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Archive for December, 2009

Crime–Which, After All, Is Partially The Point

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Police forces as we know them are inventons of the nineteenth century.  In the English-speaking world, there were sheriffs and baliffs and officers of the court who took on some police functions, but in thirteenth century England, nobody felt the need for what we would call policing–for having somebody walking around, checking to make sure nobody was committing crimes.  Nor did they see any need for men whose lives were dedicated to investigating crimes that had occured and determing who must have done them.

I’m sure that, for most of the readers of this blog, none of this will come as new information.  I certainly knew about it long before I ever did any formal study in the Middle Ages. 

What I do not understand is why this fact doesn’t seem as odd to anybody else as it does to me.  Some of the problem is surely a matter of size.  Small towns and rural villages have less crime than large cities do because at least some crime in predicated on the assumption that the criminal does not know the victim. 

In fact, a lot of crime is.  People are, in general, much more willing to rob, beat, and murder people they don’t know than people they do.  The stats on murder are actually closer to a draw on that, but the principle is sound–we see people we know personally in a different way than we see people who are strangers or mostly stranger.

And there is the issue, as well, of understanding.  In a very small town, the chances are good that the rest of the people in the area already have your number.  They know how you think, they know how you act, and they know how you behave.

That was one of the points in favor of a jury of your peers that has become significantly distorted in recent legal practice.  These days, we worry that people who know you are too likely to be prejudiced either for or against you, and insist that any jury hearing your cases be made up of people who have no personal knowledge of you at all.  If we can manage it, we’ll insist that it be made up of people who have never heard of you.

And there’s a certain amount of logic to that.  Small towns can be claustophobic,, isolated, small-minded and close-minded places, as well as places where everybody knows your name.

But what’s on my mind this morning is the fact that there were cities in England, even in the thirteenth century, large enough to qualify as cities even now.  Oh, there was nothing the size of present-day London, or New Y ork, but there were places with populations of 10,000 and up, and 10,000 is the number usually thought, these days, to make a significant difference to the incidence of crime. 

One of the things I have on my TBR pile that I’ve never quite gotten up the courage to start in on–and it’s been there for years–is a thing called A History of London by Stephen Inwood.  It’s big enough, even in the trade paperback edition, to build a hamster cage out of. 

I like long nonfiction books when I’m writing, because they tend to be unobtrusive in terms of narrative voice and they provide a continuity that means I don’t have to keep shifting mental gears at a time when I do have to keep shifting them when I work.  This particular long piece of nonfiction, though, is so long that it’s absolutely frozen me.

Even so, I do look into the thing from time to time, and one of the things I’ve noticed is that there’s very little in the way of reporting on crime.

I don’t mean I expect this guy to have written little histories of true crime cases, although I can think of a couple of those cases that might have been interesting.  And I have to acknowledge that this book, like most general histories not specifically devoted to the Middle Ages, is rather weak on all periods before the eighteenth century. 

But still.

This was an era in which it was possible to receive as a sentence for committing murder…a fine.  And those fines were not restricted to aristocratic killers.  Execution for simple, nonpolitical, individual murder was actually fairly rare in the Middle Ages in England.  So were long prison sentences. 

And yet this was not an anarchic mess.   Government functioned.  So did business.  Families were formed and raised and perpetuated.

In a city of the same size now–say, for instance, Waterbury, CT–this particular approach to crime would probably result in just that anarchy that we’re all afraid of.

I’ve also got no doubt that there was a fair amount of simple, individual murder that went undetected, and often even unsuspected.  It was an era in which people died young of mysterious diseases and ailments for which there was no satisfactory scientific explanation.  A knowledge of some of the more uncommon poisons would have gone a long way to ridding you of a spouse while the neighborhood just assumed he’d succumbed to the latest form of wasting disease.

Of course, there was always the danger of being accused, tried an executed for witchcraft, but such trials, and such executions, were surpriingly rare.  The old  Women’s Studies canard about the “great burning” of women as witches is just that, a canard.  Trials for witchcraft happened, and executions for witchcraft happened, but less often than you’d think, at least at this period.

The great period for witchburings was the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation.  And the witches were almost as likely to be male as female. 

I still wonder, though, if there hasn’t been some significant sea change in human personalities in the years since the rise of the Enlightenment. 

Ack.  It’s dificult to date this stuff. 

It does seem to me that there has been a break, and that the break coincids with a change in the kinds and frequencies of crimes, as well as the ways in which we investigate them.

But maybe it’s just Monday morning, and I’m just blithering.

Written by janeh

December 14th, 2009 at 11:07 am

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The Saturday Morning Freeze

with 3 comments

It is, at the moment, verycold in the room in which I write.  I seem to be among the minority  of writers.  I’m not looking to face a blank wall to keep myself from being distracted.  Instead, I like windows, and lots of them. 

I therefore write in a converted sunroom, which, when the weather gets cold, is itself cold indeed.  Windows, it turns out, do no retain much in the way of heat.  If I got to do it all over again at some point, I’d design myself a writing room that was floor to ceiling windows on three sides, but that had radiant heat in the floor, so that my feet would always be warm.

Either that, or I’d move to a more suitable climate.   Which is odd, when I think about it, because when I was youner I hated the heat.  Now I hate the cold.  I haven’t quite gotten to where my father ended up, where he could put on long sleeved flannel to go out and weed his eighty-degree Fahrenheit Florida garden, but I have gotten to hate the cold.

No, I’m not going to write about the weather all day.  It came up–besides the fact that the cold isn’t letting me forget it–because I’ve been reading Kipling, and a lot of what I’ve been reading takes place in India.  I’ve been in  India a couple of times, and it has never been cold while I’ve been there.  I think that most of the country manages never to get cold at all.

On Kipling, though, a couple of notes.

First, the book I’m reading is a collection of Kipling’s short stories for adults, heavily weighted towards work written late in his career.  So far, I haven’t come across any that I’ve read before, and I’m about halfway done.

Second, except for a couple near the beginning of the book that relied heavily on attempts to write in dialect, they have so far passed the most important test of any fiction I read outside of the summer vacation–I can write when I’m reading them.

I am n ot say8ing that I cannot write when I read bad books, or badly written ones–although if a book is badly written enough that does sometimes happen.

There are, however, some very good books that I can’t writen when I’m reading, including a lot of the early Stephen King.  Some people have narrative voices that are just too strong.  When I’m reading them and I try to write, I can’t prevent myself from imitating them, and then I sound awful.  And not like me.

Being  halfway through with the book, though I can make a few statements I think are going to stay with me to the end.

The first is that this Kipling so far strikes me like a lot of other Kipling–the work of a man with an interesting mind but  only a weakly developed skill at execution.

With that we get into a very old argument now–which is how much the technical aspects of a work of fiction of poetry should “count” in judging whether the work is “good” or n ot.

Writing is an art form–even the writing of n onfiction can be an artform–and technique always matters in any art form.  For many, it’s the o nly thing that matters.

Writing is different, partially because it deals with ideas, and the content of those ideas will be considered subconsciously if not consciously even by readers trying not to consider them.  That’s one of the reasons for the fifty-year rule:  it at least attempts to get us past the partisane political and sectarian religious fevers of our day to a place where we can at least attempt to jude the wok of art as a work of art.

But there is also a technological issue in judging works of literature as works of art, and that is the fact that until vey recently, lanuages and its uses changed so rapidly and thoroughly that questions of technique became moot.

None of us can know whether Homer was a “great writer” as a writer, or not.  There’s still something called Greek spoken in the world, but it’s not that Greek.  We know that the Greeks of the classical period held Homer to be a great poet, and that’s something.  We are still unable to make such a determination for ourselves.

Kipling is not so far from us as that, and we can make certain determinations as to h is technical skill at writing prose.  But although that is important to deciding if something is great literature or not, there must be other considerations as well, and those are harder to come by.

So, a few things, as I said. 

Kipling does not write great prose, or anything like it.  At this stage of his career, however, the prose isn’t bad, either–he is a “good enough” writer, and there are plenty of “good enough” writers in the Canon, there because they had other things to bring to the table besides technical perfection.

The prose itself, at this stage, reminds me strikingly of that of Conan Doyle, and I suppose that makes a certain amount of sense.  If they weren’t strictly contemporaries, their lives overlapped significantly.

What’s getting to me at the moment is story structure–or maybe what I mean is story execution.  I’m coming up blank for a term here.

I don’t need a lot of plot in my fiction.  In fact, I don’t need much of any at all.  With these stories, though, I keep running headlong i nto truly great concepts that then proceed to go absolutely nowhere at all. 

My present mania is over a piece called “The Finest Story in the World.”  In its way, it prsents the antithetical problem to a Kipling poem called “The Gods of the Copybook Headings.” 

In “The Gods of the Copybook Headings,” there is a first rate idea, and a signiicant insight, fully realized, in poetry so bad you have to hack at it with a machete to make it behave.  It’s not easy bad poetry, either, so that when I assign it to students I’ve got to pick it apart like the Gordian knot before they can understand it.

The premise of “The Finest Story in the World”  is this:  an older, established writer has as a young friend an ordinary bank clerk with literary aspirations.  Unfortunately, the bank clerk is not only a bad writer in the technical sense.  His ideas are utterly unoriginal, secondhand and trite.

Until one day the young man shows up with a new story he wants to write, and th is is, well, amazing.  It’s not only  new and original, it’s a detailed exposition of life on a Greek galley slave ship from the period before the rise of Rome. 

What’s more, among the notes the young man has made are several actually in Greek, a language he has never studied.  And some of these n otes consist of things that youn man says are supposed to be words scratched into their chains by the fellow slaves of the hero–and when our older writer takes these to the British Museum, the words turn out to e the actual names of actual Greek galley slaves, even though those names have never been published anywhere, and they can only be viewed by members of the Museeum, which the young man is not.

I’m sorry.  I’m not that great at consructing plots, but I could do something with that premise.  I could do so much with it, I’m even thinking about stealing it.

Kipling let it all sort of run out in a mush abou t sex and reincarnation.


Written by janeh

December 12th, 2009 at 10:02 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Thinking About Vacations

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Okay, this is not going to be a very coherent post, because I’ve had one hell of a morning arguing with people who were all convinced that they knew exactly what was right and true–and about something simply procedural, too–and all of whom were wrong.

And none of them were students.

That said, this is my last week of classes before the break.  There’s a finals week, and I do come in for that, but finals week is never a problem, because I don’t have to fight with anybody.  I just sit at a desk and let people bring me things.

Well, okay, I did have one kid, a couple of years ago, throw a bunch of papers at my head because I refused to accept them, since the term was essentially over.  But the only time I’ve ever had furniture thrown at me, it was during a regular class.

Anyway, I started the day rather well.  I was up early.  I got a lot of work done.  Then I turned on the television set to see what the weather was going to be like–yesterday it snowed–and found instead Obama giving his Peace Prize speech.

And it was wonderful.  Okay, I’m normally a fan on a lot of levels, but the man actually went in there and did an anti-Jimmy Carter.  I don’t mean he badmouthed Carter.  I mean he talked about what he thought the US was “justly proud” of and why he thought it might sometimes be both his moral right and moral responsibility to use the military unilaterally to defend the US and how nobody was going to defeat Al-Qaeda with negotiations, and…

It’s not that I’m in favor of war.  I’m not.  My older son has a couple of friends on active duty in the military, and the only way I can be sure they won’t come to harm is if they’re  not sent to fight, and in the present circumstances I can’t be sure of that at all.  And one of them seems to have a positive mania for going into combat as soon as possible.

Right here, if I believed in God, I’d remind myself that God takes care of fools and little children.

But here’s the thing–I’m sick to death of the endless adolescent Euro-sniff.  There were dozens of reports going in to the speech that Obama had written it himself and worked on it and revised it himself on the plane ride over, so there isn’t even the cover of speechwriters to use to explain any of this away.  And, you know, it makes me feel like I knew what I was doing when I voted for the guy.

After that I had a lot of running around to do, and even more of waiting, so I’ve been diving into an ocean of Kipling, courtesy of recommendations by Robert.  It’s Kipling short stories I’m looking at, some of which are good, some of which are mediocre, and some of which are written largely in dialect, which is something I just don’t get. 

‘Yes, yes.  I know that Twain was famous for it, but I can’t read a lot of Twain, either.  At the moment, my big frustration is with a story called “On Greenhow Hill,” which both Robert and every literary critic I’ve checked with say is one of Kipling’s all time best.  And I can’t understand it.  I read it through four or five times, and I kept getting stuck on things like “thrain”–what the hell is “thrain?” 

Okay, that’s a personal failing of mine.  The only time I’ve seen dialect done in a way I’ve both understood and admired (and the first is necessary for the second) is in the first half of the original version of Stephen King’s The Stand, where it was done entirely with slang and the rhythm of the writing, without any fancy spellings meant to imitate accents, or whatever.  Unfortunately, King later released an expanded version of The Stand, where he put back all the stuff his editor made him take out–but his editor was right, and now you have to find the original version in secondhand stores.

Anyway, lots of the stories are not written in dialect, and I’ve been having a good time with one call “The Man Who Would Be King.”

But I’m bringing up the Kipling for another reason entirely.  The copy I have is a hardcover with one of those attached ribbon bookmarks dangling from the top of the spine, and while I find this convenient enough, the cats find it absolutely fascinating.  And irresistable. 

So I’ll be sitting on the loveseat, drinking tea and minding my own business, and suddenly cats launch themselves at me and knock the book out of my hand. 

If I try to get the ribbon back, they think it’s a game, and they go for it with claws.

I don’t think I’ve ever been introduced to any piece of writing this way before, but I’ll admit that it’s done something to the way I regard Kipling’s short stories, if not the poems and other things I knew before I started this.

Whatever.  Like I said, I’m very distracted today, so I’m just going to wander off, happy in the knowledge that this is, in fact, the last day–at least for a while–that I’m going to get yelled at.

Maybe I’ll look at some web sites about Maui…

Written by janeh

December 10th, 2009 at 12:04 pm

Posted in Uncategorized


with 7 comments

Yesterday, I did something I am not very happy with myself for, and I don’t know what to think of it.  

Yesterday, I let a girl lie to me and get away with it.

Specifically, I let a girl lie to me about the work she had and had not done.  We’d been around this particular track a few times already this term.  She’d come up to me before or after class and demand to know what her grade was up to this point in the term.  I’d givee her an honest answer–about a D+–and then point out that she’d only handed in three of the five required papers.   She’d have a screaming fit that she’d done all that, she’d given me the work, she remembered doing it right there, etc, etc, etc.

The only problem with that, of course, is that I have an excellent memory, and this particular girl had been on my mind for weeks.   I also have a nearly foolproof system for ensuring that I don’t lose papers.  Any paper that comes in goes immediately into the left hand pocket of a particular folder.  When I’ve graded it, I put it into the right hand pocket.

Of course, there’s always the chance that, with a lot of papers to grade, I might have forgotten to record the grade in my book.  But that shouldn’t be a problem, either, because in this class, students were supposed to keep all their work in a portfolio to hand in on the last day. 

So, when this person would pull this particular stunt, I would say what  usually say–fine, bring me the portfolio, show me the grade, I’ll be happy to record it.

And, of course, the portfolio never came in.  Because she hadn’t done the papers in the first place.  Because I would have remembered if she had, because she was worrying me, and therefore on my mind more than most of them were.

I find myself, suddenly, in a place where I simply do not want to get shouted at any more.   And I do get shouted at.  A lot. 

What’s worse, I think, is that I suddenly feel as if there’s no point in fighting it.  When I started doing this, the way in which kids in remedial classes–especially the kinds of kids who end up in the kinds of remedial classes I teach–were allowed to bluff and bully and ignore their way out of learning anything at all really bothered me.

It still bothers me.  Most of the kids in these classes have learned exactly one thing in high school–that there’s no point in doing any work at all, because if you’re just loud enough, aggressive enough, threatening enough, or passive enough, you’ll get a “good” grade anyway.

Of course, just a little while ago, these kids hit a all called the SATs, and the result was that, “good” grades or not, not a college in the country would touch them–except ours.

But we did touch them, and they don’t know enough about education, or the system as it operates in the US right this minute, to realize that they are not going to “college” in the same sense that, say, soembody at Harvard or Vassar or Johns Hopkins is. 

The level or work thee kids do would not be acceptable for a remedial class at any third tier school, never mind a first tier one.  These are eighteen year olds still struggling to produce standard page and a half, five paragraph essays–the kind of ting their peers at good schools have done in about seventh grade. 

Their reading levels are worse than atrocious–and ‘ve got one this term I’m beginning to think can’t actually read at all–but their writing is astonishing in its complete and utter failure.  Most of them don’t know what a sentence is, don’t know what the basics of grammar, punctuation and spelling are, and can’t think their way out of paper bags.

The one thing these kids need, and I’ve known it from the very beginning, is someone who will not compromise standards. 

They need that first because, if they’re capable, they need to know what we teach so that they can make decent lives for themselves.  And I’m not talking about the Canon here.  I’m talking about dveloping skill levels high enough to be able to function competently in jobs above the intellectual level of ditch diggers and convenience store clerks. 

The other reason they need somebody in their lives who won’t compromise standards is that they need to understand what those standards are.  Without such an understanding, the whole system seems to them to be a gigantic scam. 

Since they don’t know that people at Harvard are doing work that is actually more demanding and accomplished than what they do, they assume that the only difference–the reason why people from first tier schools get better jobs after graduation–is, well, you know.  Something evil.  Like money, or maybe race. 

They’re sure they’re just as good as those rich white people, but those rich white people are rich and white, so they get everything. 

Of course, some of them are white, too, and some of them are reasonably “rich,” but there are variations on this theme to fit different circumstances. 

When I started doing this, I was determined not to buy into the fundamental cynicism that underlies so much of the teaching that goes on in these places.  I would say that a good two thirds of the people I  have taught with in these programs over the years did not believe that their students were intellectually capable of doing doing even good-quality high school level work.

And they had a point, up to a point.  A lot of our kids do not have the intellectual ability to do much m ore than decent junior-high-school work, for thee same reason I will never sing at the Metropolitan Opera or play with the WNBA.  Talent is real, and so is the lack of it.  Some of us just don’t get the luck of the draw.

But here’s the odd thing:  our mania with maintaining the Official Line, that hard work is the only thing that matters and that anybody can be anything he wants to be, actually prevents a lot of these kids from doing anything at all.

The ones who buy it too often end up believing that the system is rigged against them, so implacably rigged that they might as well just give up.

The ones who don’t buy it–who know that talent counts–tend to be trapped in a mind-freezing panic of denial, because they’re also convinced that they have so such talent. 

One way or the other, everybody is angry all of the time, and since I’m the one in front of the room, the official representative of the whole unholy mess, I’m the one they’re angry at.

Yesterday, I realized that I’m just not capable of doing this anymore.  I love teaching, when I get to do it, but mostly I don’t get to do it.

I don’t love fighting people in order to help them, or taking abuse because I need to get them past that in order to do them some good.

And maybe I’m no longer convinced that I’m doing them any good.

Written by janeh

December 9th, 2009 at 10:20 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Something About Cats

with 4 comments

Actually, something about cats that has always bothered me.  But first for the back-up notes.

I’ve always had tomcats, and always had them from a single litter, and never had them neutered.  This is the first time I’ve ever had a problem with them being in the same house.

We did, of course, have a bit of a difficulty with marking wars in the beginning, but it eased off after a while. 

And we often don’t have any trouble with fighting.  In fact, the two we have now actually co-operate in a number of instances–when the vacuum cleaner runs, for instance, they’ll repair to the top shelf in one of the wardrobes and huddle together for dear life.  It seems that when they think they’re in mortal danger, they remember they’re litter mates.

In deep winter, too, when we sometimes get field mice trying to get into the house to escape the cold–it goes down to double digits below zero F here at times–they will hunt together to catch the thing or frighten it away.

But they do fight, sometimes, and that makes me wonder why that is, when we’ve never had tomcats fighting in the house before.  I wonder if it’s because these two are indoor cats exclusively, and never go out to meet girl cats or anybody else on their own, so that the only territory they’re concerned with is the one they’re in every day, and the only one they know.

That said, I want to address the neutering problem, because it seems to me that there’s something inherently contradictory about it.

I understand that there are a lot of irresponsible people out there, who let pets roam unsupervised, never give a thought to the litters conceived that way, and generally don’t take care of any of it.

But I also know that evolution is true, and that breeding works.

I saw a cable show once a few years ago about the way in which cats came to be domesticated, and the general view was that they hadn’t been domesticated.  Dogs were domesticated, and specifically bred for certain traits.  Cats just sort of showed up in the house and tended to be compatible.  We fed them.  They hung out as long as they wanted.  We let them be.

Neutering is a relatively new procedure for pets–new to the last century, I’d guess–so that even though we weren’t doing anything to breed the traits we wanted into cats, we weren’t doing anything to discourage them, either.  And it’s possible that we were in fact having some positive effect, since we were probably more willing to feed and house the cats whose behavior we liked than those whose behavior we didn’t, which would have made the first group more likely to survive and breed and bring up young.

These days, though, we do neuter, and we do it without thinking for a moment about what its long term effects are going to be on anything but the raw numbers of available cats.

A cat with traits we value–affectionateness, for instace, and gentleness around other pets–is more likely to be rendered incapable of breeding than one with traits we dislike.  After all, we’re much more likely to take in the cat with traits we like, and to provide that cat with vet care, and therefore to neuter him.  Or her.

Common sense says that to the extent we’re successful in our campaigns to have cats spayed and neutered, we’re actually descreasing the percentage of the cat population that has traits desirable to humans and increasing the percentage of the cat population that has traits undesirable to us.

And that means that we’re creating more cats who will be abandoned to go feral, because the people who originally took them in to care for them will be unable to handle their behavior.  And before you land both feet on the families who abandon cats, you need to know that some of those behaviors can be very difficult to handle if, for instance, you have small children in the house.

I do not have small children in the house, but if I did, I’d almost certainly be looking for a way to get rid of Creamsicle.  Why?  Because Creamsicle, although lovely in many ways, tends to communicate by biting (and gives little to no warning when that’s about to happen).  He’s also not a very cuddly cat under any circumstances, but children can live with a cat who ignores them.  They can live less well with a cat who bites them because they sit down on the couch and don’t realize it’s there, or because they want to pet it when it doesn’t want to be petted.

Holli, on the other hand, is practically the perfect house pet for children.  You can pick him up and carry him around like a sack of potatoes, and he just won’t care.  You can hug him, pet him for hours on end–hell, he’d prefer it–let him sleep in the bed with you (he’d prefer that, too), let him wander around a litter of nearly new-born kittens–it doesn’t matter, Holli is gentle and friendly and affectionate virtually without exception.

My head says that the sensible thing, in the long run, would be to neuter Creamsicle and find Holli a girl cat with similar traits to mate with, thereby increasing the chance that cats with traits like his will be born. 

And that, by doing this, we would also decrease–slowly but surely–the percentage of the cat population left to go feral.

I have no idea if I’m making any sense here.  We aren’t used to thinking of cats as animals that can be “bred,” except in the very narrow sense of being bred for physical characteristics so that they can compete in cat shows.

But the feral cat problem is not really entirely a matter of people being irresponsible about spaying and neutering.  It is, I think, as much a problem of the fact that we seem determined to systematically breed out desirable traits while undesirable ones run rampant. 

The perfect housecat ends up spayed, neutered and kittenless on the kitchen windowsill.  The nasty little animal who bites and scratches at every turn is off in the woods, producing litter after litter.

Written by janeh

December 8th, 2009 at 10:28 am

Posted in Uncategorized

In Media Res. Or The Middle of the Night.

with 5 comments

Before I get started here, you have to understand something.  It is 3:20 in the morning, and I’ve been up for two hours.  I’m usually an early riser, and I like to get up and get my work done before the day has started for most people.  I do not, however, ordinarily get up before two.

I am up, at the moment, because my younger son–who is not exactly a child–had a complete fit about the fact that our two cats were having a battle royal in the living room.  “But you don’t understand,” he said, when I berated him for waking me up, “it’s like they’re going to kill each other.”

These are two unneutered tomcats.  They’re trying to kill each other.  I sometimes think Disney has a lot to answer for.  I think it was Disney who first changed our “understanding” of animals into something more like a complete misunderstanding of them, so that we think that basically wild animals have the kind of sqiushy soft niceness reasoning most usually associated with–well, I don’t kno what it’s associated with.   I might if I’d had more sleep, but I didn’t have it.  It’s as if they’re cute little stuffed animals who can talk, only they don’t and they move around on their own.

I am making virtually no sense at all.  I know that.

But I’m here, and I’m still thinking about action sequences.  A couple of things on that point, and then I’ll go off and try to stuff enough caffeine into myself to function for the day.

First, I don’t doubt that books with action sequences are popular, just as movies with such sequences are popular.  It’s just that I don’t like them.

And I don’t like them even in those books where the action is “intelligent” and explained.   Tolstoy is very intelliegent and he explains everything, including the motivations of all the characters, and as soon as he gets to a battle scene, my mind just takes a vacation.

I’m just not very interested in people rushing about doing things.  The detective chases the killer through the subways of New York!  I don’t care if the damned thing was written by Shakespeare or Hemningway, it would still bore the crap out of me.  It’s not “stupid action” I’m n ot interested in.  It’s any action at all.

I had the same problem explaining th is kind of thing to a friend of mine named Ric Meyers, who once accused me of having a narrow mind because I didn’t like comic books.  It took me a while, but I finally convinced him that it wouldn’t matter how many of them I read,  I wasn’t going to like them because I didn’t like pictures.in my books.

In o ther words, the problem was fundamental.  And my problem with action sequences is also fundamental.  I don’t care how intelligently they’re written.  They’re action sequences, and I’m congenitally unable to care about people running all over the place doing physical stuff.

That being said, I’m also not all that i nterested in highly intellectual content in my mysteries.  I don’t necessarily mind it–unlike the action sequences, I can get fairly interested in the intellectual stuff–but what I really like, and what I really miss in modern mysteries, is the kind of thing where the detective has to pore over train timetables to break alibis or where you need a floor plan of the house or the hotel or wherever in order to figure out who’s lying about being in bed at the time of the murder.

I don’t know why we don’t do that kind of thing in mysteries anymore, except in sort of high farce in cozies.  I presume there must be some kind of market for it, since Dame Agatha is still in print. 

But even fairly traditionalist modern writers don’t do that kind of thing, and the mystery writers who make the best seller lists today don’t do anything like it. 

I think it’s a loss.

And I think I need some tea.

Written by janeh

December 7th, 2009 at 5:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Detective Stories

with 7 comments

Sometime this month–it may already have happened; I admit to being less than attentive to the content of commercials–a movie called Sherlock Holmes is going to open. 

I tend to be relatively in favor of somesthing like this, because I like Holmes.  And I like Robert  Downey, Jr. who is playing Holmes, although the real Sherlock Holmes will always look, to me, exactly like Basil Rathbone.

What bothers me, at the moment, is that when I do pay attention to the commercials, it looks as if they’ve managed to make a Holmes movie with lots of action and shooting in it.  And I don’t get it.

For me, at any rate, the most attractive aspect of the Holmes stories has always been the fact that they relied on intelligence and critical thinking–God, how I hate that term–and not on action, that the focus of the stories was on a man thinking. 

It’s what I like about Hercule Poirot and  Miss Marple, too, and what I like about Martha Grimes and P.D. James.  If there is a real distinction between Golden Age fiction and the fiction of most of the stuff produced present day, it’s just this:  that the Golden Age and a very few people writing now are writing about thinking, and most “crime novelists” today are writing about action.

I am, I think, in a minority here.   I fall asleep or go to the bathroom during fight scenes at the movies, and action sequences in books make my eyes glaze over.  I literally do not understand why people find this sort of thing “exciting.” 

And it’s not that I’m entirely immune to the attractions of violence, either.  I can rubberneck at accidents with the best of them, and I’ve got a morbid fascination with those World’s Most Shocking  Crimes shows that come up on television every now and again.

Although I really wish they’d dispense with the D-list “celebrity” commentary that clutters up a lot of them.

Two people fighting, though, or people shooting at each other, or scenes where the cop tracks the killer through the subway tunnels of New York in order to stop him from blowing up the  Empire State building just bore the hell out of me.

And they bore the hell out of me in a way that natural disasters–in movies at least–do not. 

The movie 2012,  for instance, is one long cascade of natural disasters:  earthquakes, tsunamis, erupting volcanoes, you name it. And I loved every minute of it.  In fact, I love disaster movies of all kinds.  Hit California with a 10.2 on the Richter scale?  Absolutely.  Level half of Oklahoma with a series of killer tornadoes?  I’m in.  I even liked The Day After Tomorrow, in spite of knowing that it was, scientifically, a piece of crap.

There’s just something about human on human violence that doesn’t work for me.  It’s why  I can never get through War and Peace–too much war, and I really don’t care about battles.  When I was in school, the big “classic” book everybody had to read was The Red Badge of  Courage, and I could barely force myself through it. 

But it’s not just war.  Thomas Harris is an excellent writer, but I just don’t care about Hannibal Lecter, and descriptions of what serial murderers do to their victims always come off to me as completely useless.  I don’t understand why readers would want to read that kind of thing, or why moviegoers would want to see it, often in graphic detail.

It’s not just that it’s gross, it’s that it seems to me to be, at base, nearly definitively stupid.  Hannibal Lecter is supposed to be some kind of genius, but he’s a guy who can’t think of anything better to do with his time than eat other people’s livers with fava beans on the side.

Every once in a while, TCM will do a day of old mysteries from the thirties and forties.  There was a time when movies did portray detectives detecting–not only Sherlock Holmes, but Nick and Nora Charles, The Saint, and a dozen B-movie imitations.  Last week there was a marathon of movies about an amateur gentleman detective called  The Falcon.   On any objective level, those movies were awful–but, well, I watched pretty much all of them.

If you ask people in the business today, they’ll tellyou that this sort of mystery does not sell very well any more, or that it only sells respectably if it’s part of a “cozy.”  I suppose there must be some truth in that, because I can only think of a couple of writers still doing traditional mysteries–not cozies–and ending up on the best seller lists.

Every time I bring this up–and I know I keep coming back to it–I get a little rain of books from various people trying to prove me wrong, and those books almost always are the same thing:  if not actually cozies, then cute attempts to “write just like Agatha!”

In other words, the books are set in the Thirties or Forties or even Twenties, they take place in impossibly quaint English villages…and all the rest of it.

I don’t know why nobody seems to be writing, or reading, books about a detective who solves crimes by thinking rather than running around shooting at things, set in the present in ordinary places.  That is, after all, what Agatha  Christie did, and what  Conan Doyle did, too. 

I’m always brought up short by the fact that Agatha herself still sells very well, and that most of those Golden Age mysteries seem to be in print, or at least the ones from the best selling writers of the period.

Maybe it’s that readers perceive such work as “quaint” and “cozy” simply because it’s written about an era in the past, an era that feels remote and whose writing conventions barred the use of bad language and graphic sex.

Of course, I’m not much interested in bad language and graphic sex, either, but at least those things tend to be annoying without being endless.  Chase scenes can go on for forty pages. 

Sometimes it seems tome that some readers are trying to turn books into television, that what they’re looking for is a place where they can just turn their minds off and slide. 

Boom! Bang! Crash! Shoot! Run! Jump! Be in danger!

I suppose the one thing it doesn’t require is thinking.

Written by janeh

December 5th, 2009 at 9:46 am

Posted in Uncategorized

A Cry for Help

with 4 comments

Okay–an admission.  I’ve never read anything by Josephine Tey.

So, if I were to read something…my guess would be Daughter of Time, Miss Pym Disposes, and Man in the Queue.

But I’m open to suggestions, if anybody has them….remember, I like really traditional detective novels, when it comes to detective novels.

Written by janeh

December 3rd, 2009 at 11:35 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Let’s Try for a Title Here…

with 2 comments

So, let’s start with Robert’s comment here:

>>>As for the interior life, we are all alone in our own skulls, and I’ve read
enough Approved Literature to suspect that many who write in excellent prose
understand their fellow creatures no better than I do. To judge from their
personal lives, many of them may be worse than average, falling for con men,
criminals with sob stories and crooked publishers and agents. Real understanding
should be evident in behavior.>>>

I looked at that a couple of times, and I realized finally what was wrong–I never said that writers, high art or otherwise, understood their fellow human beings better than anybody else.

What I said was something I’ve brought up here before–when writing is going well, the writer isn’t writing.  Instead, he (or she) is allowing the characters to act on their own, with their own thought processes running in their own grooves.

And the reader, reading that kind of thing done well, is able to participate in–note, participate, not “understand”–a way of thinking, a set of mental habits and processes, that he is unable to participate in on his own.

Each of us is alone inside our own skulls, and one of the things we need–that we desperately need–is to step inside other skulls and experience how they work.

But this is not the same thing as “understanding” other people in an analytical or instrumental way. 

And even if it was, I don’t think it would necessarily be “evident in behavior.”  In fact, most of the examples I can think of are ones where very intelligent people who obviously know better act wrongly anyway–and Bernie Madoff’s victims are only the most recent example.

But let’s take for a moment a very good example–Norman Mailer and a nonfiction true crime book called The Executioner’s Song

For those of you who haven’t read it, I recommend it–it’s one of the three or four best true crime books ever written.  And it is–at least in those sections written from Gary Gilmore’s point of view–quintessentially a “get inside his head and think the way he does” book.

I read this book for the first time when I was in graduate school,  and far from it confirming me in what I already thought was the way people like Gilmore think, it brought me up short.

It wasn’t that Gilmore was different than I expected him to be.  It was that it had never crossed my mind that anybody, anywhere could think like that.

I’m not talking about content here, but about process.   I am, for better or worse, a very linear thinker.  I start at A and go to B and follow to C in a straight line.  I also have, for good or ill, a phenomenal memory.  So if I go to the store on Sunday and buy four cans of tuna fish, when I wake up on Monday and want tuna salad, I remember the tuna fish and get it out of the cabinet.

This is not the way Gary Gilmore thinks in Mailer’s book.  I read the thing through once and then read it through again and then I tried to explain it to somebody who was, like me, a linear thinker and who had not read it.

I have no idea if I’m going to have any better luck explaining it to those of you here who haven’t read it, but here it goes:

It’s as if Gilmore thought in dotted lines.  Thought A would occur to him, but it wouldn’t necessarily connect to any other thought.  He’d wander off to thought B, and then to thought C, and half the time there weren’t any connections. 

This isn’t stream of consciousness I’m talking about.  In fact, stream of consciousness is the direct opposite of what Mailer was presenting as Gilmore’s thinking–there was no stream, because a stream assumes some kind of continuity.

If you remember the case–Gilmore was the guy who was sentenced to death in Utah after having murdered two people in a convenience story robbery and who gained national attention by insisting on getting the execution over and done with as quickly as possible.

Mailer’s presentation of Gilmore’s thinking as a process does not explain Gilmore’s actions, before or during or after the robbery.  It really doesn’t excuse them.  In fact, if anything, it makes Gilmore seem more worthy of execution than not, at least for me, because it’s obvious that he did what he did–well, because he did it.  He’s  not depraved on account of he’s deprived, although he was deprived in many ways.  He isn’t acting out for some political reason.  He just does what he does because he does it, because sort of, it occurred to him, but that was yesterday, and he isn’t thinking about it any more.

Like I said–this is not the way I expected someone like Gilmore to think, and not the way I have murderers in my own books think  I am not as good a writer as Mailer, and this seems to be an area of experience I am not capable of reproducing on my own.  But for a moment, I was able to live inside it and feel the way it felt.  And it was unpleasant rather than otherwise.  And I came out of it thinking that somebody whose thought processes are like that is not a candidate for rehabiliation, because “rehabilitation” is not a category that applies to him.  Asking if somebody whose mind works like Mailer’s portrayal of Gilmore can be “rehabilitated” is like asking if Communism tastes like chocolate.

Many years later, when Bill was first sick, I volunteered to teach literacy classes in a women’s prison not too far from here–well, okay, it was something of a drive.  But by then it had been years since I’d thought of The Executioner’s Song, and in all that time nothing had come along to remind me of it, except periodic references to the Gilmore case in discussions of capital punishment.

But the longer I taught in that prison, the more I saw people who thought the way Gilmore thought–not who had the same ideas, but who used the same process. 

They were not the majority, and later I would meet more people with the same process who were not at all criminal, because they would show up in the remedial classes I taught later.   If anything, criminality or lack of it is accidental in respect to thinking like that–such people will be criminal if the idea hits them on Tuesday, or won’t, because the idea never hits them, or when it does they can’t carry it out immediately, and then it just sort of disappears in the mist.

I have no idea if I’m making any sense here.  As I’ve said, I’ve never written a character whose thought processes are like Mailer’s picture of Gilmore, partially becasue I’m not that good a writer and don’t have that broad a range, but also because such people would be useless in a murder mystery.  Hell, the idiot who gets drunk on his ass and beats his girlfriend’s baby’s skull to a pulp because the stupid kid won’t stop crying has more mental coherence than this.  For one thing, he actually has a train of thought.

The purpose of art–all art, high and popular and low and all the rest of it–is to make it possible for us to experience the full range of the human condition.  Not just to learn about it from the outside, but to experience it.   We’re all born and die inside our own skulls, but we are less than we could be if we settle for that.

But no matter how much we do experience, we will not necessarily see a change in our behavior because of it–St. Paul and St. Augustine and Trace Adkins know it is possible to know right and yet not do right, to know better and to do worse.

So, thanks to Norman Mailer, I know what it feels like to think like that, at least for a while.  And thanks to a reasonably good brain, I know that people who do think like that are not going to manage to pass the course, keep the job, whatever, for very long.

But I still fall for student pleas and excuses all the time, just as Mailer fell for Jack Abbott.

I think Capote is the only person I can think of who was on to himself in this regard.

Written by janeh

December 3rd, 2009 at 10:56 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Slices of Life, Pieces of the Pie

with 6 comments

It’s odd how you can be brought up short by things you didn’t even know you had an opinion about.

That’s pretty much what happened to me yesterday with  Robert’s “slice of life” comment.  My immediate, visceral reaction to the phrase was a kind of distaste, and it took me a while to figure out where the reaction was coming from.

The term, when I was growing up, tended to apply to books about poor people with ugly problems, or rich people with even uglier problems, and the unhappy ending was more or less assumed.

This was by no means a formula that applied only to “literary” novels–and there was less distinction in those days between the literary and the popular, anyway.  There was a vast distinction made between “real books” and “pulps,” but that’s another issue.

Valley of the Dolls was a “slice of life” novel, as was Peyton Place, which was probably the prime example of the genre.  I think Robert is dead wrong to believe that he could put a camera on a street corner and get the same effect.  Nobody on earth has ever lived the way people live in “slice of life” novels.  They’re more like soap operas than soap operas.

That said, I continue to be strenuously opposed to the idea that literature is supposed to somehow “improve” us, morally or spiritually.  I have nothing against the odd ideal type in literature–Dostoyevski’s “idiot,” for instance–but I don’t think literature can, or should, attempt to provide us with some sort of uplifting instruction. 

People missed my point about spinach.   I didn’t mean that reading in the high art traditon was an unpleasant duty we should observe because it’s good for us. 

I meant that I grew up, and after I grew up I liked spinach. I agree that some of my tastes have not changed since childhood, but a lot of them have.  I’m not eating enormous salads for lunch because they’re good for me.   I’m eating them because these days,  I prefer them to hamburgers. 

You couldn’t get me to drink bad Scotch these days even for money.  I just don’t enjoy it any more.  And I eat a lot of things these days you couldn’t get me to touch as a child, like Indian food. 

Of course, I never did learn to drink coffee, and I still don’t like the taste of it–but very few people do like the taste of it when they’re young, and they persist in drinking the stuff until they do get a liking for it.  Hell, they persist in drinking the stuff until they prefer it black, unadorned, unadulterated, kind of like a sock to the eye.

I’ll stick to my old standby–I think the purpose of literature, of fiction and drama and all the rest of it, is to provide us with a record of the full range of what it means to be human in our time.  That camera on the street corner tells us little or nothing about our fellow human beings.  At the most, it records their surface activities.  It doesn’t even begin to tell me what they think and feel, or allow me to live for a while inside their heads so that I can experience a little of what it means to be them. 

And no, psychology doesn’t do that.  At most, it attempts to describe, abstsractly and from the outside, what’s going on in people’s heads.   Which may be part of the explanation for why it seems to fail so badly to predict–or even understand–the behavior of individuals.

Maybe the bottom line is that I don’t believe that there is anything on the earth that can “improve” us.  I think that we can sometimes improve ourselves, and that all kinds of things can help us do that, including being able to live for a while in  ways of life and ways of thinking and feeling we didn’t know existed.

It seems to me I’ve made this speech before, but you know, it’s always there in the back of my head.

And I’ve got Kipling to read.

Written by janeh

December 2nd, 2009 at 6:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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