It is a disappointment when you discover that when you weren’t looking, you slipped from being a talent with a wide open future to being someone on the downhill side who is probably not ever going to be famous. Reasons for this include the state of publishing, but also that my particular obsessions have not been the ones that masses of people resonate with. Perhaps even more important is that the changes in entertainment habits and reading are making conditions not conducive to creative writing as a career.
I am as I write this editing an issue of a literary journal that will appear totally online-- digitalized poems and fiction and essays. Reading these poems and stories and essays will be a very different experience from reading a book or hard-copy journal. The private joy of curling up with a good book has not been replaced, but is sharing the position of leisure time activity with a whole slew of technologies– including my brother-in-law's Kindle with its downloaded books and newspapers on a small cool paper-like screen.
There are other technologies that have created activities that are related to reading, but different, especially by being interactive. There is this blogging world of relatively unpolished ideas and stories that people read and then respond to both in messages on the blog and in their own blogs. There is fan fiction in which readers write their own adventures and chapters for popular books– usually genre fiction. There is the constant stream of text messaging and emailing that people of all ages are doing– which is, of course, a new form of letter writing, a favorite literary activity of the past. I myself turn to the Internet for more and more of my information, and I adore the group-created public encyclopedia Wikipedia– we are like a hive there, working, on the whole, for the good of the group. Who would have imagined that tens of thousands of people would join together to create such a thing?
One doesn’t even know if the kind of novel writing career I imagined as a college student will even exist in fifty years. My personal opinion is not that we will stop reading, and not that there will be no novels, but that we are probably returning to a time when literature will be once again primarily an amateur activity. The amateurs I'm imagining, of course, include folks like Lady Murasaki Shikibu and Geoffrey Chaucer. Shakespeare himself never made a living as a writer but rather as a theater person who did whatever his troop needed to make theater, whether it was business activities or acting or writing plays. In the past, far fewer people could read, so the reading public was small; we are now coming out of a brief period when enough people could read and had the time to read to support professional prose and poetry writers. During the nineteenth and into the middle of the twentieth centuries, people read for entertainment– and for a large part of that period, the only entertainment was the printed word. Thus, people consumed everything thing written– narrative poems, novels, serialized stories in periodicals, broadsides, sermons, long letters– and here's the special thing: highly personal and artistic and experimental work was consumed right along with the conventional and the trashy because people needed material to read.
Today, the available materials for entertainment are myriad: movies and television and all the forms of entertainment like video and role playing games– the choice is vast, and the number of people who can make a living selling their creative writing is shrinking. The fact that so many people want to write (or at least to be writers) is an interesting sideline to this. Is it the experience of reading that has led them to this? Or the myth of the heroic novelist who suffers and then wins the Nobel Prize for Literature? Or is it only the leisurely life style people imagine novelists having? Thousands take writing classes, thousands more spend time writing privately. The general American belief that you can do what you put your mind to, plus the increasing interactivity of many of our media, supports this, and with the incredible affordability of book publishing with print on demand technology, many more will write, fewer will read; almost none will make a living as professional poets and fiction writers.
Had I been given the choice, would I have preferred to be a female Philip Roth– an artist but also popular, making a good living? Of course I would have chosen that. So, laying aside the whiff of sour grapes, I am having an exciting and deeply satisfying life in writing. I began by imitating (and wanting to be part of) the comic books that delighted me when I was five or six. I continued without any special awareness of what I was doing, playing as children do, imitating, engaging in dialog with, all the books I read, and the movies and television I saw, and of course with the life I lived.
Mirabile dictu, I have been writing for more than fifty years, and I expect always to be writing-- until they pry my cold dead fingers off keyboard– or my brain gets too fuzzy to bother with making sense of the world.
Books for Readers #111
August 8, 2008
Rainbow in the Berkshires
I’m writing this at the Weinberger family lake cottage in Western Massachusetts. We have spotty internet access, but the electricity usually works, so there are moments when I’m at my laptop, Andy is at his, and David at his! David even has a Kindle– the first one I’ve ever seen in the flesh, as it were. He likes it, but says everyone should wait till the price goes down and they re-engineer it so that when you shift your hand you don’t turn the page by accident.
David’s wife Ann, however, reads books.
So, I am on the screened porch overlooking lake, trees, humming birds, chipmunks, red squirrels, etc., feeling social and relaxed, and as I write this, it seems a good moment to thank some of the readers who send in suggestions, especially most recently: Ardian Gill (who suggested CARAVANS, an early James Michener novel of travel and adventure in Afghanistan); Jeremy Osner, who keeps an interesting blog (see below); Bill Higginson (poet and haiku blogger) who suggestions a novel; and Carol Brodick with suggestions for youth reading.
I’ve been extremely unsystematic in my reading lately, everything from the Michener novel to an excellent magazine/book of poetry MOBIUS to the popular boy-fun FIGHT CLUB (which I thought my son recommended, but it turns out he was talking about the movie with Brad Pitt and Edward Norton) to a couple of interesting books with World War II as a background.
First, Marion Cuba’s (see her essay in issue # 110) novel SHANGHAI LEGACY about the psychological damage done to a woman who lived through deplorable conditions in Shanghai during World War II. Shanghai was one of the few places where German Jews could get a visa to leave Germany, and this is about one of the families that went– and how their suffering under the Japanese occupation was visited on the narrator Maya, whose life is ostensibly satisfying and certainly comfortable, but no less damaged for all that. What is most fascinating is this ghetto that most of us know little about– in Shanghai. One of the great reasons the great genocides and holocausts are so horrible is how the precious fabric of ordinary life is rent beyond repair and even into the next generation.
An older book also with a Second World war setting is a surprising memoir by Mary Lee Settle, ALL THE BRAVE PROMISES. Settle recalls and writes about her early years when she, an American, wanted to be part of the great action of her generation and volunteered for the British Women’s Army Air Force. So much of this is totally unexpected– the way an American is treated during the Battle of Britain, class stresses among the British, lots of daily tedium and the occasional shock and horror of war. The style is breathless and occasionally repetitive, depending on swoops of rhetoric and a few too many generalizations assuming we know what she means or will agree without being convinced. It is, however, overall very readable and enjoyable--., an aspect of war that was new to me.
FIGHT CLUB by Chuck Palaniuk, which was made into the popular movie, has an odd afterword that claims it was begun as a writing seminar exercise. It is in some ways a novel about men who wish they could have gone to war, with its tone of testosterone pretentiousness and delight in transgression. Knowing it’s at bottom literary makes sense. I kept reading, but can’t say I see a lot of point to it, except for early on some very funny passages, especially about two main characters who are addicted to 12 step program/support groups and make up appropriate illnesses. The verbal flights have a poetry too– in other words, it has some good writing and some funny stuff but I’m not sure this particular game was worth the candle to me.
Finally, I read the latest issue of a contemporary poetry magazine that is a very different experience. This was MÖBIUS: POETRY IS THE MUSIC OF THE SOUL 25TH ANNIVERSARY ISSUE. It has a beautiful silvery cover, and it is rich and full of poetry. The represented poets include Nikki Giovanni, Marge Piercy, Simon Perchik, the late Rochelle Ratner, and Queens Poet Laureate Julio Marzan. There are pieces by Joseph Bruchac and Robert Bly and Colette Inez and the publisher-editor herself, Juanita Torrence-Thompson (see a short review of her latest book of poetry below). The issue is dedicated to the filmmaker Gordon Parks, who was himself a poet, which I never knew: “So my heart lifts praise to a smiling autumn– /To those fallen years that no longer exist. (“No Apologies.”)
The book is full of wonderful lines, wonderful poetic journeys: “My mother’s mind was an attic” writes Marge Piercy in “The Conversation,” and Daniela Gioseffi writes a wonderful moment called “My Old Husband Has Brought Me Lilacs." There’s a brilliant prose poem by John Amen that is about trying to use a dying mother to shore up a failing marriage (“Coming Clean”), and a hilarious explosion of events beginning with a bottle of salad dressing (Bruna Mori’s “Cilantro Dressing from Trader Joe’s”). Along with the pieces by people whose work I’ve long enjoyed and known, there were poets I was delighted to meet, like Rhina Espaillat. It’s really a wonderful book, a pleasure to hold and dip into. It’s available from P.O. Box 671058, Flushing, NY 11367-1058 and from the web page .
“If you've ever thought about writing an autobiographical exposé, you might want to give Margaret Atwood's 2000 novel THE BLIND ASSASSIN a read first. The novel opens with the suicide of the younger of two sisters, who goes on to become a famous one-novel writer with her posthumous ‘book’ that gives this book its title. As things progress, we have three braided pieces of genre fiction: The elder sister's autobiography’ is really a mystery story that gradually becomes the center of the book. The younger sister's tale is a romance, of sorts. And the title work is a piece of fantasy science-fiction spun by the younger sister's lover, or so it seems. All of this is set mainly between the coming home of an injured WWI veteran, who is the sisters' father, and the immediate post-WWII period when the younger sister suicides. Economics and external tensions between capitalist-industrialists and unionists affect the families involved, but internal family politics makes these stories work together to a satisfactory, almost poetic, conclusion. Here I rediscovered Atwood's great gift for melding historical events and a wonderfully quirky, grudgingly self-revelatory character that I first found in her book of poems from 1970, THE JOURNALS OF SUSANNA MOODIE. In Atwood's hands, mortality is an elegant psychological adventure. If that entices you to seek her book out, good! I knew I was reading this braid, but it only occurred to me toward the end that I was reading these three different pieces of genre fiction."
Jeremy refers us to his notes on reading Sarakmago’s THE CAVE at http://readin.com/blog/?k=book:thecave . He asks, “What do you think about my idea that dialog in Saramago plays an opposite role to what it does in most novels -- I generally see dialog as sharpening the focus and bringing the reader in close to the scene, but Saramago's dialog has more of a softening effect, pulling the lens back and making you consider the story as a whole rather than the current scene.”
“I share most of the comments on THE ROAD (see issue #110) , but one has to stretch to find Hope at the end. One thing that bothered me was why are they going to the shore. It's bound to be bleak too. I took it merely to mean that he had to provide some hope for the kid and chose the shore, without any knowledge that it would reward the journey.
“I just read Michener's wonderful novel CARAVANS, set in Afghanistan in 1946. Before the Taliban, though the mullahs were there stoning an adulteress; before the Russians when they and the Americans were finagling for maximum influence. The story concerns a second tier embassy employee who has been assigned the job of locating an American woman married to a western-educated Afghanistan man. Her family hasn't heard from her for over a year and an important senator has put pressure on the state department to find her or learn of her fate. In the process he finds her Afghan husband, crosses a desert in an incredible experience with heat and desolation, is connected with a German Nazi doctor on the run from the Allies and useful to the medical poor Afghans. I won't give the story away but there are surprises galore when he finds her and I do want to tell that the history Michener piles in, the geography (they see the giant Buddha blown up by the Tailban) and the people in all their variety. Imagine the scene where 80,000 nomads are gathered in one place, with many more than that in camels, sheep and goats. By one mode or another they crisscross Afghanistan from east to west then south to north so ranging from the Indian border to the Russian one.It's a wonderful read and makes the latest Afghan book, the KITE RUNNER look like the second-rate work it is.
“On the other hand, a view of present-day Afghanistan is marvelously portrayed by THE PLACES IN BETWEEN, the story of a hike across Afghanistan from India to Iran (I think). Authors name forgotten but he's now in Iraq among the swamp people.”
Carol writes to say that she has found “some treasures in the latest batch of books from the library.”
She recommends A BEGINNING, A MUDDLE, AND AND END by AVI, “a book about writing for middle grade readers. But honestly, it's a book for every reader who enjoys play on words and humor with a bit of a twist. It's the story of two friends, Avon the snail and Edward the ant. Avon decides he wants to be a writer only he doesn't know how to proceed, so Edward helps out. Together they stumble along, never quite discovering a story to write, but discovering lots of good rules for writing. It's a charming book, fun for everyone, including writers.”
Next, she suggests MY DOG MAY BE A GENIUS by Jack Prelutsky.”This is a book of poetry for kids that grown ups can read aloud and laugh about with their children, and that children will love reading themselves. Some of the poems are nonsensical and it's the cadence and rhyme that makes them delightful. All the poems are quirky and humorous, like ‘I Do Not Like November.’ It goes like this:
I do not like November.
November is no fun.
I do not mind the other months,
but truly dread this one.
It is the month we celebrate
Thanksgiving in our land.
Alas, I am a turkey--
perhaps you understand.
The author, Jack Prelutsky, is known as the first Children's Poet Laureate, and the illustrator, James Stevenson, has illustrated many books for children.”
Finally she recommends THE SHADOW OF THE WIND by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, “an absolutely entertaining adult read, full of danger, mystery, revenge and lust. Stephen King describes it best, and I quote: ‘If you thought the true gothic novel died with the 19th century, this will change your mind. THE SHADOW OF THE WIND is the real deal, full of cheesy splendor. . . .’ And it is. The book begins in Barcelona, in 1945 when Daniel Sempere discovers a mysterious book by a mysterious author, and a rich adventure begins, spinning like a top through an intricate plot that incorporates unsavory characters, beautiful women, and obsession.”
In his July 7, 2008 column for THE MORGANTOWN DOMINION POST (http://www.dominionpost.com.), Norman Julan reviews and recommends two books about the extraction of coal in West Virginia and its effects on people: MONONGAH from West Virginia University Press and COAL RIVER by Michael Shnayerson, from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Juanita Torrence-Thompson’s latest poetry collection is called NEW YORK AND AFRICAN TAPESTRIES. She writes poems about New York and the world. Her work is full of a gusto for life and an enthusiam for her subjects. One group of poems is called “Eleven on Nine Eleven.” She writes of travel both geographic and through time. My favorites include two separate odes to the Queens Borough Bridge, “We’ll Always Have Queens Borough Bridge, ”which describes the structure as “Layer upon layer/like gray strawberry shortcake,” and “Ode to the Queens Borough Bridge,” addressed to “Oh durable sister/luminous in the sunlight.” Her poems about her mother are sharp and vivid, and come as close as you can in words to touching the essence of a vital human being who stays vital and human even at the end of life. One family poem that I like especially is “If Only I Could...” which is at once about the ordinary tasks of a real life and about the accompanying music of imagination.
If you have an interest in Haiku, renku, and other Asian poetry, don’t miss Bill Higginson’s blog and more at http://haikaipub.wordpress.com/about/ .
MORE ONLINE READING
Now Available! THE HAMILTON STONE REVIEW, Issue 15, Summer 2008 online at http://www.hamiltonstone.org/hsr15.html Featuring poetry by Allen Bramhall, Janet Butler, Craig Cotter, Chad Heltzel, Reamy Jansen, Sheila Murphy and Douglas Barbour, Rick Marlatt, Simon Perchik, Meg Pokrass, Gabriele Quartero, Joseph Somoza, Ron Winkler, and Robert E. Wood; and fiction by Nora Costello, Hallie Elizabeth Newton, J. C. Frampton, Sharmila Mukherjee, and Luke Rolfes. THE HAMILTON STONE REVIEW publishes three times a year: in June, October, and February.
Of Redjeb Jordania’s new book ESCAPE FROM SOUTH FORK AND OTHER STORIES, Dominic Ambrose says, “If every person’s life story can fill a book, Redjeb Jordania's can fill a bookshelf. The brilliant stories in this collection are just a small taste of the vast panorama of his experiences. From the waters of Montauk to the mountains of the Caucasus and Paris in war times, he takes you on a whirlwind tour that opens unexpected vistas and insights. With easy wit, irony and masterful description he brings us into his world to make us better understand our own.”
Larissa Shmailo’s new poetry cd, EXORCISM, is now available at http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/shmailo2, and her new chapbook, A CURE FOR SUICIDE, is now available from the Cervena Barva Press bookstore at http://www.thelostbookshelf.com. See below for her upcoming appearances.
Nathan Leslie’s latest is BEST OF THE WEB 2008, is the first-ever anthology of online literary work from online magazines. He is the series editor. It’s a compilation of the very best stories, poems, and essays of last year. The book has received some nice initial reviews and a forthcoming review is slated to appear in the L.A. Times. Here’s a link: http://www.dzancbooks.org/bow.html .
Rosary Hartel O’Neill’s plays have just been published: A LOUISIANA GENTLEMAN AND OTHER NEW ORLEANS COMEDIES and GHOSTS OF NEW ORLEANS. These two volumes of plays collect work of much produced and honored Rosary Hartel O’Neill set in and about her home town of New Orleans, Louisiana. The Plays in GHOSTS are historical– about figures like Edgar Degas and John Singer Sargent’s Madame X, who all had New Orleans connections. The LOUISIANA GENTLEMAN plays are about people in New Orleans in the more recent past– the years just before Hurricane Katrina. The characters are vivid and naturally dramatic– there is a joie de vivre in language, in emotion, even in struggle. Everyone seems born to be on stage– that is, the characters see themselves as having dramatic, expressive, and meaningful lives– and readers are pulled in and believe it too. The characters and the city seem equally essential here; one feels enriched and enlivened for having encountered them.
Barbara Crooker has yet another poem on WRITERS ALMANAC with Garrison Keillor, "Patty's Charcoal Drive-In." Listen to it on the web. Visit her website at http://www.barbaracrooker.com .
WORKSHOPS. READINGS, BOOK PARTIES
Poetry Workshop taught by Ellen Bass in New York City on October 25 and 26, 2008. Both experienced and beginning poets are welcome. Class size is limited to fifteen poets. For information, get in touch with Ellen Bass at Ellen Bass firstname.lastname@example.org or see http://www.ellenbass.com .
Larissa Shmailo will be at the Cornelia Street Cafee on Wednesday, August 20 at 6pm. George Wallace presents an evening of poetry. $7 includes house drink. More Larissa: September 13 at 8pm The Knitting Factory, 74 Leonard Street and at The Stain Bar on September 26 at 7 pm, 766 Grand Street, Brooklyn.
The Appalachian Writers Anthology is encouraging submissions of original works of poetry and fiction (up to 2500 words). The submission deadline is September 1, 2008. For information about the anthology and submission guidelines, please see http://www.shepherd.edu/ahwirweb/anthology/.
FULCRUM #6 is available at http://fulcrumpoetry.com for more information or to acquire a copy.
I LOVE TO WRITE DAY
Here’s something different: Take a look at http://www.ilovetowriteday.org/