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Archive for August, 2012

And The Truth Shall Set You Free

with 3 comments

A short note on vocabulary.

Because I’ve just hit one of those walls I never anticipate, even though, given everything, I should have anticipated.


No novel can be a good novel if it is not true.  The opposite of true is false. 

In other words, a novel that is not true is a lie about human life and human nature.

But true DOES NOT mean the same thing as real.

A novel is real if the events and locales within it correspond to what is existing and possible in the real world.

And this is not the same thing as “realism,” which is a movement in Western literary history in which the world is portrayed as one of those reality programs about lowlifes who live in a post apocalyptic dystopia.

Okay, I’m exaggerating there.  But not a lot.  I give you Thomas Hardy.

The important thing to remember is this:  a book can be true even if it is in no way real.

Terry Pratchett’s  novel Small Gods is one of the truest books I’ve ever read, but it is in no way real.

It occurs to me that when I talk about how I do not like books that are not real, what most of you answer with are examples of how books with unreal settings or possibilities can be true.

And you’re quite right, of course.

Books set in outer space or Middle Earth or three hundred years in the future can be very true indeed.

But they are still not real.

Written by janeh

August 13th, 2012 at 8:15 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Music of the Spheres

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With all due respect to Lymaree–no, that isn’t what I’m doing.

It’s got nothing to do with keeping things in separate compartments.

It has everything to do with the music.

To  me, prose plays in my head the same way music does.  There is a music to written prose, different for every writer and for every piece, like Beethoven is different from Mozart and Mozart’s flute concertos are different from the Jupiter Symphony.

I don’t listen to music in the mornings when I’m going to write, either–if the rhythm of the Eroica gets into my head, it will override the rhythm that is inherent in my own writing, at least for fiction.

Try to think of yourself with a song stuck firmly in your head, so that you can’t get it out.  Try Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line.”  Then think of yourself walking into an evening at the New York Philharmonic. 

You try to hear the Mozart, but it just doesn’t work, because no matter what you do,  no matter how hard you try to concentrate, all you can hear is “I Walk the Line.”

Reading prose is, to me, essentially a musical experience.  My prose has a rhythm and a music, too, and what I have to guard against when I write is getting somebody else’s music stuck in my head so that I can’t shake it and produce my own.

And I don’t have to decompress from work and then pick up again to go back to work.

I have to decompress from work in terms of my emotional state, because I’ve just spend a long time living somebody else’s life in somebody else’s head. 

But that is not about what I read, and I could go on reading the stuff that suits me for writing without that being a problem.

I do sometimes need to sort of decompress from what I read, but that’s usually because the book in question has been unusually long. 

Long books–especially long nonfiction books–tended to be complicated and, yes, sometimes a bit difficult in terms of arguments and references,

So I always follow something really long with something really short, as a form of mental relaxation.

And sometimes when I get to the end of a very long book, I don’t really know what kind of thing I want to read next. 

I don’t need to keep things separate.  I just need to be able to focus on what I’m reading, and not be thinking of other things.

And I understand that if you’re tone deaf to the music of prose–and most people seem to be–then this must not make much sense.

And I also think that this thing–the ability to hear the music of prose–is what REALLY sets apart the people who like all that literary stuff nobody else wants. 

I don’t care about the plot.  I don’t really care about the story.  Strong characters are definitely a good idea, but they’re not primary.

I care about the music.

On any of the usual criteria proposed by people here, J.D. Salinger is a boring author who writes about “angst.”

But he makes some of the most beautiful music with his prose ever written, and for me, that makes him a greater writer than a hundred who produced exciting plots but whose prose is flat and discordant.

Written by janeh

August 12th, 2012 at 9:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 5 comments

The Jupiter is for Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, which is what I was listening to while reading this morning–and on a Saturday and not a Sunday, too.

Mostly I only take Sunday off, and not even Sunday when I’m in the middle of a book, either writing the first draft or cutting it. 

But this year, I’ve completed not one but two major projects–a Gregor Demarkian due out for 2013, and the first Georgia Xenakis.  I am feeling deserving of a little self indulgence. 

To put it mildly.

But writing for me is what writing always is, and I do always come up against the problem that I cannot write at all when I’m reading certain books. 

Towards the end of any project, I start to get nervous about reading books I haven’t read before, because I just don’t know if I can work when I’m reading them or not.   I therefore tend to go back to things I’ve read before and know will let me work.

These things do not make a whole lot of sense as a group.  I am not entire sure why these books hang together, or what they have in common beyond the fact that they are books I can read while I’m writing.

All of P.D. James is on that list, and so is all of Anne Perry.  Stephen King is not.  The Loeb translation of Plato is.  Burning Questions works.  So does any Perry Mason or Agatha Christie. Only Gaudy Night, out of the Dorothy L. Sayers, makes the list.

It’s like I said.  There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it.  I’m sure there’s an organizing principle in there somewhere.  I just can’t find it.

This time, when I finished Burning Questions and still had a week of writing and cutting to do, what I wanted to read was The Feminine Mystique.  For one thing, I know I can work through it.  For another, the theme fit with Burning Questions.  For a third, it had been nearly ten years since I had read it the last time, and that’s always an interesting comparison.

As it turned out, this was not something I was going to be able to do.  It was one of those things.  I had two copies of it in the house, and I could find neither one of them.  I searched for five days, and then I recognized I would have to give up and find something else.  A friend sent me two copies, and my younger son went to the library and ordered me one on interlibrary loan, but I had to read something right away.

What I finally chose to read was something else I hadn’t reread in a few years, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. 

This is not, by the way, what I want to talk about today.  I had the same problem with the Bloom that I always do.  For one thing, I can never quite figure out what he wants.

But the bigger deal was this–I finished reading that just yesterday afternoon, and when I did, I went looking for some decompression literature, something to be reading when I’m not sure what I want to read next, or when I need something short to balance something long, or whatever.

My usual choice for that kind of thing is Sherlock Holmes–and I want to stress as strongly as possible that if you’re looking for a good complete collection of those stories to actually carry around and read, they’re available in a Barnes and Noble classics edition in two volumes that’s inexpensive, well put together, and arranged chronologically as originally published.

This time, however, Holmes was not what I was looking for.  All I really need for these periods are collections or short stories or articles, so that I can read to the end of one or two and then put the book away to go back to later. 

This time, what I picked up was that enormous collections of essays on education starting with the ancients that I’d first tried a bit of about three years ago.  I’m pretty sure I reported on some of that here–essays and excerpts from longer works by everyone from Plato to the day before yesterday.

When I got to the book this time, the first section I was faced with was by Erasmus, and the second was by Martin Luther.

Erasmus is one of my favorite people in history, and Martin Luther is a man whose work I do not generally like at all.

I say that last with reservation, because not much of Luther’s writing is available in English, and my German wasn’t ever up to it. 

But what I have read of Luther, I have not been happy with, and far too much of it has been concerned with polemics against “learning” that sound a lot like modern-day anti-intellectualism. 

It’s one of the commonplaces in the modern day secular movement that the Catholic Church repressed learning and Luther freed it.  I even met a number of people–and one in particular–who were convinced that the Reformation must have come before the Renaissance, because the Catholic Church would never have allowed the latter.

The section on Luther in this book, however, contained an instruction to the civil authorities in Germany, most of which was concerned with two themes:

1) That learning and study should be encouraged, and pagan learning should not be entirely proscribed–only Aristotle, who was full of error and evilness and other nonChristian and not good things.


2) That municipal schools should be set up in every town and city to ensure that every boy and girl should have at least the rudiments of an education.

Now, that the Protestants (unlike the Catholics) insisting on universal literacy for all classes of society and for girls as well as boys was not news to me.  If you’re going to insist on sola scriptura, and on the principle that men did not need the mediation of priests to understand it, then you’re going to have to make sure that all your people can read at least well enough to read a Bible.

What I found much more interesting about this selection, though, was the reason Luther thought it necessary and advisable  for municipalities and churches to set up such schools.

Yes, it would insure that all children would learn to read, even children of poor parents who could not afford to provide tutors or to send their children to private schools with tuition fees.

But the real reason was this:  Luther did not believe we could trust parents to make their children literate, or to properly instruct them in faith and morals.

Parents, apparently, were, to Luther, mostly neglectful, self-concerned, and heedless of their children’s well being.  They were also woefully ignorant, and so mired in sin that they couldn’t provide their children with decent examples of how to live a Christian life.

All this was especially interesting in comparison with the Erasmus I’d just read, which assumed that parents wanted the best for their children, but weren’t sure how to provide it–and a little advice from someone who knew would be all that was necessary for parents to choose the best path, no coercion by the state required.

Which bring me to my question of the day.

The idea that parents are incapable of caring decently for their children and must be forced to by the state has been around a long time, starting at least with Plato, if not before.

And it’s with us still, in the entire “best interests of the child” standard in family courts.

Such ideas have not, however, been universal. 

The question becomes, then, what it is that makes this particular idea so attractive to so many people.

And no, “power” is not the answer.

Seductive as power is, not everybody who craves it craves it in this particular form.  In fact, most people who are after power want it in other ways and in other guises.

I’m tempted to say that this sort of thing crops up  most commonly among people who do not themselves have children, or who have at most one or two–and that seems to hold down to our present day.

Luther, however, went on to have children of his own, and for all I know might have an entire pack of them.

And out of this idea, we have the New England common schools and the directives of most Calvinist societies that all children spend some time in them, which was not altogether a negative thing.

I think it’s the impetus that puzzles me the most–if you’re not interested enough in children to have your own, why are you so passionately interested in what happens to other people’s?

And yes, I know, there’s the power thing.

But as I said, there are lots of other ways to get power, and most people aren’t interested in this one.

So I’d like to figure out what’s going on with the people who are.

Written by janeh

August 11th, 2012 at 9:39 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Harder and Harder

with 6 comments

Some of you are on Facebook, and those of you who are know that I posted this link


about a week ago. 

The link is to a story in  Publisher’s Weekly about a list of the “10 Most Difficult Books.”

What is meant, of course, is that these are the ten most difficult to read.  By “difficult” here is meant “intellectually weighty,” rather than “so badly written that there’s  no way to figure out what the author is getting at.”

And with that in mind, I’d like to go down the list–and then get to what really should have been the point here, and was not.

1) The first book was Nightwood by Djuna Barnes, which is sitting on my TBR pile and has been there for a couple of years.

2) The next one is Jonathan Swift’s A Tale of a Tub, which I also haven’t read,  but for a different reason.  The few times I’ve picked it up and looked at it, it just didn’t attract me at all. 

Reading the little explanatory paragraph,  however, it seems that the reason for the difficulty is mostly that there are so many cultural references to a time and place that are not only not ours, but not something we’d pick up even by reading the Great Books.

And, on that level, I’m not sure why pick this particular book.  There are dozens of books that are difficult for this reason, and there will be more.  It’s inevitable, because literature deals with the particular rather than the general, and particulars come and go.

And since I don’t read for plot, digressions don’t bother me and they don’t usually derail me, so that doesn’t seem to be it. 

As for the promise that this book is “the ultimate expression of cultural alienation and despair”

I mean.  Well.

3) The next one is The Phenomenology of Spirit by Hegel, and that one I have read, courtesy of what would have been a minor in philosophy if Vassar had had minors when I was there.

This is, legitimately, a difficult book to read, and not because Hegel was trying to throw up a lot of intellectual sand so that you didn’t catch on to what he was really doing.

It’s also on my list on the web site, the one called The Western Canon According to Me. 

It is, I think, one of the most important books in the history of the world, because it is the basis for practically every post-Enlightenment political catastrophe. 

Hegel ditched God in any sense the West had ever known Him, and put in His place History, with a capital H and a near-personification.

Out of that comes both Marxism and Fascism, which are by and large just two words for the same thing. 

It’s interesting to see how we got from there to here, and it was worth my time.

But  it’s very abstract.

4) Then there’s Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse.  This one I’ve read, too, but not in a class.  When I was an undergraduate, the favorite Woolf for general courses–“The 20th Century British Novel”–was Mrs. Dalloway. 

I was not, I will admit, all that interested in Mrs. Dalloway, but some time while I was in graduate school, Woolf became the iconic “feminist writer.”  Part of that was her essay, “A Room of One’s Own,” and part of it was the fact that there weren’t that many women writers available to pin feminist hopes of equality on.

My problem was that I could never see why Woolf was supposed to be so feminist.  Both Woolf herself, in life, and her characters on the page always came across to me as oppresively passive in everything they thought and said. 

And I don’t think this is adequately explained by her being a product of her time.  Kate Chopin was also a product of her time, and she was considerably more actively engaged in her world and its ideas.

To me, Woolf is difficult in the wrong sense, a writer whose ideas and imaginatively vision are so hopeless and inert that the atmosphere is suffocating.

And eventually, I want to come up for air.

5) The fifth is one of the earliest novels in English, Clarissa, or the History of a Young Lady, by Samuel Richardson. 

And I’m here to tell  you, it’s a lot of fun.  It is, as the writer of this article notes,  really enormous–but I think “short on plot” is mistaken.  The plot is straightforward enough.  Clarissa, desperate to escape her abusive family, falls in love with the first adventurer she meets, who entices her to run away with him and then abandons her, ruining her life–at which point she does the only thing she can do, and commits suicide.

The one real difficulty, for modern readers, would probably be the form–it’s written as a series of letters from Clarissa to Lovelace (the adventurer) and others, and if you’re not used to fiction written that way it can be a bit difficult to get used to.

6) Now we come to Finnegan’s Wake, by James Joyce.

When I posted this list on FB, the comment I made was the I’d read 6 1/2 of the books listed, and the 1/2 was Finnegan’s Wake.

I listed it as 1/2 not because I’d only gotten half through it, but because I’d gotten all the way through it and found that it annoyed the hell out of me.

When I told my professor that, he said I couldn’t have understood it, or it wouldn’t have annoyed me.

Personally, I think he was wrong, but what the hell.  You ought to have the option of blowing me off when I tell you that I don’t think this one is worth the time.

It’s probably the most self-consciously “experimental” novel in existence in English.  It starts with the second  half of the sentence with which it ends, and most people need the little companion volume to figure out what it’s saying.  I did.

Joyce is supposed to have said that it took a lifetime for him to write it, and it should take a lifetime for you to read it.

I’m with another of my professors, whose response to this was:  well, if that’s the way you want to spend your life.

7) Being and Time by Martin Heidigger is a book that is very, very difficult to read, but it is difficult to read because Heidigger was deliberately attempting to disguise what it was he was actually saying.

If Hegel is the apostle of totalitarianism, Heidigger is its fulfillment.  If that wasn’t clear when he first wrote, it should be clear by now–and yet he is regularly championed as one of the greatest thinkers of all time, and not just by the kind of people you would expect to be his friends.

Hannah Arendt defended him until the day she died–and yet Arendt was Heidigger’s lover and student right up to the day when Heidigger took over control of the university and force Arendt and all the other Jews out.

There were a lot of evasions after the war, but Heidigger was not only a Nazi in sympathy.  He was a member of the Nazi Party.  And as long as the Nazis were in power and he wasn’t worried about being hauled into court as a war criminal, Heidigger was always quick to say that the Nazi program was the practical realization of his own ideas.

Heidigger’s “rehabilitation” after the war was breathtakingly swift, and it’s the reason that I’m disappointed another book isn’t here–Sartre’s Being and Nothingness.

There’s nothing particularly inventive in Sartre’s book.  It’s just Heidigger restated in even more obscurantist language.

But it was the book Sartre used to explain away the fact that Existential “authenticity” and “radical responsibility” mean always, always, hewing to the Communist Party line.

8) Spenser’s Faerie Queene puzzles me a little on a list of “difficult” books.  It is, of course, outside our time and place, and difficult for that reason.  Spenser was a contemporary of Shakespeare.  Unlike Shakespeare, he was also a court poet rather than a popular one.

But the language is beautiful, the plot is charming, the whole thing was written in honor of Elizabeth the First–and you can read it the first time through without paying too much attention to the allegory if you want to.

If you’re smart, you’ll read it the second time through for the allegory, and get a good guide to help you out.

Spenser was a very interesting man.

9) The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein is actually something I’ve read a lot more than once.  In fact, it goes on my top twenty and maybe even my top fifteen favorite books.

People complain a lot about the difficulty of Stein’s language and her experimental technique, but it’s more like an alien form of music that sounds like noise until you understand what it is you’re listening to.

If I was going to pick a writer to represent the “feminist” impulse in English literature, I wouldn’t have picked Woolf.  I’d have picked Stein.

I think she got short shrift in the Seventies not only because of that experimental style, but because she was physically unattractive and forthrightly lesbian at a time when it was not acceptable to be either.

Feminists in the Seventies were looking for women who had achieved thing, but were still attractive to men–a kind of riff on my father’s whole thing about career women and “compensating.”

 10) The last is something called Women and Men, by Joseph McElroy, and on that one I cannot comment at all.  I’ve not only not read it.  I’d never heard of it before this list. 

But of the other “postmodern meganovels” this writer also references, I have read Gravity’s Rainbow.   And I’ve read it more than once.

If that’s what a “postmodern meganovel” is supposed to be, I may look up a few more.

So that’s the list, and at the end of it I have only one question.

Why take “difficulty” as the standard for judging a book?

Written by janeh

August 8th, 2012 at 11:12 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Clarified Butter

with 3 comments

Well, for the sake of a few explanations:

1) “unrealistic expectations” are not the same thing as false hope.  Unrealistic expectations are when you’re talented at writing and want to make you’re living as a writer, and you’re just convinced you’re to do it. The odds are, of course, that you won’t.

But false hope is when you’re NOT talented, you’re completely tone deaf and want to be a singer, or completely uncoordinated and want to be a dancer, or have an IQ of 101 and want to go to med school, and you’ve taken your shot and area waiting to hear, absolutely convinced that the verdict is going to be good.

When everybody around you already knows what the verdict is, and that you’re being  delusional.

2) I don’t remember ever having been subject to contempt,  myself, because of a false hope. 

I do remember feeling instinctive and automatic contempt for other people who exhibited it.  I think this one was born in the bone.

3) I don’t need the story to be a complete career path–in Burning Questions, the heroine ends up as an activist, something I’ve really got no interest in being. 

What I need is a story I can project myself into plausibly and a role I can project myself into plausible, a role that I can actually assume at some point if I want to.

4) House plans magazines are, for me, entertainment.  Like I said, I’m never going to build a house.  Other people may have had wonderful experiences doing that, but my father did not, and I’m not interested in taking the risk.

5) The issue is not taking advice from fiction.

It’s providing myself with roles into which I can project myself–in giving me an opportunity to imagine myself in the role and get an idea of how it would feel.

Come the point when I actually launched myself into the project, I’d go looking for all the nonfictional sources of information. 

The fiction provides me with an emotional template, not a practical one.

6) Woo-woo is something I can take or leave, depending on the circumstances.

I absolutely love the Twilight Zone, I’m a big fan of Stephen King, I think Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is one of the best books ever written. 

Woo-woo comes in many varieties.  I prefer the kind that is ambiguous, where you can’t quite tell if there’s actual woo-woo or if it’s all in the character’s minds.

But that’s because

7) I don’t ONLY read fiction for the emotional reasons I’ve been talking about.

I’ve got all kinds of reasons.

But, that said

8) Even when I’m not projecting myself into a character or characters, I just don’t care about stuff that takes place in outer space or has to do with characters who are something else than human and that don’t exist in the actual world.

These kinds of things just do not stimulate my interest.

I can sit through them in movies, and even have a reasonably good time–I kind of liked the new Star Wars movie–but they don’t say anything to me.

Written by janeh

August 1st, 2012 at 9:58 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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