Whose style?

I had thought about not blogging this week – I have finals next week, and time is, well, the enemy. But as the semester flashed before me tonight, one thing about it stood out: the style of writing required for each class.
One class involved a unique take on world literature. Papers for that class had to be written roughly in the form of what I would call a scholarly essay. This doesn't mean writing as one would for a creative writing class. Instead, the papers had to be informative, possibly entertaining, and expressing – as much as possible – your hopefully unique perceptions regarding the works under study. To succeed in such classes – one wag put it this way – you emphasize adjectives and adverbs. But there was more to it than that if you wanted to please this professor. We were encouraged to vary sentence structure, and were required to be extremely concise. In such writing, compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences tumble onto the page with ease. But you had to make sure there was no possibility of vagueness related to modifying words, phrases, or clauses. The byword for success here: keep the modifiers as close to the words modified as you can and remain coherent.
The second class was a comprehensive political science adventure, and once again we were required to write in a style leaning toward the scholarly. But there were two differences here from the literature class: First, you had to argue your points. Writing turned sharply toward the linear. Logic, supporting data, and overall coherence were a must, because the papers were essentially a debate with the professor. The second point necessary to keep this prof happy was to select strong verbs and nouns. He never said so, but your logic had to be put forward in as emphatic a manner as possible to persuade him.
Not a hard thing to manage, this compartmentalizing of writing styles, especially for someone who writes every day anyway. But the rub was this: I found it hard to keep those styles from bleeding into my fiction. Editing my creative work moved along nicely. But the creative part, my stylized storytelling, suffered. The writing became dry. My style became inconsistent, lackluster, and worst of all, boring. I've been able to manage this through more intensive editing, but it's become a chore, rather than an anticipated habit.
Damn, I'll be glad when this semester is over!


Selected Shorts week

Last week's post mentioned Jon Harris' book regarding his Navy flying experiences and how those experiences marbled his after-life, a life in which he supervised a small military academy and later entered ministry service. A former Navy aviation honcho and neighbor of mine recently read the book and was highly complimentary. So, Jon, one of your own has been duly inpressed. Good show!
Two new books of note appeared on the NYT Review of Books this past Sunday. One, a book of essays edited by Jason Shindler entitled, The Poem That Changed America – "Howl" Fifty Years Later, concerns the impact of Allen Ginsberg's seminal poem on America, on poetry, and on the literary awareness of writers in general.
The other book, Suite Francaise, by Irene Nemirovsky, is a brace of novellas published together – and for the first time. The two stories have to do with the impact of the Nazi invasion of France and on France's then-large family of literary writers. Nemirovsky managed to write these two books prior to her deportation to Auschwitz, where she died in 1942.
I haven't yet read either, but they seem to be literary bookends to perhaps the 20th Century's most unsettling events. I'll let you know more from my end after I've read them. But you may not want to wait – they're newly available.
Christina Schwartz, in the latest Atlantic Monthly continues her "what makes good writing good" byline by commenting on Luck, by Joan Barfoot. From Henry Fielding to Iris Murdoch writers have worked their tastebuds into literature, and Barfoot follows suit. This time her characters crave such, but the cravings aren't consummated, at least in the passage examined. Writers must always pander to the reader's senses, and often to their own, it seems.

Jon Harris’s New Wings

Okay, it’s time for a bit of self-disclosure, toward a larger purpose. I recently received a book written one Jon Richard Harris, Wings of the Morning – Flight and Faith in War and Peace. First, Jon and I have an historical connection. We’re both from Louisiana, both from military families, and we both attended the U.S. Naval Academy. In fact, Jon was my “firstie” at the Academy. That is, the senior Midshipman charged with acclimating this pitiful plebe to life at Annapolis.
Life at the Academy – and in the Navy – is traditionally stratified, so I can’t honestly say we were terribly close, as close as one immature plebe needed us to be, but as I say, that’s life at USNA. Eventually, the inner whispers telling me my being there was a mistake became yells, and halfway to a commission, I bolted, returned to Louisiana, obtained a degree in civil engineering, took a position with the Georgia Department of Transportation, and stayed there for thirty-four years. Meanwhile, Jon graduated the Academy, entered the Navy, earned pilot’s wings, served in Vietnam, among other places, eventually leaving the Navy for careers in education and Christian ministry.
I finally tracked him down in Roanoke, Virginia, and we began to scratch away at the forty years since we had last seen each other. And that’s where the book comes in.
Wings (Xulon Press – it’s under “New Releases at Xulon,” or you can access it directly at: http://www.xulonpress.com/bookstore/titles/1597819301.htm) is an accounting of Jon’s time in the Navy and how those experiences put him on the path to his current service work. It’s a bit of a bona fide memoir and clearly something that has helped him make sense of the currents taking his life from one step to the next. It’s decent writing, too, and a good read. Like most books of this sort, it’s more about Jon personally than about the Navy, flying, combat, education, or faith. He has a passion for his subject matter – and his life – and his tales are enthralling.
Besides the obvious wish to help plug my firstie’s book, receiving it made me consider its context. Xulon is a self-publishing outfit, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. In fact, more and more writers are turning in that direction as the traditional publishing doors keep closing to all but the dozen or so mega-authors, the horde of celebrity books, and an occasional new writer managing to grab the brass ring. One of the primary advantages – and this is something I hadn’t fully thought out until I received Jon’s book – is that self-publishing doesn’t limit one's work by genre, preconceived markets, or subject matter. In most cases, a commercial book such as Jon’s would have been limited by editors and marketing analysts to either military or faith so it could be conveniently pigeonholed.
Self-publishing – for better or for worse – allows the writer to follow his or her creative impulse, to be unconstrained by marketing convenience. This can be narcissistic, and it often is. But it also allows creativity to seek its own level in whatever seems the appropriate form, regardless of conventions. It could be that Jon and others like him are plowing the field, so to speak, helping new literary forms emerge. Maybe that’s not what Jon had in mind – okay, it probably wasn’t. But that’s how things work in the deeper levels of mind – you do it, and later you discover why.
Maybe more on that at another time. For now, Jon Harris has a new set of wings.


A recent op-ed piece in the New York Times by Joseph Finder plays off the Dan Brown, DaVinci Code thing to toy with us a bit. By his accounting, fiction emerged from history as history's fraudulent form. He cites Dumas, Defoe, and Gide as practitioners of this nefarious art.
An ironic bit from the literary chronicles, but I'm wondering why it sounds so relevant today. Actually, I have an opinion, otherwise I wouldn't have posed the question. When fiction emerged, Europe was at height of the Enlightenment's impact. Everything had to be rational. If your field of endeavor wasn't scientifically based, you sought to put those clothes on it. Eventually, fiction prospered because it found its niche in realism: the art form could portray the greater truth by embellishing reality. It could make a philosophical or sociological point without all the random, extraneous, deviations that are at the basis of real life.
This was great until the Twentieth Century came to Europe. Two World Wars. The Holocaust. All giving rise to literary structuralism and postmodernism. Suddenly the struggle for reality was on again. Now we're awash in that retro literary mode, non-fiction. But as we see from the Dan Brown drama – and others – fiction is straining at its severely foreshortened leash. The times beg for a resurgence in fictive writing, for heroes and the grand spectacle we writers have surrendered to cinema.
Or maybe the stimulus must come through poetry (I think I've said this before, so bear with me). Poets, you see, are the ones – whether they know it or not – who can see beyond the horizon. They've always drawn the blueprints life would eventually lend its flesh to.
At any rate, I sense good things for writers – and readers – of fiction, just around the bend.