Hildegarde

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Archive for June, 2009

Spending $40,000

with 5 comments

So, to start–although not the main point, exactly–John says he can’t see spending $25,000 to $40,000 a year to develop “taste” or  “critical judgment” in literature and the arts.  I  deplore the vocabulary, and  I think Scruton concentrates far too myopically on only one corner of the Humanities, but if I could actually find somebody to teach that to my children, it’s practically the only thing I would find worth spending that kind of money on.

Part of this is just supply and demand.  Education in the sciences and technoloy is widespread.  A kid who learns calculus at the local community college learns the same calculus as if he’d studied at MIT–why the hell pay top rates for what can be had for much less.

Of course, MIT provides other things, most notably a peer group of a particular kind, that you might find worth it, but the studies themselves are straightforward and largely mechanical.  

Finding somebody these days who can actually teach the Humanities is very difficult.  They’re definitely out there, but you have to go looking for them, and they’re rare enough so that they’re worth considerably more.

Because everything I value about civilization will survive, and rebuild itself, if all the sciences and technlogies disappear, but the Humanities remain strong.  The converse, a world where the Humanities disappear but the sciences and technlogy remain strong, is the definition of a dystopia.

But, on top of that, I’m not entirely sure it’s possible.  We started with what we no call the Humanities.  The sciences, including the experimental method, emerged from that, and emerged from a very particular form of that.  Every culture has art and literature.   Many have philosophies.   All of them have religions.  Only this one developed the scientific method that got us antibiotics, brain surgery and the cell phone.  I don’t think that was accidental.

Robert says he gets suspicious when lots of different people have different arguments that get them to the same place, but I think what’s  going on here is a lot simpler than that.

I think Roger  Scruton, and  Victor Davis Hanson, and I, and a lot of other people, all see the same phenomenon and understand what it means, but don’t know how to explain or defend it. 

In any process that begins with observation, that’s going to be the case at the beginning.

In this case, the problem is exacerbated by the fact that it’s only recently that there has been any need to defend what seems to the three of us (and many others) as blatantly obvious:  people who enter the Great Conversation are profoundly different than they would have been without it, and the life of the mind is a better life, qualitatively, than what can be had otherwise.

Or, as Socrates is supposed to have said, the unexamined life is not worth living.

John asked what I meant by “populist,” and Robert said it was all right, there would be tensions in the conservative movement, but this is something bigger than a tension.

The modern American conservative movement starts with William F. Buckley, a man for whom the word “elitist” was a badge of honor, who defended the high art tradition against what he saw as the trashy trendiness liberals and leftists liked to pretend was “art.”  He defended high standards and elite education–and especially elite education in the Humanities–against what he saw as a dumbing-down of both education and taste.

But this makes Buckley the picture of the stuck-up liberal snob as portrayed by people like Limbaugh–he is, as a cultural symbol, the anti-Sarah Palin, which may be why his own son ended up endorsing Obama.

When Buckley set up shop in the Fifties, it was the Democrats and Liberals who championed the down-home, everybody-is-just-folks, who-do-you-think-you-are segment of the electorate.  It was the Republicans who demanded high standards in education and the arts.

If you go to the front page of the site and look on the right hand side, you’ll find a list of essays, one of which is called Why I Don’t Vote Republican.   The section called “The Stupid Thing”  goes into all this in more detail. 

But the bottom line is simple–you can’t appeal both to the high standards people and the just-folks people at the same time for long, because the just-folks people identify the very existence of high standards as snobbery.

Scruton is right about one thing, certainly, and that is that the Humanities are not shriveling because the left has taken them over and made them into forms of indoctrination, but because the Right has abandoned them as “elitist” as well.  Neither side of the political spectrum is defending real education any more.  The Left has decided it’s racist, sexist and homophobic.  The Right has decided it’s snobbish.

But, seriously and truly, if what matters is the survival of individual liberty, we could afford to lose all our science more easily than we could afford to lose what’s contained in the Humanities.

If we keep that second part, we’ll always be able to develop science again.  If we don’t–well, no other civilization in the world ever managed it, and there’s no reason to think we’d be able to invent it from scratch twice.

Written by janeh

June 10th, 2009 at 7:03 am

Posted in Uncategorized

A Little Reference Thing, on a Related Subject

with 3 comments

So the book is almost done, so close I  can see it, but it ISN’T done, and today I’ve got the dentist appointment from hell, so I’m a little scattered.

But I thought that this

http://spectator.org/archives/2009/06/05/farewell-to-judgment

might be interesting.

If you watch Arts and Letters Daily, it’s up there as a link this morning, but it occurs to me that this not only addresses some of the things I’ve been talking about here, but also that it highlights some of the problems of talking about it, although only accidentally.

Part of it is the matter of vocabulary–like the word “theory,” which means one thing in science and something else altogether in common usage, the word “taste” is being used here to mean something other than what we’re used to in ordinary conversation.

But then there’s the kicker, which is the tension in conservative circles between their political approach (which is populist) and their alliance with people whose commitment is to the maintaining of high, and therefore by their very nature at least somewhat exclusionary, standards. 

No matter what the rhetoric, the Amerian Spectator (from whence this article comes) does not survive by appealing to people like Roger Scruton (who wrote the article), but by appealing to people who would denounce him as an “elitist.” 

And he is an “elitist,” too.  In a certain sense of the word.

Beyong that, I just want to point out that saying that I want to read about real people in the real world with real problems does not necessitate the corollary that people who enjoy science fiction or fantasy don’t–hell, I said nothing about what people who  enjoy the stuff I don’t are actually getting out of it. 

I didn’t even bring up the canon.

Written by janeh

June 9th, 2009 at 8:16 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Rules of Engagement

with 7 comments

First, let me post the names and authors of the series I was talking about yesterday, since I’ve managed to beat a copy of each out of Matt.

The dragons at the Napoleonic Wars are, as someone mentioned, from the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik.

The witches at the American Revolution are from a series that seems to be called  Traitor to the Crown, by  C.C. Finlay.

Matt loves them, and if they’re what floats your boat, have fun.  The very idea of them makes my eyes glaze over.

Robert wrote me an e-mail in which he suggested that the books I wanted were still out there, except that what I actually wanted was books like that (multigenerational sagas, for instance) with politics–that what I was really looking for was more Allen Drury.

I’ve thought about it, and I’m pretty sure he’s wrong.  I not only didn’t mention Drury yesterday, I didn’t even thnk of him.  I like Drury’s novels a lot, but I tend to think of them as part of a category called “political novels.”  And the old mainstream novels might have politics in them–although some of them, like Peyton Place and The Chapman  Report didn’t–but they weren’t usually about politics.

Nor do  I agree with  John that Jane  Austen presents as “alternative universe.”   She presents anything but.  Her people are people, just like us.  History has nfolded in her novels just as it has in the world in which we live.  All that is different is that her characters live in a stage of technological development we have already passed through, and their customs are different than ours.  They’re still ordinary, everyday human beings living ordinary everyday human lives, ones we might live ourselves.  They are us.

So what do I want from a novel, that I could get from some of the old popular novels, and that I don’t get now?

Well, the rules, if I got to write them, would be as follows:

1)  NO elements of the supernatural.   None.  Zero.  Zilch.  I don’t want magic, ghosts, werewolves, vampires, or zombies.  I don’t want angels or demons, either.

2) NO sentient beings that do not in fact exist on this planet as it is, or was.  No dragons.  No elves.  No space aliens.

3)  NO predetermined narrative arc.  The multigenerational sagas out there at the  moment are almost all actually romance novels in multigenerational form.   But when I start a book, I don’t want to know before I start how the story will go, or how it will end.  I want it to be possible that the cruel, distant master of the house is in fact cruel and distant, and not necessarily hiding a lot of wounds that will not heal until our heroine comes along to teach him to trust again. 

Somebody said I really loved these books, but I didn’t, actually–I liked some of them, but I loved none of them the way I loved Hemingway at that time of my life.

But let me reference a book that I did like, very much, even though I knew even at the time that it was badly written and a litte thin: Lloyd C. Douglas’s Magnificent Obsession.

If Douglas were writing now, he’d probably be called a “Christian” author.  His most famous book is an historical novel called The Robe, which  follows the life of the  Roman soldier who is supposed to have won  Christ’s robe in a game of dice right before the Crucifixion.

Magnificent Obsession is a book about a man, a local rich boy in a small community, who has done nothing with his life and looks like he’s going to do nothing for the rest of it.  He went to medical school but dropped out, and now all he does is drink too much and drive too fast.  One night, engaged in both, he causes a car crash that kills the little town’s most prominent doctor.

In the wake of the doctor’s death, his wife and daughter discover something inexplicable:  the man has left no money at all.  None.  He has no debts.  He hasn’t been gambling.  He hasn’t been keeping a mistress or buying fancy cars or any of that.  He just hasn’t put anything away.

And in time, it becomes clear why this is the case–not only has the doctor been givin his services for free much of th e time, but he’s been giving everything he has made away to people in need, just because they ask him. 

The novel is then about the young man’s search to figure out what the doctor was doing and why and, later, to follow the same philosophy of life himself. 

They made a movie of this, with Rock Hudson, which I’ve seen several times, and I’ve got no idea whether or not the little plot set up I’ve given really gives any sense of the tone and nature of the thing. 

But anyway, here we have it:  the story of ordinary people living in the ordinary world, but their lives are really extraordinary, and not because they have magic or get special wisdom from aliens.  In fact, the story of that young man’s life would be far less compelling if magic existed in that fictional universe, because it would decrease the level of risk he has to take to go in the direction he goes.

Or take The Razor’s Edge, by W. Somerset Maughaum.   In the wake of Sixties silliness about Buddhism, I might find it difficult to take seriously if I read it for the first time these days.  But that, too, is the story of an ordinary young man in the ordinary real world who takes very real risks to live differently from the people around him.   I suppose you can say there’s some politics involved in this–the stock market crash and the  Great  Depression occur about a third of the way through the plot, so political events are mentioned–but it is in no way a political novel.

I truly love The Razor’s Edge, by the way, and for many years I sat down every Christmas and reread it and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, possibly the greatest Gothic novel of all time.  

But my point the other day was not that I liked this stuff and missed it, but that I found the present state of enthusiasm for magic and the supernatural a little–I don’t know what.

Do we really feel so despairing of our ability to solve our problems that we want to return to fairy tales and fairly Godmothers?  Witches and wizards do not exist in our world, and magical thinking doesn’t tend to get our jobs done or our problems solved. 

What has happened to us, as a culture, that has made us so enormously enamored of the supernatural in all its guises, when only forty years ago that sort of thing wasn’t even on the radar?

It’s not an entirely silly question to ask.

Written by janeh

June 7th, 2009 at 9:13 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Only By Report

with 7 comments

Okay, what I’m asking about here is something I do not know first hand.  I’ve never read any of these books.  I have no idea how good they are in any technical sense.  I just don’t know what to think of them.

My son came home from college with a collection of paperbacks from two different series that place fantasy stories–witches, elves, dragons–in real historical periods.  The dragons were being used by the French and  English during the Napoleonic Wars, the witches were wandering around during the American Revolution.

These are not, from what I can understand from the things my son says to me, simply matters of throwing around a bit of fancy dress, like some of the vampire novels would be set in anteBellum New Orleans.  Instead, the novels comprise actual historical events (Concord and Lexington, Waterloo, the Continental Congress) and make their fantasy characters an integral part of those events.   Entire battles hinge on how well, or how badly, one side or the other is handling its dragons, andthe dragons can talk, too, which means they can interpose their own opinions on how things should go.

Okay, these are mind candy, and there’s nothing wrong with mind candy.  Matt gets an enormous kick out of them, and my best guess is that the American revolution ones, at least, are not too historically inaccurate.  Matt’s got more tolerance of that kind of thing than I do, but he does comment on it when h e comes across it, and he’s  not been commenting.

But this appears to be an actual fad, or trend or something–the latest big deal in fantasy series.  

And yes, I find it astonishing that anybody would want to read something like th is.  Dragons and witches have exactly the same effect on my as space aliens and alternative universes.  I really do like to stay in the real world.

But what really struck me about these–and I’m sorry I can’t remember the names of the writers or the series; I went looking for copies but I  don’t know what Matt has done to them–was that, when I was growing up, you couldn’t have gotten these books published at all except, possibly, as children’s books, and then they would have had to be considerably dumbed down in vocabulary and nuance than these are.

What happened in the last thirty or so years to change the tastes of the general public so much?

It won’t do to say that the literary writers started boring everybody, because there used to be other kinds of popular fiction:  Leon Uris, Irving Wallace, even Jacqueline Susann.  

Somewhere in the course of my life, an entire category of fiction has completely disappeared:  the popular mainstream novel. 

People here say “mainstream” when what they really mean is “literary,” as if the literary novel was ever “mainstream” at all.   But although some literary novelists had popular success–Hemingway and Fitzgerald especially–the books that actually sold were things like Gone With The Wing, Peyton Place, The Man, The Chapman Report, and even Airport.

They weren’t thrillers, or murder mysteries, or romances, or science fiction.   They were just novels, about people.  A lot of the people who wrote them have been forgotten, and if the test of whether or not something should belong in the canon starts with asking if it’s been in print for fifty years, a lot of the books have died.

But what I don’t understand is why there seems to be no market for that kind of thing any more:  big sprawling, sensationalistic complicated stories about people.  When did “entertainment” come to mean “has to have some element of the impossible in it?”

And it’s not just books.   Movies seem to have been going in the same direction, although not quite so absolutely.  You do still get movies about people that are meant to be entertainment and not art–romantic comedies, road trip movies, the “heartwarming” stuff like My Bi Fat Greek Wedding.

Still, the majority of blockbusters these days are science fiction or fantasies, two categories no A-list studio would have bothered with before World War  II.

Nor is it a matter of publishers once having refused to publish what everybody wanted to read.  Science Fiction didn’t sell very well in the Fifties, and Horror virtually didn’t sell at all.  They were out of the mainstream not only because they had elements of unreality to them, but because the mainstream wouldn’t buy them.

What happened to the big entertainment novel?  What happened to the taste of the public that turned it to a craving for the non-rational, the not-real, the imaginary in the absolute sense?

I liked those big entertainment novels.  I knew Arthur Hailey was a terrible writer, but h is people were interesting, and all the research he put in to figuring out how airports and other places worked made that part interesting as well. 

When did we get to the point where we seemed to decide that writing about people and live as lived on earth was the province of “literary” writers only, and therefore of no interest to the vast majority of the readers?  Leon Uris’s characters did not have angst.  They had Crises, often having to do with things like wars, natural disasters, and worldwide economic collapse.  The people in Peyton Place had smaller problems, but they were hardly angst, either, unless you call the case of a woman who breast feeds her son until he’s well past kindergarten just a matter of angst.

And then there was James Michener.   I really miss James Michener.

I can’t see, either, that people are getting this kind of thing from television, or the Internet.  It’s not that it’s been displaced, but that it seems to have disappeared.  And I  have no idea why.

Written by janeh

June 6th, 2009 at 10:35 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Webs of Circumstance

with 8 comments

First, I’d like to say I agree with Cheryl–I’m perfectly willing to believe that Robert’s experience with English teachers was what he says it was, but it was nothing like mine, nor is it anything like what my sons have experienced.  

I do think, though, that she’s misunderstood the difference between Approved and  Unapproved Literature.   Robert isn’t talking about an attitude to what children read, but to what anybody reads.  Approved Literature would be Shakespeare, Dickens, Hemingway, et al.   Unapproved Literature would be “popular” forms like science fiction and the mystery, and people who read UL instead of AL would be looked down on as stupid, ignorant and contemptible.

And, like I said,  I never had English teachers who behaved like this.   Several of mind–right through high school and college–shared my obsession with the detective novel, and I was given the first science fiction I ever read (Stanislaw Lem and Isaac Asimov) by an English professor in college. 

That said, what really struck me about yesterday’s responses was how many people seem to believe it is not only possible to cut oneself loose from one’s past, but desirable to do it.

And yes, I know, I know.  It was a whiny post yesterday.  I figure I get to be whiny when  I want to be, at least if I don’t do it too often.  And these people have been on my mind a lot lately, because my mother is very old and not in very good shape, and eventually there will be a funeral.  And that means that these people will show up.  They will be almost the only people who show up.

And considering what happened at my brother’s funeral–among other things, Pam’s sister Chris  literally picked up her chair and turned its back to me to let me know she wasn’t speaking to me for any reason, all becauase I turned down a couple of invitations to  Easter dinner in the years just after Bill died, which in her minds seems to prove that I am “stuck up” and intent on insulting her–I’m a little nervous about how this is going to work out.

But I also think that the past is something we can never really let go of.   It makes us who we are.   And yes, of course, our memories of it are selective, and can often be wrong.  But it doesn’t change the fact that they are our memories, or that they continue to influence us.

I am connected, in complicated ways, with generation after generation of people on at least two Continents,and those are only the ones I know about.   Their stories were part of my childhood.  They’re part of my adulthood.  They’ve been part of my children’s childhood and will (I hope) be part of their adulthood.

And this is, I think, generally a good thing.  I’ve got nothing against the American love affair with fresh starts and reinventing ourselves, but history is important on a personal level as well as a general one.  I’m interested in the Second World  War on a lot of different levels, not the least of which is the story of what my father and his brother and my mother’s brothers did in it.  

It also seems to me that if we want to understand ourselves, then it makes sense to try to understand the people around us, and especially the people who were closest to us and shaped us the most.  

I thnk that kind of understanding helps to defend us against the worst kind of pseudo-scientific silliness by showing us how people actually behave, instead of how the latest psychological fad says they should behave. 

I think that is, at least in part, the attraction of multi-generational family sagas.  They’re not our earliest form of literature, but they’re pretty damned close.  The myth of the curse of the House of Atreus existed before Greek playwrights started putting it into dramatic form.  A single life can form a narrative arc, but so can the history of a family.

Sometimes I want to write one of those family sagas, not for my mother’s side of the family, but for my father’s.  My father’s mother came to the United States from Samothrace at eighteen.  She did not come, however, as other members of her family had, or other people from her little Greek island.  Instead, she first set herself up in the business of making lace for girls getting married.  When she’d made enough money doing that, she booked herself passage in a stateroom, thank you very much, forget tht nonsense about steerage.  That stateroom was the first time she had ever seen indoor plumbing. 

The story of this woman’s life was a narrative arc, and she was a remarkable woman.  But that story grounds the stories of the lives of her children and grandchildren, and will probably ground the stories of at least some of her great grandchildren.  What she was is inseparable from what we all are.

It also explains why  I’ve got absolutely no patience for the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding.  In fact, the first time I saw it, I was so offended I was ready to spit.  A Greek parent saying a girl shouldn’t get an education?  What?  I was three years old when my grandmother told me I  was going to college when I grew up, and that if my father wasn’t able to pay for me to go, she would. 

This was a woman who taught herself to read, write, and do damned good bookkeeping in two languages and two alphabets, who walked out of the Great Depression richer than most of the families who had looked down on her as a “greasy foreigner,” but who would never have let them know it.  She thought conspicuous consumption was stupid and letting people know your business was even stupider.  She thought letting people know how smart you were was the stupidest thing yet.   If she’d had as much as a sixth grade education, I’d be surprised–but she’d read Aristotle and Plato (and thought they were both idiots) and later she read the things I wrote on the typewriter she gave me one Christmas, because I wanted to be a writer, and that was the kind of ambition she wanted to encourage.

By the way, I’e got four cousins on my father’s side, and I seem to get along with them incredibly well.  We met a couple of years ago after many years of not seeing each other–none of them lives in this area–and rapport was nearly instantaneous.  There are good webs as well as bad ones.

So I know I shouldn’t whine so much.  And I’m sensible enough to realize that, sucky childhood or not, I have very little to whine about.

But I’m not ready to give up my particular webs of circumstance, good or bad.

Written by janeh

June 5th, 2009 at 7:46 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Undone

with 9 comments

John wanted to know, bac there somewhere, why, if I really hate a book I’m reading, I don’t just stop reading it. 

The short answer is that I just can’t.  It drives me nearly crazy to leave anything I  start undone.  I’ve written entire novels just to tear them up and refuse to let anyone see them.

I didn’t use to be like that.   When I was a small child,  I left most things without finishing them, which drove my father crazy, and one day he told me that the single worst thing I could do to myself, and to my life, was not to finish what I started.  I don’t remember the exact wording of the lecture, but I do remember the effect it had on me, and it has never worn off.

I was fie or six years old when I decided I was going to grow up to be a writer, but I don’t thinking writing ever was an ambition for me.  I wrote early and often and long and I never really stopped, even in college and graduate school, when going on with it definitely interfered with the quality of my academic work.   Hell, I’m fairly certain I got rejected from Sarah  Lawrence because, thinking that their status as an “arts” school would make them really impressed with all the writing I did, I let them know about it, and they nattered at me throughout the interview that, really, that kind of thing was going to affect my grades someday.

It’s been the case throughout my life that the people I’ve known who have been most self-consciously bohemian have had the souls of bureaucrats.  You can grow a ponytail and put a beret on it, but it’s what’s inside the skull that counts.

At any rate, I wouldn’t call writing an ambition because I did it in the same way I read–obsessively and naturally, without making me feel in any way pressured.

For me, ambition was always about hat I thought of not as “making it,” but as “making it out”–away from the things and people that felt truly awful to me.   It didn’t help that my mother absolutely couldn’t stand me, or that she couldn’t stand me for the same reason some of the girls in my junior high school couldn’t, because she hated “bookish” women and “intellectuals” of all stripes.  Like those same junior high school girls, my mother tended to label as “intellectual” anything more difficult than an article in Time magazine.

I wonder how much of my love for English literature is a result of something exactly opposite the impression Robert seems to have gotten of it when he was in school.  In the places where I went to school, the snobbish in-crowd people were athletic and definitely opposed to “grinds.”  Playing tennis and riding a horse well were to be admired.  (Okay, this was Fairfield County, Connecticut here).  Reading a lot just proved you were a loser. 

Except, of course, you immediately got called “stuck up” if reading was what you liked.  That was true n ot only of the girls I went to school with, and of my mother, but of my mother’s entire side of he family.  And, of course, they were the side of the family I saw the most.

I think almost everything I’ve ever done in my life, everything I’ve accomplished, from degrees to books to serious traveling, has been a result of two driving ambitions, both of them negative:  to get away from these poeple, and to make sure I never ended up sitting on my ass at sixty, sighing about how “if I’d only done that then…”

I know I don’t usually get this personal, and it’s probably boring the hell out of m ost of you, but I recently made the mistake–or not mistake–of trying to write a character from inside the head of my cousin Pam. 

My cousin Pam was the shining beacon of perfection, as far as my mother was concerned, all the time I was growing up.  She’s the daughter of my mother’s older sister, and two years older than I am.  She not only did everything first as a matter of course, but she was then and is now simply one of those people who was enormously popular with other children.  When the cousins got together, she ran the show.  When the parents talked about who had accomplished what, Pam was always the one everyone agreed was the most impressive.

Here’s something I’d like to be able to write about sometime.  If you actually go back and look at what was happening, at the factual reality of the situation, this makes no sense.  On any objective measure of what we were all doing–getting into the honor society, say, getting into a good college, later getting advanced degrees and publishing thngs and the jobs we had–then at the very least, both my cousin Annie and I were doing much better.   It was almost as if it didn’t count.  The adults around us seemed completely  unable to see it, and since they were unable to see it, so were we.

What blinds people to reality like this?  How could so many adults, who were supposed to be mature and know better, have been fooled like this? 

Okay.  Let me amend this a little.  My father was not fooled like that, not even for a split second.  And later, when this finally all blew up, he was the one who was adamant about taking my side.  But by then I was in my forties, and though I have a hard time letting go of anything emotionally, I was past the absolute worst of it.

In between the childhood hurtfulness and the adult emotional weariness, though, there was a period in which really odd things kept coming to my attention.  For one thing, Pam would tell people I’d said things that I hadn’t said, and sometimes I would realize that various people were convinced I thought something or the other (that one of my nephews was “stupid,” for instance) that I not only did not think but that I’d never even considered.

The more I looked in to the situation, the more I realized that not only had I been Pam’s target as a child, but I had remained one as an adult, and that was when  I hit the wall of incomprehension.  I mean, for God’s sake, why bother? I do as much as possible to stay out of the way of these people.  I don’t see them for years on end.  Why go through all the trouble of creating a mythology about me the only purpose of which is to  poison my relationships with people with whom I do not actually have relationships?

So, I started to write this character, and I started to let my head do that thing where the character just takes over, and it suddenly hit me:  if I’d been Pam when we were growing up, I’d have been jealous as hell of me.

Pam’s family had virtually no money.  They lived in an apartment in a triple decker in New  Haven until Pam was almost in high school.  Then they bought a small house in West Haven and had to rent the upstairs to afford it, leaving them with the cramped lower level with no dining room and only one bath.

My family had a ton  of money.  We had a great bi house in Fiarfield County, with quite a bit of property around it, plus another house, on the water, in Florida–and that “vacation house” was bigger than Pam’s even with the upstairs counted it.

Pam was fat from childhood.  I found it completely impossible to gain weight unless I was on the pill, and never gained serious weight until I got pregnant. 

Pam wanted to go to this little college in Ohio.  Her parents didn’t have the money, and she couldn’t get sufficient financial aid, so she ended up settling for commuting to the University of New Haven.  I wanted to go to Vasar, and I didn’t have to bother applying for financial aid. My father just wrote the checks.

Pam flunked out.  I got into a first rate graduate program and my father celebrated by giving me a six week trip to Greece.

Pam declared that school didn’t matter anyway.  All she wanted was to settle down and have six kids.  She never married, and never had a child.  I had Bill and then the boys.

From Pam’s point of view, I’ve probably spent my life looking like somebody who has everything she’s ever wanted, and a good deal more.

Here’s the thing–I wonder if I would have done half the stuff I’ve done in my life if I had ralized this in childhood. 

I did a fair number of things, especially academic things, in a desperate attempt to prove to my mother that I was better than Pam, that I was someone to be admired, too, and to Pam that I wasn’t a complete loser who ought to be despised.

Maybe, if I’d been smarter about people, and able to see the situation more clearly, I’d never have done any of it.  Maybe I wouldn’t even have gotten  Pay McKenna and Gregor into print.  

Sometimes I write to learn to nderstand other people, but sometimes I write to learn to understand myself.

And at my age, I really shouldn’t be this clueless.

Written by janeh

June 4th, 2009 at 10:09 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Tests of Character

with 4 comments

So I’ll start out agreeing with Lee again–if the main character is lame, there’s nothing that will really make up for it.  I tend to read, most of the time, for character, and as I’ve said before, a book where the characters are good and full and vivid is better for me than a book with a “good story” where the characters bore or annoy me.

Which, it occurs to me, puts two things ahead of story for me, both sense of place (when  I’m in some moods) and character (always).   Maybe this explains why  I really love some things a lot of people posting here thought were boring in school. 

I think it also explains why  I’m not fond of most contemporary literary fiction.  In some ways you’d think I’d love it, since it often takes place among the kind of people I grew up with and live with even now.  My problem, however, is that the characters in those things are either a) upper middle class people who aren’t on to themselves or b) other kinds of people the author doesn’t seem to understand at all.

Most writers of contemporary literary fiction that I’ve read–there are exceptions–don’t seem to me to understand people very well, and especially don’t seem to understand people like themselves.  I’ve found myself in the middle of novels by Ann  Beattie wanting to clutch the main character by the throat, drag her out into the real world, set her down in the middle of Waterbury or Bridgeport, and say, “there.  Take a look at what depressing really is.  Go work in a soup kitchen.”

Oh, and there’s a beautifully written but completely mindnumbing novel by Joan Didion who drives endlessly along the freeways around Los  Angeles–I’d like to drag her out for a trip to Watts where she doesn’t get to emote about it.

When  I think of the characters I have enjoyed reading about, though, they’ve come in a wide variety, and I don’t have to like all of them.  The most fun I’ve ever seen done with character in my life still comes in the first half of the original published edition of The Stand by Stephen King–watch it; when it got to the point where nobody in the business was going to say no to him, he had the book republished without the cuts made before the first edition came out, and I now find the thing damned near unreadable–

But there’s a good example of a story that would ordinarily bore me to distraction, but that I  finished only because the first half had so nailed my interest in the characters, that I had to find out what happened to thm even after the demon showed up. 

I have very little patience with demons, elves and space aliens. 

Of course, The Stand starts out to be a disaster novel about a worldwide pandemic, and I can do disaster novels until my eyes fall out.

Writing characters, though, is a different thing.  I tend to write people who interest me, not only as main characters, but as secondary ones.  And for the past twenty years or so, I’ve been very careful to make my main characters people–often men–I could not ever be.

But just as I once read for a sense of place, I now read, at least sometimes, to see what possibilities there are out there for what the next stage of my life could possibly look like. 

I’m driven to this at least in part because I really hate the way women in late middle age look and are on television and in the movies.   I’ve never had plastic surgery of any kind, and I never intend to.  It seems to me that a woman of fifty who is trying to look twenty five is sending a single message to the world, loud and clear:  that it’s not all right to be a woman of fifty.

What’s more, I’ve got even less use for the sort of woman who pursues sex after menopause as if it were some kind of Holy Grail.  I got into a loud of trouble on a forum I post on periodically because I said that a group of such women who’d written a book about their experiences–look!  I’m having loads of sex at sixty and it’s the best sex I’ve never had!–were, to put it bluntly, pathetic.

No,  I don’t have anything against older women having sex, or older women having sex with younger men, but there’s something about dedicating your life to it that just–I don’t know.  I don’t know the words I want here.

Part of it is the logic.  The only way the sex you have after sixty is the best you’ve ever had is because the sex you had before sixty was awful.  Neither biology nor evolution works that way.  No matter what we’ve made of sex emotionally and culturally, it is at bottom a biological mechanism for ensuring the continuation of the species.   It therefore makes sense that, if evolution is true, sex should be the most fun when we have the most chance of reproducing.

But there’s more to it than that.  The women who chase youth with plastic surgery or with younger men seem to me to lack some fundamental sense of self.  Hell, the men who do it seem to lack the same thing.  Hugh Hefner does not look enviable to me. He looks sort of creepy and pathetic, and very, very sad.

I guess I hope that getting older will mean getting wiser, and maybe it does, but there is precious little in the world that amounts to a vision of what that would look like in women.  So lately, I actively go looking for characters who embody it, the something I’m looking for that I’m not entire sure what it is.

I’ve even tried writing it on and off, but I’m not very good at it yet.  Maybe that’s because I don’t have it settled in my own mind.  Let’s just say that, constrained to watch an episode on Golden Girls, I prefer just about any of the other characters to Blanche.

I do wonder if I’m in the minority, though.  Most of the heroes and heroines of novels these days, and always, seem to be in their twenties and thirties, even though the most common readers of novels are older than that.   Maybe most people prefer to imagine themselves as younger than they are, or to escape from the realities of their own age, and I’m an anomaly on that score, too.

Written by janeh

June 2nd, 2009 at 10:58 am

Posted in Uncategorized

I’d Rather Be In Philadelphia

with 3 comments

Well, of course, with Lee,  I had no interest at all in being thrown off a boat or rescued by a dolphin.

But I did have an interest in going to Corfu, and to Crete–and both those places really existed, and going there was something  I was really able to do, eventually if not right away.   That’s what I meant when I said that the fantasy had to be realizable.  I didn’t imagine myself participating in the plot, but going to the location.

In fact, if I think about it, I realize that, at that time in my life, the plots of the books I read were literally irrelevant.  It didn’t matter if the book I was reading had “a good story,” because I wasn’t looking for a story.   I was looking for an atmosphere, and for a sense of place, of a place that was not-where-I-was.

When I wanted desperately to move to New York or live in  Paris, I read books set in contemporary (or near contemporary) New York or Paris.  Iread all kinds of books with those settings, and cared very little what else was going on in them.  I even read books set at colleges, because “going away to college” was the first leg on the journey of escape.  I’d been looking forward to it since I was three.

I don’t know when  I stopped reading like this, but maybe I haven’t, completely.  Oh, I don’t read to feed my fantasies of escape any  more, but what I do do is to read in preparation for a trip I’m actually taking.  The first time I went to Portugal, I  read Jose Saramago’s novels (a lot of them) as well as the novels of a less well known novelist from Portugale, a novel set in  Lisbon by an Italian mystery writer, few movies by Manoelo de Oliveira, and some of the classics (poetry by Fernando Pessoa, The Lusiads.

Okay.  And some cookbooks.  I’ve got this thing for cookbooks, big, incredibly well illustrated cookbooks.  But that’s another story.

Anyway, I sometimes become interested in going someplace because of the fiction I read, although only rarely does that work with movies (or even cookbooks).   Then  I’ll start the cycle, finding m ore fiction, finding movies, finding other things, until I decide whether I really want to go or not.

I think a large part of my lack of interest in going to  Italy, even though there are specific things there I would like to see, is the fact that the novels I’ve read by contemporary Italian writers either don’t inspire me at all (Italo Calvino), or mostly aren’t about contemporary Italy (Umberto Eco).

In spite of all that, though, I’m still completely and utterly fascinating by books written about the place where I live by people who have lived here.  I’ve read my way not only through the usual New England authors (Emerson, Thoreau, James, Hawthorne) but through Jonathan Edwards’s Freedom of the Will and a number of things by Timothy Dwight, plus biographies of most of the same and some histories. 

I’m even fairly well up on Robert Frost, and he was from away.

In all of these cases, though, I think the bottom line is that I need the lanscape to be real, to be someplace I can actually get to.  I’ve gotten to a lot of them in my life, although I still haven’t been to  Kathmandu and I don’t think I ever will climb a Himalaya. 

As for New England, I think the fascination is largely due to the fact that it belongs to me.   Memebers of one side of my family have been in this part of the country since the seventeenth century, and in spite of the fact that I mostly take after another side–and that I’m going through one of those phases when “getting the hell out of New England” seems like the next best movie–there’s a sense in which I can never be anything but a New England woman of the “high thinking and plain living” type. 

I don’t own a single pair of Birkenstocks, but that’s because they’d be ostentatious.

A lot of this is just temperament and taste, of course.  I don’t l ike reading about places neither I nor anybody else can ever get to, which means most science fiction and fantasy bores me to tears.

And even when I’m not reading fiction “seriously,” it seems I’m not reading it for the story, either.

Written by janeh

June 1st, 2009 at 7:51 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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