Monday, September 14, 2009

Genuine literary discernment is often a liability in editors.

I've completely forsaken this blog. It's sad. To tide you (all 10 of you) over until my next post, an excerpt from this interesting article (Redactor Agonistes By DANIEL MENAKER):

3. Genuine literary discernment is often a liability in editors. And it should be -- at least when it is unaccompanied by a broader, more popular sensibility it should be. When you are trying to acquire books that hundreds of thousands of people will buy, read, and like, you have to have some of the eclectic and demotic taste of the reading public. I have this completely unfounded theory that there are a million very good -- engaged, smart, enthusiastic -- generalist readers in America. There are five hundred thousand extremely good such readers. There are two hundred and fifty thousand excellent readers. There are a hundred and twenty-five thousand alert, active, demanding, well-educated (sometimes self-well-educated), and thoughtful -- that is, literarily superb -- readers in America. More than half of those people will happen not to have the time or taste for the book you are publishing. So, if these numbers are anything remotely like plausible, refined taste, no matter how interesting it may be, will limit your success as an acquiring editor. It's not enough for you to be willing to publish "The Long Sad Summer of Our Hot Forsaken Love," by Lachryma Duct, or "Nuke Anbar Province, and I Mean Now!," by Genralissimo Macho Picchu -- you have to actually like them, or somehow make yourself like them, or at least make yourself believe that you like them, in order to be able to see them through the publishing process.

Friday, July 31, 2009

April Wheeler and Tessie Hutchinson

Read Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" HERE.

I'm the internet's least consistent blogger. Now that I've gotten that out of the way, on to this post!

Revolutionary Road spoiler alerts ahead!

Almost immediately in both Revolutionary Road and "The Lottery", the reader realizes she's entered a world populated by characters wrestling indoctrinations, by people timid but eager to slough the burden of dated, sometimes dangerous, groupthink.

In Revolutionary Road, a suburban complicity, a "tacit agreement to live in a total state of self-deception" is quickly established, especially amongst the four characters, young married couples The Wheelers and The Campbells, struggling hardest to imagine themselves as separate from the environment that defines them, "as members of an embattled, dwindling intellectual underground", "painfully alive in a drugged and dying culture". The novel opens to reveal a changing town, consolidated and newly industrialized, and a group of culturally aware young adults, The Laurel Players, to which The Wheelers and The Campbells belong, but with which they refuse to be lastingly associated. With the lips of this chasm
, one separating traditional expectations from new sensibilities, The Wheelers and Campbells flirt cautiously; still bound by the customs and proprieties of the community they resent, the young revolutionaries find solace in only the smallest, most private rebellions.

Similarly, in "The Lottery", a village of people governed by habit are introduced. The villagers gather on a particular day, what the reader quickly gathers is an annual tradition, every year "of course", and fall into place almost instinctively, while we adjust our feet to their rhythm, to conduct the eponymous lottery.

Like The Wheelers and Campbells of Revolutionary Road, there are those among the villagers prepared to quietly question the status quo.

"They do say," Mr. Adams said to Old Man Warner, who stood next to him, "that over in the north village they're talking of giving up the lottery."

Old Man Warner snorted. "Pack of crazy fools," he said. "Listening to the young folks, nothing's good enough for them. Next thing you know, they'll be wanting to go back to living in caves, nobody work any more, live that way for a while. Used to be a saying about 'Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.' First thing you know, we'd all be eating stewed chickweed and acorns. There's always been a lottery," he added petulantly. "Bad enough to see young Joe Summers up there joking with everybody."

In both stories it is made clear, even before any consequences are explicitly defined, that dissenters will not have an easy time publicly rejecting accepted norms - which brings me to April Wheeler and Tessie Hutchinson: two women who meet tragic ends after (bravely? foolishly?) deciding to act against expectations. Each woman steps beyond her role as wife, mother, woman and pays for these usurpations with her life.

April Wheeler, wife of Frank Wheeler, decides, against her husband's will, in a defiant "denial of womanhood" to abort the couple's third child, because the pregnancy hinders The Wheelers' plan to abandon suburbia in favor of Europe, the universal panacea of unsatisfied Americans in the world of Revolutionary Road, and because she realizes, from her end at least, that her marriage is truly loveless. Tessie Hutchinson, wife of Bill Hutchinson, decides to make a spectacle of herself before her entire village, by protesting the lottery's proceedings, which, as she is promptly reminded, is not how things work.

"Be a good sport, Tessie." Mrs. Delacroix called, and Mrs. Graves said, "All of us took the same chance."

"Shut up, Tessie," Bill Hutchinson said.

For her noncooperation, Tessie wins the lottery... whose prize is death by stoning. The morality of this (centuries old?) practice is as resolute as is it horrific and archaic. No, the lottery isn't fixed - and Tessie is not chosen by any artful design of her peers, but her punishment, if judged against the expectations of the world she inhabits, is fitting. April too dies at the end of Revolutionary Road, due to complications of her the late term abortion she secretly performs on herself. And the story couldn't have ended (as successfully) any other way. The message is that women who step out of traditional roles are exposing themselves to criticism, risking social isolation, and in Revolutionary Road (1961) and "The Lottery" (1946), committing a most literal form of self-sabotage. It's important to include that, while ironic, and in the case of "The Lottery" allegorical, both of these stories provide valuable commentary on and insight into not only the historical roles of women, but the unattainable standards and unbearable pressures associated with attempting to shed blindly accepted traditions.

Despite all of their protestations and aspirations to conquer the depths by which they're swallowed, The Wheelers, Campbells, and Hutchinsons are very much defined by, and in some cases, content to behave within (or afraid or unable to disobey) the limits assigned them.

Watch a short film adaptation of The Lottery and the trailer for the Revolutionary Road feature film below (I've got to see this movie eventually!):

My sole issue with Revolutionary Road

I loved Revolutionary Road, have had the paperback for 6 months and completely destroyed it; it's been written in, dog-eared, ripped, wrinkled, taped, and devoured. I'm not even the 1000th person to believe this, I'm sure, but, Richard Yates created a masterpiece - and Tennessee Williams agreed, according to his quote on the book's back cover.

In my blog header, I announced that I'm making a(n independent! thanks FAFSA!) study of great writing in my hopes of becoming a great writer. What I can't decide, though, is if that means I'll be focusing more on the matter of the things I read, or the manner in which they're written - if it makes ANY sense to separate the two. Most of the things I have to say about Revolutionary Road deal with themes, character development, correlations I discover between elements of the novel and other things I've read, etc - and very few with the intricacies of Yates' masterful prose.

I know I like the book and there's no doubt that it's beautifully and expertly written, but it's proving difficult to dissect and understand (mechanically?) WHY I enjoy this book as much as I do. Perhaps, I've taken the J.V. Cunningham quote (also in the blog banner) too literally. Yates isn't given to syntactical or descriptive indulgences, and if I had breezed through the novel, I may have even thought that Revolutionary Road was written plainly or that it read coldly - and I would have been wrong.

I could probably fill a month's worth of posts with the things I liked about Yates' writing (have I just contradicted myself?): the anthropomorphic descriptions of cars in the first chapter - "foolishly misplaced", "unnecessarily wide" that "crawled apologetically" to their destinations - illuminating character experiences, the story's setting paralleling character developments, synesthetic descriptions and sense triggers - the "yellow smell" of sawdust causing Frank to recall the humiliation of his father's scolding, the "bright yellow pain of [Frank's] real awakening" -, the use of questions and indirect discourse to create group identities, highlight character conflicts, and act as a Greek chorus or supplementary narrator. And I could go on and on and on. And will in future posts.

But this post is about the one thing, the sole thing, about that troubled me: Yates' tendency to state, explicitly, through dialogue or narrator(/author?) interpretations, the significance of his own devices, symbols, themes, etc. At first, this absolutely thrilled me! I'd jot down a note, and pages, sometimes paragraphs or even lines later, there would be my note in the novel's very text (of course, stated infinitely more succinctly and eloquently). It assured me I was reading the book the right way - whatever that means. If I came to the same conclusions as the book's author/narrator, my reading was on the right track... no problems, right? RIGHT?

I thought so the first two or three times it happened and resisted becoming alarmed until the third to last chapter, page 320, where I scratched in the margins, and to my surprise - angrily, DO I LOVE OR HATE YATES' STATING HIS DEVICES THE WAY HE DOES?

Hate??? Surely, I couldn't HATE anything about Revolutionary Road. Could I? Well, that's what I wrote. And here is the sentence that prompted my marginal scribblings:

Then you discovered you were working at life the way the Laurel Players worked at The Petrified Forest, or the way Steve Kovick worked at his drums - earnest and sloppy and full of pretension and all wrong;...

Maybe it's because it reminds me of what I hated most about certain academic writing - the horrid and forced repetition, the restating of the thesis - which always felt patronizing. Can we not assume the readers of our essays (most likely our teachers or professors) get the gist of the thing the first time around, or the second? Must we subject ourselves and our audience to a superficial rewording of the obviously and already stated? Now, I'm 100% sure this is not what Yates is doing, but flashbacks from my brushes with academia (Full Disclosure: I've left two colleges so far and am headed for a third, Shimer, in the Spring) sprang forward after my ninth and and tenth happenings upon these moments in Revolutionary Road.

The first instance occurred on page 45 - here, April Wheeler has just cut the grass while Frank was sleeping and hung-over from drinking the night after an argument between them:

Everything about her seemed determined to prove, with a new, flat-footed emphasis, that a sensible middle-class housewife was all she had ever wanted to be and that all she had ever wanted to love was a husband who would get out and cut the grass once in a while, instead of sleeping all day.

Because earlier in the book, it's made clear that April has no interest in being a "sensible middle-class housewife" and, in fact, feels "trapped" by her environment, I made this note: ex post facto modification of expectations, to minimize failures – also in this case to make Frank feel the full magnitude of her disappointment in his shortcomings. I'm not embarrassed to say that I was proud of myself for having come up with and noticed this, and more for fitting it into the margin legibly. Imagine how impressed with myself I was when I read this on page 54, a mere 9 pages later: "[Frank] laboriously pried the stone out again and began hacking at the root."

HACKING AT THE ROOT???? (Frank is literally hacking at a root here to make way for a stone path he's installing on his property.) Well, that kind of sounds like moving the goal posts, which parallels that note I just took. Hmmmm, I may be on to something.

To confirm my suspicions that I was, indeed, the most brilliant reader of any novel of all time EVER, this on page 55: " now [Frank's] mind had mercifully amended the facts."

MERCIFULLY AMENDED THE FACTS!???! Exactly! Wow, this Yates guy really has the whole thing figured out!

Honestly, I think this post has helped me come to terms with what was troubling me. My other examples of this, and there are at least a dozen others, are pleasant, and reassuring (I may give them a separate post). I often feel like I'm reading in some isolated wilderness or vacuum - and that I'm posting my thoughts into the infinite void that is the internet - so for Yates to give me a little wink now and then is .... well... it's awesome!

And I'm vaguely aware that I'm probably inventing this entire phenomenon, so if that's the case, feel free to let me know in the comments.
(or that there is a name for what I've written about - echoes, parallels... something.)

We all need a little literary therapy... occasionally. This blog can be mine.

In other news, it's probably time I find a book club. Until I'm back in school, it's the waiting game (and blog posting game) for me.

I'll break up the Revolutionary Road stuff with thoughts on Wilfrid Sheed's Max Jamison, Montaigne's Essays, a few short stories by Black authors from Black Voices: An Anthology of Afro-American Literature, African-American Literature: A Brief Introduction and Anthology, and The Best Short Stories by Black Writers, and Sherwood Anderson's Winseburg, Ohio.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

"jolts me out of the present, for just a moment"

In Amateur Reader's most recent post at Wuthering Expectations, he writes of a single sentence in George Eliot's Silas Marner that "jolts [him] out of the present, for just a moment."

Such sentences exist also in Revolutionary Road. The opening lines of Part 2:

There now began a time of such joyous derangement, of such exultant carelessness, that Frank Wheeler could never afterwards remember how long it lasted. It could have been a week or two weeks or more before his life began to come into focus, with its customary concern for the passage of time and its anxious need to measure and apportion it; and by then, looking back, he was unable to tell how long it had been otherwise.

Until this point, the narrative relies on events recounted chronologically by a third-person narrator, interspersed with illuminating character histories occurring before the action of the novel takes place. In the two above sentences, "afterwards" and "looking back" jolt me out of the present.

This is the first time in the book the prospect of any future for The Wheelers is made tangible, though Yates doesn't reveal whether Frank is "looking back" on this moment from Paris - or trapped, still, in his house on Revolutionary Road. Even without this disclosure, Yates' measured inclusion of "afterwards" and "looking back" means that Frank persists at least long enough to have forgotten how long the intoxication caused by the mere IDEA of Paris lasted.

Revolutionary Road's characters are given to extended hypotheticals: planning trips that may never happen, imagining lives that may never exist, pining for, fictionalizing, and romanticizing their pasts, insinuating themselves into superior peer groups... most of their vagaries impotent. This, coupled with a looming sense of menace, a "virus of calamity" just waiting to be consummated, provide no guarantee of the characters' survival, emotional or otherwise.

I was THRILLED, upon reading these two sentences, to find that Frank makes it to the future! AND remains lucid!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Nabokov on The Writing Reader vs. The Reading Writer (sort of)

Again, Vladimir Nabokov expresses my sentiments better than I ever could (though it's ironic I'm finding so much enjoyment in the articulation of my thoughts in his words, as just after the passage below, Nabokov writes, "minor readers like to recognize their own ideas in a pleasing disguise" - to which I must reply, in the words of Marianne Moore, "I’ve always felt that if a thing has been said in the very best way, how can you say it better?"):

"Time and space, the colors of the seasons, the movements of muscles and minds, all these are for writers of genius (as far as we can guess and I trust we guess right) not traditional notions which may be borrowed from the circulating library of public truths but a series of unique surprises which master artists have learned to express in their own unique way. To minor authors is left the ornamentation of the commonplace: these do not bother about any reinventing of the world; they merely try to squeeze the best they can out of a given order of things, out of traditional patterns of fiction."

I'd tried to write something to this effect last month, and naturally, Nabokov's facility of thought and expression eclipses my fumbling, groping, sometimes fatuous ramblings. Nabokov is Nabokov for a reason.

Also, this from Elizabeth Bishop, to make us all feel more foolish:
“I do not understand the nature of the satisfaction a completely accurate description or imitation of anything at all can give, but apparently in order to produce it the description or imitation must be brief, or compact, and have at least the effect of being spontaneous.”

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Nabokov on Macro and Micro Reading

I'm aware that though I arrive at my many made-up terms independently, the concepts they attempt to describe have existed for decades (centuries?).

Here's Vladimir Nabokov (from the essay in the post below, "Good Readers and Good Writers") on what I call macro and micro reading:

"In reading, one should notice and fondle details. There is nothing wrong about the moonshine of generalization when it comes after the sunny trifles of the book have been lovingly collected."

I agree! But this has never stopped me from formulating a (hypo)thesis about a book 13 pages in. It has prevented my posting about books before I read and reread them obsessively.

My mom sees I'm reading Revolutionary Road, the book open to a page littered with marginal scribblings (I'm a carnal, rather than a courtly lover of books). Then: Haven't you already read that, Becky? Of course I have! But now I'm READING it.

Again, Nabokov understands my actions and motives better than I or my mother - even after I try, futilely, to explain them:

"Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader. And I shall tell you why. When we read a book for the first time the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation."


There will be more substantive posts soon, though the beautiful Chicago summer slyly hints to me that "there are times when one is not in a disposition thoroughly to relish good writing."
(via Laudator Temporis Acti - from Charles Lamb in a 1796 letter to Coleridge)

I've not yet been afflicted with that disposition, but it's early in the season.

Saturday, June 20, 2009


Am I the only person excited about the new Google Books features?

This is what I'm reading:
Nabokov's "Good Readers and Good Writers" from Lectures on Literature.
(added the essay to my short list after THIS entry @ Wisdom of the West)

Feel free to read along!

More info on Google Books updates HERE, HERE, and HERE.

The new features include embedding (see above), a more comprehensive search engine (to locate text within books, and the books themselves), more intuitive navigation, and a sleeker interface.

I, personally, LOVE the changes.

Also, Google Books has reached a landmark legal settlement allowing the service to provide online access to (potentially) millions more books than it previously could!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Self-Deprecation + Blogging?

I've convinced a few people I know to take a look at this book blog of mine, and some short stories I've written, and "self-deprecation" came up more than once. I apparently think more meanly of my (slender?) skills in fiction writing than do my friends and family... not that I don't value their opinions.... That said, I won't be posting my prose here in the foreseeable future.

Self-deprecation can be tolerable if drenched in irony - and through this exercise, I've (again) discovered that conversely, if coming from a place of true uncertainly, self-deprecation can be uncomfortable( and ANNOYING!) to endure.

There is, unfortunately, little affliction of false modesty when I say I'm daunted by (and in awe of) the work and my readings of great novelists. I don't write these things with any latent assurance that I may one day accomplish that which now seems so beyond what I know of my talents. Perhaps this has been my learning to keep these doubts to myself.

I will have been blogging here for four months by late June and am still grappling with and groping for the right tone. The issue is, as things now stand, I have no other outlet to express or exorcise my thoughts, feelings, fears, and opinions about the things I read and write.

This passage from Nabokov's "Good Readers and Good Writers" (Lectures on Literature) better articulates one aspect of my fear of insipidity (it has many facets):
Time and space, the colors of the seasons, the movements of muscles and minds, all these are for writers of genius (as far as we can guess and I trust we guess right) not traditional notions which may be borrowed from the circulating library of public truths but a series of unique surprises which master artists have learned to express in their own unique way. To minor authors is left the ornamentation of the commonplace: these do not bother about any reinventing of the world; they merely try to squeeze the best they can out of a given order of things, out of traditional patterns of fiction. The various combinations these minor authors are able to produce within these set limits may be quite amusing in a mild ephemeral way because minor readers like to recognize their own ideas in a pleasing disguise. But the real writer, the fellow who sends planets spinning and models a man asleep and eagerly tampers with the sleeper’s rib, that kind of author has no given values at his disposal: he must create them himself. The art of writing is a very futile business if it does not imply first of all the art of seeing the world as the potentiality of fiction.

That covers what could excite or sedate upon a macro-reading... Then there is the matter of writing WELL. This from a girl who feels her writing hasn't matured since she was 17 years old, when it was still novel and impressive.

I'll be back to writing about reading in no time.... so ignore my venting. No comments on this one because I don't really want to know what anyone thinks of this rant - in all its sincere, more than likely inappropriate disclosure.

Unrelated: I may be developing something of an affinity for Yates' work.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


There seems to be some occult providence dictating the things I happen to read. What other explanation could there be for a girl who makes reading lists, never abides them, yet constantly stumbles upon prose inexplicably supplementary to what she has last read?

While reading an article on Gawker today about shady and hastily assembled Craigslist Writing employment postings, I came across a blind link under this user comment: "Gosh, this is where we're heading, huh? Everyone should read this, then". I followed the blind link to what I quickly discovered was "Builders" from The Collected Short Stories of Richard Yates. Naturally, because I've been reading and enjoying Yates' Revolutionary Road, I dove into "Builders" - and in it I discovered familiar themes, discussions of which I will save for my posts about Revolutionary Road.

What struck me most was the story's male protagonist - and how, with all his misguided aggression toward his well-meaning wife, I could end the story not hating the character. I feel similarly about Revolutionary Road's Frank Wheeler. And here's why:

Just as Frank Wheeler resents in his wife the recognition of his own weaknesses, (the "suffering creature whose existence he tried every day of his life to deny but whom he knew as well and as painfully as he knew himself"), we as readers of Yates' work often find his characters repulsive because they amplify flaws we abhor in ourselves. From what I can tell, Yates' characters have a tendency to spin in the mud; in both stories of his I've read, the reader jumps into a mild hell in media res with characters who loathe themselves and their insignificance as much as we pity them for their lack of progress.

Bob Prentice in "Builders" models his life after and measures his talents and evolution as a writer against Hemingway. When Prentice is conned, his shame is only magnified by his realization that "Ernest Hemingway could never in his life have known... [his] own sense of being a fool." And he was serious.

I'm 22-years-old (the same age as Prentice in "Builders") and understand having idols and feeling inadequate. But seeing these perceived failings in Bob Prentice and Frank Wheeler makes them seem hilarious and trivial. These yard sticks that exist only in our own minds, to which we hold ourselves strictly accountable - become prohibitive neuroses - and frankly, it's hard to witness in others, even if the others are fictional.

So when a stumped Prentice, struggling with writer's block, reacts to his wife's suggestion that he stop trying so hard to be "literary" and "think of Irving Berlin" by saying he'd "give her Irving Berlin right in the mouth in about a minute, if she didn't lay off [him] and mind her own goddamn business," the feminist in me wants to continue the story resolved to dislike Bob Prentice - but the human in me can relate to misplaced anger and aggression, and especially hypersensitivity on the matter of others' opinions of my writing.

I'm finding it impossible to hate Yates' impossible characters, in short.

Update: On the Chicago Reader's Lit & Lectures homepage today, an article originally published by the paper in November 2003 was featured, written by J.R. Jones detailing his intimate history with Richard Yates and his interview for Blake Bailey's A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Works of Richard Yates. In the article is this quote: "...[Yates] could be disarmingly candid and grimly funny, especially regarding himself, and the compassion for life’s losers that made his stories heartbreaking was evident every time he spoke." Sounds about right.

Revolutionary Road posts up next....

Saturday, June 6, 2009

"suffer[ing] from a terrible inertia"

I've been listening to New Yorker Fiction Podcasts, first selecting those whose descriptions contain names I recognize. Yesterday, I downloaded Aleksandar Hemon's discussion of Bernard Malamud’s “A Summer’s Reading.”

I've met Hemon twice - both times in Chicago, the first when I was 17 and had just finished Nowhere Man, at a local reading and discussion of the book. We crossed paths again the next year at the 2005 Chicago Public Library Carl Sandburg Awards Dinner honoring John Updike (who I also met that night. He was gracious and signed not only the two-volume Rabbit series every attendee received, but the 3 other books of his I'd brought along; I later discovered my actions were inconsiderate and in terrible taste, but I had NO IDEA at the time and was simply thrilled to be in Updike's presence. Though, having reread the Rabbit, Run more recently, I've found my tastes quite changed.... ).

I was at the dinner with a friend, thanks to a kind benefactor, who understood two bright-eyed 18-year-olds with literary aspirations could have never afforded the night's price. She spotted Hemon before I did and crossed the room to accost him in the most untoward fashion. I, of course, followed, beaming. To our surprise and elation, he not only remembered meeting us both the previous year at his reading, but recalled our names.

Yesterday, as I listened to Hemon's discussion of Malamud's "A Summer's Reading", Deborah Treisman's description of the short story's protagonist as a young man who "seems to suffer from a terrible inertia" left me with a pang of guilt. Because of the timing, my present circumstances(, and youthful egotism?), and our brief (and probably, in my mind, exaggerated) history, my mind was convinced Hemon's (and Treisman's) words were a direct indictment of idleness.

I am moved to action.