Monday, February 28, 2005

Authors, Personality-Wise

So I've never (to my knowledge) actually met a real-live author. "Met" as in flesh-and-blood conversed, joked, dined with. And there are lots of people (including many authors) that say that that's the way it should be - we should know artists through their art, and not through their personalities. Oscar Wilde said in Dorian Gray that really good artists poured all of their interesting qualities into their art, which is why they're very dull to be with.

And by all accounts, a lot of writers are pretty disappointingly imperfect in real life. Take, for example, this article (link via Maud Newton) about Hans Christian Andersen, author of The Little Mermaid.
A hypochondriac and super-sensitive, he was so terrified of being buried alive that on his travels through Europe, he slept with a note -- "I only seem dead" -- by his side. He was snobbish, insecure and self-obsessed, never able to judge his impression on others.
Oh dear.

On one hand, this would offer a kind of viscious comfort if it were true for the general case (i.e. "Marcel Proust may have been able to tear out and polish piths about truth, love, and beauty, but at least he probably smelled bad!")... but I don't believe it. I haven't read The Little Mermaid, but I'm pretty sure that the book wasn't about Hans Christian Andersen. But a key component (and you either love it or hate it) of modern/postmodern/whatever literature is that it is oftentimes about the writer. In other words, I can't help it if, along with falling in love with the book, I end up falling in love with the author as well.

I mean, how do you want me to react when Vonnegut writes (in Welcome to the Monkeyhouse):
I am six feet two and weigh nearly two hundred pounds and am badly coordinated, except when I swim. All that borrowed meat does the writing.

In the water I am beautiful.
Do you honestly expect me to not want to ravish him, the Vonnegut that wrote this passage, to not want to moan yes, yes, you are beautiful? Or at least have coffee with him?

That is an obvious example, but little things do it, too. The use of uncommon descriptors - a blushing idea. Wry asides that make me giggle. Creative punctuation, I don't know. Suddenly it's in there, and, tobacco juice notwithstanding, I'm nothing but a puddle of oozy appreciation. Perhaps that's what I mean by a "literaison."

Sunday, February 27, 2005

MBI Georgetown Press Conference

Oh, if you haven't already, you really should go watch the webcast of the Man Booker International Prize announcement. Feel free to skip straight to the questions, though - Mr Carey's opening speech thingie is rather dull.

Now I've never followed any type of book award before, but I still really like the way that this one is set up. The three judges (especially Azar Nafisi and Alberto Manguel) all obviously really love books and reading, and it's really a joy to see how open-minded they are about the whole thing - for example, they all admitted upfront that this was a very arbitrary process, basically based on their whims, and that it's hard to justify and explain to other people sometimes why one falls in love with a certain book (Carey - "All artistic judgments are autobiographical."). Mr Manguel was very charming with the wry jokes that only old men can make - ("How do you expect us readers to read all the authors before the prize is announced in June?" "Well you have the benefit of having the rest of your life to do that."), and Ms. Nafisi made all sorts of splendidly ambiguous and passionate analogies to reading and loving (and I'm pretty sure at one point she talked about sex with writers, but she might have just meant it in a metaphorical sense.).

They all made very insightful comments about reading, books, literature, and the state of affairs thereof. When asked if he thought books were a dying art, Carey responded adamantly that it was not, the evidence being that books are made into movies more often than movies are made into books - the creativity still starts with ink and paper, like it always has.

There were a few things that were said that I didn't like - for example, Carey stated in the beginning that the "primary aim" of the MBI is to "build bridges between cultures," and all three judges are primarily Anglophones, despite this being an international prize. But I think the former was something that Carey more or less had to say; the issue never came up in the Q&A - in fact, Ms. Nafisi (whom I'm now very much in love with; I plan to read Reading Lolita in Tehran ASAP) stressed that the best part of this prize was the shortlist, which would promote the reading and discussion of literature all around the world. And I'm totally with her there.

Link provided via the Literary Saloon.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Books imitating Film (Dubliners)

Of course James Joyce published Dubliners in 1914, which means he was writing it before movies had actually become a genuine artistic medium, but his storytelling method still reminds me keenly of film.

Look at this, for example, taken from the story Counterparts:
The man muttered Blast him! under his breath and pushed back his chair to stand up. When he stood up he was tall and of great bulk. He had a hanging face, dark wine-coloured, with fair eyebrows and moustache: his eyes bulged forward slightly and the whites of them were dirty. He lifted up the counter and, passing by the clients, went out of the office with a heavy step.
In a movie, we would not be able to see what Farrington (the protagonist) looked like until he stood up. Books don't have this constraint, but Mr. Joyce does it anyway.

Other things that he does to create this feel:
- usually narrates from a detached omniscient third-person POV
- often doesn't reveal the names of the characters to us until somebody in the story says that person's name out loud
- And I guess lots of that whole "show not tell" shebang.

(Sidenote: Although he does it well, I don't really subscribe to that philosophy in general. I think a lot of the ways that writers "show" - i.e. "She smiled" in lieu of "She was happy" - are more blatant and annoying than if they figured out a more creative way to "tell" us.)

I think most readers get occasional visual flashes when a writer describes something particularly well, but this is different. I wonder whether Mr. Joyce would have become a screenwriter had he lived about 50 years after his time. Although I suppose that before I make suppositions like that I ought to read some of his later works.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Burden of Personality

The above phrase actually being one of my favorite phrases ever; I repeat it to myself at random moments and it just fits. I'm not sure if I read it or made it up, but I also don't care because it's mine now.

I mention this only because I just stumbled upon quite the trove of literariness. Literariness, as we discussed in Theory of Knowledge (crazy everything-class, don't ask) or as Terry Eagleton would say (actually I don't know about this one, I basically just wanted to name-drop), is equal-parts a burden on the reader and a burden on the writer. So in other words, no matter what the writer-output is, there's still room for something to become literature if the reader-input is right. And vice versa. And somehow, when the output and input clicks, then well boom you have art. Perhaps I oversimplify. But that is why I regard this zany geocities page, put up in despair and written with the most overwrought of overwrought self-consciousness, as art - because it gives something to and takes something from me.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Lemony Snicket

At some point in the future I will expound on the fabulous phone conversation I had with Daniel Handler (the man behind A Series of Unfortunate Events), but for now I will content myself with talking about his delightful children's book series. I'm not sure where the influx of homosexual* adjectives came from.

But seriously, every once in a while I take a little break from reading high-brow/trendy literature and pick up one of these and set aside an oh-so-enjoyable hour to breeze through it. Children's books are really the only books I can breeze through without guilt nowadays; all these literary writers are always so clever and subtle that I have to carefully pore over every word to make sure I don't miss anything. Mr. Handler is funny in a way that's not self-congratulating or reader-abusing; he slips in cute references once in a while, but they never inhibit the reader's enjoyment.

If you're getting tired of watching American Idol 9 (or whatever number we're on now), try picking up one of these for a relaxing read that doesn't leave a bad aftertaste. And for goodness' sake: read the books before you watch the movie.

*How un-PC.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Bureaucracy in Literary Awards

I find the Complete Review's breakdown of how the Man Booker International Prize will turn out to be crazy interesting. I just hope that Milan Kundera wins and not, say, Tomás Eloy Martínez, mostly because Kundera and Marquez are the only authors on the shortlist that I've actually read, and Marquez has already been given eighty million prizes (heck, he's a regular on our high school curriculum! Once an author has reached that point, I think he should be exempt from nominations).

Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being is my favorite book that I've read so far this year. Light and clever with the perfect blend of readability and thought-provocation, but ultimately probably not sufficiently dense for something as prestigious-sounding as the MBIP 2005 (or, as the CR says, "too intellectually playful."). (Although I hope "Booker" is somebody's name and not the etymologic product of an overly-/underly-clever mind.) If he wins, I'll have an excuse to read the rest of his oeuvre.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Eww, Jonathan - that's gross.

Book #13 is The Corrections, by the ever-adorable Jonathan Franzen, whose picture on the inside book cover looks like it was taken mid-wink. Which, he really does look like one of those men who will say really serious things and get you all thinking-up, then, when you least expect it, drop the most subtle wink in the world. I love it.

Anyways, the book was: not bad. Although I'm pretty sure it's hardly worth a reader's guide. But let's put aside thematic discussion and discuss one particular passage.
    On the first day of August, moments after Don Armour's two-week vacation started, he and Denise doubled back into the office and locked themselves in the tank room. She kissed him and puts his hands on her tits and tried to work his fingers for him, but his hands wanted to be on her shoulders; they wanted to press her to her knees.
    His stuff got up into her nasal passages.
    "Are you coming down with a cold?" her father asked her a few minutes later, while they were driving past the city limits.(375)
So I've read my share of sex, whatever, but that passage kind of made me want to die. It was definitely infinitely worse than anything in the first 200 pages of Gravity's Rainbow (which I began reading and then lost somewhere in New York; $19.50 library fine).

But I don't want this post to be an endless reiteration of ews. Let's talk about grossness in literature/grossness as a literary device.

Because my English definitely contends that it is a literary device. Like I said, we just finished reading Fifth Business, and there were definitely some writhe-inducing passages, namely the war scenes. But if we ever mentioned this in class, or talked about it, the first thing she'd say was "If that makes you feel squeamish, then it's a credit to Davies."

I'd always sort of secretly disagreed with that. I think there are many emotions that, if a book provokes them in a reader, are a "credit to the author" - sadness, anger, peacefulness, &c. But I never thought squeamishness was one of them.

After reading that passage, I'm not so sure. Because it wasn't only the event that made me shudder- it was the way Mr. Franzen described the event. If he had written "Some of Don Armour's semen got up into her nasal passages and ran down," I would have made a face and moved on. But her father asked her if she had a cold! All of a sudden he had rendered me aghast.

So maybe it was sort of a credit to the author. I don't know. I took a shower after reading it, though.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

More Metaphysical Ideas (not ideology)

[Ralph Waldo] Emerson's own method... was to skim works of literature and philosophy, of all types and from all cultures, with an eye to the ideas and phrases he could appropriate for his own use. This was his notion of research. It was based on the conviction that organized study deadens the mind, and that genuine insight arises spontaneously from the individual soul. "To believe your own thought," as he put it in a well-known passage in "Self-Reliance," to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, - that is genius."
It is with shame that I admit that I haven't read any Emerson, although Menand references him so often and so tantalizingly that I think that I just might have to, if I want to live any type of intellectual life at all.

But so anyways my point is that this is the antithesis of what we do in English class right now. With every book we read, we read and read and read. Entire 45-minute classes spent picking away at a single paragraph, discussing the significance of the word "abyss" when William Golding could have used "hole." Masticating until the text is reduced to a sodden, lumpy, indigestible mess*. I am reminded of (nerd alert) a sentence completion I once did on a practice SAT - which was like "X debunked the idea that memorizing poetry at a young age prevented children from formulating original thoughts later in life." I wasted precious seconds pondering whether said debunkage was valid.

And as fatiguing as I find English-class-style analysis to be, I am troubled just as much by Gordsellar:
what feels like a spontaneous, naive (ie. unstudied) insight into a text is usually a rather standard and formulaic reading of the text. You may think you under stand a book straightforwardly but your straightforward "understanding" is really built upon a huge network of preexistent reading and understanding strategies which you have been taught. Given the kind of things that have gone into building our education system—the way curriculum has been formulated with the approval of "specialists", the way literary figures and establishments have rallied behind insane, awful, ridiculous things like, oh, war and slavery and the like, why should we trust "received" understandings of how we come to understand books?
Some punchy phrases seem to be in order. It seems as if Emerson says that, thought-wise, "breadth breeds depth," while Gordsellar says that "depth breeds depth." Both, of course, agree that depth of thought is the ultimate goal.

I'm trying to come up with a stance on the issue, but the truth is that I don't know. As a reader, I fall somewhere between these two camps. I read every word, but I also mostly go along for the ride, taking my flashes of insight as they come and not actively seeking them out within the text. Perhaps this approach is the worst of all, for it requires the least work on my part: Emerson had to skim with a critical eye, picking out the most important parts - he skimmed, but it was active skimming. Gordsellar reads with a critical eye, also actively. Meanwhile, I am passive. Horridly so.

Although, (note considerable peak of mood at this thought), this blog will hopefully encourage me to do the former - to read with an eye towards thought-provoking ideas, then to write about them, hopefully resulting in some sort of spontaneous insight, while lit blogs in general will encourage me to do the latter - to discover other reactions to a text, and compare those to mine.

P.S. As far as librarian pick up lines go, this one takes the cake: Baby, I may be the one with the overdue books, but you’re the one with the fine.


* Although I think I am bothered more by the things we discuss than the style of analyzing in general. It seems that our "critical observations" about a book never really amount to more than people, including me, raising their hands and voicing ill-formed ideas. If you can't tell, I'm not particularly fond of English class and never really have been, although I still hold out the hope that it's simply because I haven't found a suitable teacher. As a matter of fact, while I'm digressing, I might as well come out and say that there is an English teacher at our school who, by all accounts, is all I'm looking for and good-looking to boot, but I unfortunately will probably never have him due to forces outside my control. And I confess that this actually relieves a small part of me, for I'm terrified of the idea that someday I will meet a worthwhile English teacher who will look right through me and calmly tell me that I have no English abilities whatsoever. Which, to digress further, is probably why I've made no effort to publicize this blog.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

The Metaphysical Club, Testicularity, Clarity

After having read only the first two pages of The Metaphysical Club, I can tell Menand has it. Menand has it, and so does Proust, and (to a lesser extent), so do Oscar Wilde and Milan Kundera. My history teacher has it. What I am speaking of, here, is something fuzzy and undefinable (probably because I do not possess this thing), but words such as "insight" and "clarity of mind" do it some justice.

If you know what to look for, the people with these traits are not hard to identify. They always seem like they're assessing whatever's happening. They say things with a measured tone. And most importantly, they make, without the slightest bit of self-awe, statements that have the unmistakeable stench of Truth. Basically, these men turn their steady eye upon events, upon people, upon their surroundings, and it all makes sense to them.

I am so, so jealous*.

Despite uneasy self-assurances to the contrary, I feel as if I'll never possess this, this steadyness of perception, this depth of intellect. For it's more than mere intelligence (although "smartness" is a prerequisite) - David Foster Wallace, who seems much smarter than my history teacher, doesn't seem to have it. In fact, many of the postmodernists don't. For this clarity requires a firm system of beliefs for the person to stand on - from which he can study things and pass judgment. The problem being that most people either don't have this system, or if they do, become close-minded as a result of it. To be able to stand from this dias and not succumb to masturbation, that is what these men have done. They are still able to look critically at things that may perhaps go against their belief system and modify it (their belief-system) if necessary.

I am everything they are not - young, with the queer combination of hope and cynicism that comes with adolescence, ethnic, female. Which, after long brain-wracking, I still can't think of any females that have this. Is the feminine mind, through genetics or some other strange twist of nature, necessarily a roiling, muddled thing, fluid and insubstantial, able to be swayed by every new thought that passes its way? I want my brain to be the firm polygonal clay of those men, malleable only by practiced hands, able to easily ignore ideas and arguments that don't matter.

Because how am I supposed to express myself clearly if I don't think clearly first?

* All of a sudden, this has turned into a rather personal journal entry. Sorry, sorry - I'll try not to let it happen again too often.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Fifth Business

Happy Valentine's Day. So today I made a giggly fool of myself and emailed a valentine to Conversational Reading. But Scott was very nice about it in a hair-tousling sort of way:

Scott Esposito <>
To: Debbie <>
Monday, February 14, 2005 12:09:44 PM GMT-05:00

Wow Debbie. Rarely does the hard world of lit-blogging
produce such sweet rewards.



Also finished reading Fifth Business by Robertson Davies (book 12 of the challenge). Excellent writing and very evenly-paced, but not, I think, thought-provoking enough to justify the style. At some parts the nplot seemed overly-contrived, but charming enough that the reader can kind of ignore it.
It was characteristic of Boy throughout his life that he was always the quintessence of something that somebody else had recognized ad defined. (111)

I had seen a good deal of egotism in my life, and I knew that it starved love for anyone else and sometimes burned it out completely. Had it not been so with Boy and Leola? (207)

It's funny how egotists are often the most shallow of people. Because you would think that egotists, whose characteristic is that they examine themselves constantly, would be the ones most likely to dig beneath the surface and discover hidden truths about themselves. The problem is that egotists examine themselves from entirely the wrong point of view - they try to view themselves from another person's perspective. And it is unfortunately true that the person whose opinion the egotist cares about is probably a very shallow person herself, which is why the egotist only polishes the areas of his personality he thinks she'll notice.

So it is that "self-involved" is a misnomer because self-involved people are actually more concerned about others than normal. Those that aren't egotists are able to spend the day examining themselves and others with equal interest/disinterest; egotists spend the day only worrying about what others think.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

David Foster Wallace

I'm sure that everybody else in the literary world is tired of hearing about him by now. For a while, everyone was all "David Foster Wallace this" and "David Foster Wallace that" and "holy crap Pomona gave him $1.8 million to teach there."

But I can't help it - he's just so dreamy.

I'm about halfway through my second reading of Infinite Jest, and it's still ridiculously fun and smart and giggle inducing.

Administrative diddle-checks have been required at all North American tennis academies since the infamous case of R. Bill ('Touchy') Phiely at California's Rolling Hills Academy...



The Story Thus Far

This is a lit blog.

My blogging skills, never that graceful to begin with, are rusty. Forgive me.

If everything turns out the way it should, and it never does, this should serve as a cache for more or less regular posts on the books I'm reading as well as things of interest to the literary community.

I'm trying to write very professionally and reservedly but I think I come off simply as trying too hard, so let's get past this part and into the books, shall we?


As part of the 50 books challenge, I've been keeping a list of the books I've finished reading this year. So far:

1. Please Don't Kill the Freshman, by Zoe Trope
2. Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
3. Swann's Way, by Marcel Proust
4. Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde
5. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera
6. a book of plays by Anton Chekhov
7. Fermata, by Nicholson Baker*
8. The Confessions of Max Tivoli, by Andrew Sean Greer
9. technically cheating, but half of Half in Love (Maile Meloy) + the good parts of Oscar Wilde (biography by Richard Ellman) = a book
10. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
11. How we are Hungry, Dave Eggers

All of which looks rather impressive typed out, but the fact remains that most of these books were a) started before this year, b) 150 pages or less, and/or c) read for school. At some point, I'll begin digging into the meatier stuff.

Current Reads:

- Fifth Business, Robertson Davies
- Within a Budding Grove, Marcel Proust
- The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen
- Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace (re-read)
- Dubliners, James Joyce

More on these will be posted later**.

* Don't read this book
* I don't have a very good basis of comparison, but I feel somehow that this opening post is sub par. Much too much stifling pubescent self-consciousness that will hopefully dissipate with the upcoming posts. And this footnote is the worst of all. But perhaps if I keep on articulating it, that will make it all okay.