Tag Archives: fiction

Reading Readers: Notes on Alberto Manguel–I

I’ve been reading Alberto Manguel‘s A Reader on Reading.  Some random thoughts:

A Reader On Reading Alberto manguel

x—“Over the years, my experience, my tastes, my prejudices have changed:  as the days go by, my memory keeps reshelving, cataloguing, discarding the volumes in my library;  my words and my world—except for a few constant landmarks—are never one and the same.  Heraclitus’s bon mot about time applies equally well to my reading:  “you never dip into the same book twice.””

–In my own experience, a central experience, if not THE central experience through which my tastes, prejudices and memories have changed has been the experience of reading itself.  That is, books, are not infinitely malleable pieces of dough to be made in to what the reader wants them to be at a whim—what seems to be Roland Barthes notion in The Death of the Author. On the other hand, neither do books show the same and constant aspect regardless of time and circumstance.   Rather books are agents of change, shaping me in to something different than what I was before.  I do not say, as might seem logical, that books shape us into the readers they need.  This might follow from something like Iser’s notion of the Implied Reader or the Holland’s theory of the Ideal reader.  I don’t think books have that kind of agency or that authors have that kind of knowingness.  But some books are like mountains that must be scaled, others like fires that must be endured, others streams to be forded.  A book’s agency is found in the kind of action it demands of me, and it’s nature changes for me to the degree that I am changed by the action it affords.  I may by turns and by age turn from the mountain as too daunting, gasp and crawl halfway up its face before giving up in or scale it with the ease of an Olympian.  In every case I am experience the mountain as it is, as it shows its face to me.  It is not that the Olympian truly knows the mountain for what it is, because the climber who scales its height without a second breath cannot see what is there to seen by the man crawling in exhaustion, his breath in the dirt.

x—“I believe there is an ethic of reading, a responsibility in how we read, a commitment that is both political and private in the act of turning the pages and following the lines.  And I believe that sometimes, beyond the author’s intentions and beyond the reader’s hopes, a book can make us better and wiser.”

–I wonder, if it is beyond the author’s intentions and the reader’s hopes,  how is it that books make us wiser?  We cannot say, I think, that the words on the page have a power unto themselves apart from their human utterance and reception.  Manguel ridicules this notion as a form of magical thinking elsewhere in the book.  But what is it then, in the experience of books that makes us wiser?  I agree with the sentiment, but can’t define the agency of such making.  Indeed, it often seems to me that when writers—fiction writers at least—set out to impart wisdom they more often  impart tedium and irritation.  Fiction writers should not be oracles; those who try would be better off becoming essayists or preachers.  Nor am I particular taken by readers who approach books as if they contain wisdom, as if Melville or Faulkner or Morrison were a secondary scripture.  If there is wisdom, it does seem to me that the wisdom might come as an accidental gift of the act of reading itself, not in what is read or who is reading or who is being read.  But at this point I may merely be trying to be oracular.

Poor Folk Redux

In the last ten days I’ve read most of Dostoevsky written before his sojourn to the penal colony, and a little written in its immediate aftermath,  but just a couple of more words about Poor Folk.  I’m intrigued by two aspects of Dostoevsky’s work as an artist.  For a first novel it strikes me as being remarkably sophisticated in terms of it’s narrative technique.  His use of gaps and empty places where the reader has to fill in the blanks keeps the reader working.  In this sense it seems to me that reading Dostoevsky is a thoroughly active process, something quite different than the passivity that people sometimes attach to reading.  We’re constantly being given bits of information in the letters that imply a world of fact, of allusion to a life beyond the text (though, of course, that life is a fiction of the text) that the reader must construct and fill in in order to make sense of the text at hand,  the “narrative” then is a process between the reader and the text itself.  We understand the text both by reading what is there, and by filling in what isn’t there.  The reader’s active participation is necessary for making means.

I hope it’s not just a deconstructive turn of some sort on my part, but I’m struck by how Doestoevsky is obsessed with both reading and writing throughout this text.  To this degree it strikes a fairly common tone in first novels—we don’t know what else to write about, so let’s write about writing—Joyce’s kunstlerroman “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” being the exemplar here.  But I find it intriguing in Dostoevsky that this isn’t embedded in the life of a young man struggling to find a voice, but in the consciousness of a middle-aged and aging man who never found a voice, whose struggle with language will, by his own lights, has proven fruitless even while writing is his stock and trade as a kind of scrivener.

I know I that I can earn but little by my labors as a copyist;  yet even of that little I am proud, for it has entailed work, and has wrung sweat from my borw.  What harm is there in being a copyist?  “He is only an amanuensis,’ people say of me.  Bust what is there so disgraceful in that?  My writing is at least legible, neat, and pleasant to look upon – and his Excellency is satisfied withit.  Indeed, I trtanscribe many important documents.  At the same time, I know that my writing lacks style, which is why I have never risen in the service.  Even to you, my dear one, I write simply and without tricks, but just as a thought may happen to enter my head.  Yes, I know all this;  but if everyone were to become a fine writer, who would there be left to act as copyists?

Who indeed? I’ve commented somewhere else on this blog of the peculiar cultural imperialism of writing in our own day, but perhaps every day.  I increasingly get English majors who have no interest in reading, who even claim to dislike reading, but who are obsessed with writing.  Everyman his own author.  So much so I have no time left for reading Dostoevsky since one must keep busy updating one’s blog, twittering one’s feed, and textings one’s faves.

But this is beside my main point for the day, which is the fascination I find in Dostoevsky who turns in a first novel to Poor Folk as his subject, not because they have a superior or natural style—as Rousseau or Wordsworth or Whitman might suppose—but because they have no style at all.  His work doesn’t seem intent on disproving that claim.  At the end of this text, one isn’t led to declaim endlessly on the natural style of poor folk that Dostoevsky has managed to produce.

No.  What’s fascinating is that he has made interesting and plausible the story of two people who are not of their own accord self-consciously interesting or stylish.  I am not sure what lesson of the day to draw from this, but when I come away from Dostoevsky’s Poor Folk, I find that I respect them, but I do not admire them.  This is terribly politically correct these days, but it strikes me that it is pretty clear-minded.  I’m reminded, for some reason, of all those Christian artists who go about romanticizing the middle ages, and refuse to recognize that the life really was nasty brutish and short, even for most of the most exalted, and none of us would for one instance trade in our latte’s and air conditioning for smallpox, plague, and roast pig on a spit.

Well, I’m drifting now, but thought I should come back to this particular element of Poor Folk before moving on.

Finding ourselves, and others, in books

A nice piece from Colum McCann at the NYTimes on James Joyce and family memory.  I take it as a paean, of sorts, for the idea of literature as equipment for living.  An excerpt:

Vladimir Nabokov once said that the purpose of storytelling is “to portray ordinary objects as they will be reflected in the kindly mirrors of future times; to find in the objects around us the fragrant tenderness that only posterity will discern and appreciate in far-off times when every trifle of our plain everyday life will become exquisite and festive in its own right: the times when a man who might put on the most ordinary jacket of today will be dressed up for an elegant masquerade.”

This is the function of books — we learn how to live even if we weren’t there. Fiction gives us access to a very real history. Stories are the best democracy we have. We are allowed to become the other we never dreamed we could be.

This is, in some fashion, confused, but lovely nonetheless

Tales of the Toilet; or, W(h)ither Fiction?

A couple of days ago, The Los Angeles Times reported the following

MADISON, Wis. — Two children and their mother lived for about two months withToilet Art from Jacob Earl the decaying body of a 90-year-old woman on the toilet of their home’s only bathroom, on the advice of a religious “superior” who claimed the corpse would come back to life, authorities said Friday.

===========When Deputy Leigh Neville-Neil …. opened the last closed door, she smelled “decaying matter” and noticed something piled on what appeared to be a toilet. Lewis told her it was Middlesworth’s body, the complaint said.

Lewis told the deputy that Middlesworth had died about two months earlier, but that God told her Middlesworth would come to life if she prayed hard enough.

She said she couldn’t say anything more until she spoke with her “superior” — Bushey, 57, also known as Bishop John Peter Bushey

She said she propped Middlesworth on the toilet and left the room to call Bushey, who told her to leave the woman alone and pray for her, the complaint said. He said he had received signs that God would raise her from the dead with a miracle.

The story, wretched as it is, reminded me of another tale of the toilet from a couple of months ago in which a horribly obese woman was found to have been living on a toilet in Kansas for two years, having been fed and tended to by her boyfriend as she refused to leave the bathroom. According to EMT reports she had literally grown to the toilet seat, which had to be removed and transported with her to the emergency room.

It’s hard to know what is more astonishing to the imagination, a disturbed woman who could not bring herself to move as she felt her body melding with porcelain, or the boyfriend who brought her breakfast every morning as he pleaded with her to leave the bathroom. A kind of prayer, to be sure, though one less literal than those of the woman and her children in Wisconsin. One wonders what neural snyapse firing in the boyfriend’s brain finally signaled the end of faith, a loss of hope. Why two years instead of two months? Or why not three years instead of two? What finally says to the self, let’s make an end of it. In any case, a synapse firing that had not yet occurred in Wisconsin as a woman watched her mother decay into “something piled on what appeared to be a toilet.”

One gapes, shudders, cries, or gags. And, yes, one laughs. Hopelessly, hysterically, apologetically. When you are at the bottom of the human drain, what else is left to do but laugh at horrors that we come to.

I remember my own shuddering sense of horror and delight and sorrow at first reading “A Rose for Emily” and saw in my minds eye the decaying corpse in the bed, imagined Emily there in bed beside her imaginary lover. Or Miss Havisham, Emily’s literary avatar, in Dickens Great Expectations. Or the perverse grotesques in O’Connor’s fiction–especially Norton, the grieving boy who hangs himself in “The Lame Shall Enter First” in a twisted and in some sense literal leap of faith.

But one looks at this stuff published daily and has to say helplessly that Dickens and O’Connor and Faulkner have nothing on this. Stephen King could do no better in calling up the bizarre extremes of human existence. No wonder contemporary readers have little taste for fiction, and novelists feel compelled to present their fictions as spurious memoir. With a world as it already is beyond all imagining, what role for the writer who wants to imagine what is not.

Of course, I still hold out hope that one role of fiction is to redeem the time. Imagination isn’t just an effort to invoke the extreme, but to shape it, to tame it to a tale. I think most contemporary fiction has given up on that part of the task, perhaps disbelieving that the rotting something on a toilet stool that is our material can be wrestled into meaning. Itself a kind of collective loss of faith.

Other toilets in the news:

According to Reuters, “A woman in Germany put an end to her troubled marriage by chopping up her husband and flushing parts of him down the toilet, authorities said on Tuesday. ‘You won’t find him, I’ve flushed him down the toilet,’ is what she told (her children).” And Hitchcock thought he was imaginative by having a man bury his wife in a Garden?

The airline Jet Blue apparently required a man to sit in the toilet, discovering after takeoff–after takeoff!!–that the flight was ovebooked. The man is suing… because the toilet had no seatbelts and he was bounced around during turbulence. A man who clearly has his priorities in place

Officials in Montgomery Country Maryland have announced a plan to save money by rationing toilet paper for prison inmates. They are using the savings to requisition more body armor in anticipation of the ensuing riots.

Not to be outdone, a family in Manhattan is going without toilet paper for a year in order to be environmentally friendly. They are also going without friends. Not to be outdone, Will Smith proudly points to his new paperless toilets that clean and dry you. I’ve used a bidet, but I admit that the blow dry effect of Will Smith’s Japanese toilets seems just a bit much. Who knew that toilets would be the cutting edge of greenToilet instructions in Japan awareness.

We can also be glad that some enterprising young fellow has given us the following clever visual instructions for toilet usage. (Is it just me or do some of these look like positions from the Kama Sutra).

Aspiring MFA students take note, I see the makings a collection of short stories here. That they are all factual and more imaginative than anything you could dream up on your own should not stop you. There is still no law against writing the world as it is as if you came up with it on your own.

A final news note: Computer Keyboards can be dirtier than toilets.

On that note, I think I’ll go wash my hands. If I’m gone for two years, please come check on me.

Freedom and Submission; or, the reading fetishist

One very big advantage of wireless networks. I can sit here and do this blog while I simultaneously watch American Idol. Yes, I am only partially ashamed to admit that I watch American Idol with my family every week. Listening to Simon disrespect singers for their “monumental lack of personality” is my great guilty pleasure.

Probably goes along with my general sense that we are too tenderfooted in declaring that some things are better than other things.

Thus, one way the net has it all over reading books. I mean I couldn’t sit here and read my new edition of War and Peace while listening to several people sing off key while displaying their lack of personality. Multi-tasking rules. (Who am I kidding; I don’t have a new edition of War and Peace or even an old one. I have no time.)

But today’s blog has nothing to do with that.

Ben Vershbow over at if:book posted a very interesting piece reviewing Hypertextopia, a free web space for writers wanting to explore the possibilities of hypertext for fiction. Says Vershbow:

 

The site is gorgeously done, applying a fresh coat of Web 2.0 paint to the creaky concepts of classical hypertext. I find myself strangely conflicted, though, as I browse through it. Design-wise, it is a triumph, and really gets my wheels spinning w/r/t the possibilities of online writing systems….

 

 

Lovely as it all is though, it doesn’t convince me that hypertext is any more viable a literary form now, on the Web, than it was back in the heyday of Eastgate and Storyspace. Outside its inner circle of devotees, hypertext has always been more interesting in concept than in practice. A necessary thought experiment on narrative’s deconstruction in a post-book future, but not the sort of thing you’d want to read for pleasure.

 

 

But those are the days I wish we could put the net back in the box and forget it ever happened. I get a bit of that feeling with literary hypertext — insofar as it reifies the theoretical notion of the death of the author, it is not necessarily doing the reader any favors.

Hypertext’s main offense is that it is boring, in the same way that Choose Your Own Adventure stories are fundamentally boring. I know that I’m meant to feel liberated by my increased agency as reader, but instead I feel burdened. What are offered as choices — possible pathways though the maze — soon start to weigh like chores. It feels like a gimmick, a cheap trick, like it doesn’t really matter which way you go (that the prose tends to be poor doesn’t help). There’s a reason hypertext never found an audience.

 

Hurrah! And Again. Hurrah. Vershbow has the courage to say that the king has no clothes.

That is, it’s not hip and cool to say, well, frankly, that this is all just a bit dull. But really, it is. It really, really is.

And hypertext fictions are boring in a way that the surfing the internet in general really isn’t. And the way old fashioned books are not. Almost as if the “planned” surprise or randomness or multiplicity of hypertext fictions are more controlling and in some fashion disrespectful of readers than traditional narratives ever were. And less surprising than the almost true randomness of the text or internet.

 

[Intertext I: Simon Cowell has just determined that the latest singer is “completely forgettable.” She is, she really, really is. Just like almost every hypertext fiction ever written.]

[Intertext II: I have definitely decided that Paula Abdul is irredeemably vapid. Not, I hope, like this post]

 

Vershbow is right to tie this to a peculiar failure of concept in postmodern views of reading and writing. I have to say that I love reading Roland Barthes. But his understanding of reading in “Death of an Author” completely misses the point of what is most pleasurable and imaginatively enlarging about the reading experience. That is, our self loss, our self-forgetfulness.

 

I don’t deny the general idea that reading is or can be a creative act. But Barthes tendency to turn every reader into a writer, every reading in to a writing, misses that the great glory of reading is transcendence of the self through loss, transcendence through the dissolution of the ego’s boundary, transcendence through the very submission of the imagination that Barthese hopes to forestall.

 

As if he were empowering readers by putting them in control. Perhaps he forgets that, as I learned on CSI, the passive partner in an S&M team is always the one who’s really in control, despite appearances.

Finally, equating freedom and creativity with control is….boring. Anyone who has written knows that the most exciting times aren’t those moments when you’re exercising authority over the text, but those when you aren’t. When the words say things you didn’t know or mean.

Reading as control is boring for the same reason hypertext fictions are boring. By giving the reader a job we’re confined by the randomness of our own choices, rather than freed and liberated from ourselves by the prisonhouse of someone else’s language.

 

Masochism, you say! So be it.

Submit yourselves to the discipline of the text…and be free.

Unless the grain of seed shall die. And so forth.

Fetishists of the text unite!

 

[Intertext III: Simon thought the last singer was “completely predictable,” but thought Brooke White was great. Paula Abdul says that Brooke White’s song was “really here.” What does that mean? What in the name of all that is good and true does that mean?]

 

Previews: I’ve gotten a lot of good responses to things lately that I just haven’t been able to get to. What I really hope to get to soon, but in case I don’t, just treat it like a movie that failed its test screening.

Sam Miller, one of my readers (that sounds pretentious, but I’ll say it anyway)has a new essay out at Conversational Quarterley that looks pretty good, but I need to read it more closely before I say more.

My good friend Julia Kasdorf has been up to her usual good stuff with reading and writing up at Penn State.

I’ve also managed to get the folks at MyAccess royally po’d. I think they’ve marshalled their hit squad of professional MyAccess users.

Also passed my two month anniversary as a blogger 3500+ page hits. And some of them are not even from the students I am paying to click through my pages (heh! heh!) Have got to talk about the compulsive addiction to write that is occasioned by anonymous readers.

But all that is for the future. After American Idol is over.