Recently I got an ad from The New York Review of Books featuring “headstrong women” paraphernalia in their Readers Catalog (pillow covers, tea sets, necklaces, that kind of thing). They meant “headstrong women” of literature such as Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, Gertrude Stein—women who took their lives into their own hands, I suppose.
Because I had just finished Herman Wouk’s novel Marjorie Morningstar, that email got me thinking about “headstrong” female protagonists. I can’t really say that Marjorie is headstrong. In the end she turns out to be quite conventional, at least externally, ultimately the poignant and ephemeral embodiment of a young man’s fantasy.
What on earth does headstrong mean anyway?
Still, Marjorie is in many ways a woman with a mind of her own, or at least a mind we got to see in depth in the novel.
Peter Handke was one of the two winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature this year, and by now everyone knows, as the Swedish Academy did, that he supported Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian leader accused of genocide. My intention here is not to discuss whether Handke is a man who approves of genocide or not, but to question the basis on which literary prizes are awarded. Are they given for literary merit, or for the personal merit of the author? Or to put it another way: are prizes given for the value of the work of art, or for the character of the artist? This question is important not only for literature but more broadly for our entire civilisation.
My own political position should be irrelevant, but in case anyone doubts, let me begin by affirming that I condemn the genocide in Bosnia by the Bosnian Serbian forces, and have no sympathy whatever with Milosevic.
Think about it. When was the last time you read about a heroine who was not essentially modeled in the male heroic tradition? This tradition was consolidated by Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle nearly 180 years ago. Find me a heroine who isn’t an individual acting essentially alone and against societal expectations; who isn’t defined by a journey of self-discovery culminating in an extraordinary individual act; who sacrifices self and many of those she loves—but not her individual integrity or self-reliance—to perform that act; who is ultimately, retrospectively, praised or memorialized for that individual performance. Find me a heroine that is not a clone of millions of male heroes who have come before her.
Nowadays people don’t generally think in terms of heroic tradition, and there’s a good reason.
Whenever I give a talk or reading, someone in the audience asks where my stories come from. I find the answer more complex that what it would appear to be on the surface. What are my narrative seeds? What starts me on these explorations of others’ lives?
One of my bios states “Lily sprouted on the Canadian prairies under cumulous clouds that bloomed in Alberta’s big sky. They were her first creative writing instructors, scudding across the heavenly blue, constantly changing shape: one minute an elephant, bruised and brooding. The next morphing into a rabbit or a castle. These billowing masses gave her a unique view of life on earth.”
I do credit those experiences I had as a child for my impulse to write, my desire to explore (and expand) my immediate surroundings, to move beyond them.
‘The most accomplished living novelist in the English language,’ John Irving said of Greene before the latter’s death in 1991—and yet how many Creative Writing students, especially in North America, have even heard of him these days, let alone read him? When I taught at a US graduate program, and recommended him, I generally found that my students did not know his work, even if they had heard of him. Of course, they had been stuffed full of novels by more ‘diverse’ writers.
So I shall stick my neck out and proclaim: You can save yourself thousands of dollars, writing students. Read half a dozen of Greene’s best novels carefully, as a writer does, and it will yield you more benefit than most MFA programs, especially those of the fashionable throw-the-western-canon-out-of-window variety.
Honoring writers who paved the way with their contributions to the literary world is a great way to introduce young people (as well as the still young-at-heart) to the joys of the written word. In Baltimore, we are especially grateful for the existence of the Edgar Allan Poe House & Museum and the annual International Poe Festival and Awards which will take place this year Saturday and Sunday, October 4 & 5, from 11 am to 4 pm both days.
Poe’s place in the literary firmament is assured by those
who champion him as an forerunner of the genres of science fiction, mystery and
horror, but he is also a must read for his poetry and his critical essays. He
belongs in the pantheon of early American writers that includes the
Transcendentalists as well as Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper,
Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
I worked with Susan F. Darvas to publish RESIST ENDURE ESCAPE, a warm and personal account of growing up Jewish In Nazi and then Communist Hungary. She is one of a growing number of survivors who are telling their stories.
I also helped Erika Schulhof Rybeck, author of On My Own: Decoding the Conspiracy of Silence, publish this memoir of growing up in Austria, fleeing via Kindertransport at age 10 to a boarding school in Scotland, and finally at age 20 coming to America to join an aunt and uncle who had escaped from Vienna. Erika did not know she was Jewish. She was not told that her parents came from an illustrious Jewish family tracing back to generations of rabbis.
‘I would dread a world where to publish I had first to be certified as a nice person,’ wrote Lionel Shriver in The Spectator (16 December, 2017), and I agree. So, in the interests of countering what I consider to be the noxious and nauseating habit of being nice all the time—how the kindergarten teachers who police our arts love to lecture us on that—I have decided to publish a list of my least favourite writers. No gushing over how wonderful these fictioneers are, or what exemplary human beings they may be. No. These are people whose writing is over-rated, in my view (‘but that’s just me,’ as the current phrase goes, as if we should apologise for having an opinion at all, which we do if we are to remain PC-approved), or whose personalities I find abhorrent, usually because they’re sanctimonious or affected or hypocritical–but I feel I’m entitled to a little prejudice.
It’s the year 2000 and a cache of documents from the 17th century written in Portuguese, Hebrew and English has been discovered in a London suburb. With the help of a graduate assistant, an elderly female history professor begins to uncover the mystery of their origins. For her, it’s a last chance to go out on a high note; for him, it’s a distraction from a Ph.D. thesis on Shakespeare that’s not going well.
But The Weight of Ink is not just about that discovery and what it
reveals about the past, although what they learn is quite startling. Instead,
Kadish tells us the story of the people who composed and preserved the
documents themselves. Dry? Pedantic? Just the opposite.
In today’s environment of openness and explicitness, when virtually anything can and will be said and written, it’s a logical assumption that our level of communication and understanding is higher than ever—that very little is left to be revealed.
This has always intuitively seemed wrong to me, but it was the happy coincidence of reading Andrew Sean Greer’s best-selling novel, Less, and Anthony Trollope’s 1867 opus, Phineas Finn, more or less together, that helped me understand why.
If you’re not familiar with Trollope, or with
Victorian writing generally (or, for that matter, with Henry James, the primary
link between 19th and 20th century aesthetics and
sensibilities), it helps to know that these novels are really, really long.
“I write to make sense of my life.” —John Cheever
I’ve been reading Blake Bailey’s Cheever: A Life, and it’s been extremely illuminating in many ways. John Cheever, considered one of the best 20th Century short story writers, struggled at times, as most writers do, to trust his impulses in creating short stories and novels. Many of his works first appeared in the New Yorker, and for much of that time, William Maxwell, long-time editor at that magazine, was both his good friend and editor. This relationship eventually became a problem for them both.
Maxwell, a fine writer himself, wore blinders when his writers attempted to move beyond the traditional realist fiction that he favored. At a critical time in Cheever’s life and career, Maxwell refused to publish any Cheever stories that didn’t fit into this narrow groove, causing Cheever to doubt his craft.
Jerusalem has been called many things. “City of Secrets” probably not until that is Stewart O’Nan chose that title for his 2016 novel of the tumultuous years in the “Holy Land” after the end of the Second World War.
The title implies the story is about the city of Jerusalem, which to a large extent it is, but it’s primarily about one member of a group of people campaigning to get Great Britain to fulfill its 1917 promise that the land west of the Jordan River become a homeland for the Jewish people.
O’Nan assigns his protagonist
the single un-Jewish name “Brand.” Brand is a Holocaust survivor who makes his
way through the blockade set up by the British to prevent Jewish refugees from
the Holocaust from reaching the Holy Land beyond the small annual quota.
Do you have a new book? Are you working on one? If so, please let me know.
I’m offering this call to help publicize new writers and writing projects here on Late Last Night Books. I’ll even help with a not-so-newly published book.
There’s no gimmick. I’m looking for writers to interview in future blog posts. Whatever your write or wrote or are writing, you almost certainly qualify.
Any kind of writing is fair game: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, plays, translations, and anything else involving putting words together. I’d love to know more about what you’re doing.
I’m offering up this space to writers in need of publicity once again because, frankly, the well has run dry.
These days many of us are glued to the news as conflicts near and far are reported with up to the minute details. Can you imagine then how it must have felt to residents of Dubno in Soviet occupied Poland in June 1941 to hear rumors that Germany was about to invade? Jewish families in particular had few if any choices to assure their survival. In one family a young man decided to ride his bicycle to a near-by town to learn what he could. For Wolf Kogul that was the beginning of years struggling to survive war, tragic loss and future guilt.
Each story of that time adds
concrete knowledge of those terrible years, bringing the truth of specificity
that history books can only generalize about.
Let’s start with the Associated Writing Programs Conference, since that’s the one most US writers are familiar with. It’s the biggest, the glitziest, with superstars like Margaret Atwood and Karen Russell giving keynotes, and–so one is told–it’s a great place to ‘network’, which actually means, as far as I can gather, to behave like a salesperson, using sycophancy, your natural oodles of charm (it’s well known that fiction writers are captivating extroverts, isn’t it?) to sell–well, yourself. Hmm… isn’t that a teeny bit like, well (am I still allowed to pronounce this word?) prostitution? Not that there’s anything wrong with prostitution, of course! But in fact, for most writers, AWP is an utter waste of money (especially) and time. It is, to use a British expression, rubbish.
Do writers read differently than non-writers, and if so, what do they do that is different, and can non-writers benefit from the difference? The answers to those questions is ‘yes,’ ‘I’ll explain shortly,’ and ‘yes’ again.
To put it simply, writers observe how a novel is put together as they read the story. What writers observe and how that can add to one’s reading pleasure is what I’m about to explain using a novel by Jeffrey Deaver as my model example.
Deaver, who keynoted at two
Washington/Maryland writers’ conferences in recent years, is a meticulous
plotter. He spends as much time researching and plotting each of his novels as
he spends in the writing. One reason is that he writes thrillers.
My brother, Larry Haavik, is a fine musician who defines music as an “adventure for the ear.” I recently attended his two lectures on the history of jazz. He talked about how from the earliest times, people have used sticks, animal skins and other materials to make music, gradually expanding and transforming their repertoire as they sought new sounds and new adventures for the ear. Exploring Longer scales, more beats per measure, unusual instruments, different rhythms, and other variations all contribute.
The same, of course, applies to art as painters seek new ways to paint the world and people around them. We can easily see how photography made realistic interpretations boring. The artist seeking new adventures in paint moved on to impressionism, expressionism, and so on to explore new ways of presenting the world around them.
Roz Morris: We’re both writers. We’ve both taught and mentored authors as well. I find it’s a double-edged sword. Getting involved in another person’s creative process can be draining because you want to do your best for them.
Garry Craig Powell: It’s incredibly hard not to be drained by it—and that’s one of the best arguments I can think of not to become a creative writing teacher.
RM: Do you find it’s a struggle to protect your own creative mojo?
GCP: It’s a constant struggle, and most teachers fail to do so. During term-time, my own creative and intellectual energies were almost entirely absorbed by my students’ work. Sometimes, especially when working with highly-motivated, talented graduate students, that was worthwhile.
Serendipity and Writers’ Conferences
The annual conference of the Maryland Writers’ Association was held two weeks ago. For a writer like me, this and other writers’ conferences offer a slew of opportunities and the serendipity of meeting new people and old friends–all at a relatively low cost.
The keynote speakers alone were worth the price at the MWA conference. Chuck Sambuchino, freelance editor, bestselling book author, and former longtime staffer for Writer’s Digest Books, opened the conference with a half-day session on how to query an agent. For many years he edited the Guide to Literary Agents and the Children’s Writer’s & Illustrators Market.
Keynote speaker Crystal Wilkinson, feminist poet and author, talked about character development and agreed to a quickly arranged and informal “fireside chat” on poetry.
I’ve been thinking recently how writers are like detectives. They need to be constantly observant, picking up clues from what people are wearing, how they gesture, the words they speak, the way they interact with others. They study people’s facial expressions and what they suggest, storing away the data in their memory banks or taking notes in a writer’s journal that they’ll refer to later.
Detectives need to ask questions, the right questions, without arousing the suspect’s suspicions. Writers are also usually operating undercover in this way, querying their family members, friends, and acquaintances on unfamiliar subjects, building up their store of knowledge.
A good detective, like an amateur psychologist, also is skilled at looking beyond surfaces, trying to discover the hidden meanings in words, expressions, gestures, aware that most things have multiple meanings.
Writing these things is pretty much like sending out a message in a bottle. If I’m lucky–and often I’m not–a handful of family and friends might glance at my blogs. I often feel like giving up.
Why should anyone read what I have to say here? Everyone’s busy. I get that. Heck, I don’t read most of what my friends write, so why should they read my stuff?
And why should they read my book review of a book that has already been reviewed countless times?
Honestly, the last thing the world needs is another blog by an obscure writer. But obscure writers with newly published books need blogs about them desperately.
That’s why this month–instead of my usual solipsistic musings on reading, writing, and literature–I’m going to make an offer.
Many great stories start with the author asking themselves, “What if x then y?” And a new story is born. “What if there was a boy who lived in a cupboard who was actually a wizard?” These two simple words have incredible powers in a writer’s mind.
One of the tutors for my Masters programs preaches the power of “what if.” If you’re stuck for a story idea, just start writing out a bunch of what if possibilities. -What if aliens came to the universe on a motorcycle? -What if the earth stopped spinning, and a 10 year old girl was the only person who could set it right again? Just think of as many what ifs as you can, until your brain hurts, and then go back through your list and start writing the one that sticks out in your mind the most.
Roz Morris: The publishing business, like all arts businesses, has been through many upheavals in recent years. Has this affected creative writing courses? Do some students come to a course because they think a qualification will give them an extra foothold for a publishing deal?
Garry Craig Powell: I don’t think it’s affected creative writing courses enough. They have a responsibility to be absolutely honest with students, who often do begin their courses thinking that the degree will give them an excellent chance of getting a publishing deal—which as you know, is far from the case. In fact no one in the publishing world cares what your academic background is, as far as I can tell.