What Makes for Good Writing (Part II)

As promised last time, the subject requires further consideration, so here is another post with more thoughts on elements of good or interesting writing.

-A story within a story. Sometimes these may be structured as a frame story, where the true heart of the novel or story lies inside an outer story that “frames” it. But sometimes this is not the case, and regardless of the structure, this stylistic device can be very fascinating. Most often, the inner story supports the larger narrative, but it doesn’t necessarily have to. An interesting backstory about a particular character, for example, draws the reader in.

-Letters. This does not have to denote the novel as an epistolary novel. But a letter within a novel makes the reader feel privy to some sort of secret information, gives us a story within a story sometimes, and fills in some information we might not be able to get otherwise.

-Multiple angles from which to read it. This point will appeal more to the literary scholars and lit crit people, but great works of literature can be analyzed in many different ways. Dracula, for instance, could be read from Darwinian, Gothic novel, historical, Freudian, etc. etc. perspectives. Anna Karenina could be read as feminist, pre-Marxist, historical, Christian, and more. Same for Henry James’s The Beast in the Jungle. In other words, what this means is that there is a complexity and layering of ideas in these novels that lend themselves to multiple interpretations.

-Pacing. A good novel or story will unfold its mysteries with timing that hooks the reader enough, without giving away all the information. It draws us in because we want to know what the next event is, the next revelation of information, how the character got to be the way they are, etc. This is an extremely difficult thing to do. In novels, there is more time, and the author can take her time getting to her point. In stories, however, the urgency must be felt upfront; things have to be resolved in a short span of time. But with both genres, the reader must be engaged from the beginning so that she can be emotionally invested in the narrative.

-Subtext. Charles Baxter is one of the leading experts on this craft issue, as one can read in The Art of Subtext. There is the level of what is being said, and the level of what is not being said. Are these at odds with each other? Do they support each other? Do we get enough of a sense of where the author is going with his/her message and themes? This is employed to greater or lesser degree by various authors, and some people might argue that some writers do not use this at all. Dialogue is one area in which subtext can really be evident.

And finally,

-Simply telling a good story. When I attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in 2015, there was an elderly participant named Norton who was, literally, just a year short of 100. Hoping to benefit his wisdom, I asked him what his best advice was on writing. “Just tell a good story,” he waved my question away, saying that people get too caught up in technique and craft, etc. And I think this is really fabulous advice. One thing many literary agents will mention is that they want to keep reading past the first page. How often do we think of someone asking us to recommend A Good Book? A good book draws us in with a compelling story, makes us want to keep reading.

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.

The English Imagination: Bravo for British Books!

Of all the cultures in the world, there is one that seems to endear itself to readers everywhere: British culture. (I will here on use the word “English” though it is inaccurate, because it refers to the language as well as England, where many writers from Great Britain based themselves.) The tradition of English literature is long and vast, starting all the way back from the time of The Canterbury Tales, through the development of the novel in the 1700s, into the beloved Victorian period, and even through the 20th century with canonical classics like 1984. And the love of the English novel has been rekindled in the 21st century with the Harry Potter series, spreading globally like a wildfire.

Given this centuries-long, global mania that has touched the lives of literally millions, if not hundreds of millions, we must simply ask, Why? What is it about the English imagination that captivates us so?

Here are some possible reasons:
-The English have an imagination. This tautology might at first strike the reader as silly, but we need to acknowledge that the English have given us fanciful settings like in A Clockwork Orange, imaginary characters, talking and anthropomorphized animals like Winnie the Pooh, creatures that can perform magical spells, and even myths and legends like King Arthur. The presence of the Celts is certainly one factor in the English collective imagination. The isolation of an island nation may be another, for in an isolated setting, one must create and invent stories and fantasies to keep oneself entertained. Also, in a culture of rigid social hierarchy, the imagination is what makes one free.

-The English have royalty. Kings, queens, dukes, and duchesses, nobility, palaces, and their courts–there is plenty of glamour, intrigue, history, and power struggles that keep the reader entertained. Royalty = continuity, both in terms of a dynasty and a place. Place is very important to royals, as they are defined by the land they own.

-The landscape. There are the seacoast, lakes, stately homes on grand parks with magnificent gardens. There are parlors warm and cozy in which to do needlework while it is cold and dreary outside. There are beautiful spring days in the unparalleled English countryside in which to have a tryst, as Julia and Winston do in 1984. By contrast, there are the industrial wastelands, belching smoke and coated in grime, the sad byproduct of the Industrial Revolution. There is Dickens’s London, squalid and overcrowded. And of course, one cannot discuss the English landscape without including the gloomy, tempestuous Moors as in Wuthering Heights, a setting that is perhaps the original “dark and stormy night.”

-A sense of mysticism. Someone (likely JB Priestley) said that the English are “reasonable, not rational,” which can be interpreted as that the English are willing to entertain ideas that are not entirely pragmatic and realistic. Anglicanism embraces a sense of mysticism, and as mentioned above, the culture of the Celts and pagan traditions embrace gods and goddesses, fairies, et cetera. There might be trolls, wizards, signs, and omens. None of these are considered too far-fetched or outlandish, though Continental readers might find it so.

-Women sometimes feature prominently. While I think it is very wrong to look back on centuries of literature through a modern lens of political correctness and gender studies, we cannot fail to note that English literature has quite frequently featured female protagonists or major characters. This includes characters by both male and female authors. Jane Eyre, Austen’s heroines, Elizabeth Bowen’s Stella in The Heat of the Day, Eliza Doolittle in Shaw’s Pygmalion, Virginia Woolf’s women and especially A Room of One’s Own, even Lewis Carroll’s children’s book character Alice – the list goes on and on. This is not to deny the sexism and secondary status of women through the history of English literature; rather, there has been a significant presence of women that is indeed influential.

-Colonialism. Needless to say, this has been an atrocious facet of history that still has a negative impact today. But strictly from a literary point of view, it broadened the scope of literature. Jane Eyre features the exotic subplot of Mr. Rochester’s time in the Caribbean and his marriage to the tempestuous Bertha. Kipling, for however politically incorrect he is now, set works in India, and one of his most vocal critics, George Orwell, spent time in India and in Burma, the latter providing fodder for his work.
Ironically, it is those who have grown up in former British colonies who read primarily British literature and have a great affinity and even affection for it. Global powerhouse Salman Rushdie has spoken of his love for The Lord of the Rings and Wodehouse. Ask a typical Indian reader (not a current literary scholar or writer) whom s/he admires, and you may very likely hear “Dickens.” Nobel laureate St. Lucian poet Derek Walcott has spoken of his very English education and influence by British poets and writers.

-The class system. Another skeleton in England’s closet, in addition to colonialism, the stratified class society of England has made for very important themes that entrance the reader, namely from low-high. Austen’s novels prominently feature poor women marrying wealthier men. Jane Eyre is a penniless orphan who marries the rich man in the stately home who favors her over the glamorous Lady. The foundlings on the doorstep turn out to be kings–or at least, they marry well. Shakespeare abounds with this theme, in works such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream (recall a character named “Bottom”).  High-to low, and vice-versa, makes for a thrilling story.

-A sense of decorum. This relates to in some degree the previous point about class. The stiff upper lip and social conventions expected of people can be both a source of humor, as we see in Wodehouse or Pride and Prejudice, as well as a source of discomfort and tension, as in Great Expectations. Impropriety makes for good humor or good stories, as it is a form of transgression. How does it get resolved? This is a key question that keeps the reader engaged.

Here’s to hoping that England will continue to produce more writers that capture our imaginations and our hearts through the 21st century and centuries to come!

The Razor’s Edge: A Collection of Unlikely Philosophers

I recently reread W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, and this time, I truly understood what makes it a classic and a work of genius, despite its evident flaws. The book is, at its core, the story of a group of friends and a couple of relatives (as told by a rather elusive narrator) whose primary concern centers around the seemingly aimless Larry Darrell whose primary is “to loaf.” However, his loafing also includes a spiritual quest to find a greater meaning in life than being invited to elegant parties, making lots of money, having a lucrative job, or marriage. He is the object of, first, ridicule, then great worry, as his spiritual quest seems to lead to an apathy for the more pragmatic and necessary matters of life. Larry also appears unable to form deep attachments with people, probably the result of the early loss of his parents coupled with his experiences in the First World War, where he saw death all around him and his dear friend killed. It was Larry’s quest that jumped out at me most profoundly the first time I read the book; however, this time, I was able to better understand that all of the characters are on some sort of quest of their own, however mundane and non-spiritual. It is not so easy to pass judgment on the other characters or to laud only Larry for being more “deep” than the others. For the sake of argument, I present some additional perspectives.

Larry cannot stand the bourgeois—-no, that is not the proper word, for the characters are from the elite upper classes—-moneyed, convention-driven atmosphere of his social circles. His friends are not necessarily old money, but they are not necessarily nouveau riche either. The adults’ goals are to see their children married well and prosperously settled; this is as much for maintaining a lifestyle as it is for social image. Larry is engaged to the beautiful and desired Isabel, who at first glance seems to be merely a bubbly socialite. But Larry’s desire to loaf and not have a concrete goal that he is striving towards is his ultimate downfall: Isabel’s eyes, a man must have a sense of direction with regard to his work in order for a marriage to work.

Isabel is, indeed, a woman who desires money and position, but her desires are not based on merely following convention. She has thought through her point of view, her *philosophy* of marriage, even (if one can indulge in that word) and has made up her mind to break off her engagement to Larry. This is absolutely heartbreaking to Isabel and, to some degree, Larry. We see that Isabel is not shallow, though her choices may seem to be; this is evidenced in long passages with the narrator (a sort of doppelgänger for Maugham himself) in which she discusses her concerns in detail. She thinks through things and has her reasons for doing what others might regard as selfish, but she tries as best as she can to understand Larry. If she cannot truly understand him, then she is at least sympathetic. Letting him go is not easy for her, but she is wise enough to realize that he has a particular quest. She is a stronger woman than the reader may realize.

Isabel is by nature curious, and even mildly reflective. She wants to talk to the narrator about her decisions. She wants to go “slumming” to see the seedy nightlife of Paris, so as not to be stuck in her usual circles, but unfortunately this decision the puts another woman in Larry’s life. She is the counterpart to Larry the Philosopher: where Larry questions and then chooses to remain abstract, unattached, and searching, Isabel questions and then chooses that which is concrete, connected, and certain. Her marriage to Gray Maturin is fundamentally a successful one, though she is still madly in love with Larry. Even her motives, as explained to the narrator at the end, for preventing the marriage of Larry and Sophie are carefully thought out; she made a decision to destroy one person (Sophie) in order to save another person (Larry) in the long run.

Elliott, Isabel’s uncle, is undoubtedly the most snobby and shallow individual in the book. His self-worth is based on the approval of others in the upper echelons of society. He lives or dies for invitations to swanky soirées, has very particular opinions on romantic matches and marriages, and spends lavishly on homes and clothes. He passes judgment harshly on others, and seems to rather loathe himself. And yet, at his core, he is a good ol’ Midwestern boy who is close to his family and wants the best for them. When Isabel and Gray suffer from the stock market crash, he sets up a new life for them in Paris. He is continually trying to introduce those close to him into high society for their benefit, in order to foster their social mobility. Elliott is an unabashed social climber—-he makes no bones about it. His ultimate goal is to be recognized by society and by the church. Though he ultimately felt that the former, he succeeds at the latter.

One last example of unlikely philosophers is Gray Maturin and his father Henry. Henry loses his fortune due to his innate nobility: as Maugham writes, “instead of letting [his clients] take a loss, he supported their accounts out of his own pocket… he could never hold up his head again if the little people who trusted him lost their all.” Shortly after, he dies. Gray takes over the business, tries to make good, but he also suffers. Depressed and suffering from debilitating headaches, he still remains the ever-devoted, loving husband and father. He appreciates the beauty of nature, as Isabel describes one such scene when they were out at their plantation, and is overall the most kindhearted character in the book, as we only see his goodness (and his bulk!) described throughout. He is open to healing, as Larry teaches him to cure himself of his headaches. In the end, Gray is eager to return to America and to get back to work. He is always glad to see Larry, his old childhood friend, even though his wife has always desired him and was once engaged to him. We never see Gray’s motives and we seldom hear him speak in the novel, but we are left with the impression that he is a man of integrity, a good heart, and character. He, too, has made certain choices as to how to live his life, and generally seems to be at peace with them.

These are but a few examples of the philosophical threads that flow through this flawed yet brilliantly insightful novel. The true signs of a classic, in my opinion, include tremendous insight into human nature, the ability to view and analyze the work from a multiplicity of points of view and analyze (gender, class, social commentary, philosophy, etc.), and to find new meaning in it when read at different stages in one’s life. We need more novels like this, that get us to think about the fundamental questions of human nature and how we choose our life philosophies.

In Defense of the Canon

Why the disturbing trend over the past couple of decades toward secondary sources and a dislike of, or sometimes, hatred of the Canon?  Yes, virtually all of it is by Dead White Men, a cohort of individuals whose life experiences were indeed limited and shaped by their particular geography and Judeo-Christian values.  But what is ironic is that even the greatest post-colonial writers or ethnic minority writers, such as Nobel laureates Derek Wolcott and Toni Morrison, are themselves extremely well read in the classics and the Canon, and it informs and influences their works.  Without the Canon, one’s scope is limited, as is one’s understanding of history, classic literary themes, tropes, motifs, allusions, et cetera.  There is a certain “flatness” to the work of many scholars and writers of recent times, for it smacks of excessive self-absorbed individuality or literary disconnect.  In my opinion, this reflects the underlying problem of a general lack of historicity in many people’s perspectives in American academia.  American culture places such a high value on individualism and the now that context—-and along, historical context of hundreds if not thousands of years—-seems to have no importance in shaping one’s mind.  I find literary scholarship and criticism often very guilty of this, with reading into earlier works from a current perspective:  really, shouldn’t Elizabeth Bennet have earned her own living as an investment banker and just hooked up with Darcy on weekends?   Shouldn’t Madame Bovary have just gotten some therapy and a divorce?  But seriously, scholarship based purely on feeling or an individual’s psychological needs reads as somewhat juvenile.  (There are those who maintain that Americans are the teenagers of the world.)  Needless to say, those scholars who have no exposure to non-white, non-Western, colonial and post-colonial works or ideas are just as bad—-they come across as living in some bizarre sort of time warp, dinosaurs of an academic age that is long past.  (I myself suffered through a couple of these professors during my graduate studies).  Aren’t they missing out on Rushdie’s pastiches of literary genius?  Pamuk’s tremendous insight into Turkey’s position between East and West?   Scholars who come from cultures and civilizations that are 10 times as old as their American one?  But for any writer, my feeling is that the Canon is a must.