Friday, March 28, 2008

What Was She Thinking? [Notes on a Scandal] by Zoe Heller

This novel, made into the Cate Blanchett/Judi Dench film Notes on a Scandal, is a well-executed exercise in the is-this-narrator-completely-nuts point of view. The novel makes a point of demonstrating how un-self-aware the narrator (an older female teacher who becomes infatuated with a younger female teacher who becomes infatuated with a even younger male student) is, but what was more interesting to me than the show-the-reader-what-the-narrator-can't-see tricks was how surprisingly fascinating it is to view the world through the eyes of someone who is really really mean. The moments with the heavy writing-pyrotechnics tend to be the ones that demonstrate the narrator's obsession with the other teacher, but the more surprising, and to my mind, sharper moments are when the narrator observes everyone and everything else. The brief moments when the story steps away from the plot to observe some tangential thing actually did a lot to elevate this from a boil-the-bunny kind of story to a more literary one. For example, "For most people, honesty is such an unusual departure from their standard modus operandi--such an aberration in their workaday mendacity--that they feel obligated to alert you when a moment of sincerity is coming on. 'To be completely honest,' they say, or 'To tell you the truth,' or 'Can I be straight?'" I'm a big fan of when fiction takes a step back from observing individuals and instead observes patterns, and Heller does this very well.

Dangerous Laughter by Steven Millhauser

I am a huge fan of Millhauser's first novel, Edwin Mullhouse, and a more modest fan of pretty much everything else he does. In this story collection, he does a nice job of marrying high concept ideas (snow globe type housing communities, teenage age laughing clubs) to real people and real feelings. But what interested me most was the way the collection avoids the whole everything must be linked trend that publishers are imposing on the short story world. The first story is called an Opening Cartoon and then there are three sections, Vanishing Acts, Impossible Architectures, and Heretical Histories, each of which contain four stories. The section structure allows for like-minded stories to be grouped together without forcing the whole collection to be of a piece. I approve.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Bridge of the Golden Horn by Emine Sevgi Ozdamar translated by Martin Chalmers

I always appreciate finding Turkish women writers who have been translated into English, and this novel was particularly interesting in that it followed a young Turkish woman who, during the revolutionary 60s, traveled to Germany as a guest worker and then back again (I recently discovered that there and back again novels are a whole thing that people talk about, which was useful since I'm working on what is apparently a there and back again novel myself--different than my big house novel, in case you're wondering). Anyway I was interested to know that women did this on their own--for no good reason, I always thought of men as leading the way in the guest worker system.

What struck me while reading the book is that there is a distinct difference between a fast-paced novel and a fast-paced voice in a novel. A fast-paced novel, one that moves quickly through events and pages, tends to include a lot of scene--dialogue and action. It shows a lot, tells less. On the other hand, a fast-paced voice can actually, and possibly usually, be within a quite slow-paced novel. This is because a fast-paced voice is created by long sentences that don't pause for breath and is much more summary than scene. It's an interesting sensation to be carried along by a hyperactive narrator through a fairly dense book. It makes the book feel less dense, less slow than it actually is, but also occasionally feels like bicycling up a steep hill (you know, you feel like your feet are moving fast but your bike is moving slow).

Monday, March 10, 2008

The New Kings of Nonfiction edited by Ira Glass

When I first heard the title of this essay anthology, edited by the peerless host of This American Life, I thought it odd that he/they picked such a gender-specific title. I'm sure someone will say well, these are metaphoric kings so they can be women. Baloney. Kings suggests men, always has, and I gotta imagine always will. And if this had been an anthology of male writers--and declared as such--I'd have no problem with it. But it's an anthology of twelve male writers and two female. Twelve and two. Now my question is do editors of anthologies such as this (an anthology intended more for the public than the classroom) have a political and ethical responsibility to diversity in their selections?

What Ira Glass claims to have done in making his choices is just picked through essays he'd saved over the years--his favorites. And most of them are written by authors who are white, male, middle-class, and approximately his age. It's not really surprising that a reader would favor writers who resemble him, but I can't help but feel Glass had a bigger responsibility than simply picking his favorites. Maybe I only reacted strongly because I'm a woman and a writer and so felt excluded in a way that women readers might not, but I think a table of contents like this sends an implicit message that men write better than women, or at least that Ira Glass, a well-respected public figure, thinks so. In other words, it matters on a larger scale what Ira Glass says his favorites are. Interestingly his radio show, This American Life includes what seems to me to be a mixed balance of men and women and definitely aims to represent a wide swath of America (though I'm sure many think it's a very NPR audience politically-approved swath), so it's not like Glass isn't aware of a need to represent a bigger picture. And maybe part of the issue is these are all the same kind of essay--very New Yorkeresque profiles (though many were published in New Yorker clones such as Harper's, Atlantic Monthly, and the New York Times Magazine. Only the David Foster Wallace essay breaks from the traditional journalistic form, so in that case it's 13 to 1 against diversity.

With all that said, case by case, I loved these essays. They are fantastic. It's just that put together as a book collectively they make a bigger statement that I have to assume Glass didn't intend to make.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Teaching Poetry Writing: A Five-Canon Approach by Tom C. Hunley

At first this book, which is exactly what its title suggests, a plan for teaching poetry, really frustrated me because the author kept making statements like "The traditional workshop model fails to take creative writing instruction seriously, and it does not take students seriously...When instructors don't bother with lesson plans, syllabi, explicit grading policies, exercises aimed to help combat writer's block, exercises designed to give students the proper terminology needed for critiquing each others' work, and so on, are students really being taken seriously?" My problem with this statement is twofold: one, he assumes the traditional workshop model is all workshop all the time (apparently without any discussions of vocab built into the workshop also) and two, who teaches like that? I'm sure some do, but the presumption of the book is that most creative writing profs do--which simply hasn't been my experience. Now I don't claim my experience is scientific--I don't have any stats to back up what happens across the country, but neither does Huntley.

But once I got over my frustration with his negative assumptions, I found the book quite interesting. Like most teaching texts, some suggestions were Not for Me, some were Patently Ridiculous, and others were Really Intriguing and a few were even I'll Definitely Try That. The most intriguing, but least likely for me to implement idea was to use classtime largely for writing--guided exercises--and do all of the workshopping online. That swaps out the more usual practice of writing at home and workshopping in class. I'm not convinced by the arguments for online workshopping--that students are more honest, more thoughtful (I think a good workshop leader gets students to be honest and careful for in class workshopping and it's face-to-face, which seems nicely human to me), but I think some students (not all--certainly not me when I was a student) would benefit from the in-class writing. And I would find the in-class time to do more of other things--going over reading, e.g.--appealing. But as in most things, I tend to favor the middle road. My workshops do many things in class over the course of the seemster--exercises, reading discussion and workshopping. Lately I've been favoring a few weeks on, few weeks off movement between anthology-type reading and workshopping.

The overall proposal of this text is to use a more rhetoric-based structure for class. Moving from invention, to arrangement, to style, to memorization and delivery. I don't really dispute teaching any of those things, but I do wonder if focusing so much on poetry as argument would encourage undergrads to fall into didacticism. This could of course be combatted by examples and discussion. But the truth is my students love their creative writing classes but they don't love their composition classes. And it's not because their creative writing classes are easier (trust me, I demand more than the average freshman comp teacher) so I worry that such a plan for teaching might emphasize argument at the cost of art.

Still the book does have interesting ideas, and I'm all for more study of, and more variety in, how c.w. is taught.