Meandering Look at Literature

I stay on standard time all year. This means in summer I wake at 8. All the people around me are up with the sun, but not me. In fact the best two hours of sleep are between 6 and 8. In a few months, I’ll be getting up earlier 😉

Last night I learned of a young writer who’s won all kinds of prizes for her book The Tiger’s Wife and has recently brought out her second novel. Naturally, I was momentarily gripped by envy. It’s just how it is. If you’ve seen Midnight in Paris you might remember Keanu Reeves as Hemingway saying to the young guy from another time, who was writing a book, “Don’t show it to another writer. Writers are competitive.” I’d say failed writers are not just competitive but bitter.

Once the wave of envy passed, I looked at her book.

Once more I thought, “Good God. I’d never write this.” First person, paragraph after paragraph after paragraph after paragraph — pages — of description. Then I remembered the review of The Price that I hate and that has, I think, perhaps dissuaded from reading that book. That review described my writing as “sparse” (as if that were a negative thing 😀 ) and said my book was a failed attempt to write a book I 1) had never heard of and 2) would never write (I looked at it). How can you dis a novel for NOT being something it never set out to be? It is like dissing Huckleberry Finn for not being Portnoy’s Complaint.

I thought of all the things that go together to make a “time.” As I was growing up, and in school, the writers who were lauded as “great writers of our time” were Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Capote. There was no such thing as “Women’s literature,” there was only literature, and at that time the ascendancy of serious women writers — Joan Didion, Joyce Carol Oates, Norah Ephron… The good prose put in front of us was NOT paragraph after paragraph of description. Our professors — most born when Hemingway was still writing — had broken from tradition by embracing Papa. My giant anthology in college did not contain “The Yellow Wallpaper” or anything by Kate Chopin, never mind Toni Morrison. There was no “Norton Anthology of Women’s Literature” but by the time I, myself, was teaching at a university, there was. I saw it as a 1000 page literary ghetto, but that’s just me.

My thesis was about Godey’s Lady’s Book from 1828 – 1845 (during part of this time Poe was the literary editor) which was edited by Sarah Josepha Hale during its heyday. It featured ONLY American authors and most were female. It enforced the idea that women write differently — and about different things — then do men. This didn’t make women worse writers; just different with a different focus, a different reason for reading, different reasons for writing. They wrote from a female perspective about a separate world referred to back then as the “women’s sphere.”

By the time I was out in the world of work (which was academia, after the first 5 years in the clerical jungle) there was an overt and political motion against misogynistic dead, white male writers. I thought this was dumb. What if they were good? What if they had important things to say? Shouldn’t EVERYONE be read with the understanding that whatever benighted time they lived in would affect what they said and how? How they lived?

When I met Hemingway once I was out of school it was intense. I was in my late 20s and life was pretty jacked. I was already divorced, in love with a gay man who was also in love with me. I was on my own trying to connect one end of the month to another. The Hemingway I’d met in the 9th grade was a far different writer than the one I met at 27. No, wait, I was different. My bad. About the same time I met Capote. Two very spare writers yet very different from each other, both approached writing from a philosophical perspective that wasn’t all that different. Both very adamant about it.

And, their writing charmed me. It wasn’t all I read. I loved Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but they didn’t offer me any information I could use. Lost in Terra Nostra when I was in China (how weird is that?) I realized the outer world interested me more than the inner world. The inner world seemed finite (naturally) and the outer world? What was THAT all about. It was a forty year search in the labyrinth of reality before I met Goethe and got a road map.

Every writer is a person with a life and a journey.

The bottom line is taste. No writer can possibly know what every reader wants in a novel or why every reader reads. Beyond that is the social indoctrination of each generation. Tea Obreht’s book, The Tiger’s Wife, is (from the first three pages) intoxicating. It’s the kind of book a person might turn to on a rainy day hoping to lose themselves.

And no, I don’t write that book and I’m unlikely to read it. I don’t want to lose myself. I’ve been there before.

15 thoughts on “Meandering Look at Literature

  1. Your words speak to Roseblatt’s Transactional Theory. That meaning is made by the author’s words and what the reader brings to the reading. At different stages of our lives we bring a different perspective and we engage in ways we might not have before, or as someone else might.

  2. There are so many different genres of fiction because people have very different tastes. One person’s opinion is just that – the opinion of that person.

    I am almost finished reading your trilogy, which I have loved. It is very theme driven and I am a fan of medieval times. Good description of the horror of battle. It really was the character, Rudolph, who grabbed me. At first, I wasn’t his biggest fan, because I didn’t like his choices. And I wanted Conrad to be the protagonist and hero. What do I know? That was very early in the story. I took the journey with Rudolph. He definitely grew on me. From my perspective, he rode into literal battle in the Crusades to fight an internal battle in his soul. I especially liked the time he spent with Youhanna. I also loved his character and his motivation. I am sort of at a pivotal moment in Rudolph’s journey. I can’t wait to see how it ends.

    P.S. I highlighted several passages from the book, because I loved what you said and how you said it.

    • I SO needed to read this today. Thank you. ❤ ❤

      I'm VERY happy you wanted Conrad to be the protagonist. That's JUST what I wanted. Sometimes the real heroes are the ones whose struggle is invisible and whose triumph is surviving, not the flashy dazzling dashing lovely ones…but (I hope) as you read the next two books you'll find Conrad again.

      If you can, I'd be grateful for a review when you've finished. Nothing big, just whatever you thought.

  3. I thought, in general, writers wrote what they saw. I don’t get huffy about writers sticking with what they know/see, but it’s definitely an issue when a certain perspective is deemed worthwhile, authoritative, or serious. I do admit it annoys me when it seems like a writer lacks awareness of people and experiences outside their personal demographics.

    I have actually laid off fiction quite a lot since discovering memoir. But the really good literature was as real to me as Jean-Dominique Bauby’s locked-in syndrome or Piper Kerman doing time in prison. I don’t read to escape or lose myself. It’s quite the opposite, in fact.

    • I’m not huffy. It’s just the question of “write what you know” is more than just the actual life you’ve lived. We know a lot beyond that or there would not be historical fiction (responsible historical fiction) science fiction, magical realism or even romance. And humanity? My second novel, Savior, is deeply informed by my own family and that grounds it. Just because it’s two brothers living in 13th century Switzerland, doesn’t mean there might not be the same mean neurotic mother, the self-destructive Golden Child and the sincere, plain, depressed older kid that mom just doesn’t like. It’s all there and I know it VERY well. 🙂

      Good memoir is almost the same thing as good fiction, IMO. The difference is with good fiction, life must be believably injected into an imaginary (or, in the case of my novels, carefully researched) world, and with a good memoir the creative imagination is invoked in discerning what in the morass of experiences is a story for other people. I’ve written four novels and four memoirs. The memoir about hiking with my dogs in San Diego — My Everest — is the most popular of my books because it is the most accessible and gives readers some things that I think many (most?) want — happiness, a little inspiration, simplicity and dogs.

      I just finished a memoir about teaching in China during 1982/83. It’s my second favorite among my books — the first is Martin of Gfenn, my first novel.

      I don’t read fiction at all any more. I just hate it — with the exception of Jane Gardam whose work I love. 🙂

  4. “Write what you know” is good advice. I don’t care how well written something is, the minute something rings untrue they lose me. The solution is to know lots of things, have a wide range of experiences and understand the things you know and feel. A keen observer will understand far more than another person who drifts along seeing without trying to understand. A person (of any age) who is a keen observer and is diligent in their craft will write far better literature (IMHO) than a prolific author who never gets below the surface of life. Or who lacks the patience to revise revise revise. (That’s me.)

    Literature expresses the secrets of humanity in a way I understand. In real life whole volumes of communication slips past me and I am left scratching my head as to what just happened. When I read something I can slow down and analyze, trace out the connections, and figure out the unsaid implications.

    • “Write what you know” is taken by many to mean “you can only write convincingly about what you have experienced directly.” I don’t think that’s true at all. I think women can write real male characters, men can write real women characters, it’s possible to write authentically and accurately (as much as possible) about a time you haven’t lived in. Or hasn’t happened yet! 🙂

      I find myself tuning out people talking a lot of the time. I listen for dialogue, but what they say? I don’t think I’ve ever been good at “aural learning.” But I have a good friend who literally needs to tell herself orally what’s she’s doing for the day.

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