Kid Lit, My Friend, Kid Lit

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How do you read?

What?

What I mean is – and I mean this indirectly – what do you intend to get out of what you read?

That’s a pretty general question, Bob.

All right, I’m still not being clear enough. Do you read to get the gist of the story? Do you read to understand the characters and their conflicts? Do you read contextually, i.e., do you read to understand the story and characters in light of their historical and social settings?

Yeah, all that.

Okay, that makes you an exceptional reader. So let me ask you this: How quickly do you read?

You mean do I buy a book, run home and start reading?

You know I don’t mean that. How long do you dwell on each page?

I don’t know…Jeez, Bob, you going to put a stopwatch on me, or what?

No. What I’m getting at is: Do you enjoy the act of reading? Do you savor the writer’s word choices? Do you ponder his/her choice of metaphors? Can you slip into the writer’s written voice like a new bathrobe? Do you look for and celebrate the irony there? The subtlest humor and satiric bits and pieces?

Yeah, sometimes. Sometimes the book bores the shit out of me, and so I scan it. Can’t wait to get through with it, you know?

I do indeed. I try to allude to all these things when I write a review; I try to lead the ones who read my reviews into reading the book, and I try to tell them what they can expect from reading it.

I get where you’re coming from, Bob. You’re going to try something new in your reviews, aren’t you? And you depend on your formula to get you through the weeds.

(Notice how, suddenly, the questioner becomes the questioned?)

I get that, Bob. You’re as regular as an alarm clock when it comes to putting that formula into practice. So what’s up?

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Kid lit, my friend. Kid lit.

Books for tykes, you mean.

Yes.

So why is that a challenge?

Vocabulary, for one thing. An eight-year old’s vocabulary is roughly half an adult’s. And then there’s the degree of complexity a child’s mind can handle.

So, Bob, you think a kid’s mind isn’t as well developed as an adult’s?

Well, it’s been proven. That’s why they go to school. To improve their ability to think and communicate what they think.

It’s not to learn a trade? To get a good paying job?

Now you’re getting into politics, and we both know where that ends up. Certain people scratch around in the dust long enough and greedily enough, and they end up with money. Piles of it. They become addicted to money. Can’t get enough of it. So they tweak society into training mindless automatons to do their bidding. Give them just enough mental training to have them function as human machines.

Like that old song? “A mind that’s weak and a back that’s strong?”

Exactly. You become dangerous if your mind becomes over-educated.

Is that what you want, Bob, over-educated people who cause trouble?

In a way. But what I’d say is I want people who can think for themselves – and for society as a whole. To move us all forward.

Really, Bob? Really? And how do you propose to do that?

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Get them reading. Challenge their minds that way.

And how do you get your so-called automatons to read?

Kid lit, my friend. Kid lit. Get the kids reading, and they’ll never stop.

 

End of scene. See you next week.

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Parsing Poetry

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Odd that after all these months I find myself reading poetry again on a regular basis. And talking over the ups and downs of poetic content and structure with a colleague. But what’s come from this new/old exposure?

  • First, this is the age of confessional poetry. That’s not my thing, I discover. too much “me” while poetic gifts that should be aimed at humanity, indeed, at the world at large, are spent whining about one’s personal ups and downs.
  • We’re a couple of centuries deep into free verse, which to date has no accepted structure. No villanelles, no odes, no ballads or sonnets. This can be liberating, but it can be a prison, too.
  • So what the heck? More and more, slant rhymes are the thing (Yes, Emily Dickinson). And the old rhythmic workhorse of poetry, iambic pentameter, is being stretched to its limits. Anyone taught poetry these days is confronted almost immediately with the issue of imagery. And in a deconstructive age, can we do without irony?

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I began as a poet, but I’ve long since moved around the block to prose, and so I don’t fancy myself an expert on all things poetic. But in the weekdays following this, I’ll lend a hand to those struggling with understanding poetry, both the writing and reading of it. And who knows? Some pittance here may open a new door for you.

Visit my website here. Then there’s my FB Fan Page here. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.

Irony and Complexity

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The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson

As is my case with most books, I warmed up to this one slowly. My warming, however, became only tepid with The Orphan Master’s Son. I like stories, you see, and defined characters within such stories. That makes me an odd fit for postmodern literature, something I’ve posted on ad nauseum. This book of that ilk branches and wanders, flitting from character to vignette randomly, much as one might experience in a dream. There is a semblance of coherent story here, so I’ll take a shot at synopsizing it;

Pak Jun Do’s father is the ruling influence of a North Korean orphanage, and the boy’s mother has been spirited away to entertain high placed personages in Pyongyang, leaving Jun Do an orphan of sorts. He eventually finds himself in the role of kidnapper for North Korea’s high-ups. In such a country it’s best to blend in, to be all but invisible, but Jun Do’s role makes this impossible, and he continually finds himself skirting torture and death. Somewhere deep in this life he encounters a North Korean-type starlet, named Sun Moon, who has been conned away from Kim Jong Il to be the mistress of yet another muckety-muck. Jun Do falls for the wryly named Sun Moon, who sets a host of characters on a path to free her from the Dear Leader.

If this sounds like an overly complicated story – or perhaps no story at all – then you have a sense of what postmodern literature has to offer.

Two things tie Johnson’s novel into a semblance of coherence: first, it depicts the difficulties of living under such a regime. Second, it contrasts that form of society and life with that of the U.S., and it does so wryly, with irony of the highest order. The manner in which the author approaches writing this novel set in this particular culture is, I think, the reason it won the Pulitzer.

Johnson seems to have little regard for reader comfort in structuring this novel, even down to the insertion of dialogue tags in his sentences, and he apparently feels no need to lead the reader from vignette to vignette. His project here is perhaps overly ambitious, and I doubt he could have accomplished in a novel all he wished to without wandering about in this manner.

My rating: 15 of 20 stars.

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The Alchemy of Irony (Redux)

I’m reposting this – after gussying it up a bit, because it’s well, important, and I suspect there’s something here that will lead us out of literature’s wilderness.

 

This is something of a postscript on a previous post on a popular subset of postmodern literature, something you can find here.

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Despite postmodernism’s recognition of literature’s limitations – and this includes the limitations of history’s previous accountings of events, as well as our attempts to explain the human experience through philosophy – this particular, popular strain of literature has fallen prey to ego, in particular writers’ egos. The crux of this corruption is in irony. But let me explain.

Irony is the juxtaposition of opposing forces, viewpoints, linguistic twists, etc., usually for one of two purposes: humor and emphasis. We all need humor, for sure. And it’s well and good to have in one’s arsenal such a tool as irony to add texture to whatever is written. Even though humor is meant to be a gentle shove toward correcting social mores, actions, and attitudes, its corruption comes when the humorist, the implementor of humor, uses it in a condescending fashion, to debase and demean its objects, rather than to correct them. And when too much is made of irony in the context of emphasis, the corruption is essentially the promotion of the user’s ego.

But how does this translate within postmodern literature?

In the post linked above, I sat down hard on overuse – and overemphasis on – narration. In nineteenth century novels, the narrator was the proxy oral storyteller (we were not yet that far removed from oral versions of story, it seems); thus the narrator was omniscient, able to speak to all phases of story and character – as if a literary god. After more than a century of modernism in storytelling, in which the reader was invited in, ever so intimately, to his or her own take on the story’s significance, the plumbing of character, etc., we now see a return to narration – not for the benevolence of story or character, but to express the self-consciousness of the writer. But why would a writer want to create a story in which all aspects of it revolve so obviously about the writer’s psychology? Sadly, to place the writer on a pedestal, above the character, the story, and the reading public.

And this is where irony begins to tarnish. Where once the writer was the instrument of literature’s muses, and to paraphrase McLuhan, the writer is now the message – the ultimate, abstracted end result of the “me” phenomenon. Here, irony turns cynical, egoistic, mean, literarily destructive. Where once irony was a tool to add depth to characterization and story, its modern corruptions make characters flat, story meaningless.

 

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If we were to return to irony as a social corrective, a tool to create literary terrain, what would be the effect on the postmodern perspective?

  • the return of story as a social construct – incorporating history, philosophy, ethics – but with a more universal emphasis.
  • the surrender of writerly ego to the presence of literature itself.
  • a renewed ability of readers to embrace characterization as part of themselves – even when the characters aren’t within the reader’s personal experience.
  • the continued democratization of literature.

Clearly postmodernism is a transitory step in social evolution. What will emerge from that tunnel’s far end? I can guess, but I’d likely be wrong. But one thing’s for certain: were we to continue in the current path of postmodern literature, we would soon be presiding over the demise of literature itself.

 

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