A Necessary Dose of Magic in Our Lives?

I am rereading 100 Years of Solitude by the phenomenal Gabriel García Márquez, and what strikes me from a craft point of view is the delicious “intrusions,” for lack of a better word, of an element of fantasy or magic. Dubbed “magical realism” by the literary establishment decades ago, Marquez’s style (along with that of other well-known Latin American writers) seems like realistic prose at first, but then there are superhuman or unnatural elements introduced. I don’t need to elaborate here, for readers are certainly familiar with García Márquez’s works (Love in the Time of Cholera is another marvelous novel.) But this has led me to think about literature and art that takes us out of the ordinary realm–something that feels necessary when so much modern fiction is based in reality and personal experience. Have we lost our ability to think, to imagine, to go beyond the ordinary?

Outside of genre fiction and fantasy fiction, which are indeed thriving, we do have some noteworthy authors who do not write strictly realistic fiction: Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood immediately come to mind. I feel we need to encourage writers to do more of this, to create worlds, go beyond the pedagogical cliché of “write what you know.” Perhaps that tenant has done more disservice to fiction writing, and would be best rephrased as, “write what you understand.” There is a significant difference: knowing implies a familiarity with a situation, a body of knowledge, a certain mastery of the topic. Understand implies an innate knowing, what one grasps, and one may have acquired that knowledge in different ways or simply through intuition.

In music, think about the phenomena of glam rock as well as 80s new wave bands, who were the former’s successors. In both genres, there is an exaggeration of appearance, of form, of fashion. Though he was later the Thin White Duke, David Bowie’s 1970s Ziggy Stardust was a unique creation, an alien alter ego who was not clad in Doc Martens and jeans. Even Led Zeppelin, who were certainly much more real and not glam rockers, brought an element of the mystical and poetic to their performance–after all, they sang about Viking raids as though they were a common occurrence. We see this continue today, with artists like Janelle Monáe or Lady Gaga (whom I feel is derivative and unoriginal and does best when interpreting others’ works, such as in her excellent performance in “A Star Is Born.”) A lot of ambient music and electronica has an ethereal or unearthly quality to it. Some of it is easier and more enjoyable to listen to than others. We cannot conclude without mentioning Icelandic visionary Björk, who is a mistress of reinvention and truly beyond the ordinary. Each incarnation she becomes is more revolutionary than the last, and we never know what will come next. Her music is almost impossible to categorize, and that is wonderful.

Painter Salvador Dali challenged us with his revolutionary surreal artwork. Why should there be an eyeball in a random place? Who cares; it is what it is, perhaps what our subconscious understands. Francis Bacon’s grotesqueries are certainly unique and far from ordinary: distorted faces and gaping mouths. David Hockney might be painting ordinary scenes of men and swimming pools or fields with flowers, but his use of color takes us out of reality into a vivid, multi-hued world. In the world of fashion, we have the bizarre brilliance of the late Alexander McQueen, who clothes were really more like costumes rather than typical runway or off the rack wear. Issey Miyake also creates works of art with fabric that just happen to be things one can wear on one’s body.

To be able to imagine and create in fantastical ways brings us back in touch with a part of ourselves that we had so strongly in childhood. Why be prosaic all the time, realistic, ordinary? These artists and more have challenged us to see and feel in a different way and have all created an aesthetic of their own. The best artists always do this, and that’s why we love them so dearly.

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.

The Need for a National Writer?

In countries all over the world there is a person or people who represent the collective conscious or Zeitgeist of the nation. S/he is a national figure, a symbol, an icon who is a great source of pride for her/his people. In these countries or cultures, the writer serves a different purpose, than writers usually found here in the U.S. The role of these writers is to create works that are much more than stories of dysfunctional relationships, romance, or barely-disguised memoirs: s/he voices an opinion of the masses, articulates the ideas of the whole. Sometimes the writer is not currently living, but rather a long-revered figure in the nation’s history. Her or his works are read and studied at school or at university; s/he is immortalized in a statue in a great public square or in a museum; or, s/he is a heroic figure that dares to speak out against the authorities—-and sadly pays the price.

Very often these writers are not the product of a literature department nor do they hold a degree in writing. They have not drawn upon a lot of conventional fiction writing techniques, and they probably haven’t attended book discussion groups (in the American sense), though they have most likely sat for hours on end in cafes discussing literature and their favorite writers and philosophers with their peers. Very often, they are individuals who have been involved in fields outside literature—-politics, diplomacy, labor, comparative linguistics, philosophy, journalism, activism, medicine, et cetera. Vaclav Havel, is just one such example: a renowned playwright who was politically active, he peacefully led the Velvet Revolution that separated the Czech Republic and Slovakia when he was President. Octavio Paz was a Mexican diplomat who served in India (his marvelous In Light of India serves as a testament to his time there). And the heroic Chokri Belaid led the Arab Spring movement in Tunisia before his untimely death: he was a lawyer and a poet.

Often, the work of these great writers takes on a political tone or is highly allegorical. I once had the great fortune to see Salman Rushdie speak, and what impressed me so much about him was the clear aim of his art to serve as the intersection between literature and society. One need only read his brilliant (and underrated) Shalimar the Clown to appreciate the political history of India and the Partition (with British and American involvement) cleverly disguised as a love story. In the same breath, one could naturally include Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, which is a love story set in the backdrop of modern Turkey and its issues of fundamentalism vs. secularism.

In short—-the Great Writer in other countries and cultures is more than a writer who has trained in writing and (perhaps) literature. S/he has a broader perspective on life that filters into her/his works. S/he is a (wo)man of letters.

Shrewd readers would immediately note that these are the types of writers who are awarded the Nobel Prize. This is absolutely correct, though there are many writers of this ilk who are not Nobel Laureates, such as Isak Dinesen or George Orwell, or Bulgarian/Macedonian writer and revolutionary Georgi Pulevski who wrote before the advent of the prize. And those same readers might raise the issue that, to define a culture by a writer, to use a writer as an icon or symbol of a culture, there must be a strong sense of nationalism. A sense of nationalism that harkens back to the 18th and 19th Centuries, when many European nations emerged and defined themselves culturally and politically. This is impossible to do, they might say, in a country like America, which is based on pluralism, diversity, multiculturalism, and a multitude of viewpoints ranging from class to race to gender to sexual orientation to region. We can barely agree on whom to elect as President; do we really think we can find a writer who represents all 315 million of us?!

All of this is true and well said. Can we actually have a National Writer who speaks for all (or many) of us? Is this actually plausible? We do have a Poet Laureate, but this is a relatively new phenomenon, and the sad truth is that only a tiny handful could name him or her (it is currently Natasha Trethewey, and I confess I had to look it up!) Literature is not necessarily a part of our culture, though we have countless excellent writers, scholars, poets, and the like. There are few American Nobel Laureates in Literature. If I had a dollar for every time someone lamented that Philip Roth has been neglected by the Nobel Academy, I would be wealthy: Roth’s tremendously prolific output and intelligence do not mean that he is a global, socially-conscious writer with a vision for humanity. We generally do not sit together outside of academic/scholastic or formal settings discussing Emerson and Thoreau, Zora Neale Hurston, or Mark Twain. So why even try to unite ourselves by the word?

Perhaps there is another reason why we do not seem to have national literary figures who cross disciplines and serve as more than entertainment (other than those who are interested in literature): our culture is very individualistic—-writers are not often encouraged to speak out for causes beyond themselves—-and insular, unaware of what happens elsewhere in the world. We do not have a sense of scope. Our literary culture does not draw upon other traditions, does not take frequently into account what is happening with writers elsewhere in the world. Our curriculum does not heavily feature literature from other countries, though we do have great diversity in our own tradition. We are a monolingual culture in terms of the common culture, and being a polyglot is a rare thing in the United States. It does not encourage (as a whole, there are always numerous exceptions) the plumber to become a playwright, an economist to write free verse, the housewife to write political theater.

But let our individualism and enterprising spirit serve to educate us, then. Let it lead us to explore writers (either in the original language or translation) from other nations and cultures. Let it allow us to form groups (such as the wonderful Stanford Alumni Book Discussion Group of San Diego) where people discuss fiction and non-fiction with an astounding range of viewpoints and knowledge of history, geography, and politics. Let it lead us to hear talks with visiting writers from overseas, or, if we are in a more isolated part of the country, to watch them online. It is time we really involve ourselves in the literary cultures and sensibilities of other nations.