Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Politics in Reading and Writing

 

Blog 40

When it comes to politics, does contemporary fiction tend to eschew it, embrace it or land somewhere in-between? Judging from a limited (but growing) sample over the past few years, I’d say somewhere in-between. Now I’m not referring to a work whose sole purpose is to propound a political position. I’m sure they’re out there; I just avoid them, if possible.

My requirement to keep reading when I encounter a political element in fiction is that it remains necessary to understanding a character. Beyond that, I may close the book, wondering how it slipped under my radar. I’m exposed (over-exposed?) to enough politics via non-fiction books, newspapers, online information, etc.

What I’ve encountered in contemporary novels is a recent tendency for a character to express dismay over his or her perception of a negative impact of Donald Trump, whether it’s upon their psyche and personal outlook or their current sense of the state of the country. (Have I encountered an opposed position? I have not. I suspect at some point, I will.) What I’m discovering may say as much about what I choose to read as anything else. At the same time, it must be said that when I select a book, I have no way of knowing how the characters will develop or what views they may hold. After all, I’m choosing to read fiction with all the unknowns and surprises it can (and almost always does) offer. My sense is that fiction writers, human beings above all, are not impervious to a political zeitgeist, that the latter can infiltrate their thinking and emotions, no matter their intent in writing a story. Again, if the political stance is central to a character, no problem. If it’s a polemic, case (or rather, book) closed.

****

Last week, I finished Marrying the Ketchups (Jennifer Close), a novel about a Chicago family, disparate in personalities, but centripetally held together by the family restaurant, their love of the Chicago Cubs, and perhaps most of all, a sense of family and its importance in their lives. Powerfully from my perspective, I found myself drawn to and ultimately rooting for the characters, always a good sign for a reader. For me, Ms. Close, through her story, offered what I consider to be a quality nonpareil in leaving a reader satisfied – hope.

Strongly recommend.


           

Thursday, October 27, 2022

Blog 39 Reading and Writing

 

There are two topics I’d like to examine from this observer / participant in a reading / writing life: 1) what a writer reads during a writing project and 2) what a writer focuses on during the interlude between writing projects. Not infrequently, these are two questions asked in interviews with authors. And not surprisingly, I’ve found great variation in the answers offered. 

In considering the first query, to my knowledge, my reading selectivity doesn’t vary during or between writing projects. I’m a reader by nature, a reader who reads always. I often have two books at hand, most often a work of fiction balanced by a nonfiction work, the latter preferably narrative in structure.

During a writing project, the only alteration in my reading, by addition, is the readiness to pursue research at almost any moment. If an awareness of a need to pursue research crops up I’ll temporarily suspend the writing until I’m reasonably assured I’ve grasped a subject, especially if it is to be incorporated into a story, even if it is a single line. I like to know things, always have – knowledge for knowledge’s sake. But in addition, there is always a reader with a bent for exactitude somewhere ready to pounce on an avoidable error.

Example: I’d never heard of the animal sedative, xylazine, in the news recently. Apparently opioid / opiate addicts have begun to incorporate it into their endless search for chemical nirvana along with heroin and, more dangerously, fentanyl. An hour’s investment in an internet self-education session followed to heighten my knowledge.

As for the second query, the interlude between my writing projects, it tends to be brief. I’ve read of authors taking months or even years between major publications, for a myriad of reasons, but that just hasn’t turned out to be my way. Thus far, in my very humble writerly life, at a moment of publication, I usually have another major project roughly entered into the computer. (Not a recommendation, again it is just my tendency.) That said, the long journey of editing, for me a satisfying journey, always beckons. So, it is rapidly back at it after a quiet celebration of accomplishment.

And, of course, the reading, pleasurable and germinative, never stops.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Blog 38 Reading Choices

 

I’d like to return to a theme of a previous blog in which I examined reading choices, book readiness, as a factor of the age of the reader. While I cannot, at eighty, ignore the impact of age in selecting a book, that is not my purpose in traveling this path once more. My thinking is more upon the appeal of a book as a function of what a reader is seeking at a given moment across the span of their lifetime.

Once more, I recall Isaac Bashevis Singer’s dictum that fiction is to educate and entertain. In my twenties and thirties, I read a ton of what is still considered classic literature. As I recall, I was seeking an education, rather than entertainment, in reading “great” works. I was going on faith. In retrospect, it’s good that I wasn’t seeking entertainment for I rarely found it. As for the education I sought in literature, did I find it? I don’t know. I do know much of the reading was a slog.

Though I still reach to further educate myself through reading, to challenge my knowledge base, I seek it primarily through non-fiction. The authors state their intentions and hopefully live up to them.

In fiction, the weight now in reading selection is more upon enjoyment, that book I cannot put down. If the author’s intention is to explore a topic within a fictional plot, the message must arrive in a satisfying story. I’ve been disappointed too many times by a critically heralded novel in which the joy I seek is muted by a message.

All that said, I still believe fiction offers something nonfiction cannot deliver as well. Nonfiction most always produces what it promises, as it should, establishing parameters and then, hopefully living up to them. Unpinned by declared parameters from the outset, fiction gives freedom to imagine. When the imagination is set free to take flight in a good story -- reading nirvana.

            Most recently, I unexpectedly experienced this in Robert Galbraith’s (JK Rowling) 927-page Troubled Blood. I was stunned at the enormity of her talent, beyond Dickensian, to weave a tapestry of fully developed characters into an involute plot that led to a long, satisfying reading journey. In the end, for me, it was the story, always the story. Which way do the scales tip for you?

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Get it Down or Labor Lovingly?

 

Blog 37

A recent conversation with my adult son triggered awareness of an evolution in my writing approach. My son, an actor, who is developing a screen play, seemed to be laboring to the point of immobility in his desire for conceptual and language precision.

My initial, almost reflexive, response was to “just write,” the idea being to get something down and see what follows. Believing that so much in writing is reparative eventually, my thought was (is) you can always repair it later. It’s called editing.

Following a deeper consideration of his struggle, it reoccurred to me that it is not uncommon for a writer to delay a start to a work until he / she can find the right feel for entry to the story they’ve imagined. I’ve read of instances where the delay lasted several years and included multiple re-starts. In my son’s case, the need to feel right, as he moves forward, may even be more necessary relative to the more regimented form of the screenplay.

All that said, for me, the question remains: When attempting to write a novel, do you aim to just get a sentence down hoping it will trigger the next (and the next) or do you labor lovingly over it at the risk of overloading it?

Until recent years, I worked so hard at sentences, I believe I tended to overwrite them. Now, I want to get the story out, down on paper, then, into the computer. At both stages of development, I can begin to refine as needed via the endless editing process, something I’ve come to enjoy more with time.

In retrospect, my earliest writing was so overwrought, so larded with vocabulary – an amateur’s honest, but fatal mistake – that it interfered with the reading. My opinion: Anything that interferes with the reading of a story, anything that makes the flow viscous, can slow, if not deaden, the story. Therefore, it needs to be stricken, any and all of it. Think Elmore Leonard.

The poetic line in writing may elude me in my pursuit of getting the story down, but I’d like to believe it’s in service to writing a good story. (Of course, what writer doesn’t?)

This evolved tendency is true for my novelistic attempts. For shorter works, I still labor much more intensely over the sentences, perhaps related to the need to convey a story in a more compact format. Regardless, it’s ultimately about the reader, isn’t it?

What are some of your thoughts about this? Is this my tempest in a teapot or do you find yourself landing on one side or the other – or somewhere in between?



           

Thursday, July 14, 2022

Blog 36 Balancing Dialogue and Description

 



In fiction, particularly crime fiction, there is a (debatable) balance to be drawn between dialogue and physical description. On this occasion, I’d like to focus on that balance.

It was my impression that Elmore Leonard, one of my favorite crime fiction writers, seemed to tilt heavily toward dialogue (as do I), though he was declaratively frugal across both categories. In my memory, his novels live through his characters and their street-edged exchanges.

I tend to use physical description to give the reader a means for framing a scene, but I prefer to drive action with dialogue. Credible dialogue is crucial for me to believe in a character. Lacking that, I fall out of the story’s rhythm, find myself questioning the author. Overuse of physical description of setting, no matter how poetically or enchantingly rendered, separates me from the thrust of the story. I tend to catch myself beginning to speedread (I don’t want to but it happens) with overuse of scenery description. Example: The author, Kem Nunn, an excellent writer and story teller, in The Dogs of Winter, would wax eloquent for pages on the collision of weather and wave action per surfing – and lose me. I’d find myself speedreading to get back to the characters.

It’s as if there’s an optimal tempo for me to devour a story. Too much of anything can disrupt my focus, but more likely if details dominate dialogue. Permit me to stress that if too little is offered in scene-shaping details that elicit sensory engagement, that’s also detrimental to reading pleasure. But again, it is dialogue that enables me to identify with character, evokes my compassion for that creation on a page, and gives me a sense of that imagined life. When I find myself caring for a character, reaching to comprehend his or her motivations, I will remember the story.

As I stated in the opening line of this blog, my sense of balance between dialogue and detail is debatable. I recall years ago at a writer’s conference in Durham, North Carolina, a particular writer, in his general criticism, wanted more detail, not just the telling detail, to paint a scene in his mind. Though I couldn’t bring myself to say it, such was the volume of his detailed descriptions of setting (I thought of Proust’s Swann’s Way), I became numb to his characters and, ultimately, the story. To be fair, his story was not crime fiction but more a scarcely concealed memoir as fiction. Perhaps the story was so personal to him, there was no other way to write it.

Balance.


Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Blog 35 - Writing Regardless of Mood

 



I am, as I’ve often said, going to do something directly related to writing (almost) every day. I’ll do it (almost) regardless of mood. Something, right? Gotta be something. In stating that, am I suggesting mood doesn’t matter, that it has no impact? Definitely not! Because mood is so impactful with me, I believe I’d be foolish to ignore the conditions, actions, and routines that can affect my mood prior to writing. Writing, for me, is not reflexive or organic. It is, in its own way, toil, requiring honest labor. So anything I can do to enhance mood? I’m for it. That said, I’d like to offer some of my mood-enhancing habits for consideration. So, to set the mood:     

1)      Thinking – Each session, I prefer to think briefly about where I am in a developing story and where I might like to go.

2)      (Almost) always following my (thinking) warm-up, I’ll make a page or two of notes. My intention is to get a reflection of my thoughts on a page and not just depend on memory.

3)      I do not read prior to writing. I love to read, but it seduces me to defer (procrastinate?) the onset of writing. You know the drill: “Just one more chapter.”

4)      Often prior to writing (or during a session, depending upon dog or cat), I’ll spend time with one of our pets. Giving our eighteen year-old, junkyard dog, Mufasa, his daily walk (as I did today), puts me in a more mellow frame of mind, our connection eliciting gratitude for his presence in my life. Result: good mood. Our sixteen year-old cat, Purr, will come up in my chair and settle against my leg almost any time I sit to write. Her presence is an antidote to internal tension on my part. Not infrequently, I’ll briefly pet her and she responds by leaning into my hand. Result: good mood.

5)      Morning sessions (almost) always follow a shower and a shave, gracing my mood with a fresh alertness.

6)      Afternoon sessions (almost) always follow a pleasureful activity, e.g. lunch, dog walk. I rarely pursue dual sessions the same day. For me, I risk allowing the writing to become forced.

7)      At the end of a writing session, I’ll often review and edit what I’ve written. It tends to produce an enhanced sense of direction for where I go next, leaving me mindful of tomorrow and already in a positive mood.

8)      How about chatting prior to (or during) a session? Can’t do it. It takes me out of a writing rhythm, away from my collected thoughts. And yet my understanding with my wife is that if she needs or wants to talk to me, she can. In return, she understands how the process works for me and tries not to interrupt. But she has to have the option. After sixty years together, it’s not just about me.

Monday, April 18, 2022

Blog 34 A Reading List for Those Who want to Understand

 

In the autumn of 1958, my junior year in high school, I entered the annual oratorical contest, my subject – racial discrimination in America. You could hear a pin drop in the auditorium of the almost entirely white student body. I did not win the contest. In retrospect, the memory reminds me that I was already sensitized to the issue of race in our country.

With an erratic pulse in the subsequent sixty plus years, our country has moved unevenly toward a reckoning with our history of slavery and its aftermath. Today, at a time when a plethora of historians / writers, many of them African-American, are providing us with a means to confront with knowledge one of our two national sins (the other, our treatment of the original Americans), sadly, but not unexpectedly to me, a significant number of white Americans are turning away from this opportunity. I choose to look closer.

The two-plus-year pandemic has awakened me to scholarly works addressing this willful lacuna in our national education. I decided to test and enhance my knowledge base by availing myself of a selection of the book salad before me. To date, I have striven to choose a variety of approaches to this massive undertaking in the belief that no single work could exhaust the challenge of continuing to educate myself while reducing, if not eradicating, my prior assumptions.

Among my efforts, may I recommend: 1) Say It Loud (Randall Kennedy) Within an overarching legal framework, this law professor’s essays plumb the issue of justice (or its absence) while offering a window into unrelenting black American historical pursuit of justice. 

2) On Juneteenth (Annette Gordon-Reed) In what I found a gentle but effective presentation, this history professor anchors her work with the date (June 19th, 1865), too long after the Appomattox surrender, that the last slaves in Galveston, Texas were informed they were free, and then expanding from there its historical significance for all Americans. 

3) Woke Racism (John McWhorter) Possibly an iconoclast to some, I feel this African-American linguistics professor, in exploring examples of a negative impact of woke racism, reaches to balance efforts within ‘the cause’ rather than permitting shrill adherents of political correctness lead to detrimental results despite good intentions, i.e. criticize when indicated, but refrain from using this freedom to destroy. In other words, let the punishment fit the crime. 

4) Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America (Ijeoma Oluo) Key to this writer’s focus is a historical examination of the negative impact of white male violence upon women, people of color, and, ultimately, whites themselves. Perhaps expecting a polemic based on the title, I found it more a call for a reckoning with our history, past and recent. 

5) The 1619 Project (Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator) Though it has been lauded by many and criticized by some, I plan to read it in keeping with my determination to maintain my own mind. The more certain politicians criticize or dismiss it (without having read it), the more I sense there is something there. 

My intention is to continue to reach to learn more about my (our) history. I want to know, always have, whether engaged in a discussion or knowledge for its own sake. And so I read on.                                          

Politics in Reading and Writing

  Blog 40 When it comes to politics, does contemporary fiction tend to eschew it, embrace it or land somewhere in-between? Judging from a ...