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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Inner Voice Makes All The Difference


I was recently asked, in so many words, if I thought my writing was a calling. Tough question, that. Just what constitutes a calling, anyway? Old Man Webster makes the definition broad: anything you do customarily in the form of a vocation to something divinely inspired you engage in.

Here’s where I fit into that band width: I’m a word guy; I like words. I like the wordplay of creative writing and the pleasure and thought-provoking nature of it. Too, I like stories. More and more in conversation to make a point, I’ll begin, “Let me tell you a story.” Story is the right-brain equivalent of our modern habits of debate, philosophizing, and instruction, but story is a softer, gentler manner of doing so. It allows the points to be made but allows interpretation, i.e., application to a listener’s specifically limited circumstance. And lastly, I’ve always had a habit of “reporting” what I see to others. As in, “Mom! see that tree? It looks like a buzzard!” Or “I went downtown today and saw Joe. He told me…”

A friend once commented that that centerpiece of a writer’s psychology is to observe and to do so from “outside the herd.” In other words, the writer tries to give meaning to his/her surroundings by being an advocate of nothing. We do so by committing what we do to a story form, something broad enough to encompass the situation in question and to do it in a way that can reach the listener or reader regardless of attachment to or placement within the circumstances the story attempts to cover. We can do so in plainsong – simple language – in elegant language, or some appropriate blending of the two.

Based on this, then, my writing is a calling; it’s bred into my nature. Am I genetically predisposed to it? Yes, I think. My father, despite his occasional harshness and meanness, used wordplay in making conversation, in joke-telling and to express his own well-considered thoughts. Mom was a classically trained pianist, and from her came the urge to express herself in the creation and language of music.


There’s always a choice in one’s calling. Social circumstances and acculturation have their effect. But, as Webster alludes, the calling is made from some inner voice, calling out louder than the rest of the voices begging for alliance with your soul.


Visit our website here, where you’ll find more book reviews. There’s also a Facebook fan page if you can find it. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to us — and possibly to you.


Ever read a novel or a book of short stories or novellas and wonder if the writer is really writing about herself? That no matter the subject matter or story direction, the author is simply projecting himself as a character into the book?

This is one of the peripheral tenets of post-modernism, particularly, the process of something called deconstruction. Here, the idea is that every piece of writing can only be about the author, no matter how cloaked in exciting facts and story elements.

So here’s a fun thing to try – if you have all the time in the world, and nothing else to worry about:

Put on your deconstruction hat and thumb through your favorite authors’ works (and let’s limit them to American writers). Resurrect a sense of the primary characters and consider them alongside what you know of the author. In case you have a hard time coming up with appropriate writers and their works, let me suggest a few:

  • John Steinbeck
  • Ernest Hemingway
  • Joyce Carol Oates
  • Ian Frazier
  • Paula McClain
  • John Grisham

Some books and some writers may constitute a stretch here, but I’d be interested in what you come up with. It’d make a great conversation on the blog, don’t you think?


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Language: Rich With Humanity and Ambiguity



What is there about writing that attracts us writers so? Most of us are compelled to write, but that doesn’t really answer the question, does it?

Part of it is the love of language – the music and rhythm of it. I used to ride the city bus in Atlanta, listening to the Hispanic women talk. Didn’t understand more than one word out of twenty, but it didn’t matter; it was the words spilling from mouths, rising and falling to high and low pitch.

And there’s a certain ambiguity to language. If you’re a punster, you know what I mean. Language is simply a series of signposts to give you the idea intended. As Wittgenstein wrote and taught, language is simply a method for negotiating meaning.

And perhaps a more convoluted answer to the original question here is: story. How could we tell stories without language? Signing, you say? Well, that’s its own language, isn’t it? Music itself? Sure, and dance and painting. All these tell stories. But then were were considering writers.

Some people are virtually compelled to live by story. I have a  (slightly) older friend to whom I occasionally put questions. His response? “Well, let me tell you a story.” We are, I think, morphing into a more right-brained world, and rather than analytical, objective responses, we tend today to more and more prefer our answers in the form of story. There, we each take home what we need and leave the rest to be parsed in different ways by others.

Writers out there, wouldn’t you rather tell a story, rich with humanity, which shines though language’s ambiguities? Readers and listeners, wouldn’t you that be the case, too?


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Tell Me A Story, Turn The Pages

If you GOOGLE “Why do we need stories?” you’ll gain some 805 million results, a good many of the top ones pretty darned interesting. Clearly, stories are a device we humans need to express…something. But what is that something? And why the universal need to express it?

In order to answer this, shut the book you were reading before you drifted over to your computer and the Internet, and close your eyes. Think about the story you were reading. What enthralled you about it, kept you turning pages? First, as any decent writer can tell you, there’s the quandary, the pickle some character has gotten him(her)self into. Then there’s the way this character tries to extricate him(her)self from it. Not that this character’s way of grappling with a problem is universal; in fact, it’s not. All manners of grappling are personal, depending on so many factors I fear they can’t be enumerated – certainly not here. But there are at least two pretty good reasons why we keep turning the pages:


AT LAST! Someone with a problem, and it’s not me! There’s great relief in watching another person tangled in a web of lies and complication slowly untie their Gordian knot. They may be superheroes, or average Josephines. Why do we enjoy seeing another person, even a fictional one, struggle with such problems? Here, there’s the personal perspective. We KNOW we’re mortal, flawed beings, and while we enjoy seeing superheroes leap tall buildings or scale walls, we yearn for the commonality of our collective fall from grace so that we can understand it. And so this pleasure of story is currency in our society: novels, movies, songs.


But the more subtle aspect of story is, the more novels and stories we read, the more we grow in our appreciation of the unique differences of other people. And so we have in story a basis for ethics: how to avoid life’s pickles insofar as we can. How to cope with pickles in ways that help us and leave others harmless. For once we understand that while we all struggle in individual ways with life’s issues, there a sameness there, too. Whether we extricate ourselves or not (i.e., we win), the struggle changes us. In a sense we become annealed, the way steel does when subjected to heat and shaping from the blacksmith’s hammer. So what is there to life than to be changed for the better by the way we live it?

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A Broader Take on Story

Today’s world is ever-changing, adapting, mutating. If you see that glass half full, fine. If you see it half empty, then let’s suppose that a given new thing under your microscope hasn’t been fully fleshed out…yet. But to stay on point, what’s changed in the structure of stories, and why?

I won’t cover well-trod theoretical ground, except in passing. There’s Aristotle’s inverted check mark (or whatever else you’ve learned to call it), reproduced in one of its forms here:

Aristotles-InclineIf you fancy yourself a writer and haven’t come across this, well, let’s be nice and just say you should study this diagram. But today’s writers are trifling with this structure, if not abandoning it altogether. Why? Since the era of Henry James, James Joyce, and the like, there’s been an increasing emphasis on characterization. Now I’m all for convoluted stories, upsetting structure and time, and emphasizing character, but a complete surrender to casual characterization can only work under certain conditions.

Full disclosure: when conceiving my first novel, I had only a vague idea of where the story should go. I spent most of my time developing my characters (even walked around my condo, acting them out). As it turned out, my characters determined the direction of the novel, and that direction was the story. So no matter how you devise a piece of fiction, there should always be some vestige of story.

All right, then, what are the rules to structuring fiction in our postmodern world? The thing to consider here is that in our world of flux, your responsibility, dear writer, can be summed up in perhaps two things:

  • What your characters confront should challenge your readers’ deeply held convictions. In a world of change, life, even in fiction, should have meaning. Being willing to leave the past is only half the solution, though; meaning much be transformed as well.
  • As a corollary to the above, the writer must change the way his/her readers see the world, it’s failings, its urge to move toward the future’s promise.

A caution: Reading is a private act. Have you ever read a book in your teen years, then read it again in your middle years and discovered new perspectives, new slants on old perspectives? Do you wonder why Emma Bovary maintains such a hold on modern readers? Do you wonder why the pre-revolution world of Tolstoy’s writing seems so relevant today? That Mark Twain’s tweaking of prigs’ noses works as well today as then? It’s the writer’s inspiration, if one is a true talent, to be able to reach beyond good and bad, beyond belief and certainty, into the always changing nature of the human essence. If reading were anything other than a private act, reaching such depths, allowing the alternative worlds of fiction to displace one’s certainties would be all but impossible.

If you seek simply to write dogma, whether it be social, religious, political, or historical, you’re not writing fiction. If you have an agenda of cut-and-dried good and bad, fiction isn’t what you’re doing.

But in all that the muses give you in the way of inspiration and talent, remember: whatever you write will be incomplete without the movement of life – and that’s what story is all about.

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.