Friday, October 21, 2005

Paradise by Toni Morrison

My Women in Literature class has been reading Toni Morrison's novel Paradise, and my graduate workshop is reading Song of Solomon (well, we were until Hurricane Wilma cancelled class) so I've been thinking a lot about Morrison lately. She has one of my favorite quotes on writing "I wanted it to be narrow and deep" which she said about writing her novel Beloved. I tend to use the quote in reference to short stories because they truly need to be narrow and deep. Morrison's novels--even the shortest The Bluest Eye--do not seem narrow to me (though I guess some do to her). And as I reread Paradise, that was one of the things that struck me: as much as I admire the novel (and Morrison is probably my favorite living writer), I could never write as she does. My brain simply doesn't work in that many layers. It feels as if Morrison, in order to achieve her constant shifting between characters, times and ideas, must hold the entire world of her novel--all of her characters, their past, present and futures--in her mind at once. My mind is far too straightforward to do that (another word for that might be simple). And my mind seems to be reflected in my fiction (which stylistically is simple). Perhaps Morrison's style is a product of huge amounts of revision, but it still feels like it must be something organic to the way she thinks.

Another thought: how does a writer achieve "deep." There are surely many different answers to this, but it seems as if taking on a historical subject often leads writers to a larger scope than contemporary subjects do. Also adding spirituality as one of the characters' concerns seems to increase scope. I'm not suggesting we all take on religion, but that by giving our characters concerns that are larger than daily living, we raise questions that will never be answered and will never go out of style--again potentially giving weight to the work. The recent death of August Wilson, who wrote ten plays, each one set in and depicting a different decade of Twentieth Century African American life, made me think again about the idea of artists taking on a subject in multiple works. This grouping of his plays gives a depth to Wilson's work that might not have been as strong if the plays didn't work in combination. It's worth giving some thought to what you want to do as a writer, not just in a single work, but overall.

Fairly irrevelant writer encounter anecdote with a moralistic ending: When I was a kid (pre-memory) my mother used to take my brother and I to a bakery in Istanbul where she would sometimes encounter James Baldwin. When my parents came to visit me as an undergraduate, I took them to the local ice cream shop, where my mother literally bumped elbows with Toni Morrison. While I like the very thought of rubbing (or bumping) elbows with genius, especially literary genius, I think what's most important about these encounters is that I have a mother who recognizes James Baldwin and Toni Morrison when she seems them--and who gets excited about it. Over the past year my five-year-old nephew Devin and my dad have been telling each other a narrative about Devin and Vinden (my dad tells the story, my nephew sings the musical numbers), and lately they've been adapting it into a movie. Yesterday they story-boarded it and my nephew asked that it be bound (read: stapled) and then he ran around shouting, "My book, my book!" (note: this is what I plan to do once I finish my novel draft). My point here is I see where I came from. My parents deserve the credit.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Ssh, Reading in Progress

After the great Zadie Smith disappointment I have moved on to The March by E.L. Doctorow, which received so many great reviews that I went ahead and bought it without even browsing. And so far: beautiful beautiful.

I'm also dipping periodically in and out of The Best American Essays 2005 (I'm very much looking forward to reading the infamous David Foster Wallace pro-lobster essay from Gourmet as soon as I log off) and am expecting an Amazon delivery shortly of The Best American Short Stories 2005 and Jane Smiley's Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel.