The 2018 Hay on Wye Lit Fest Part II

Here are some notes on the speakers I heard (due to illness, unfortunately I was not able to attend all the events for which I had registered). I took actual written notes on the two fiction authors; hence, my discussion of them is much longer.

Ian McEwan: One of my favorite modern writers, he addressed the question of how he would write a political novel. He said, were he to write a Brexit novel, he would inhabit the mind of a character – likely a pro-Brexit character, and take a sympathetic position to him/her. He said that inhabiting the mind of a character was imperative, else the novel would sound like a big polemic on the part of the author. This was extremely interesting to me, and has made me think about how to do such a thing in the future. One excellent example is 1984: if we think about it, we come to understand the oppression of society by Oceania only through Winston Smith’s experience of it. McEwan emphasized that we mustn’t treat novels as sociology: they are about particular people.

When asked about screenwriting the recently released “On Chesil Beach” he noted that the screenplay gave him a chance to add scenes that were not in the novel. McEwan also had high praise for the young actress Saoirse Ronan, saying that he sees her now in his characters she has portrayed when he rereads his novels. One very interesting point he made was about the form of the novella, and that novellas are perfect for adaptation. In McEwan’s opinion, Joyce’s The Dead is the most perfect novella ever written, and that it should have not been placed in Dubliners with the other stories. He praised John Houston’s film for being a perfect adaptation of the novella.

About five years back, The Guardian featured an article about McEwan losing his faith in fiction. When asked about this, about what he does when he feels jaded about literary fiction, McEwan said he goes back to an Updike novella with a line that reads something like “cognac…a knight’s move of consciousness” and this detail always inspires him. (I believe the original quote comes from Nabokov.) He also draws on Shakespeare, from whom he finds some phrase or nugget (“fondle the details”) that inspires him. McEwan said to always turn up at your desk, no matter what you feel. It is important for writers to feel a “determined stupor.”

Margaret Atwood: What a thrill to see the grande dame of letters talking on her seminal work, The Handmaid’s Tale! As always (from what I have seen in interviews), Ms. Atwood was elegantly eloquent and calm, good-humored, and tremendously intelligent and complex in her thinking. The lecture was begun by women who entered dressed as handmaidens in the red cloaks and white habits! She noted that The Handmaid’s Tale was written in conversation with 1984 (as that was the year she was writing her novel), and also with The Diary of Anne Frank and other survivor literature. She also mentioned that the novel was written around the time of the totalitarian regime in Iran, before the Shah was overthrown, the bombing of Afghanistan, as well as the beginning of the AIDS era. Everything has a historical referent in the novel, and she noted that the idea that we never know who’s on our side had cultural relevance. A film was made a few years later, and was launched at the fall of the Berlin Wall. East Berliners read the film politically, whereas West Berliners read it artistically. Not being allowed to read is a historical motif, she said, as there were 19th century discussions on how much education women should have, and also remember the fact that it was illegal to teach slaves how to read. The distortion of Biblical texts is a big part of the totalitarian control of reading. Various regimes and groups all misquote the Bible, Marx, Freud, etc. The novel also has origins in the ethos of the Puritans, who espoused a very rigid worldview and behaved oppressively toward others who did not fit their rules.

Atwood did not spend much time on discussing the techniques in writing the novel, but frankly, I was more interested in the discussion of the politics in the novel relevant to our current times. She did mention that the voice and tone are very strong in the novel, as the voice is so intrinsic to the idea of the plot. Writing and removing passages is what creates voice, according to Atwood. Her use of color-coding dates back to Medieval/Renaissance aesthetics, as the Virgin Mary is depicted in blue (which was an expensive color, given the dyes), and Mary Magdalene is red. She discussed the use of naming of the characters, such as Offred, and how she put Of- with various men’s names. Atwood joked that “Ofkeith” did not sound right! The novel’s heroine’s name also suggests “offered.”

The other major topic of discussion was about the new television series of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” I have not seen this, but have heard that it is done quite well. The interviewer asked Ms. Atwood her opinions and feelings about the way in which the television series diverges from the novel. Atwood first mentioned the film made from her novel in 1990, and how she had very little control over that, its release, and the various distribution issues. With this new television series, Atwood has had some input, but she was surprisingly relaxed about the fact that it is out of her control. She simply said that if you have an interpretation of a book that fits, and you can justify it, then it is valid. The end of the “The Handmaid’s Tale” series is not definite, hence why the series is continuing for a second season. Dickens wrote in serial form to keep readers reading, and used cliffhangers! So she understands why the TV series is structured differently than her novel.

Atwood also mentioned that the novel 1984 ends on a positive note: the ending section is written in the past tense to show that Newspeak is over. Thus Gilead ends at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Atwood comes across as extremely well versed in international politics and socio-cultural phenomenon. This talk was extremely inspiring to me, as I have always been interested in the intersection of politics and literature (Salman Rushdie has discussed and of course written much about this). She is not only an important literary figure, in my opinion, but also a cultural figure who always has her finger on the zeitgeist or pulse of current issues.

Simon Schama: It is hard to know what to write on the brilliant history professor (and fellow Columbian!) Simon Schama. He seemed to take the ball and run with it when delivering the Founders Lecture, expounding on many different topics, all under the general theme of how art is what connects us as human beings, and promotes empathy. He cited the example of a well-known woman art historian (whose name escapes me) who encouraged Jewish children at the time of the Holocaust to make art. She then saved many of their paintings and drawings after the children were put to death, and the children’s legacy is something that leaves us hope that art is truly a force for good. Professor Schama also discussed various time periods and cultures throughout history and their creation of art. Schama is a famously animated lecture (an enjoyable contrast with classic British reserve) but also comes across as warm and generous, as when a young woman in the audience who mentioned that she will be attending Columbia University in the fall, she was met with great encouragement by the professor. Schama’s knowledge is simply encyclopedic, and we are very lucky to have such a man of letters.

Martin Griffiths: This Welsh astronomer who has worked for NASA but now spends time with his research and projects in Wales was truly a delight to listen to, not the least for his Welsh accent! Griffiths talked about the overlap between astronomy and Welsh mythology, about the constellations and myths. As someone in the audience pointed out later in the Q & A, it is rare that an astronomer will discuss mythology, combine science and the arts. I found it especially fascinating to learn about Welsh mythology, as it is not something that we have so much exposure to in the US. I also realized how in our modern world we have such a dearth of mythological thinking as part of our daily lives. Growing up as a Hindu, I really enjoyed (and still enjoy) mythology, as it link humans to something much larger, to universal themes and to Gods with extraordinary forces.

Griffiths is currently involved in anti-light pollution work, with Dark Sky Wales, and is a very active lecturer.

 

 

What Makes for Good Writing (Part I?)

This post may have to be written in installments, as there are so many things to discuss about the subject. And of course, tastes will vary greatly — anyone in the arts knows that tastes are quite subjective. That said, if we look at certain elements of technique and craft, I think there are some constants or things that everybody would agree upon. Let us have a look.

-The prose. The use of language that makes us see things in a different way, or a more specific or creative way. Toni Morrison is a master of this: she phrases things uniquely, but her prose is always accessible and readable. Salman Rushdie creates his own lexicon and own language in his novels, a very florid, convoluted style to be sure, but he has such fun playing with the language that we cannot help but enjoy the ride. And then there are the Zen like, minimalist writers like Cormac McCarthy or Raymond Carver, who are able to create full pictures with a minimum of words. And let us not forget the inimitable Oscar Wilde
– the unparalleled wit masks a lot of wisdom!

-Metaphor. Consider Nabokov’s stunning line in The Gift, in describing a street where the protagonist lives, “… It rose at a barely perceptible angle, beginning with a post office and ending with a church, like an epistolary novel.” Upon reading the sentence, I put the book down and shut it, simply blown away by the brilliance of the metaphor, sitting in stunned silence for a few moments. Toni Morrison’s work is rife with metaphor, as we can see many times in The Bluest Eye. Symbolism, metaphor, allegory – these larger themes enhance a work of literature, expanding it beyond what is merely on the page.

-Omniscient narration. This has largely fallen out of vogue in modern fiction, but omniscience truly gives us an understanding of the overarching picture of various things in a way that only omniscience can. Tolstoy is the first writer that comes to mind for most people, his penetrating insight into characters and the human condition and social mores is astounding. Willa Cather gives us this, as does Jane Austen. It suggests a certain wisdom on the part of the author, an understanding of human nature that, as above, expands beyond the words on the page. It can make sweeping generalizations and sum up grand truths that are part of why we need literature.

-Sort of on the flipside, intimacy. Edith Pearlman’s stories are warmly intimate; we truly feel we are with the characters. Philip Roth hilariously and disgustingly pushes the limits of intimacy in his brilliant Portnoy’s Complaint, which is a case of Too Much Information. Even the popularity of books like Bridget Jones’s Diary show the human need for confiding in a literary friend who is full of foibles and wants to share it with the reader.

-Unique subject matter. Ian McEwan’s Nutshell is brilliant: the retelling of Hamlet from the womb is unlike anything else. James Baldwin’s stories in Going to Meet the Man show a fresh perspective on Black life at a time when Blacks were still seen as the “House N—–” or The Other, only beginning to be integrated into American society. Dystopian novels like 1984 or Brave New World are still appealing because they are stories like nothing else. And even the success of the Harry Potter books shows that readers love a fantastical world where there is magic, villains, heroes, and an underdog hero. J.K. Rowling created a world of her own, and in doing so, her work developed a universal appeal.

These are but a few things that make for good writing. Perhaps this post shall be continued in the future.

What I’ve Learned: Literary Musings

Dear Readers,
2017 has been exponentially (or is it logarithmically? Whichever is bigger!) busier since beginning the MFA program in creative writing at Warren Wilson. One of the greatest joys are the letters to our supervisors, in which we can expound on what we’ve read in a less formal way than our essays, much like I am used to doing here. Here are some highlights, based on what I’ve read. Thanks for reading!

-I feel that each piece of writing has a certain “secret code” to it, like a puzzle to be discovered, and once you understand it, the whole logic of the book becomes clear. I think that is what this MFA program is teaching us, to really look at great works of writing analytically and critically to see what is going on in terms of the craft. To look at all the seams and see how it is made. And of course, the best books are going to appear very seamless on the surface.
-Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed was absolutely brilliant, and I enjoyed every second of reading it. She is a genius, and she makes it seem so effortless. The novel is so complex, and yet we do not see the seams. It makes me really think about what angle to take about retelling classic works.
-Nabokov’s The Gift – what can I say? I picked up the book, read the first three pages, and then put it down because I was so awed by his writing, and thought “@#$%, why bother, I’ll never write again!” The man was a genius. Why he didn’t win a Nobel Prize is beyond me. Nabokov is a master prose stylist; just his use of language is stunning. That is what to read him for.
-I thought back on how in the 10th grade, we read Native Son [by Richard Wright] and how it blew me away with how powerful it was, how complex the emotions were, and how there were no easy answers as to who was “good” or “bad.” And then suddenly it hit me – that novel is a great example of how to write emotional dilemmas. I quickly started making notes about what I remembered from the novel and how Wright did this.
-[Upon reading Breakfast at Tiffany’s] Capote is a wonderful writer, I’m guessing a lot of those writers from that era in New York are really excellent craftsmen and women, not to mention intelligent and literary. My mother said that in the 60s he used to be on talk shows. Wow! Who do we have on talk shows nowadays, Kardashians?!
-[Upon reading Nutshell by Ian McEwan] What a gifted writer! Just the level of detail and intelligence and polish is amazing. I had the same reaction as I did with the Nabokov — I put the book down for a moment and just thought, “Oh God, screw it, why do I write?!” What I learned in reading Nutshell was that in retellings, you have to pick and choose. You don’t have to be so literal, and transpose everything from the original work into modern times. A retelling can be something that captures the gist of the original, or uses just a few elements from the original, or adapt certain things from the original to make it modern.
-Retellings [of classics] are all about choices you make as a writer, much as a director would with a script. What do you show and what do you leave out? What do you change? What do you add? How is it relevant for today’s readers? All very fascinating stuff.
-[Upon reading James Baldwin] There is no one else like him. It struck me, halfway through Going to Meet the Man, that Baldwin accomplishes the most important goal of a writer: to be thought-provoking. A man of letters, culturally significant, not just a literary writer. I admire him. That said, I don’t always like him. I find that there was a sense of bitterness running throughout. I think I admire the writers most who really get you to think, who aren’t just rehashing something or just telling a ho-hum story about something ordinary. George Orwell, Dave Eggers, Margaret Atwood — these are just a few people who come to mind. They leave a lasting impression on you. They are powerful. This is the sign of a great writer.
Bright Lights, Big City [by Jay McInerney] is an absolutely brilliant novel! So well written. Clean prose, nothing unnecessary, it tells the story so clearly and each word matters. Very entertaining, despite its flaws. I think for me the biggest letdown was the ending – I kept expecting for something major to happen to the protagonist. McInerney gives us these little climaxes here and there; he fails to give us one big boom at the end. And that really taught me something – you have to have a great ending. It’s interesting how Bright Lights is the story of a downfall. Downfall makes for a very effective theme in literature, a very strong theme; we see it in King Lear and so many other works.