Friday, January 31, 2014

E.B. White on writing

E.B. White had much to say about writing even besides what he contributed to Elements of Style. While reading The Story of Charlotte's Web by Michael Sims recently, I was struck by the many perceptive quotes from White on the subject of writing. Today I want to share some of those quotes, while adding my own comments.

"Remember that writing is translation, and the opus to be translated is yourself."

How true that is. When we write, we translate our observations, our ideas, our feelings and our beliefs into words so someone else,  the reader, can better understand us. Sometimes something is lost in translation. We may never be able to translate everything we observe, think, feel or believe. Yet when the best writers are at work, something is gained in translation, too.

"All writing is both a mask and an unveiling."

Ah, yes. Writers write both to reveal and to obscure, sometimes both at the same time. Autobiographies and memoirs may be the best example of this. Authors do reveal much about themselves in these works, something most publishers probably insist upon. Why publish an autobiography that doesn't reveal something new? Yet the authors also use their books to make themselves look better, to give their own side of the story and to defend themselves against critics. To a lesser degree, writers of other varieties do much the same thing.

"A blank sheet of paper holds the greatest excitement for me."

Among the Christmas gifts we gave our 12-year-old granddaughter last month was a large, colorful box of stationery. It was filled with blank sheets of paper of various sizes and shapes, notepads and so on. Our son said she loved it and that as soon as she got home she opened the box and spread everything out across her bed. Aly "loves paper products," he explained. An aspiring writer, she has already passed what we might think of as the E.B. White test: Blank paper excites her. I know the feeling. It is sort of like any newborn baby, so full of potential. Almost anything might be possible with that new person or with that blank sheet of paper. Everything lies in the future.

"I was a man in search of the first person singular."

A retired columnist for the newspaper where I used to work once complained to me about a new columnist on the paper. He thought he wrote in first person too much. A good columnist, he thought, writes less about his own personal life and more about other people and about ideas and issues. His argument didn't entirely convince me, though it was often in the back of my mind when doing my own column writing. Some people, like White, search for the first person singular. They do their best writing when writing about themselves without trying to disguise the fact.

"I write largely for myself and am content to believe that what is good enough for me is good enough for a youngster."

That seems true. Whether one is writing for one reader, as in a letter, or millions, as in a novel likely to become a major bestseller, writers must first please themselves. Often a writer gets no feedback whatsoever, something I found true more times than not in the newspaper business. Did anybody actually read this? Who knows? I had to decide for myself whether what I wrote was any good. And, as White observed, if it was good enough for me it was good enough for the target audience. The trick, of course, is to have high standards in the first place.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

On E.B. White and Charlotte

If The Story of Charlotte's Web by Michael Sims reads as much like a biography of E.B. White as the story of how White's most famous book came to be, it may be because White's whole life was about the writing of that single book. His boyhood interest in animals and nature in general laid the groundwork for Charlotte's Web. His development as a writer and the attention to detail he learned as a regular contributor to The New Yorker magazine groomed him for writing his masterpiece. His move to his Maine farm with his wife, Katharine, an editor at The New Yorker, inspired him and provided the opportunity for his imagination to soar.

White made other notable contributions to literature. His essays are still read today. His other novels for children, Stuart Little and The Trumpet of the  Swan, are themselves classics. The Elements of Style, in which White revised and improved upon the work of his college professor, William Strunk Jr., remains a valuable resource for writers old and young. Yet White reached the pinnacle of his career with the publication of his story about the spider who saved the life of a pig.

Sims gives his readers amazing detail about how the book came to be. An actual spider at White's farm inspired it. White devoted hours to studying that spider and others to observe their behavior. He poured over books about spiders. Maybe real spiders don't spin English words into their webs, but otherwise White wanted Charlotte to behave like a barn spider. He even insisted that, children's book or not, she must die after laying her eggs because that is what real spiders do.

Sims provides several examples of how White revised his manuscript over and over again, crossing out words and trying new ones in their place. He agonized over what to name certain characters and what Charlotte should say about Wilbur in her web. "Pig Supreme" was among the contenders until White settled on "Some Pig."

Anyone who has enjoyed Charlotte's Web, and that means millions of readers, will enjoy reading what Sims has to say about that book and the man who wrote it.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Paying tribute to the living

Novelist Ann Hood, one of the instructors at the 10th annual Writers in Paradise Conference held in St. Petersburg, Fla., last week, read an essay Friday at one of the evening readings that each of the published writers at the conference took part in. Her essay told of one of the literary influences on her life, that by novelist Laurie Colwin, who died of a heart attack in 1992 while still in her 40s. Hood remembers seeing Colwin as she walked into the Three Lives & Company bookstore in New York City and noticing Colwin smiling at her, as if inviting her not just into the bookstore but also into the world of writers.

Hood reflected that Colwin was but one of numerous authors, most of them, like Colwin, little read anymore, who influenced her work at the start of her career.

Ann Hood
A couple of days after listening to Hood's wonderful essay, I read another essay, this written in the 1920s by a man named A. Edward Newton. It can be found in a book called A Passion for Books published in 1999. In the essay called "What's the Matter with the Bookshop?," Newton writes about the importance of buying -- not just reading or borrowing from a library, but actually buying -- books by current authors. "All these men are engaged in carrying on the glorious tradition of English literature," he wrote. "It is my duty to give them what encouragement I can: to pay tribute to them."

Essayists Hood and Newton would agree, I am sure, that both authors of the past and those of the present should be supported. Hood, after all, is an author of the present who would like to sell all the books she can. Yet she wishes Colwin and other writers of the past she admires had not been so quickly forgotten. As for Newton, he admits in  his essay that he reads more old books than new ones, but, he says, he spends more on new books than old ones. Living authors, not dead ones, need the royalties.

I was disappointed last week when Jack Morris, formerly of the Detroit Tigers and Minnesota Twins, failed to win election to the Baseball Hall of Fame. It was his last year of eligibility to be voted in by sportswriters. Morris was one of my favorite pitchers, and I think his numbers deserve inclusion in the Hall of Fame. Yet I'm also glad the standards are high. Only the most deserving should make the cut.

So it is with writers. Not all books can or should remain in print forever, and not all authors can be remembered very long after they cease writing. The world must make way for new authors and new books. If more people were still reading Laurie Colwin, perhaps fewer would be reading Ann Hood.

I suspect that writers like Harper Lee and J.D. Salinger will still be in print and still be read 100 years from now. I can't say the same for Ann Hood or most of the other authors at Writers in Paradise. These included such notables at Tim O'Brien, Laura Lippman, Stuart O'Nan, Dennis Lehane and Andre Dubus III. It will be too bad if worthy writers like these are not long remembered. Yet, as Newton observed, readers should always pay tribute to new writers. One day this may include some of the talented students attending Writers in Paradise last week.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Creative verbs

Verbs make sentences. Nouns announce what sentences are about. Adjectives and adverbs dress them up a bit. Verbs take them wherever they are going. When sentences don't seem to go anywhere, blame the verbs.

Consider this short passage from Elizabeth George's novel In the Presence of  the Enemy, a book I wrote about here recently:

"Barbara hurtled herself towards this bench. And from the bench she dashed to the chapel's outer wall.

"She slithered along this wall, tyre iron gripped fiercely, scarcely allowing herself to breathe. Hugged to the stones, she gained the chapel's gatehouse. She stood, her back pressed to the wall, and listened."

The author's verb choices add to the tension in this scene near the climax of the novel. Hurtled and dashed work much better than ran. Slithered, hugged and pressed to work better than stayed close to.

Paying close attention verbs in my recent reading, I've noticed that they can be as descriptive as any adjective or adverb. In the novel Drood, Dan Simmons uses the wonderful phrase "dalmatianed  with spotted ink." Diane Ackerman writes about "buildings guillotined by war" in The Zookeeper's Wife. Writing about the change of seasons in the same book, Ackerman says that "spring sidled closer" and "spring floated outside the small rupture in time the war had gouged." There's nothing ordinary or routine about those verb choices.

I have been impressed with the verbs Karen Russell claims in her amazing collection of short stories, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. She invents some of these verbs herself to fit into a particularly story. In "Z.Z.'s Sleep-Away Camp for Disordered Dreamers," we find this sentence: "This causes him to sleep-detonate imaginary grenades and sleep-yell 'Viva la Revolucion!' while sleep-pumping his fist in the air."

In "The Star-Gazer's Log of Summer-Time Crime," Allen writes, "Then she stomps off to the Bowl-a-Bed to constellate and sulk." In "from Children's Reminiscences of the Westward Migration," she offers both "brass kettles glower in the shadows" and "we nooned in a purple grove."

Mark Twain, a master of creative verbs, writes in A Tramp Abroad about a pauper "wheezing the music of 'Camptown Races' out of a paper-overlaid comb."

All of these books were improved because their authors didn't necessarily go with the first verbs that came into their minds. They searched for verbs that would create vivid images in the minds of their readers, and I think they found them.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Understanding novels

"I love reading novels," the Doctor explained. "You can understand them without thinking too much."
Neal Stephenson, Quicksilver

No, Quicksilver is not a Doctor Who novel. It is a historical novel set in the 17th century, and the Doctor here is Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, a German mathematician and philosopher who designed one of the first mechanical calculators. He makes the above statement in 1684, which seems a bit early to be saying something like that.

Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe is sometimes considered to be the first novel, and it was not published until 1719. Don Quixote came along much earlier, in 1605,  but it was not called a novel. Fictional accounts before the 18th century were usually termed romances. The Italians used the word novella to refer to fictional short stories, and the English coined the word novel from this in the 18th century, at least according to Wikipedia. So "I love reading novels" doesn't sound like something anybody would have said in 1684, not even someone as intelligent as Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.

As for the second part of the Doctor's statement, "You can understand them without thinking too much," that strikes me as a pretty good reason for reading novels (or watching movies or enjoying stories of any kind). You can understand them without thinking too much. I think that explains why Jesus taught using parables, stories that conveys his points without requiring too much from his listeners, mostly  people with ordinary intellects.

At their best, however, stories do require a little thought. They remain open to multiple interpretations, and the author's intentions are not necessarily obvious.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The literature of war

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Wilfred Own, Anthem for Doomed Youth, 1920

Rupert Brooke
I think of World War I as the war of the poets and World War II as the war of the novelists. I don't mean just that poets and novelists were fighting, although plenty of them were, but that each war produced a different kind of literature.

Literature changed significantly in the two decades between the wars. During the first war, young men of a literary bent who went to war read poetry, and when they wrote about their wartime experiences, they tended to write in verse. Sure some novels came out of the war, most notably All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, but mostly veterans of the war expressed themselves in poetry.

James Jones
Among the dozens of published poets who fought in the war were Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke, Herbert Asquith, Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, Walter Lyon, Herbert Read and Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy. Many of the poets, including Sassoon, Brooke and Lyon, died in that war. Many others were injured. C.S. is not highly regarded today for his poetry, but after he was badly injured at the front, he thought of himself as a poet until he later discovered his true gifts.

By the time World War II started barely 20 years later, fewer young men read or wrote poetry. Fiction was king in the literary world. Veterans of this war expressed themselves in prose. The best of these included Norman Mailer, James Jones, Irwin Shaw, Herman Wouk, Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller, to name only the Americans, but there were many others.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A terrific thriller

Elizabeth George's 1996 mystery In the Presence of the Enemy, the first of her books I have read, is a gem. I can understand why so many readers rate this author and this particular novel so highly. Although it is more than 600 pages long, there is not one dull page. And although it has numerous characters, all are so clearly drawn that each remains distinct in the reader's mind the rest of the way, a feat not every writer can pull off.

If I have a complaint, it lies with the title, In the Presence of the Enemy. It quickly becomes clear that only a handful of characters, perhaps just two or three, could possibly be the killer if that title really means what it says. Thus, when George finally reveals her big surprise, it isn't quite the surprise to readers that it is to the investigators.

The story begins with the kidnapping of a little girl, the daughter of a Tory Member of Parliament, Eve Bowen. Bowen has kept the identify of the girl's father a secret mainly because he is Dennis Luxford, editor of a London tabloid that specializes in scandal, especially Tory scandal. It is Luxford, now married to a former model and the father of a son, who first hears from the kidnapper. The man wants him to reveal on his front page the details about the birth of his first child. Luxford, although he has had no contact at all with the little girl, is willing to do this, but Bowen won't allow it. She insists Luxford himself is behind the kidnapping as an evil plot to both bring down the Conservative government and to increase his newspaper's circulation. She continues believing this even after the discovery of the body of her little girl.

Then Leo, Luxford's son, is kidnapped.

George's hero, Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley of  Scotland Yard, plays a relatively insignificant role in this case and, in fact, becomes something of a villain himself  when he lashes out against members of his team and even the woman he hopes to marry early  in the novel. The key investigator turns out to be Lynley's underling Barbara Havers. The lively novel really comes alive whenever she becomes the focus, and it is she who ultimately saves the day.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Neither borrower nor lender

I feel about lending a book the way most fathers feel about their daughters living with a man out of wedlock.
Anatole Broyard, The New York Times Book Review

"Neither a borrower nor a lender be," says the character in Shakespeare's Hamlet. He must be a bibliophile.

I don't know which I hate more, lending one of my books or borrowing somebody else's book. I try to avoid doing either, but sometimes it isn't easy. Friends do, on occasion, ask to borrow a book, and it would be unthinkable to refuse. Other friends may offer one of their books or, worse, insist that I read it. Again, refusing would be ill mannered. So I am either stuck with a book I really don't want to read, but must and as quickly as possible, or forced to the suffer the pangs caused by a missing book that may or may not be returned.

To quote Broyard again, "Until the book is returned, I feel like a parent waiting up in the small hours for a teenage son or daughter to come home from the dubious party."

An early 19th century book collector named Richard Heber had an interesting solution for this problem. He proposed buying three copies of every book: one to read, one to keep on the shelf in pristine condition and a third to keep on hand just in case anyone asks to borrow it. Most of us, of course, have neither the money to purchase three copies of the same book nor the space to store them. Still it sounds like a wonderful idea.

When I sold my first edition of Sue Grafton's "A Is for Alibi" for $500 a few years ago, the book dealer said he would have offered much more if my copy had not been so worn. I explained that not only had I read the mystery myself, but I had allowed at least a couple of friends to read it, too. Why did I do that? he wanted to know. Why indeed. I wished then I had had more than one copy on my shelf.

Books are rarely returned in the same condition they were in when they were borrowed, if they are even returned at all. It takes time to read a book, and many people begin reading books with the best of intentions but never get around to finishing them. Meanwhile, the book goes on a shelf or under a stack of magazines and is forgotten. By the time that book is rediscovered years later, they will have forgotten where it came from in the first place. Was it purchased or borrowed? And if borrowed, from whom? Who knows? Well, the owner of the book probably knows, but it is considered bad form to actually request the return of a book.

I did so once after a dear friend borrowed Nick Hornby's novel A Long Way Down. I loved the book, and I was pleased that my friend loved it, too. But she had given it to another friend, who also loved it and gave it to somebody else. My friend didn't know who had the book now, but she bought me a new paperback to replace it. Problem solved? Not really. I had purchased Hornby's novel when I was in England, and it was a nice British edition that wasn't readily available in the U.S. So it was the same book, but not quite the same book. It now sits on my shelf like an imposter.

As bothersome as lending out books can be, borrowing the books of others can be just as bad. I prefer to read my own books in my own time at my own pace. And when I enjoy a book, I want to keep it, not give it back to somebody else. That's why I rarely read library books, even though I belong to at least three libraries right now and am writing this today in yet another library.

"To the doting book lover," to quote Broyard yet again, "the idea of reading a borrowed book is disgusting, an unclean habit akin to voyeurism." That may be a little strong, but still it comes close to how I feel.  When a friend learned I had read and enjoyed Little Dorrit a couple of years ago, she gave me a handwritten list of all the many Charles Dickens novels in her possession and invited me to borrow any of them. As much as I would love to see her Dickens collection, I avoid asking to view her books for fear she will insist that I borrow one. I would much rather read my own books

Friday, January 10, 2014

The source of the dollar

"I'm worried something'll happen to 'em before we can turn 'em into real money."
"What is 'real' money, Jack? Answer me that."
"You know, pieces of eight, or, how d'you say it, dollars --"
"Th -- it starts with a T but it's got a breathy sound behind it -- 'thalers.'"
"That's a silly name for money, Jack -- no one'll ever take you seriously, talking that way."
"Well, they shortened 'Joachimsthaler' to 'thaler,' so why not reform the word even further?"
Neal Stephenson, Quicksilver

Neal Stephenson's fanciful 2003 novel Quicksilver, set in 17th century Europe, mixes a good deal of fact in with the fiction. Real historical figures like Isaac Newton, Robert Hook, John Locke and Samuel Pepys come and go throughout the story, and actual events are central to the plot. And even that piece of dialogue from the middle of Stephenson's sprawling 900-page tale, the first part of a massive trilogy, explains in a nutshell how the word dollar came into the English language.

Barbara Ann Kipfer puts it this way in Word Nerd: The word, she says, "ultimately derives from the German Taler, short for Joachimstaler, a silver coin of the 16th century; the Spanish dolar, a coin also known as piece of eight or peso, derived from that and influenced Thomas Jefferson's choice of name for our monetary unit."

You may notice that while Kipfer says Taler and Joachimstaler, Stephenson puts it as thaler and Joachimsthaler. So which is it? According to Wikipedia, the proper spellings are Joachimsthaler and Thaler. It goes on to say, however, that after a 1902 German spelling reform, Thaler became Taler, but this did not affect the English spelling of Thaler. So I will award the point to the novelist.

Joachimsthal is a city in Bohemia where Thalers were first minted.

Speaking of not taking the word dollars seriously, as Stephenson's  character Eliza does in Quicksilver, I am reminded of the time I visited Delft. Inquiring about the admission price for a small museum, I mistakenly said dollars instead of euros. It seemed like an honest mistake to me, but the man behind the counter took serious offense and started ranting about American tourists. I turned around, taking my euros, purchased with dollars, with me. Euros were still fairly new in Europe at that time, and I imagine even a few of the Dutch were still having trouble with the word.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Cast out of heaven

Home seemed a heaven and that we were cast out ...
Henry Green

Ann Patchett's early novel Taft (1994) begins with these words from the British novelist, and as I think about the novel in the days after reading it I see that that, in brief, summarizes Patchett's story. Her characters seem to want nothing more than to go back home, back to earlier, happier times, even if those times weren't really as happy or as heavenly as they seem in memory.

The story is told by John Nickel,a black man and a former drummer, who now manages a Memphis bar. His former girlfriend has moved to Florida and taken their son with her. It was her idea that John give up music and get a steady job to better support his son. Now he misses his drums, misses his boy and even misses the ex-girlfriend who refused to marry him.

One day a white teenager named Fay Taft walks into his bar and asks for a job. Against his better judgment, he hires her, the first of many times when he finds he cannot say no to Fay. Soon her brother, Paul, begins hanging out at the bar. It's clear, to John at least, that Paul is high on drugs.

The Taft kids grew up in eastern Tennessee, but when their father died they moved to Memphis to live with relatives. They, too, have been cast out of their heaven.

Complications follow. Paul becomes a dealer, putting John's business in jeopardy. Fay decides she's in love with John and keeps finding excuses to be near him. His girlfriend and the boy return to Memphis, perhaps for a visit, perhaps to stay, but John has made the mistake of having sex with her sister. Then things really turn bad.

The title, oddly enough, refers neither to Fay nor her brother but to their father. There are flashbacks, apparently from out of John's imagination, about him and his kids back home.

This wonderful little novel leaves hints that maybe, just maybe, some of us really can go home again.

Monday, January 6, 2014

More weird and wonderful words

A month ago I listed 10 words that were new to me and, I would guess, unknown to most English speakers. They are words we seem to manage very well without, yet I am delighted that they exist. Here are 10 more such words, also found in Barbara Ann Kipfer's Word Nerd.

admarginate: to note in the margin

agerasia: looking young for your age or not appearing to age

begrutten: having a face swollen from weeping

extraforaneous: outdoor

ginnel: a long narrow passage between houses

gnurr: the substance that collects over time in the bottoms of pockets or cuffs of trousers

kippage: commotion or confusion

kirkbuzzer: someone who robs churches

paraffle: an ostentatious display or flourish

warth: a shore of stretch of coast

Some of these words, especially begrutten and kippage, could easily be used by any of us in speech or in writing. No doubt William F. Buckley Jr. knew them and used them. The problem for most of us, however, is that if we used them, chances are nobody would know what we were talking about. The purpose of language, after all, is to communicate, not to impress. So these perfectly good words go mostly unused.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Magazines about books

I came away from a newsstand recently with three book-related magazines that held my interest for several days. Two of them, Mystery Scene and ForeWord Reviews, I had never spent time with before, while the third, Fine Books & Collections , was an old friend I hadn't seen for a couple of years.

ForeWord Reviews devotes itself to books from independent publishers. These books, like indie films, get relatively little attention from the major media and, consequently, from the public, but often are worth seeking out. Unfortunately, because the purpose of the magazine is to promote books from small publishers, the reviews are almost indistinguishable from the magazine's ads. One might get the idea that each of the scores of books mentioned is at least a minor masterpiece.

Despite this shortage of objectivity, ForeWord makes interesting reading for any bibliophile. I found at least a couple of books that might be worth seeking out: Shake Terribly the Earth: Stories from an Appalachian Family by Sarah Beth Childers (Ohio University Press), the review of which includes a long excerpt that sells the book by itself, and Cartilage and Skin by Michael James Rizza (Starcherone Books), a thriller that sounds unusual and interesting.

The autumn issue of Fine Books & Collections has articles about Hobby Lobby billionaire Steve Green's plan to build a Bible museum in Washington and about the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum on the campus of Ohio State University. Nicholas Basbanes, a regular contributor to the magazine, has both his column, Gently Mad, and an article that seems basically to be a promotion for his latest book, On Paper: The EVERYTHING of Its Two Thousand Year History.

The holiday issue of Mystery Scene contains a piece about Alexander McCall Smith explaining how he came to write the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency novels and another about the husband-and-wife writing team of Aimee and David Thurlo. The magazine offers numerous reviews, which like those in Foreword tend to be mostly positive. The publication seems like a good way for mystery fans to find out what's new before heading to the bookstore to make their choices.

I seldom read magazine ads, but I found the ads in these three magazines to be almost as interesting as the articles. I may have read every one of them. The ads, like the magazines themselves, are about books.