Category Archives: General Literature

New Literature Weblog

Carolyn is now writing up her experiences with the letter world. Here’s a sampling:

And I would agree with them Oklahomans because I can’t put it down, and I think that might mean I’m cheating on Truman Capote. I’m three novels shy of polishing off all his fiction. It’s been delicious, by the way. I started In Cold Blood but stopped and picked up Summer Crossing because I’m home alone and easily frightened. After those two, it’s onto Answered Prayers and then the complete letters and then the biography by George Clark. Honestly, I’m beginning to feel a little burnt out. That just may be the lack of sleep over the past week.

On Dogs

Yes it’s oft quoted but I think still delightful, from Beston and his “The Outermost House.” It’s for Rina, whom I’m glad to hear is doing well:

We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate for having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein do we err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the Earth.

It reminds me of McCarthy’s style.

Comedy, Tragedy, and the Tendency To . . .

An interesting exchange at Dan Green’s The Reading Experience regarding Julian Gough’s essay Divine comedy in Prospect.

In my studies and reading, the question of why a general tendency would develop around a given type of approach is an interesting question to pursue and I look forward to a more involved exploration of the subject by Gough, given that I find the writing in the Prospect article too general. Hasn’t Milan Kundera already explored this territory in his own way?

Gough writes:

Many of the finest novels—and certainly the novels I love most—are in the Greek comic tradition, rather than the tragic: Rabelais, Cervantes, Swift, Voltaire, and on through to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and the late Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5.

Yet western culture since the middle ages has overvalued the tragic and undervalued the comic. We think of tragedy as major, and comedy as minor. Brilliant comedies never win the best film Oscar. The Booker prize leans toward the tragic. In 1984, Martin Amis reinvented Rabelais in his comic masterpiece Money. The best English novel of the 1980s, it didn’t even make the shortlist. Anita Brookner won that year, for Hotel du Lac, written, as the Observer put it, “with a beautiful grave formality.”

The fault is in the culture. But it is also internalised in the writers, who self-limit and self-censor. If the subject is big, difficult and serious, the writer tends to believe the treatment must be in the tragic mode. When Amis addressed the Holocaust in his minor novel Time’s Arrow (1991), he switched off the jokes, and the energy, and was rewarded with his only Booker shortlisting.

But why this pressure, from within and without? There are two good reasons. The first is the west’s unexamined cultural cringe before the Greeks. For most of the last 500 years, Homer and Sophocles have been held to be the supreme exponents of their arts. (Even Homer’s constant repetition of stock phrases like “rosy-fingered dawn” and “wine-dark sea” are praised, rather than recognised as tiresome clichés.)

The second reason is that our classical inheritance is lop-sided. We have a rich range of tragedies—Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides (18 by Euripides alone). Of the comic writers, only Aristophanes survived. In an age of kings, time is a filter that works against comedy. Plays that say, “Boy, it’s a tough job, leading a nation” tend to survive; plays that say, “Our leaders are dumb arseholes, just like us” tend not to.

It may be true that western culture has had lopsided inheritance (this implies a missing balance) and indeed our awareness of the Greek ouvre is very small, but I’m wondering at the value of the argument itself or whether we can validate a writer’s tendency to limit from their choice of mode (to what degree is mode, voice, and style governed by choice?) or whether writing in the tragic mode is an act of self-censorship or can be construed as such. Not to mention that people have explored a range of comedy and tragedy across culture.

I share Gough’s love of the comic tradition. These are the works I enjoy reading (and writing). Stanley Elkin’s “A Poetics for Bullies” is a favorite story. And I must admit to not having read an American novel in a while (I’m currently slogging my way through Alaa Al Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building). And I’m about to devote as much time as I can to Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, which is one of my favorite unfinished journeys.

I do wonder, in this day and age in America, why we aren’t seeing a flood of comedic works.

In my opinion, and this shouldn’t count for much given my limited experience with a totality, the fiction I read in literary magazines is bland and, yes, I would argue, tired of itself. At the moment I can’t remember who wrote “Heliotrope,” a story published in Confrontation. Small, unassuming, powerful, I thought, one of those rare works that keeps me coming back.

Responsibility and the Hero’s Trial

Matthew Polly is kind enough to leave a note on this post. He is the author of American Shaolin.

I’ve always been a fan of the literature of the hero’s journey and Mr. Polly’s book falls into this category. But it reminds me of a conversation I had a few weeks back with my fiction students about the core issue of fire, a metaphor for the hero’s trial: Matthew Polly against himself; Sir Gawain and himself and the Green Knight.

Most of the students agreed that a college education can–and I emphasize the “can”–serve as one step on a trial. So this could be added to my last post about the ethics list:

1. Students should seek out trials. (As should faculty)

Thanks, Matt.

Evaluation Issues

I’m currently writing up and editing standards of evaluation for the Shakespeare course. As I think about symmetry in the lines and how observing and analyzing the plays at this level provides insight into performance, I’m reminded of the importance of the ability to read beyond the text, especially for readers so immersed in their present. So many things are key–intoning diction, playing with the metrics, imagining gesture and image, and considering the consequence of characters in their context.

How would I speak to some gray shade parked in my chair? What if the sun went dark or the night kept spinning over where the sun once shined?

Lear where are you when I need you.

What’s on the Desk Now

It’s a wonderful reading list these last few weeks. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (surprisingly new, with breathtaking touches) is stacked with Osamu Tezuka’s Buddha (which now answers lots of questions about Bone), John Porcellino’s Perfect Example (the ending is perfectly wrought and just sings), Jamie Hernandez’ Love and Rockets(dare I say clean), and lots of Shakespeare–Macbeth (I love and hate this play) and Twelfth Night (I can’t get enough of this). This is an interesting test of styles, subjects, lines, and adventures.

The season began with McCarthy. I came to The Road reluctantly. I rarely read book reviews and had only heard of the the novel from Susan Gibb or mentioned on other weblogs. The gift was given and I started and finished the novel off in a few days. I’m a persistent rereader (I reread as I read, in fact), but haven’t had a chance yet for a second go. The Road is grueling, but not like Mishima. I’m drawn to Father and son stories for good reasons and McCarthy’s intimate journey is therefore a good fit and it also fits my long-time mood over this bizzaro world we now live in. Suttree, whose main character reminds me of a presence beside whom I still walk, is in The Road’s class–different than Blood Meridian and Outter Dark. As such stories go, the end hands off to the story to come. It’s a new world. But it won’t ever be what it was, and this sense of absolute rearrangement, loss, and desperation is powerfully described. This is the novel from start to finish. The setting is as strange as a setting can be. Sure, Bradbury had to develop a strange world in the Chronicles, but the world of The Road is ours absent “ours.” The boy has a toy truck. But what an odd piece of matter. And when the old days surface, they come like a sweet and fleeting memory. What a ride.

Literature and the World

This project at The Valve sounds like an interesting series to follow. I don’t know Franco Moretti’s work, but I find the subject interesting.

Given events over the last few months at Tunxis, I find myself growing more and more concerned about literary studies or, more to the context, English Departments, the study of literature being one part of the work. I recall a class discussion when I was a student. A colleague of mine asked the professor if he could write about a particular author. The prof said no because the student wouldn’t be able to find any scholarship on the subject because the author under question was too new. I found this response–now and at the time–rediculous and naive.

But to the point. I’ve never really been interested in the Canon as a thing to take all that seriously, but the professors where I went to school did. The student who had an interest couldn’t pursue it, therefore in the context of the course. Perhaps he would have generated some scholarship if given the chance. But he didn’t have the chance. I can understand a foundational series of studies that introduce students to a tradition–these are the kinds of courses I teach. But what is the breadth of the tradition? Numerous authors, thinkers, and prophets influenced human experience and expression and they should be read. Chaucer, for example. But I have no problem using Bacon in British Lit since his ideas form a trail and a surface that had an impact and form an important topology of questions that keep coming up.

What I’ve seen are potential faculty coming out of English Departments with a Canonical view of the landscape: what I call the English Geek. But landscapes change. If a student wants to focus on Chaucer, that’s fine by me, but what’s the reason to do it? What about the definition of a landscape or “not” defining it at all? Why isn’t Michael Joyce and the “other Joyce” a part of the breadth of experience in upper division courses or in graduate school? What is the breadth of experiencial space in the English Department that can go beyond “culture studies” or “theory”? (I never understood the use of this term in either Composition, literature, or literary criticism.)

I think studies in the English Area should be intensely interdsciplinary. I don’t know if this is part of Moretti’s program–I aim to find out. Conceptually, it should invite digital cameras, scripting, science, religion, and anything else that’s part of the human lifeworld into its metabolism and be flexible enough to grow its boundaries or, to lift a term from physics, its degrees of freedom.

The Self and the Stone

It may be that there is a rather large stone on the horizon, a small black thumbs-up against glazing sun-down purple and orange (those southwestern sunsets never leave you). Perhaps there are runes on what may be a monostone, some message that points to secrets, but about what? The quest would be to cross the space between and check it out. In Alaska, a crew and I seeking a shortcut out from somewhere tore into the thorns and extended our packing time by perhaps a few hours more than necessary. No birds that day, just some odd stomping behind some high trees.

“Make sure you hit him in the chest,” one of my partners said, handing me the rifle brought for protection against grizzly bears. “Just in case. We’re counting on you.”

That’s the way shortcuts workout sometimes. Not always, but sometimes.

Reading this post by Daniel Green got me thinking about the horizon and other metaphors for knowing or wanting to know. Susan Gibb at the moment is all over The Body Artist on her quest. In an unrelated post (maybe), she writes:

Down by the river, trees naked gray their hair fell out with autumn chemotherapy, revival and survival. Leaves in golden curls on grass no longer green. Centuries of mowings, leaves, and people turned to earth.

Why Literary Study Matters

Thinking by analogy, I come up with this:

Spock and Bones are seated at a park bench. They are joined by the city planner, a thin, clicking guy who gestures like a puppet hopping on stage.

We’ll have roads, he says. They’ll be 30 feet wide. A yellow line will separate them into lanes and on them vehicles, some tons in weight, will go north and south at 45 miles per hour.

Spock observes, That means the cars passing abreast will be spaced some 6 feet apart at average. It’s a brilliant idea.

Bones says, Are you fucking nuts!

Voice, death, and narrative

I think we have a nice discussion shaping up up over Josip Novakovich over at Spinning. I’m not quite sure what Mark is actually critiquing though. In these things it’s always nice to be able to judge the examples for oneself. Students who take lit courses, in this special context, need to see these kinds of arguments take shape.