as opposed to how to learn how to have talent ("What is usually said is that you can't teach inspiration, but you can teach craft");
- to have space and time to write without having to worry about earning a living ("[Wallace Stegner] founded the program at Stanford [in 1947] by persuading a wealthy oilman to fund a
place where returning veterans who wanted to write could get away from
their families and hang out");
- and to be around like-minded people ("I just thought that [poetry] mattered more than anything else, and being around other people who felt the same way, in a setting where all we were required to do was to talk about each other's poems, seemed like a great place to be.").
A related reason, although one that Menand doesn't mention, is that people attend creative-writing programs in order to make connections, network with published writers, and find an agent.
From the perspective of an individual writer, I don't find any of these reasons - singly or in combination - satisfactory. (Full disclosure: three years ago, I enrolled in a Humber College correspondence course for novelists, but I did so because D.M. Thomas, my literary mentor, suggested that the Humber program would be a good structure for our work together. While my work with Thomas was phenomenally rewarding, I didn't see what value Humber College was bringing to the interaction. Also, about fifteen years ago, I attended classes at the Gotham Writers Workshop, which may have influenced my reluctance to attend any writing workshop thereafter.)
Where Menand and I part ways is on the issue of navel gazing. Menand argues that immersing writers in an environment saturated with issues pressing to writers and their readers is a positive methodology for incubating literature ("For, in spite of all the reasons that they shouldn't, workshops work"). I, on the other hand, think such immersion is a form of narrow-minded self-absorption that produces literature of a like nature.
The last thing I want to do with my non-writing hours is hash over my work with other writers. My creative process isn't served by jumping up and down on the same nerves ad infinitum
. Rather, my creative process blossoms when I turn my conscious attention to unrelated matters and let my subconscious have a stab at whatever creative problem is puzzling me.
Moreover, as a reader, I don't gravitate to books that cover familiar ground; I want to expand my world through my reading. Perhaps for this reason, as a writer, I'm most interested in stories about people who are forgotten by, unknown or invisible to Menand's "world of mass higher education and the white-collar workplace."
Finally, I perceive risks in creative-writing programs that Menand either doesn't recognize or neglects to discuss. First, literary feedback is more frequently destructive than it is helpful. Like all processes that require personal chemistry for maximum effect - therapy, sex - the provision of constructive literary guidance can only come from a rare person. When the relationship between writer and critic lacks that crucial, intangible connection, a writer can suffer a devastating withering of his or her desire to write.
Second, immersion in any topic for whatever reason produces myopia. That's why specialists tend to be assholes. And while it's almost de rigueur
for writers to be assholes, if they're any good, they're not myopic. For the individual writer, the struggle is always to encounter the greater breadth of human experience; and for the literature of a people, the achievement is always in its universality.
McGurl argues that "There has been a system-wide rise in the excellence of American literature in the postwar period," and Menand agrees, citing John Barth in The New York Times Book Review
("Writing: Can It Be Taught?
"), claiming that there's more good, contemporary fiction than anyone has time to read.
With due respect, such reasoning is sloppy. That Americans lack time for all the good literature on the market doesn't prove that our literature is as good as it could be (if, for example, we were to expect our novelists to train in the world itself, rather than in an M.F.A. program). Moreover, the fact of the post-war rise in the excellence of American literature - if it is a fact, and I'm skeptical - doesn't prove that university creative-writing programs were its cause. (Factors that seem more important to me include the undoubted facts of: increasing rates of college attendance; more people with leisure time to write; great urbanization; and increasing interest in the voices of non-white and non-male authors.)
Indeed, McGurl and Menand are at odds with the most prestigious arbiter of literature in the world. An American hasn't won the Nobel Prize in Literature for sixteen years, and last year the words "isolated," "insular" and "ignorance" were used
by Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, to describe the U.S. literary world. Harsh words and potentially more hurtful than constructive - but to ignore or dismiss them only reinforces their accuracy.
Mark Danner deserves our gratitude. In two articles in The New York Review of Books
, "US Torture: Voices from the Black Sites
," and "The Red Cross Torture Report: What It Means
," he has tarried where few of us would care even to glimpse. In careful, thoughtful and measured prose, he has parsed the facts of US government torture - often of innocent people - and the ramifications of these actions.
His conclusion is that:
[t]he only way to defuse the political volatility of torture and to remove it from the center of the "politics of fear" is to replace its lingering mystique, owed mostly to secrecy, with authoritative and convincing information about how it was really used and what it really achieved.
. . . .
What is needed is not more disclosures but a broadly persuasive judgment, delivered by people who can look at all the evidence, however highly classified, and can claim bipartisan respect on the order of the Watergate Select Committee or the 9/11 Commission, on whether or not torture made Americans safer.
This is the only way we can begin to come to a true consensus about torture.
"The Red Cross Torture Report," p. 54.
With all gratitude to Danner for his work and thought on this most difficult of issues, and with due respect for his conclusions, I have to disagree. Or, rather, I agree that we should have such an investigation, but I believe we can build a consensus - indeed, must build a consensus about torture - irrespective of its practicality.
At the outset, the lessons of history leave no doubt: torture does not produce reliable information. Humans will say anything to stop themselves from suffering pain. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed no more murdered Daniel Pearl
than Roxana Saberi was a spy
But, nonetheless, let us do the failure analysis. Let us examine precisely how useless was the information gathered through the US government's torture of terrorists and innocents alike. Let our harvest be an acute documentation of just how much time the US government wasted, and just how many "false red-alerts" were issued, as a result of the lies extracted under duress from K.S.M. and others. (See Danner, "US Torture.")
But though the failure analysis has its strategic uses, I believe that its role in building public consensus about torture should be minimal. Refusing to engage in torture is a moral imperative, regardless of the number of US lives - or the lives of other humans - at stake. The US needs to make a moral choice - not a pragmatic or strategic choice - not to engage in torture. Nothing short of moral absolutism on this issue will suffice to restore US integrity (to say nothing of its reputation). Curiously, this conviction - indeed, moral dimension - is absent from Danner's analysis.
Dick Cheney likes to assert that bravery is demonstrated by adopting "tough, mean, dirty, nasty" tactics against terrorist, tactics that require "the gloves . . . to come off," and by other such vague and vaguely Hollywood-cowboy-movie-dialogue methods. But Cheney is exactly wrong. When the American people maintain their integrity under fire - and demand that their government do the same - only then will they will have shown courage.
A condemnation of torture because it's useless - as opposed to because it's morally abhorrent - is an empty gesture.