Category Archives: writing

Are writers afraid of the dark?

In a new blog at NYRB, Tim Parks questions the notion that literature is about the stuff of life and instead might be a kind of withdrawal from the complexity and fearfulness of life itself:

So much, then, for a fairly common theme in literature. It’s understandable that those sitting comfortably at a dull desk to imagine life at its most intense might be conflicted over questions of courage and fear. It’s also more than likely that this divided state of mind is shared by a certain kind of reader, who, while taking a little time out from life’s turmoil, nevertheless likes to feel that he or she is reading courageous books.

The result is a rhetoric that tends to flatter literature, with everybody over eager to insist on its liveliness and import. “The novel is the one bright book of life,” D H Lawrence tells us. “Books are not life,” he immediately goes on to regret. “They are only tremulations on the ether. But the novel as a tremulation can make the whole man alive tremble.” Lawrence, it’s worth remembering, grew up in the shadow of violent parental struggles and would always pride himself on his readiness for a fight, regretting in one letter that he was too ill “to slap Frieda [his wife] in the eye, in the proper marital fashion,” but “reduced to vituperation.” Frieda, it has to be said, gave as good as she got. In any event words just weren’t as satisfying as blows, though Lawrence did everything he could to make his writing feel like a fight: “whoever reads me will be in the thick of the scrimmage,” he insisted.

In How Fiction Works James Wood tells us that the purpose of fiction is “to put life on the page” and insists that “readers go to fiction for life.” Again there appears to be an anxiety that the business of literature might be more to do with withdrawal; in any event one can’t help thinking that someone in search of life would more likely be flirting, traveling or partying. How often on a Saturday evening would the call to life lift my head from my books and have me hurrying out into the street.

(via Instapaper)

I was reminded in reading this of a graduate seminar with Franco Moretti wherein he said, almost as an aside, that we have an illusion that literature is complex and difficult, but that in fact, literature simplifies the complexity and randomness of life as it is.  In some sense literature is a coping mechanism.  I don’t remember a great deal more than that about the seminar–other than the fact that Moretti wasn’t too impressed with my paper on T.S. Eliot–but I do remember that aside.  It struck me as at once utterly convincing and yet disturbing, unsettling the notion that we in literature were dealing with the deepest and most complicated things in life.

On the other hand, I’m reminded of the old saw, literature may not be life, but, then, what is?  Parks seems to strike a little bit of a graduate studenty tone here in presenting the obvious as an earthshaking discovery, without really advancing our understanding of what literature might actually be and do.  Parks seems to take delight in skewering without revealing or advancing understanding.  There’s a tendency to set up straw men to light afire, and then strike the smug and knowing revelatory critical pose, when what one has revealed is more an invention of one’s own rhetoric than something that might be worth thinking about.

This desire to convince oneself that writing is at least as alive as life itself, was recently reflected by a New York Times report on brain-scan research that claims that as we read about action in novels the relative areas of the brain—those that respond to sound, smell, texture, movement, etc.—are activated by the words. “The brain, it seems,” enthuses the journalist, “does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.”

What nonsense! As if reading about sex or violence in any way prepared us for the experience of its intensity. (In this regard I recall my adolescent daughter’s recent terror on seeing our border collie go into violent death throes after having eaten some poison in the countryside. As the dog foamed at the mouth and twitched, Lucy was shivering, weeping, appalled. But day after day she reads gothic tales and watches horror movies with a half smile on her lips.)

I’m tempted to say “What nonsense!”  Parks’s willingness to use his daughter to dismiss a scientific finding strikes me a bit like the homeschool student I once had who cited her father as an authority who disproved evolution.  Well.  The reference to the twitching dog invokes emotion that in fact runs away–in a failure of critical nerve perhaps?–from the difficult question of how exactly the brain processes and models fictional information, how that information relates to similar real world situations in which people find themselves, and how people might use and interrelate both fictional and “real world” information.

Parks seems to have no consciousness whatsoever of the role of storytelling in modeling possibility, one of its most complex ethical and psychological effects.  It’s a very long-standing and accepted understanding that one reason we tell any stories at all is to provide models for living.  Because a model is a model, we need not assume it lacks courage or is somehow a cheat on the real stuff of life.  Horror stories and fairy tales help children learn to deal with fear, impart warning and knowledge and cultural prohibitions to children, and attempt to teach them in advance how to respond to threat, to fear, to violence, etcetera.  Because those lessons are always inadequate to the moment itself hardly speaks against the need to have such mental models and maps.  It would be better to ask what we would do without them.  The writer who provides such models need not be skewered for that since to write well and convincingly, to provide a model that serves that kind of ethical or psychic purpose, the writer him or herself must get close to those feelings of terror and disintegration themselves.  It’s why there’s always been a tradition of writers like Hemingway or Sebastian Junger who go to war in order to get into that place within themselves where the emotions of the real can be touched.  It’s also why there’s always been a tradition of writers self-medicating with alcohol.

Thus, I kind of found Parks’s implied assumption that writers are cowering just a bit from the real stuff of life to be a cheap shot, something that in the cultural stories we tell each other is usually associated with cowardice and weakness, in a writer or a fighter.  The novelists and poets Parks takes on deserve better.

Writers whom we should only take as seriously as they took themselves

Yesterday in my comments on Carmen McCain’s post, I quoted Susan Sontag in all seriousness.  I might have thought better of doing so if I had bothered first to take in this image:

Susan Sontag Thinking Deep Thoughts

This from a collection of photos at Flavorwire of writers in various stage of un-work.  Mostly these folks do not look inebriated, but with Hunter S. Thompson, Papa Hemingway, and Kurt Vonnegut in the mix, I would remain none to sure. It is comforting to know that writers are people too, just like you and me.  Though I will say that unlike Hunter S. Thompson, I have never driven down the Vegas strip with a naked blow up doll sitting in my lap.  No doubt it is this kind of self-repression that is keeping me from being the writer I was meant to be.

Side Note:  A personal favorite is of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo working in the bathtub.  Which leads to a writerly twist on the drunken parlor game question:  Most unusual place you’ve ever done it?  Your writing, I mean?

Carmen McCain on the Politics of the Happy African Story

Messiah College had commencement today and it is always wonderful to see so many talented young people beginning their own journey in the world, making it, I am very sure, a better place than it would be without them.  I was glad in that context to get the latest blog from Carmen McCain, and to be directed to her latest article on African literature and culture at The Weekly Trust.  Carmen has a really strong meditation on the difficulties of writing about suffering in Africa, when suffering has been taken by so many in the West as being the only representative sign of African experience.

However, I admit that as I read Evaristo’s comments, I felt a tension between her impatient charge to “move on” past representations of suffering, and the context of currently living in northern Nigeria, where people leave their homes daily knowing that they could be blown up or shot at by unknown gunmen. Only two weeks ago in Kano, an attack on churches that met on Bayero University’s old campus killed dozens of university students and professors, the very cosmopolitan middle class often celebrated by writers abroad, and more bombs were found planted around campus. Suffering is not limited to bombs, as I was reminded when recently attending a church in Jos. Pointing to a dramatic decrease in tithes and offerings as evidence of hard times, an elder sought prayer for those who lost their livelihoods in the Plateau State’s demolition campaign of “illegal structures” and would lose more in the recently-announced motorcycle ban.

Kaduna-based writer Elnathan John wrote in a conversation with other African writers on Facebook (quoted by permission), “When I am told to tell a happy African story, I ask, why? Where I live, EVERYTHING is driven by fear of conflict, bomb blasts, and daylight assassinations unreported by the media. Every kilometer of road has a checkpoint like those in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Now, I am a writer writing my realities. […]Our problems in Africa will not disappear when we stop writing about them.”

via The Caine Prize, the Tragic Continent, and the Politics of the Happy African Story.

I’m reminded in this exchange of the tensions that surrounded and still surrounds the literature of African Americans.  During the Harlem Renaissance, the period that I’ve focused on the most in my scholarly work, there were profound debates between those who felt it was the responsibility of artists to present positive and uplifting stories of AFrican American experience and those who wanted to represent the lives of average African Americans that were not always that uplifting.  This was partially the nub of the debate between Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston, Hurston proclaiming that she was not tragically colored and Wright accusing Hurston or more or less writing minstrel shows for white people.

It would be presumptuous of me to try to define what an appropriate answer to this dilemma is.  I’m not sure the representation of suffering necessarily provokes people to change.  I think it was Susan Sontag who argued that the representation of suffering in war photography inured our sensibilities to that suffering and made us more likely to ignore the war that was going on.  Nor am I sure that presenting positive and happy tales of uplift wins friends and influences countrymen.  It may do as much to invite boredom.  Carmen’s own response is as follows, focusing on truth-telling of whatever kind, and on the ways that literature, even and perhaps especially the literature of suffering, can give people equipment for living, can model for people ways to live their lives:

So, by all means let us, as Evaristo appeals, have new genres, new styles, that are “as  diverse as, for example, European literature and its myriad manifestations” Let us have “thousands of disparate, published writers, with careers at every level and reaching every kind of reader.” But let us also be true, let us be relevant. And let us not, in pursuit of a global recognition, erase the voices of ordinary people, who so often bear up under immense suffering with grace and humour. For it is these stories of survival that give us the most direction in how to navigate an increasingly terrifying world.

Eloquent

(For any interested, Carmen blogs at A Tunanina)

Book futures, or, apocalypse now.

I led a discussion in the Adult Forum down at St. Stephens last Sunday in which I suggested that apocalyptic literature falls in to basically two types: apocalyptic nihilism and apocalyptic redemption, the one seeing an end to everything the other seeing destruction as the necessary precursor to renewal. Theres an awful lot of apocalypticism out there about the book these days, a good bit of it just assuming the book is going to hell in a handbasket.

I mentioned in my post earlier today that prognosticating the future of the book seems to be a growth industry. Indeed, we devoted an entire symposium to it here at Messiah College. Besides the recent articles I mentioned earlier from my colleague Jonathan Lauer, and another by Jason Epstein, I ran across this from John Thompson at Huffington Post. A lot of it was the usual and obvious grist for the blogging mill, but I was intrigued by his final point, that the death of our current models for book production and dissemination may well lead to a flourishing of smaller independent publishing concerns

Seventh, small publishing operations and innovative start-ups will proliferate, as the costs and complexities associated with the book supply chain diminish, and threats of disintermediation will abound, as both traditional and new players avail themselves of new technologies and the opportunities opened up by them to try to eat the lunch of their erstwhile collaborators.

This strikes me as a plausible idea, and an exciting one. Although Anthony Grafton lamented the loss of the demanding professional editor, I think there’s an awful lot of talented creative people out there who could bring new energy and innovation to the world of ebooks and print books alike. We might be able to look back at this time fifty years from now and see this moment as one that heralded a new beginning for the book rather than its demise. If that’s not just so much rose colored glasses.

Digitization and the fulfillment of the book

My colleague in the library here at Messiah College, Jonathan Lauer, has a very nice essay in the most recent Digital Campus edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Jonathan makes an eloquent defense of the traditional book over and against the googlization and ebookification of everything.   He especially employs an extended metaphor drawn from the transition to aluminum bats in various levels of baseball to discuss his unease and reservations about the shifts to electronic books and away from print that is profoundly and rapidly changing the nature of libraries as we’ve known them.  The essay is more evocative than argumentative, so there’s a lot of different things going on, but a couple of Jonathan’s main points are that enhancements we supposedly achieve with digitization projects come at a cost to our understanding of texts and at a cost to ourselves.

In the big leagues, wooden bats still matter. Keeping print materials on campus and accessible remains important for other reasons as well. Witness Andrew M. Stauffer’s recent Chroniclearticle, “The Troubled Future of the 19th-Century Book.” Stauffer, the director of the Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-Century Electronic Scholarship, cites several examples of what we all know intuitively. “The books on the shelves carry plenty of information lost in the process of digitization, no matter how lovingly a particular copy is rendered on the screen,” he writes. “There are vitally significant variations in the stacks: editions, printings, issues, bindings, illustrations, paper type, size, marginalia, advertisements, and other customizations in apparently identical copies.” Without these details, discernible only in physical copies, we are unable to understand a book’s total impact. Are we so easily seduced by the aluminum bat that we toss all wooden ones from the bat bag?

Let’s also acknowledge that our gadgets eventually program us. History teaches us that technologies often numb the very human capacities they amplify; in its most advanced forms, this is tantamount to auto-amputation. As weavers lost manual dexterity with their use of increasingly mechanized looms during the Industrial Revolution, so we can only imagine what effect GPS will have on the innate and learned ability of New York City cabbies to find their way around the five boroughs. Yet we practice auto-amputation at our own peril. We dare not abandon wooden bats for aluminum for those endeavors that demand prolonged attention, reflection, and the analysis and synthesis that sometimes lead to wisdom, the best result of those decidedly human endeavors that no gadget can exercise.

I have a lot of sympathy for Jonathan’s position, things like the revamping of the New York Public Library leaving me with a queasy hole in my stomach.  I’ve had a running conversation with Beth Transue, another of our librarians, about our desire to start leading alumni tours of the world’s great libraries, but if we’re going to do so we better get it done fast because most of them won’t be around anymore in a few more years, at least if the NYPL and its budgetary woes are anything to judge by.

At the same time, I think Jonathan overstates his case here.  I don’t think serious thinkers are assuming we’ll get rid of books entirely.  Although I currently think we are already living in what I’ve called an E-plus world, print will continue to be with us serving many different purposes. Jason Epstein over at the NYRB has a blog on this fact and progrognosticating the likely future and uses of the traditional book seems to be a growth industry at the moment. I don’t think the average student is too terribly interested in the material textuality that Jonathan references above, nor for that matter is the average scholar, the vast majority of whom remain interested in what people wrote not how the publishers chose to package it.  But those issues will continue to be extremely important for cultural and social historians, and there will be some forms of work that will only possibly be done with books.  Just as it is a tremendous boon to have Joyce’s manuscript’s digitized, making them available for the general reader and the scholar who cannot afford a trip to Ireland, authoritative interpretations of Joyce’s method, biography, and life’s work will still have to make the trip to Ireland to see the thing for themselves, to capture what can’t be captured by a high resolution camera.

That having been said, who would say that students studying Joyce should avoid examining the digitized manuscripts closely because they aren’t “the genuine article.”  Indeed, I strongly suspect that even the authoritative interpretations of those manuscripts will increasingly be a commerce between examination of the physical object and close examination of digitized objects since advanced DH work shows us time and time again that computerized forms of analysis can get at things the naked eye could never see.  So the fact that there are badly digitized copies of things in google books and beyond, shouldn’t belie the fact that there are some massively important scholarly opportunities here.

Jonathan’s second point is about the deeply human and quasi-spiritual aspects of engagement with traditional books that so many of us have felt over the years.  There’s something very true about this. It is also true that our technologies can result in forms of self amputation.  Indeed, if we are to take it to heart we need to admit that the technology of writing and reading itself is something that involves self-amputation.  Studies have shown that heavy readers alter their brains, and not always in a good sense.  We diminish the capacity of certain forms of memory, literally making ourselves absent minded professors.   Other studies have suggested that persons in oral cultures have this capacity in heightened form, and  some people argue that this generation is far more visually acute than those that preceded it, developing new abilities because of their engagement with visual texts.  So, indeed, our technologies alter us, and even result in self-amputation, but that is true of the traditional book as well as the internet.  This second is Jonathan’s larger claim since it seems to claim for traditional books as such a superiority in terms of something central to humanity as such. I am intrigued, with this argument that the book is superior for serious reflection and the quasi spiritual aspects of study that we have come to treat as central to the humanities.

I admit, I don’t buy it.

First, I admit that I’m just wary about attributing essential human superiorities to historical artifact and practices.  Homer as a collection of aural songs is not inherently inferior to the scrolls within which they were originally collected, then finding their apotheosis in the book form.  We have come to think of the book as exhibiting and symbolizing superior forms of humanity, but it’s not clear that book form was triumphant in the west because of these attributes.  Indeed, traditional Jews and others clearly think the scroll remains the superior spiritual form even to this day.  Rather, the codex triumphed for a variety of complicated reasons.  Partly Christian Churches for ideological reasons apparently wanted to distinguish their own writings from the writings of the Jews.  There may have been some more substantive reasons as well, though that’s not entirely clear: Anthony Grafton points out that many of the Christian innovations with the codex seemed to focus on the desire to compare different kinds of texts side by side (an innovation, I will point out, for which the internet is in many ways easily superior).  The codex also triumphed not because it was spiritually and intellectually superior but because it was, frankly, more efficient, cheaper, and easier to disseminate than its scrolly ancestors.  One good example is from the poet Martial who explicitly ties the selling of his poetry in codex form to making them easily and efficiently accessible to the common person:  “Assign your book-boxes to the great, this copy of me one hand can grasp.”

The entire trend of book history has been toward this effort to make texts and what they contain more readily and easily available to more and more people.  From the early clay tablets to the mass market paperback that let you carry Plato in your hip pocket, the thrust of the book has been toward broader and broader dissemination, toward greater and greater ease of use, toward cheaper and cheaper accessibility.  The goal of writing, even when that writing was imprisoned in libraries that only the initiated could enter as in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, has been open access.

The digitization that is occurring now comes to fulfill the book, not destroy it.

Secondarily, I guess I no longer believe fully in the spiritual or intellectual superiority of codex forms simply since it doesn’t comport with my experience.  As I do more and more of my reading of books with my various e-readers, I find that I have serious, contemplative, analytical, and synthetic engagements with all kinds of texts, from those hundreds of “pages” long and those not.  As I get used to the tools of various e-readers, theres almost nothing that can’t be accomplished in some way on an e-reader that is accomplished in traditional books.  Although I interact with texts differently now in a spatial sense, I am able to take fuller and more copious notes, I am able to mark texts more easily,  and if I can’t quite remember where something was in the book I can use a search engine to find not only a specific phrase or topic, but every single instance of that topic in the book.  Moreover, because every text represents an act of contemplation on and conversation with other texts, I can at the touch of a screen go and read for myself the interlocutors embedded within a book, just as those interested in Jonathan’s essay can touch my link above and decide for themselves whether I am reading him fairly.  Thus there are very obviously and seriously some ways in which e-readers are superior for serious analytical and interpretive readings of texts, or at least the equal to them.

All this having been said, I will say that there remains one way that I find the traditional paper book the clear superior to the e-book, and that has to do with my ability to make it mine.

I spoke a couple of days ago about the personal connection I felt to Kierkegaard in rereading him and discovering my many years of underlines, highlights and marginalia.  I even confess that I real Kimi Cunningham Grant’s new memoir on my iPad, but I still bought a hard cover at the reading–not because I thought I would be able to analyze it more effectively in hard cover, but because I wanted her to sign it for me.

This is a personal connection to the book that isn’t unimportant, but that is about my personal biography, and Kimi’s.  It’s not about the text, and frankly I doubt it will in the long run even be about literary history.  Some literary archivist somewhere is collecting all the shared comments on the Kindle version of Kimi’s book, and that massive marginalia will be fodder for some graduate student’s dissertation in a few decades.

I pity the poor graduate student who decides on such a project. But at least she won’t have to strain her eyes to decipher the handwriting.

Memories of Maurice: The Great Outpouring

The world is awash in memories of Maurice Sendak, and I’m so pleased that my colleague here at Messiah College, Anita Voelker, has a new editorial on her views of Sendak that just came out on the Fox News web site.  Anita is a wonderful teacher and a specialist in children’s lit. An excerpt from her article:

It is that time spent with you becoming one with the book that has me mourning Maurice Sendak. He was the miracle maker who could turn you into savvy kings or horrible ogres and still bring you back in time for a hot supper. 

Truth be known, Maurice Sendak allowed me to tame my unseen Wild Things. 

Sendak would have appreciated knowing he fed my grown-up spirit along side yours. He resented when his books were pigeon-holed for only children. 

So, today I call upon you and your now grown-up friends from childhood to honor Sendak by grabbing a copy of “Where the Wild Things Are” and reading it out loud. 

 Read more: http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2012/05/08/remembering-maurice-sendak-and-wild-things/#ixzz1uKEej1hQ

I’ve hesitated to add my own thought about Sendak’s passing to what seems like it could only be called The Great Outpouring, but I’ve been really touched and amazed at the broad and cross generational appreciation that Sendak’s death  is generating.  Everyone from my 17 year old son to my 30 year old former students to my fifty and sixty year old colleagues felt a little sad today, and a lot happy at having lived in a world in which Maurice Sendak lived.

My personal memory of Sendak will always be of the public library in Durham North Carolina.  I was an impoverished grad student with a wife and a two year old daughter.  Having next to nothing, we got our entertainment at free festivals in the park, tours of the art museum at Duke, and books and records checked out from the library downtown.  For a good long time we didn’t have a TV and claimed to not want one as a way of staving off having to admit the fact that we couldn’t have afforded one if we had wanted it.  Maurice Sendak was was a favorite of my daughter Devon, and week after week we would check out Sendak.  The Night Kitchen was a special favorite.  We were not really all that aware Night Kitchen was and still is on one of the most banned book lists.  I will say my mother was appalled that we read our daughter a book that allowed her to giggle and point repeatedly at a little boys genital.  Ah Well.  I’m sure we’ve done worse things to her in our parental lives than that.

Sometimes still, 20 years later, in fits of want and desire I will cry out Milk! Milk! Milk for the morning cake.  And I will remember Durham.  And Maurice Sendak. And smile.

Kimi Cunningham Grant on Japanese American Experience

Last month I had the chance to hear Messiah alum, Kimi Cunningham Grant, read from her work and talk at The Midtown Scholar Bookstore with poet Julia Spicher Kasdorf about her new book, Silver like Dust. The conversation was wide-ranging touching on the elements of the writing process, on issues associated with Japanese American history and experience, and on Kimi’s own grappling with her identity as a bi-racial writer whose connections to her Japanese American heritage have grown over the years interviewing her grandmother and writing the book. I still have a blog vaguely planned related to Kimi’s book; I think there’s some really interesting things in there about books and reading. But for now I’m just happy to share this podcast recorded by the folks down at the Midtown. Catherine Lawrence and Eric Papenfuse do a tremendous amount for our community and for the world of books and writing generally. I’m glad we’ve got this record of a good event

.Kimi Cunningham Grant at the Midtown with Julia Spicher Kasdorf