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Archive for January, 2009


with 3 comments

I think we need to do a little defining of terms here.

Robert says he thinks a lot of people think “mainstream” fiction is a genre, but I’m willing to bed he doesn’t mean mainstream, but contemporary literary fiction.  There is certainly a strain of American contemporary literary fiction–the stuff stemming from the Updike/Salinger tradition, like books by Ann Beattie–that fulfills the definition of genre, but mainstream by definition does not.

Mainstream fiction is first and foremost that fiction for which there are no hard and fast rules of form or content. 

The Sun Also Rises is mainstream fiction, but then so is Gone With The Wind and Valley of the Dolls. 

Mainstream fiction is fiction aimed at a general reader (experimental fiction, like Finnegan’s Wake, is always literary) for which no certain statements can be made about the content, the settings, the narrative arc before we’ve read it.

In genre romance, for instance, we know before we start that the heroine and the hero will end up happily married–but although GWTW has many of the markers of a romance novel when it starts, the hero and the heroine do not end up happily married, and don’t even end up together.  

In the same way, we know in a mystery that the bad guy will be caught and punished and that somebody innocent but wrongly accused will be vindicated in the end.  In The Brothers Karamozov, which in many ways is a classic detective novel, complete with dramatic courtroom confession, the guilty party goes free and a man innocent of the murder is punished for it.

It’s like the difference between poetry written in a standard form, like a sonnet, or in terza rima, and poetry written without such a commitment.   In a sonnet, the octet will be followed by the sestet, the rhyme scheme will be a-b-b-a c-d-d-c e-f-f-f-g-g, the whole thing will be in iambic pentameter and you can count on it all from off.  If I underake nothing but to write a poem in the way that seems best to me, the octet in iambic pentameter may give way to a ten-line second stanza in trophic trimeter and rhymed couplets.   The reader can’t know what will come next, except by reading.

Genres come in stricter and looser forms, of course.  I’m not sure what categroizes “science fiction” these days, except that a lot of it takes place in the future, or in space, and has something to do with technology.   Mystery is somewhat stricter, but only somewhat.  We do expect the bad guys to be caught and punished, but beyond that there seems to be a mystery reader audience for almost anything.  Romance is a much stricter genre, because not only must the hero and heroine end up together, but they must endure a set of mostly predictable obstacles to their love–and especially, the hero must for some reason be cruel and dismissive to the heroine, so that she thinks that she loves in vain and to her own misery for most of the book.

Genres have virutues as well as vices.  Their greatest virtue is that they provide–at least in the looser forms–a framing device that will in and of itself provide an audience for material it would otherwise be impossible to get them interested in.   Lymaree said that she was disappointed when Gregor showed up in  Somebody  Else’s Music, because she knew that meant going back to the same old same old.  I know from having been involved in trying it that no publisher would be the least interested in putting out a straight book about a bunch of ex-high-school queen bees still determined to screw over the one person they hated when they were seventeen.  

And that brings us to the one big drawback of genres, and that is that, in becoming familiar to readers, they also become old.  The other drawback is that the forms always limit the scope of the book.   Maybe it’s just been so long since we’ve seen anything like a mainstream novel with full scope, that we can’t remember what that was like.

I’d like to suggest–for those of you with access to library systems that hold onto their books instead of trash them–a series of mainstream novels by the author Allen Drury published in the Fifties and Sixties.  I actually own a complete set of these, in hardcover, because Bill went out and got them and even managed to get a few signed by  Mr. Drury himself–after I’d practically forced him to read the first one.  Before then, he was convinced that he “hated” “mainstream” fiction, and he was confusing “mainstream” with “literary” too.

The first of these novels is one you might have heard of, because it won a Pulitzer prize and was a New York Times number one best seller.   It was also made into one of those movies with a cast made up of practically everybody you’ve ever heard of.  This was Advise and  Consent, a political novel thinly based on the Alger Hiss case, sort of. 

For those of you who’ve never heard of Allen  Drury, he was widely considered a “conservative” by the end of the Sixties, but it was “conservative” in the old East  Coat Liberal Republican Establishment sense. This is not a man who would have put up with the Reverend  Jerry Falwell for a minute and a half, and the sympathy with which he was able to portray homosexual and bisexual men in an era when being such was illegal and admitting to such was social and political death is truly stnning.

The series concerns US politics in general and the  US response to Soviet expansionism in particular, and it comes with a stirring cast of recurring characters.  The books follow these characters down the years, from the rigidity of Fifties sexual dramas through the mess of  Sixties radicalism through the projected results of al this–and that’s where we get to my point.

The series consists of several novels, ending in two different and alternating “last” ones.  That is, Drury brought the overarching conflict of the series to a final crisis, and then wrote one novel as if the crisis had been resolved one way, and another novel as if the crisis had been resolved the other way.

Since there was no genre imperative here, it was possible for this story to end either way.   There was no way to know in advance which way the story would go.  

The Drury novels now seem to have been out of print for many years, and I  can’t find the ones we have in the house at the moment, but I wonder at the fact that we don’t see more of this kind of thing, more of actual mainstream fiction.  We have literary novels and mystery novels and romance novels and science fiction novels, but nobody seems to be doing any more what Allen Drury did.  Or, for that matter, what Rona Jaffe, Leon Uris, and Irving Wallace did.  

It’s this, I think, that has me going back to nineteenth century novels over and over and over again.   I miss the scope and the openendedness that used to mean fiction to me.  Drury wrote decently good novels, but I liked even bad novels of this kind–I’ve run through three or four copies of The Best of Everything.  

And I have no idea why Drury’s novels are no longer in print when other and less well writtenmainstream novels are (think Valley of the Dolls again, or the anniversary edition of Peyton Place).  Maybe publishers think that the concentration on the Cold War will seem like old hat to too many readers.

But I come back, again, to the fact that novels like thse don’t sem to be published at all any more.  And I think it’s a good idea to ask why not.

But in the meantime,  I’m going to get back to Lady  Glen and Ferdinand Lopez, who is about to get totally, righteously and satisfyingly screwed.

Written by janeh

January 31st, 2009 at 11:06 am

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The Higher Gossip

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I really wish I could say I’d invented the phrase I used for a title this morning, but it’s actually been around a long time, usually as a way to describe the nineteenth century novel in both  Frrance and England.  I was thinking about it, though, because of what somebody said about characters with goals. 

First, let me get back to escape.   I understand just how Janet feels about the word, because it repels me, too–there’s something about it that just feels wrong.   I willl say with some of the rest of you t hat there are times when my life is very unsatisfactory.  I don’t think it’s possible to avoid that in any life.  People get sick, people die, jobs don’t an out or turn out not to be what you expected them to be, relationships fail–and that’s assuming that you’re very lucky and nothing truly serious hits the fan.

But “escape” for me always has a tinge of mindlessness–of shutting down my ability to think.  I don’t think  I’ve ever actually wanted to do that, but even if I had,  I’m not sure I would have been able. 

And I do like arguments, at least political and religious and aesthetic arguments, and, like Janet,  I can be driven crazy by people who freak out and get hysterical at the first sign that anybody is disagreeing with anybody else.  If you go to the main web site this blog is on and look on the left side of the main bag, you’ll see an essay called “Jane’s Rules of the  Road.”  I wrote that in response to an incident of just that sort.

But I will reiterate what I said yesterday, and agree with Cheryl a bit here–there is something about focusing on my own problems that makes them worse.  That was true of writing journals, which, as I said, is why  I don’t write them any more.   But it is also true of the one or two times I tried “therapy.”

For me, there are two things wrong with therapy, at least as  I experienced it.  First was certainy the necessity of thinking always and forever on what was wrong with my life and what I felt about it.  Second was the need to define myself as sick, a requirement that was almost self fulfilling.

In that one period when I was severely depressed–so depressed that I couldn’t write, and it was long before I was publishing, so I didn’t have writing income (or lack of it) as an incentive–the one thing that helped was Doing Something, and what I did that time was to volunteer at  a call in help line. If you ever want a really fast dose of  “there but for the grace of God,” I’d suggest that you volunteer at a call in help line in Detroit.  And that was in the days when Detroit was still a viable city.

But the characters help as well, these days, and I still don’t know if they help anybody else but me.  Not only can I write about characters who have my problems and yet feel better about those problems as they have to do with myself, but I can read about them as well.  Writing is better, but the mere fact that the relative dying of cancer belongs to  a friendless young woman in Victorian London is enough to distance the issue from me.

That this is not true for everybody is obvious from those letters I get from readers who complain that they come to fiction to relax, not to read about all these terrible things they’ve got enough of in their own lives.

But the fact is that most of my reading isn’t in the genres any more, and it never was in any genre outside the mystery.  Most of my reading of fiction tends to be in those nineteenth century novels I mentioned, when the point of the novel was assumed by everyone to be, as Trollope put it, showing the reader The Way We Live Now.

At the momen, I’ve just managed to get started with the book I meant to read for Christmas, Trollope’s The Prime Minister.  This is the second to last in a series of books usually called “The Palliser Novels,” because the have to do–sort of, and I’ll get to that in a minute–with a man named Plantagenet Palliser and his career first in the House of Commons and later, once he’s entered the House of Lords, as Prime Minister.

And yes, I know. In these days, nobody in the House of Lords could be Prime Minister.  But  Trollope is dealing with a period in English history before Memebers of Parliament were even paid.

Anyway, Trollope’s two main obsessions were Parliament and the Church of England.   He stood for Parliament, but his career was not successful.   His more famous series of novels concerns the Church, and many college students over the years have been forced to suffer through The Vicar of  Wakefield because of it.  If that was all I had known of Trollope, I’d never have gone back.  But in graduate school I got the second of the Palliser novels, called Phineas Finn, and I loved that one so much that I went actively looking for more.

It wasn’t easy.  For a couple of decades there, most of Trollope’s novels were out of print.  For the graduate course I mentioned, we had to read Phineas Finn in a “miniature classics” edition so tiny it almost fit in the palm of my hand, and with those paper-thin pages that pocket Bibles used to be printed on.

In each of the Palliser novels, there are two threads.   One is the specific focus of the book, a set of characters who will appear in detail only in this particular volume.  This thread in The Prime Minister concerns a young woman named Emily Wharton and her family, thrown into difficulties because Emily insists on marrying a man–called Ferdinand Lopez–about whom her family knows nothing, and in spite of the fact that she is being sought by the nicest, finest, richest man in her circie, who also happens to be a man she grew up with.

Needless to say, Lopez turns out to be everything her family tries to toll her he is, and worse, and the novel follows the arc of the marriage and of Lopez’s career until both of them end in ruin.  Whether Emily will then get to live a decent life, I can’t tell.   In  Victorian England, a woman once married tended to be a woman thoroughly stuck.  But I’m interested to know what happens, and that’s what I was getting at about The Higher  Gossip.  This is the kind of information we are concerned about among the people we know, and sometimes for some of us about “celebrities.”  I don’t know that there is a goal here, but I also don’t think the characters just drift, as they do in a lot of contemporary literary fiction.   There’s a narrative arc, it’s just not about somebody achieving something.

The other thread in the Palliser novels concerns the Pallisers, and that amounts to The Higher Gossip, Extended Version.  I have by now followed Planty Pall’s career through four books.  This is the fifth, and there’s a sixth still to come.   The very first novel in the series traced the difficult early days of his marriage to the greatest heiress in England.  Once that settled down and the couple became committed to each other in every way possible, the books followed the careers of the two of them together, because Lady Glencora definitely “helps.”  She’s also a force of nature, which is fun.

The thing is this–I definitely perk up whenever one of the regular series characters shows up or has a more than passing part in the proceedings.  I like reading about Lady Glen because she’s Lady Glen and I know her, and that’s true by now of Plantagenet himself, some of their friends (like Phineas Finn and his wife, and a complete little tramp with money called Lizzie Eustace), and even some of the minor personalities who have popped in and out over time.

Trollope’s idea of a “political novel” is not what we usually think of it.   He wasn’t interested in the great issues of the day, but in the personal lives and careers of ambition of political persons.  You don’t have to know anything about the history of Home Rule for  Ireland or the county suffrage to understand what is going on in these books, and you don’t have to care.  What you’re supposed to care about is the people, and I do.

But that’s the question of the day–lots of people write to me to tell me that what they like best about the Gregor books is Cavanaugh Street and the community that lives on it.  These are the elements in the books that have the least to do with the mystery.   I did set a murder there once, in Bleeding Hearts, but I’ve always been wary of Cabot Cove Syndrome.   I mean, for God’s sake, it was a small town in Maine and it had a higher murder rate  than Beirut.

But why is it that I get excited to find series characters reappearing, and that other readers do, too?  What is it about the mere reappearance of such characters that can perk up an otherwise not very interesting book?  I do think The Prime Minister is very interesting, but there are a couple of volumes in that series that are less so, and they’re always redeemed by the re-emergency of Planty  Pall and  Lady Glen and company.  I know more about the domestic arrangements of the Duke of Omnium than I know of my own, and I’m more interested.

What is it about series characters that matter so much to readers?  Why will readers go on reading a series that has really fallen apart–and I know of some mystery series that have completely imploded–just to get to the continuing plot lines? 

“I love your books,” people write to me, “but I especially love te people on Cavanaugh Street.”  And I don’t care what the rest of the book is like, books set on Cavanaugh Street or with a heavy Cavanaugh  Street presence always seem to do better than books without it. 

I don’t understand this quite even as a reader.  As a writer, I find myself blowing h ot and cold on series characters.  Sometimes they’re just there and alive in front of me.  Sometimes I’m so sick of them I want to kill them all off in some literary version of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

Written by janeh

January 30th, 2009 at 6:23 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Don’t Look Back–They Might Be Gaining On You

with 5 comments

So, first, an update–at eleven o’clock yesterday morning, common sense somehow reached the vital core of the administrative brain, and all classes were cancelled for the rest of the day.  I wouldn’t put it past the state police to have raised a fuss–the idea of students and teachers slipping and sliding in what was by then a major ice storm, on top of the snow, probably had the Smokies completely frazzled.  And I don’t blame them.

I do wonder if my need to meet my obligations no matter what shouldn’t undergo an overhaul.  At some point, I have to admit that doing that is stupid and dangerous, which driving would have been yesterday.  Especially driving by me.

But–let me get back to murder mysteries for a bit, and to something people have said here on and off all throughout this blog, and that is that they read to “escape.”

It started to occur to me that I was taking this to mean something it might not mean–that is, that people read in order to shut down their minds and stop thinking.  That’s the sense in which I tend to think of “entertainment’ as ‘escape.” 

But most of the books I like do not allow me to shut down my mind, and it occurs to me that, depending on what a reader wants to escape from, he might not be shutting down his mind, either.

Let’s start with the biggies–I have looked in on a number of e-mail discussion lists, Usenet newsgroups, and Listservs in my time, and I have dropped out of all of them that allowed for “moderation.”  By “moderation” is usually meant that there is a topic for the list, and a moderator or two who will step in and end discussions if they go off topic.  Some lists specifically put some topics–religion, say, or politics–off limits.

In practice, “moderation” never works as advertised.  What usually happens is this:  Poster A zings off a round condemnation of Political Party B, and his post is applauded by Posters C, D, E, and F.  So far, there is NO sign of moderation.  None.  Then Poster G writes in to say that Political Party B is actually the most wonderful thing on the planet, and the posters who have been knocking it are not only wrong but misinformed.  Then Poster G lists the misinformation in the prior posts, and provides corrections.

THEN, and only then, do the “moderators” step in to stop the discussion.  They almost always complain that Poster G has been “uncivil” to the other posters.

Contrary to what this often looks like when you’re in the fray, it’s almost never the case that the moderator or moderators are avid opponents of Political Party B.  It’s not that they’re taking sides in a political discussion, except by default.

In fact, if ithad been Poster G who started the discussion and then received a lot of concurring e-mails for the opposite position, and Poster A who had written in to complain, the discussion would have been shut down then.

What the moderators of these groups object to is not one political or religious position or the other, but the mear fact of conflict of any kind.

It’s conflict that these people–and not only these people–find objectiionable, uncomfortable, and insupportable.

Many of the lists I have looked in on over time have been devoted to books, and some of them have been devoted to mystery books.  But it seems to me that conflict is at the heart of any crime novel of any sort.  A murder mystery can’t exist without a murder, and a murder can’t take place without somebody being in conflict with somebody else over something. 

So my first question is this–is conflict per se what most readers want to excape from?  And if so, why doesn’t the conflict between the characters in a mystery usually count?

Some readers obviously do want to escape from political and/or religious arguments, like that reader who wrote in to me to say that she’d returned my book because she read to leave all that behind her.  I’ve had other readers over time who have written in to say that a novelist has no right to put any political discussion at all in her books.  I wrote back and pointed out that the world is full of political novels.  She wrote back to say I shouldn’t write her ever again.

So is that the issue?  is the present day political world so distasteful and distressing that readers are coming to books to imagine their way out of it, or to imagine a world where those conflicts do not exist?

What about the personal problems of the characters?  At least somebody writing in here suggested that one of the things readers might want to escape thinking about is the bills–but money problems are often a motive for murder, outside the murder mystery as well as in it.  Does a character who is drowning in bills or has a gambling problem or is on the brink of foreclosure–all of which are solid reasons for killing off his rich father in law so that his wife can inherit–is that something that would break the hold of the fantasy and make the book no longer an escape?

Money problems was what were mentioned in the comment, but I can think of others–nasty divorces, custody battles, downsizings and firings, bullying at school.

If readers really are trying to escape from all these things, if the mention of them makes the book distasteful, I can almost understand the lure of cozies.  The world they present is fluffy and fake.  The conflicts they present are stylized and trivial. 

But cozies are not the best selling branch of mystery fiction out there, and in fact they do less well than several of the other subgenres.  So maybe I don’t understand what readers mean when they say whty want to “escape” into fiction. 

Is it all right for the characters to have the same problems readers have, because it’s a relief to look at somebody else in the same position?  or because if that character finds a way to triumph over the problem that would give the reader hope?

And then there’s that thing that somebody–Lee?–said about how the characters in mystery fiction have a goal they’re striving to achieve and that they do achieve, in contrast to the aimlessness of characters in more mainstream fiction.  Is what readers want to “escape” from just that sense of aimlessness in their own lives?

I have been beating the crap out of the prologue for the 2010 Gregor the last few days, and there are several characters there who are drowning in the kinds of problems I have, or have had, myself.  But I like to write my way through those things.  When I’m in the middle of them and the experience of living with and through them is fresh in my mind, I find it helps to funnel them into a character.

And that’s strange, in a way.  When I was  younger, I used to keep very long and detailed journals, “writing it out” every single day on every single thing that was going right or wrong in my life.  I gave it up in graduate school when I realized that those journals were the only things that had ever made me feel honestly and pressingly suicidal–for some reason, concentrating on expressing my problems made me feel so hopeless and overwhelmed that I couldn’t see the point in going on.

Giving my problems to characters, however, seems to have absolutely the opposite effect.  The only explanation I have for that is that, in the writing, the problems belong not to me but to somebody else, and that’s enough to create enough distance for me get some kind of a grip on them I can’t get otherwise.

A while back I said that I sometimes found myself rereading my own books, that I sometimes find things in those books I do not remember and do not expect.

The book I’ve reread most often has been Somebody Else’s Music.  I think I repressed a lot of what happened to me in junior high school, so thoroughly repressed it that it not only came up from my subconscious while I was writing that book but that it managed to bypass my conscious mind while doing so. 

In the book, I moved myself and that group of girls from junior high to regular high school and then dragged us all into another state, but other people who went through all that with me recognized it without a problem, and I’m only now beginning to get it all sorted out.

Mosst books don’t have that kind of an impact on me, of course, but I also reread Skeleton Key on occasion, and True Believers.  And lately I try to reread all of them just about the time they come out, because I usually think they’re absolutely terrible, and then I change my mind. 

Maybe my problem is just that I “escape” into politics and religion–arguing for fun was a big deal in my family, and if I’m excoriating  George Bush or beating up “the new atheists” for knowing as much about the religion they criticize as I know about the internal combustion engine, I’m not thinking about whatever happens to be on my mind for the day. 

Personal trouble makes me hyperventilate.  The Great Issues of the Day just get my metabolism moving.

Written by janeh

January 29th, 2009 at 11:45 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The Almost Snow Day

with 9 comments

I am writing this sitting in my office at home, and outside the snow is coming down steadily as it has been for hours.  Everything in the northern two thirds of this state is closed, except, of course, for the place where I teach.  That has declared itself open as f some time later this morning, which is going to be interesting.  The snow is supposed to be followed by freezing rain.  Even if I make my twelve forty five class–and if they tell me to, I will, because I’m like that–the chances that I’m going to have m ore than one or two students are close to nil.  But this place is like that.  The first year I was there, it waited until after noon to close on a day when the snow started around nine, leading to a situation where it took my forty-five minutes to make my way from school to the neartest Interstate exit, usually a trip of less than two minutes.   And I’m n ot ven factoring in the number of cars, almost all of them from our place, left spun out and disabled on the way. This is not the kind of thing  I understand.  Yes, certainly, there are some institutions and businesses with vital work to do that cannot wait.  The hospitals have to stay open and so do the fire departments.  Colleges and niversities can almost always take the day if the weather is prohibitive, and exactly what is gained by insisting on opening in conditions that endanger students and staff is beyond me.  

It is, however, the start of another idea in my head, so let’s go with it.

I was rather bemused at the responses to yesterdays post, which were mostly concerned with showing me how everything has become much more expensive.  I know that, really. What I was wondering about was why we are increasingly unwilling to pay whatever it costs to get certain kinds of work done and done right.   I think that the reason lies largely in what we expect to have in our private lives–that the Boomer generation and those that follow it simply expect to have a larger amount of money to spend, a larger number of consumer goods, and all that sort of thing, than our parents’ generation did.   It’s not that we don’t sacrifice.  It’s that we find even th idea of “sacrifice,” even the “sacrifice” of the trivial, to be unthinkable.

As to mass entertainment, I’m not sure what the responses mean–is it the case that it is no longer financially possible to produce entertainment that is to our present population what the movies of the Thirties were to that one?  My mother’s father was ruined in the Great Depression, literally.  He spent some time selling pencils on street corners.  She could still go to the movies.  It would seem to me that there ought to be something like that–something available to everybody, except maybe the homeless living on the streets–and yet there isn’t.  Even NASCAR and professional wrestling seem to get more expensive by the day.

I was thinking, though, that one of the things the Thirties had, and the Fifties had, was books, and most importantly mystery books.

For one reason or the other, those two eras coincide with “golden ages” of the mystery story.  In both of those periods, mysteries outsold every other genre, and mysteries were taken semi-seriously by the wider culture in a way in which no other genre was. 

In the periods between those periods–in the periods of much greater prosperty–mysteries tended to recede and horror and romance gained more ground.  In the Sixties, this was joined by science fiction, which has become the only genre other than mystery that intellectuals will admit to reading and/or writing.

But I wonder what’s going on here exactly.

For all the screaming and yelling about percentages of rising incomes and whatever, we’ve just been through one of those periods of our history that was just full of money.  A lot of this money seems to have been fake money, but while it seemed to be there we spent it as if it were real.

And in this period, as in similar periods that came before it, we saw a rise of books and other entertainment that focussed on magic and the supernatural–horror novels, certainly, but also “documentaries” about psychics and Nostradamus, claims made for mediums and mystics, a renewed popularity for Tarot cards and Ouija boards. 

Then there are the really bizarre new crazes in subgenres–vampire romance novels, for instance–coupled with the mind-numbing silliness of John Edward and the more extroverted of the faith healing preachers, the latter coming complete with prophecies of the AntiChrist and the end of the world.

I’ve never been particularly interested in claims of the supernatural, or stories about it, either.  I’ve read Dracula, more or less, and there are some horror novels I rather like, but I almost always like them in spite of the supernatural parts.  My favorite Stephen King novel is The Shining, and it’s a plus for me that you can go through two thirds of the thing unable to figure out if there really are supernatural things happening, or if it’s all in this guy’s crazy head.   I thought Interview With The Vampire was incredibly well done, but I tended to see the vampire as a metaphor and the rest of Anne Rice’s novels make my eyes glaze over.

And superpowers?  Please.  I’ve got two sons, so  I tend to get dragged to every superhero movie on the planet, but I  fall asleep in the fight scenes. 

I like the rational and the real world, if not necessarily the exact real world that I happen to be living in right this minute.   People do not have superpowers, so superpowers tend to diminish the interest of the story for me.  Vampires do not exist–except metaphorically, where I sometimes think they’ve had a population explosion–so I’m not much interested in that, either.

And as for vampire porn–well.   I mean, I’ve wanted a lot of differint things from sex over the course of my life, but, I mean…okay.   I was never interested in getting from sex a complete obliteration of my mind and my will.  And that’s a subject for another time.

But back to murder mysteries for a moment–why is it that murder mysteries seem to flourish in periods of relative scarcity and to recede in periods of relative prosperity?  Who reads murder mysteries, and why?

Let’s back up for a minute from that thing so many of you said–yes, you read to relax and to forget your troubles and to be entertained.

There are lots of different genres out there.  Why pick this one, why pick murder mysteries, to do all those things for you?

I want to talk now about murder mysteries in particular–not action thrillers or blood and gore Mafia crime novels or caper fiction–the kind of thing produced by  Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, Ed McBain, even Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.  I know, I should pick more modern novelists, but I’m sitting her watching the snow fall and getting distracted.   It’s already nine o’clock.   I have no idea how I’m getting the car out of the driveway by quarter after twelve.

At any rate, some of you oug there must read murder mysteries, detective novels, that kind of thing.  Why do you think you do it?

I’d supposed that very few of you are like me.   I’ve only ever been much interested in the one genre.  I’ve read a book or two in other genres over the years, but nothing every grabbed me for very long.

So if you read other genres besides murder mysteries, what makes you pick up a murder mystery this time?

And what is the relationship between increased interest in the detective novel and decreased economic prosperity overall?  I sound like I think the field is actually bringing recessions with it, but of course I don’t think so. 

But there’s yet another question in all this, and that is the fact that the giants of the first golden age of mystery fiction are often still with us.  Christie, Stout, Sayers, Hill, Chandler, Hammett, Gardner are all still in print, and Christie at least sells much better than the vast majority of modern novelists in her field.

Logically, there must be a market out there for classic detective fiction.  Readers arre certainly reading a lot of it, and writers–almost all dead–are certainly selling a lot of it.

And yet, it is very hard to get a classic detective novel published these days.  By and large, if you want to do that and see yourself in print from a major house, you need to be writing cozies.  If you’re not, then you need to go in for a lot of very graphic violence, at least some very graphic sex, the sort of vocabulary that would have gotten you arrested in 1954, and an “action” plot that includes car chases, kidnappings, stalking perpetrators through sewers and at least one really good no-holds-barred shoot out. 

Robert has suggested a couple of times that people aren’t buying fewer books, there are simply more writers out there forced to share a still limited readership.  That may be true, but it doesn’t explain the present situation.

In point of fact, there are very few modern writers of classic detective novels, much fewer now than there were in the first golden age.   And they’re mostly n ot doing very well.  If the same people who were keeping the Christie estate more than solvent were also reading contemporary detective fiction when it appeared, there would be more of it published and more of it available more cheaply.

So–who reads murder mysteries?  Murder mysteries, not crime novels.  Novls of detection.

Why are more of such people to be found when the economy is tanking?

And why do they read the old stuff but not the new?

And why do they read dective novels in particular, instead of some other form of entertainment, relaxation and escape?

Written by janeh

January 28th, 2009 at 10:24 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 4 comments

Here’s a question, related to nothing at all we’ve been talking about so far:  where did all the money go, and what happened to mass entertainment to make so much of it cost as much as a mortgage?

I’m not talking about the financial meltdown now.  If we’d been experience a financial meltdown for the last thirty years, what I’m talking about here would still not make sense to me, but at least some of it would make more sense than it does.

Consider the following:  in the year I was born, when my late husband’s father was making $35 a week and newly hired associates in my father’s law firm got $100, when the top tax rate was 90% and started at a hundred grand–when, to put it bluntly, we all had a lot less money than we do now and kept a lot less of it after taxes–the town in which  I lived built a new educational complex.

It was shiny and state of the art and spacious.  A whole slew of new teachers were hired to go with it.  There were new textbooks, new labs full of new equipment, even new sports facilities, which in New England is like saying “new unnecessities.”  Class size was set at no more than fifteen in the lower grades and no more than twenty in the junior high and high schools.   German was added to a language curriculum that already included Latin, French and  Spanish.

Five years ago, well before the meltdown, when salaries were twenty times as high and taxes considerably lower, that same town has found it impossible to raise enough money to do necessary repairs on that same school complex.  They’ve kept up with textbooks, but they’ve had to cut most sports in order to pay for new lab equipment, and class sizes start at twenty-five in kindergarten and go to thirty-five in high school.  German is gone, as is Latin, and French is offered for only two years, less than is acceptable for most college admissions. 

Where did the money go?  Why did we feel that, having very little and only limited means in the 1950s, it was feasible and right and proper to spend it on schools and other public projects, but now, having much more and much lower taxes, such projects are all “too expensive” and it doesn’t matter a damn what happens to our schools and roads and bridges?

Or take what I think must be a related phenomenon, although  I don’t know how the relation works.

When I first went to the movies, it cost a quarter for a child’s ticket.  Five or six years later, it cost sixty cents.   Movies were, from their beginning, an entertainment form aimed at people with very little ready money.  Now movie tickets cost nine dollars in the evenings around here and seven at the matinees.  If you’re an adult taking two children, it would make more financial sense for you to buy the DVD than to go tho the theater.  The cost of food and drink at the theater is high enough so that the total of three small popcorns and three small drinks would get you all lunch at McDonald’s.

And it isn’t just movies–try going out to see a baseball game.  Prices for season tickets for any professional team are crippling, single tickets for single games are nearly impossible to find, and good tickets have price tags that look like car payments.  The days when “subway series” meant that all these working class guys in Brooklyn and Queens got a few days out at the ballgame are over.  If you’re not working for  Goldman Sachs, you can pretty much forget it.

Virtually everything that was, in my childhood, an activity for people who didn’t make much money is now too expensive for most of those people to afford, or at least to afford on a regular basis.  When my mother was a child, in the Great Depression, when her father had lost all his money and there wasn’t much in the house from day to day, she could still afford to go to the movies every week.  These days, somebody in her position couldn’t go at all.

The mass entertainment thing is related to the public projects thing because in both cases, people who don’t have much are being deprived of something I grew up taking for granted that everybody would have.   There are still world class school systems in pricey suburbs, but next door, in Danbury or  Waterbury or Bridgeport, the schools are worse than hopeless.

And I’m not talking about pedagogical methods here, I’m talking about schools without enough textbooks for all the students, without enough chairs in the classrooms, with inadequate heat, with bits and pieces of floors and ceilings missing.

Yes, schools in rich towns were always better than schools in poorer towns, but the fact is that most schools in this state were at least adequately built and maintained right on up until the seventies.   Now it costs “too much money” to do that, just as it costs “too much money” to fix the potholes in the streets or get the snow cleared well enough so that old ladies don’t fall down and break their necks or put in a new sewer system.

Where did all the money go?  Why, when we had much less than we have now–or at least much less than we had a year ago–do we think it’s “too expensive” to keep up our roads and schools and bridges and parks? 

And what happened to “mass entertainment” that so much of it has become financially off limits to most of the mass?

Sometimes on this blog and in the comments to this blog, we talk about senses of entitlement and I don’t know what else, but it seems to me that we have development a sense of entitlement about trivialites–I deserve a $600 PlayStation 3–and lost any sense of being entitled to, never mind responsible for, the important stuff.

Written by janeh

January 27th, 2009 at 6:23 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Report from the Nightmare

with 2 comments

Okay, this isgoing to be short.  I was supposed to be writing this at eleven o’clock in the morning in a nice computer lab on the same floor where I teach, but I’m beginning to wonder if incompetent nutsiness is some kind of virus that’s catching.

Back up a little and look at last week, when, during my first class of the term, it turned out that our room had also been assigned to another class for the same time. Then we were told to use a room on the first floor, which turned out not to be a classroom at all but the Writing  Center, which is the place students go for tutoring. The tutors, obviously, objected.    We were then moved across campus to another building, but only for the single session.  The session after that, we were moved yet again to yet another building.  Why couldn’t we have stayed in what was a perfectly adequate and perfectly empty classroom from the first day?  If you figure that out, get back to me.

But really, that day was better than this one, by miles.  You have to understand that one of the buildings on this campus is actually used by three different divisions of the same university system, which explains why, when I showed up today, the room where I  was supposed to teach was locked.

This was on order of one of the other divisions, the one that technically has responsibility for that particular room, and the teacher who taught in that room before me made a  BIG play of locking the door behind him when he left–nope, nobody uses the room without getting a digital key from the division in question, which can only be had by walking halfway across campus to yet another building where that division has its offices.

And the computer lab?  Nope.   Open to that division and its students only.  How about the cmputer at the desk in the classroom?  Nope again, only accessible with a special code only given out to that division and its students…

And on and on and on.  I ended up sitting on a floor in a hallway trying to access and send e-mail from my cell phone, which aside from being expensive isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  In other words, the experience sucked dead rats.

If I’d had access to weapons and the personnel in charge of all this, there would have been dead people.  I taught through a haze of frustration and anger that couldn’t have helped my delivery any, and I came home as exhausted as if I’d been cross country skiing.

No, cross country skiing is relaxing.  Or it used to be.

Somewhere on this campus, there are people getting paid a lot of money to “manage” all this.

I think  I know where we could make some targetted budget cuts in case the financial crisis starts to hit home…

Written by janeh

January 26th, 2009 at 5:39 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Reading, and the Problem with English Class

with 3 comments

Or something.  I find this all very interesting on a number of levels.  Let me try to sort it out so that it’s not too confusing.

First, nobody taught me to read.  I can’t remember learning.  One day I must have just known, but what sticks in my mind is the day other people figured out I could read.  It caused quite a fuss–that duck billed platypus again–but I was not impressed, which means I must have been doing it for a while.

My father might have been willing to teach me to read, and he was a great reader most of his lfe, but when I  was a child he had one of those make-partner-or-bust jobs that took up seventy to ninety hours a week.   He was never home until after I was in bed and only sometimes home on the week-ends. 

My mother didn’t teach me to read because she neither could have nor would have.  I was considerably older before I realized that she didn’t actually read very well, that she stumbled and struggled with material as simple as articles in the Reader’s Digest.

My guess is that she did read to me, sometimes, but my guess is also that she read to me the way she later read to my children:  seldom, with little affect, and while giving off waves of discomfort and resentment.

Because my mother didn’t just not read.  She hated reading.  She hated people who read, and she especially hated my reading.  I think the only reason I got away with it was that my father loved it, and was enormously proud  of me for it, and she never crossed my father in anything she perceived to be important to him.  But I listened to enough lectures in my chldhood about how I couln’t just “sit and read” all my life, and later I  heard even more about how reading was a luxury not a necessity and if I was short of money I should watch television.

I never saw my mother read a book, except twice, and in neither case did she read the whole thing.  The first was Everything You Ever Wanted  To Know About Sex, which she seemed to skim through for the more shocking bits.   The second was one of mine, called Sanctity, which she also skimmed through but, with that infallible radar mothers have, found exactly the one scene she shouldn’t have.  After which she accused me of being a lesbian, because after all, if I hadn’t done all that stuff, how could I write about it?

I’ve seen the same studies Lee B has seen, and I think they’re accurate enough to an extent, because I do think you have to introduce a child to the possibilities of reading before he will develop a love for it.

My guess is that in my case, I was introduced to books, I loved what I was introduced to, and faced with a mother who wasn’t interested in giving me as much of that as I wanted, I went looking for a way to get it for myself. 

In my own house, both my husband and I were/are obsessional readers, we read to the children nonstop, and my older son read to my younger son.  But my older son is an obsessional reader, and my youner son–who, like me, read before he was three in some process none of us taught him–reads regularly but not with the same passion. 

Anyway, it’s hard for me to address Robert’s experience in elementary and secondary school classes, because they were so very different from my own.

In the very lowest grades, we were indeed given Dick and Jane, and my teachers tended just to let me pick anything out of the school library and read on my own, since I was already several grade levels ahead.

In the older grades, what my schools seemed most intersted in teaching was the American experience–we got James Fennimore Cooper, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Mark Twain, and even Mark Twain on James Fennimore Cooper. We got Winesberg, Ohio (which I’ve probably just spelled wrong) and a collection of short stories by Edith Wharton that was packaged under the title Old  New York.  We got Melville (both Bartleby and Moby Dick), and a lot of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost. We got some Poe (mostly the poems) and Henry  Wadsworth Longfellow and John Greenleaf Whittier and Trees,   which should have put me off poerty forever, but didn’t. We were not given to understand that these were classics we could not criticize–in fact, far from it.   And, by high school, learning how to analyze the text was the big important deal.

I have never read Silas Marner and don’t know what it’s about.  I’ve never read Ethan Frome or The Yearling.  I do know what The Yearling is about, but only because I caught a few scenes of a movie somebody made of it on television once.  I have no idea why these books in particular were chosen, but I think I can make a safe bet–they were NOT chosen by “English majors.”

Most of the teachers in public schools are not–and especially were not, when Robert and I were growing up–English majors.  They were Education majors, and the curriculum they taught was set by the school board or the school administration, not by the teachers themselves.  The school board isn’t likely to have been  English majors either, and the school administration almost certainly was made up of even more Education majors.  

No English major would survive to a bachelor’s degree treating books as Classics that couldn’t be touched.  She’d have nothing to write papers about, since academic papers in  English on the university level are all analyzing and disecting the work, 

It sounds like Robert had a really terrible set of teachers in a really terrible department that didn’t know what it was doing, and I’m not sure the situation is much better now.  Nobody seems to read Silas Marner any more, but they do somethin I think is worse–they read “problem novels” written especially for adolescents, which are supposed to be “relevant” and therefore interesting to students. 

I’ve seen some of these things.  They’re long on  preachy and fake and short on anything I could stand to read for more than two seconds. What’s worse, for the elemntary and middle school grades, textbook publishers demand political correctness of a kind that would make your head spin–somewhere out there, apparently not on th web, there’s a wonderful essay called “A Perfect Day for Broccoli,” about one woman’s experience having her children’s short story chosen for inclusion in a textbook.  To give you a hint of what that experience was like, her original title for that short story was “A Perfect Day for Ice Cream.”

We’re back to Plato again–if children never seen anybody doing anything “wrong,” then won’t even be able to conceive of doing it.  And if they do see somebody doing something wron, they’re going to run right out and do it, too.

If my earliest exposure to what was out there to read was “A Perfect Day for Broccoli”–not the essay, but the eventual textbook story–I don’t think I would have concluded that books were boring.  I think  I would have concluded that they were stupid.

That said,  I don’t think high school English classes, or middle school ones, are meant to instill the love or erading.  In middle school, the concentration is one building comprehnsion skills.  In high school, the focus should be on learning the rudiments of analysis so that the student can go on to college and actually participate in a college level literature class.

But  I’ve got nothing against the idea of trying to instell a love of reading i nto children at the same time.  I’m just not too sure that the way to approach it is to concentrate on what we think the students will find “interesting.” 

We do that now, and the result seems to be students who think that the only legitimate judgment of a work of literature is whteher or not they find it “interesting,” with “interesting” being defined as “something I already know I’m going to like.”

Written by janeh

January 25th, 2009 at 10:24 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Learning to Love to Read–A Link

without comments

Specifically, a link to Erin O’Connor’s blog, the only one I read on a regular basis.  Go here


:and look for the post marked titled Poe Prompt.

It’s the January 23, 2009 entry, so if you’re coming on another day use the clickable calender.

It’s a great post on the inherent contradictions of teaching literature, and it links to the original article on Poe that was up on Arts and Letters Daily a few days ago.

So, okay. I’m making a HABIT of posting twice in one day.

My own comments about learning to love to read are in the post directly before this one.

Written by janeh

January 24th, 2009 at 11:28 am

Posted in Uncategorized

All You Need Is Love

with 10 comments

I’m at that stage in the writing of a book where it’s sort of a good thing there are computers, because if this was a paper manuscript I might burn it.   It’s not that I hate it so much, but that the whole thing seems unwieldy and recalcitrant.   Plot may not be what I read for, but novels need them anyway, and mystery novels need them to be accurate and noncontradictory.  So I’m spending a lot of time worrying about whether I changed the name of a jewelry store or gave two different times for the arrival of a set of stock certificates.

So I’m a little distracted, and my mind is jumping around a lot, and what I’m struck by this morning is this:  is it possible to instill a love of reading in students who do not come to the classroom with it already formed?

This isn’t as far from the thing about passive students–and their even more passive friends and relatives who never bother to try for any kind of degree–as it might seem, but for the moment I was to look at the “love of reading” and where it comes from, for all of us.  My passive students don’t have it, but then neither do my better students, and a fair number of people who went to college with me didn’t have it, either.  Their reading comprehension skills were better than those of the students I teach, but they read little or nothing they weren’t assigned to read.

Robert has several times commented, in comments and e-mail, that English departments have a window of opportunity from the 7th grade through Freshman English to instill a love of reading, and if they don’t manage it then the student will leave school without ever wanting to read at all.

I think the time frame is wrong.  What goes on from 7th grade to Freshman English is largely technical–it’s the time frame for teaching students how to read well and not just superficially.

But I think that if the student reaches the 7th grade without a passion for books, nothing anybody can do will ever give him one.

Think about your own personal experience.  I can remember mine.  I remember the first time anybody realized I could read–due to the circumstances s (my mother was pregnant), I know that I could not have been more than  two years and ten and a half months old, and the book was a Little Golden Book about a duckbilled platypus.  I even still have the book.

I remember the first time I found an author I wanted to read everything of–I was six, and I had to go to New Haven for the first of a series of appointments that would result in having my one crossed eye surgically corrected.  As far as I was concerned, this was just a day out in New Haven, which was great.  My mother must have been more nervous, because she promised me that she’d take me to Malley’s after the appointment and let me get something for myself as a treat.

It was one of the classic missed communications of my relationship with my mother.   She took me into Malley’s and showed me the toy department.  The toy department was next to the book department and the children’s books were right next to the toys.  I took one look at The Ghost of Blackwood Hall and simply had to have it.  My mother kept trying to talk me into a doll.

I really hated dolls.  My mother got me one for every Christmas until I was fifteen, but I never played with them.  There’s probably a story in there–a story about her life and the  Great Depression–but I don’t know it.

The Ghost of Blackwood Hall is a book (number 25, I think) in the Nancy  Drew mystery series, and over the next year and a half I read all of them.  Also most of the Dana Girls.  Also a fair number of the Cherry Ames nurse books.  When I ran out of those, I read whatever I  could find in the house, including big hunks of the Funk and Wagnells encyclopedia.  I ended up at Vassar because there was an entry on the good old F and W on the college, with a picture of girls in Bermuda shorts parking their bikes in front of what looked like a medieval castle.  That was Taylor Library.  Years later, I would decide it looked even better in person.

But look at the time frame here–I was a voracious reader before I was seven.  And I went on being a voracious reader.  My father had a policy that I could always have a book if I asked for it, and I had a library card on top of that, so the books kept coming and I kept reading them.  I went through all the Agatha Christies and Perry Masons in the house, and then I bullied the town librarian into letting me take things from the adult section.  Then I started on classics, although I didn’t know they were classics–David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Anna Kerenina, Crime and Punishment, Pride and Prejudice.  There was an entire section of the library exclusively for classics, and I went though them 

There was a seres called Best Plays–Best Plays of 1956, or whatever–and I went through those, too, reading William Inge, Eugene O’Neill, Tennesse Williams.  I think I got only about  tenth of the references, and I was so innocent about sex that  I managed to read Summer and Smoke and not catch a single allusion to homosexuality, but I read because I couldn’t stop reading, because I loved reading.

I don’t know what everybody else’s experience is, but I  think that in general a love of reading has to start early if it is going to start at all.  And I think that for most people, that love of reading arises outside the context of school.  I’m sure there are exceptions, people who come from families that do not have books and who therefore encounter them for the first time in a classroom, but in general I think school is a bad place to develop a passion.

The problem with school is that even the best teachers run into the solid wall that is human nature:  we almost always dislike doing what we are required to do.  In this, Mark Twain most definitely made more sense that most modern forms of child psyschology, which seem to perceive a distaste for doing assigned work as some kind of “learning disability.” 

For me, once I learned to read, something just clicked, and I couldn’t stop.  The fact that I was required to read things in school didn’t bother me, even though most of that stuff was boring (and on a reading comprehension level necessarily several grades below what I could do by then).

I have found, in my life, very few people who share this experience, but more than I expected existed when I was six.  I don’t think I have ever found anyone who developed such a love for reading as last as twelve years old. 

I think Matilda–both the Roald Dahl book and the (better) Danny DeVito movie–has it about right.  For some people, finding books is practically like finding heroin.  You start and you just can’t stop.  You read because you feel compelled to read, and only reaelly happy when you’re reading.

When I was in elementary school and high school I used to think the dividing line was intelligent. Smart people liked to read, and stupid people did not.  Later, I met lots of smart people who didn’t like to read, and even people who were good at reading who didn’t much like it.  If there is a way to instill a passion for reading into people, I don’t know what it is. 

Now you’ll all probably write in saying that your passion for reading arrived in your freshman year of high school at the hands of the most wonderful teacher in the world, and another one of the things I thought I knew about human nature will go right into the trash bin.

Written by janeh

January 24th, 2009 at 7:44 am

Posted in Uncategorized

A Little Extra Note

with 2 comments

Theodore Dalrymple is a pseudonym.  When he’s at home, he’s Anthony Daniels–yes, yes, like C3PO, it must make him nuts–and sometimes he writes under his real name.

Here he is


at The New Criterion, making uncommon sense about moral relativism. 

And Robert will just have to forgive him for quoting Matthew Arnold.

Written by janeh

January 22nd, 2009 at 1:40 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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