This Modernist Life

Rainbow over the magic valleyThe work of the Modernists and Post-Modernists is not for everybody. Literature from this period can be dense, esoteric, and difficult for the casual reader to access. However, if you don’t mind playing the occasional mind game while you read a book, you might try a work from one of the greats like T.S. Elliot or Jennifer Egan. By reading these works and studying the scholarship around them, you can develop a new understanding of and appreciation for he use of the English language in art.

The representational nature of language in art is one of the big concerns of Modern and Post-Modern writers. In order to function, art must represent something – or must it? The act of representation has such a profoundly disruptive effect on a thing or concept that, in the eyes of many modernists, the thing represented is rendered completely pointless. Rather, it is the representational act that should stand at the center of the artistic work, and the artist should feel free to call the audience’s attention to the fact that representation is happening.

This emphasis on ‘the person behind the curtain’ is conveyed to the audience through a variety of techniques. Some writers use elaborate, inaccessible language to make the reader work for any meaning found in the text. Others use a kaleidoscopic timeline to force the audience to recreate the process of making a narrative out of real events. In almost all cases, the reader is challenged to find meaning rather than handed meaning on a silver platter.

Of course, if you want to be a commercial writer, you’re typically better off indulging your readers’ laziness than you are challenging them to a battle of wits. This doesn’t mean that the modernists don’t have some interesting philosophical ideas to offer the writer. We are, after all, in the business of representation, and learning a little about the ramifications of that act behooves us all.

Small Town Settings: Cute Nostalgia or Dark Secrets?

Spello 2They’ve become a fixture of American literature because they’re a fixture of American geography: those dinky little towns of 500 to 2,000 souls, clinging desperately to the industry or the Interstate that keeps them from disappearing into the empty places of this country. Though few people like to live in these places, many of us like to read stories set in an American small town.

On one level, this setting is appealing because it offers a certain nostalgia for a simpler time, when the whole town knew your name and you could count on any of them to help you out of a tight spot. To a degree, small towns in popular culture signify communal trust and the virtues of a small, close-knit family. That’s why, when you need a character who’s a bit naive, one of the go-to choices for backstory is to have them come from an itty-bitty town way out in the sticks.

However, as anyone who actually grew up in one of these towns can tell you, it’s very easy to lose that wide-eyed innocence without moving to the big city. The dark side of small towns in America is well-known: these places tend to be isolated, insular, and plagued by poverty and bad education. In fiction, that’s just the start of the trouble. Drugs in the water supply, doomsday cults, serial killers, and beautiful families of teenage vampires are just some of the dark secrets held by small towns in American literature.

So, why do we insist on keeping up this idea that we, that any of us, perceive a small town to be a cute little oasis of innocence in a mean ol’ urban world? You can argue that it’s political, and it probably is, but it’s also probably because of the prideful cynicism we have in this country. Yes, we want to be the one to debunk that inspirational quote on our friend’s Facebook. We want to be the first one to tell Aunt Hortense that her chain e-mail is an urban legend. If we admit that we already know that a small town is just as dark and dangerous as the Big Scary City, then we lose the chance to re-live that beautiful smug journey toward Being Right All Along.

So, when you decide to set a story in a small town, feel free to paint it as the cheery, innocent place where you’d just love to settle down and start a family. Your audience won’t mind – especially if you later give them a chance to “discover” the hidden dark side of your All-American setting.

Just Like Me, They Long to Read, Close to You…

Bindweed flowerA book is like a hyper-convenient version of Pandora’s box – it can spawn a plethora of different things, but it’s up to us which one will come out. We can read for work or for school. We can read to form an opinion on a controversial book, or to examine the politics at play in a popular series. We can read just for the simple pleasure of words on a page.

Just as there are different purposes for reading, there are different levels of reading. Most frequently, we read a work in its entirety, and we read it on a surface level. A detail here or there might slip past us, but we grasp the overall point and meaning of the book. Even the most serious scholars will approach a book in this way at first.

However, you don’t have to come up with an opinion and move on once you’ve given a book a read-through like this. In fact, you shouldn’t move on if you really want to learn from it. Instead, you should pick an interesting passage or two and subject them to a good, old-fashioned close reading.

In a formal academic setting, a ‘close reading’ is a short essay (of 500 to 1,000 words at my alma mater) written on a sentence or two in a novel. I want to be a nice creative person and say “but you can choose your own method,” but no – at first, you’ll need that goal of 500 words to get you really thinking about the short (no more than 55 words!) passage you’ve chosen. Do it right, and you’ll think you’ve gone crazy: you’ll be going to seemingly absurd lengths to find some additional meaning hidden in a little grammar quirk. You’ll be looking up words in dictionaries, you’ll be thinking about section structures, and you might even be looking up the current academic discourse of the book.

This madness is exactly the point of close reading. It forces you to grasp at straws, to look for different interpretations, and to think of strategies a writer may have been using to make a point. That process will help you understand literature, it will help you develop your own strategies for making points, and it will help you develop a new level of understanding for the books you read.


Why We Love the Books We Love

Love-in-a-mist flower with raindropsThis weekend, I had the displeasure of dealing with a minor flood in my basement. No lasting damage was done, except to the tall bookshelf that used to house my collection of books. Checking dozens of books for water damage and drying out the damp ones is not exactly my idea of a party. Nonetheless, it gave me a chance to think about how I came by these volumes and why I still keep them around.

Like anybody who’s gone to college for the liberal arts, I have a collection of books that I studied for classes. Some of them are laborious volumes of criticism and theory, and others are amusing novels that don’t take a day or two to read. What they all have in common is the level of scrutiny I have given them. I have analyzed and discussed their contents on an academic level, and I have a good understanding of where they fit in with their genre and their time period.

Other books in my little library are familiar in different ways.  There are encyclopedias of magical creatures, of fairy tales, of gods and goddesses from ancient civilizations around the globe: these, I go back to when I feel like I need to know how a particular mythic narrative works. Then, there are favorite novels, which I lose myself in to remind myself of the sheer pleasure of the written word. There are books of poetry, which I enjoy for their varied beauty at the same time as I mine them for lessons on effective technique.

I think it’s good to consider the relationships we have with different texts in our lives – even boring ones, like the drivers’ manuals in our glove boxes or the Idiot’s Guide to Cooking Things in Crock Pots. As writers, we seek to give each of our works a purpose. By considering the purposes of our favorite texts, we become a little more aware of how the best authors make their texts serve those purposes.

Get them hooked!

Clothes hangers

A hook to hang something from

The hook – the opening few paragraphs that drag the reader in – is an absolutely vital part of your book and merits having time being spent on it. How you tackle this section will, to a large extent, dictate whether someone will want to read your book or not and, more importantly, whether that someone will part with their cash in order to buy it.

No-one can give you a hard and fast rule for what you should or shouldn’t put in an opening – whether it’s pure dialogue, a description of the time, place or events occurring – it all depends on you. The book’s genre, your style, the plot and your target market are all key factors in the nature of the hook you choose to create.

To get you thinking, go to a site like the Gutenberg Project which provides free e-books of classic literature, and download a few that cover your genre. If nothing else, just read the opening paragraphs and note which ones draw you in and which ones don’t. Now read some more modern physical books you’ve got on your shelves (even if you’ve read them recently, re-read the opening two to three paragraphs) and then, finally, use Amazon’s ‘Look Inside’ feature to do likewise with the top-selling books in your genre.

Now analyse your results. What’s the common element other than that the books are (or have been) successful? Have tastes changed?

The whole thing will take you a few hours but cost nothing and quite probably make all the difference in the number of copies of your own book that you subsequently sell. It’s well worth the effort.

When you least need Writer’s Block

Sink Plunger

A useful for tool for unblocking

Writing, in its broadest sense, is probably the last civilized tool to abandon a human being. I’m picturing here the educated prisoner holed up for decades in a dungeon, scratching poetry on the damp walls with a chip of stone.

Writing liberates; it gives a window beyond the present situation. It also gives substance to transient feelings, like love or despair. It’s the way the human mind gives shape to its thoughts, tracks them and gives them a certain permanence. It can stop people going mad and bring them back from madness, or sometimes it’s the outward manifestation of madness.

I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of a prisoner, deprived even of scratchable walls, who composes pieces in his head and commits them to memory. I would love to know how it works. Would each morning consist of a review of all the finished material followed by creating new work? Or would there be some compartment in the brain where the finished parts were stored so as to be retrievable at a later date?

There’s a Spanish poet called Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer whose volume of poetry, finished and submitted to a publisher, was lost in a political revolution. Not something which ought to happen these days if things are backed up properly! Anyway, he wrote out all his poems from memory. I don’t think many poets these days, when set rhythms and rhyme schemes are unfashionable, would be able to do the same.  (The original function of rhyme was in fact to make sagas memorable.)

People can achieve extraordinary things when they’re pushed into it. Like writing by batting an eyelid when the rest of you is paralysed. Or telling yourself stories when you’re supposedly brain-dead but in fact still very much alive in your coma and just not able to communicate.

The worst scourge to afflict anyone whose circumstances were so reduced would have to be Writer’s Block. There would be no alternative activity; nothing to distract. A person would surely go mad in such a situation.

But Writer’s Block in my experience is a mixture of boredom with the task at hand and self-generating demoralisation at lack of inspiration or success. It isn’t even because the job is too difficult; without the handicap of Writer’s Block multiple ways of circumventing the problems would present themselves.

To return to our prisoner, inspiration is like the plant which blooms in an adverse climate (for very sound biological reasons – the plant hopes its progeny will experience better times). Discomfort, loneliness, misery of every kind, can squeeze the best out of us. The important thing is to keep a spark alive because depression and dehumanisation are powerful enemies.

There’s another piece of Spanish literature – a medieval ballad supposedly written and sung by a prisoner who “doesn’t even know when night and day are except for a little bird which sang to him at dawn”. The bird has been killed by an archer; the ballad finishes by cursing him. There may be symbolism behind that bird and that archer, but I prefer to interpret them literally. Out of terrible, bleak circumstances has arisen the most beautifully poignant of poems which has survived down the ages and which must have accompanied many people through dark times.