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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The Personal Importance of Reading – A List

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In the same way that baseball (ahem), the U.S.’s national sport, has been eclipsed by football’s intermittent excitement and basketball’s half-clothed athleticism, reading, as a mode of enjoyment and entertainment, has been kicked to the curb. First by movies. Then by TV. Then by streaming technology of all sorts. Books have been considered sources of political and social justice and have been burned. Some, even in this permissive and autocratic age, have been banned from mere existence.

Why are books still considered dangerous? Their stories of history and family bare many of the truths that sit at the core of humanity. They’re personal. Powerful. Purgative. And every avid reader has a list of their most important books -– books that aren’t necessarily famous or best sellers. Simply books that managed to change’ lives, even if the books that mattered to you seem trite to others. The following is mine, in order of importance. What’s yours?

10 – The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway

9 – Cup of Gold, John Steinbeck

8 – Matterhorn – Karl Marlantes

7 – Watership Down, Richard Adams

6 – Dubliners, James Joyce

5 – As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner

4 – A Million Fragile Bones, Connie May Fowler

3 – Waiting For The Barbarians, J.M. Coetzee

2 – The Complete Stories, Flannery O’Connor

1 – Les Miserables, Victor Hugo

 

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Consultation No. 4 – With Papa Hemingway

 

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With some trepidation I knocked at Ernest Hemingway’s door and waited. And waited. Had I waited much longer I would have left, knowing his short fuse with reporters and lesser writers. With research we had found that the rap on Papa was that he was incredibly knowledgeable on a wide number of subjects, that he might regale me with some longwinded thing about fishing. And if he’d been drinking he was Henry VIII incarnate. All of our misgivings proved of no consequence, though; he’d been writing and, of course, not drinking.

He walked on the veranda, a glass of vermouth and crushed ice in his hand, a Panama hat perched back, and actually a bit earthy with his native aroma. He’d been fishing, as it turned out, and cleaning fish with a couple of his favorite crewmen. We shook hands, he smiled, and after a few icebreakers, our brief interview began.Throughout our brief time there, we found him cheerful, engaging, and helpful to this blogger. Until I mentioned passionless writing.

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GF – We’re doing a series on modern novelists writing without passion, and –

EH – Passion? Writing without passion? Jesus, man, how is that even possible?

GF – We’re in an era that’s been dubbed postmodern. And in this era, you see, technique rules.

EH – No shit! And is there some school these writers go to to learn this?

GF – Yes. There are hundreds of writing programs out there now, and technique is the main thing they’re taught.

EH – My god. I was being ironical in asking that.

GF – Well, sir, that’s the writing life these days, and –

EH – People buy this claptrap? And don’t say sir to me. I’m not a politician or a banker. Everybody here calls me Papa.

GF – In dwindling numbers, yes. But if we could return to the subject of passion…

EH – Papa. Say it.

GF – All right. Papa. (At this point a young woman appeared, whispered something, and left. He quickly informed me that a journalist from Cuba was waiting and asked if we could cut the talk short.) Can you give me, quickly then, your views on passion in the novel.

EH – Damn right I will! Send these kids to war, and if not war, send them into the seediest parts of any town and make them live there for a year, two years, as long as it takes for them to get it through their highly educated heads that that’s where passion is. On the battlefield! In the ghettos! In fact, how the hell do they have any stories without seeing how man treats his fellow man? Christ, what do you have out there, a bunch of Scott Fitzgeralds?

GF – The last few minutes of his response were profanity-laced, little of which would have contributed to passion in writing. I didn’t tell him I speak a little Spanish, and as I left, he was ranting to the Cuban journalist about the nincompoop that had informed him that writers in his era were putting out passionless writing. And people were buying 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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A Modern Desultory Philippic

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There are things that trouble me these days. Just to name a few:

  1. Too many things are going on in the world. Far too many. Can’t people live within their means? Can’t they help those less fortunate before things get too salty out there? Can’t we accept someone else’s opinions without hysterics?
  2. I have too little time to read. Or write. There are too few books out there worthy of my time, and when I ask someone what they think of my latest book, they say, “Whaaat?”
  3. Taxes are too complicated. And the money never goes for things I’d like it to.
  4. I’m aging way too fast.  That look in the morning mirror no longer seems like a photo – now it’s more like a movie.
  5. It’s too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter.
  6. All the things I like to eat are bad for me and put weight on me.
  7. Everyone I know has too many problems –  health-wise and otherwise.
  8. I used to be 1-1/2 inches taller than I am now. I don’t like that.
  9. Going somewhere on a commercial airliner is miserable and cramped. And no one offers me a ride there in their Lear jet.
  10. I don’t go to movies much anymore. And if the guy sitting in front of me is wearing a long black overcoat he won’t take off, I’m outta there.

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All this to say that 2018 is going to mean changes for me. I’m not sure yet what they are, but you’ll see some evidence of them on this blog. Now, I admit there are a lot of blogs out there. And mine may seem the least consequential one you’ve ever read. I’m pretty sure, though, that readership ups and downs will be paralleled by the number and attitude of my posts. Yes, the picture above is of me, taken on a particularly bad day. It takes readership to keep this blog going, so if you want me to clean up, make a big deal of it every time I post.

 

Visit our website here, where you’ll find more on books and media. There’s also a Facebook fan page if you can find it. On both you’ll discover more on ideas and events that matter to us — and possibly to you.

Reading Makes You Smarter?

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There’s been a lot said and written in past years – particularly since the advent of tweets, blog posts, and e-mail – about the value of snippet reading. It’s a great way to amass information, they say.

But let me work the other side of the fence for a moment. Yes, those snippets will allow you to be a walking encyclopedia. But will grabbing headlines, dashing off tweets or speed reading e-mails enable you and your end users to use make use of such information? Better, will this gulping down of information make you smarter? Or by inference, more valuable to your nation, your community, your family, your place of work?

Here’s a blog post to help you think this through.

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jan/23/can-reading-make-you-smarter.

Note, near the end on the Guardian post the comment on reading literary fiction.

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But why would literary fiction engage your latent intelligence so well? That’s a subject to be dealt with in depth on another day. But my short answer is that literary fiction presents you with conflicts that are all too human without providing solutions to those conflicts. This enables readers to consider possible resolutions from each reader’s experience and level of understanding. In other words, in a complex era of human development, there are no easy answers; each person must arrive at such understandings as if truth were relative. Perhaps in some future time we’ll  have the ability to see such complexity as a unified whole, and literary fiction will, I feel sure, lead us there.

 

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Dangerous But Beautiful

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If you’re a writer, has your writing seemed milk-toasty at times? Or if you’re a reader, has a book disappointed because it is, well, milk-toasty?

Then if you have access to the January/February issue of Poets&Writers, Jan/Feb 2016, turn to Tom Spanbauer’s essay, Dangerous Writing. I’ll leave it to you to discover from his essay what dangerous writing is. But there’s a rather unsubtle hint in a paragraph on the third column of page 41.

Basic to Dangerous Writing is the belief that by going on this journey from blood to bone, by laying out hard truths, through our own intelligence, intuition, and ability we will make a personal discovery of reality. The discovery will be something that is ancient, but because it is we who have been on the front lines, this discovered reality is truly personal—completely fresh and new.

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This is the reality of literature, I believe—it takes ancient truths and spins them out in the context of the time and the author. This has been the truth of literature, more particularly of our modern, secular literature than of any writing throughout the ages.

But what does this mean? What does it say to humanity?

We live in a superficial age. This bouncing about on the surface of life allows us to hide behind style, posturing, the confidence of knowing too little, especially about ourselves. But by participating  in Spanbauer’s delving, we discover, first, something enduring about ourselves, not just as a storyteller but as a human being. Then we discover how that personal something finds its place in the human condition as a whole.

It may frighten, dear writer, and it may hurt peeling away those superficial confidences, but think of the story you are deep within. Think of its value to your readers. In that light, it’s not dangerous at all, is it?

 

As a postscript, I had to dig deep to write a story as provocative as the one advertised on page 134 of this edition of P&W, “We Are Strong, But We Are Fragile.” If you haven’t read it, take a chance with it. I believe it is at least one version of our time. If you have read it, please let your reading friends know about this book. Thanks.