Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Reassessing dead writers

The work of a painter supposedly becomes more highly valued after the artist dies. That isn't what normally happens with writers, however. There are a few like Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway who, esteemed in their lifetimes, continue to be esteemed after their deaths. But most writers tend to fade in reputation after their deaths. Their books go out of print. Libraries discard their books to make room for newer ones. Only a gradually declining number of readers remember them at all. That is, unless something magic happens.

Susan Hill wrote this a few years ago about novelist Iris Murdoch: "At present, her reputation is in the decline to near-oblivion that customarily follows the death of an author. It is the time -- and it can last anything from five to fifty years -- when novels sink and are forgotten as the reading world moves on, before someone plunges an arm into the depths and pills up first one then another -- and so begins the slow process of reassessment." Of course, this reassessment occurs only for the fortunate few novels by the fortunate few authors. Most writers, once forgotten, stay forgotten.

The magic can happen in a variety of ways. A biographer or literary critic may write an influential book or article that revives interest in a author. A publisher may decide to reissue some old books, perhaps encouraged by the expiration of the copyrights. A film producer may choose to adapt an old novel for a movie, which makes people want to read the novel itself.

The latter is what happened in the early 1980s when British television turned the Evelyn Waugh novel Brideshead Revisited into a successful 11-part miniseries. Soon people wanted to read the 1945 novel they may have never even heard of before. Other Waugh novels also sold better than they had in decades.

As an example of how just one person can succeed in reviving interest in a forgotten author, I give you Tim Page. The former Washington Post music critic took an unusual interest in Dawn Powell, a novelist popular in the 1930s and 1940s, but ignored after her death in 1965. In the 1990s, Page wrote Powell's biography, collected her diaries and letters into books, and wrote introductions for a number of new editions of Powell's books. Powell had grown up in an area of Ohio very close to where I had lived for decades, yet I had never heard of her until Page brought her back to public attention. When I met him at a book fair in Wooster, Ohio, I shook his hand and thanked him for reviving the memory of a significant American writer. Sadly, Powell seems to have faded into obscurity again in the past 15 or 20 years.

Herman Melville, mostly ignored during his life, became famous years after his death. He is among the very few writers whose work became more highly valued after their deaths. There is just no way of knowing which writers will stand the test of time and which won't.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Solid middlebrow writers

... I was getting old enough to read my father's books. Many of these were Reader's Digest condensations of best sellers by Edwin O'Connor, A.J. Cronin and Morris West, solid middlebrow writers of a type that has largely ceased to exist.
Joe Queenan, One for the Books

Growing up at about the same as Joe Queenan, I know well the kind of authors he is talking about. Others in this category might be Frances Parkinson Keyes, James Michener, Herman Wouk, Pearl Buck, Taylor Caldwell and a few others. During the Fifties, Sixties and well into the Seventies, if your home had more than a few books in it, it probably had at least one by one of these authors, and maybe a lot more. These were authors who may not have aspired to art, but they did know how to tell a good story. They wrote mostly contemporary tales that did not fit into any genre, and their books sold well. People owned them, whether or not they read them.

So is Queenan correct in saying that this category of writers has largely disappeared? I think he is. Alexander McCall Smith and Jan Karon are the two contemporary writers who come to mind who might fit the category. Smith's books can usually be found in the mystery sections of bookstores, but I think they are misplaced. Readers looking for an exciting mystery don't really want any of Smith's books. They appeal more to general readers just seeking a good story.

The same is true for Karon's books. At a used book sale in Clearwater last week I noticed scads of Jan Karon books. That tells me two things. Scads of people own these books, and now they are getting rid of them. A decade ago women I knew seemed to be in competition with each other to see who could be the first to read the latest Karon novel. She is still writing books, as far as I know, but the fad seems to be over.

There are plenty of other non-genre, middlebrow writers around, mostly women. They are talented and, up to a point, popular. But I don't know that any of them quite fit the category Queenan has in mind.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Sci-fi nerds save the day

To describe Paul Malmont's 2011 novel The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown in terms of current popular television, try combining The Big Bang Theory with Scorpion. What you have is a group of nerds becoming heroes.

Astounding, Amazing and Unknown were all science fiction pulp magazines published by John W. Campbell and popular during the 1940s, which is when this story is set. The heroes are some of Campbell's best writers, all just getting started at this time: Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, L. Sprague de Camp and L. Ron Hubbard. Other writers, including Walter Gibson, Frederick Pohl, Judith Merril, Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and Lester Dent, play smaller roles, as do such real historical figures as Albert Einstein, Jimmy Stewart and Richard Feynman. When Malmont isn't dropping names, he tells a most enjoyable story, much in the same pulpy tone as his earlier novel, The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril.

As World War II winds down, top scientists are secretly at work on the Manhattan Project that will lead to the atomic bomb. But the Navy puts Heinlein in charge of his own secret team to try to use science to win the war, such as by making warships invisible. Heinlein and his fellow writers, like some Nazi spies, think Nikola Tesla may have discovered a potential weapon of mass destruction before his death, and they race to track down its secrets, although they are pursued more by the FBI than those Nazi spies.

Although the plot is fun, anyone who has read sc-fi from the 1940s through the 1960s will be more interested in how these writers are portrayed. Heinlein, in an unhappy marriage to an alcoholic, thinks he may be done with pulps. He yearns to write novels, great novels. De Camp is a handsome young man from a wealthy family who probably could be doing just about anything, yet his heart is devoted to writing fantasy. Asimov, the youngest and nerdiest of the group, is afraid of heights and just about everything else, but he is also the smartest and, in the end, impresses even his young wife with his bravery. Hubbard is portrayed as a kook who, when he isn't drinking, is consumed with mysticism, which will eventually lead him to Scientology.

Reading Malmont's novel makes me yearn to read some classic science fiction again, as well as to learn more about the lives of these four writers.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Adding to the conversation

Writers can suggest meaning and significance, but ultimately, readers make the final call.
Thomas. C. Foster, How to Read Novels Like a Professor

Book clubs pivot on the erroneous, egotistical notion that the reader has something to add to the conversation. What might that be? A book is a series of arguments between the author and the reader, none of which the reader can possibly win.
Joe Queenan, One for the Books

These two writers, whose books I have been reading of late, would seem to be making exactly the opposite points. Thomas C. Foster argues that readers finish what the authors only started. Writers may intend their works to mean one thing or another, but readers will discover their own meanings, in some cases independent of what was intended. Joe Queenan, on the other hand, contends the authors call all the shots. They determine what their books mean, and there's no point in readers even talking about it.

As much as I have been enjoying Queenan's book, One for the Books, I think he's all wet on this particular point. The whole practice of literary review and criticism, something Queenan engages in himself, depends on the notion that readers read books differently, finding different meanings and different values. If there was nothing to add to what writers write, nothing to argue with or about, literature professors, like Foster, and book reviewers, like Queenan, would be out of a job.

Of course, Queenan's real complaint is book clubs, those groups in every community that bring ordinary people together to talk about books. Queenan finds these abominable. "The people I know who attend book clubs are generally intelligent," he writes, "but they are rarely what I would call interesting."

Queenan sounds like a bit of a snob. If you can't say something interesting, or at least something that interests me, then shut up. In truth, most members of book club probably do not have anything original to say. If they did, they would belong in a different forum. Yet ordinary readers with ordinary points of view have every right to express those points of view. They may gain something by discussing the meaning they find in a book, and others may gain by hearing it expressed and contrasting it with their own interpretations. And Foster would seem to argue that the meaning discussed in neighborhood book clubs is at least as valid as that discussed by academia. Every reader, not just a certain few, makes the final call.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Where do fads come from?

When we think of science fiction, we usually have images of space travel, aliens, robots and the like. But fads? Can you imagine a sci-fi novel about the origins of fads? Well, Connie Willis could, and her light-hearted 1996 novel Bellwether is a true joy, something to delight even those who don't normally like science fiction.

HiTek wants to live up to its name, acting as sort of a corporate think tank for researchers in the hope that some of their projects will pay off for the company. Two obstacles keep getting in the way, however. One is management, which like management everywhere regards paperwork and meetings as the highest priorities, then wonders why employees aren't getting more work done. The other is Flip, whose job it is to deliver interdepartmental mail but seems to be involved in everything but that, including tying to get smoking banned on the premises. She takes packages to deliver elsewhere and loses them, destroys research materials she views as clutter and lobbies for an assistant because she's working too hard.

Against these obstacles, Sandra Foster tries to discover how the fad of bobbed hair started sweeping the nation after World War I and, for that matter, how any fads get started. Meanwhile, Bennett O'Reilly is doing research on chaos theory. Eventually, foiled by both Flip and management, they try pooling their efforts by studying sheep, who behave in chaotic ways, which also seem a lot like fads. This brings us to the book's title. A bellwether is a sheep, no smarter than any other sheep, that nevertheless almost imperceptively leads the herd.

After 20 years, the novel does seem a trifle dated. Sandra regards both smoking bans and tattoos as temporary fads,when passing years have shown they have staying power. Yet fads remain as seemingly chaotic and unexplainable as ever. Reading this book should have become a fad, but it didn't. How do you explain that?

Friday, April 17, 2015

About chapters

Without chapter breaks, when do you turn off the lamp and go to sleep? When do you reward yourself with a cookie or a hot chocolate? When do feel that you've got somewhere?
Thomas C. Foster, How to Read Novels Like a Professor

Most readers prefer books with chapters, and most books have them, especially nonfiction books. Not all novels do, however, and I always find these books a trifle irritating. Without chapters, as Thomas Foster suggests, there are no logical places to take a break. And everyone needs to take a break now and then, especially if a novel has 400 pages or so.

Not only do I like chapters, but I like relatively short chapters. Ten pages may be just about the ideal chapter length, but I have no complaint wth even shorter chapters. I am in the middle of Stewart O'nan's Emily, Alone, which has some chapters just one or two pages  long. I love it. I take lots of breaks.

Furthermore, I like chapters to be numbered, something O'nan doesn't do. I like knowing where I am in relation to the number of chapters in the book. Some authors have a knack for writing chapters that are all about the same length, which also helps you track your progress.

Chapter titles are expected in nonfiction books, but they seem to be optional in novels, and most novelists today avoid them. I value those novels that have them. I don't know of any author who has better titles for his books than Alexander McCall Smith. You can't get much better than Morality for Beautiful Girls and The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday. Smith's chapter tites are just as good. In The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, he has chapters titled "On a Hot Day We Dream of Tea" and "Food Cooked with Love Tastes Better."

Another novel I read recently, Rachel Joyce's The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, also has some fine chapter titles, like "The naming of shoes," "What shall we sing of when we die?" And "The nun and the peach."

Each chapter in a novel is, or should be, a story in itself. It should have a beginning that helps the reader quickly get into the business of that chapter and an ending that makes the reader want to keep going into the next chapter. If finishing a book gives a reader a big feeling of satisfaction, finishing a chapter should give a reader at least a small feeling of satisfaction.

These are just my own preferences, of course. Foster also says in his book, "A chapter, as a section that makes sense for its particular novel, follows no rules but its own."  That is, "the chapter must work for the novel that houses it." And further, "chapters help teach us how to read the novel."

Two novels, one I recently read and another I am currently reading, seem to have chapters perfectly suited to the novels. Gabrielle Zevin's The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry uses the titles of famous short stories as chapter titles, and the chapters somehow mirror the stories. Paul Malmont's The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown, a title that itself includes the titles of three science fiction pulp magazines, has chapters that reflect the spirit of pulps and movie serials of the 1940s, the time in which the story is set. We find, for example, "Issue 1 The Free Will of Atoms" and then "Episode 1."

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

More lines worth a comment

I return today to Karen Joy Fowler's Wit's End and to some of the lines in the novel I thought interesting enough to make note of as I read. Here are three more worthy of comment.

They might have been awkward silences, or they might have been companionable. How did you tell the difference?

Last night I watched an epsisode of Newhart in which Dick and Joanna see a marriage counselor because Joanna is concerned about the awkward silences when they are alone together after 18 years of marriage. Of course, they discover those are actually companionable silences, and they go home much happier.

In real life I think we can usually distinguish between awkward and companionable silences. I've noticed that when you go somewhere with friends, whether it's a daylong excursion or just an outing to the movies, the drive to the destination is always filled with lively conversation, while the drive home tends to be much more subdued. This is partly due to the fact that everyone is tired, but it may also be because the topics of conversation have been pretty much exhausted. The silence is more companionable than awkward. If, however, two people are dating for the first time and after 30 minutes neither can think of anything to say, that's awkward.

My wife and I once entertained another couple in our home whom we had never met before. They turned out to be as introverted as we were, and there were a few awkward silences during the evening. But I noticed the other man, a pastor, had a neat trick for getting past these silences. He would look about the room and see something on a wall or on a shelf and ask a question about it. Who is that in the picture? Where did you find that? Immediately the conversation would start flowing again.

So Addison was compelled into a life of deceit and charade, which is what always happens whenever honesty is forced upon someone.

That may seem like a contradiction, but I suspect it is true. I recall reading somewhere that married couples who pledge to tell each other everything are more likely to divorce than those who don't. That makes sense to me. I don't recommend lying in a marriage, but I don't recommend always revealing everything either. There are some things a spouse is probably better off not knowing -- the details about former boyfriends or girlfriends, for example. Does a husband really need to know about the man his wife works with who flirts with her on occasion? Does a wife need to know her husband saw the neighbor lady in a bikini in her backyard and enjoyed the view?  Those who pledge to keep no secrets may find themselves either revealing too much or feeling guilty about not revealing enough.

The actor was campy and sardonic. Sarcasm without wit. Rima had once taught middle school; she'd had enough sarcasm without wit to last a lifetime.

Most sarcasm comes without wit, it seems to me. That's because sarcasm is easy, while wit is not. Even professional comedians and sitcom writers sometimes try to get by with just the sarcasm, hoping it will pass for wit. It doesn't.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Lines worth a comment

Wit's End, the Karen Joy Fowler novel I wrote about a few days ago, contains a number of lines worth writing down as I read the book and now, a few days later, worth writing about. Let's begin:

Getting up would very likely involve chatting; her good mood was too baseless to survive a chat.

That line early in the novel strikes me as highly descriptive of the kind of person Rima, the main character, is. She is someone who doesn't necessarily think a chat is always a good thing. I am that kind person myself, which is probably why I wrote down the sentence. Some people always seem to be up for a chat, which to me means a friendly discussion of matters of little importance: the weather, a sporting event, an upcoming party, a recent shopping trip, etc. Others of us, mostly introverts, can often view such discussions with dread. It is partly a matter of mood, as Fowler suggests.

No one in novels watches TV.

Or in movies or television programs either, with the exception of the characters on Seinfeld. In real life, most of us spend a few hours of every day watching television. Yet fictional characters, no matter how much realism writers try to put into their stories, rarely have their characters watch television. We may find them in movie theaters, but rarely in front of a TV. I think we can all be grateful for this.

The letters were short and undemanding, and just enough like reading to substitute for reading.

By reading, Fowler seems to suggest substantive reading, that is reading a book or something with a little intellectual weight to it. Most of us probably sometimes find substitutes that are "just enough like reading to substitute for reading." This might be anything from a cereal box at breakfast to a copy of People magazine. Sometimes just buying a book or checking one out of the library can become a substitute for reading, especially if we can be seen with the book at the beach or Starbucks. In Citizen Vince, the Jess Walter novel I recently read, the main character finds difficult books and reads just the first few pages of each so he can impress a girl. It is, of course, not so much reading as a substitute for reading.

I may continue with this next time.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Who's real?

The high bidder in an eBay auction that closes in two days will get his or her name used for a character in the next Michael Connelly novel, The Crossing. The auction benefits Trinity Cafe, which provides meals for the homeless and the hungry in Tampa. That sounds like a good cause, but anyone who has read Karen Joy Fowler's Wit's End may wonder if the prize is really such a good thing.

Fowler's 2009 novel tells of Rima, a young Ohio woman whose father, mother and brother have all died before their time. She goes to California to visit her godmother, Addison Early, the author of a popular series of mystery novels featuring detective Maxwell Lane. While there Rima decides to do a little investigating of her own to try to discover why the murderer in one of Addison's early novels  was named after her father and how that choice may have influenced her own life.

Wit's End turns out to be a study of  identity. Not only are real people characters in novels, but characters in novels, including Maxwell Lane, are regarded as real people. Technology enables users to take on multiple identities in blogs, fan sites, etc. Even Rima, herself named for the character in W.H. Hudson's Green Mansions, finds herself treated on the Web as a fictional character.

The novel sort of wanders between clever and confusing, perhaps appropos of its subject matter.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Learning languages in restaurants

I sometimes order moo goo gai pan in Chinese restaurants, but I pick out the mushrooms, which I don't like. Once in a small restaurant I asked my server, actually the owner, if I could have moo goo gai pan without the mushrooms. She gave me an odd look and explained that "moo goo" means mushrooms. The next time I ordered moo goo gai pan there, I told her, "And hold the moo goo." She laughed and served my idea of the perfect Chinese dish, just chicken (gai) and vegetables in a white sauce.

And so I learned a wee bit of Chinese. It occurs to me that most of us, even if we speak but one language, nevertheless pick up words from other languages in restaurants, as well as in kitchens and dining rooms, perhaps more than anywhere else.

Consider some of the Italian words we know: linguini, Stromboli, Parmesan, prima vera and so on. Some of them, like lasagna, macaroni and spaghetti, have become so commonplace that we may even think of them as English words. And, in fact, they now are English words.

Mexican restaurants have taught us numerous Spanish food terms beyond just taco and tortilla. We probably also know a few Greek words, French words, Polish words, German words, Thai words, etc., simply because we enjoy foods from these cultures. The Normans conquered England in 1066, but they never succeeded in forcing the English to speak French. One exception, however, was food terms like beef, pork and mutton, all derived from French words.

All these foreign words we learn in restaurants probably won't do us much good if we should happen to find ourselves in Mexico City, Rome or Berlin and need directions to the nearest restaurant. But if we can find that restaurant on our own, chances are we will be able to find something on the menu we want to eat.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Columnists at their best

For newspaper columnists, their greatest challenge is their deadline. Whether their column runs daily, weekly or something in between, they still have to come up with an idea, something they can write the required number of inches about and that people will want to read about, and get it into shape by the time the clock ticks down to zero. That pressure can be terribly difficult to bear day after day, week after week, year after year.

Yet most of the columns collected in Deadline Artists: Scandals, Tragedies and Triumphs (2012), probably seemed to write themselves. Mostly they tell about significant events and important people, natural subjects for columnists. The writers just had to give form to the ideas as as they came.

And so we find H.L. Mencken writing about the Scopes-Monkey trial, Damon Runyan on the trial of Al Capone, Jack London describing the San Francisco earthquake, Ellen Goodman on the murder of John Lennon, Shirley Povich telling about Don Larson's perfect game, Grantland Rice writing on the Dempsey-Willard fight and so on. Some of the columns are great because they describe great events. Others were made great by great writing.

In this latter category I would place Nora Ephron's New York Times piece about being an intern in the Kennedy White House and NOT getting propositioned by the president. Lorena A. Hickok wrote a wonderful column for the Minneapolis Tribune in 1923 about most of the population of a small Iowa town staying up all night just to watch President Harding's funeral train speeding through. Jim Murray wrote a superb tribute to ball player Jim Gilliam. Regina Brett wrote an unusually fine column for the Cleveland Plain Dealer about recovering from cancer. The book includes several columns by Mike Royko of the Chicago Sun-times, and each one is outstanding.

Editors John Avlon, Jesse Angelo and Errol Louis made excellent choices for this, the second of their "Deadline Artists" books. My only complaint is with how a few of the columns are categorized. Were the victory of Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, the defeat of Tammany Hall in 1961 and the persistent failure of the Chicago Cubs really tragedies? I can see placing William Laurence's column about the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki among the triumphs, but a postwar piece by Homer Bigart describing the terrible Hiroshima after effects seems more like a tragedy to me.

Friday, April 3, 2015

A political thriller

Jess Walter's 2005 novel Citizen Vince won an Edgar Award for best crime novel of the year. I don't know of any award for best political novel of the year, but if there were, Citizen Vince might have won that, too.

Vince Camden's real name is Marty Hagan. He's an ex-con who was convicted of his first felony in his teens and has never been eligible to vote in his life. Yet he's now living in Spokane under a new identity in the witness protection program, and with the new identity, his felonies are erased and a card arrives in the mail making him a registered voter. Never mind that Marty, now, Vince, continues to work the old credit card scam he did back in New York. He just hasn't been caught yet.

But Vince learns Ray Sticks, a notorious mob hit man, is looking for him. Assuming the New York mob has found him and is trying to settle old scores, Vince returns to New York to try to buy his life back. The mobster takes his money but tells Vince the actual price is to kill Ray Sticks, who also turns out to be in the witness protection program.

All this takes place in late October and early November in 1980, when Ronald Reagan is challenging Jimmy Carter for the presidency. Vince may be battling for his life, but he's also, for the first time in his life, fascinated by the upcoming election. In a key scene, with Vince and Beth, his prostitute girlfriend, in grave danger, he manages to talk Sticks him into letting him vote.

The novel has a bit of the grit and the unpredictability of an Elmore Leonard story, yet Citizen Vince also reads like a literary novel. Jess Walter could have won an award for that, as well.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Saved for something better

In the early pages of Destiny of the Republic, Candice Millard describes two dramatic events, one a deadly steamship collision in Long Island Sound and the other a young man working on a canal boat who falls overboard after everyone else has gone to sleep. That young man is James A. Garfield, whose flailing arms find a rope, to which he clings and uses to climb back onto the boat. Later he discovers the rope was never actually tied to anything on the boat. He wrote later, "I did not believe that God had paid any attention to me on my own account but I thought He had saved me for my mother and for something greater and better than canaling." In 1880, Garfield was elected president of the United States.

As for that steamship collusion, also in 1880 involving the Stonington and the Narragansett, many people died or were seriously burned by the resulting fire. One who survived was a man named Charles Guiteau, who believed, writes Millard, "the tragedy was simply further proof that he was one of God's chosen few." He believed he was "chosen by God for a task of tremendous importance." Within a few months, Guiteau assassinated James A Garfield.

Guiteau was insane. Garfield may have been among the most intelligent men to hold the presidency. Have not most of us believed, rationally or not, we were among the chosen few? We can smoke and not get cancer, drive too fast and neither crash nor get stopped by troopers. We will, if not live forever, at least live longer than anyone else. Perhaps this is what enabled young men to charge the D-Day beaches. It may even be what encourages gamblers to bet against the odds.

Yet I cannot help wondering if each one of us is not meant for something better, if we are each not, in some way, special. Perhaps both Garfield and Guiteau really were saved for a reason, and perhaps assassination was not that reason.