Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Portis, Miller, and Palahniuk

In Which I Review Charles Portis’s “True Grit,” Arthur Miller’s “Incident at Vichy,” and Chuck Palahniuk’s “Consider This”

Hello! Happy August. I hope you’re vaccinated or are getting vaccinated, and that you’ve been able to read and enjoy the summer some.

If you’re looking for reading material, I’ve reviewed three more books that might give you some ideas…

True Grit, by Charles Portis

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“‘I will inform them myself,’ said I. ‘Who is the best marshal they have?’ The sheriff thought on it for a minute. He said, ‘I would have to weigh that proposition. There is near about two hundred of them [….] The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don’t enter into this thinking. He loves to pull a cork. Now L.T. Quinn, he brings his prisoners in alive. He may let one get by now and then but he believes even the worst of men is entitled to a fair shake. Also the court does not pay any fees for dead men. Quinn is a good peace officer and a lay preacher to boot. He will not plant evidence or abuse a prisoner. He is straight as a string. Yes, I will say Quinn is about the best they have.’ I said, ‘Where can I find this Rooster?'”

This book, which inspired the movies, is about a fourteen-year-old girl named Mattie who wants to avenge her father’s murder in the Wild West. So she enlists the help of Rooster Cogburn, a one-eyed marshal with dubious morals.

What made the book good was the dialogue. All the characters were very witty and could hold their own, and entertain the reader at the same time. Meanwhile, Portis was usually able to get away with this without coming off like he was forcing his characters to be witty for the sake of showing off to the reader. That made the dialogue work, in my opinion.

The plot was interesting, too, but an important part of it felt illogical and sexist (I won’t spoil it, though–you’ll have to see for yourself whether you agree). This didn’t ruin the book, but it did make the story less impactful than it could have been.

Basically, if this book didn’t have any dialogue, it would not be worth reading. Fortunately for us, it does.

“Incident at Vichy,” by Arthur Miller

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“Many times I used to ask my friends– if you love your country why is it necessary to hate other countries? To be a good German why must you despise everything that is not German? Until I realized the answer. They do these things not because they are German but because they are nothing. It is the hallmark of the age– the less you exist the more important it is to make a clear impression.”

This play by Arthur Miller is about a group of people in Vichy France in 1942. They’re prisoners of the Nazi collaborators and they don’t know why. This set-up lets Arthur Miller examine ideas like collective guilt, the psychology of groups and individuals, idealism and nihilism, and so on.

The play was thought-provoking. It reminded me of Sartre’s “The Condemned of Altona,” except Miller’s play was much shorter and asked more questions than it answered. It also seemed to have more psychological depth when examining the nature of guilt.

In contrast to another play (Miller’s tragic “Death of a Salesman”), “Vichy” felt fresher. “Salesman’s” characters had to adhere to Miller’s pre-ordained tragic plot-formula. “Vichy’s” characters didn’t adhere to a formula, which meant that Miller didn’t have to contrive everyone’s actions to fit into it. “Vichy’s” characters were being explored, which gave them more room to act like real humans, whereas if Miller had let “Salesman’s” characters act too human, they wouldn’t have fit well into the play’s tragic formula.

So even though “Salesman” is more lauded than “Vichy” (Pulitzer Prize, etc.), and more emotionally-engaging (personal opinion), I would still argue that “Vichy’s” characters are more realistic than “Salesman’s.”

Anyway, I would recommend it.

Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life After Which Everything Was Different, by Chuck Palahniuk

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“This is another reason to bother collecting stories. Because our existence is a constant flow of the impossible, the implausible, the coincidental. And what we see on television and in films must always be diluted to make it ‘believable.’ We’re trained to live in constant denial of the miraculous. And it’s only by telling our stories that we get any sense of how extraordinary human existence actually can be.”

This is a book of writing advice. It read a lot like, “remember to use verbs instead of adjectives! And remember to do XYZ!”, and a lot of it felt obvious or were things I already did in my writing. Even so, they were good reminders. Also, it was interesting to read them because Palahniuk brought a new perspective to why these different things were important to do.

Palahniuk also included memoir-like sections about his crazy fans, how he learned to write, and how his experiences shaped his views on the craft. These sections were filled with anecdotes like, “I did XYZ and it worked for me so much in writing Story ABC.” Even if people give you writing techniques, it helps for them to also give you real anecdotes that explain how such techniques worked for them.

Overall, everything wasn’t different after I finished reading this book, but it enriched things a little bit. In terms of substance, Consider This felt more useful than Cortázar’s book on writing, less useful than Stephen King’s book, and equally useful as Vargas Llosa’s.

So I would recommend it.

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Hosseini

In Which I Review “The Kite Runner,” by Khaled Hosseini

Hello! I’ve read four books for this week but because of time-constraints I’m going to keep you in suspense and only review one of them. You may have heard of it…

The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini

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[About a story the protagonist wrote about a man whose tears became pearls:] “‘Well,’ he said, ‘if I may ask, why did the man kill his wife? In fact, why did he ever have to feel sad to shed tears? Why couldn’t he have just smelled an onion?’ I was stunned. That particular point, so obvious it was utterly stupid, hadn’t even occurred to me. I moved my lips soundlessly. It appeared that on the same night I had learned about one of writing’s objectives, irony, I would also be introduced to one of its pitfalls: the Plot Hole.”

The Kite Runner is about a boy named Amir whose best friend is named Hassan. Amir and Hassan grow up together in Afghanistan, but after an un-namable plot-twist, Amir must redeem himself…

I’m wary of bestsellers, but The Kite Runner was actually a good book, probably because the author put a lot of time and effort into it.

He took the time to get to know his characters, for instance. So he learned their fears and secrets and was able to depict them with a lot of psychological depth. At the same time, he also didn’t reduce them to a single completely-understandable dynamic– “all you’ll ever need to know about Character A is that he’s insecure because his dad never pays attention to him.” Hosseini’s version of Character A would be that and a few other hopes and insecurities, and things that probably don’t show up on the page but that inform his actions anyway.

Hosseini was also very compassionate towards his protagonist, which was impressive considering what happens in the book. It’s hard to explain what I mean by this except to say that it’s obvious when an author holds his/her characters at a distance because it also creates distance between the character and the reader. In Hosseini’s case, there was none of this distance.

So, due to the great characters, the good plot, and the author’s ability to be interesting, the book wound up having an ending that was actually emotionally-satisfying.

However, the middle sagged. Hosseini didn’t include as much interiority as in the beginning. He also seemed to underuse some of the characters he focused on in this section. They were basically just stepping-stones for him to get to the next plot-point (which turned out to be a huge coincidence). Finally, the villain of the story felt more like a cartoon character than a fully fleshed-out human. Yes, he definitely did evil things, but considering the author’s gift for understanding his characters on a human level, it seemed like Hosseini missed another opportunity by not nuancing the villain as well.

Overall though, it was entertaining to read, and I would recommend it. If you’ve already read it, what did you think? Let me know in the comments!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Lonergan

Hello! I hope you’re all well. It’s the season of final exams and allergies, so I wanted to read something funny…

“Lobby Hero,” by Kenneth Lonergan

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“WILLIAM. OK, good. I’m glad to hear it. But that’s why I try to get you to improve your mind a little bit and apply yourself to something. Aim a little higher. But I can see it’s a hopeless cause. You’re probably intended to be just one of those guys who drifts through life doing one job or another, no plan, no specific intentions of any kind. And one day you’re gonna wake up in a lobby just like this one, except everybody’s gonna be calling you ‘Pops.’ And then you’re gonna look back and remember, ‘I should have listened to that guy William. He’s the only one that ever took the time to try to encourage me to cultivate my potential. My whole family was content to see me fritter my life away, but that William, man, he really tried to get me to focus my energies a little bit. And doddering useless old unemployed Pops doorman that I am, I have to admit he could have been a positive influence on me if I hadn’t been such a callous, careless kind of joke-telling, sit-on-my-ass-my-whole-life type of person when I was younger.’ But I guess that’s all right, because you’re not really trying to climb any higher anyway. You see what I mean?”

“Lobby Hero” probably could have been called, “The Play in Which Everyone Tries to Figure Stuff Out.” It’s about a man named Jeff who works in a lobby. He’s trying to figure out his life. Meanwhile, his boss William has a brother who’s in trouble with the police. William has to figure out how to help his brother, and one of the police officers, named Dawn, has to figure out her relationship with one of her superiors.

Parts of this play reminded me a lot of Neil Simon’s “Plaza Suite” in terms of their levity and humor. That was very surprising, considering that the playwright of “Lobby Hero” was the same man who wrote the script for that super-sad movie from a few years back. You know, the one called Manchester by the Sea.

In any case, “Lobby Hero” felt a bit like a sketch instead of a fully fleshed-out experience. Maybe it was because the entire play took place in a lobby and 90% of the play’s important action happened off-stage. That meant the majority of the play consisted of characters talking about all the interesting things that happened in other places. Imagine the entirety of “Hamlet” being told from the perspective of one of the pirates who capture Hamlet during his voyage to England—“Oh, yes, I knew Prince Hamlet, he was a bloke I captured. He had to avenge the death of his father, who was killed by his uncle. Did Hamlet succeed? Oh, yes, his friend Horatio just sent me a postcard telling me he did. Well, that’s all there is to that story. Now I have to figure out my life.”

In other words, all of the interesting action felt like it was just being summarized instead of being enacted on the stage, which took away from its power.

This type of approach could work in certain cases (like Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” or O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”), but the character’s inner-life has to be interesting enough to compensate for the plot’s lack of immediacy. In Chekhov and O’Neill, the characters had a lot of cool layers, subtext, and secrets that the audience didn’t learn about right away.

Meanwhile, considering the fact that Jeff’s only real depth was that he couldn’t figure his life out and that the audience basically came to understand that upfront, his inner-life didn’t feel interesting enough to make the play feel fleshed out. The same felt true for the other characters, too.

So basically, read “Lobby Hero” if you want to see the writer of Manchester by the Sea being funny. That alone is pretty enjoyable.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Aitmatov, Gogol, and Aitmatov Again

Hello! I hope you’re well, and if there’s a blizzard raging around outside, I hope you’re also warm. I’ve reviewed three more books. If you’re warm enough to read at least one of them, I would highly encourage reading the last book.

On Craftsmanship, by Chingiz Aitmatov

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“Man should think about everything, even about the end of the world…What is the power of the human spirit, how does man overcome the cruel obstacles which confront him, what gives man the right to be human and say, in reviewing his life: ‘I lived and knew life’? These questions are unavoidable for an artistic understanding of reality, no matter what the subject.”

On Craftsmanship is a collection of essays written by the greatest underrated writer ever, Chingiz Aitmatov. The essays express his views on various topics from writing to space-travel to world peace. Aitmatov also gives a brief autobiography which was one of the more interesting parts of the book.

Aside from his autobiography, other rewarding parts of the book were about how he approached his works and his ideas about art’s role in society. Other parts read more like propaganda (apparently Aitmatov wrote the book while Kyrgyzstan was still part of the USSR).

He also had a whole essay about the unprecedented technological advances of the 1970s, and another essay about how humanity was slowly but surely starting to threaten nature. Given the technological advances of the 2000s and the unprecedented level of global warming we’ve been experiencing, these essays felt a bit outdated.

In the end, On Craftsmanship gave me a better sense of how Aitmatov thought, but it didn’t change my life.

Dead Souls, Part 2, by Nikolai Gogol

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“‘You will do well to harken unto Him who is merciful,’ he said, ‘but remember also that in the eyes of the All Merciful, honest toil is of equal merit with a prayer. Therefore take unto yourself whatsoever task you may and do it as though you were doing it not unto man but unto God. Even though to your lot there should fall but the cleaning of a floor, clean that floor as though it were being cleaned for Him alone.’”

Dead Souls originally had two parts to it, but Gogol tried to burn away the second part. In my review of the first part, I foolishly thought that since the second part still existed, Gogol had utterly failed. Actually reading the infinitely-disappointing second part made me realize how wrong I was.

The second part begins with Gogol giving the life-story of a new character. The character meets Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, the protagonist of Dead Souls Part 1. Things seem to be going along swimmingly. Then there’s what my version termed “a long hiatus in the original” (also known as a missing part) and we never hear from that character again. Chichikov gets into all kinds of trouble, and we encounter more long hiatuses in the original, after which we find Chichikov magically wanting to change his ways. Irrelevant characters come and go, convenient coincidences and deus ex machinas abound, and whole reams of previously-undisclosed backstory unfurl themselves before the reader’s bewildered gaze. We wonder: Will Chichikov change his ways? Won’t he? The suspense nearly kills us.

I’m not giving anything away: the original ends with an infinite hiatus.

So my suggestion to you is to read the first part and then take a hiatus from the book before you reach the second part. Better yet, make that hiatus an infinite one.

Piebald Dog Running Along The Shore, by Chingiz Aitmatov, Translated by Alex Miller

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“‘Drink,’ said Organ. Kirisk hesitated. Although dying of thirst and eager to empty those few swallows of water down his own throat, he knew he must not. ‘No,’ he said, struggling with the consuming desire inside him. ‘No, Grandad, drink it yourself.’ And he felt giddy. Organ’s hand trembled at these words and he sighed heavily. His gaze softened and he looked affectionately at the boy. ‘I’ve drunk, oh, so much water in my time. But you have a long time to live yet before…’ He did not finish. ‘You understand me, Kirisk? Drink, it’s necessary, you must drink up, but don’t worry about me. Here!’ And again, as he swallowed the water, only for a moment did the boy feel the fire within him dampened and subdued, and again, after the relief, he promptly wanted another drink.”

Guess what? This story isn’t about a dog. It’s about a kid named Kirisk who’s going seal-hunting for the first time in his life with his grandfather, his father, and his uncle. Kirisk is very excited about this rite of passage, but little does he know how life-changing the expedition is going to be…

This story reminded me a lot of Jack London in the way Aitmatov depicted the harsh wilderness. However this story was richer than most of Jack London’s stories because Aitmatov also got across so much about his characters’ inner lives.

What makes the story work seems to be that Aitmatov alternates between showing characters’ thoughts and flashbacks and having them act. The thoughts increase the stakes of their situation which gives their actions more meaning. Then the actions produce unforeseen consequences which go on to reverberate through the next series of thoughts, which further heighten the stakes and so on. Basically, Aitmatov uses both internal and external events to build up suspense, tension, and investment, and since it all culminates in one epic final moment, the whole story is filled with a sense of direction and momentum. Who knew that reading about people drifting around in a canoe could be so engrossing? I didn’t.

You can read it for free here.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Walker, Aitmatov, and Gogol

Hello. I hope you are well. I’ve read three more books, and I hope you find them as enjoyable as I did.

The Color Purple, by Alice Walker

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“Well, us talk and talk bout God, but I’m still adrift. Trying to chase that old white man out of my head. I been so busy thinking bout him I never truly notice nothing God make. Not a blade of corn (how it do that?) not the color purple (where it come from?). Not the little wildflowers. Nothing. Now that my eyes opening, I feels like a fool. Next to any little scrub of a bush in my yard, Mr. __________’s evil sort of shrink. But not altogether. Still, it is like Shug say, You have to git man off your eyeball, before you can see anything a’tall.”

The Color Purple is the story of Celie, a child wife in the South who writes letters to God and gradually comes into her own, while her sister Nettie writes letters to Celie about being a missionary in Africa.

There were several exciting things about the book. First off, it was written in 1982 (way before Swordspoint) and had a terrifically-written African American LGBTQ protagonist. That alone was exciting.

Also, it introduced a second protagonist and viewpoint halfway through in the form of Nettie. Somehow Walker was able to do this without making the book less engaging. Yes, sometimes there were parts that felt less interesting than others, or that felt like they were included just to provide suspense. Most of the time though, the dual narrators made the book more compelling, since there were all sorts of parallels and contrasts to draw between Nettie’s story and Celie’s story.

There were other parts of the book that were confusing at first but turned out to make sense. Sometimes it felt like Celie was just doing what other characters had inspired her to do, or that she wasn’t doing much at all. Then I realized that during the times when Celie wasn’t doing a lot, she was still reflecting and growing, and that the ending of the story (where she actually made decisions without being inspired by others) worked as well as it did because of those reflections.

Needless to say, I would definitely recommend reading The Color Purple.

To Have and To Lose, by Chingiz Aitmatov, Translated by Olga Shartse

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“[…] suddenly an idea struck me: ‘I’ve time enough to go and tell her and then come back here. What does it matter if I start out a few hours later? I’ll explain it to the chief afterwards, maybe he’ll understand, if he doesn’t he’ll give me hell… But I can’t help it, I’ve got to go.’ […] ‘Hey, Ilyas, get under the crane,’ the operator called out to me. The crane poised above me, now it was too late. There was no going anywhere with a load of export goods [….] I looked out of the rear window: the container was being lowered into my lorry. It was coming down and down. ‘Look out,’ I yelled, and shot forward, slipping from under the descending jib. (My engine was running.) Behind me I heard shouts, whistles and curses.”

This book mostly consists of a lorry driver named Ilyas telling his life-story to an unnamed viewpoint character.

The majority of this life-story was about how he fell in love with two women, which basically meant that Ilyas was a walking mess. I don’t mean it in the way he was written, but in the choices he made (like in the above excerpt). Considering the fact that Aitmatov was still able to make him sympathetic in spite of these choices, I would say that he was well-written.

The story didn’t feel as fleshed-out as some of Aitmatov’s other stories. It wasn’t the lack of backstory—there were hints that Ilyas had once fought in a war, and I doubt that having had a whole section about his war-time experience would have added to the story. Maybe it was because all of the characters in this book fell in love so readily that it felt unbelievable.

Then there’s the mystery of the unnamed viewpoint character. He apparently knew a lot of things about Ilyas’s story that Ilyas himself didn’t know, but Aitmatov never tells us what that means. This made the story both frustrating and fascinating. If you think of Hemingway, he excludes important details from his stories but leaves enough in for the reader to figure it out. Aitmatov just hints that the viewpoint character knows something important about the story’s events and then doesn’t let us know anything else, which can be frustrating. However you could also interpret it as realism. In life, there are many things about others’ stories you will never know and will always wonder about. In his story, Aitmatov manages to convey this experience to the readers. You know there’s more but you won’t ever know what it is, which could make for a fascinating read.

So in spite of the instant-romances, and a little bit because of the unresolved mystery, I would recommend this book.

Dead Souls, Part One, by Nikolai Gogol

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“Yes, readers of this book, none of you really care to see humanity revealed in its nakedness. ‘Why should we do so?’ you say. ‘What would be the use of it? Do we not know for ourselves that human life contains much that is gross and contemptible? […] Far better would it be if you would put before us what is comely and attractive, so that we might forget ourselves a little.’ In the same fashion does a landowner say to his bailiff, ‘Why do you come and tell me that the affairs of my estate are in a bad way? I know that without your help. […] Kindly allow me to forget the fact or else to remain in ignorance of it, and I shall be much obliged to you.’ Whereafter the said landowner probably proceeds to spend on his diversion the money which ought to have gone towards the rehabilitation of his affairs.”

Apparently, Dead Souls was written in two parts. Gogol only wanted Part One published so he tried to burn Part Two to ashes. However, as Mikhail Bulgakov could have told him, manuscripts don’t burn, so there are copies of Dead Souls out there with both parts in them.

Now, Part One of Dead Souls is about a man named Chichikov who wanders around a Russian town trying to buy dead souls (peasants who had died and still had to be paid for by their masters for some reason). The whole book consisted of the people who were selling the souls asking why Chichikov would want to buy them if it would cost him and benefit the sellers. Then the sellers would try to sell the dead souls for exorbitant sums of money, or would try to sell the dead souls and their least favorite horse, and so on.

It was very funny to read. I spent the whole book wondering why Chichikov was buying dead peasants, and since Gogol spends the whole book keeping the reader in suspense about this very question, I had an enjoyable reading experience. The very end came out of nowhere though—Gogol randomly went off on a tangent about how great he thought it would be for Russia to colonize more parts of the world. Did he really believe that? Was it just (hopefully) part of his satire? Who knows? Maybe we’ll find out in Part 2.

Until next week!

I Read, Without Sleep

During a break from work, I took out a book from the library yesterday, and finished reading it today. The only problem is I went to bed late and wound up waking up early. As a result, I only got 5 hours of sleep, about the same amount as the book’s writer got while he was serving his literary apprenticeship…

No Mentor But Myself by Jack London

“And without the strong central thread of a working philosophy, how can you make order out of chaos? How can your foresight and insight be clear? How can you have a quantitative and qualitative perception of the relative importance of every scrap of knowledge you possess? And without all this how can you possibly be yourself? How can you have something fresh for the jaded ear of the world? The only way of gaining this philosophy is by seeking it, by drawing the materials which go to compose it from the knowledge and culture of the world.”

This book is very short (192 pages). Well, I guess it isn’t that short, but it felt short. It’s a collection of essays and correspondences written by Jack London about writing (from his start in 1899 onwards). It’s interesting to read, but if you’ve ever read Martin Eden most of it is similar.

Even if you have read Martin Eden, there’s another point of interest about No Mentor But Myself. You see London’s style develop. He goes from spewing out so many adjectives that the reader can’t possibly take him seriously (“Not only has he gone down into the soil, into the womb of the passionate earth, yearning for motherhood, for sustenance of nations; but he has gone down into the heart of its people, simple, elemental, prone to the ruder amenities of existence”) to refining his style so it loses some adjectives and gains its power (“Then the book [Sinclair’s The Jungle] was published, and here it is, a story of human destruction, of poor broken cogs in the remorseless grind of the industrial machine”).

I used to think that great writers came fully-fledged into the world, like Athena bursting forth from the forehead of Zeus. This book has proven otherwise. At its beginning, London is a horrendous writer. At its end, he’s amazing.

The secret? Hard work: “I worked many a long month nineteen hours a day, without sleep.” (He died young though, partially because of the burnout, so don’t try this at home).

Overall, No Mentor But Myself is a great introduction to London as a writer (in terms of his thoughts on writing). This book inspired me to start on his collection of correspondences. Maybe it will inspire you to greatness (but not to burnout).

Hopefully, I’ll be back with more book reviews and thoughts soon. If not, know that it’s because I’m working–hopefully less than nineteen hours a day.

Comedy in Tragedy and Yellows in Blues

Happy almost New Year! I hope you’re all enjoying the last few days of 2019!

I recently read this essay online (the Lehigh University link) about comedy in Eugene O’Neill’s tragic play, “Long Day’s Journey into Night.”

The paper’s writer says that a lot of people focus on the pathos of the play–which I won’t spoil because you should read it for yourself–but don’t consider the role of comedy.

In “Long Day’s Journey”, the paper’s writer asserts that comedy serves to humanize the characters. This makes them, and their reactions to their tragic situation, more convincing and compelling.

This idea reminded me of how painters, in painting a picture, use a lot of colors. That sounds obvious. But they use them in such a way as to promote contrast. For instance, there’s a yellowish layer in Winslow Homer’s 1880 painting, “Boys in a Dory.”

It seems counterintuitive to use yellow in painting a nautical scene. However, when combined with the painting’s blue hues, the yellow serves as a contrast that gives the painting a new dimension and makes it more convincing and compelling.

Similarly, comedy serves to contrast with the tragedy in O’Neill’s play. This contrast gives the characters more nuance and makes them more realistic, which increases the compelling nature of their tragic situation.

In writing, comedy doesn’t just have to be comic relief–it can also play a key role in giving extra dimension to a work and deepening its power.

I hope I gave some insight into this technique. It sounds fascinating, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

John Irving’s Bears

It’s great to be back! I have been super-busy with classes and so I couldn’t post much. I will post more now because there is a break.

There’s an interesting Guardian article that’s about to celebrate its 10-year anniversary come 2020. Here’s the link:

https://www.google.com/amp/s/amp.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2010/jan/11/fiction-johnirving

The reason this article is so interesting is that it raises a question about the merits of “self-ripping-off” across a writer’s body of work.

The writer says that the author John Irving repeats elements from his work from book to book (there’s always a bear for instance) even if it doesn’t seem relevant to the story being told.

I’ve only read one book by Irving so I can’t speak to the relevancy of bears, but the author of the article does raise a question that seems relevant to writers in general:

Do these recurring themes have a wider point? Are they a sign of mischief? A checklist for trainspotter fans? Or simply a tic, a mark of laziness?

Is ripping off one’s own work laziness?

I say, not necessarily.

Pushkin wrote a lot about duels, for instance, but compare his short story “The Shot” with his novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin, and you’ll see that although both had duels, the duels weren’t contrived into the story because Pushkin lacked originality. The duels were needed to tell the stories, and Pushkin had something new to say about each duel.

The author of the article makes a similar point: authors can “find more mileage” out of familiar elements by bringing a new perspective to them.

As I write more short stories that share similar ideas, I ask myself if I’m ripping myself off. I think about John Irving’s bears, and how it does not matter whether John Irving includes bears in all of his stories as long as he needs them to tell the story. Finally, I decide that it does not matter if I repeat elements across my work, as long as I say something new about them.

I hope you enjoyed my thoughts. If you’ve ever read Irving, let me know. In the meantime, happy holidays!

I Read, and Make Up For The Past With Works Of Timeless Wisdom

I reviewed only one book last time. To make up for it, I’m reviewing three books of timeless wisdom, one of which is 700+ pages (no, it’s not the Dictionary).

I’ll review them in size-order, from smallest to largest. To even things out a bit, the smallest one will have a ridiculously long quote, while the largest one will feature a ridiculously puny quote.

1. F. Scott Fitzgerald on Writing by Ernest Heming-F. Scott Fitzgerald, of course

“The history of my life is the history of the struggle between an overwhelming urge to write and a combination of circumstances bent on keeping me from it.

When I lived in St. Paul and was about twelve I wrote all through every class in school in the back of my geography book and first year Latin and on the margins of themes and declensions and mathematics problems. Two years later a family congress decided that the only way to force me to study was to send me to boarding school. This was a mistake. It took my mind off my writing [….]

But in school I went off on a new tack. I saw a musical comedy called The Quaker Girl, and from that day forth my desk bulged with Gilbert & Sullivan librettos and dozens of notebooks containing the germs of dozens of musical comedies.

Near the end of my last year at school I came across a new musical-comedy score lying on top of the piano [….] and the title furnished the information that it had been presented by the Triangle Club of Princeton University.

That was enough for me. From then on the university question was settled. I was bound for Princeton.

I spent my entire Freshman year writing an operetta for the Triangle Club. To do this I failed in algebra, trigonometry, coordinate geometry and hygiene. But the Triangle Club accepted my show, and by tutoring all through a stuffy August I managed to come back a Sophomore and act in it as a chorus girl. A little after this came a hiatus. My health broke down [….] Almost my final memory before I left was of writing a last lyric on that year’s Triangle production while in bed in the infirmary with a high fever.

The next year, 1916—17, found me back in college, but by this time I had decided that poetry was the only thing worth while, so […] I spent the spring doing sonnets, ballads and rondels into the small hours. I had read somewhere that every great poet had written great poetry before he was twenty-one. I had only a year and, besides, war was impending. I must publish a book of startling verse before I was engulfed.

By autumn I was in an infantry officers’ training camp at Fort Leavenworth, with poetry in the discard and a brand-new ambition—I was writing an immortal novel. Every evening, concealing my pad behind Small Problems for Infantry, I wrote paragraph after paragraph on a somewhat edited history of me and my imagination. The outline of twenty-two chapters, four of them in verse, was made, two chapters were completed; and then I was detected and the game was up. I could write no more during study period.

This was a distinct complication. I had only three months to live—in those days all infantry officers thought they had only three months to live—and I had left no mark on the world. But such consuming ambition was not to be thwarted by a mere war. Every Saturday at one o’clock when the week’s work was over I hurried to the Officers’ Club, and there, in a corner of a roomful of smoke, conversation and rattling newspapers, I wrote a one-hundred-and-twenty-thousand-word novel on the consecutive week-ends of three months. There was no revising; there was no time for it. As I finished each chapter I sent it to a typist in Princeton.

Meanwhile I lived in its smeary pencil pages. The drills, marches and Small Problems for Infantry were a shadowy dream. My whole heart was concentrated upon my book.

I went to my regiment happy. I had written a novel. The war could now go on [….] and then the publishers wrote me that though The Romantic Egotist was the most original manuscript they had received for years they couldn’t publish it. It was crude and reached no conclusion [….]

I was absolutely unfitted to be a reporter.

Instead I became an advertising man at ninety dollars a month, writing the slogans that while away the weary hours in rural trolley cars. After hours I wrote stories—from March to June. There were nineteen altogether; the quickest written in an hour and a half, the slowest in three days. No one bought them, no one sent personal letters. I had one hundred and twenty-two rejection slips pinned in a frieze about my room. I wrote movies. I wrote song lyrics. I wrote complicated advertising schemes. I wrote poems. I wrote sketches. I wrote jokes. Near the end of June I sold one story for thirty dollars.

On the Fourth of July, utterly disgusted with myself and all the editors, I went home to St. Paul and informed family and friends that I had given up my position and had come home to write a novel. They nodded politely, changed the subject and spoke of me very gently. But this time I knew what I was doing. I had a novel to write at last, and all through two hot months I wrote and revised and compiled and boiled down. On September fifteen This Side of Paradise was accepted by special delivery.

In the next two months I wrote eight stories and sold nine. The ninth was accepted by the same magazine that had rejected it four months before [….] Then my novel came out. Then I got married. Now I spend my time wondering how it all happened.

In the words of the immortal Julius Caesar: ‘That’s all there is; there isn’t any more.’ “

I hope you enjoyed this ridiculously-long excerpt from this ridiculously-short book.

That’s what this book is–excerpts from Fitz’s letters, memoirs, etc. about how he became a writer, as well as his thoughts on writing. I just quoted the best part of the book up there for you, but the rest of it is pretty good, too. Also, apparently there’s a series of these books– I once read Ernest Hemingway on Writing, for instance.

I think these books are cool. Instead of spending months ferreting out wisdom from old musty archives, here you have a readily consumable sampling of essential wisdom.

2. A Hand to Guide Me: Legends and Leaders Celebrate The People Who Shaped Their Lives Compiled by Denzel Washington

“These days our streets are a hundred times more dangerous than they were when I was growing up in Mount Vernon, New York, in the 1960s. And our worries don’t end on the streets. Today’s children are assaulted with such a constant barrage of negative influences it’s a wonder anyone amounts to anything. But we do, don’t we? We manage. We redouble our efforts and refocus our priorities and find a way to light a positive path for our children. We rise above the world we’ve inherited, and we aim to go our parents, our teachers, our coaches, our role models one better. And our aim is true because we keep hitting our marks, time and time again.”

Although this book features stories from people like Muhammad Ali and Toni Morrison, I found the most valuable wisdom came from people who were not such household names. For instance, Antwone Fisher, a screenwriter who grew up in Cleveland Ohio, talked about how every day he’d walk through a mall that contained plaques with the names of famous people who grew up in that part of Ohio, such as that of Jesse Owens. “If they can make it big, so can I,” Fisher thought every time he walked through the mall. And he did, when he wrote the screenplay for “Antwone Fisher.”

I love the idea that anybody can become amazing if they have the determination to reach their maximum potential.

Other stories tell of people who have been inspired by their parents, their teachers, or their coaches. Bob Woodward didn’t think he would ever get to the bottom of the Watergate affair until he expressed his doubt to the owner of the Washington Post who replied, “Never? Don’t tell me never!” Then he did, and helped change history.

In sum, this heartwarming book is a good read for anybody, whether you’re a parent, a teacher, a coach, or even a student. Maybe you’ll be inspired to become amazing, too.

3. Telling Stories Compiled by Joyce Carol Oates

“In the end, we can depend only upon our own judgment and self-definition guided by our intuition in writing as in our lives.”

Disclaimer: Oates is my professor and I read this book for class, so I have to hope that my review is not biased.

Now, to business.

The book is over 700 pages long. I read it in 3 days. It basically taught me the difference between good fiction and great fiction.

There are 121-ish stories in this book and only four or so are great. The rest are really good. This is my opinion, of course. I doubt anybody else reading it would have the same thoughts.

Highlights for me included Ernest Hemingway’s “Indian Camp” (great), William Faulkner’s “That Evening Sun” (great), Richard Ford’s “Communist” (great), William Carlos Williams’ “The Use of Force” (great), Tom Wayman’s “Violence” (great), Pinckney Benedict’s “The Sutton Pie Safe” (really good), Robert Taylor Junior’s “Mourning” (really good), and Russell Banks’s “Just Don’t Touch Anything” (really good).

Anyway, the great stories tend to produce a definite effect on the reader (Faulkner, Wayman) or contain fascinating depths (Hemingway, Williams, Ford). The really good stories seem like they will for sure do this, but then may not necessarily follow through all the way. That’s just my highly-subjective opinion. The greatest thing about this book (even greater than Faulkner or Hemingway, etc.) is that there are so many stories, you’re bound to find some that speak to you as being “great.”

I hope you enjoyed my reviews. I’ll be back soon with more thoughts and reviews. One thing I’ve learned from consuming all this wisdom: it’s awfully fun to read many books at once.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Fiction

Let me start by being overly-simplistic and saying that writing fiction isn’t that demanding. All you need to do is tell a story.

You can write the prettiest description of a landscape ever, but it’s much more interesting if you write about the struggles of the people (or animals) in that landscape.

Which sounds more interesting? A description of the Alaskan wilderness, or a tale about a domesticated dog named Buck who is sold to Alaskan traders, escapes, and becomes king of the aforementioned wilderness? Likely, the latter is more interesting, partially because it’s written by Jack London, but mostly because it tells a story.

It also has a character readers can root for in the form of Buck, who undergoes trials and tribulations in the form of escaping captivity, and ultimately grows because of the journey he has taken.

A good story takes readers on a journey.

Don’t be afraid to use description in your piece, but make sure that it’s used to serve the overall story. For instance, Jack London does include a description of the Alaskan wilderness, but he does this so that non-Alaskan readers could get a sense of the peril that Buck would have to face when drawing the traders’ sled through the snow. In London’s case, description helps make readers invested in Buck’s journey, and thus, in the story itself.
When you write your own fiction, consider how the protagonist changes from the events in your story. Take your readers on a journey.

Tell us a story.