Are We Not Boyle?

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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.

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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?

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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.

Poverty and Violence

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Literature is rarely taught or even thought of as a socio-political device, but it often is, has been since Homer. The best writers are the best, most legitimate observers of society, and Cormac McCarthy has been the best of both in recent years of these United States. In his novel, Child of God (click for a previous review), he grapples with the consequences of generations of abject Southern poverty, a poverty from which there seems no escape. As these generations of the poor wear on, violence becomes the overwhelming consequence, the only escape from servile humiliation.

What’s the answer to such lives? McCarthy, correctly, doesn’t say; that’s not the novelist’s responsibility. His responsibility is only to pose the problem.

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Find Truth, Tell It

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With today’s media having been gobbled up by bottom-line-must-be-in-the black types, it’s hard for the book game to cultivate writers, and so we must do it ourselves. As I implied in this early post, writers have always found it hard to comment on their various societies, their foibles, their fledgling promise. We feel the pressure of politics, religion, and customs, aspects that support creaking social structures and deter us from looking at the unvarnished truths of our world. But this we must do; the power of the written word endures while politicians, preachers, and purveyors of the status quo wither and turn to dust. We writers and the fruits of our labors are the closest thing to immortality available in this evanescent world.

So be strong, writers. Don’t be swayed by the temporary comforts of politics, of religion and custom. Tell the truth, as you see it. Even though we’re mere chroniclers, our dedication to Truth, as Plato would have termed it, will outlast them all.

 

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A New Ballgame

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There are some changes coming in GF posts, one temporary, and at least one permanent.

I’ve been hesitant to enter this stage of self disclosure, but my family life with the missus has entered a new phase, one that has ironically drawn us closer together – – she’s been stricken with an extremely nasty and difficult to treat form of cancer,  and it’s proved consuming emotionally as well as physically. I don’t regret in the least the time I’ve had to spend supporting, transporting and ministering to her, but it has meant little time to read. So until at least summer, I’m going to reprise some of the most important or provocative books I’ve read and posted on in my 1100+ posts, ones you may have missed, but ones you’ll find worthy of a read.

I’ve posted monthly (more or less) on magazines I’ve enjoyed, and some have drawn the most reads and reader comments of all my posts. But magazines I enjoy aren’t always ones you would enjoy, so I plan changes to magazine-related posts.

If you, the reader, wish to suggest changes to GF, or support the ones I’ve mentioned, let me know. After all, this blog is as much for you as for me.

Thanks for your previous and, hopefully, your future support of GridleyFires.

 

Visit my website here, and my FB Fan Page here for more on ideas and events that matter to me – and possibly to you.

Good Fortune in Dystopia

 

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I’m truly fortunate in being able to keep writing and in having my work published. This Saturday, March 15, 2014, a dystopian novella of mine will be launched as an e-book. The name? We Are Strong, But We Are Fragile.

It’s something of a fable, a cautionary tale, set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of the U.S… oh, what the heck, I’ll just give you the cover blurb:

2090 A.D. — The America nation has collapsed, and its remnants have been at war for a half-century.

 Samuel II, mayor of Citadel, a Blue Ridge Mountain enclave, is determined to end the city’s wars with devolved tribal society, Freedomland. He sends troubled but insightful city archivist Jakob History to a bartering meet-up, hoping an interview with tribal leader Abraham Trapper might help further peaceful relations. Instead, the encounter leads Jakob to reexamine America’s past, to a danger-filled glimpse of Abraham’s tribal life, and to a final, fateful encounter with Abraham, these revealing human strengths and weaknesses that are at the basis of civilization itself.

 

I’m rather proud of this story for a number of reasons, foremost among them that I began with a vague idea of what I wanted to write and let my subconscious lead me into the morass of modern culture and the dangers it poses to us personally and to civilization itself.

And the book trailer was developed in similar fashion by my film ace, Kevin.

If you’re interested in buying the e-book after reading this and investigating it on my website, please wait until the 15th to do so. A number of sales on a given day are something you can collectively do to help the author. It’s available on Amazon, Kobo, and Nook.

Thanks,

Bob