Consultation No.2: With James Joyce

We were very excited to, through the magic of imagination, talk with James Joyce about his writing, how he climbed down from the rarefied atmosphere of a classical education to wallow in the morass of humanity, as he put it over the telephone during our first contact with him for this talk. We were able immediately to divine that he didn’t suffer fools, so we tiptoed cautiously into his life and writing.


GFB: We understand that you were something for a rebellious student. (He held his cane between his legs as he considered the comment.)

JJ: Naughty, rather. Hardly rebellious. We would have bloody well felt the headmaster’s cane across our bums had we been outright rebellious.

GFB: There’s a difference, then.

JJ: Of course. We boys had no vision necessary for rebellion. We were simply feeling our oats, as you might have it, expressing without an objective, you see?

GFB: Yes, I think so, although I’ve never thought about the difference between the two as significant.


JJ: Such ability to discriminate is the difference between a cultured intellect and robust ignorance. One of the few benefits we gained from our approach to learning at the time.

GFB: I see. So let me skip ahead and ask you, when was it that you first came to view literature as a vehicle for personal rebellion?

JJ: What? Are you daft? I never came to view such a thing. I assume – or shall I – that you’ve read my Dubliners stories? (He began to twirl his cane, as if agitated.)

GFB: Sure have. As have almost every secondary school student of my era.

JJ: (Here, he relaxed and offered a weak smile.) And there you’ve struck the correct note. My era is different from yours, yours will be from the subsequent one. It’s the persistence of social habits that drives later generations mad. And so we writers challenge modes of thinking in what we put to the page.  If we didn’t, and later generations saw much change in attitudes, habits, and education, then our children’s children would go mad. That’s the trouble with religion, as I see it.

GFB: Trying to fit old ways of thinking into new social circumstances?

JJ: Quite so. We of dawning generations must feel something, and were we to stick with the tried and true, we would be known only for our madness.

GFB: Certainly no writer wishes that.

JJ: It’s a human trait to need something to believe in, and when the gods of our beliefs decay and turn to dust, we become caricatures of human beings. There’s no life in us, then.

GFB: Thank you so much, Mr. Joyce, for your insights. You have indeed been a giant in twentieth century literature.

JJ: Balderdash! The times compel us to do what small things we do. Were we not to accept our lot, what would come of us? Of our world?


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Consultation 1: With Victor Hugo




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?


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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Let the Mothers and Fathers Speak


I’m afraid I’ve become jaded.

Rarely do the newest of fiction and nonfiction books, and even poetry, speak to me as they once have. Lately I’ve had to force myself to read them, something you might glean from the rare reviews I’ve been posting. What’s wrong? Is it me? Have I simply read too many books with recurring structures, the same-old character types, the obvious conflicts and resolutions?

Or is there something lacking in these recent, highly publicized books? Is this why reading them doesn’t excite me as they once did?

As a writer I’ve been on a crusade to adopt what I deem the most workable of the postmodern structures, but I will forever maintain that the story is paramount, whatever other tinkering I allow myself to do. We should realize that the term postmodern signifies a belief that modernity is ending, as far as literature goes, but that it says nothing about what replaces modernity in the society that literature reflects.

So am I being a curmudgeon when I diss a lot of the latest acclaimed writing? I don’t think so, really. I read other reviewers reactions to these novels, memoirs, short story collections, etc. What has been slowly emerging is a respect for the technicality of these literary efforts. Along with that, however, is a palpable dissatisfaction with some perhaps intangible thing in the books they try so hard to like and rave about.


So, what to do?

My answer is to go back to the masters of the past century. Mine is not a sentimental desire for what once was – although there’s a lot of that in the sensibilities that surround us these days. But I don’t think Twain, James, Cather, Hemingway, Faulkner, McCullers, O’Connor, et al, would have us dwell too long on the past. They didn’t, for the most part. But in reading those early works of modernity, you get a feel for the energy of their time, the way that energy affected lives. That’s what’s missing, I think; the passion of the moment in which we live.We writers need to be able to translate that energy, that passion, into characters and structures that all but dictate the story of our time.

And so what you’ll see of me here will for a time be my consultations with the mothers and fathers of twentieth century literature. I’ll write about their stories, but I’ll also try to speak to their underlying energy, the things that propelled those magnificent stories.

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A Modern Desultory Philippic


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.


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.


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Are We Not Boyle?



I’ve complained here before that writers shouldn’t use fiction to advance their personal causes or issues. Never say never, of course, and it took author T. C. Boyle to show how to have your agenda and tell a good story too.

My writing mentor, Doris Betts, once told me that either you’re a novelist or a short story writer, that trying to be both will diminish your talent at the one you’re really good at. This doesn’t daunt the best writers, though. Consider the ones who continue to try, including T. C. Boyle. I’ve read some of Boyle’s long fiction and quite a bit of his short stuff, and while he’s a most capable writer across the board, I think in his case Doris was right; Boyle’s gift is in short fiction.


Which brings me to his story, “Are We Not Men?” in the November 7, 2016, issue of New Yorker magazine. Boyle apparently worries, as we likely all should, about the dark side of genetic manipulation. Gene tinkering hasn’t hit society full bore yet, which demonstrates another “ism:”social phenomena are born and have their first pronouncements through the arts. But back to how a skilled writer might editorialize and still have readers enjoy it.

I won’t go into a lot of boring classroom analyses here – just read the story. As you do, you’ll come across freakish, cross-bred pets which, if that were the sum of Boyle’s story, this reader would grind his molars, roll his eyes, and find a way not to notice Boyle’s wit, his cross-breeding of French and English. But he rolls all this into a family/marital drama I daresay everyone in the US of A can relate to, even laugh at.

This then is the trick, fellow writers: be subversive. grind your axe if you must, but slip it into a witty, trenchant story. All things register in fiction, perhaps in multiple readings, but they do register.


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Reading Makes You Smarter?


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.

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


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


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.


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.