The Afghan Campaign

Spielberg’s War of the Worlds is on TV upstairs, and before me here lies another war, this one two millennia old, as interpreted by historical novelist, Steven Pressfield. For those not familiar with Pressfield’s work, “The Afghan Campaign” plows deeper into the now arcane day-to-day of ancient warfare campaigns. His forte is portraying history from the point of view of the common soldier, in this case, a Macedonian boy, Matthias, who comes of age in Alexander’s campaign against the tribes of what we now call Afghanistan.
Matthias makes the long journey from Macedon to Persia, then into the eastern lands in search of both his brother and, of course, the obligatory riches and glory. Pressfield is clearly a most capable researcher, and he uses his Everyman character to reveal to readers such a person’s life within Alexander’s army. Alexander is there, in strategically placed vignettes displaying his prodigious memory for soldiers’ names, his war skills, his shrewd, less-than-godly nature. The author skillfully narrates Matthias’ transformation from starry-eyed soldier wannabe to existential, emotionally and physically scarred battle veteran.
In the midst of this unfolding drama, however, one wants to know more about the Macedonian enemy here than Pressfield seems willing to deliver. These tribesmen, who apparently differ little from those of modern day Afghanistan, aren’t barbarians, per se, at least no more so than the Macks, or Macedonian soldiers. In our few encounters with these tribes, Pressfield portrays them an aggrieved people suffering the poverty of their native land as well as of Alexander’s greed. The Macks have taken tribal concubines, but from them we learn little about this strange, resilient enemy, except that they are tough as old boots and as willing to fight as Alexander’s hordes.
Pressfield has drawn great praise for his portrayal of common soldiers, how their grip on civility slowly loosens within the tumult of prolonged war. The disadvantage in his choice is readers rarely see the panorama of such human drama. When Pressfield tries to allow his humble soldier to glimpse and describe the big picture, it comes off unreal, strangely detached from what is certainly the myopic lens of such a soldier.
For the writer, decisions must be made, then must be made to work. Pressfield does make his decisions work, and from a perspective little used in a literature genre predominantly enraptured with larger than life heroic personalities such as Alexander. All in all, it’s a good book and a worthy read.

Poets & Writers Shorts

I must have a not-so-sublimated desire to promote Poets & Writers magazine this week, because several items in the July/August issue are worthy of note to readers and writers. First, P&W gives Max Magee, who masterminds one of my favorite book blogs, The Millions, a plug. He’s shown an interest in military history in recent months, and promotes a number of worthy books in that genre. You listening, Jon Harris?
An article across the page cites a report analyzing American attitudes toward poetry. Among its notable findings:
• Americans “place a high value on poetry.” I’m not sure how to interpret such vagueness, but it probably means we would read poetry if we had more time. Cynicism aside, it may mean a reemergence in the U.S. of the world’s original literary form. If that’s happening, it’s great.
• Poetry readers, “users,” as the study terms them, are more active and social than “non-users.” Interesting.
• Users read more contemporary poetry than classics.
Signs of poetic vitality by any measure, no? I should also mention from this article that NEA is organizing Poetry Out Loud, a program in which high school students take part in poetry reading recitations. Having spent time massaging both sides of my brain, I can assure all that cultivating poetic sensibilities are as important as mathematical and scientific skills. PLEASE, support such initiatives.
Along roughly the same lines, Penguin and the National Basketball Association have launched a literacy campaign, featuring NBA great, “Magic” Johnson. Culturing kids’ minds along with their bodies – how’s that for a radical idea?
The book lover in me had to wince at a P&W featured essay by Julia Kamysz Lane, a New Orleans resident who lost her prized collection of signed first edition books. To add to the poignancy, the article included a picture of her bloated, ruined collection strewn across the Lanes’ home floor. It was only HER collection you might say, but the loss of books in any way is tangible and unfortunate. I’m reminded of James Mitchener’s speech – at Yale, I think – during the ROTC building burnings on the late sixties and early seventies, in which he urged a contentious crowd to “burn anything but the libraries.”

The Intangibles of Writing

I’ve just finished reading a fairly recent Ha Jin book, The Crazed. As with many books set in exotic locales (exotic to Americans, surely), there’s much to be perceived culturally from this one. The story is fairly simple as novels go: a Chinese college student sits in the hospital at his respected literature professor’s bedside, hears his post-stroke ravings, and because of things revealed, his opinion of the professor changes. There are textures to the story, suspense, and a few sub-plots, and Ha Jin handles these admirably. All, however, are clearly devices to portray life in China during the time of the Tiananmen Square student uprising.
Having recently read the author’s latest, War Trash, I found this story a little clunky in places. My concern isn’t so much his technical abilities; rather a lack of depth to his characters prevails, making them seem overly gullible at times, even simpletons, their motivations often too one dimensional.
This has me wondering whether writing in one’s second language limits a writer’s expressiveness. And once again, I’m not thinking so much of the technical aspects – vocabulary, sentence structure – but the intimidation factor. I remember dealing with too much detail during my own early years of writing, not allowing myself the intuitive and emotional leaps we normally expect of good writing. I’m wondering if Ha Jin, at the time of his writing of The Crazed, may have felt on slippery footing with English, forcing self-constraint in character depth. He didn’t have these problems with War Trash, in which, if memory serves, he wrote a fictional account similar to the one lived by his father. Certainly, dealing with one’s personal and family issues within fiction makes for a strong possibility of impassioned writing, and he may not have been as inspired with The Crazed.
All this to say that many intangibles enter into the making of good writing. Because the writer is called upon to be a sort of word magician, these intangibles are not easily taught. Writing itself remains the best teacher.

Selected Shorts IV

I’ve been trying to synopsize all my advice and that quoted from others in these pages regarding: What draws a person to a book, then to recommend it to others?
Lest we become lost in minutiae, readers – above all – want to be entertained. There must be a gripping story, whether it’s plot or character driven. Beyond that are a number of factors: setting, word usage, things learned. However the author approached things, there must be an emotional connection for the reader, something to move him/her, make the reader want to think and talk about the book.
In selling a novel, short story, or essay, the reader must, I’ve learned, format the document a certain way in order to be perceived as a professional. One-inch margins all around, Times New Roman font, double-spaced. Other things seem to matter, as well: how the document is paginated, how the title page is presented. But these are not as set in stone as the first three criteria are.
I’ve just finished a first draft of my latest, a semi-autobiographical novel. Maybe that will be worth talking about later.
Academics and writing begin to merge: In doing research for a proposed historical novel, about the Eastern Front of WWII, I’ve read some twenty books on the subject. I’ve also been selecting my academic courses for their value to my writing, particularly this project. What’s beginning to develop is an ongoing interest in the little-written-about Eastern Front, and a drift toward military-related novels. Not a time to project too far into the future here, but both seem to be heading in roughly the same direction.
A songwriter acquaintance of mine has struck up a friendship with an ex-Marine writer/educator from Florida. The songsmith claims to have difficulty writing of late. The ole perfessor has apparently told him, “Five hundred words a day, friend.”
That’s about two pages, double-spaced. Admittedly a tome per day for a songwriter or poet. As we’ve talked, I understand the musical guy writes some free-associative prose, plucks the pithy phrases, re-arranges, and sets all to his musical structure. Sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it?
What this says to the reader (who may charge through a book in one evening), or the listener (who may be clamoring for another album after a couple of casual listens): That seemingly effortless prose you flip through (or song you tap a toe to) – occasionally stopping to ponder a well-chosen word or phrase, to pick up on a potent clue, a seemingly dropped story line, an almost-rhyme, or a well orchestrated change in point of view – take massive attention to detail and an obsessive love of craft to allow you this casual fluidity. Next time you read a book or hear an album you appreciate, tell a friend or pass the book or CD along. But – above all – find a way to let the wordsmith know you “got it.”