Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Novel Yet Written

After New York's decision to legalize gay marriage last week, I put a call out here and on Twitter for some good novels about long-term gay relationships, something that really rolled around in the kind history, silences, bonds, and complications that arise in a multi-decade relationship (I was thinking then of something along the lines of Ford's The Good Solider or Salter's Light Years).

And while many excellent books were suggested, nothing really fit the bill. The three most recommended were Isherwood's A Single Man, Cheever's The Falconer, and Proulx's short-story, "Brokeback Mountain." Like I said, all exceedingly fine novels and would recommend them all.

But these are not books about domesticity, in fact they are quite the opposite. They are about loss, forced proximity, and separation respectively. What I am looking for is the chronicle of a life lived together, with all that entails. Perhaps such a book exists, but a few hundred lit nerds had a hard time naming it, which is telling in itself.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

"I just want to keep writing now"

In an interview with Jan Dalley in The Financial Times a couple of days ago, Philip Roth dropped a provocative detail:

“I’ve stopped reading fiction. I don’t read it at all. I read other things: history, biography. I don’t have the same interest in fiction that I once did.”

For the kinds of people interested in an interview with someone like Roth, this might seem sad, or even cynical. My first reaction was frustration: I've long read and admired Roth's work and this comment seemed a needless slap in the face to those who still glean sustenance from fiction.

After reading and thinking about the whole interview, though, I don't think it's quite that simple; this isn't a case of grumpsterism or capitulation. When Roth says he is more interested in "history and biography," he is telling us something about his own project at this late stage in his life, which is more about reflection and preservation than it is about exploration. 

The real shift it seems is not away from fiction but toward writing as a means of survival. Roth's greatest expressed desire is to just keep writing:

“My goal would be to find a big fat subject that would occupy me to the end of my life, and when I finish it I’ll die. What’s agony is starting, I hate starting them. I just want to keep writing now and end when it ends.” 

That he would rather look back on his life and times than read the work of others is not shocking nor is it an indictment. It is, quite simply and naturally, the sign of an artist who is nearing the end.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Writers into "Literary Entrepreneurs"

There's a lot to discuss in HTML GIANT's revealing, wide-ranging interview with The Huffington Post Books' resident hatchet-man, Anis Shivani. Most of it is blustery, some of it insightful, and all of it seems in service of keeping the lights on at the Shivani show.

There's not much I agree with, except for one small neologism that says something about the literary day in which we live. Rather than live with a binary in which critics are on one side and authors the other, Shivani suggests that today both fall into the category of "literary entrepreneur."

He doesn't build the point out (in fact it is a bit of a throwaway), but this particular phrase tells us something about the current position of the writer within publishing and a lot about why Shivani operates the way he does.

Thinking of people who make their living with words not as "authors" but as "literary entrepreneurs" makes today's requirements for earning a living by the pen plain. It once was that a writer was a basically an employee of a publisher, providing work on a spec basis in hopes of having the house pick it up, sell it, and return a percentage of the proceeds to the creator.

Recognizing that today's writer needs to be an entrepreneur (and all that implies) is a great service and coalesces some of the more pressing issues facing a would-be professional: social networking, personal branding, self-driven publicity, risk, independence, and a host of other digital-age commercial concerns.

The literary entrepreneur model strips away some of the romance of being called a "writer" and replaces it with pragmatism; writing a great book was never a guarantee of being successful, but today, at least, writers have considerably more agency in maximizing their post-publication returns.

There are downsides to this model, some of which Shivani himself demonstrates: ruthless self-promotion, very little critical generosity, attention-grubbing public discourse, and intellectual narcissism among them.

Still, the fact remains: if the message is useful, there's very little to be gained from arm-wrestling the messenger.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Best novel about a long term gay relationship?

Someone posed this question to me during a discussion of the New York Senate's recent vote to legalize gay marriage: what is the best representation of a long term gay relationship in literature?

I had to admit a stunning ignorance---nothing I could think of really fit. So, not only did my street cred as literary know-it-all take a ding, but now I want to read something along these lines.

Any ideas?

Friday, June 24, 2011

Friday Forum: Why Do We Care About Authors?

Note: I've been so pleased with Disqus and invigorated by the comments here at The Ape over the last few days that I'm trying out a new feature, Friday Forum. The idea is to pluck a story from the week in book news and think about it deeply and then discuss it. Let's see if it works. Cheers, TRA

Yesterday we had someone blithely dismissing book blogging, today we have someone (or someones, rather) proscribing rules for it; never a dull moment in this little corner of the internet (though at least I don't care about YA. You guys have to keep them at bay with whips and overturned chairs).

Over at Three Guys One Book, Dennis Haritou, offers Ten Cardinal Rules for Book Blogging, which  ranges from the high-minded (the only reading that's worth any respect is close-reading) to the idiosyncratic ("Never write about your's revolting").

Rule-making for blogging seems like a bit of a fool's errand; your time would be just as well spent arranging sand on the beach just so. Still, there is a central concern to the 3G1B list that is worth thinking about: the relation of the author to the reviewer, reader, and blogger.

The first rule suggests that the reader/reviewer ignore the fact that there is a writer at all:
 You love the book, not the writer. You don’t care about the writer. They could be a talking gazelle. You don’t care. You’re in for trouble if you like the writer. No good can come from this.

Then, in the last rule, a seemingly contradictory imperative:
Read only the writers who will talk to you. There is no greater thrill than reading a novel, being amazed, and knowing you can ask the writer about it.

I'm not really sure how to reconcile this. We're not supposed to care about the writer and yet we are thrilled to talk to writers, to have access to them, to connect our appreciation for a work to the being who created it.

I think that affection for a writer after reading a great book relates to something else I've thought about, An Offshoot of the Buzz. Basically, reading something that moves, entertains, or inspires you is difficult to keep contained. You want to share it, process it, and revel in it. And yet, the book object (or increasingly text file) is inert. It cannot share in your exuberance, respond to your questions, or otherwise affirm your excitement. So we want to go to the source.

The problem then becomes---well now what. What does having some knowledge or even relationship with an author do to your existing love for a book? Does it intensify it? Attenuate it? Does your excitement get transferred from the book to the author?

My own experience has been that the best place to expend this enthusiasm is with other readers, not with the author in the various forms available to the common reader and blogger (interview, essay, reading, etc). For one, I can count on one hand the number of authors who, in person, are half as interesting as the book I just read (most are not quite as interesting as a can of Pringles. Though I do really like Pringles).

A fellow reader can share your experience in a way an author can't; the author is too tied to it, too invested in the work personally. Also, when discussing a book with a fellow reader, you are less likely to be subject to the author's presence. Even the best interviews are not conversations about a book in the same way that a very good discussion between peers can be.

Do you like to know more about authors? Why or why not? Do you think people should be paying more or less attention to the authors themselves?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

On Blogger Backlash

In a revealing report on Book Expo America for Santa Cruz News,  Daniela Hurezanu finds three publishing trends especially troubling: the lack of interest the big six publishers have in literary fiction, the paucity of translated works in American publishing, and the increasing influence of book bloggers.

The first complaint might very well be true; I tend not to be terribly interested in who publishes what I am interested in, so long as there are plenty of interesting things to read. And at this point, there are still far more interesting books published in a year than I can possibly read. The second complaint is unassailably true: Americans, and American publishers, don't seem interested in translated works. Hurezanu's statistics, that less that 1% of books published in America were written in a language other than English, does not speak well of our attention to and education about the rest of the world. (I would be surprised, though, if this is a particularly new trend, equal, say to the dizzying change in publishing technology that is giving the whole industry vertigo.)

But it's the third observation that really irks Hurezanu, that book blogging seems poised to be the dominant mode of book discussion going forward. Actually, it's not even this: it's who she thinks the book bloggers are and what motivates them that elicits remarkable disdain:
At the Book Bloggers reception I met many girls in their early twenties who already have hundreds of followers on Twitter. As far as I could tell, I was the only person at the convention who doesn’t tweet. All these 20-year-old bloggers form a community that is replacing the traditional book reviewers; they know each other, read each other’s blogs and blog about the same books. So, in a paradoxical way, this subculture is even more limited in its interests than the mainstream media. Though, in theory, the Internet is a space of infinite diversity, in practice many communities reproduce the patterns that exist outside cyberspace. The main difference between the new book bloggers and the old book reviewers is that the former don’t have any literary “prejudices.” They are children of pop culture and the mass media, and have transferred their interests onto the realm of books. Their electronic chatter will soon cover whatever is left of book reviewing. 
Let's leave aside all the counterexamples to this characterization (your humble primate perhaps the least of them) for the moment to what it is about "book bloggers" that galls her so: the constellation of gender, age, class, and interests. The demotion of 20-year-olds to girls and the dimunition of women who work from home to "mommies" are difficult to see as anything but a particularly insidious form of sexism.

This intial dismissal makes the next insult possible, that bloggers are "children" who have wandered, however mistakenly, from Beverly Hills 90210 to Jane Austen. By this point, the well as been contaminted, so that even technology she doesn't use or understand becomes part of the problem, the slide from "Twitter" to "chatter" here might rhyme, but her conflation ignores one of the amazing aspects of online literary discourse: community and discoverability. (The graphic accompanying the piece, showing a cartoon bird typing on a laptop above the caption, "another great critical mind at work," would be laughable if it weren't so sad.)

My initial temptation was to ignore this piece and avoid giving it any further attention. But I realized that the attitude that Hurezanu expresses here comes from the same source that gave rise to book blogging: prejudice against certain kinds of readers and certain kinds of books. She is invested in the functioning of a certain kind of critical establishment and book blogging is a direct threat to that establishment, a threat on par with the threat digital publishing poses to print.

So this is my takeaway--book bloggers, even the twenty-year olds among us, should not be insulted by this reaction, they should rejoice in it, for it means that we have the bastards on the run.


Buy books mentioned in this post (or anything else, actually) using the below links, and The Reading Ape gets a small referral fee to defray our nominal operating costs.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Blog Redesign Questions

Happy weekending all...

I'm thinking about doing some redesigning here at The Ape. I've already installed Disqus for more robust commenting; finally I'll be able to respond to your comments inline and you can directly respond to others should you wish. So I'm excited about that. (If you run into trouble commenting with the new system, please shoot me an email: readingape AT gmail DOT com).

A couple of specific questions in addition to whatever thoughts you have about the blog design as it is:

1. The dark background with light text is relatively unusual for a blog. Is the blog hard to read? Do you think a more conventional dark text/light background would be an improvment?

2. I use orange for blog titles and links. What do you think about a color change there?

3. I've also been thinking about using a "read more" strategy, which would show the first part of a post and then require a click-through to see the whole post. Mostly, this would make scrolling through the most recent posts easier. I write some long-posts and they can dominate the home screen for awhile. Do you like this strategy on other blogs?

4. What have you added/changed to your own blog that you really wished you had done earlier? In other words, what have you done that I should shamelessly steal?

Thanks for any ideas here and I'm sure I'll be asking for some feedback when or if I change things up.

The Ape


Buy books mentioned in this post (or anything else, actually) using the below links, and The Reading Ape gets a small referral fee to defray our nominal operating costs.

Apres moi le deluge...

Publishing Perspectives on the unintended consequences of Amazon's self-publishing platform:

At present authors can upload e-books to the Kindle store for free. Many of these “books” are being priced at 99 cents to compete with the most popular titles. Confusion reigns and by the time you download a 99-cent book, you may not even know you have bought into what is essentially a scam.
The end result is that thousands — and potentially tens of thousands — of bogus books are being uploaded, making all the more difficult for readers to discover legitimate and worthy content.
If you knock the cap off the fire hydrant, you can't be surprised when you get soaked.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Performed Indignation in The Book Site That Must Not Be Named

I should have trusted my instincts and skipped the commentary on Tea Obreht’s recent Orange Prize win in Book Site That Must Not Be Named. (Here's a link to a tweet to the piece. I can't bring myself to add to their pagerank by linking directly). I knew better than to expect cogent, insightful thinking about one of the more interesting literary prizes around. And still I clicked through.

What I found in Ruth Fowler’s indignant, mud-slinging screed unfortunately is not the exception in Book Site That Must Not Be Named, but the rule. I wish those of us who care about the level of literary discourse online could just ignore BSTMNBN, but their influence is such that we cannot in good conscience allow for this to pass as acceptable criticism.

So, as uncomfortable as it may be, let’s have a look at what’s wrong with this kind of writing. In order to keep this short, I’ll stick to the first 8,000 problems.

1.       Fowler’s goal is to take down The Tiger’s Wife, admonish The Orange Prize, and decry the importance of MFA programs in American letters. The problem here is that goals two and three require a cogent explanation of goal one. However, Fowler didn’t read The Tiger’s Wife, or at least not the preponderance of it:
I'm going to admit now that I haven't read all of The Tiger's Wife. A degree in English Literature has taught me many useful and discerning skills, amongst which is this little gem: if you can't get past page 50, give up.
Let’s just briefly note that a “skill” cannot be “discerning” and that she confuses the present perfect tense “has taught” with the simple past “taught”: this from the same post in which she suggests Obreht needs "heavy editing." Anyway, her transparency in “admitting now” that she didn’t read the novel is supposed to excuse her critical laziness. In addition, her literary education encouraged her “to give up” on texts that do not please within the first hour or so. It is difficult for me to take seriously a writer who so quickly throws in the towel when her tastes are not immediately satisfied.

2.       This is not to say that The Tiger’s Wife is beyond reproach: any work of art can be criticized, and reasonable people can disagree. What we do ask is that some care is taken to understand a work. This piece has very little to do with the merits of the work and quite a bit to do with ax-grinding. The target here is the MFA and the writers it produces:
I have read Tea's competent, assured, boring-as-fuck prose before: in a million other aspiring writers churned out by the MFA system, who then go on to take up professions as teachers in the MFA system, passing on their identical mediocrity to a new generation of award-winning identical mediocre visionaries.
And later:
...we should make 10 years in the real world compulsory for all writers who have graduated from an MFA course before the age of 25. That's 10 years without access to a trust-fund or Ivy League university or The Guardian (I say The Guardian merely because it annoys me, not for any scientific purpose).
          At the end of 10 years, they can submit their work in the proper channels

 In case you were still wondering if this was somehow personal, the use of Obreht’s first name gives the game away. This is the world we live in, and in itself is not incriminating. What is incriminating is the hypocrisy. Fowler argues that the central problem of the MFA is its role as artistic monastery: isolated, solipsistic, and self-satisfied. The answer is “the real world” and living long enough in the real world to have something to say. What Fowler doesn’t mention is published a memoir at the ripe age of…29.

3.       If there is a connecting thread to the bad intellectual behavior at BSTMNBN, it is a performed righteous indignation that the people who are lauded in contemporary literature don’t deserve it. The barely concealed rage that someone else is lifted up (and that “I” haven’t been) makes for sad spectacle. Fowler (whose profanity laced “commentary” could scarcely be fouler) doesn’t engage with what Obreht writes, other than a vague litany of adjectives, but demonizes who she is and what she represents:
 If [your writing} is not derivative of Anna Karenina, nor does it feature more than three bad metaphors or similes in the first 50 pages, and upon publication, the media doesn't mention your age nor the three letters M.F.A. -- then you're allowed to exist with the rest of the writing world, submitting your work like anyone else.
In the end, it’s the appearance of privilege that aggravates her. And it's entirely possible that there is some seed of a reality here. The problem is that Fowler skips the hard work of showing the symptoms of that problem. Instead, she takes the easy way out and moves into attack entertainment. What is easier in literary discussion than to pile on aspiring writers? Once the guns are blazing, attack entertainment cannot convince and cannot engender thoughtful discussion. Fowler positions herself as the lone voice of truth in an otherwise warped critical establishment. The list of people who have to be wrong in order for her to be right is comprehensive: MFA admissions committees, thesis supervisors, agents, publishers, critics, and prize committees.

When you set fire to the house, you bring a lot of attention, but in the end, your contribution is a heap of smoldering ruin.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Four Father's Day Fiction Ideas That Won't Make Your Dad Think You Hate Him

If you buy your father a novel with a father as a major character, 9 times out of 10 you are going to freak him out. Distant, abusive, absent, disapproving or dead: your typical fictional dad is about as warm and supportive as a pair of boxer shorts stored in the freezer.

Still, if you want to give your pops some fiction for Father's Day, here are few ideas that won't make him wonder what exactly you are in therapy for:

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
The first non-biological gift your parents give you is your name. In Gogal Gungali's case, this gift is a source of befuddlement and familial friction. The Namesake is the story of Gogol's coming to terms with his identity as the son of first generation Indian immigrants. As he comes to understand himself and the story of his naming, his father's abiding love becomes the defining element of his life.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy
For all of The Road's bleakness and terror, it is at its core a story of Man and Boy. The father's anxiety. The boy's innocent. The father's protectiveness. The boy's curiosity. Even among a charred American wasteland, the central tensions of fatherhood remain. Warning: the final pages are liable to bring even the burliest paternal units to their knees.

Gilead and Home by Marilynne Robinson
Both books, companion novels telling different sides of related stories, struggle with what it means to be a father. In Gilead, the aging Reverend Ames is writing a long letter to his young son, whom he knows he won't live to see grow up. In the process of trying to relay some of his experience and wisdom, he thinks of his own father and grandfather and their stormy lives. Ames' reflection leads him to not only give his son advice, but also to tell him of his own frailty. As sad as Ames' fate might be, his generous spirit and unflinching honesty leave his son a singular patronage.

If Gilead gives an image of an ideal, if unrealized, father, Home wrestles with the reality of trying to understand a son who does not know how to be one. Robert Boughton, Ames' best friend and neighbor, is also nearing the end of his life, and his son has come back to see him one last time. Has he come back for forgiveness or for a reckoning? Can the elder Boughton make peace? Does he even want to? Home is fascinating study in what it means to be the son your father didn't want, even as he adores you.

Buy books mentioned in this post (or anything else, actually) using the below links, and The Reading Ape gets a small referral fee to defray our nominal operating costs.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Ends Today: Giveaway of NOM DE PLUME

Quick reminder: if you'd like a chance at a copy of Nom de Plume, send me an email with the subject line NOME DE PLUME to readingape AT gmail DOT com by 11:59pm (Eastern) tonight.

This week, I've pulled my daily Literary Fact of the Day from Nom de Plume to show how intimate and fascinating this book is:

George Sand explained that the reason she didn't like her husband was his unattractive nose.

While working as a ranch-hand in Texas, O. Henry would carry around a copy of Webster's Unabridged Dictionary while herding sheep.

Sylvia Plath wrote The Bell Jar on textured, pink memo pads.

Patricia Highsmith was obsessed with her (pet) snails & once smuggled them into France by hiding them under her breasts.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Blind Assassin Close-Read, Volume II

I'm participating in The Atlantic's 1book140 read-a-long of Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin this month. The following is the second of a series of posts close-reading sections of the novel. If you somehow found your way here through 1book140, welcome. It's nice to have you

I so enjoyed writing about the first sentence of The Blind Assassin that I am going to take a shot at discussing another smallish piece of the novel, this time from Part III.

Let's set the stage: Iris is visiting her family's grave-site, some fifty years after her sister's death. She describes the monument:

The Chase family monument is hard to miss, it's taller than everything else. There are two angels, white marble, Victorian, sentimental but quite well done as these things go, on a large stone cube with scrolled corners. The first angel is standing, her head bowed to the side in an attitude of mourning, one hand placed tenderly on the shoulder of the second one. The second kneels, leaning against the other's thigh, gazing straight ahead, cradling a sheaf of lilies. Their bodies are decorous, the contours shrouded in the folds of softly draped, impenetrable material, but you can tell they're female. And rain is taking its toll of them: their once-keen eyes are blurred now, softened and porous, as if they have cataracts. But perhaps that's my own vision going.

Alright, there's more backstory about the monument in the next paragraph, but let's stop here for a moment. Last time, I wrote about why first sentences are a particularly good place to stop and smell the roses a little as you read. This passage is an example of another way-station, which is ekphrasis. Ekphrasis is the narrative description of a work of visual art. (The greatest example in Western literature is Homer's description of Achilles' Shield in Book XVII of The Iliad, the most well-known one is in Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn," where he describes, well, the urn.)

Why is looking at ekphrasis interesting? Couple of reasons. First, it is hyper-mimetic: not only does the writer have to describe the work of art, they also create the work of art. These are moments when a language artist is dipping into other art forms. Another reason is what ekphrasis does to the narrative time of the novel; it slows it down dramatically, even stops it. The closest cross-medium comparison is to a still-life, where precision, vision, and execution are at a premium. The writer is saying "hey, stop and pay attention to this, even though it has nothing to do with plot." For the close-reader, this is more inviting than cold pizza after a 2-for-1 night at the pub.

So, what's going on with this description of the Chase family monument?

1.  We have to remember that this is Iris narrating, not Atwood herself, so really this ekphrasis is Iris' vision, even as Atwood is staging it. Atwood is showing us what Iris is seeing, not what she would see herself or what we might notice ourselves. So, perhaps it's best to think of Atwood telling us something about how Iris sees as much as it is Iris telling us something directly.

2. Physical description tends to work structurally, so paying attention to how the description is built is important. Here we begin with the size ("taller than anything else") and then quality ("well done as these things go"). If the monument is a symbol of the Chase family, then the reading here is pretty simple: their family's story is bigger and more interesting than the average family's story. Or at least that's the way Iris sees it. One of these descriptions is empirical, "taller" is not up for debate. But the qualitative description certainly is. As cool as Iris' narration has been, here we get a small glimpse of how she understands her family history.

2. The most prominent feature is the pair of angels, and their parallel to Iris and Laura seems obvious. What is not obvious, however, is what exactly beyond two women the angels are saying about Iris and Laura. My sense is that the standing angel is Iris; it is in the "attitude of mourning" and standing, which suggests she is grieving. The phrase "attitude of mourning" is telling; is the angel mourning or just performing an attitude of mourning? At this point in the novel, Iris' attitude toward Laura and her death is still somewhat of a mystery. This angel is both turning away and touching the second angel, which suggest an ambivalence. Does she want to turn away but cannot fully? Or does she want to remain in contact but is forced to move away? At the very least, it is an enigmatic move and Iris is nothing if not a mystery here.

The second angel would then be Laura, the kneeling and sheaf of lilies (which often represent innocence) combined with the stare into the distance suggests youth and remove. She is the one being left kneeling, who is now looking away from the living.

3. The appearance of the angels is telling as well: "Their bodies are decorous, the contours shrouded in the folds of softly draped, impenetrable material, but you can tell they're female." There is an incongruity in describing "bodies" as "decorous," as "decorous" implies restraint and civility. How exactly can a body be "civil"? A similar incongruity occurs in the description of the clothing, which is both "softly draped" and "impenetrable" (Churchill's image of the "iron curtain" comes to mind.) The overall effect here combines frailty with strength, the physical with the emotional, and the overt with the mysterious.

4. The last sentence here about time and vision seems the most crucial. Of all the sculpted details that would be subject to corrosion, Iris (note the ocular reference inherent in her name) sees the blurred eyes and connects their aging with her own. I think a connection to memory is present, for what is memory but our seeing of the past? That time makes our memory "softer" and more "porous" means that our lived experience changes even after we have lived it, and our relationship to what has happened to us is in flux. And even the monuments, both sculptural and textual, we build in commemoration can never fully preserve the commemorated.

There are other meanings to be gleaned from this passage, I am sure. And the next paragraph adds a layer of personal history to Iris' description that is worth incorporating into an analysis of this paragraph, but this is probably enough from me now.

What else do you see in this paragraph? What did I get wrong or miss?

Buy books mentioned in this post (or anything else, actually) using the below links, and The Reading Ape gets a small referral fee to defray our nominal operating costs.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Why Criticism Matters

It happens every so often that a student will, in the midst of a particularly detailed discussion of some poem or story, make something like the following objection: “It just doesn’t seem likely that the author was thinking about all of these things when they wrote this.”

Something about reading deeply into a text, pulling and prodding and exploring, bothers this kind of student, and they think that by appealing to the improbability that the author was thinking about diction or metaphor so minutely, they can short-circuit the analysis and guard against “over-analysis.” I’ve never quite been able to peg this student’s concern, why it is they are worried about seeing something that the author didn’t mean. Part of it might be that close-reading, if they allow it in, means they can’t read unthinkingly anymore. Part of it might be that they are afraid they can’t do this kind of work. Part of it might be that they see literary analysis as taking away some of the magic of literature. Whatever it is, they just want it to end.

This passively reading student, however, is asking a better question than they know. The interesting part of the question isn’t the “likelihood” but the “not thinking this” part. This student assumes that a writer knows exactly what it is that they are doing (they don’t) and that any readerly deviation from that intent is somehow contaminated and contaminating (it isn’t).

 What they don’t realize is that for the truly gifted, ability exceeds understanding. Whether some innate sense or learned sensibility or acquired skill, great writers can do things with language that escapes their own comprehension. Language itself is so rich that no one can claim to be the absolute master of the words they use and sentences they assemble. The task of criticism then is to re-attach the effect with the art, to fill the gap between what is written and what is conveyed.

The question the student should be asking is not “can we do this?” but “why should we do this?” The answer, which is rather unsatisfactory to an earnest 18-year old, is understanding and the mastery that understanding brings. To understand something is to no longer be subject to it, it is to intervene on your own behalf. In short, criticism allows us to be in conversation with art rather than subject to it and to our own unthinking reaction.

So to the student who protests that an author wasn’t thinking all of this stuff when they wrote it, I always respond: “You’re probably right. That’s why we need to.”

Monday, June 6, 2011

Recommended: Nom De Plume by Carmela Ciuraru (and Giveaway)

If you are a regular reader of The Reading Ape, then you're going to love Carmela Ciuraru's Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms.

Each of the sixteen chapters of Nom de Plume tells the story of how one author came to write under a different name, from how Samuel Clemens became Mark Twain to how Sylvia Plath became Victoria Lucas. Ciuraru constructs each story as part biography, part psychological profile. The tacit argument of Nom de Plume is that you can learn a lot about somebody by who they say they are, and why they say they are not.

Engaging without being breezy, informative without being pedantic, these essays offer insightful, fascinating literary portraits without the solemness and heft of so many literary biographies. By giving us a specific angle on the lives of these complex figures, Ciuraru gets to the essence of their lives efficiently and evocatively, which makes for pleasant and piquant summer literary non-fiction.

I am pleased to be giving away a copy of Nom de Plume this week, courtesy of HarperCollins. Send an email to readingape AT gmail DOT com by Friday, June 10th, 11:59pm EST. Also this week: my daily Literary Fact of the Day on Twitter will come each day from Nom de Plume. So check that out too.

Buy books mentioned in this post (or anything else, actually) using the below links, and The Reading Ape gets a small referral fee to defray our nominal operating costs.

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Friday, June 3, 2011

Book Blogger Convention Giveaway: We Have a Winner gods have spoken and the winner of the Book Blogger Convention Swag giveaway is PB from Reflections from the Hinterland. PB, I'll be emailing you shortly for your mailing address.

Thanks to all the entrants. Let's do this again next year.


Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Close-Read: The First Sentence of The Blind Assassin

I'm participating in The Atlantic's 1book140 read-a-long of Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin this month. The following is the first of what I hope will be a series of posts close-reading sections of the novel. If you somehow found your way here through 1book140, welcome. It's nice to have you.

A good first sentence can teach you how to read a novel. It can tell you what the novel cares about and what you should watch for. The best first sentences are gem-like: a product of compression and value.

The problem with this though is that first sentences are just that: first. You don't know anything about the novel yet and race through the first paragraphs and pages just to get your bearings, to figure out who is who and what exactly the hell is going on. So most readers read the first sentence purely pragmatically as a step toward getting comfortable with the work.

This isn't wrong of course and some first sentences don't warrant much attention. But many of them do and the rewards of looking at them closely can enrich the subsequent experience of the novel. (A professor of mine once said that when we started reading a novel, we should read the first sentence and then shut the book for awhile, letting that sentence percolate and prepare us to read the rest. I have found this wonderfully generative. So let it be clear that at this point I have read only the first sentence of The Blind Assassin).

Alright, so let's take a look at the first line of The Blind Assassin:

Ten days after the war ended, my sister drove a car off a bridge.

Some observations:

1. Without reading any farther, Atwood tells us a great deal about what we're in for. The subject of the sentence is "sister," so even if the predicate were not so juicy, this places the novel squarely in the domestic. The force of the main clause, though, might distract from the strangeness of the opening modifier. "Ten days" is an oddly specific amount of time after "the war ended." This specificity leads me to think that there is a connection between the war and its end and the sister's plunge, though no causal relation is indicated. Perhaps the disjunction between the scope of war and this intimate detail of family history creates the tension. The process of the novel will be to explain, and thus alleviate, that suspense.

2. And what war is this? Not too many clues here, though in late 20th Century English prose, you usually won't lose your money betting on World War II. Also, assuming for the moment that this took place in an industrialized country, it's been pretty hard to drive a car off a bridge for the last few decades, what with all the annoying safety regulations and all. So if that's a fair guess, then this happened in a time when cars were relatively accessible and before road safety became a concern. (That, or there was something wrong with the bridge.) Pretty thin evidence, to be sure, so we'll have to wait and see how this one pans out.

3. There's plenty to be said, though, about the sister. Well, not her exactly, but her car and the manner of demise. First, "drove" indicates an amount of agency that suggests this was not an accident. Had Atwood wanted to lead us toward foul-play or a mishap, I doubt she would have chosen "drove," and perhaps not even the active voice. The narrator's sister willingly went off a bridge. What we want to know now is why. More on this in a bit.

4. The other notable word choice here is the indefinite article "a": the sister drove "a" car off a bridge. We can guess that is was not her car; standard description would use the possessive to indicate ownership or affiliation. Whose car this is or how she came to be driving it is now also on the table.

5. As it turns out, the trajectory of the car with sister inside is not the most interesting thing about this sentence; this action is over at the moment of description. We want to know how this odd (not just the action itself, but the details as well) fate came to pass. This tells us something else about the novel; it is about the past. Not only is the sentence in the narrative past tense, but the narrator herself knows this history. So unless we flash forward to the present of the narrator's time, this is a novel about memory.

Here's what we have so far: war, memory, family, violence, and mystery. You could do worse to pull readers in.

6. This is extra-textual and so not strictly close-reading (forgive me Professor Atkins, wherever you are hounding earnest undergraduates), but this sentence reminds me of another first sentence: "When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow."

Recognize it? Yup, To Kill a Mockingbird.

7. Not only is the structure parallel, a temporal marker followed by violent act with vague origin, but the thematic concerns also overlap (really all but war). Comparing To Kill a Mockingbird's first line to The Blind Assassin's also strengthens the case for seeing "my sister drove" as meaningful. Here, Jem's injury is clearly not of his own doing. And like in The Blind Assassin, the temporal marker is unusual--that Scout says "nearly thirteen" rather than "twelve" turns out to be meaningful, as To Kill a Mockingbird is very much a coming-of-age/disillusionment story.

8. First sentences and paragraphs are also especially important in first person narratives because they tell us something signficant about the narrator's relationship to the story they are telling. How invested are they in it?How much time has passed? Is this language that they might actually saying? Or is it the kind of first person narration with no imaginable actual speech act? The colloquial "got his arm broke" in To Kill a Mockingbird suggest that this is speech. In The Blind Assassin, the narrator's relationship to the action seems cold, or at least somewhat removed from the trauma described. The specificity and impersonality of the time (we might expect something about ages rather than this historical time) are more clinical than emotional. Maybe clinical is too strong, but the narrator does seem to be at some remove.

9. This last point isn't about The Blind Assassin directly. I got thinking about the evolution of first sentences in literature. This one feels modern, as much about intrigue as it is about art, without being experimental or otherwise jarring. It has a story-teller quality to it (if you were going to write a one-sentence story, this would be a good effort). In contrast, the novel's greatest century, the 18th, saw authors start broadly and drill down from there ("It is a truth universally acknowledged," "It was the best of times," "All happy families are alike," and so on). The standard opening now works the other way, using a detail as a wedge to introduce the story. Contemporary authors (massive generalization warning) seem to put a premium on keeping the reader off-balance at the start, rather than hold their hand. I suspect part of this is fashion, but another part might be the novelist's unwillingness to make the bold statement or sweeping proclamation. (Thanks a lot, culture wars).

Alright, I think that's all I have on this. On to the second sentence! Kidding, kidding. I'm sure I'll make it through the next paragraph at least...

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