Sunday, September 24, 2006

Ssh, Reading in Progress

I've been reading the journal my great-grandfather, Thomas Wistar Brown III, kept while traveling in Switzerland and other places with his parents in 1908. He had this to say after visiting with a woman who knew a lot of Danish writers: "All this goes to show that 1) All writers are queer (editor's note: he means strange, not gay, it's 1908) a) the necessity of my not becoming so 2) That I must write that book on Canada and that on fairies, for though all feelings possible to human beings have been described there are still crevices in that vast rock of literature which have never yet seen the sun."

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

I usually tell students that if they're going to switch between first and third person in a story or a novel they ought to have a reason for doing so (form and function, rather than form over function) beyond that they want to or they need to. But Charles Dickens manages to switch between first and third in his funny, depressing, wonderfully large and long novel, without bugging me at all. Now the question is, is this because he is Charles Dickens and through long-accepted classic-status above reproach; or because I am wrong and students should switch point-of-view willy-nilly and all they want; or for some other reason. I dunno. I think it's number three. Each point of view section is so long (as opposed to say a short story or even a two to three hundred page novel) that it's never jarring to switch and I feel satisfied by each section before I'm forced to leave it. And maybe a little bit of number one, and a little bit of number two (it is possible to get to hung up on rules and repeat them on near-automatic from semester to semester--though for the record I resist automatic as much as I consciously can).

Monday, September 18, 2006

New York Times bestsellers

I noted with an admitted bit of cynicism that Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer is currently #20 on the NYT hardcover nonfiction bestseller list this week. Why the cynicism? Because I thought to myself I bet there isn't one book of literary fiction in the fiction top twenty and yet a book on writing fiction is in the nonfiction top twenty. But then I clicked over to the fiction list and lo and behold: #8 Claire Messud's novel and #13 Edward Jones's short story (!) collection. Well, well, well. Happy day.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Lighthousekeeping by Jeanette Winterson

I've been thinking lately about how much I'm willing to forgive in a novel before it goes from a thumbs up to a thumbs down. And the novel Lighthousekeeping is definitely a thumbs up because as I read I was affected by the language, moved by the characters, curious about the story... and yet in the end, it wasn't an entirely successful novel. Lots of things feel dropped (incomplete) and the plot never really goes anywhere (Winterson never seems too interested in plot) and yet I'm so appreciative of the quality of the writing to the degree that I'd recommend the book to others, consider teaching it, and certainly take a second look at it if I ever had the time. So I guess I'm willing to forgive a fair amount as long as your images are good.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Arthur & George by Julian Barnes

This is my first Julian Barnes novel, and while it took me a couple of tries to get past the opening--it ping-pongs so quickly between the two main characters at the start that I kept stopping--but once I got going I really admired and enjoyed it.

The Arthur of the title is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame and the George is an English-Indian solicitor accused of insane crimes that he didn't commit. I could never quite tell if it was based on a real case or if Barnes made the whole thing up (Google would tell I'm sure), but I'm often a sucker for the real life author as fictional character genre and I enjoyed imagining Conan Doyle via Barne's creation. (confession: I've never read any Sherlock Holmes).

But what really struck me about the novel is the way it uses the conventions of mystery within a literary novel. The end, which I won't give away, is a bold move away from the conventions of mystery but Barnes gets away with it because of his beginning (for the first 20-30 pages you have no idea you're headed toward a mystery). Anyway, I've noticed lately that literary authors, like Kate Atkinson, are taking on the mystery genre more directly and I think it's been good all around--whether you think of them as literary novels with strong plots or genre novels with strong characters--they're a pleasure to read. It can be useful for a novelist to acknowledge that we're pretty much all writing mysteries--not necessarily about crimes but about things unknown which will gradually be revealed--and so understanding the rules of the genre (multiple suspects, red herrings, tension, subplots and unexpected developments to name a few) can help with even the most literary construction.

Monday, September 04, 2006

The Messenger Boy Murders by Perihan Magden

I've discovered this British publisher, Milet, that focuses on publishing Turkish authors in translation, which for me, a Turk who doesn't speak Turkish, is pretty exciting. This short novel was a great find.

Every culture seems to have its Kafka, and Magden (there should be an accent over the g) is Turkey's. This novel, much like Murakami's (Japan's version) Kafka on the Shore, has a Kafka meets Raymond Chandler voice that I loved. The end is rather abrupt but it's not troubling me too much. I found myself wondering, because the book is written by a woman but translated by a man, if that affected the voice (the narrator is male and believably so, I found). I resist the idea that a writing voice can be masculine or feminine (I don't like when Hemingway's writing, for example, is called masculine--because if his spare prose is masculine writing then what does that make feminine writing?), but it's hard to insist that there isn't any gender effect on writing. But since I can't read the original, guess I'll never know.

When I first started teaching writing, I didn't teach works in translation because they were a step away from the original author's language, etc. But then I realized that would limit the scope and variety of what I could teach and just perpetuate the idea that great work is only written in English. So now when I teach work in translation, I tend to focus more on content and structure, ambition and style, rather than actual word choice.