Consultation No. 4 – With Papa Hemingway




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.


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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Let the Mothers and Fathers Speak


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.


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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Eating The Postmodern Novel

The White Boy Shuffle, by Paul Beatty


I had read Beatty’s latest, The Sellout, a few months ago and didn’t much care for it. When this happens, I usually ask, “What’s wrong with me? What did I miss?” I did miss something, but I’ll sort that out in a sec. I’m afraid, dear reader, that I find Beatty’s work less than enthralling. His humor is mean-spirited, his characterizations are caricatures, and his view of the world via his stories childishly cynical. What Beatty does best, though, is to  view American culture – and sharply.

The story here – and it’s not really a story, told in postmodern style, the characters fumble through life and circumstance as a device to comment on society – has a kid, Gunnar Kaufman, moving to a new L.A. neighborhood and coping with life there. That’s it. That’s the story. Beatty has him become a basketball star, yet there’s no sense of the game where. And to top that, he becomes some sort of cultural messiah, with no sense of the role played out nor the “masses” need for him in particular to play that role.

Beatty’s gift is probably not fiction. With his sharp eye on culture, black culture in particular, he should take a few tips from Ta-Nehisi Coates and focus on real life.


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Thunderous Silence Speaking Volumes


I’ve had to let slide, for obvious reasons, promotional activities of my book from 2013, Sam’s Place: Stories. But as I begin to consider that again, I recognize that I’ve had reactions to the book ranging from “Good on ya!” to thunderous silence. Why the kudos? And why the silence?

I have a fairly good grasp on my readership, small and somewhat deranged as it is, so I’m not only able to put the actual comments in place, but also a good part of that overloud silence. And that comes down to reader’s views of the society we live in. I take on at least a portion of the postmodern ethos in my writing – the portion that comments on society by deconstructing the lives of at least some of my characters. For this to make sense I should give a bit of a depiction of these stories.

They take place in Striven, a small town in rural Alabama, stories built about Sam’s Place, a pool hall and bar frequented by characters on the outskirts of Striven society. These folks don’t show up at the Elk Lodge, don’t have particularly good relations with the local police (sound familiar?), rarely warm the pews of Striven’s churches, and are deeply flawed people – at least by the idealized and totally fictitious image we tend to create of personal and family life in these United States. Yet they’re attractive people; they have larger than life personalities. They dare to contradict. They dare to be outrageous. They persist in their living-large existences, despite being shunting aside by the city fathers, even despite violence against them (again, sound familiar?).

These people are necessary to life, in every city, town, and social setting. Some readers recognize this, some not, and I get a pat on the back, perhaps a warm word or two. But why the not? Because these fictional people establish limits on the goodness of us real folk, taken together as society. If this confuses, ask.

Okay, in plain language, why the silence of some who trifle with this book? I think it’s largely this: the mass of society presumes to live comfortably within these social limits, and when they see “good” characters inverted to represent everything wrong in society, and the “bad” characters setting things to rights, perhaps accidentally, they don’t like it; they see themselves at the outskirts of a society flipped on its postmodern head. Through these characters, “good” and “bad,” they begin to see in glaring detail the limits to our society, the limits we’ve created to our harum-scarum, always mutating, less-than-perfect society. And it’s the less-than-perfect aspects of what we’ve created within these United States that allow some – change that to many – to imagine otherwise. And nothing speaks to the ensuing upset more so than silence.

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It’s Important, and We Should Listen To The Growing Complaints



The readers of this blog know by now that I have problems with certain aspects of the American version of postmodern literature – one of my plaints is given here. Philip Roth, among other, less luminous beings in the writer/reader firmament, has given up on fiction. Why? Because many of the most talented young writers have used fiction as a mirror for their own personalities, not for story.

There are tons of stories out there that should – MUST – be told. While we do live in an age of personalities, and while it’s impossible to keep today’s writers’ personalities out of their writing, the story is – and always will be – the thing.



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Art and Time in Literature


Worried about structuring your next novel, writer? You readers out there don’t get why the writer hopscotched back and forth in time? This old post on a very fine novel, A Girl In Hyacinth Blue, may help both reader and writer. A hint: Monitor your thoughts for an hour or so. See how they constantly go from  past to future to present in no particular order?



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Irony and Complexity


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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