Monday, November 30, 2015

Nonfiction fiction

Truman Capote is sometimes credited with inventing the "nonfiction novel" with In Cold Blood, published in 1966. It was a novel, yet one that described actual events and the roles played by real people in those events. Now, almost 50 years later, Capote is himself the subject of a nonfiction novel, The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin.

The swans of the title are elegant socialites like Babe Paley, Gloria Guinness, Slim Keith and Pamela Churchill Harriman, whose photos graced newspaper society pages back in the 1950s and '60s. Capote, a young, homosexual writer, somehow became a part of their circle, one of the girls. He became especially close to Babe, wife of CBS exec Bill Paley, whom Benjamin paints as a man who craves sex with beautiful women, including the other swans, but not his own wife, the most beautiful of them all. Although Capote has no sexual interest in Babe either, he does admire her beauty and grace. She admires his wit and his willingness to listen to her and to try to understand her.

Both Babe and Truman are haunted by their mothers. Her mother taught her that her only worth would be as the beautiful wife of a very rich man. She has followed the script written by her mother, but without finding happiness. She wears a wig, has false teeth and is never seen by anyone without her makeup, that is until she reveals herself to Truman. As for Capote, his mother abandoned him in a small Southern town while she pursued dreams that did not include him. He has never gotten over this feeling of abandonment.

Success spoils Truman Capote. After the In Cold Blood becomes a smash, he is virtually finished as an important writer. He is much more interested in parties, alcohol and drugs. As for Babe Paley, she is spoiled by time. Benjamin describes the swans as "women with a shelf life." Age is cruel to all of us, but perhaps especially to beautiful women and athletes because it comes so soon.

Yet Babe and the other swans are ultimately destroyed by Truman himself when he sells a story about their lives to Esquire magazine. Again, this is nonfiction fiction, and even with the names changed, the swans can spot themselves in the story, which reveals the shallowness of their lives. One of them even commits suicide.

Benjamin, like Capote before her, beautifully blends what we know about real people with what we, or at least she, can only imagine. She has Capote say at one point, "I think that's the epitome of living, to be able to create art out of your life. It's what we do, in a way, isn't it? In writing?" Capote himself made a mess out of his life, but now Melanie Benjamin has turned it into art.

Friday, November 27, 2015

The genius outside ourselves

On Thanksgiving morning, I caught another TED lecture by another author, this time Elizabeth Gilbert. She poses the question, must artistry lead to anguish? Do artists really have to suffer for their art? Does creativity always carry inherent emotional risks? The answer, at least in today's world too often seems to be yes.

Yet this was not always the case, Gilbert says. Before the Renaissance genius was considered something artists had, something they were blessed with, however temporarily, not what they themselves were. Genius was just something certain artists had the use of for awhile, before it moved along to someone else. The practical difference, Gilbert says, is that all the pressure is now on the artist to produce great art, where before artists believed both the credit and the blame for their work lay elsewhere. They were, at least psychologically, off the hook.

Gilbert advocates trying to return to the idea of muses, sprits or whatever, but her argument is not just that this is a useful mind trick. She argues this may actually be true. Writers often say they don't know where certain ideas came from. They talk as if characters invented themselves, the authors simply transcribing their words. Other creative people tell similar stories. Great ideas come from dreams. They spring, unbidden, at the oddest times and places. That proverbial light bulb sometimes just lights up, and if you happen to be the beneficiary, you feel not responsible but blessed.

In small ways, this sort of thing has happened to me three times over the past few days in the writing done for this blog. On Wednesday, the day I planned to write about truth in fiction, I happened to listen to an Amy Tan lecture in which she speaks on that very subject. Last week, intending to write about reading old books and magazines, I came upon a related Hi & Lois comic strip. A couple of days earlier, I came upon a passage in one novel about precision in language and a passage in another about ambiguity in language, both serving the same purpose of protecting the speaker or writer.

How can one explain such things? Fortunate coincidences? The spirit of God? A genius outside ourselves? A muse? Whatever the case, they give us one more thing to be very thankful for.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The truth in fiction

Paola gave this a great deal of thought and finally answered, "We never really know them well, do we?"


"Real people."

"What do you mean, 'real people'?"

"As opposed to people in books," Paola explained. "They're the only ones we ever really know well, or know truly." Again she gave him a moment to consider, then said, "Maybe that's because they're the only ones about whom we get reliable information." She glanced at him, then added, as she would to a class, just to see if they were following, "Narrators never lie."

Donna Leon, A Sea of Troubles

The irony here in this discussion of truth in fiction is that it is found in fiction, a mystery novel by Donna Leon. And is it the truth? We know this is what Paola really says because that is what the narrator says she says. And narrators never lie.

The narrator's truth is not the only truth in a novel. Some of the truth is what we find for ourselves, but that is a different kind of truth, which I will come back to in a little bit. For now let us consider what Paola says to her husband in the final paragraphs of this story.

She contrasts what we know about real people, even the people we are closest to, with what we know about the people in novels. In fiction, we know what people are thinking and exactly what they say. When the narrator tells us something happens, we know it happens in just that way. Sometimes, as in the final chapters in Leon's novel, what happens is a bit confusing, yet the narrator's version is all we have. It is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth as far as these characters and this story is concerned.

History books and biographies are said to be nonfiction, yet we cannot know for certain that what their authors write is, in fact, the truth. Authors of nonfiction books can be mistaken or deliberately misleading, or they can be biased. Read different books about the same famous person or the same battle and you may read very different versions of the truth. In fiction there is but one truth, the truth the narrator tells.

After that, of course, the truth is up to us, the readers. This morning after breakfast I listened to a lecture on creativity by novelist Amy Tan on She said that moral ambiguity is necessary in fiction. It is, at least, necessary in good fiction. Even in a good mystery novel like Leon writes, where the bad guys usually get their just deserts, moral ambiguity can be found. Moral ambiguity, in fact, lies behind that passage I quote above. Did Paola's husband risk his life to rescue a young woman because, as a police officer, that was his job? Or did he do it because he is secretly in love with her? Because her husband, to her, is a real person, she cannot know for certain. We readers, being party to what the narrator has written, know a little bit more. Still, ambiguity remains.

Tan went on to say that fiction is about finding "a particle of truth," not necessarily the whole truth. And that particle may be different from one reader to the next, and no reader may find quite the same particle found there by the author.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Shop talk

After I had hung up from a call from someone at the newspaper where I worked, my wife commented that I had sounded different during that phone conversation than I normally sounded. She was right, of course. While speaking with my associate, my voice had been louder and deeper. I had spoken with more authority and more certainty than in my usual speech around the house. I had spoken in my business voice.

Many of us have different voices for work than we use with our family and friends. This may be especially true of anyone who works with the public, such as those who sell things or provide services. The receptionist at the newspaper where I worked seemed to have three different voices, one for when she answered the phone or spoke with the public, a second for when she spoke casually with white people and a third for when she spoke casually with other black people.

Sometimes it isn't just one's speech that changes from one situation to another. My editor, who retired at the end of last month, has always had a hearty laugh, but it seemed to be heartier in some situations. Sitting at my desk in the newsroom, I could tell from the sound of the laughter coming from his office whether he was speaking with one of his employees or with a businessman, a politician or some other visitor from the outside. I was rarely wrong.

The barber I had for many years was a congenial man in his shop, although I noticed that he usually said basically the same things each time I went in and asked the same questions. He never remembered the answers from one time to the next. When I encountered him a couple of times outside his shop, I greeted him, but he walked by as if he hadn't heard me and didn't know me. He was off duty and apparently didn't need the patter that helped him in his business.

It is not just our work that may give us a different voice (or laugh or personality). We may speak differently to children than to adults, to very old people than to younger people, to strangers than to friends, to "important" people and celebrities than to ordinary people, to those we are trying to impress (like dates or someone we hope will hire us) than to everybody else.

Whether these different voices are a good thing or a bad thing can depend upon the situation and our own motivation. Hypocrisy and phoniness are wrong, as is patronizing others. Yet often our other voices represent an improvement. They may show us what we are capable of. Perhaps that stronger, more confident voice I used on the phone is how I should sound all the time.

Friday, November 20, 2015

On separating the author from the book

T.S. Eliot, in his role as a literary critic rather than as a poet, made a distinction between what he called the "man who suffers" and the "mind that creates." Just as Christians believe in a God in Three Persons, so Eliot believed in a writer in two persons. One is someone just like you and me who eats, drinks, waits for traffic lights, catches colds, loves and hates, watches television, reads newspapers and ultimately dies. The second person, the "mind that creates" is the one responsible for those works of literature, good or bad.

Why did Eliot make this distinction? Because he didn't think readers, perhaps especially literary critics, should confuse one with the other. Judge each, the human being and the work of literature, separately. A writer, as the "man who suffers," may have been a bigot, a traitor or a child rapist. You may hold that against that writer as man, but don't hold it against the books he wrote. Judge them on their own terms. At least I think that's what Eliot had in mind.

This view has merit, at least up to a point. Many writers, however crude and rude they may have been in their private lives, produced beautiful works of literature. It would be wrong to discount their writing, or worse refuse to read it, because we don't approve of their behavior. their political views or whatever. Good writing, even when produced by bad people, is still good writing.

Yet it can be hard to read To Kill a Mockingbird without thinking that Harper Lee is writing about her own childhood, or to read Slaughterhouse-Five without recalling that Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was himself a POW in Dresden, or to read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn without recognizing the influence of the Mississippi River on the young Samuel Clemens. Our knowledge of the "man who suffers" impacts our appreciation of the "mind that creates," whether we will it or not. Perhaps one reason William Shakespeare is so highly regarded as a writer is that we know so little about him as a person.

If we should avoid confusing the "man who suffers" with the "mind that creates" when reading literature, how about when we are reading (or writing) literary biographies? Most biographers use writers' fiction to make sense of their lives. One wonders whether Eliot would have also found that objectionable, too.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Perspectives for reading

Chip: "I need to take today's paper to school."

Hi: "But I haven't read it yet."

Chip: "We're studying current events, Dad. I can't take yesterday's paper."
Hi & Lois, Nov. 17, 2015

Her custom was to let back issues pile up for at least six months before reading them, for she insisted that this was sufficient time to put things into proper perspective ...
Donna Leon, A Sea of Troubles

There you have two opposing views on reading, and they can apply to reading just about anything. One is represented by Chip, the teenage boy in the Hi & Lois comic strip. To him, yesterday's news is old news, not current events. To others like him, yesterday's best-selling books are irrelevant books. They aren't interested in reading them, or any other books, unless "everybody" else is reading them. Those who complain about the old magazines in doctor's waiting rooms and barber shops may also be members of this club.

Then there are those represented by Paola, the wife of Commissario Brunetti in Donna Leon's mystery A Sea of Troubles. She lets her weekly magazines stack up for six months before she tackles them, appreciating the perspective this gives her. After six months she has a better sense of what's actually important and therefore what's worth reading. In this group also are those who read older books, not just the classics but lesser books that have been around for a few years and are no longer popular, if they ever were.

I am currently reading A Sea of Troubles, which was published in 2001. I guess that reveals which side I take. I read The Girl on the Train while it was still the No. 1 bestseller, so I do read some current books, and I read review copies of current books, but mostly I read books that have been on my shelves a few years. Sometimes I discover I no longer have any interest in reading a book and even wonder why I acquired it in the first place. Other books I am still keen to read. Perhaps that's what Paola considers "proper perspective."

C.S. Lewis taught old books, but he wrote new books. Thus he had an interest in both. Yet, in one of his essays, he argued, "But if he (the ordinary reader) must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it."

That may be overstatement, but he has a point, and again it is about perspective. Older books, especially literary works and nonfiction books on certain subjects, like theology, have been tested by time. Instead of being influenced by what others are reading now, you can be influenced by what others have read in the past.

Over the summer I read two or three issues of Smithsonian that were each more than 20 years old. Their being that old didn't seem to adversely affect my reading experience much. There were a few articles I ignored because they were obviously dated, but those relating to history, art, literature and natural history, always my favorite subjects for Smithsonian articles, were as interesting as they would have been decades ago. The ads were probably more interesting because of the perspective gained through all those years.

As for newspapers, I worked on them for more than 40 years, so I well know how quickly they change from today's news to tomorrow's trash. Yet from the perspective of all those years in the business I know that today's news is impacted by yesterday's news. And despite what Chip may think, current events remain current for more than a single day.

Monday, November 16, 2015


"He was here for a half-hour after lunch, but then he said he had to go to a meeting."

One of the things Brunetti liked about Signorina Elettra was the merciless accuracy of her speech. Not, "had to go to a meeting," but the more precise, "said he had to go to a meeting."
Donna Leon, A Sea of Troubles

The theater was in what she would euphemistically call an "interesting neighborhood."
Melanie Benjamin, The Swans of Fifth Avenue

One afternoon last week I found both of the above passages in two novels I am reading. It occurred to me that they describe opposite approaches to our use of language. One employs precision in our speech and writing, the other ambiguity. Both serve essentially the same purpose: self-protection.

In the Donna Leon mystery, Signorina Elettra, a clerical worker in the Venice police department who also does amazing investigative work with her computer, opts for precision when speaking of her boss. Rather than say he "had to go to a meeting," she says "he said he had to go to a meeting." Is she implying her boss lied to her? Not really. She is simply stating what she actually knows: He said he had to go to a meeting.

I learned very early in the newspaper business to attribute everything that can be attributed. That's how newspapers protect themselves from libel suits. An Associated Press story on the front page of today's Tampa Bay Times uses such phrases as "Iraqi intelligence officials say," "a Defense Ministry statement said" and "French officials revealed." The Times itself is not always this careful. An inside headline today boldly states "Man hit, injured badly illegally crossing road." It's not really a newspaper's place to accuse someone of breaking the law, although a sheriff's office report is cited in the body of the story.

Even gossips can use this strategy. Instead of saying that someone is having an affair or has a drinking problem, they use phrases like "I heard" or "a friend told me." If the rumor turns out not to be true, well, it's not their fault.

In her novel, Melanie Benjamin tells of writer Truman Capote taking socialite Babe Paley to movie in a cab. They pass through a neighborhood she terms interesting.  That's a useful word  that can sound complimentary, whether it is so intended or not. Here ambiguity, rather than precision, protects the speaker or writer. Similarly a woman may be described as striking. Sounds like a compliment, doesn't it? But she could be striking because she is ugly or poorly dressed or because her makeup is a mess. An imposing man may look strong and powerful. Or he may simply look obese. Ambiguity helps a person be truthful without revealing the real truth or the whole truth.

Most of us, especially those of us who seek to be truthful without offending anyone, become skilled in the use of both precision and ambiguity to communicate. Whichever works.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Insults sour the sweet life

I enjoy reading the British movie magazine Cinema Retro, which focuses on films from the 1960s and 1970s. That was a great period in movies, at least for people my age. We never seem to tire of the music of our youth or the movies of our youth, and Cinema Retro revisits those old films in amazing detail. The current issue, for example, devotes 12 pages to The Bridge at Remagen (and this article is to be continued in the next issue) and six pages to La Dolce Vita, both films released in 1960.

Reading the latter article, I was struck by some of the negative comments made at the time about the stars of the movie. Marcello Mastroianni learned that director Federico Fellini had chosen him for the part  because he wanted "an ordinary face." Paul Newman was once considered for the lead role, so the comment credited to Fellini may not have been true. Just the same, it stung Mastroianni, who probably thought he had anything but an ordinary face.

As for Anita Ekberg, the star most of us remember from that film, she was told "they didn't need acting ability for that kind of role." So maybe Ekberg wasn't the greatest actress of her era, but she was great in that role. Still the comment hurt her. Maybe it prompted her to do better. But perhaps it didn't.

Fellini underscored the insult at a press conference after completion of the film when he told reporters Ekberg's talent lay in her bust. The actress got her revenge when she told the press, "It was I who made Fellini, not the other way round." I had forgotten Fellini directed the movie, but I'll never forget Anita Ekberg. So perhaps she was right, and perhaps he was, too.

How many times have we all heard and repeated the old adage "if you can't say something nice about someone, don't say anything at all"?  And how often have we all ignored it?

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Waste words

An insurance claims agent who called me last week couldn't seem to get out a sentence without employing the word actually. In one run-on sentence he used it at least five times. He may have slipped it in a time or two before I started counting. Once I became aware of all the actuallys, I had difficulty following what he was trying to say. Not that I usually understand insurance agents anyway.

Watching Antiques Roadshow Monday night, I noticed two of the experts also overdoing actually, even if not up to the insurance man's standards. Once you start noticing things like this, you notice them everywhere.

Many of us have a favorite unnecessary word or phrase that we use constantly without even being aware of it. We hear things like "or anything," "and everything," "and stuff" and, of course, "you know" all the time, but we usually don't notice it either.

Can you answer a question without first saying the word well? I don't think I can. Listen to news network interviews or presidential debates and you will hear well at the start of most replies. It could be a lot worse. Actually.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Words in flux

Why do we call unfamiliar people strangers even though they may not be at all strange? Because they once were. The word strange once meant "foreign." Today it means "odd" or "unusual." When Shakespeare wrote about "one of the strange Queen's Lords," he was referring to one of the foreign queen's lords, not one of the odd queen's lords or one of the queen's odd lords.

Reading Shakespeare, Milton, the King James Bible or any works from centuries past can be tricky because the meanings of words are always changing, and sometimes those changes are radical. Meat once meant food in general, not just the food from animal flesh as it does today. In King Lear, Shakespeare referred to "mice, and rats, and such small deer," suggesting that any animal, or at least any wild animal, was a deer. Similarly, birds of any kind were once called fowl. Today that word is more specialized, referring more to farm birds or game birds.

Today the word naughty means "mischievous," such as a naughty child. At one time the word meant "wicked." The word complexion once referred to temperament, not to skin.

The word disease once meant, as the word suggests, "a lack of ease" or "anxiety." Today it refers to illness. A gale once meant "a gentle breeze." To be cunning was once considered to be a good thing, while pretty was once considered a bad thing, referring more to craftiness than to good looks.

It doesn't take centuries for meanings of words to change. It can happen in one lifetime, as many of us have noticed. Political correctness has made some words, like crippled or Oriental, unacceptable, even though they were in wide use just a few years ago. Words like gay and mouse have so far retained their old meanings, yet their newer meanings have become the first ones many of us think of when we encounter them.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Not such dull work

In his Dictionary of the English Language, the first if its kind, Samuel Johnson defined dull as "not exhilarating; not delightful; as, to make dictionaries is dull work." Yet in his dictionary, Johnson did his best to relieve the dullness with his witty and creative definitions. Maybe he wasn't quite the wit Ambrose Bierce was in his The Devil's Dictionary many years later, but still he was pretty good. Vivian Cook offers some examples in It's All in a Word.

In another joke at his own expense, he defined lexicographer as "a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge."

Johnson said of oats that it is "a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people."

He defined a politician as a "man of artifice; one of deep contrivance."

A network, he wrote, is anything "reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections." We can just imagine how he must have laughed over that one.

Johnson used his dictionary not just to make jokes, but also to express opinions. He described lesser as "a barbarous corruption of less" and astrology as "the practice of foretelling things by the knowledge of the stars: an art now generally exploded as without reason."

As for sonnet, he called it a "short poem consisting of 14 lines ... It is not very suitable to the English language, and has not been used by any man of eminence since Milton."

Modern dictionaries are more objective, more accurate and more balanced, but they are also more likely to fit Samuel Johnson's definition of the word dull.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Another long walk

The recent Emma Hopper first novel Etta and Otto and Russell and James invites comparison with The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (2013). Both novels tell of an elderly person taking off suddenly on a very long walk, leaving a spouse behind. And each novel turns into a love story, though perhaps not in a way the reader might expect. That two writers should come up with similar ideas at about the same time is not that unusual. A year ago ("Who's in control?," Nov. 7, 2014) I wrote about Elizabeth Gilbert and Ann Patchett having eerily similar ideas for a story set in the Amazon. Gilbert ultimately dropped the idea. Patchett turned it into State of Wonder.

I can understand why some readers might prefer the subtlety and surrealism of Hopper's version of this story, although I favor Joyce's. Both are worth reading, however.

In Hopper's novel, Etta, a woman in her 80s, sets off walking from Saskatchewan to the Atlantic Ocean, leaving her husband, Otto, to fend for himself. They met many years before when Etta was a teenage teacher in a rural school and both Otto and his friend, Russell, were among her students. She and Otto were married after his return from World War II, yet Russell, always nearby, has long carried a buried passion for Etta. When she sets off on her walk, Russell is the one who takes off after her. Otto patiently waits for her return, creating amazing folk art in the meantime.

As for James, he is a coyote who accompanies Etta for much of her long journey. He keeps up his end of the conversation, or at least she imagines he does.

Hopper alternately tells us what Etta, Otto and Russell are doing now and what happened during those earlier days when Otto left school to go to war, but Russell, who couldn't pass the physical, stayed behind. Much of the novels consists of letters written during the war.

This is a tender story about long-term love, just a bit too ambiguous for my taste.