Posts Tagged ‘Fiction’

Evan Hughes has written an interesting piece on eBooks, the publishing industry, self-publishing, and the future of writers and readers for

I won’t summarize the article (since you can read it here) which nicely describes many trends reported elsewhere in the recent past; but I will make a few observations about points that particularly struck me. Here they are:

Successful Self-Published eBooks Are Serials Written in Pulp Genres

The writers who’ve had success self-publishing eBooks seem to work largely in traditional pulp genres like science fiction, crime, horror, romance, and erotica. These writers produce books in series, each of which creates an intense desire to read the next, just like one tasty potato chip makes you desperate to eat another. The digital format lets you satisfy that desire instantaneously and buy the next volume, from any place at any time.

As a bonus, you don’t have to figure out how to get rid of the damn thing once you’ve finished it. The pleasure in pulps is all about reading the next one, not re-reading the ones you already own, which tend to lie around the house and glare at you reproachfully for having paid $30.00 for the hard cover. Passionate fans are excepted from this problem.

All of which makes me feel better about my own lack of self-publishing success with Queen of the Nude since my mistake was not following this model. (I’m rationalizing because I’m feeling vulnerable today.)

I seem to have written erotica. Good! But I’ve actually written a commercial fiction / literary fiction hybrid. Bad! And it is not the first in a series. Bad! And I pretty much wrap everything up on the last page. Bad! I’m doomed. Okay, enough whining.

Only Writers Who Aren’t Yet Successful Need Publishers

Traditional publishers offer writers only two services of any real value today: some modest – but highly unreliable – assurance of quality and marketing muscle which they may or may not flex. (Big guaranteed advances also count as a service, if you can get one.)

These services are useful primarily to writers who might deserve an audience but don’t have one. Successful authors, self-published or otherwise, don’t need help building an audience, and these audiences generally don’t need an assurance of quality because they have already have a decent idea of what they will get.

This means, right now, traditional publishers only offer compelling value to those writers least likely to make them money. And these companies have got to be sweating blood at the thought of the moment when eBooks capture a great enough percentage of all book sales that writers like Stephen King decide they can make more coin without them.

Because when this happens – and I don’t usually pretend I can predict the future, but I think it is a when – the traditional publishing industry will need to find new ways to offer writers and readers value. Or cease to exist.

Books Still Need Paper Copies to Sell Books?

This is an intriguing assertion. According to Hughes, lots of data suggests that while people like to buy books online, they still like to discover these books in stores. So books published on paper and sold in bricks-and-mortar stores will always be essential to publishing.

I’m not sure this is true, however. People discover books many ways, particularly from friends, reviews, and social media as well as advertising.

I enjoy browsing in bookstores and buying books from them (one of the few forms of shopping I actually like), but I’m hard pressed to think of an occasion when I have ever bought a book I had wholly discovered in a store.

Like traditional publishers, bookstores are going to need more new ideas to survive. I don’t believe either is fated to go extinct. But I don’t see a solution to their problems, either.

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a clockwork orange anthony burgess reviewAnthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange succeeds purely on the strength of its narrator’s voice – but what a voice!

The novel’s story is told by 15-year-old Alex who lives in a vaguely dystopian, vaguely futuristic country that seems to be Britain.  Alex can check off every item under the DSM definition of sociopath. He bullies his parents and friends. He brutally assaults people at random. He gang-rapes a woman, rapes two young girls, and kills an old woman while trying to burglar her house. Alex regards this as all good youthful fun. When confronted by authorities, he knows how to pantomime innocence or remorse. When punished, he laments that no one cares or feels sorry for poor Alex.

All this promises to make Alex pretty ugly company, but sociopaths are often noted for their charm and wit, and Alex  has these in aplenty – not to mention exuberance, intelligence, formidable powers of observation, and a passionate love of classic music.

He also has the advantage of “nadsat,” the famous Russian-influence English slang Burgess invented for Alex, which puts the violence Alex commits at a remove from the reader and lends it a fantastical, almost fairy-tale quality.

Burgess described A Clockwork Orange as a “jeu d’esprit” that he wrote in three weeks, and it certainly feels like a book created in a burst of white-hot inspiration and imagination.

And it is a good thing, too. Because the “philosophical” parts of the novel, for which A Clockwork Orange is often complimented, strike me as (at best) heavy-handed and (at worst) laughably obvious.

So the philosophical meditation part of A Clockwork Orange goes like this.

First, Alex runs around assaulting, raping, and murdering. Then he is sent to prison where he is subjected to  behavior modification that physically incapacitates him any time he thinks about committing violence.  Then he un-behavior modifies himself by jumping out a window. Then he decides it’s time to grow up,  find a nice wife, and have a cute baby.

Get it?

In case you don’t,  Burgess sprinkles handy hints throughout the novel. So there is a book within a book, also titled “A Clockwork Orange,” from which Alex helpfully reads a summary passage on how you shouldn’t turn men into mindless machines. There is also the prison chaplain, just before Alex goes for his behavior modification therapy,  worrying out loud to the young man:

Does God want goodness or the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him?

Burgess leaves us in no doubt of the answer to this question, and since he has created the world in which the question is asked, he gets to arrange his “facts” and “reality” to support his talking points. (Ayn Rand was a great one for doing that too.)

A Clockwork Orange is also noted for its satirical elements, and these were better than the philosophy, but not exactly revelatory. The police, politicians, Christianity, and what look like Communist intellectuals all get a good bracing spank and that was fine.

For me, one of the interesting things about reading A Clockwork Orange was how it compared and contrasted to Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock.

Greene’s novel features Pinkie, another murderous teenage British sociopath at the center of another “novel as meditation” – this time on the nature of sin and morality. Greene’s novel doesn’t deliver the same jolt of pure linguistic bliss as A Clockwork Orange, but it doesn’t bludgeon you with its themes either. It’s a close call, but I like Greene’s book a little better. I would fully recommend reading both, however.

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never let me go ishiguro rviewCan you appreciate a book without particularly liking it? That was my reaction to Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 speculative or experimental or science-fiction novel (read the review then pick your adjective), Never Let Me Go.

 Never Let Me Go focuses on three characters – Tommy, Ruth, and the novel’s narrator Kathy H. – who are students at what seems to be an upscale private school called Hailsham in what seems to be England in the 1980s.  But something isn’t quite right.

The disquiet begins with the first chapter in which an adult Kathy talks about her work as a “carer” for “donors”.  The story quickly returns to Kathy’s childhood at Hailsham where the students are only taught art, where the teachers are called “guardians”, and where not only are parents and the outside world never mentioned, but where they seem to barely exist.

As it turns out, there is a good reason for all these strange facts. The students of Hailsham are clones who are being raised to adulthood for the singular purpose of providing organ donations to “normal” men and women. The last donation is fatal.

And with that realization, we follow Ishiguro down his rabbit hole, and pop up in the world of Kafka or Beckett (as other reviewers have well noted before me); but unlike the fantastical worlds of Gregor Samsa’s middle-class family apartment, or Vladimir and Estragon’s desolate country road, the world of Never Let Me Go never quite achieves a coherent internal logic. Which means I don’t think the novel is an entirely successful experiment.

But before I get to these objections, let me talk about what I think Ishiguro did right.

The Flat Affect of Kathy H. Is Pitch Perfect. And Hard to Take

 Kathy H.’s narrative voice in Never Let Me Go is cool – even cold – dispassionate, and elusive. She leaves an enormous amount unsaid about the feelings and experiences of clone donors. They all seem to embrace their fate with a combination of resignation and acceptance. The four stages of donations are not described. Post-operative pain or complications are vaguely acknowledged, at best. Every donor dies off the page. No one knows where the bodies are buried. If they are buried.

Kathy H.  describes strong emotions, even in herself, with a matter-of-fact tone that prevents us from feeling them. She doesn’t seem to want our sympathy, and her coolness makes our empathy harder.

But all this seems exactly right. Asking someone to remain alive in feeling who has been bred and raised like cattle; who has helped the people she loves die in the service of a society that treats them as spare parts; and who herself is now facing the same death – all that is too much.

Kathy H. should be shut down as person. And if that makes our empathy harder, then it should be harder, because it is a catastrophic lack of empathy in Never Let Me Go that makes the genocidal slavery of the clones possible.

And I would go further and say since any injustice committed by one human against another has as its foundation a failure of empathy, then the novel pushes us to strengthen the quality which is the solution to its (fantastical) horrors.

Never Let Me Go: An Inadequate Portrait of Human Life

You might think after that statement I don’t have any serious criticisms of Never Let Me Go. But I do.

My first criticism is based on the indications that Ishiguro wants us to understand the experience of Kathy H. and Tommy and Ruth as universal. We know this explicitly from the February 2005 interview Ishiguro gave to The Guardian in which he said:

There are things I am more interested in than the clone thing. How are they trying to find their place in the world and make sense of their lives? To what extent can they transcend their fate? … Most of the things that concern them concern us all.

We also know it implicitly because it is not just Kathy H. who responds to her fate with resignation and acceptance. Every clone responds with resignation and acceptance. If there are variations from these two emotions in the world of Never Let Me Go, we have no report of them.

This is a barren and withered portrait of human life; and while it is an accurate description of some human lives, it is entirely inadequate representation of the human race I know.

That race, too, strives with might and contends with blood. That race, too, loves with a fierceness that will break before it quits. That race, too, rejoices and despairs. That race, too, knows beauty as well as horror. That race, too, seethes for justice in the face of injustice. That race, too, believes beyond all reason, beyond the heavy evidence of experience. That race, too, endures and endures.

Where are these lives too in Never Let Me Go?

Clone Organ Donors: Extraneous and Finally, a Distraction

My other problem with Never Let Me Go is that I think it was a mistake for Ishiguro to situate his science-fiction nightmare in what otherwise appears to be England in the middle-late 20th century.

It would have been fine if Ishiguro had transformed the premise into something more familiar: say a children’s cancer ward in which Kathy H. could have been an orphan and ward of the state, the other characters had dysfunctional families, and so on. Then Ishiguro could still have explored the things in which he says he was most interested without all the fussing with clones.

Or he could have set Never Let Me Go in some dystopian alternate Earth-like world sometime in the past or future, in which it would be easy to accept the clones because that’s what happened in this world. (Think of Panem in The Hunger Games.) That would also have been fine and easy to do.

But as it is in Never Let Me Go, I kept stopping and saying to myself: “Wait, exactly how does this clone-donor society thing work again?”

How did England, barely ten years after the defeat of Nazi Germany, the exposure of the death camps, and the end of the Nurenberg Trials, transform itself from a reasonable progressive Western society – as these things go – into a moral monster? Did the rest of the Allied powers acquiesce or participate? How did England get the entire medical profession to ignore the Hippocratic Oath? Where there no objections from the religious communities? Did anyone object? Who was making money from this? Was there an underground railroad for clones? What was the system of control? As young adults, the clones seem to be able to roam at will. What stopped them from disappearing into society, where they would be indistinguishable from other human beings? Why didn’t the clones go all Rambo on the murderous bastards running the system? As an American, I can name entire states – hello, Texas – that would rise up in violent defense of themselves. How did science perfect cloning months after the discovery of the DNA double helix, but still need another 30 years to invent the Walkman?

Also, I’m not a big fan of the novel of social comment, but the premise clearly suggests that our societies are capable of such actions, but doesn’t go any further with the suggestion.  This combination of provocative and perfunctory doesn’t sit well.

Should You Read Never Let Me Go?

Never Let Me Go is two books in many ways. As the story of three people dealing with horrors not at all dissimilar from real ones in the world today, I thought it was pretty good. As a speculative science-fiction novel, it would have needed to speculate much harder and much more thoroughly to be a success

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brief wondrous life oscar wao junot diaz reviewWhen artists are really good, I tend to curse at them. G-dd-mn Jane Austen. G-dd-mn Beethoven. G-dd-amn Billy Wilder. Now I’ve got a new name on my curse list. G-dd-mn Junot Diaz.

The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao principally concerns its title character, his sister Lola, and their mother, although it does also tell the story of their extended family as well as that of its ostensible narrator, Yunior.

Diaz’ novel is that rare find – a work of current fiction that entirely lives up to its hype. The number of successful elements it delivers is simply ridiculous:

Big vivid characters that make a big splash on the page? Check.

Big vivid characters that are also richly imagined, convincing, and affecting? Check.

Multi-generational saga? Check.

Lots of sex but no sex scenes (thank you Junot!)? Check.

Healthy dollops of magical realism? Check.

Locations exotic to the typical American reader of literary fiction: hard scrabble New Jersey and the Dominican Republic? Check.

A narrative voice that is part gangster, part geek, and part grad student? Check.

A whole bunch of fanboy references to comic books, science fiction, and fantasy novels (oh god not again)? Check.

A great deal of untranslated Spanish dialogue, narration, and commentary? Check.

A third-world history lesson — in this case about the hyper-over-super-achieving sadistic Dominican dictator Trujillo and his thirty year reign of terror — much of which is told through jazzy footnotes? Check.

A story focused on the wild, uncompromising, irrational, destructive but all the same soul-sustaining power of love? Check.

A satisfying ending that unites all these elements in an organic whole that meets Nabokov’s definition of art, “beauty plus pity”? Check and check.

G-dd-mn Junot Diaz.

The only criticism of the novel I have is a flaw in the narrator which, as it turns out, isn’t a flaw at all. In the beginning of The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Yunior pushes the comic book/sci-fi/fantasy references so hard that they almost entirely obscure the character of Oscar.

I kept muttering, “I can’t see Oscar, Junot, because all these Lord of the Rings references keep getting in the way.”

But what I realized is that early in the novel, Yunior is a young man who writes like a young man: overly earnest, full of himself, self-absorbed, and inept. He matures as he ages, and his narration matures too, until it is much wiser, more self-aware, more observant and empathetic, and more rueful.

Yunior is also one of those (not uncommon) characters who are their author’s alter ego, to the extent that they often share their creator’s omniscience. Yunior describes many things in the novel which are simply impossible for him to know.

Diaz doesn’t give Yunior the excuse of being the fictional author of the novel. Instead, Diaz shimmers in and out of Yunior’s character, which I think gives the novel more depth, because Diaz keeps getting you to fall into the dream of the story, then waking you up from it.

That’s another element I should have put in my list. Well, I’ll check it off now and conclude with this: G-dd-mn Junot Diaz.

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Save us from bad erotica wine godsThe world is facing many serious problems today. But one of the most serious is poorly written erotica.

How have our sensual imaginations come to be dominated by writers of awkward syntax with no feel for adjectives, a habit of inserting commas where they do not belong, and a hilarious understanding of human psychology?

Not to fear! Our saviors are at hand. Open any wine connoisseur catalog and you’ll find writers of extraordinary talent and distinction who can easily be drafted into our fight against bad erotica.

Please join me in a campaign to recruit these writers, so we can all enjoy work like this:

Black plum and refreshing, tangy red cherry with hints of dark chocolate.

Nice to meet you. Do you come here often? Did you know you have pretty lips?

Light gold with green glints.

I could lose myself forever in your greenly glinting golden eyes.

Red cherries and raspberries layered over silky, rounded tannins.

Tell me more about those silky, rounded tannins.

Creamy peach, sweet citrus and melon.

What’s that scent you are wearing? It’s intoxicating.

Mouthfilling texture and a deep finish.

Wooah, slow down. We just met. And the night is still young.

Juicy, smooth, and pleasing. Dark fruit and hints of nutmeg spice, delicate toffee and a refreshing finish.

You know, you’re the girl my mother has been asking me to bring home for years.

Explosive guava and vibrant gooseberry. Hints of flinty stone on the finish.

Oooh, good-looking bad boys who play by their own rules are flinty. I’ve got vibrant gooseberries and I can be flinty. Whaddaya think?

Soft mouthfeel. Fresh-sliced red apple, juicy pineapple and mango with a long, buttery finish.

Okay, you’ve convinced me. Barkeep? Check please!


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Play it as it lays Didion reviewAlbert Camus goes to Hollywood in Joan Didion’s celebrated 1970 novel, Play It As It Lays.

The story concerns Maria Wyeth, a 31-year-old movie actress of small distinction, as she suffers a vaguely defined emotional / moral / existential disintegration.

Nothing is going well in Maria’s life. Her marriage to a film director is falling apart. Her young daughter is institutionalized because of a severe psychiatric disorder. Maria is not working because – at least it seems to me – she is suffering from a debilitating combination of depression and anxiety. She terminates a pregnancy that results from an adulterous affair and is then haunted by the choice.  And through it all, Maria becomes more distant and indifferent, until she can no longer find any meaning in her life or the lives of the people around her.

Play I As It Lays is composed of 87 fragment chapters written in a elliptical style that largely focus on its characters’ external actions. Didion names Hemingway as one of her influences, and it shows.

Play It As It Lays and Camus’ The Stranger

One of my strongest reactions to Didion’s novel was how much it reminded me of The Stranger. (Spoiler alert, by the by.)

Both novels concern a character that sees life as essentially meaningless. Both characters commit a crime. In the case of Camus’ Meursault, it is the famous murder of an Arab man he encounters on the beach. In Maria’s, it is abetting the suicide of a friend  who shares her bleak view of life.

Meursault is imprisoned for his crime. Maria is confined to a neuropsychiatric hospital for hers, although whether this is the result of legal action or medical judgment or her own choice is not defined. Both are, overall, reasonably happy locked up.

Both Meursault and Maria Wyeth can be seen as monsters or truth-tellers. Both are viewed by other characters in their novels as selfish, self-absorbed, or evil (Maria addresses the question of evil directly in the opening sentence of Didion’s novel) although I don’t think Meursault and Maria are selfish as much as they are as indifferent to their own lives as they are to the lives of others.

Both seem to have one single authentic human connection: Meursault tenuously to his mother, Maria to her daughter Kate. Both novels have a desert setting (Play It As It Lays takes place as much in Nevada as Los Angeles). Both books are written in a clear, brief, terse, and unadorned style.

Both Play It As It Lays and The Stranger also possess a serious flaw, to my mind.

In Camus’ novel, it’s my nagging sense that Meursault commits the murder less from psychology or situation than from Camus’ need for him to commit the murder in order to advance the story. It’s a senseless crime, but it’s motivated neither by an irrational burst of emotion, or carelessness, or anything else I can see.

In Didion’s book, the flaw I see it that Maria Wyeth seems to suffer constant, intolerable emotional pain while at the same time acting with utterly indifference to her life.  These are mutually exclusive states of being. And while the exclusion doesn’t have to be absolute, I’m not sure Didion resolves the contradiction.

What is the nature of Maria Wyeth?

This is one of the more interesting questions a novel can ask about its main character and the best ones often answer it in unsettling ways.

Emma Bovary, for example, is a puzzling and off-putting and challengingly shallow literary character. Can we really take her as a successful simulacrum of a potential actual person? Because a profound occupation with the nature of humans and human life is the essential foundation of the novel, despite what theory geeks and academics might insist otherwise.

On first reading, I thought Maria Wyeth was a successful simulacrum because the novel is written retrospectively.

Play As It Lays opens with Maria in the neuropsychiatric hospital with all the book’s action already in the past. So the coldness and distance with which the book narrates Maria’s descent make sense: she’s simply withdrawn from pain that would otherwise have destroyed her.

The novel’s quick shift from the first person in the first chapter to third person – “a third very close to the mind of the character” as Didion described it in a Paris Review interview – also makes sense because it makes the distance between Maria and her experience greater.

But on the other hand, Didion makes a very big deal out of Maria and “nothing” in Play It As It Lays. Maria asserts in the beginning of the novel that “NOTHING APPLIES”. She explains that  her doctors, about her, “will extrapolate reasons where none exist.”

Maria tells her ex-husband she wants “nothing” and feels “nothing’.  Maria says, in a return to the first person toward the end of Play It As It Lays, “I used to ask questions, and I got the answer: nothing. The answer is ‘nothing.’”

On the last page of the book, Maria declares “I know something Carter never knew, or Helene, or maybe you. I know what ‘nothing’ means, and keep on playing.”

I read all this and I said to myself, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” Or is it brags?

Now it is possible that Maria Wyeth, the self-proclaimed Queen of Nothing, at the same time, and with equal sincerity, desperately wants to get out of the hospital, save her daughter, and live with her.  Quite possibly she wants nothing and feels nothing, except when she doesn’t. Holding mutually exclusive convictions is a human trait. In fact, it may be THE human trait.

It also human for a person to regard her experience, insight, and suffering as well as her resilience in the face of these, as unique and remarkable. Arrogance is another common human trait.

But I don’t see where Maria gets her arrogance. She is barely able to hold herself together in the novel from one moment to the next; and yet at the end of Play It As It Lays, we are supposed to believe that Maria has faced and transcended the devastating truth of life nobody else has the capacity to see much less the strength to withstand?

I don’t buy it. I’m not convinced. And because I’m not convinced, that makes Maria, not a simulacrum, but a conceit. Simulacrums speak for themselves, but conceits speak for their authors. And Maria Wyeth does not speak well for Didion.

Let’s wrap up with a little subjective opinion

Part of my reaction to Play It As It Lays is informed by my response to A Year of Magical Thinking, which I thought was a fine book, and made me feel sympathy for what Didion suffered, but which also set my teeth on edge because Didion wrote about the deaths of her husband and daughter in a way that seemed to imply her observations and feelings were unique. (My father said to me spontaneously about the book, “Does Didion think no one else has ever lost someone they loved?”) We could ask a similar question about Maria.

Then also, I’m sensitive to the unspoken conviction among writers and readers that a habit of introspection and a (sometimes) talent for expression gives them a finer soul than normal people. These qualities don’t, although they are often the parents of a particularly offensive and repugnant form of vanity. In its negative form, this vanity will suggest that if you are happy, you aren’t paying attention.

Finally, there are few things I enjoy less than reading a book about rich white people who are self-importantly miserable. My reaction to these characters goes something like this. “If you have an untreated or under-treated or resistant-to-treatment mental health disorder, that’s one thing. If not, then please make some modest effort to unf*** up your life. It might work.”

Now that intemperate outburst may lead you to conclude I didn’t like Play It As It Lays. But I did. It was well written and challenging and gave me a good workout. I had an interesting conversation / argument with Didion as I read it. Can’t ask for too much more than that.

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Your Kindle is watching you like the StasiIn addition to attacking the traditional publishing model and starting fierce arguments over whether the rise in eBooks is (paradoxically) causing a decline in literacy, eReaders like the Amazon Kindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook are collecting data on how fast readers read an eBook, the parts they skip, and more according to NPR this week.

Leaving aside the question of whether this is another privacy invasion on the part of Big Data, the article focuses on the question of whether this data can help authors or hurt them.

Scott Turow takes the position that Big Data helps writers by letting them know where, if not why, they lose readers during a story. The novelist Jonathan Evison wonders what would have happened to Moby Dick if Melville had Big Data from readers and listened to it.

All of this reminded me of what I think of as the “continuum of the writer-reader collaboration”.

The act of reading is a collaboration between the writer and reader, an act which the writer begins and the reader finishes. The terms of this collaboration are initially set by the writer. The reader then accepts these terms, or not, but once she does – look out – because the experience and meanings of the book become hers.

Sometimes, the writer sets terms which are friendly to that great and aggregate abstraction known as “the reader”.

In fiction, these terms tend to include a plot featuring a conflict or conflicts, rising action, and a satisfying conclusion; central characters with whom we can identify or empathize; and writing that is clear and straightforward if not elegant, harmonious, or beautiful.

The “reality” of the book roughly conforms to the world reported in newspapers or portrayed in mass media or experienced by another great abstraction, the “average person”.

If the book’s reality doesn’t conform to this world, then it exists in a souped-up one, in which everyone is attractive, rich, witty, and powerful, and has more and better sex than generally experienced.

If the characters have problems in this world, they are exciting and important problems — like saving the world from a rogue nuke or loving a sparkly vampire — instead of boring ones like scraping up money to pay your bills or hemorrhoids.

Books with reader-unfriendly terms tend to be the opposite of all these things or, let us agree for the sake of brevity, Finnegans Wake.

Now there is no necessary causal relationship between reader-friendly terms, reader- unfriendly terms, entertainment, and art. In fact, all these elements, in all proportions, can be found in literature. Shakespeare’s invincible position at the pinnacle of literature in English is based on precisely the fact that he delivers enormous quantities of all four in roughly equal measures.

However, it also seems to me profoundly true that all real innovation in literature is founded on being reader-unfriendly, which is another way of saying “new and confusing”.

I’m not worried about Big Data stifling innovation. Big artists have big egos, and typically think everyone else in the world is an idiot who needs to catch up. They’ve been ignoring expert opinion for centuries. They can ignore Big Data just as easily.

If the next generation Kindle has a camera, however, I am going to stop reading naked.

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"James Joyce" by Edna O'Brien | Review  BiographyHypothesis: A genius is a person whose books we want to read and whose ass we want to kick.

That certain describes the James Joyce presented in Edna O’Brien’s brief, readable biography of the great Irish writer. O’Brien’s tone in James Joyce is more novelist than academic and that combined with the occasional Joycean flourish, the lack of footnotes, and the appalling bad behavior made me wonder, “Is this all true?”

In O’Brien’s biography, we see Joyce treating his family with contempt and his friends as servants and ATMs. Joyce’s marriage to Nora Barnacle seems to have been based primarily on erotic passion (their sex letters are monuments to skeezy) although they remained together for life and O’Brien does not tell of infidelities by either James or Nora.

O’Brien reports no evidence of Joyce having a relationship with his son Giorgio. Joyce is distraught over his daughter Lucia’s madness, although his insistence that her behavior was a sign of genius rather than insanity smacks of self-aggrandizement as much as denial. Joyce is devastated by the death of the father he ignored while the man was living. As far as we can tell from O’Brien, Joyce cared for no one else.

Through it all, Joyce carousels. And works himself to exhaustion and blindness creating the most significant works of English literature written in the 20th century. The books are worth the price of all this misery. But I’m glad I didn’t have to pay it.

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My Antonia by Willa Cather Willa Cather’s My Antonia is one of those novels I saw as having faded into a genteel but deserved obscurity. Anything that struck readers in 1918 as innovative or shocking had long since become quaint, I believed, leaving little to command the attention of modern men and women.

So I was delighted by how good I found My Antonia. Much of my delight came from Cather’s quietly exquisite prose. Her descriptions of the natural world are masterful, although she does a pretty good job of making her characters and situations feel real and convincing, too.

Here is a sample from the narrator’s first impression of the prairie:

As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.

My Antonia’s episodic structure – the novel is a collage of stories – has a pleasantly proto-modernist flavor (without the tricky syntax). The novel made me wonder about its relationship to Cather’s own life. And in the end, it delivered a grand thematic and emotional wallop.

I warmly recommend it. Here are some details.

My Antonia – The Obligatory Plot Summary

Cather’s novel takes the form of a memoir written by James Quayle Burden, a childhood friend of Antonia’s four years her junior, who arrives in the Nebraska town of Black Hawk on the same day she does. Jim is an orphan from Virginia who has traveled west to be raised by his grandparents. Antonia has immigrated with her family to America from Bohemia (the present day Czech Republic).

For many years, their lives run parallel to each other. First, they are neighbors on country farms situated near each other on a prairie just beginning to be brought under cultivation. Later, they are neighbors in Black Hawk where Jim has moved with his grandparents and Antonia has been hired as a cook and housekeeper. They are separated when Jim leaves Black Hawk to attend university and then settles down to a job and a marriage in New York City. Twenty years later, at the end of the novel, Jim finally returns to Nebraska and seeks out Antonia.

Despite the title, My Antonia is primarily Jim’s story and Antonia and her family can disappear for pages and even chapters at a stretch. The novel finds the time to tell the stories of the hired men who work for Jim’s grandparents; to talk about other immigrant families besides Antonia’s, especially other young farm girls who are hired to work for households in Black Hawk; to describe the residents and observe the culture of the town; and to relate the details of Jim’s love affair with one of Antonia’s friends, Lena Lingard.

Is Jim Burden Willa Cather?

In general, I think it is a bad idea to make inferences about a writer’s life from her novels.

One of the great advantages of fiction is that it allows you to tell readers everything and nothing about yourself – to be wholly candid and entirely private at the same time. And Willa Cather seems to have valued her privacy, considering how many of her private letters and papers she destroyed before her death.

Nevertheless, Willa does make it hard to resist the temptation to equate her with Jim Burden in My Antonia, even though Cather almost certainly intended us to see her as the “I” that appears in the introduction.

Both Burden and Cather moved from Virginia to Nebraska when they were ten years old. Both attended the University of Nebraska (although Jim ultimately earns his degrees from Harvard). Both settled in New York City although their lives are possessed my memories of the prairie. Both write their books, the same book as it happens, in their forties.

Both also admire the same women: the strong, self-supporting, and independent immigrant hired girls who – with the exception of Antonia – never marry or have children.

This brings up the inevitable question of whether Cather was a lesbian and transposed herself into Jim’s character in order to write inconspicuously.

I’m an agnostic on the “Was Willa Cather a lesbian?” question (if that is actually the right question). That she sometimes dressed as a man and used the nickname “William” at university, and that she lived for nearly 40 years with the editor Edith Lewis, are generally known and rather indicative facts.

Whether Cather had sex with Edith or other women is, to the best of my knowledge, unknown and I believe it is equally unknown what Cather considered herself to be, sex or no sex. Cather’s opinion is the only valid one in the matter, of course, and she is beyond the means of telling.

Which leaves the questions of what My Antonia meant to Cather a tantalizing mystery which gives the novel, to me, some extra shimmers of meaning.

My Antonia – The Great America Novel?

This is the crown that Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has worn for decades but I wonder if he didn’t steal it from Cather.

For all their differences, both The Great Gatsby and My Antonia are books profoundly occupied with the past and how happiness resides there rather than the present. They both locate the past in the Midwest and the present in New York City. They are both occupied with a woman from the past, Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby and Antonia in Cather’s novel. And they both derive their greatest emotional power by evoking the natural world of the new continent before it came to be corrupted by men and society.

In Gatsby, it is Nick Carraway dreaming on the last page of the novel of the “fresh, green breast of the new world” the Dutch sailors first saw when they arrived in America, and concluding, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

In My Antonia, this fresh world still exists during Jim and Antonia’s childhood, although it slowly disappears as they age.

Indeed, the great thematic arch of My Antonia is the parallel motion of Jim growing from child to adult, and moving from the natural world to the city. Jim spends his childhood on farms in Virginia and then the great unsettled prairie. As an adolescent, he moves into a small country town. As a young man, he goes the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and then Harvard in Boston. As an adult, he settles, marries, and works in New York City.

There Jim finds a world of money and machines, work and relationships as unsatisfactory as Fitzgerald’s characters found it. The difference is that for Jim his old life isn’t utterly irretrievable.

In the last line of the novel he tells us, speaking of himself and Antonia, “Whatever we have missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.”

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There was no sex in Western literature until 1857.

This is an exaggeration and a simplification of course. (You are reading this on the internet after all.) But not by as much as you might think. Sex does play a role in literature before 1857, but it is very seldom a straight-forward one. Between…

Beowulf (ca 800 to 1,100 CE) and Leaves of Grass (1856)

… there is very little direct examination of sexual desire. Sex is there, of course, but it is always contained within a related topic. Passion is one such topic, giving desire nobility and a certain amount of respectability with its parallels to spiritual ecstasy and religious transcendence.

Madame Bovary - History of Sex in Western LiteratureTo conceive a great passion was certainly admirable. To give in to it was less so – although somewhat understandable – unless you happened to passionately repent afterwards, in which case you were back in the clear, and also had something new to do with all that animal energy.

Love was another one of these topics, a step down from passion in terms of intensity, but a step up in terms of stability, and was perfectly respectable.

This is not to say that passion and love are not valuable human experiences, or that they can’t exist along with desire, or all the literature dealing with either is false.

But the language of passion and love are also a means of not talking about sexual desire, or a means of excusing it, or most importantly a means of dismissing physical desire’s power, whether it’s tales of courtly love, or the story of Emma and Mr. Knightley, or Walt Whitman who with his great moving exuberance unites the body and soul together.

When sex does appear in Western literature before 1857, it is played for comedy through lower-class characters, such as Chaucer’s Wife of Bath or Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones or, much more explicitly, Cleland’s Fanny Hill.

There are more troublesome outliers to muddy the picture. (Did I mentioned you were reading this on the internet? Okay good.)

The Decameron comes to mind and the work of the Marquis de Sade. But let’s agree for the sake of my personal convenience that these are exceptions that prove the rule

Madame Bovary (1857)

Flaubert’s novel caused a scandal and it’s not hard to see why. In Madame Bovary, he both plainly describes sexual desire and attacks the language in which it had previously been discussed.

Flaubert’s language seems quite tame by today’s standards, but he left no doubt about what he meant. For example, during a meeting with a lover, Flaubert writes that “[Emma] tiptoed over on bare feet to check once again that the door was locked, and in one motion she shed all her clothes; — pale and silent and serious, she fell upon him, shivering.”

Flaubert is just as direct when comes to the romantic language of “passion”. Emma’s first lover, Rodolphe, deliberately and cynically uses that language, and plays the role of the passionate lover, to seduce Emma, and Emma willingly embraces the role, out of a desire for something other than the stifling, self-satisfied, and clueless adoration of her husband Charles.

She again embraces the role with her second lover, Leon, and embraces it more desperately the more she senses the intensity of their relationship fading, and the more she feels the consequences of her deceptions bearing down on her.

Flaubert may have been the first voice to speak plainly about sex and to decouple the physical act from the language of passion and love, but he was followed by a long silence. It seems that Western literature needed the massive social disruption caused by the First World War to make books like …

Ulysses (1922) and Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928)

… possible. Joyce’s Ulysses is quite explicit about sex, but it wasn’t the perfect book to break the taboo, largely because it was so difficult for many readers to understand.

Lady Chatterley - History Sex Western LiteratureLady Chatterley’s Lover did a better job with its plain speaking, and caused a scandal. But instead of silence, these books were soon followed by others, such as Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1934). Lady Chatterley and Tropic of Cancer were involved in obscenity trials as late as 1960, but these failed, and the subject of sex became ubiquitous in books by the end of the decade.

I don’t see this change as an unqualified success. A great deal of sex in books these days ranges from the merely gratuitous to the frankly pornographic, and is rendered with such an appalling, puzzling, frequently hilarious lack of skill that it can chase you right back to Jane Austen.

On the other hand, the fact of sexual desire, and the fact that desire demands satisfaction, are different matters. These need to be addressed in literature because, like in life, they don’t go away just because they’re ignored. And when desire and love are denied, between consenting adults not restrained by other promises, this denial blights the soul. We can put up with the occasional internet sensation trilogy to gain that.

Massey Content Related to A Brief History of Sex in Western Literature

My 100 word parody of 50 Shades of Grey

My 7 rules for writing sex scenes

My 100 word review of Madame Bovary

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