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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 respectively)

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)  

This is Hitler. See Hitler read.

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Hitler is the poster boy for the limits of activities and practices that are supposed to be good for you.  For example, Hitler advocated vegetarianism and seems to have practiced something close to it.  He probably even ate granola.  Nonetheless, he wasn't interested in giving peace a chance.  As for the purported health benefits of a vegetarian diet, for Hitler, vegetarianism didn't impart glowing skin and glossy hair; nor did it counteract the effects of a self-inflicted bullet wound to the head.

Now Hitler is exposed as an avid reader.  In Timothy Ryback's Hitler's Private Library: The Books that Shaped His Life (reviewed by John Gross in The New York Review of Books), Hitler is revealed as a bookworm and condemned as an "autodidact, with an autodidact's limitations."

After quoting the book's epigraph, a passage from Alexander Pope's Essay on Criticism: "A little learning is a dangerous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring," Gross reflects:

The trouble was not that [Hitler] didn't drink deeply enough, but that he drank from the wrong springs. . . . It wasn't his defective learning that was dangerous, but his ideas.
I see the problem a bit differently.  Ideas, from my perspective, are neutral.  They take on positive or negative valences depending on how people make use of them.  Shielding Hitler from the idea of anti-Semitism, for example, wouldn't have protected the Catholics, Gypsies, homosexuals or handicapped who also died in concentration camps, or humanized the Slavs and Russians who were characterized as animals by the Nazis.

The problem wasn't the idea of anti-Semitism, but the way Hitler responded to it.  And his response may have had something to do with the way he read.  I have been extremely enamored of an explanation put forth by Maryanne Wolf in Proust and the Squid (reviewed by Caleb Crain in The New Yorker; shamefully I haven't read it yet) about the way reading changes human thinking.

"The secret at the heart of reading," Wolf writes, is "the time it frees for the brain to have thoughts deeper than those that came before."  According to Wolf, reading doesn't use much of the brain, allowing the rest of the gray matter to engage with the text, both rationally (e.g., interrogating the accuracy of a given statement) and irrationally (e.g., calling up emotions provoked by the text).  "The efficient reading brain," Wolf explains, "quite literally has more time to think."

Our brains don't respond the same way to video, for example.  Crain writes:

Moving and talking images are much richer in information about a performer's appearance, manner, and tone of voice, and they give us the impression that we know more about her health and mood, too. The viewer may not catch all the details of a candidate's health-care plan, but he has a much more definite sense of her as a personality, and his response to her is therefore likely to be more full of emotion. . . . The viewer feels at home with his show, or else he changes the channel. The closeness makes it hard to negotiate differences of opinion. It can be amusing to read a magazine whose principles you despise, but it is almost unbearable to watch such a television show.
With the caveat that one can never know what's in the mind of another, I'll hazard that Hitler can't have been engaging very strenuously with his reading material.  He seems to have been reading not to "have thoughts deeper than those that came before," but to "feel at home with his show."  Ryback "constantly reminds us [in Hitler's Private Library] of [Hitler's] intellectual shallowness," says Gross, and Gross himself labels Hitler a "lumpenintellectual."  Hitler apparently read, not for the pleasure of learning, but to bolster his insecurity.  "Cruelty, resentment, and the lust for power weren't the only things driving him.  He needed to believe in himself as a thinker as well," writes Gross.

A man who read to appear learned, and who abstained from meat in order to appear humane.  (According to Léon Degrelle, an SS general, Hitler "could not bear to eat meat, because it meant the death of a living creature.")  Perhaps Hitler is not the poster child for the limits of vegetarianism and bookishness, but instead the poster child for the hazards of cultivating a facade at the expense of the interior.  

Reflections prompted by the death of Tayeb Salih

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tayeb_salih.jpgI was greatly saddened to learn today that, earlier this week, Tayeb Salih died.  Salih wrote Season of Migration to the North, a book that is, in my estimation, the 20th century's most perceptive work about power dynamics (West and East, white and black, male and female, Christian and Muslim).  It is also gorgeously written (as rendered in translation by Denys Johnson-Davies).

Born in Sudan, Salih's views were nuanced and complex, suggesting that he had personal experience striking a balance between traditional, even pre-modern, roots and a contemporary urban existence.  In his writing, he was neither ideological nor romantic; in Season, he didn't glorify the simple peasant life or uniformly condemn colonization.  Sex, like birth and death, humiliation and anger, is an aspect of human behavior without which you cannot understand the whole; and as such, he wrote openly about it.

Contrast Salih's writing, and his legacy, with the unfortunate situation of surrounding the Emirates Airlines International Festival of Literature in Dubai.  After the Festival declined Geraldine Bedell's new book, The Gulf Between Us, because it contains a gay character, Margaret Atwood announced that she'd be boycotting the Festival, consistent with her obligations as vice-president of International PEN

Conference organizers objected that the topic of homosexuality would offend readers in the region, but this reason seems inadequate.  People who might be offended, after all, are free not to read the book.  In any event, ideas that offend may nonetheless have value. 

Homosexuality, like the forced marriage, subsequent rape, and murders that occur in Season, is a part of human experience.  Whether we acknowledge it or ignore it, whether it offends us or attracts us, homosexuality exists.  Without examining it openly, we impoverish our understanding of the whole.

Season, which was originally written in Arabic, is widely-acknowledged as one of the foundational works of modern Arab literature.  A literary festival in Dubai has options as to the traditions on which it wants to build, and Salih's legacy is one of them.  I am profoundly grieved that, in the wake of Salih's death, it is not doing so.  An Arab literature grounded in, and expanding upon, the richness of Salih's understanding of humanity would be a resource for the whole world.

(Photo from Canadian Broadcasting Company.)

About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the The value of debate category.

The role of the novelist is the previous category.

The value of reading is the next category.



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