A Fine Work Falls Only a Few Yards Short of Greatness

Serena, by Ron Rash
I’d hoped this book would be the knockout American novel I’d been looking for—full of social content, great characters acting out a great story amid a magnificent scenic backdrop.
Three out of four ain’t bad.
The story is one of typical American enterprise, unleavened by responsibility. Rash—perhaps North Carolina’s best writer in this decade—knows to exaggerate things to the limits of believability to make a point, and he does this with both character depictions and with the story these characters stir up. In a few words, his story is this:
George Permberton has met and married Serena and they’ve in turn married their fortunes to the early twentieth century U.S.’s great southeastern timber resources. They are the infamous timber barons—subsequently their denuding of the southeast U.S. forests the reason why the federal government established national forests.
But the Pembertons are more than careless with the land and forests. They are unprincipled to the max whenever something or somebody stands in their way. They fire sawyers to keep their fellow lumbermen intimidated. They kill anyone, even lawmen, who stand against their land-stripping. And, when Serena can’t bear them an heir, they don’t blink at attempting to kill an illegitimate son of George’s, whom they feel may threaten their empire.
Essentially this is a morality play, built loosely around the prototype of Macbeth. For the most part, Rash does the story justice. Particularly near story’s end, his story-telling is masterful in the way he plays out the Pembertons’ self-destruction.
And the manner in which Rash is able to immerse the reader in the U.S.’s 1920s culture and in the southeast’s timbering processes bears witness to his ability to assimilate research and work it into his story.
His prose seems a bit timid at first, as if he’s unsure of how to append voice to story, i.e.:
Should the narrator talk as do the mountain folk of Carolina and Tennessee, who people the Pembertons’ timber empire?
He gradually resolves these subtleties, and this initial mini-stumble hardly damages the book’s overall impact.
I’ve been told by another writer that I entrust too much of my work to narrative. Perhaps this is so, but I suspect it’s a simple matter of taste—in both my reading and my writing. That said, I must complain: In strategic places, Rash steps back from his central story to depict the still-magnificent forests of the southeast, and the looks and impacts of timbermen’s denuding of the land. But his device for doing this is to rely on dialogue between several of the mountain folk, who attempt to describe these things indirectly to the reader. In my mind, this waters his dialogue in these segments.
For my taste, this technique doesn’t work as well as it should, for two reasons:
• By nature, these folk are ineloquent and consequently understate the spectacle of both the forests and the timber scalping.
• Such depiction has always been the work of narrative, and it would have better served his purpose here than such dialogue.
Rash seems to want to appear conscious in this ambitious work of the birth of natural conservatism, both in the fight to establish the first national forests, and in the scenic and ecological impact of timbering the land. Were it not for his decision to depict such things via dialogue, Serena would have been all I’d hoped for—a work up there with the best of Steinbeck and Dos Passos.
My rating: 4 stars out of 5

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Is It Time To Publish Digital?

This past week a creative writing teacher-friend of mine wrote me about a student of hers who had signed a book of his to a university press, only to discover that the mom-and-pop book stores were refusing to accept his book because of the deep discount the press was asking for.

What gives? my friend asked of me.
Ordinarily, I'd have had to say,"Beats me." But as the Fates would have it, I'd recently had a somewhat parallel experience with a small publisher over a novella of mine. I'll try to be concise here: the culprit in my case was printing. My publisher had lost her long-time print contract and, shopping for a printer for my novella, had to pass along what turned out to be bad news. Printing itself would cost $9 per copy – – unless the publisher committed to a rather high number of copies.
So we did our number crunching. We quickly realized that to print and market my book would – in the face of deep discount realities – have to be priced at something like $18 a copy. And that would give both the publisher and me chump change in return – at a price some $5 higher than similar books published by the big houses – organizations that can leverage printing prices, at least to a degree.
Similar math for my friend's student made clear that printing was driving the cost of the student's book to an equally outrageous list price.
A couple of days later, I scrolled into my latest e-mail newsletter from hitchnews, and their lead article, "Is this the year of the e-book?" Hitch, of course, was familiar with Amazon's Kindle, the Sony Reader, and news of a new, similar product coming down the chute from Apple.
E-books have been marketed for a few years now, and, as hitch proclaims, e-book reader manufacturers can't keep the darned things in stock. People are buying digital.
Why? It's cheaper. Dollars matter to readers in a down economy. Also, it's compact. The Kindle, for instance, can store some 200 books in its memory. Subsequent versions, if Apple's iPod is any indication, will push this limit ever higher.
This subject is apparently on the minds of many. An interview in the Jan/Feb 2010 issue of Poets & Writers magazine, brought the subject up to Richard Howorth, owner of one of the most famous indie bookstores, Square Books in Oxford Mississippi.
His opinion? Here I'm paraphrasing slightly, but he compared books and digital readers to the sailboat and steamship (or bicycle and motorcycle, perhaps). In Howorth's opinion the sailboat and bicycle were perfect inventions. They served their functions perfectly. But, by implication, so have the steamship and motorcycle.
Also by implication, then, the book has been a perfect invention, and so will be the digital reader, once it's technology stabilizes. Howorth thinks books will continue to be printed, but his worry seems to be – judging by the interview – that books will become museum pieces, relics of story telling.
So. As a writer, I have to look at the albatross printing costs have become.
I also have to look at the almost instant phenomenon digital readers have become.
I have to look at how print my affect my relationship with publishers, as compared with digital. (I now understand, with the publishing industry's reluctance to embrace digital readers yet, why I keep getting the mixed message from agents and editors that my "story is intriguing, but the market is tough out there." The judgment, then, isn't as much on the worth of my writing, as on the intrinsic investment publishers have to make to launch a book.)
All of which means I'm going to be looking really hard at pursuing, not paper, in 2010, but digital.
Your opinion?

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On Passing Literary Muster

Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout
Elizabeth Strout has concocted in this book a series of thirteen short stories, eponymously connected to the title character. Let me begin by giving you something akin to the one page synopsis that agents and publishers ask from aspiring writers:
Elizabeth enters from Crosby, Maine-first and foremost, as it turns out, as the wife of Henry Kitteridge, a pharmacist. But she’s also a schoolteacher, or ex-schoolteacher, depending on your place in the story. Next in the Olive pantheon is her son, Christopher, a classic underachiever, who has fumbled his way through life successfully enough to become a podiatrist.
Olive is the stern, stoic sort one would invent as a Maine schoolteacher, but her irascibility hardly fits the mold of New England stereotypes. Mostly, however, she bites her tongue regarding the things that bother her: Henry’s all-too-forgiving nature with others, Chris’ laissez-faire attitude toward life. She grinds her molars at most everyone else, too, but we wouldn’t know it if it weren’t for Strout’s superbly constructed narrative, which lets us know what’s a-boil within Olive, the venomous frustration she randomly unleashes on those around her.
At the root of it, Olive is, of course, a deeply insecure person, which Strout masterfully charts, perhaps best depicted by her dismay as Chris klutzes his way through a first marriage and into another one that seems to work. It betrays nothing here to reveal that Henry dies, while Olive attempts to keep a brave face. If the reader doesn’t get Olive by then, he/she will when Olive submits near book’s end to a seventy-something , oh-so-cautious semi-romance with Jack Kennison, whose wife has also recently died. But as Olive steps cautiously with Jack from a dinner date to a few light meetings of the lips, she’s appalled to discover he’s a Republican, and dismayed that his daughter is a lesbian.
Okay, I think I detect a few perplexed looks out there in my readership, even a frown or two. I know, I know, this seems like family life in Everytown, USA. Perhaps Everytown, Earth. Common people doing common things: Projecting their failed aspirations onto their children, even their friends. Coping with a family death or two. And having affairs, the storyline chestnut popular since Grace Medalious’ Peyton Place, which took place, by the way, just down the road in New Hampshire.
Such banality is and has always been the stuff of modern day writers such as John Cheever, John Updike, Philip Roth, and Wallace Stegner. And Strout has the writerly chops necessary to make her anemic people and their lives glow entertainingly. She’s tweaking noses here, the noses of characters with little self-awareness, as they’re born, live, die. Her depictions of these folk are as capably handled as I’ve seen in print. Her prose is impeccable, her voice in this string of thirteen stories consistently forged. She’ll no doubt expand her audience with this book – she would have, I think, even without the prestigious Pulitzer – and her writing skills are as deserving as those of the above-mentioned literary lineup.
But something troubles me here:
Taking on such unimposing people and taking them through their ordinary paces seems all too easy somehow. Not to mention a trifle elitist. Yes, Strout manages her characters’ lives with a balance of sympathies: humor and pathos. But is her superbly capable treatment of such lives worth the effort of a novel?
Her audience will grow, because her audience surely reads largely for escape; insecurities and the petty life conditions that spawn such insecurities demand it. The US of A is full of people such as Olive and her fellow travelers. These people will read Strout’s book, will chuckle smugly in the certain knowledge that the author isn’t writing about them. Strout knows this, of course, knows these people will look into her mirror and fail to see themselves, which makes the latent snobbery here even more delicious.
But why not do more: force them to see? Why not construct extra-ordinary situations that will demand that these characters wake up, see their foibles, and begin the slow, agonizing process of correcting their flaws? Isn’t this what literature is supposed to be about, particularly humor, however subtle?
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t begrudge Strout her growing fame, her ability as a writer, nor the Pulitzer. As a writer, I’ve learned tons from her technique. But I can’t help but wonder what she might have made of bolder circumstances for her characters, of trying to tweak her readers’ noses a bit instead of those of her characters.
As I said, creating Olive Kitteridge seems all too easy somehow. It’s a gifted author playing it safe. And for a person of her obvious skills, this book seems to have a weak handle on the emotional integrity readers have a right to demand from writers if said writers are to pass literary muster.
My rating: 3 stars out of 5

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Irish History Through a Lens Darkly

The Secret Scripture, by Sebastian Barry
It surprised me on first hearing that personal testimony in court cases is no longer considered reliable. But once I’d read on the subject and put myself though comparable memory tests, I became a believer.
Sebastian Barry, an Irish playwright and author with a Man Booker nomination to his credit, demonstrates just such an idea in The Secret Scripture. Here, he presents the story of a hundred year-old woman, Roseanne Clear, through the device of two accounts of her life. One account is Roseanne’s, the other is that of Father Gaunt, a Catholic priest. Actually, the book is meant to be a resolution of the two conflicting texts via a similar accounting by the narrator, Dr. Grene, a psychiatrist who has taken an interest in Roseanne late in her life.
Dr. Grene works in the Roscommon Hospital, a mental hospital soon to be closed and torn down. His job is to evaluate the patients and determine which are competent to return to society. Roseanne is one of these. Somewhat inexplicably, Dr. Grene takes an inordinate interest in Roseanne’s case. In digging into her life, he obtains Fr. Gaunt’s depiction of why he had long ago insisted that Roseanne was incapable of living the life of a normal Irish citizen.
In her turn, Roseanne has written in her account of her marriage to Tom McNulty, subsequently annulled by Fr. Gaunt. Roseanne, a beautiful woman in her early years, came of age as a Presbyterian between World War II and the earlier years of political conflict and consequent civil war in Ireland. The annulled marriage was by implication an example of heavy-handed attempts by Catholic authorities to assert their control during this time, not only politically, but by meddling deeply in the personal lives of the Irish people. Gaunt, in essence, banished Roseanne for political and social sins too complex to delineate here by having her committed to Roscommon, where she has spent most of her life.
In resolving Roseanne’s case, Dr. Grene himself becomes the surprising subject of Barry’s story near book’s end.
By presenting conflicting accounts of key events in Roseanne’s life, Barry reveals the vagaries of both long- and short-term memory, and by projection, the ways in which accounts of history itself become warped by memory’s limitations. This is an inventive and at times poignant device as it’s played out in Roseanne’s personal life.
Ordinarily, this is the sort of history-as-literature writing that I tend to devour. But my problem with Barry’s literary device here is that Dr. Grene’s role as narrator tends to be a too-visible intermediary in Roseanne’s story. Essentially, then, Grene and his narration act as a filter through which Roseanne’s and Gaunt’s accounts are revealed, and the effect on this reader was to distance the often-intimate story from its reading. I have to wonder if the story as devised might not be better adapted to the stage than the page.
Still, Barry’s writing is agile, and in places, where he allowed his prose to carry the story along, The Secret Scripture glows.
An aside: I’ve thought for a long time that, as the secular mentality grows and develops, distancing itself from religion’s formerly socio-political roles, literature becomes a more common form of morality-and-ethics-by-example device. Judging by the book’s title, I suspect Barry agrees.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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MFA, Critique, and The Ethics of Writing

A few writing friends of mine, probably frustrated by the lack of industry response to their capable writing, have decided of late to involve themselves in MFA programs – to up their skills, as well as their visibility in the writing profession.

Recently, one of these friends, one who labors under the burden of a day job, naturally began asking – particularly after she read this post, whether the money and time spent on an MFA program was worthwhile. I responded, more or less as below – and in agreement with the linked post.
My opinions on MFAs aren't a big secret – I've posted on the subject before – but after reading the linked essay and talking to the writer friend who sent it to me, I've given the MFA phenomenon more thought. Consequently, I feel a need to add to what I've written previously. To wit:
As Sharon Stone said when asked about the director's casting couch, "You can't fuck yourself to the top, you can only fuck yourself to the middle."
In line with this crude analogy, that's what I think MFA programs offer: the middle. While the massive volume of critiquing one would be involved in with an MFA program is valuable, its worth tends to be overinflated, and a writer who puts too much credence in critiques ad nauseum will end up with literary pap – bland characters, not much in the way of story, a homogenized voice, and an over-sensitivity to what is said in writing classes. Those like my writer friends might benefit from an MFA regime, but only because they're already seasoned writers with unique takes on life, and they already have fairly well-developed ideas regarding what works in writing (and why).
The essence of critique of any sort, whether in MFA or in ad hoc critique groups, is to teach you how to self-edit. I firmly believe a writer will get to the point at which the driving need for a writing friend, a mentor, or a more seasoned writer to pass judgment on your work is unnecessary. There are always things you may wonder about in your writing – whether a certain depiction or story style works, for instance. But you can always touch base with a peer in rather general terms to see whether your antennae get the "uh oh" vibe, or the "job well done" sense of certainty over such a point.
For example: Much decent critique comes back to the writer indicating that certain parts of a writing piece may be vague in meaning. Most writers will responsibly tweak their story, paragraph, or sentence structure in ways that help clear up such confusion.
But – – and here I begin my protest – – a writer will often receive critique comments that seem to push the critique-reader's buttons. Such as politically incorrect terms or ideas. Such as ideas or terms that don't find a comfort zone within American society's jumble of sociological agendas. Here, our intrepid writer will often react in a "feel-good" manner and re-write these passages in ways that will minimize the emotional hit on such readers. To my mind, this is bleeping one's writing to the middle.
We all know the publishing industry is a mess at present, what with print vs. digital, and corporate bean-counters determining what gets published. As the linked article proclaims: this is an example of creeping fascism, which is beginning to infect every aspect of our lives. Even book reviews are culpable in this regard. The NYT Book Reviews are posted by writers who were commissioned with the approval of the publishers whose books are to be reviewed. Many news-rags now send book copies to bloggers (an attempt to refrain from paying for reviews). If these bloggers don't dish up acceptable reviews, they lose "customers" and their cybernetic street cred.
And as for academe, I just roll my eyes and sigh. Yep, writers will go there for shelter and fall into various versions of the MFA mindset. There, they learn all the cool, new, radical ways of dissecting literature (and here I'm reading straight out a text): Structuralism. Post-Structuralism. Deconstruction. Psychoanalytic Criticism. Feminism. Marxism. Phenomenology. Post-colonialism Theory. African American Theory. Queer Theory.
NONE of these say what works in writing, or what communicates – they're all special group agendas that want their take on writing's collective ethos to be shouted above the others. As a result, literature (and here I mean to speak largely of American literature) has become as amoral, as lacking in moral direction as the article says.
Throughout this rant of mine, you may get the idea that I prefer writers to be curmudgeons. That's hardly my point. Writing, as we've heard from literary criticism over a couple of millennia, should be a device for entertaining and for informing. Entertaining is part of a writer's bag of tricks, but if the writer refrains from pointing out society's foibles, then they're writing pap – they're bleeping to the middle (at best).
I once had a friend categorize people into three groupings: Doers. Followers. Watchers.
In his homespun way, he delineated those "A" personality people who seem bent on leading, and the "B" people who seem compelled to a need for those in the first group.
But he's also identified a rather unique and needed subculture that fits in neither of these. His "watchers" are those who have to ability to view human society beyond mindsets. These are your philosophers, historians (perhaps), your artists…and your writers. Their value is in reflecting back to society its manners, its habits, its multifold interactions, in a completely unvarnished way. By performing this service, writers expose human frailties and flaws in need of correction.
This isn't to say that writing should be didactic. Being too preachy or instructive tends to alienate, and that makes such writing part of the social ill. As Anton Chekov said, the writer's responsibility isn't to provide answers, but to ask the right questions. The skill in this is in drawing readers into a piece of writing so completely that new insights into life are revealed – these perhaps far beyond the writer's intent.
For this reason, writers are generally outsiders to most of life. But that's not striking a pose, it's a way of living you're compelled to. We all face the conflicting urges of belonging to one group or another versus that of self determination. Writers aren't exempt from this – our role in the human drama is a difficult, often non-paying one.
It comes down to this: insight and communication. Insight is self-determinism – a unique way of viewing life, but one that may have a broad and needed resonance. Communication is the "people" part of writing – understanding how to tell such stories in ways that urge readers to ask those difficult questions of themselves.
MFA and critique can help only in the realm of communication. But writers' unique insights are equally valuable. If you decide to take on the rigors of an MFA program, don't let the development of communication skills stifle your fragile but eminently valuable insight into the human condition.