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 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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Wars of the Annunaki, by Chris Hardy – Part 2

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My last post on this book, written halfway though the reading posed a lot of questions, some prescient, some unwarranted, some remaining unanswered. First let me set the stage for Professor Hardy’s project here:

  • She has examined texts of both Sumerian language and the later Akadian tongue favored in ancient Babylonia against multiple translations of the book of Genesis, most likely first written in an antiquated version of Hebrew.
  • The story goes beyond Adam and Eve’s alleged fall from grace to include the story of Abraham and his nephew Lot and the destruction of five major cities, including Sodom and Gomorrah.
  • She leans rather heavily on the instructions of semantics, particularly in discriminating informational passages from moral ones (here meaning how moral phrases either confirm or distort the actual historical events as written and passed down  for centuries.)

And so how do translations of Sumerian and Akadian tablets diverge from the much later versions of these events as written in Hebrew? Without reproducing Hardy’s tale altogether, Eve and Adam grew beyond simple vassal status to the so-called gods (the Annunaki) to gain self-reflection and -determination, which threatened the status of the gods. This instead of being tempted by Satan to commit evil – a much later distortion of the Sumerian/Akadian writings on this subject.

And the story of Lot in the later texts, when examined through the lenses of semantics and logic, bears little representation of a real life situation. First, in the oldest texts, the primary “god” Enlil, sought to destroy all of humanity because he considered humanity a failed experiment (with some weight given to the idea that human self-determination threatened his status and enraged him personally.) Depictions of the Annunaki in these texts awarded them no cause for concern over the moral questions later Hebrew texts used as a rationale for destroying this embryonic civilization. A war of the kings ensued, fully documented on some thousands of translated tablets. Enlil, victorious, now had the elbow room to destroy humanity from Palestine to western India. Geologic and archaeological investigations throughout this area found radioactive skeleton fragments and vitrified rock, indicating the possibility of weaponry from the gods with the potency of our modern nuclear bombs, rockets, etc. A simple example of later versions of Lot’s story’s questionable events: If God told Lot’s family not to look back, because if they did, they’d be turned to salt, then who looked back to note the nature of Sarah’s demise? How was this possible, anyway? Was this person also turned to salt? Or was this simply an assumption of her death because she fell behind and disappeared? The Sumerian texts claim she fell far behind and was vaporized in the weaponry explosions.

The story here is one of this poor, huddled mass of humans, including Adam and Eve, as pawns in an epic conflict between Enlil and another of the Annunaki, Enki, who had in fact done the DNA tinkering that gave humanity the possibility of accelerated evolution. Enki, perceiving humanity’s possibilities as a race, sought to preserve them, while Enlil sought to destroy what he considered a failed experiment.

Seen in this light, if there be a thread of truth through the Sumerian and Akadian texts and their subsequent translations, we owe a debt of gratitude to the Enki archetype, whomever might personify the archetype, for preserving a fragile, new race of creatures. This despite the paradox of war and destruction no doubt built into human DNA along with its preservation and protection.

My rating: 16 of 20 stars

 

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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.

Losing Faith in Democracy

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Democracy In Retreat:The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government, by Joshua Kurlantzick

This is more of a treatise than a piece of literary nonfiction, and as with most such pieces of writing, the overlong title virtually tells the story. The author has done an admirable job of collecting data and anecdotes to support his thesis here, which is one of high hopes dashed.

The U.S., he writes, has been the primary nation actively trying to export democracy, and perhaps too zealous in doing so. His concern isn’t our misadventures in Vietnam, South America and more recently, Iraq. Instead, it’s our more peaceful efforts to create democracies around the world. However, there has been altogether too much emphasis on the various electoral processes in doing so, and too little emphasis on policies, including the educational, to support permanent democratic reform. As a result, many democracies of the twentieth century have failed, returning those countries to oligarchies, dictatorships, or other, more repressive forms of representative government.

The poor, of course, have borne the primary disappointments here, but in many countries, it’s the middle classes that have become disenchanted with the democratic process. In all too many cases, upsetting the status quo has shrunken and disturbed the middle classes, which were both part of the ladder of societal ascendance and a buffer between poor and rich, between the disenfranchised and the powerful. Much of the frustration, in the author’s opinion, has been that more repressive societies, such as China, seem to achieve economic success while many democratic countries founder economically due to the decision-making inefficiencies of most democratic states.

To this reader, the author spends too much time citing one case history after another and too little trying to map our way out of this quagmire. Still he does a service in tacitly insisting that perhaps democracy is a product of social evolution – little more than a mere accident in the establishment of the U.S.

My rating: 15 of 20 stars

 

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