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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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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Can You Diagram A Sentence?

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Some years ago, during a writing workshop class I attended, a young student offered up a sentence in her classroom segment for the day that had us all frowning with perplexity. The professor stopped her and asked the rest of us how we might write the sentence in a way that could be more easily understood.
“Maybe diagramming the sentence would help,” offered an older classmate.

A bewildered look overcame the young student. “What’s diagramming a sentence mean?” she asked.

Someone offered to bring her an  old textbook, and we moved on.

I hadn’t realized during my high school years that diagramming would prove valuable when I became a fully fledged writer. Nor did I realize during the time of this college class that diagramming was no longer taught. Diagramming won’t help much if you persist in warped and wacky syntax, and most of us speak in just that way, because at the point of speaking we haven’t thought the sentence through. Take for example the following garbled sentence:

The responsibilities sometimes of a beekeeper can be heavy, but the rewards are too great to list for raising bees.

What exactly was the writer trying to convey? That the beekeeper sometimes has such responsibilities and sometimes not? That the second clause changes the topic, conveying that bees having baby bees is very rewarding?

This sentence isn’t outright laughable, because it’s easy enough to parse meaning here. But it is ambiguous and could be written better.

To diagram the sentence, strip away the modifiers and stick for a moment with the first clause’s subject (noun), predicate (verb), and direct object (word that directly bears on the subject), predicate noun or predicate object (word that directly bears on the verb). Diagram the second clause in the same way. Then begin tacking on the modifiers. The lesson here is really where the adjective and adverb modifiers should be placed to cut out ambiguity. The more you scratch your head over such placement the more you’ll realize that these modifiers should generally be placed close to the words they modify.

So the sentence makes more sense if changed – by the following diagram – to read:

The responsibilities of a beekeeper can be heavy sometimes, but the rewards of raising bees are too great to list.

 

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Okay, now it’s your turn. See if you understand how the following, more complex sentence can be better written. Its diagram follows.

The responsibilities, can be heavy sometimes of a beekeeper, which are too numerous to list.

 

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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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The Oxford Comma and Other Punctuation Discontents

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If you don’t believe language is malleable, go back to original publications of the U.S.’s Civil War era and notice the differences in diction from then to now, the spellings, capitalization practices, and of course, punctuation. Slip back in time to the era of the French Revolution, find a really old copy of Victor Hugo’s work,  Les Miserables, and you’ll find in the work’s latter chapters where this malleability comes from.

But let’s talk punctuation here:

It was in the nineteenth century that the possessive of it contained an apostrophe, i.e., it’s, and sometime early in the twentieth the apostrophe slowly disappeared from standard usage. Still, it’s was taught as late as mid twentieth century. Even today, when the only accepted use of an apostrophe with it is a contracted it is, I still see it in informal letters and (gasp!) on the Internet.

Some things, like it’s, stubbornly remain in informal usage, while others such as the possessive of nouns ending in s are downright schizophrenic. I, for instance, refuse to knuckle under to today’s common usage of the possessive of such nouns as s’s. When I see a possessive of nouns ending in a double s (ss) as ss’s, it looks for all the world like a typist went to sleep with middle finger on the s key. So I stick, for the most part to s’.

And then there’s the Oxford comma.

I was taught to use it, but I didn’t know why, and when it began slipping from standard usage I stubbornly stuck with it. To compound matters, when I first heard of it, I thought it was a Southern thing, originating in Oxford, Mississippi. Not so. It had its early usage at Oxford University in England. Most of what you’ll care to know about its beginnings and evolution you’ll find here. It almost disappeared from use, and then reared its squiggly head in the aftermath of a lawsuit in Maine. It’s undeniable that it provides more clarity, and it seems to be enjoying a bit of a renaissance.

There are other squirrelly punctuation usages, but these are the ones that get my hackles up. So let’s resolve here: standard usage is subject to problems and, well, to time itself, so let’s use what makes the most sense in our writing.

 

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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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