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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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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. 3 – With John Steinbeck

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Here we are up to our ankles in yet another imagined conversation with an American writer whose work has been, and continues to be, acclaimed for the passion of his characters, even when he leaves them subject on occasion to a side-splitting, acerbic humor. Charley, Steinbeck’s dog,  has been dead some forty years on the date of this interview, and I thought it prudent to put that sad thought to rest early.

GF: First, sir, even as I express my gratefulness for your agreeing to this interview, you have our deepest sympathies. You have left Charley to us all for posterity.

JS: With a sad look toward his scuffed shoes – “Thank you. He was a dear friend and companion.”

GF: Some of your larger work is rightly accepted into the American literary canon, but I’m curious: you’ve written so many novellas, these largely eluding such recognition. Why?

JS: It’s one thing to have your work accepted for literary reasons, but to have Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath vilified by lowbrow politicians, and by doing so to excoriate me and my views of American life, is the cheapest of shots. Do you think I gained the personal popularity of writers such as Twain by my literary efforts? No! I was considered a subhuman being by politicians and the press because I professed to be a socialist, even a communist, and so – to answer your question – the novellas were relatively easy writes. I had to do them, for money to live on.

GF: After all these years, do you regret writing so many short novels?

JS: “Of course not. Not every long-winded novelist can compress the essence of a novel into two hundred pages.” Another look to his shoes. “The money, as I said. Besides, men don’t read enough; they don’t have the patience with story that women do. I wanted men to read more.”

GF: You were the best, in my opinion, at writing with such mood. You didn’t have to argue politics or social situation in your books; you let your characters speak their sadness and despair, their woundedness, even as they left your readers with hope.

JS: That hope, it’s the only thing that keeps this country going. We always believe things will be better tomorrow. We always look the other way at slavery, abusive labor, cheap wages, genocide of America’s first people, the raping of the land, and countless wars in hoping that something good will come of it all. And this hope you speak of: money, not human values, underscores it all.

GF: All right. But can you leave us with something of a positive note?

JS: With an incredulous look, he says, “But I have. My novels. The essays, the novellas, from A Cup of Gold to Cannery Row, should  continue to speak to generations of young readers who want desperately not to leave their enthusiasm and idealism behind in their pursuit of a decent life.

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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.

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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.

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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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Let the Mothers and Fathers Speak

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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.

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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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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.