Friday, July 31, 2009

THE WESTERN CANON

The reason 'The Western Canon' - The Books and Schools of the Ages, by Harold Bloom (1994) is so important to writers and readers alike is this: We need some point of reference in the cosmos of the written word. Without some point of reference; without some 'North Star' as it were, we are likely to lose our way in the sea of literary endeavor. (Indeed, there are some of us who contend that we have lost our way). 'The Western Canon' is an outrageously ambitious book by Yale professor Harold Bloom. In some ways it is his master work. It would be difficult to envision any greater work coming from his desk. It is weighty with all his immense learning and is surprisingly readable in the bargain.


I mentioned in a previous column that I found 'The Western Canon' at our local thrift shop for $3. I have read it before - borrowed from the library, I could not afford to buy it - but now I own it. What better time to pause and share something from this important book? I shudder to think how, or why, such a book would have turned up in a thrift shop to start with. But I am thankful to have it.


In the Canon Bloom explores our literary tradition through the works of twenty-six authors. He "laments the loss of intellectual and aesthetic standards" (this from the jacket); "he deplores multiculturalism, Marxism, feminism, neoconservatism, Afro-centrism, and the New Historicism." If this was anyone but Harold Bloom, we would simply have him declared insane and leave it at that. But he is Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University and Berg Professor of English at New York University. He is a MacArthur Prize Fellow, and a past Charles Eliot Norton Professor at Harvard University. He is a member of the American Academy. He is, in short, not someone who can easily be dismissed.


So why is his thought considered to be so unusual, so counter to the thought of our time? Because unlike so many others, he believes that a course can be charted through history by way of our most outstanding authors that will help us chart a course for the future. This is not radical , so much as retro. And it is retro that has gone out of style. Today every creative person that comes along wants to shout their greatness from the treetops, no matter how valuable their work may turn out to be in the long run. What is short and snappy and makes a lot of money is what is respected, in short. Any compass point will do, so long as we are on the cutting edge of it.


Patiently and wisely, Bloom lays out the Canon for us. He compares and contrasts works by Shakespeare, Milton, Samuel Johnson, Goethe, Ibsen, Joyce, and Beckett. Tolstoy, Freud, Dante, Wordsworth, Austen, Dickens, Whitman, Dickinson, Proust and others to bring a deeper understanding of our place in this galaxy. We may not agree completely with all his conclusions, but we can certainly admire how he reaches them.


"With most of these twenty-six writers," Bloom writes in his Preface and Prelude, "I have tried to confront greatness directly: to ask what makes the author and the works canonical. The answer, more often than not, has turned out to be strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange."


"Canonical strangeness can exist without the shock of such audacity, but the tang of originality must always hover in an inaugural aspect of any work that incontestably wins the agon with tradition and joins the Canon."


Recently a librarian here noted that what we are getting any more in published books is simply various versions of the same story. All of these, without a doubt, will be lost in the sea of time. What remains, then; what is important, is those few highly original writers and their work that add value to us as readers, as human beings, and as members of the progression of history into the future. As for the rest... they need not be written or read.


Take a look at the Canon for yourself and let me know what you think.



Jim AUGUST 14, 2009

THE BILLION-FOOTED BEAST - A Look Back

The other day I was looking through my files labeled 'Ancient History' and found an essay by Tom Wolfe (author of 'The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test' and 'The Bonfire of the Vanities' to name a couple). The essay's title: 'Stalking The Billion-Footed Beast' - A literary manifesto for the new social novel. I couldn't remember having read it way back in 1989 when it appeared in Harper's Magazine (November issue). But there it was, pointing the way back to the future. Or, to put it another way, can counter culture really be counter to the culture if it is running against the current, back to where it came from? Let me explain.

In the years after WWII we began to hear about the death of the novel. What was meant by that, really, was the death of the novel as we knew it. That is, the death of the realistic novel that had been around for a long time, (say, since Mark Twain at least). "The realistic novel, in their gloss," (according to Wolfe, speaking of the intellectual intelligentsia that was emerging then), "was the literary child of the nineteenth-century industrial bourgeoisie. It was a slice of life, a cross section, that provided a true and powerful picture of individuals and society - as long as the bourgeois order and the old class system were firmly in place."

"By the early 1960s," (he continues), "the notion of the death of the realistic novel had caught on among young American writers with the force of revelation... It had been only yesterday, in the 1930s, that the big realistic novel, with its broad social sweep, had put American literature up on the world stage for the first time. In 1930 Sinclair Lewis, a realistic novelist who used reporting techniques as thorough as Zola's, became the first American writer to win the Nobel Prize. In his acceptance speech, he called on his fellow writers to give America "a literature worthy of her vastness," and, indeed, four of the next five Americans to win the Nobel Prize in literature - Pearl Buck, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck - were realistic novelists."

"Yet by 1962, when Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize, young writers, and intellectuals generally, regarded him and his approach to the novel as an embarrassment."

Now, it is tempting to just go on quoting from this excellent essay, but that could cause me some trouble. What I am grappling with here is this: What have we been doing for the last twenty years? This essay could have been used to propel us in a new direction. Or, rather, it might have compelled us to go back to where we had been and to start again. But no such movement seems to have taken place. There are a few of us around who are running counter to the post-modern trend to write some very realistic literature. But we are in the minority. Meanwhile, the literary world charges ahead into a kind of no-man's (ok, no-person's) territory and my question is this: Has this really produced a better or higher quality literature? I think not.

There is an even larger question embedded in this discussion. 'Has the breakdown of our society caused this fractured, broken, disjointed form of literature to emerge; (post-modernism) or has this chaotic, moral relativism helped break down the society in which we live?' That's a mouthful, I know, but the way we view the world around us is important, and it is our writers (and readers) who help shape that world-view. So, if the point of our writing is that there is no point, what does that say about our world?

In case I haven't made myself clear, count me in as a writer of the realistic style. Whether my writing helps lead us back to the future is yet to be seen. I, like Wolfe, am also experimenting with nonfiction as well. Unlike Wolfe, however, I am trying to discover a whole new set of rules that will apply to nonfiction, rather than plundering all the ficitonal techniques and trying to adapt them to nonfiction. What better place to begin looking for the truth, after all, than in true stories. In my latest effort, 'American Masters', a popular history of American literature and our most famous authors; I use a sweeping narrative style with a hidden first-person narrator, with symbolism and motif to create an underlying current that helps sweep the story forward.

I'll write more about that in the future. Until next time, then, keep reading and writing.



Jim

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

THE MOVEMENT BACK TO REALISM

There is something of a counter-movement in literature, of which I am part, that is turning back from the brink post-modernism had led us to. We - and I am in the good company of Harold Bloom, Francine Prose, Tom Wolfe and others - have recognized that the trashing of all tradition in writing, along with the evaluating of books and their authors by forcing them through a strainer of political, ethnic and gender screens, has not necessarily produced a finer or greater body of literature. At some point in history, at about the time I began to try unsuccessfully to publish my work, a growing concensus of academics decided that literature must be intellectual, high-brow, written by someone other than the white anglo-saxon protestant male, and in a way which breaks down all the previous wisdom about the craft of writing. A solid storyline, for instance, became taboo. Strong characters - especially those who stood for certain values - were ousted. A clear theme - again, especially when it conveyed anything other than post-modern values - was cast out. And what are post-modern values?

Anything goes. There is no single truth. Truth is, rather, relative to the one seeking that truth. To push an extreme example: Hitler had his own truth, and his truth can neither be considered to be better or worse than any other truth.

This post-modern approach, I will be the first to admit, has made for some interesting reading. It has released a tidal wave of exuberance in the creative realm, which has found a natural home on the free expression 'pages' of the internet. This has reached the point, now, of an almost complete meltdown; where every person can shout "look at my creation" and any other person may look upon that creation, without any sense of 'value' at all. 'Reviewers' of any stripe can review books using almost any criteria (or lack of criteria) to pronounce their judgments. 'Don Quiote' may be seen as "boring", and Charles Dickens as "too old fashioned".
Further, there are books being written instructing the writer on how to be a better writer; that is, more successful, like Stephen King and 'Harry Potter'. It is small wonder that readers are confused about what is good to read and what is trash. Writers are just as confused. It is small wonder, too, that more and more readers have given up all together - deciding that reading is just not that much fun any more.

In her excellent book 'Reading Like a Writer' Francine Prose says, "There, (in graduate school), I soon realized that my love for books was unshared by many of my classmates and professors. I found it hard to understand what they did love, exactly, and this gave me an anxious shiver that would later seem like a warning about what would happen to the teaching of literature over the decade or so after I dropped out of my Ph.D. program. That was when literary acedemia split into warring camps of deconstructionists, Marxists, feminists, and so forth, all battling for the right to tell students that they were reading "texts" in which ideas and olitics trumped what the writer had actually written."

Then, later, "You can assum that if a writer's work has survived for centuries, there are reasons why this is so, explanations that have nothing to do with a conspiracy of academics plotting to resusicate a zombie army of dead white males."

This is very close to my own experience and outlook. (Though I did not go to graduate school - I left college to swim in the deep waters of experience.) My fellow readers, there is a reason some books are considered classics and others have been allowed to die a natural death in the waters of time. The classics are worth a look because they will outlive us.

The other day I found Harold Bloom's 'The Western Canon' on the shelf at a thrift shop for $3. I bought it, of course, and was glad to get it at that price. But how did it come to be there? Are readers so little interested in the classics that a monumental book such as this is simply one more thing to throw into the bag destined for the thrift shop? I shudder to think.

I'll pick this up again next week with Tom Wolfe's 'Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast' and more.

See you then, Jim

Friday, July 24, 2009

THE IDIOT AS SAVIOR

ALL THINGS LITERARY

It is commonly accepted that Prince Myshkin, the main character in Dostoevsky's 'The Idiot' is a savior figure or, more to the point, Christ. While Myshkin does fit the bill in several ways, he seems to fall short in one very important way.

The Savior is a motif that runs throughout literary history, from Prometheus to Jesus and into modern times. Prometheus suffered in order to bring fire and light (and presumably enlightenment) into the world. Jesus suffered and died to save humanity from its sins.

'The Idiot' is a very modern novel, especially considering it was written well before the twentieth century advent of 'modernism' as a literary style. Its hero is an outsider. He spent four years undergoing treatment for a malady in Switzerland, and returned almost a complete stranger to his home - Russia. Great pains are taken in the novel to give him a 'ministry' among children - telling them stories - and caring for the sick Marie (or Mary, as in Mary Magdalene). In great detail the novel reveals what it must have been like for Myshkin's 'friend' to have been given a death sentence and then to have had it commuted at the last moment. Dostoyevsky himself had been sentenced to death and placed before a firing squad before it was called off. And of course Christ did face a sentence of death and was killed by crucifixion and was resurrected three days later.

The point of this novel is that a person who is innocent and genuine has no place in the real world, and is better off in an asylum (or dead). As Myshkin goes through his day he bumps into any number of people, all of whom are impacted by his innocence and who then find themselves in a different place in their lives. The trouble with this is that his innocence seems to operate from the outside in. Because they meet him, their lives are changed. Indeed, that seems to be the message of modern Christianity for the most part: Christ lived and died for us, so we should worship him. But the life of Jesus as the Christ ran counter to the accepted practices of religion of his day, and one suspects he would find the same thing today. The true power of Christ comes from the inside out. An encounter with Christ is an encounter with one's true self, and that self is then transcended. Only then will that person's life change in any real way.

By remaining an 'outsider', Dostoyevsky's character lacks the power of the real Christ. His impact on the lives of others seems quite coincidental and they react more like a body that has been impacted from without. The real Christ penetrated to the heart and soul of people, and their lives were changed forever.

Kazantzakis wrote of the duel nature of humanity - the body and the soul - and the war that exists between the two. Myshkin falls short as a Savior, but that does not prevent us from attempting to portray the savior in our writings. All of us, if we are genuinely willing to search ourselves, have experienced the conflict that exists between our earthly, fleshly, material selves, and the Spirit that dwells within us.

Next Week: The Movement Back to Realism.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

THE TROUBLE WITH BLOGS

A blog about the problem with blogs. Sounds oxymoronic. But I wanted to take a moment to clarify what I'm up to here. (And it has taken me several months to figure it out). For a creative writer a blog can be a problem in several ways. First, it can take up all your time. A writer writes. That is the maxim. So if a writer is spending all his/her time blogging, they aren't going to get much real writing done.

Second, writing a blog requires a somewhat different set of skills for the craft of writing. A blog is usually fairly short. So if you have to shift gears to write a blog and it trips up the flow of your longer work you can see how that might be a problem.

Third, a blog can become a kind of catch-all for poor writing. The standard does not need to be as high (one thinks), as 'real' writing, so you can kind of slouch into it and who will care? It can become a place to catch all the ash and trash. Well, that's a problem because writing is sacred, and to treat it as anything less is probably going to be a bad thing.

I have read many blogs that scream "I am creative!" when in fact all they are is a place for the writer to dump any old thing that comes into his/her head. What I'm having for breakfast and how my day is going may be of great interest to some, but I doubt it.

So, having said all that, I'm changing the format of my blog a bit. (Although I never did write about what I was having for breakfast - peanut butter and jelly toast today - jelly from our daughter, delicious). What I am going to do is to establish a kind of weekly column that will come out on Friday or Saturday morning (except in the case of emergencies). That way I will have all week to give you, the reader, my best. In it, as my sub heading above indicates, will be 'All Things Literary'. Whatever I have encountered this week past that is of interest in the world of literature. This might include publishing, promoting, classic works of literature, or anything else that has caught my eye. I promise I will try to put it into some context, and I hope it will be more interesting than anything else you have read this week.

So, having said that, I may post a thing or two during the week if I go off on a jag or have something to rant about, so I hope you'll forgive me that. But generally it will be the end of the week when my 'column' will come out. That way you can open it up like your weekly newspaper on Saturday or Sunday and enjoy all the great things that will flow from my pen.

At least, that's the intention. Thanks for reading and, by the way, if you enjoy it, I'll bet some of your friends will as well. Why not let them know about 'All Things Literary'?

Jim

Saturday, July 18, 2009

CHANCE ENCOUNTERS WITH AN IDIOT

A chance encounter on the Warsaw-Petersburg train. Sounds like something from an Alfred Hitchcock thriller. It is true that chance encounters do occur in life, though they can be darned tricky in literature. The author wants the reader to suspend real life and enter the parallel universe of fiction. To do this, anything from the real world that slips in can trigger the reader's recognition that this fiction - this novel - is an artifice. But Dostoyevsky can and does get away with the chance meeting between Lev Nikolayevitch Myshkin and Parfyon Rogozhin. In fact that moment of chance become the fateful interaction of multiple destinies which forms the basis of one of his great novels - 'The Idiot'.

Dostoyevsky (born 1821, in Moscow), had an interesting brush with fate himself when, as a young man of twenty-seven years he was arrested and convicted of being a member of a subversive socialist group. He was condemned to death and actually faced a mock firing squad before his sentence was commuted and he was sent instead to a prison in Siberia. His own life was one filled with suffering and pain, so it is not surprising that such themes find their way into his work. 'Notes from Underground' (1864); 'Crime and Punishment'; 'The Idiot'; 'The Possessed', and 'The Brothers Karamazov' are his most influential works.

In Myshkin he created a character that not only reflects 19th century Russia in all its aspects, but he become the center of that time. The other characters move around this goodly prince like the arms of a spiral constellation. 'The Idiot' becomes not so much a tragedy as a huge slice of life that reveals the human condition.

"Had they known about one another and why they were both at that moment remarkable, they would certainly have marveled that chance had so strangely put them opposite each other in the third-class car..." (Quotations are taken from the Henry and Olga Carlisle translation of 1969). That's the key to everything in life: Had we only known! It is what drives people into the newspaper horoscopes or to seek a glimpse of what is yet to come from fortune-tellers of every stripe. If we but knew, we could have done things differently. We would have done! But we don't know. At least, not in specific terms.

What we do know, as readers, as authors, and as those who must live our lives as best we can, is that characters 'is' everything. Who we are and what we stand for shapes our future, no matter what events we have yet to face. For that reason, Character in fiction is more important than any other element. It is more important than plot, style, dialogue, or what have you. By subjecting a character to action, the true person is revealed. The dialogue, the conflict, the style and everything else is intended to reveal the character, and so find themselves in a lesser position. Works that are plot-driven are destined to be forgotten. The plot of history eventually eclipses them.

More soon,

Jim

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Promote Your Work - Start Today

This may seem like an odd follow-up to my blog about commercialism in art, but word must get out about you and your work if you are ever going to find a following. And who is going to do that if you don't? Unfortunately, the days of the publishing houses taking a chance on an unknown author/poet are over. Big money is spent promoting books that don't need it - the ones that will be a commercial success no matter what - while almost none is spent on the small or choice book.

My daughter and I were talking about this very thing the other night. She is a poet. How is she to promote her work without simply giving it away? Indeed, what are any of us to do? We must have something to promote before we can promote it. And how do we promote without just giving everything away? The key is relationship building.

A while ago I was thinking that I wished someone would simply lay out what would work in the matter of promoting our work. I spent a lot of time gleaning book marketing sites and finally came up with some methods that take time but, to meet my specification, don't cost very much. Right here on the internet is the key.

1. Start a blog. Here is the place you can talk about your work, add a few sample chapters, or a poem or two, to get people interested in what you do. Why talk about what you had for breakfast (some experts recommend simply talking about your day), when you can talk about what is most important to you and probably to your potential readers - your work. Why do you do what you do? How do you do it? What inspires you? Who are some of your mentors in writing or poetry? What were their lives all about. I think you get the idea. Keep it interesting, and have fun while you're at it. Your blog is at the center of your promoting universe. It doesn't cost you anything and I actually prefer this over maintaining a web site, though it wouldn't hurt to have both.

2. Start MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter pages. From there you can set up your profile, and begin adding friends. Seek friends in groups that are along the lines of what you do. Poetry groups, writing groups, reading groups, all will have people who are interested in what you are saying. Add them as friends. No, you are not spamming. You are inviting them to be your friend based upon your common interests. I'm not as sold on Twitter as some people are, but you can go onto Twitter search sites and find topics that are along your line - reading, writing, literary agents, and so on. Keep in mind that the reason for all of this activity is to get people to read your blog and to pass the word along to their friends. Don't be afraid to ask for that referral. (I'm asking right now - please let all your friends know about my blog site).

3. Join other related groups: Author's Den. Poetry magazines or small press journals. Search the web for these sites and join them. Get a listing and then let it lie. (Too much internet time can be a drag on your real work. Don't let it consume you.)

4. Get the Word out. Send out free press releases. Post bulletins on your social network sites. Let people know that you are blogging and why it might be important for them to read what you have to say. I post a bulletin every time I create a new blog post.

5. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. This isn't going to happen overnight but as you build a group of friends and fellow writers/poets who will be your friends and read your blog posts, you are building a following of people who will, one day when the time is right, want to read your new book that was just published. All of this has cost you nothing but time.

6. Submit some of your work as articles or short stories or poems to magazines or e-zines or other online sites. This will get the word out far and wide.

7. Spend a little money on postage to find a good literary agent once you have written the best book you know how. Don't get discouraged. This is still pretty cheap promotion and if you can catch the interest of a good agent, you may be on your way.

8. Expand your efforts. Be always on the lookout for another place to promote your work. Start a second blog and a third to talk about your upcoming books. You can start this early, while still in the planning process. It is never too soon to start promoting your next book, and the one after that. Start a fan group. Post a Squidoo lens. Come on, you probably already know other ways of promoting your work that I haven't even thought of. (If so, please let me know). I spend about an hour every day promoting my work. That leaves plenty of time to keep creating.

Hope this has been helpful. I'm no marketing expert, but this is the strategy I'm using, and I'm loving having all these new friends to correspond with. (Answer all your e-mails and comments. You can ignore the requests to play online games or to add other applications, but answer your mail. Your friends want to know you are a real person.

Yours, Jim