Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Squashing butterflies

Ann Patchett compares writing novels to squashing butterflies. That surprising yet, when she explained it. apt analogy came last Saturday night in her lecture at Kenyon College as part of the Kenyon Review Literary Festival, where the author of State of Wonder was the star attraction.

While working on a book, she said, the ideas, characters and plotlines float around in her head like butterflies floating around in a garden. They seem beautiful and perfect. Yet if you capture a butterfly, kill it and tack it to a board for display, much of the beauty it showed in life is gone. So it is, she said, when ideas are transferred to paper. They never seem as beautiful as they seemed in her head.

"I am able to forgive myself for not being as much as I want to be," Patchett said. She simply moves on to the next book, rarely looking back at a book once it is published. Squashed butterflies don't interest her.

The gist of her lecture, which was open to the public but which was aimed primarily at students in Kenyon College's writing program, was that writing has more to do with hard work than either talent or inspiration. Real writers, she suggested, don't wait for the muse to strike before beginning to write. They just write. Real writers don't sit around complaining about not being as gifted as others. They write.

If you want to succeed, work, she said. "We control the outcome of our own life."

Monday, October 27, 2014

The book evangelist

Author Ann Patchett will be honored next week in New York with the 2014 Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement. Patchett honored the Kenyon Review last weekend with her presence at the Kenyon Review Literary Festival in Gambier, Ohio. I was there for half a day Saturday and got a double dose of the engaging writer.

That afternoon at the Kenyon College Bookstore, she participated in a panel discussion on the future of independent bookstores with other bookstore owners and managers. In addition to being a full-time writer and the author of such books as State of Wonder and This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Patchett is co-owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tenn.

Patchett said she usually comes in every other day for a few hours and is the only unpaid staff member. No need to feel sorry for her, however, as so many of the store's customers stop in primarily to see her, to buy her books and to get her to sign them. Thus, owning a bookstore promotes her primary career as an author.

She describes herself as a "book evangelist," someone who is quick to promote certain books she regards highly. Among the books she said she lately has been advocating for are Marilynne Robinson's novel Lila and Station Eleven, a science fiction novel by Emily St. John Mandel.

In addition to urging customers to buy certain books, she also, unusual for a bookstore owner, tries to talk them out of buying certain other books. "I am somebody who is always taking books away from people," she said.

As successful as her Nashville store may be, Patchett said she has no interest in expanding the size of the store and adding a second location. "My goal is to not succumb to 'bigger is better,'" she said. "The point of success is not getting bigger." Growing too big without having people at the top capable of managing a business of that size was the main reason way Borders failed and why Barnes & Noble may be in trouble, she said. The problem for large book dealers is not the lack of customers but the lack of proper management, she said.

Nor is Patchett interested in selling gift items or anything other than books in her store. "I want nothing to do with the coffee business," she said.

Next time I will share what Patchett said about writing in her lecture later that day at Kenyon College.

Friday, October 24, 2014

One startling adjective

I hadn't expected to return to the subject of adjectives so soon after my discussion a week ago (see "Generically kind," Oct. 17), but then I happened across the following quotation from novelist Anne Bernays:

"Writing that has no surprises is as bland as oatmeal. Surprise the reader with the unexpected verb or adjective. Use one startling adjective per page."

That got me to thinking: Do our best writers in their best books have one startling adjective per page? So I opened some classic novels to a page at random and went in search of startling adjectives.

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

Most of the adjectives Conrad uses on page 217 of the Signet Classics paperback I used for a college class seem ordinary, even cliched. We find "a single thought," "some inexplicable emotion," "stealthy footsteps," "an abrupt movement" and "a broken bannister." Yet we also find some more surprising choices such as "worm-eaten rail" and "faint shriek." For me, the most startling adjective comes when the narrator says a character "called him some pretty names, -- swindler, liar, sorry rascal," although that use of the word pretty would have been less startling at the time Lord Jim was published (1899). Pretty can be a synonym for terrible, as in "pretty predicament," but we don't seem to hear that usage much these days.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Hardy uses a few startling adjectives on page 173. We see "highly starched cambric morning-gown," "the impassioned, summer-steeped heathens," and "rosy faces court-patched with cow-droppings." Even if you don't even know what those descriptive words mean, they still sound pretty good, don't they?

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Bronte writes of a dog's "pendent lips." That's an interesting choice of adjectives, simple yet descriptive.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

You would expect Twain to find creative adjectives, and he does. "He was the innocentest, best old soul I ever see," Huck says. Yet Twain's most startling word on this particular page is a verb, when he has Huck say of his friend Tom Sawyer, "He warn't a boy to meeky along up that yard like a sheep."

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Heller doesn't invent words in the way Twain does, but he uses familiar adjectives in inventive ways in my sample page from his best novel. We find "puzzled disapproval," "ancient eminence and authority" and, my favorite, "his enormous old corrugated face darkening in mountainous wrath." Wow.

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

I was a bit startled to find any adjectives at all in Hemingway's spare prose, yet toward the bottom of page 26 in my old Scribners paperback I found this line, "her eyes had different depths." I think Anne Bernays would approve of that.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The private lives of artists

When it comes to literature for adults, we've mostly stopped judging a work by its author's personal morality. Why should we hold children's writers to a stricter standard?
Margaret Talbot, The New Yorker, July 11 & 18, 2005

Margaret Talbot wrote the above lines in an article about the late British writer Roald Dahl. Dahl is best known for his children's books (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, etc.), although I first learned his name from the delicious short stories he wrote for adults found in the collections Kiss Kiss and Someone Like You.

The gist of Talbot's article is that while children love Dahl's stories, their parents tend to be less enthralled. This has something to do with the fact that adults in general and parents in particular often look foolish in these stories, but it may also be because Dahl was something less than a saint. He was, she writes, "a complicated, domineering, and sometimes disagreeable man." Worse, he was known to be abusive to his staff and to have made anti-Semitic comments on more than one occasion. Talbot's conclusion: We should judge the stories using a different standard than we judge the man.

Separating someone's work and private behavior has always been a challenge for employers. Now the NFL has decided a player's record of domestic violence should be cause for league discipline, even though for years abuse of wives, girlfriends and children was kept separate from players' business on the playing field. Many employers must make decisions like this from time to time.

In the case of writers and other artists, the matter becomes a little trickier. In one sense, the publishers, recording companies, movie studios, art galleries or whatever might be considered the "employer," yet it more often comes down to the consumer. Do you refuse to pay to see a Mel Gibson movie because you object to his racists rants when he's drunk or refuse to buy one of Barbra Streisand's albums because you object to her political rants when she's sober? It's up to you, but most of us don't worry much about it. I happen to admire both Gibson's acting and Streisand's singing, whatever I may think of their personal behavior or beliefs.

Unfortunately people in the creative arts often seem to believe the moral standards that apply to others do not apply to them. Perhaps it's because they can get away with it, while most people working ordinary jobs cannot. The public even expects rock stars to be rowdy and to do illegal drugs and movie stars to have serial marriages, with lots of affairs on the side.

I watched a rerun of a Gunsmoke episode the other evening in which a photographer comes to Dodge City to capture the authentic West on film, even if that means staging holdups and gunfights for his camera. After he arranges to have an old saddle tramp murdered and scalped to look like a victim of an Indian raid, he tells Marshal Dillion his art is worth far more than the life of one worthless old man. Matt Dillion, of course, thinks differently.

Most times the choice is not so clear cut. Writers like Roald Dahl, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound or whomever may not have been among the best people on the planet, but they did good work, and we can admire their work without necessarily admiring the private lives of those who created it. This is not to say, however, that there may be times, as when Marshall Dillion and the NFL drew lines in the sand, when we must simply say, "No, that is simply something I cannot accept."

Monday, October 20, 2014

Kael and Greene at the movies

I happened to be rereading Pauline Kael's Taking It All In, a 1984 collection of her film reviews from The New Yorker, at the same time I was working my way through The Graham Greene Film Reader: Reviews, Essays, Interviews & Film Stories. Kael was a professional movie critic, while Greene was a novelist who supported himself by writing about movies on the side.The reviews in these two books appeared nearly 50 years apart. Kael's reviews are longer, better written and more interesting than Greene's, yet I was struck by how often comments written by one sound like they could have been written by the other.

Greene writes that Kay Frances in The White Angel (1936) is "handicapped by her beauty." About Jean Harlow in Saratoga (1937) he says, "she toted a breast like a man totes a gun." He writes about the "fragile, pop-eyed acting of Miss Bette Davis" in The Sisters (1938). All these phrases sound, at least to me, like something Kael might have written.

Greene's frank commentary about female stars once got him in serious trouble. Writing about Shirley Temple, then just 8 or 9 years old, in Wee Willie Winkie (1937), Greene said, in part, "Her admirers -- middle-aged men and clergymen -- respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire." His review led to a libel suit again Greene and his publication, Night and Day, which the defendants lost.

One surprise in the two books is that Greene, a novelist himself, has much less to say about the novels from which movies were adapted than does Kael. In most cases Greene gives no clue that he has read the book in question, even when it happens to be a popular book of the day, such as James Hilton's Lost Horizon, while Kael time and again makes it obvious she has read the novel and knows what changes were made to turn it into a movie. She writes, for example, "E.L. Doctorow's novel Ragtime was already a movie, an extravaganza about the cardboard cutouts in our minds -- figures from the movies, newsreels, the popular press, dreams, and history, all tossed together." Writing about Sophie's Choice in 1982, she says, "(Author William) Styron got his three characters so gummed up with his idea of history that it's hard for us to find them even imaginable." Thus her film reviews become, at times, literary reviews as well. I don't find that kind of literary analysis in Greene's reviews, although to be fair he apparently had much less space to work with in Night and Day and other publications than Kael had in The New Yorker.

By the way, Kael reviewed Sophie's Choice in the same issue she reviewed Tootsie and Gandhi. Guess which one she liked best? Tootsie. She disliked both of the other films. Kael, like Greene, didn't write favorably about films just because they were serious movies that critics were expected to like, even if the general public didn't. The movies they liked and hated can be quite surprising, which is one reason both collections remain worth reading.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Generically kind

On the way home, she varied her route and passed St. Mary's. She had attended once or twice after they moved here, and people were generically kind. Her preferred brand of kindness, truth to tell.
Laura Lippman, I'd Know You Anywhere

Sometimes I think adjectives and adverbs get a bad rap. Beginning writers are urged to go easy on their modifiers and focus instead on precise nouns and strong verbs to carry their sentences. "Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs," William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White say in The Elements of Style. "The adjective hasn't been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place."

That seems like good advice for writers,  yet when I read the short passage above from Laura Lippman's novel I'd Know You Anywhere, the two words that jump out at me are "generically kind," an adverb and an adjective. It would take a lot of nouns and verbs to create the image Lippman creates with those two descriptive words.

You need not attend church to know the kind of people Lippman writes about. These are the people who shake your hand without actually looking at your face. They say, "We're glad you could be with us this morning," without giving any evidence they mean it or will remember your name if you return next Sunday. We find generically kind people working in restaurants and shops all the time. They say their polite words and phrases as if they have memorized a script, giving no indication of sincerity.

What Lippman calls generic kindness beats no kindness at all, and is certainly better than rudeness. Yet unlike the character in her novel, most of us would probably prefer a bit more genuine kindness in our daily lives.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Mystery in Algonquin Bay

The assumed suicide that turns out not to be a suicide at all has become something of a cliche in murder mysteries, yet there is nothing in By the Time You Read This by Giles Blunt that reads like something you've read before. The suicide in this 2006 novel happens to be that of Catherine, the beloved, manic-depressive wife of Detective John Cardinal of the Algonquin Bay Police Department in Canada. If you have read earlier stories in the series you will know Catherine has been in and out of hospitals because of her severe depression. Yet at other times she is a gifted photographer and a loving wife and mother.

When her body is found to have fallen from a tall building where she was taking pictures at night and a suicide note in her handwriting is found as well, the conclusion seems obvious. Yet Cardinal, though he is placed on leave, won't let it rest. He discovers the suicide note was written weeks before Catherine's death and bears someone's fingerprints other than her own.

Meanwhile Sgt. Lisa Delorme, one of Cardinal's colleagues on the force, is assigned to a child pornography case. Evidence suggests the photographs were taken in the Algonquin Bay area. Amazingly, the pornography case and Catherine's apparent suicide have a thin connection to one another.

This novel by the Canadian author, whose books are not as readily available in the U.S. as I would like, makes riveting reading from beginning to end, which is somewhat surprising in that Blunt, unlike most mystery writers, gives the surprises away early. Readers know what happened and who's responsible long before Cardinal and Delorme do. Yet revealing the killer at the beginning of each episode never prevented Columbo from becoming one of the most popular TV detectives ever. Perhaps Giles Blunt is a fan.