Entering my second semester at the Pacific University MFA low residency program, has forced me to reassess my participation in this blog. The workload expected of me by Pacific University is simply too intense. I am worried that I will no longer be able to devote the same level of energy to this forum that I have in the past.
For reasons too numerous to list here, the identity of the new editor must remain a secret. The little I can tell you of is that he is a refugee, though not from a distant country, but from another time and dimension altogether! In this era of gross displacement, far be it from me to refuse him asylum.
In return, he has offered to parse the multiverse for stories, which, though germane to our plane, are markedly different due to the vagaries of the holographic universe.
I’m not a scientist; I cannot attest to the verisimilitude of dimensions and time streams nor how exactly these differences will manifest in the familiar stories of our world. That will be for you, dear reader, to discover on your own.
What I can attest to is the new editor’s absolute devotion to revealing the Truth, in all its myriad forms.
I have full confidence that he shall execute the responsibilities required by the job with competence and integrity.
William A. Gosline
The New Editor of the Speculation of William A. Gosline will be posting weekly stories about familiar people and characters from daily life. They are satirical in nature. Do NOT take them too seriously, please.
By British literary critic Terry Eagleton, The English Novel—an Introduction is much more than simply an introduction, though he does limit its scope to the canonical writers.
Eagleton is an eclectic and prolific scholar. He oeuvre contains works on post-modernism, Marxism, religion, and of course, literature. In The English Novel—An Introduction, he covers roughly two centuries: from the the periods known as Realism to High Modernism, which ended around WWI.
Eagleton does not shy away from psychological, political and social analyses of his subjects nor from noting some of the more opprobrious aspects of these revolutionary artists, not all of whom were liberal humanists. (A hundred years later, you would be hard pressed to find a Western writer that doesn’t subscribe to this particular philosophy, or who hasn’t been written off as a crack pot by his/her academic contemporaries.)
Eagleton is also not afraid to reassess the works of these literary lions, soberly and somewhat free from the long shadows of their renown.
There is so much touched upon in the book.
In the next few posts, I will discuss some of the things that I learned reading this capacious work. Hopefully the reader will find it likewise enlightening.
The Novel Was the Voice of the Middle Class.
If it [the novel] is a form particularly associated with the middle class, it is partly because the ideology of that class centres on a dream of total freedom from restraint.
If the epic, the predominant form before the novel, celebrated the exploits of kings, heroes, and warrior-poets, the novel’s primary concern was the burgeoning European middle class, focussing on the individual in an increasingly atomized world.
This may seem self-evident, but we should remember that before the social upheavals that led to the emergence of the middle class, life in Medeival Europe was largely static in terms of class. There was little opportunity for upward mobility.
The emergence towards the end of the 18th century of the middle class and its unimaginable freedom, (which is probably not all that impressive, by today’s standards) came with an increasing hostility towards the scaffolds of power. The middle class, as Eagleton writes, developed a whole slew of interests: “…its relish for the material world; its impatience with the formal, ceremonial and metaphysical; its insatiable curiosity about the individual self; its robust faith in historical progress.”
Yet, the same sensibilities that freed the middle class individual from the shackles of tradition also set her adrift, anchorless. Or perhaps more accurately, anchored solely in the self.
The novel’s struggle and mission from the get-go was to articulate the experience of this new free-floating individual. If the epic had been concerned with the archetype and the past, the novel was concerned with the mundane multi-faceted individual and the present. It affirmed the commonplace rather than the supernatural or heroic (though overflow of the supernatural reared up in early Gothic novels, which one could interpret as a sort of bridge between epic literature and realism.)
At the time, the novel was a form that didn’t require a specialized education.
In doing so [depicting the world in its everyday, unregenerate state] art finally returned the world to the common people who had created it through their labour, and who could now contemplate their own faces in it for the first time. A form of fiction had been born in which one could be proficient without specialist erudition or an expensive classical education.
But one doesn’t see many people who are not educated reading these novels, which is proof of just how much the “face” of the middle class has changed in a hundred years.
In fact, could the explosion of genre writing (as wang-dang-doodle as it can often be) be interpreted as a similar disruption to the literary scene as that that occurred upon the emergence of the novel over two hundred years ago? (And is this number longer? Eagleton opens the book with a treatise on Don Quixote.) The response of the authorities would seem to bear this analogy out: then and now, the new literary form was largely dismissed as useless, puerile, mean, base, etc.
I don’t think that this is an academic question: With a dwindling middle class and the rise of a new breed of 21st century people (cyborgs by the look of it, or Post-Humans, as they are called in the Universities), will the novel, with its focus on realism, humanism, and liberalism finally give up the ghost?
Of course, Eagleton opens the book with a swift kick in the pants of the reader, reminding the reader that the novel is an extremely slippery beast, and one that by its mercurial nature defies categorization.
As adaptable as humanity itself, this is what has accounted for its longevity.
No writer worth their salt will dispute the utter importance of the rewrite. As Ernest Hemingway said: “The first draft of anything is shit.”
Cate Kennedy, the Australian writer, once said that the writer must write for themselves but rewrite for the reader.
Mary Helen Stefaniak, the author of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winning novel, “The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia” in her craft talk at the Pacific University residency gave that most valuable of tools for the writer: a structural analysis of two versions of the same story, Frank O’Connor’s “Repentance” from 1935, and “First Confession” from 1951.
A rewrite done sixteen years later!
Stefaniak broke the stories down into scenes, narratives and half scenes, enumerating them so that the same event, regardless of how much it had changed, could be identified in both stories.
Here are some of the structural decisions O’Connor made in the rewrite of the story.
A Change of Perspective.
The initial version is in third person limited, meaning that the predominant pronoun is “he” but the story is still told through the protagonist’s eyes. Conversely, the second version is in first person.
Third person limited hinders the dramatic irony (when the reader knows something the character does not) that is so important to conveying the story’s good-natured amusement at the young protagonist’s antics. This is, after all, a story about a young boy who thinks he wants to “do in” his grandmother, and who, upon confessing this sin to the priest, gets off with naught but a scolding, to the chagrin of his older sister.
The boy’s foolish candidness and earnest self-assuredness comes across more effectively in the first person.
Getting Rid of Distractions
Late in the story in an important scene in the cathedral, a character in the second version is entirely omitted. Stefeniak reminds us: put in a scene only those things that aid its purpose!
A short form piece, Jack Driscoll reminded us in another talk, has far more in common with poetry than the novel or even a novella. Consequently, every detail should contribute to the forward motion of the story, not act as dead weight to slow it down.
A Grabby Ending
The 1935 version of the story concludes with a short narrative paragraph that traverses decades. This paragraph is omitted in the second version, which ends instead with the narrator’s older sister reeling in disbelief that her brother hasn’t been caned by the priest for admitting that he wants to kill his grandmother.
Looking at he narrative ending of the first version, it seems unwieldy and empty, as though O’Connor didn’t quite know how to end the story and opted for a conclusion that is poetically vague and allusive enough to things introduced earlier in the story, that presumably the reader will make his or her own connections! A literary Hail Mary if you will.
Or perhaps he is relying on the desire of the reader to create associations.
You be the judge; here is the final sentence of the first version.
But one night in a Paris hotel Micky remembered it all, and it was as if tears were falling within his mind, and then it seemed as though window of door were suddenly opened and magic caught him by the hair.
Mary Helen Stefeniak’s close read of these stories led me to my first “a hah” moment regarding the measured application and balance of narrative, scene and half-scene.
If you’re interested in seeing how a master of short form fiction rewrote one of his great pieces with sixteen more years of experience and maturity, I recommend looking at these two stories.
I recently listened to “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” in my work truck. I couldn’t believe he had written it back in the 1870s. He had such a finger on the pulse of life, then and now, and his ability to craft distinctive voices for his characters and narrators was second to none. There is a reason Twain is still considered one of the greatest of American writers.
Of course, he is probably most well known for being a great wit. In this post from the blog “Interesting Literature”, Twain skewers another famous, if less proficient, American writer.
Mark Twain’s 18 rules for writing – part of his response to the fiction of James Fenimore Cooper
Mark Twain (1835-1910) is the writer who once observed, ‘The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.’ (We include that pithy gem in our selection of Mark Twain’s best one-liners.) In his essay, ‘Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses‘ (1895), Twain took the author of The Deerslayer and The Last of the Mohicans to task for his flawed writing style. Scathingly, but hilariously, he writes:
Amazing how many of these authors are recognized as lions in realist, Victorian, or even modernist fiction. But just as Cormac McCarthy’s foray into Dystopia by writing “The Road” shows, a great writer refuses to be pigeonholed!
10 interesting works of dystopian fiction that predate George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four
George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) is perhaps the most famous dystopian novel in the world, with the adjective ‘Orwellian’ being listed in the Oxford English Dictionary and the phrases ‘Big Brother’, ‘thoughtcrime’, and ‘newspeak’ being part of the language. But Orwell’s classic novel didn’t arise in isolation, and there were a number of earlier dystopian novels written before Orwell put pen to paper (or finger to typewriter). Here is our pick of the ten best early dystopian novels worth checking out. Okay, so they’re not all novels – there are a couple of short stories in here too. But then variety is the spice of life…
Artist Jamie Noble referred me to this writer, Joe Abercrombie. Here, in a very compelling interview he gives his own take on a genre whose creation is partially attributed to him: Grimdark.
Interestingly, Abercrombie’s comments on Tolkien reminds me of the way in which Alan Moore and Frank Miller’s work in the late 80s, “Watchmen” and “The Dark Night” respectively, challenged traditional conventions of four color comics in profound ways that were later ignored (or perhaps just missed) by imitators who focused on the more reactionary elements.
I look forward to exploring the worlds of Abercrombie’s making.
Joe Abercrombie needs little introduction. He’s one of the most successful fantasy authors working today and the face of “grimdark” both for the sub-genres fans and its detractors. In this forthright interview Abercrombie attacks the concept of grimdark head on, questions fantasy fictions habit of re-writing Tolkien, and shares his thoughts on writing for young adults.
Ahimsa Kerp is the best new author of pulp inspired fantasy of the last two years. Empire of the Undead was the most compelling apocalypse novels I’ve read since The Stand. His new book, Beneath the Mantle, is a smart riff on Journey to the Centre of the World. He’sa writer to watch, but importantly, to read. ~Damien Walter
Grimdark. What is it?
Joe Abercrombie in discussion with Ahimsa Kerp
“I think any argument that splits the whole vast and varied, weird and wonderful tapestry of fantasy into two opposed camps is fundamentally…
Gene Wolfe was an engineer. In that world, his biggest claim to fame was the development of a Pringle potato chip-making machine. He claims to know more about fracture points of Pringles chips than any man alive.
Gene Wolfe, the writer, took the literary device known as the Unreliable Narrator into new directions. Consequently, his most famous character might also claim to know more about the fracture points of a Pringle chip than any torturer alive.
He was a distant cousin to the famous Southern novelist, Thomas Wolfe, whose book The Web and the Rock, I much adored as a kid.
Wolfe’s writing is underlain by a profound knowledge of scientific principles. In the Book of the New Sun, his characters explain complex theories to their futuristic medieval audiences as an adult might to a child: using fantasy and allegory. Take for example the explanation of the flier’s automation by the Autarch in the Citidel of the Autarch or Severian’s interpretation of Einsteinian Relativity.
In the same book, Wolfe uses a number of what appear to be neologisms–or entirely new words, as fantasy/SyFy writers often do. They are not. Most are Latinate or Greek in origin. For example, the Ascians of the North, take their name from an old word that means “without shadow”. Other examples abound. In fact, some scholars have even gone so far as to create a lexicon for the world of the New Sun, just as some linguists examined J.R.R. Tolkien’s solvent family of Middle Earth languages.
As a converted Catholic, Wolfe’s themes are heavily influenced by eschatology.
I’ve seen in the same breath, Asimov considered the most over-rated science fiction writer, while Wolfe is the most underrated. This is changing, as Wolfe inches towards his eighth decade. A slow-burner to universal respect, if every there was one. Which gets us to #8….
Neil Gaiman, among others, has made noises that Wolfe is perhaps the greatest living American writers in general.
If you want to get a sense of the breadth of work he is capable of, I highly recommend reading the anthology: Storeys from the Old Hotel. Before
China Miéville ever declared his intention of writing every genre of Genre fiction, Gene Wolfe had already done it! Here are just a few examples: high seas adventure (“The Green Rabbit of S’Rian.”), detective (albeit featuring a robot detective) (“Slaves of Silver”), courtroom drama told through a mock news report (“A Criminal Proceeding.”) folkloric horror (“Redbeard.”) and even a surreal review of a made-up epic masterpiece (“Parkroads–A Review.”)
To conclude this list, let us give one final nod to the macabre and complex nature of Wolfe’s work. Severian the Torturer, in order to inherit the collective wisdom of the Autarchs of Urth, is asked to eat his predecessors brains thereby insuring that the lineage is not lost to antiquity. That’s exactly what I said!
It was when the sun and moon shared the sky for the first time in an age that the priest had his vision. No stigmata, nothing so crass as speaking-in-tongues, just that rare gift of prophecy: When the darkness finally lifted for good, he would be the only one left.
Fire had been given them generations ago, but in the ten years since daylight had disappeared, the people of the Hebrides had nearly forgotten its heavy-limbed Prometheus. Children had grown up in the Gloaming the way others did in war. Plants dwindled to coarse, brown roots fixed within the interstice of sea rock and furrow. Nothing ever dried fully, and the sea, whipped by this endless night wind, had grown ever colder.
When that morning a new dawn finally broke, newborns mewled in fear, their older siblings at pains to quiet them. They were frightened too as this sad night was all they had ever known. Elders in their wisdom sobbed, but not from trepidation but relief that the crepuscle had finally ended. They wailed prayers they’d half forgotten to gods they’d feared had forgotten them.
Of them all, only the priest saw in the sun’s resplendent rebirth a sinister omen.
Lifting the hide flap that shuttered the stone home his ancestors built long ago, he looked out upon the sun-lit land. Life had been happening elsewhere. Now it had returned, but with it came a rigor—he could feel it in his bones, as surely as he could feel the sun’s heat warm his face for the first time since….
Though she’d died in spring, the Lord’s daughter did not move to the world beyond until the advent of a winter so cold it defied memory. For two seasons she hung on, with rasping breath and parchment skin, empty eyes open but unseeing. She had gotten lost in the moors and when they had finally found her, she was already dead though her chest rose and fell ever so slightly. Rigor held her muscles fast. The False Woman said she would leave forthwith, but once again she proved herself a liar. When the girl did finally pass, the sun went down that day and did not return.
Why now was he so afraid at its recurrence, climbing as it did from the black and silver hills of water that undulated unto the horizon?
Because life may have been elsewhere, but so too had death. He’d heard tales of the pustulant men and women with their bursting skin and blackened organs, of the thaumaturgists who strode amongst them on wooden sandals, sporting ludicrous long-nosed masks. No one knew from whence the pestilence came, by the wind or in the water, through the dark humors or the touch of vermin. But come it did, with buboes that wept red as the wrath of God. And now it would come for them. He knew it.
A woman bearing a staff hobbled upon the verdigris rock. She had a bad foot. She saw him looking at it and was excited to explain: “I hurt it running to the sun. I’m not used to the light and so fell.”
“You aren’t the only I’d wager.”
She laughed. She was missing more than a few teeth, “When you wager, you lose. Be careful or you’ll end up paying me with that dangler of yours again.” She pointed the staff at his groin.
She had lost her husband to the sea the year before. Without the sun, what food they ate came from the shores and nearby waters. The husband had been looking for winkles when the waves grabbed him. The priest took care of her needs after that. No one had cared when they lived in the dark: sex was one of the few creature comforts. But with the return of the sun, the priest knew that gossip and its attendant, humiliation would not be long in coming. He looked at her with her scraggly hair and scurvy green skin. How ugly they all must look, he thought, how ugly and small.
Thus far, I’ve looked at two writers and their motivation for writing: Herta Müller and William Gass. On the surface they are quite different; besides race (they are both white) they really have nothing much in common. Gass grew up in the American Midwest, into middle class malaise and an isolation founded in his problematic relationship with his parents. Müller grew up in a totalitarian dictatorship, just one among many of the voiceless masses entreated to labor for and celebrate the Romanian regime which, in the course of “liberating”its people, had enslaved them.
Both ultimately put pen to paper to record their discontent.
In this post, I’d like to explore a bit more an idea that arrived while doing research the on Herta Müller. As I mentioned in the last post, Müller claims that as a youth she had to invent literature. Living on her now collectivized family land, she had no access to books and no notion that such a thing as a body of literature existed.
Within this vacuum, unfettered by an existing canon, she created her own form and foundation, developing an original voice that was the result of a type of ignorance.
What is of more interest, at least for the purpose of this post, is her struggle with language itself. What language would she write in? The German dialect that she grew up speaking was not appropriate: it had been used by reactionaries as a tool of nationalism.
The question of how to write in a language that has been subverted is by no means unique to Muller. It is probably no exaggeration to say that German of any modern language has most had to recreate itself after the turmoil of the twenty-first century.
Why We Write III—to Rebuild Language
.The subversion of the German language to serve the Nazi agenda altered it incontrovertibly. After WWII, there was no going back. Words like blood and fatherland were sullied forever. Millions of ethnic Germans, whether located in the nation itself, or in satellite countries such as Poland, Romania, Austria, or Hungary, found their utterances suddenly gross with pejoratives, insidiously transformed. It had, after all, been used as an agent of violence.
As a serious language of literature, German was undone–at least for the moment. In Patrick Leigh Fermor’s book, A Time of Gifts, in which the first part of his long journey by foot from Amsterdam to Constantinople is recounted, the author recalls his visit to the Rhineland at a time when Hitler’s hold on the country was still far from complete.
At one point, as Fermor is sitting in a beer hall writing down his impressions of an S.A. march that he had observed, a trio of the young Nationalist Socialist men come in for a post-event drink. He describes them as they break into song, reflecting on the contradiction of these romantic folk tunes and the youths singing them.
Germany has a rich anthology of regional songs, and these, I think, were dreamy celebrations of the forests and plains of Westphalia, long sighs of homesickness musically transposed. It was charming. And the charm made it impossible, at that moment, to connect the singers with organized bullying and the smashing of Jewish shop windows and nocturnal bonfires of books.
The Dichotomy of the Dictator
In a dictatorship, Muller says, everything takes a side. Nothing is neutral. In her interview, she describes how some plants seem to serve the regime simply by virtue of their longevity, while others—frailer though perhaps prettier in their frailty—are indicators of resistance.
In a similar way, German history and art was made to play a part in Hitler’s nationalistic invention or relegated to obscurity. Franz Kafka, a German-speaking Jew, was deemed “undesirable”. Composer Richard Wagner and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, on the other hand, were celebrated as articulators of the Aryan ideal. After Hitler’s fall, Kafka became one of the world’s most celebrated writers. Nietzsche, for his part, has been submitted to extensive exegesis to clear his name of any affiliation with anti-Semitism. Wagner, for all his passion and genius, has never entirely recovered from his association with the regime.
So what of the common people who were raised during that time? What recourse did they have?
The Snail: or Gunter Grass as Dubious Witness
In the introduction to Gunter Grass’ book of essays On Writing and Politics 1967-1983, Salman Rushdie writes:
…Grass has written often and eloquently—of the effect of the Nazi period on the German language, of the need for the language to be rebuilt, pebble by pebble, from the wreckage; because a language in which evil finds so expressive a voice is a dangerous tongue. The practitioners of ‘rubble literature’—Grass himself being one of the most prominent of these—these upon themselves the Herculean task of re-inventing the German language, of tearing it apart, ripping out the poisoned parts, and putting it back together.
Grass was the original whistle-blower, so-to-speak. His was one of the first and most honest accounts of a German youth living in Hitler’s Germany. Bereft of language, and like so many others, he told his stories in a new idiom.
History and the present collide. Like Faulkner, Grass is only too aware of how much our history informs our present. Medieval characters march through village streets in ghostly parades. The hulking ruins of battleships languish in the harbor on their side, a reminder of wars already past. Like Kafka and the Latin American magical surrealists, the veil between reality and fantasy is thin. Perhaps inconsequential. The childlike imagery of pre-war Gdansk, draped in events and rich in character, refutes Hitler’s reductionism of history: There isn’t just one homeland, there are many. Even within Germany itself.
This is how one responds when one’s language has been stolen, when the nuanced, tender terms that evoke the woodlands and rivers or that delegate one’s kin have been uprooted to serve a bankrupt ideology: by rebuilding it, by trimming the parts that have gone gangrenous and replanting the useful parts.
This, to rebuild a language that has been destroyed through political subversion, is another reason we write.