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It’s not just me. I’m not being unnecessarily curmudgeon-y, if you please. I’ve long been bemoaning the abandonment of story – even the implied story – in literary fiction, but there are larger voices than mine saying it now. A recent article in Britain’s New Statesman, wonders at the dwindling of literary fiction among readers. Writers making a living at writing are down from 40% to 11% in 2013, admittedly a shrinking time noted as we glance to our rear view mirrors.

Is it the retailers’ somewhat greedy 40-50% take of the list price; is that the problem?

Is it the rising costs of hardbacks, the treasures we used to stack against our study and office walls?

Is it a drift to non-fiction?

Proponents won all these, I believe, would be convicted by a jury of their peers, but there’s growing consensus that the true villain lies elsewhere.

Says author Tim Lott, writing for the Guardian, “Literary writers must write better books…My impression of literary fiction is that it has lost the plot. Literally.”

No, says Nicola Baker, a recent Goldsmiths Prize winner, “Experimental novelists and artists provide the ideas that form a cultural plankton for bigger organisms to feast upon…our ideas gradually filter through to the mainstream.”

A well crafted novel, strong on story, can do that too. Ms. Baker’s comment smacks of elitism, an elitism preoccupied with writing for other writers and an assumption that the average avid reader can only comprehend artistic ideas in watered down form. This is the same ethos that almost did in jazz a few decades ago.

It’s well and good to experiment, but Aristotle wasn’t wrong when he said that literature/novel/ story must both inform and entertain.

 

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Taming Literacy in This Age

Is the novel dead?

Why do the remaining book readers today prefer nonfiction to fiction?

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When I had been working as an engineer for some 6-7 years, the Chief Structural Engineer called me in and said, “Bob, I need you to write a letter for me.” What he meant was a scolding letter to a local legislator and one of his constituency. I did that and eventually made my bones in the organization by writing for highly-placed engineers.

It’s never been a secret that technical types are weak on the written word. My question in the early years of my career wasn’t “Why is that so?” Rather, it was, “How is it that I paid attention in grammar and literature classes when other future engineers and scientists didn’t?”

I don’t think I know the complete answer to that. Just a proclivity that eventually led me to be a writer, I suppose.

But what’s afoot here is something called post-literacy. Just as the invention of the printing press made possible literacy, i.e., the ability to read with comprehension and the parallel ability to articulate one’s thoughts by writing in a given language. Thought and social functioning became funneled largely through books, newspapers, and letters.

We now realize that something was lost in moving from the pre-literate age, when society functioned, inspired by oral story-telling, dance, music, poetic history, and the oral handing down of skills such as weaving, blacksmithing, and farming. The printed word and the skills of reading and writing did much to build the modern society, but that society lost much of its passion to the written word’s abstract expressiveness.

Those engineers that I wrote for realized something I didn’t: that the technical professions functioned ably with numerical language, relegating the written word to a support role handled by those who persisted in a fascination with expressing thought and imagination through writing.

So to cut to the chase, is the novel dead? Maybe. Cinema has largely supplanted it, and the novel has even copied cinema in some respects.

Why history and other nonfiction? Imagination is now expressing itself through technological gadgets and social media; those who prefer a longer view lean to more linear examinations of the world we live in.

But all’s never completely lost. We’re now in an age in which intuition  is slowly gaining a foothold over reason, and the devices of pre-modernism are returning: theater, music, poetry, and –yes –perhaps the novel will now grow new legs.

 

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Consultation No. 5 – With Virginia Woolf

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We had a rare opportunity recently to talk with Virginia Woolf, and so I had my staff look into her personal history. My God! It’s a wonder the woman could write at all. We were advised by her latest agent to go easy on that in conversation, but she proved as open as anyone we’ve talked to in this series. We knocked on the door of her now famous London home thinking this would be a conversation on writing technique. It was anything but. She served tea and chocolate brownies that left me a bit woozy. But that put both of us in perfect fettle for the ensuing conversation.

GF – Ms. Woolf, I’d like to begin by asking you about your personal life, if I may…

VW – You may, dear boy, but only in the context of my work. I hardly want to be associated with those – what are they called? Gossip rags?

GF – Yes, we don’t want that for a writer of your stature.

VW – I have posed nude, did you know that?

GF – No. Actually, I’d like to talk to you about your use of the stream of consciousness style of writing –

VW – (Laughing) But don’t you see? How am I to swab the dross from my personal history, as you call it? I can’t preordain what I have to say in my literary work. I have to let it flow – most passionately, I might add – from that deep trough of painful adventure within. (She motioned for me to light her cigarette, and I complied.)

GF – You mean the sexual violations, the domination by men –

VW – Attempted domination, yes.

GF – And you call such experiences painful adventure?

VW – Certainly, young man. Pain must be the source of creativity, and devising a manner of writing that will let it flow onto the page is essential. That’s the thing James calls stream of consciousness.

GF – James Joyce? But some called it self indulgence, even in your day.

VW – You mean Hemingway, don’t you? I loved that boy dearly, but he was hardly one to speak of self indulgence.

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GF – Today we consider him a groundbreaking writer.

VW – He considered himself a groundbreaking modernist, but he was a charlatan. He had no vision, really. Just those gruesome war stories and his bragging about shooting helpless animals.

GF – (I bit my lip, trying not to smile at the critique of indulgence that followed. I asked for more tea. The brownies were making me thirsty. Returning with a fresh, pungent plate of brownies to accompany the tea, she looked at me oddly.)

VW – What is that in your lap? Some new typewriter?

GF – A laptop computer, Ms. Woolf. It’s a handy writer’s tool.

She had me bring the device to her dining table, lit a lamp, and had me explain its workings. We talked on and on about many things, but even now I can make little sense of my notes. At one point she tilted my screen to a favorable position for her viewing and called what I’d written stream of consciousness. I knew she was teasing, and we had many fine laughs about it.

 

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Consultation 1: With Victor Hugo

 

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Note: Since I’ve gone out on a limb and blamed my boredom with (particularly) current American fiction on a sense of ennui on the part of the authors, this post begins a series of imaginary interviews with authors who did manage to pin down the passion of their time and commit that passion to characterization and story. I had planned to deal exclusively with American authors and their works, but I thought, Who better to start with than Victor Hugo and his monumental work, Les Miserables?

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GF: Monsieur Hugo…

VH: Please call me Victor, won’t you? It’s not often that someone calls me out from this temporary state of blissful abandon to answer to the future. Or Vic. Either way.

GF: All right, Vic…

VH: Second thought, let’s make it Victor.

GF: Victor, I thought of you immediately for this project, because you come from passionate people, you lived in a passionate era, and you wrote perhaps the most passionate book in the history of European novels.

VH: (A long pause) Yes, I see what you mean. I suppose I wouldn’t have put that way, but you’re quite right. The richness of the novel, the personages who inhabit these works of art are all built on an undercurrent of passion.

GF: Please go with that if you will.

VH: Of course. All passion is built on love, you see? Amour. Even when you despise the actions of the landed elite, something in you is crying out with love, not just for the downtrodden, but for the elite themselves.

GF: How so? With the elite, I mean.

VH: But don’t you see? Love and hate always coexist, but love is always the stronger. Love isn’t always as showy, as demonstrative as hate and its flaming fireballs. Quite simply it endures. Take for example, my opus, Les Miz, as the philistines among you call it, in which I have my countrymen take down our monarchy and its wicked domination of the poor.

GF: I understand you watched it happen as you wrote about it.

VH: (Winking and smiling) So they say. Quite journalistic, don’t you think?

GF: Sure was.

VH: Permit me to preemptively reply to your next comment. You were going to say you Yanks have problems with novels that are -ah – too instructive, shall we say.
GF: Yes.

VH: But this is where your country’s overarching lack of subtlety comes into play. It was the characters, my friend, the characters! They and they alone gave my story its passion. The revolution was merely a backdrop.

GF: But your characters rampaged. They destroyed, they murdered.

VH: Ah, yes, they did. For love of France, for one another, for the simple human freedoms denied them. Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite. Without love each stood alone against an oppressive regime. With it, they were France.

GF: All right, I suppose I can concede your point. But you can’t do ghastly things and call it love.

VH:  Yes, yes. But love is at the basis of it, you see? Regardless of its distortions.

 

 

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‘I Don’t Believe In Writer’s Block’/The Atlantic

 

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The article linked below is one all writers should read, and it’s one that certainly speaks to me. I’ve spent years lost in the woods (read: another career) while writing virtually nothing. But what I subsequently discovered is that those woods did indeed leave me with much soil from which stories might grow. And, to espouse a cliche, it’s a process. At first, unsure of my ability to extract stories from these raw experiences, I outlined, organized, and after I wrote I analyzed what I’d written. Now I favor taking off as Steinbeck did in To A God Unknown, i.e., I write without knowing where the writing will take me. This is truly being lost in the woods. Dear writers (and readers) you always find your way out of the woods if you’re determined to do so, but it’s a path you can never retrace and walk a second time.

 

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The Transformational Nature of Literature

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The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

 

Imagine a book written in the twenty-first century with pen and pencil in notebooks, work on the novel taking place over ten years. What would such a book be like? How long would it be? What impact would it have on readers? Judging by sales charts in the New York Times and others, this 770 page book is wildly popular. But why would so many readers tackle such a book in this, the age of thirty-second attention spans? I may not adequately answer the pithier of these questions, but here goes.

Ms. Tartt has created a bildungsroman here, its first-person narrator and principal character a boy named Theo Decker. Theo’s father has wandered away from his parental responsibilities, his mother has died in a museum explosion that Theo not only survives but he walks out with a priceless painting, The Goldfinch. He manages to hang on to the painting (or he thinks so) through life with a rich, troubled New York family, then with his father in Vegas, a friendship and drugs with a Russian boy alienated from his father (mother dead), and finally college and apprenticeship to a New York antique restorer. The painting’s presence in Theo’s life allows him to hang onto his mother and his childhood until he realizes that it’s wrong to cling to the past, that it must be returned to its rightful place in society.

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Tartt’s voice here is stupendous; her Theo consistently presented, and her narrative descriptions of New York’s busy hustle, Vegas’ barrenness, and Amsterdam’s freewheeling life are among the best I’ve ever read, seemingly tossed off as if in conversation over a glass of scotch. But she isn’t satisfied to depict the seaminess of youthful drug taking, abandoned children, the danger and depravity accompanying the art underworld. At book’s end, she gives us a philosophical treatise on the true value of art and of life itself. We may never understand life as we live it, but the true artists of each age allow us to see bits of life in perspective, as Carel Fabritius did by painting his goldfinch, a beautiful bird, but chained to its perch by a chain so finely rendered that a viewer may not at first notice it. Art, then, reveals the patterns and fixtures in life that both free us and imprison us, as family does, as childhood freedom does, as romance and marriage do, as education and career may do as well.

No novel is perfect, and one may select certain passages to fault here, but the value of literature isn’t in the precision of its grammar, the lapses in inspired prose, it’s in the energy that drives the life of the novel. So of what artistic value, then, is Tartt’s The Goldfinch? What impact does it promise its readers? In a certain sense it transforms the pre-Victorian urges of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and War and Peace and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary into those of a postmodern, existential reality. In doing so, Tartt has proven that art is perhaps the better depiction of ethics and wisdom than those of religious texts and dogma. As times change, but as the underlying patterns of life remain a safety net between us and existential collapse, literature adjusts, it paints the picture anew for each age.

 

My rating: 20 of 20 stars

 

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Atlantic Ascendant

The Atlantic, January/February, 2014

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Perhaps Editor-in-Chief James Bennet has developed the complex touch of a successful pro sports team coach. Or maybe the world is handing him better and better stories. Whatever the reason, this issue of The Atlantic is one of the best balanced, most newsworthy, and downright interesting issues yet. And that’s with a minimal emphasis on things literary.

What does it take to find the next grand inventor? Derek Thompson writes, correctly, that such new gizmos are the thing of basements and garages. But how to make use of them? Technology sharing, says, Thompson, that’s the way to co-opt these gadgets for biz benefit. Only partly correct, I say; businesses are hidebound for the most part and resistant to new ideas and gadgets that compel change.

James Fallows talks cancer with Eric S. Lander, as well as new developments in the field of genomics. Is this the breakthrough approach? Lander says there are usually no “AHA!” moments in such things. It’s a process.

Why do the eminently cinematic Elmore Leonard books end up as crappy movies? Christopher Orr gives us a glance at both media. Justified is a hit now on TV, but why? I think there’s been too much devotion to every detail of Leonard’s work in cinema. Movies aren’t books, and movie adaptations need to be willing to do that: adapt the book. A TV series may very well be the better device to morph books such as Leonard’s into a cinematic format.

These Unites States have always looked the other way as criminal enterprises seek the bread to generate legitimacy. Taylor Clark gives us a look at Jesse Willms, a 26 year-old techie scam artist and a purveyor of technology and the Internet in doing just that.

Scott Stossel reveals the aches and pains of his life-long struggles with anxiety. Is there a solution here? Perhaps, but Stossel seems to be saying that the solutions are as varied as the persons afflicted with such anguish.

Too, there’s a glance back at poet Marianne Moore and her life.

More good things within, of course. And this is an issue that is to me an oddity – one I could read over and over.

 

 

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