Selected Shorts III

Here’s a review of an oldie – one of the last classics for awhile – The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath:
The Bell Jar was largely autobiographical, its main character, Esther, like Sylvia Plath, bedeviled by depression. As the book began, I thought I was going to be in for a female version of F. Scott Fitzgerald – the oh-so-nice social connections, and all that entails in veddy, veddy correct social circles. Sadly, as I continued to read, I discovered Plath's story had little of the social commentary or personal depth of Fitzgerald's work.
Two things in particular concerned me about this one:
First, Plath probably portrayed her alter ego’s depression accurately. But accuracy doesn’t always equate to good literary quality. Plath seems to conflate the monochromatic expressiveness of depressives with their perception of the world. As I understand that frame of mind, depressives see the world all too vividly. It would have been a much stronger book to have more emotional detail beneath Esther’s depressed state. As it is, she seems mentally impaired beyond a state of depression, and totally vulnerable to any and all outside influences.
The second, related point is that developing the character in this way makes of her a victim. I doubt Plath saw her that way, but this oppressed character must have concerned feminist readers.
Another mini-analysis by The Atlantic Monthly’s Christina Schwartz of Stoner, by John Williams (July/August 2006):
Schwartz selected a very short piece of descriptive narrative from this 1965 novel, in which two characters are portrayed during conversation. The narrative depicts them as awkward in each other’s company at first, then in a more animated fashion. In some hundred words Williams moves his story ahead through this narrative, leaving the reader with a sense of foreboding – something beyond either’s control. The inexperienced writer would probably try to accomplish this through dialogue and accompanying body language. Here, the reader confronts the same effect, but within the author’s tone, which creates the mood for the story. Always remember: your reader is intelligent – otherwise he/she wouldn’t be reading such a book. Don’t be afraid to present the subtle – just do it in a way that’s not overly oblique.

More Thoughts on Non-fiction and Where Those Thoughts Lead

I recently received a copy of a litmag, Cooweescoowee, from Rogers State University, containing a personal essay of mine – a memoir. The magazine published it as fiction. I had told the editor twice that it was a nonfiction piece, but now here it is – fiction, proclaimed so in print. The piece has to do with my mother and father and their gently difficult relationship, most of the difficulties surfacing after my mother’s soon-to-be-fatal stroke.
I won’t bore with family details here, but as I re-read the memoir in print, I had to consider how much of what I reported as fact (I had researched my parents’ lives thoroughly, from family records and mementoes) was simply my interpretation of what transpired between them. This in turn set me to thinking (stay with me here – I won’t delve too deeply into literary relativism) how much of what we see and hear is filtered (read: distorted) through various lenses of interpretation. How much of all that goes on around us, in other words, is assimilated selectively?
I’m willing to bet if I were to bring Mom and Dad back to life and go over the details of their lives with them, each of us would be in sharp disagreement over much of it. So the question I pose here, particularly regarding memoirs but concerning any piece of writing, is: Do we work from some sense of what we believe to be true, then select (or at least lend various weights to) pertinent details, or do we assemble the data of lives and events and arrive at conclusions that can be verified, ad nauseum?
Were we to do the latter, we would be operating as does a scientist. But is that even appropriate in literature? It’s been stated to the point of cliché – even in this blog – that literature exists to reveal the greater truths, i.e. the “big picture” that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Can we do this empirically, as a scientist would? Or is the perspective of the writer more important than an agreed-upon set of data? A rhetorical question for which I would love feedback.
But let me take a less personal approach to this. During this year’s spring semester, I took a political science course, one of our texts being Why Nations Go to War, by John Stoessinger. One of the passages we examined in detail had to do – indirectly – with Hitler’s degree of rationality in forcing a second front, with Russia, in the East, calling his plan Operation Barbarossa. Stoessinger made many statements as fact, weaving data – as writers will – in support of his conclusion that Hitler committed Nazi Germany to this dicey military and political gamble because he was insane. Or at least severely irrational.
My professor, in discussing the subject in class, blew off as feeble-minded any consideration to the contrary. This, after I had sweated over a paper on the Stoessinger material, arriving at the conclusion that Hitler was indeed rational, at least during the events and planning leading up to Operation Barbarossa. I determined that Hitler had picked a fight with Russia and almost caught them napping because he had become adept at hoodwinking European leaders by working outside their political mindsets.
Aspects of Barbarossa are among those I hope to write into an historical novel – my Masters project. As part of my research for this project, I’ve just finished reading another book on Operation Barbarossa, in which the author, Alan Clark, a former member of Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet, clearly believes Hitler was rational, nearly to the end of the war, even to the point at which he left Berlin vulnerable to the Russians in the hope that Britain wouldn’t allow Stalin to overrun Germany.
Each person – two authors, a Masters professor, and myself – holds a different opinion, or at least different degrees of similar opinion, regarding the ongoing state of mind of one of history’s most infamous personalities. All of which has made me wonder: Are there irrefutable absolutes within the realm of human experience? Or are the many perspectives derived from human experience – each based on agreed-upon-as-critical data – equally valid? And if so, how are these perspectives seen to be representative of some common core?
This is the dilemma of much of today’s world, and writers seem to struggle with it to a much greater degree than philosophers and theologians. Why so? Philosophers and theologians seem to prefer reductionist concepts, attempting to reduce life to bouncing ball simplicity, a simplicity which in turn necessitates "real world" interpretation and reinvention, those in turn occurring in a plethora of ways. In other words, back to cacophony and mind-boggling complexity.
Still, why lay such a burdensome task on writers? One answer: The writer’s world, whether fictional or the purported “real” one represented in words, MUST be based, not on abstraction, but on the endlessly morphing minutiae of everyday human experience. The devil is in the details, as another cliché goes, but maybe that’s where we humans will eventually locate the secular pathway to transcendence. Of course, this is just one person’s perspective.

Two Reviews and a Random Thought

House Made of Dawn, by N. Scott Momaday
It's hard to critique a Pulitzer winner – if you’re a writer, you’ll probably be making the smacking sounds of one eating sour grapes. But any criticism I may have to offer of House Made of Dawn will barely register in comparison to what Momaday accomplished with his 1960s break-out first novel.
This volume’s descriptive narrative is some of the best I've read, and the way Momaday introduces and sustains his characters (although some of his technique here is a little too oblique for my taste) reminds me of Nadine Gordimer's work. His story is one of a Native American man caught between two cultures, the way the natural world sustains him, the way relocation to urban California unbalances him. Similarly to Gordimer, Momaday romanticizes his characters while keeping them real, even to the point of cynicism.
Momaday is obviously a writer of great literary skill. But my problem with the book is that readers must wade through technique as difficult to navigate as head-high buffalo grass. His leaping back and forth in time is manageable for most readers, but some of his literary riffs — such as slipping into second person point of view with scarcely a clue as to whom is doing what, or why – is the stuff literature PhDs (Momaday is) love to analyze, and will surely overwhelm most readers.
One of the toughest lessons a writer learns is to display storytelling skills though creative and unique use of grammar and vocabulary while remaining accessible. Momaday certainly has the chops, creating a rainbow of emotions in his spectrum of characters, in the way Native America has been eclipsed by another culture. But I would have wished to be carried away by his writing, transported to his world through language. Instead he's used language and technique as an obstacle to be overcome, and that's a shame.
Gwendolyn Brooks, Selected Poems
Bridging cultures these days is de rigueur. We read of children growing up in Afghanistan, of Pakistani émigrés, of alienated Turks. But why begin is such odd places? Begin instead with the works of Gwendolyn Brooks. This black poet of mid-Twentieth Century grew up in the urban midwest in the century’s early decades, a time of little crossover between black culture and white America.
Brooks began writing her poetry in childhood and grew to use it in adulthood as a means to a political end, sometimes militantly so. In so doing, however, she remained true to her art form. Her poems here are a compilation, the best of her many works. Steeped in traditional poetic technique, her work displays shrewd, sly humor, the eternal antidote to the bleaker aspects of black American life. Often her rhymes are forced, the meter of her words numbingly predictable, as perhaps her world in early Twentieth Century later seemed. Too, her poems have an air of childish simplicity. But it’s probably best not to read too much into such structural analysis, because I suspect she created her poetic voice that way as a mirror, to reflect what she wanted black Americans to keep in perspective.
All I personally knew of the black experience of those years was the little filtering down to me through the biases of white adults.
Reading her poetry today opens a door for those like me to peer beyond filtering perspectives into the unvarnished world of black Americans struggling with white society — and themselves. As such, she had done us a valuable sociological and literary service.
For the writers among us, it’s easy to become frustrated with the molasses-like publishing process; almost equally so to rationalize that today’s world has no place for the serious break-in writer. But a writer friend recently put the state of literary possibilities into a different perspective than most of us are accustomed to reading about these days:
There are thousands of writers out there, spending nights or weekends submitted to the spell of their Muses. Of those, the ones who finish a fairly well edited manuscript move past a third of the pack. Those of the remaining two-thirds who have formatted their completed manuscripts professionally and in accordance with accepted guidelines jump past the next third. Beyond that point, if you've actually gotten your story read by an agent or editor, you're in the top ten percent. Sounds easy and almost promising, doesn’t it? If this scenario is true, your key to literary success (and probably in this order) is the three “Ps”: pride, professionalism, and persistence.

My Son’s Story, by Nadine Gordimer

One wins a Nobel or a Pulitzer for the best of reasons. The recipients are selected for outstanding achievements in their fields, some for singular acts, discoveries, or stands for betterment of an imperfect world. At other times, the awards honor a lifetime of such achievements. I recently discovered South African writer Nadine Gordimer, who was awarded a recent Nobel for literary excellence. She’s also won the Booker Prize, as well as France’s highest literary award.
I recently read my first Gordimer, The Pickup, a story of an interracial relationship, the two characters thrown into the other’s culture, forced to swim there, each succeeding — and failing — in point-counterpoint fashion. Gordimer’s style in The Pickup provides multiple perspectives reminiscent of the art world’s cubist period.
I was thus drawn to My Son’s Story. In this one, her wordsmithing and story structure seem more linear, but with the same urge to follow multiple perspectives, multiple trains of thought, simultaneously. And the story line is similar to The Pickup’s in that she gives us a black man, Sonny, who becomes involved in an extramarital relationship with a white, blonde woman, Hannah, both already involved in the revolution against Apartheid.
Sonny’s son, Will, comes on the couple leaving an afternoon movie, and tacitly swears himself to secrecy. But the story is grander than the ensuing tension between Sonny and Will. The long-time affair, successfully kept secret from family and political comrades, begins to affect the lives of wife Aila, and Will’s sister, Baby.
Gordimer has been accused of being a “romantic cynic”, and there’s probably no better example of this in her body of work than My Son’s Story. In it, Aila is the paragon of virtue, as is Hannah, each in different ways. Sonny, in attempting to juggle domestic comfort and serenity with political intrigue and commitment, needs both women in his life, and Will manages to understand this, perhaps better than Sonny. Each character changes as Gordimer’s story progresses, some in surprising ways, others in more predictable fashion.
The point Gordimer seems bent on making here is the difficulty of pursuing a normal life in an environment such as the decades-long struggle to abolish Apartheid. As well, she delineates — perhaps accidentally — reasons why governments established through revolution often fail, why human progress often goes sour, despite overwhelming desire for a better way. Sonny, as he sways emotionally between Hannah and Aila, comes to realize that long-term revolutionary commitment is of necessity all-consuming, leaving little room for things hoped for, fought for.
The heat of social incubation often propels great literature, as it did in France, Great Britain, Russia, and the U.S. And as it has in the past century in South Africa. In such complex societies, social problems become inordinately inflated, and writers are compelled, it seems, to ground those problems within the lives of characters trying to find a path of simplicity within such a socio-political stew. No one does this better today than Nadine Gordimer.

Writerly Helpful Hints, Part 1

I’m writing fiction again – until school begins again, that is – so I thought this would be a good time to share some of the most essential writing points I’ve amassed over the years.
Most beginning writers develop their narrative skills first, but dialogue continues to plague the best of us. The rule of thumb in modern fiction is that dialogue should be 40% of the manuscript. This is probably more accurate for genre fiction, especially fiction that aspires to the silver screen. Too many newbies fill this forty percent with what is called filler: “How are you today, Joe?” “Oh, pretty good, Susie. How are you?” The rap on such dialogue usage is that it does nothing to advance the story. One might complain that even these banal passages reflect real life and its largely emotional stasis. True, but the writer must set such lines up. Therefore, Rule One goes like this: Never use dialogue until your narrative, character development, or scenic tension absolutely compels speech.
Setting paragraphs is always a point of concern. When does one begin a new paragraph? Many will tell you to do so whenever there’s a change of subject. In stream of consciousness fiction, such changes of subject can occur with every phrase within a sentence, so what then? The key here is to be consistent. One pragmatic rule of modern writing is to give the reader a lot of white space on each page. Most readers today are in a hurry to finish, and complex ideas filling a page, or even a page-long sentence, intimidates. Rule Two, then (and this really does follow from the above): Each paragraph should be a mini-story. Each can certainly vary in length, but give it a beginning and logical end. One cautionary word: don’t summarize the paragraph in the first sentence, as a journalist might. Clever modern readers will sniff this out in a flash, and will begin skipping from beginning sentence to beginning sentence, deriving themselves of your precious, well-forged prose.
More on this later.