Sunday, May 19, 2024

Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote (1939).

It was not too long ago that I discovered I was a character in a work of fiction.  At least that's how the whole business seems have turned out.  It was not the discovery I was expecting to make, by any means.  It's not like you can just wake up one morning and expect to find that the nature of your entire life is akin to that of words made of ink on a page?  And so, here am I.  The way it all came about was simple.  To tell you truth it was all down to nothing more than what I would have otherwise thought of as little more than a minor private pastime.  In order to explain why something like a seemingly inconsequential personal hobby can be enough to turn a flesh and blood human being into just another picture in a book, some explanation is in order.  I've been a reader and a viewer all my life, you see.  I can still recall the first clear and unbroken memory I ever had of single day in my life.  I must have been no more than five, and I'm walking into my family living room.  The TV is on, and the first thing I see, my first complete memory, is of an animated TV show featuring characters created by a man whose name I will later learn is called Jim Henson.  As my young self continues to watch the show, all that happens is Uncle Jim metaphorically takes my hand, and proceeds to teach me the value of the Imagination as a means of creativity.  Looking back, that seems to have been the start of the whole business, really.  I've been a fan of the arts ever since.

It really does seem like from that moment on, my focus in life was on the world of the Arts.  The Imagination and its ability to tell stories seems to have become one of the key guiding passions of my life.  One of my main avenues for plugging into reality, if that makes any sense.  Thanks to the efforts of Henson, and others like Spielberg and Don Bluth, I was granted the ability to be curious about how stories are made and what they all mean.  It's a path I haven't really strayed from since.  Looking back, I think the best part of getting hooked on all of this stuff was that was I never aware at any point that I was receiving a lesson.  I was just having too much darn fun to bother with the notion that I might have been learning something at the same time.  Looking back on it now, I've come to regard stumbling upon gifts like that as perhaps the best and truest way to teach any valuable subject to a person, no matter their age.  Anyway, the point is that from that moment on, I was a student of film, and later books.

When I learned to read for myself it was like discovering yet another key to an unnoticed secret casement.  The best way I can describe the value of becoming a bookworm is to say that it's like being able not just grasp or reach at least some kind of understanding of reality, it's also that for a moment or two, you're able to hold a potentially valuable aspect of it in your hands.  I can't tell how much sense I must be making now.  I'm also not so sure it matters.  Those who know what its like to come under the spell of good storytelling will know what I mean.  If a filmmaker like Henson was the gardener who planted the original seed in my mind, then it was later writers like Dr. Suess, Charles Schulze, Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, and J.R.R. Tolkien who taught me that the essence of stories all comes from the words on the page before it ever can or will exist anywhere else.  

So, to reiterate, I was a reader and a filmgoer to begin with.  These twins aspects of a life must be kept in mind, because otherwise nothing I'm about to explain about the occasional hobby that grew out of this process will make sense.  It's only with the full picture in place that you'll be able to understand what it's like to turn into a work of fiction.  The way this latter half of my tale came about is natural enough if you're the kind of person who likes to read and watch a lot of stories.  As I got older I began the normal process of growing up to be a discerning reader.  Rather, let's say that I've gotten somewhat better at being able to tell a good work of narration from either the minor, or else just plain bad.  What I think few people, even the professionals never bother to keep in mind, is that the Art of Writing is very much one big game of chance.  I've heard the act of literary composition described as the same type of job as any other manual labor, like brick laying or architecture.  I'm willing to admit a great deal of truth in that sentiment.  What I think even the best authors seem to miss about this aspect of the trade is that their really describing no more than the Craft of their jobs.  When it comes the actual capital-A Art of telling stories, then I'm afraid everyone is either a rookie or veteran Vegas gambler, and the house odds are always stacked against your favor.  Good writing isn't just labor, it also involves a lot of dumb luck.

Another way to say it is that the best writing often winds up as one big game of Go Fish.  The artist tries to turn their attention to the Imagination, and then just hopes and prays that something will happen.  That a really creative idea will pop up into their head, like a flair sent up from the middle of a vast lake.  I've read and studied this phenomenon enough to know that this is pretty the ultimate standard operating procedure for all writers.  All are at the mercy of the Muse.  The trouble with this method of operation is that when you get right down to it, all that the literary game of Go Fish amounts to is just gambling with the odds.  It's the basic idea of rolling the dice or betting on the lucky number by other means, no more, no less.  In that sense, much like running and playing the odds in Vegas, all the really best books amount to little more than hopeful bets that somehow managed to come up all Aces and Jacks.  An even better way to put it is that the successful story belongs to whoever is lucky enough to draw that tricksy wild card in their favor.  If all that sounds less than promising, then the real kick in the teeth is that there is no sure-fire formula for working the odds in your favor.  It's proven impossible to cheat the Imagination.  You either play by its rules and wind up with a maybe publishable book, or else you take your little red wagon and go home, never to show your face at this particular dice table ever again.

There is one aspect to this whole literary gaming table that's begun to fascinate me in recent years.  I'm not talking about the blockbuster successes or the cringeworthy failures anymore, here.  Nor am I thinking about at all about the middle of the roaders, the types of storytellers who are good enough to be remembered, even if they're not in the company of the greats.  The type of stories that have begun to draw more of my attention of late are the ones where the roll of the dice somehow just didn't pay out, yet you'll swear its almost possible to see the faint hints, traces, and outlines of how things could have worked if the writer had just a little bit more careful.  What I'm talking about now, in other words, are those moments where you run across a story that is an objective poor showing, if maybe not just plain bad.  These are the less than successful efforts where nonetheless a careful study of the material leaves the notion that you can just begin to see how things might have been able to work out with better success.  If only the artist had paid greater attention to the artistic material they were working with.  If they had just taken a bit more time to work out this particular plot point, or chosen to explore this otherwise unexamined bit of narrative thread, then things might have been different.  I don't say the finished product would have been a masterpiece.  Yet at least it might have had a better chance of being a genuine entertainment.  These are the ground rules for the kind of unfinished story I'm thinking of.

There are some books and films out there, in other words, where you can tell there was a lot good potential to be had, and yet the bet just never came off.  The author didn't play the cards he was dealt as well as he should or could have.  Are you starting to see what I mean when I say that writing is like gambling?  You take a chance on a roll of the dice, and the worst plays are the one's where you can see in retrospect how things could have been better if you'd just played your cards different, or given the writing a bit more of the effort needed to be, at the very least, a pretty decent read.  I've been fascinated by those almost success stories for sometime now.  What happened is I'd get to mulling over various finished products where I could tell the story still needed a bit of work.  The pastime I mentioned before got started when I began the serious effort of giving some actual thought into the question of whether or how could an essentially incomplete story be made better than what we got, or wound up with?  That was the key to the whole thing for me.  If you can find any halfway decent answer to that question, then you might have learned a thing or two about the Art of Storytelling that's not in any of the official dossiers.  So that's the hobby I've started.  I've taken works that seemed unfinished, and I began to mentally consider the all of the possible ways and means in which a mediocre tale can be a good one.

To my own surprise, I've managed to come up with a few possible solutions to a few final products that seemed lackluster.  I kind of surprised myself by stumbling upon what (to me, at least) sounds like a more promising narrative through line than the official one we've gotten for every single release in the Destiny video game franchise, for instance.  I'm not saying I've managed to find anything like a definitive storytelling solution.  Just one that grants the secondary world of those games a better overall plot, and hence a greater use of its recurring cast of characters.  That's a story for another day, however.  The point I've been working up to with all of this is that it was this relatively recent hobby of mine that lead by pure accident to the discovery that I was just a picture in a book.  The way that came about was that I happened to stumble by pure chance on the account of someone else who seems to have had the exact same idea more than 40 years before I was born.  I was doing nothing more than looking for something to read, and then I ran across the history of how some enterprising young wit in Argentina came to similar conclusions about how a merely competent story could become a potentially great one with just a bit of proper rewriting.  This is the story of "Pierre Menard", by Jorge Luis Borges.

Saturday, May 4, 2024

Stephen Kings Harrison State Park 68 (1968).

Let's get one thing clear, I am not an expert on modern poetry.  In fact, aside from one very recent instance, I can't for the life of me recall how many times I might have used snippets of the art form even for the sake of simple quotation.  I'm not even sure just what kind of reputation poetry enjoys at the moment, if I'm being honest.  The best understanding I've got on the situation is that the poem, while not disappeared, is very much a mode of writing that is sort of in a state of retreat, or eclipse.  It seems to have been subsumed once back into the particular type of art out which it originally emerged from, music.  That's where poetry got its start, after all.  Before there was the poem, there was the song.  Singing appears to have been one of mankind's oldest forms of artistic creation, something that goes all the way back to the time when we used to huddle in caves for shelter, and we all lived in the forest, because no one could live anywhere else.  What this turn of fortunes says about the popular reception of poems appears to mean that we no longer see the art of verse in quite the same way that our ancestors in the Renaissance or Victorian eras might have.  We're no longer part of a universe in which the rhyme couplet or the blank verse is considered to have any kind of intrinsic value of its own.  Prose has overtaken the practice of poetry.

If I had to take a guess for why that should be, then I'd have to chalk it up to an evolution in human artistic taste, pure and simple.  The poem proper seems to belong to a time when the prose story as we now have it wasn't even a glimmer of possibility in the mind of any of the major writers prior to the 18th century.  If you go back and look at the historical record of mankind's written works, you'll soon find that there was a time when the major form of literary expression wasn't the prose line, but rather that of verse.  Even every single line of dialogue that Shakespeare ever wrote has more in common with poetry than it does the kind of stylistic practices we expect from modern stage plays.  This is all because it really does appear to have taken us that long to perfect the idea of the prose mode of expression.  This in itself points to a whole history of how human beings conception of the art of storytelling tells its own tale of mental evolution.  One of those fundamental concepts that are so obvious its no wonder it takes so long for any of us to notice it.  It's a topic well worth digging into some other time, perhaps.

Right now, the main point is that this evolution in our understanding of how stories can be told means that with the advent of prose, the artistic expression of prosody soon found itself relegated to a kind authorial second-class citizen status.  As time went on, and some of the best names in the business came along and helped to develop the idea of the good prose line, the art of versification began to take a backseat to all the windows onto new vistas that were opening up for artists and audiences around the world.  This constant strand of development and craftsmanship applied to the non-lyrical mode of storytelling has lead us, with the passage of time to the current situation we now find ourselves.  The practice of novelistic literary writing seems to have reached its apex.  We're now perhaps as close to artistic perfection as the prose line is ever going to be able to achieve.  What few of us seem to have realized until just now is how this accomplishment in stylistic excellence has come at the cost of poetry itself.  It's as if there's been an unconscious law of exchange involved here.  Something that was always going on, yet we were too preoccupied to see it.  The better we were at using prose, the less of a need we had for the use of poetry.  It's gotten to the point where the very verse form that was once considered the height of literary sophistication is now regarded as something like an extra accessory implement.

Poetry has managed, through no fault of its own, to achieve the status of a mere literary tool, in other words.  It is no longer regarded as something of value on its own terms.  Instead, it's seen more as an accessory to other artforms like the novel, or even more to the point, the song of music.  When looked at from this perspective, the story of the poem has this strange, almost perfect cyclical quality.  It's practically a novel epic in its own right.  The story of a genre with lean and musical roots that is able to claim one bright and shining moment for itself, before slowly sinking once more back into the primordial cauldron of music from which it emerged.  The history and fortunes of poetry are pretty remarkable when you think about it.  What's even crazier is the idea that someone like Stephen King would even have anything to do it with.  Here's another instance where the curse of pop culture expectations comes into play.  So far as any of us know, Stephen King is just that guy who writes a lot of Horror stuff down in books.  He's never really been much of anything else so far as the mass audience expectations have been concerned.  So what on Earth is there to be said about the writer in connection with the lost art of verse?  Well, here's where Bev Vincent comes into the picture.

In an essay with the suggestive title of The Dead Zone (not the novel of the same name) Vincent makes a number interesting observations on the relation that King has to the writing of poetry.  "In a 2011 interview with the Atlantic, Stephen King shared his thoughts about poetry. “[Poetry] takes ordinary life,” he said, “it takes things that we all see, and concentrates them in this beautiful gem. When the good ones do that, that’s what you get.” He singled out Philip Larkin and James Dickey as poets who express life’s sometimes inexpressible beauty and mysteriousness and concluded, “poets … do speak God’s language—it’s better, it’s finer, it’s language on a higher plane than ordinary people speak in their daily lives (web)".  From there, Vincent goes on to make a very obvious admission on the subject.

"King might seem an unlikely arbiter of poetic language. His best-selling novels, short stories, and film adaptations—mostly but not exclusively in the horror genre—have earned him sobriquets ranging from “America’s Storyteller” to the “populist poet of American doom.” But King is also a committed poet, albeit not a prolific one. He’s published barely more than a dozen poems over the past five decades, most in small literary journals, although hundreds more exist on scraps of paper or in half-used notebooks, and several others appear in his novels as the work of his characters (ibid)".  The idea of King as someone with a commitment to poetry is an interesting idea.  The open question for me has to do with just how valid it is?  There's one poem of King's in particular that I recall reading not too far back, and for whatever reason (whether good or bad) it has always remained stuck in my head.

The title was Harrison State Park 68, if I recall.  It took a while to track down a useable copy of the poem online.  However, I now have the whole thing in my possession.  Having a chance to go over it once more has been an interesting sort of experience, and I'd like to share the results of it with you now.  In going over the 68 poem, I'm going to have to make considerable use of Vincent's essay.  In many ways, what follows is going to be something of a dialogue with the critic's views about the relation of King to poetry, as well as whatever merits the author deserves as a poet.  With this in mind, I think it's best if we let the original poem itself do the talking as a good way to start things off.

Saturday, April 20, 2024

The Nature and Origin of American Fiction and Letters.

American fiction was born in a state of protest.  It was also Gothic at its core.  These are the two interrelated points I want to argue for in the essay that follows.  In many ways what I'm about to say next has little excuse for existing except for another two reasons.  The conclusions arrived at here were nothing else except the result of a long gestation period.  Something that happened at such a gradual pace that it was like assembling an entire picture puzzle without even knowing what you were up to.  Once the picture was complete, however, there was just no denying either the direction it pointed at, or the conclusions it lead you to.  The second part of the intellectual journey to the writing of these words is that it really was a simple case of reading a lot, and then noticing how a lot of important themes kept recurring in the works of different authors across a span of decades, and almost centuries.  The timespan I aim to look at in the following essay encompasses a reasonable short enough space.  It starts at the tail-end of the Eighteenth Century (when the Nation was founded), and culminates at the exact mid-point of the Nineteenth (when the Civil War took place).  It's focus won't be on any one literary name.  Rather I intend to take a series of short thematic looks into the writings of what I consider to be the four authors who did the most to help set what I have to term the defining keynotes of American fiction in stone.  These are the Names who helped mold the contours of what creative writing in the United States still remains even to this day and era.

That sounds like one hell of a tall order, I know.  Who the hell am I, anyway?  And what makes me think it's possible to say anything about early American fiction and its creators that would make any of it valid for study today?  In answer to the first question, I'm just some nothing bookworm who thinks (or hopes) he's discovered a pattern of literary themes and ideas that were shared out over more than one ink-stained wretch as the former British Colonies were busy transfiguring themselves into something most folk at least hoped was something approaching a United American state.  The answer to the second challenge is a bit more interesting.  In first noticing, and then deciding to make a careful study of four writers who seemed crucial to the construction of anything approaching a viable American literary identity, it soon became possible to realize that what I'd stumbled upon might just amount to something of a genuine, unremarked artistic legacy from the past.  One whose continuity extends from the Founding Era right up to this very moment.  The potentially good news is this may turn out to be a case where examining a legacy from the past doesn't amount to something like a outmoded institution that has worn out its welcome, and is better left abandoned.  On the contrary, what marks each of the authors under discussion here today is there seemingly admirable qualities.  Virtues (for lack of any better word) that prove more than compatible with the values of inclusion and equality of today.

And so, I repeat what I said right at the start.  The origins and nature of American fiction are defined by two things.  It's acute sense of moral outrage, and protest, coupled with a series of artistic tropes and practices that when placed together, give us the beginnings of a workable form of American Gothic letters.  As I've also said, there are precisely four writers who I believe best exemplify the neglected legacy.  In terms of brand name recognition, it's sort of like a half-and-half deal.  Two of them have something approaching a legitimate shelf-life, while the other two don't even register as a blip on the radar.  In the case of the latter two, that amounts to not just a real shame, it might also count as a form of criminal negligence.  With this in mind the shared themes and ideas we'll be looking at here today can all be found within the work of the following Names.  The are: Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Fenimore Cooper, Charles Brockden Brown, and Phillis Wheatley.  I've decided against taking their efforts in any precise chronological order.  My reasons for doing this is because it seemed better to tackle each author vignette in terms of thematic importance, rather than having the importance of the ideas they helped express in their works get lost in the natural shuffle of a strict chronology of years

As such, I've decided to shape the chain of letters in terms of greatest importance, starting from the lowest level to the highest.  With all this in mind, I reckon it's time to get acquainted with the men (and one very important woman) who each helped to set the stamp on what American fiction can be at its best.

Sunday, April 7, 2024

The Death of Cicero by Charles Brockden Brown.

Here at the Scriblerus Club, it's part of what might be termed the "company policy" to hunt around for obscure and forgotten names or titles, in order see if it's possible give them a second chance in the spotlight.  My reasons for doing this every now and then are pretty simple.  I don't see why the value of literary art has to be this kind of time bound phenomena.  If a story is good, there's no reason why its shelf life should have to come with a built-in sell-by date warranty, where it's no longer of use.  If that were the case, if all writing was doomed to remain forever beyond the reach of audience tastes, then someone's going to have to explain to me why folks like Beowulf and Grendel, or Alice, the White Rabbit, and the Cheshire Cat are still household names.  Also, remember, two of them came from a time long before the advent of modern Britain.  We still don't even know who wrote the damn thing, and yet generations of readers have never let that stand in the way of enjoying a good narrative.  There's a kind of unspoken sentiment, or agreement in operation with cases like this.  The unsaid idea seems to be that good stories, the kind that authors like Peter S. Beagle would describe as having "True Magic" in them, are able to last for a whole myriad of good reasons.  There's a quality to the plot or narrative that is able to overcome even the longest and strongest barrier of time and place, and it's an idea that I'm more than willing to give a heartfelt applause.

Maybe I'm just one of those helpless Romantics.  However, the really weird fact is I just can't shake the idea that all potential narratives can amount to something of importance.  From what I can tell, that also seems to have been the idea held by the forgotten name under discussion for today.  In the strictest sense, Charles Brockden Brown doesn't seem to count as a household name on the tip of anyone's tongue.  He appears to be a living example of yet another, related maxim.  Just as all stories can be of potential value, so time and tide can be even a good author's greatest enemy.  A tale is mute without an audience to receive it, and sometimes they just don't stick around long enough for the artist to leave as big of a mark as they perhaps deserve.  That seems to have been the case with Charlie Brown.  He was something of a groundbreaker in his day, and yet the passage of time has all but erased his name, works, and accomplishments from the annals of popular memory.  If ol' Chuck has any viable shelf space left out there, then it's within the confines of the very niche category of die hard nerds and historians of the Gothic genre.  It's a legacy that I'm starting to think might deserve a rescue from the scrap heap.

So, with this in mind, I thought I'd take things slow, and one at a time.  Part of the reason for this is because while it's true that Brown's name and work have no choice except to remain unfamiliar to the vast majority of contemporary readers, the good news is that in his case, that's not the same as saying there's not a lot to talk about, or much in the way of a historical breadcrumb trail to go on.  On the contrary, despite the relative obscurity of his popular reputation, it turns out Brown was kind enough to be one of those writers who was able to leave enough historical details behind to begin to fashion a whole biography out of.  If the good news is that its possible to arrive at a more or less complete picture of the author, it's still not the same thing as saying that you can just take any of his writings, place it in the spotlight, and expect anyone to just "get it" automatically.  Whether or not that's how people expect taking any potential work of art is supposed to go, experience has taught me time and again that sometimes you just can't rush either an artist or his artwork on an audience that hasn't been well trained before showtime.  Often, the case is you have to prepare the reader for the type of story they're about to receive.  It means you've got to awaken their imaginative sympathies for older forms of storytelling.

I'm not saying this is an impossible task, by any means.  The fact that most of us are still familiar with the traditional Bardic Meter of the Beowulf Poet, or the Elizabethan Blank Verse of Shakespeare says that we still have some familiarity with how older stories used to be told.  Nor is it the case that Brockden Brown presents the reader with any great challenges in terms of reading comprehension.  It's just that sometimes obscure authors need to have the ground prepared for them ahead of time.  It's less a matter of being too obscure to understand, and more a case of everything old is new again.  I wasn't lying when I called Brown a trendsetter, for instance, and while that is an important, defining part of his legacy, the obscure quality of his name and efforts (all inevitable football related jokes aside) means that I think it's best to work our way up the ladder of his artistic achievements.  So we'll start out slow, just taking our time, and looking at something he's written in an effort to see what makes any of it valuable.  Later on, there may be plenty of time to go into the nature of Brown's accomplishments as a premiere American Gothic artist.  For the moment, we'll settle into the nature of his work with a simple, out-of-the-way short story.  It's an interesting piece is historical fiction called "The Death of Cicero".

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Nathaniel Hawthorne's Twice told Tales (1851): David Swan.

First introductions are always the most important.  It's the first impression a person leaves on you that can sometimes wind up counting the most.  That's shallow as hell, I know.  Yet it also doesn't stop such results from being an on-going fact of human nature.  It also doesn't get rid of the truth that sometimes bad first impressions exist for a whole lot of very good reasons.  Some of us carry a palpable sense of threat around with us, like the dangerous warning sign it is.  Whenever that happens. first impressions can be a matter of life or death.  At the same time, this need to make a good introduction is always in need of balance.  Sooner or later, most of us have to learn to look beyond the surface appearances of the people we meet in order to get to know them.  This is another inescapable fact of life.  So you you've got these two social demands vying for attention and always competing and/or cooperating with one another.  When it comes to introducing the reader to a new author, the task of making a good first impression counts for a hell of a lot more than normal.  The trouble with artists is they come with this built-in expectation that a proper sense of entertainment has to always be a part of the package.  They are always supposed to be "on-stage", with the lights up, and the audience waiting for the show to begin, in other words.  So when it comes to a writer like Nathaniel Hawthorne, the modern reader needs just the right introduction to get interested.

If I had to find the right words to describe the writer under discussion here today, then the good news is I don't have to do this job on my own.  Turns out the words of author Rosemary Mahoney can do a better job of giving readers the best first impression of Hawthorne than I ever could.  That's why I want to let her words take over for a minute or two.  I'll just set the stage for Rosemary by letting the reader know that it all started one day while she was at the check-out like in a now defunct bookstore chain, and she got into one of those brief moments of animated discussion with the cashier.  It's the kind of conversation you can expect to find in even the most commercial of bookseller retails.  The kind of informal discussion that can only mean anything to someone with a genuine love for books, in other words.  Mahoney was just handing over her purchases to the clerk behind the counter, when the guy noticed it was a collection of short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne called Twice Told Tales.

"Remember 'Young Goodman Brown'?" I said. Nick stretched a startled finger at me.  "Oh, my God.  Freaky!  That's actually what I was thinkin' of!  And 'The Minister's Black Veil.'  Beneath the bland fluorescent gloss of Borders lights Nick seemed to bask in the pure spooky pleasure of Hawthorne's stories, like a child delighting in a fleeting fright..."And how 'bout..." he raised a knowing brow, "...'Wakefield'?...That one creeped me totally."  "Me too," I said, which was true: totally and memorably, the story "Wakefield" had creeped me.  I asked Nick what else he liked to read.  Vonnegut, Stephen King, Harry Potter.  As I prepared to leave, he passed my book over the counter and said with almost wistful affection, "I hope you enjoy them!"

"When I first read them - in, of course, high school - I had not really enjoyed Nathaniel Hawthorne's short stories.  With it's required reading lists and its parochial and obsessive emphasis on symbolism, structure, metaphor, and all the rest of it, high school had a way of tainting the classics; it turned books into tests and clumsily clawed apart their art.  It was difficult to relax into any book with the exacting eye of a teacher watching and waiting for the usually elusive "right" answer to pop out of my mouth; when, now and then, answers did pop, they popped in anxious fists not dissimilar in style to the process of reverse peristalsis.

"Under the circumstances, I read Nathaniel Hawthorne with one eye on the clock and failed to recognize the beauty of him until I was thirty-four years old, free of the scholastic tax, and living in a solitary lighthouse on a tiny island in Maine with no electricity, no telephone, no human company, and nothing to read but a motley collection of books marooned on a rickety shelf beside the fireplace in the lighthouse parlor.  The fire was long unlit, and the shelves, softened by the ocean damp, bowed like hammocks under their burden.  In their midst was a collection of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales, a musty hardcover mildewed with fog; it had tissue-thin pages and tiny type and the portentous density of the Bible.  It smelled of bedsheets, brine, damp dust, and mice, and sadly of school.

"One night, driven by boredom and depression, I sat at the kitchen table and by the yellowish light of a kerosene lamp began, skeptically, to read these stories.  "Wakefield," "The Minister's black Veil," "The Hollow of the Three Hills."  I read for an hour or so, hunched and squinting over that cinderblock of a book, and at some imperceptible moment during the hour my mood shifted from boredom to fearsome unease.  Something made me look up from the book.  I had the powerful sense that a pair of glittering eyes just outside the house was watching me with sinister interest.  I could feel them fixed upon my figure.  The sensation was so strong that I got up, locked the door, and slid the curtain across the black, rain-spattered windows.  I turned up the flame in the lamp, pushed the book under a pile of dishtowels, and although I tried to think of pleasant things, the rainwater that funneled down the drainpipe in gusts and knocked on a trim board at the base of the house kept sounding like heavily booted footsteps.  

"The waves crashing against the rocks just below the house kept sounding like desperate sighs.  Wide-eyed and mute and stiff with dread I sat on a wooden chair and stilled my own breathing now and then, the better to listen for more human noises.  The Twice-Told Tales had tipped me so thoroughly into Hawthorne's occult universe that finally, hot with apprehension and unable to support my own anxiety, I had to go upstairs to bed so that no one (who was not there) could see me.  I lay in bed waiting for the malevolent thud of Wakefield's footsteps on the lighthouse stairs.  I was, to put it mildly, totally creeped.  The next day, though, the book lying in its bed of dishtowels on the kitchen table was just a book, a block of paper bound in faded cloth, and the stories within it were just a series of shapely ink spots.  Daylight had soothed my imagination and dissolved my fear.

"Last night, in reading Hawthorne's own apologetic preface to these stories - a preface written in 1851 (long after the stories were composed and compiled) in a mood of retrospective correction and fatherly forbearance for his younger, supposedly less talented self - I was surprised and pleased to read this sentence: "The book, if you would see anything in it, requires to be read in the clear, brown, twilight atmosphere in which it was written; if opened in the sunshine, it is apt to look exceedingly like a volume of blank pages."  Hawthorne well knew what he had created: a series of sketches - for more than a few of the stories are snapshot short, miniscule in their scope...that depend somewhat on the mood and suggestibility of the reader; fabular inventions calculated to stimulate that part of the mind that thrives on, even craves mystery and wonder and terror (xiv)".  It's for these reasons that I thought it worth while to take a look at the writings of Nate Hawthorne.  He's one of those Big Names whose reputation is a combination of critical darling and mainstream obscurity.  He's a great writer who everybody hates, except for the rest of us who don't know why, or even who this guy is.

For the longest time, he was just a some byline on a handful of books that I've known more through reputation rather than any legit first-hand knowledge.  Strange as it may sound, I've never really read a single thing by Hawthorne until just recently.  I guess that makes me something of an anomaly.  I've managed to escape the curse that makes writers like him the scourge and bane of all high school and college student's existence.  I never learned a thing about this guy in either of the two main academic settings where his name is most likely to crop up.  The result is this kind of weird, blue moon style situation.  I'm allowed a privilege that I think few of Hawthorne's readers are given.  I'm in a situation where I have no other choice except to go into this guy's work with a more or less blank slate frame of mind.  I can just pick up any of his works that I might like, and then reach my own conclusions on what kind of stories the writer from Salem might be telling, and what he's trying to say in and with them.  With all this in mind, I thought I'd start out small.  I knew the first Hawthorne story I tackled on this blog would have to be both graspable and yet representative of the type of story he specialized in.  It had to be a simple narrative that also stood for the overall outlook and effect of all of his fiction, in other words.  I may have found the right specimen in the course of the curious story of "David Swan". 

Sunday, March 10, 2024

The Lost King (2022).

It opens with a familiar line of text.  "Based on a true story".  Right away, you know it's going to be one of those films.  The history of cinema doesn't want for lack of any biographical pictures.  It's a veritable cottage industry unto itself.  It's a select sub-genre whose origins seem to reach as far back as the beginning of the medium itself.  The first major (if not initial) biopic was Carl Theodore Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, way back in 1928.  It was a silent film, which means its an acquired taste these days.  It also went on to become one of cinema's first great blockbusters, a low-key version of Cecil B. DeMille before he was even a name.  Dreyer's film was also a first in another way.  It is just possible that this film marks the beginning of the long, infamous tradition of the clash between filmmakers and scholars over the accuracy of historical persons and events in an artistic medium.  There might be one or two elements of the subject the Dreyer film got wrong, for instance.  More than a few viewers were happy to point this out, and things have carried on in such a vein ever since.  Which means the same issue of being "True to Life" is bound to plague Stephen Frears' production of The Lost King.  It's story does center on a Maid, of sorts, but not of Orleans.  After being given proper warning from the "True Story" tag, we're given an extra bit of information from the opening credits.

The film, we're told, is not just based on a true story.  It's also "Her Story".  So long as we're playing the game of Art vs History, it might help to point out that even this initial statement counts as an example of "true so far as it goes".  Or rather "true" for a given amount of true.  In the strictest sense, what we're dealing with here is the story of a Maiden and a King, and the way the two somehow found each other.  That is still not quite the whole truth, however.  For you see, there is a third player in the make-believe dramatization of history that's about to unfold.  He's always hanging about in the wings of the film's narrative, always waiting, perhaps, for his own say on things.  He even gets name dropped more than once or twice, here and there.  However, in order to get the full picture, we have to take things in their proper order.  That means knowing when to start at the proper beginning of the whole affair.

Sunday, February 25, 2024

Three Types of Modern Prose and Their Readers.

In some ways, I owe a debt of gratitude to Roger Ebert for this one.  Even if what I'm about to write ends up on a different critical outlook from that of the beloved film critic for the Chicago Times, credit has to go where it's due.  It was Roger who got the gears in my mind turning.  This whole article is therefore best thought of as something like his accidental brainchild.  It also owes its existence to the work of one other famous artistic personality.  This would be the once noted Horror writer, Peter Straub.  In fact, it was an observation made by the critic about the author that got this whole thing started.  During the course of his review of a film adaptation of Straub's 1979 novel, Ghost Story, Ebert mentions how he once tried to get into the literary source material.  His own reaction to the book was that, in his words, "I plugged away at it for what must have been hundreds of pages before his unspeakable prose finally got to me. At least, he knows how to make a good story, if not how to tell it, and that is one way in which the book and the movie of “Ghost Story” differ (web)".  Ebert then goes on to qualify his judgment call in the following terms.

"The movie is told with style. It goes without saying that style is the most important single element in every ghost story, since without it even the most ominous events disintegrate into silliness. And “Ghost Story,” perhaps aware that if characters talk too much they disperse the tension, adopts a very economical story-telling approach. Dialogue comes in short, straightforward sentences.  Background is provided without being allowed to distract from the main event. The characters are established with quick, subtle strokes".  Then, he closes it all off with the simple judgment call of: "This is a good movie (ibid)".  Well, for what it's worth, I took his advice, or recommendation, and gave the film a watch.  Even after trying to keep as open a mind as possible, I'm afraid I'll still have to side with another critic, Bill Sheehan, who in his critical study, At the Foot of the Story Tree, described the movie version of Ghost Story, as "a marvel of missed opportunities (80)".  Nor does the divergence of critical opinion end there.  My own experience of reading the original novel was and remains a complete opposite.

I almost want to claim that Ebert and I must have been reading dissimilar novels by entirely different authors.  So here I was faced with a challenge.  How do I account for the differences of opinion between Sheehan and myself, versus those of one half of Siskel and Ebert?  
It was the kind of remark that didn't just get my attention, it sort of forced me to take what Ebert was saying with a certain degree of seriousness.  The trouble is that doing so kind of forced me to confront a series of interrelated question.  For instance, what counts as "good prose"?  How does this maxim translate into "good writing"?  In other words, what kind of prose makes for a "good story"?  More to the point, can there ever be anything such as a perfect, indelible, and unassailable prose style when it comes to judging the quality of any given artistic work, whether a movie, or a book?  I'm sure many of you reading this have already arrived at what seems to be the obvious conclusion.  If you are one of these readers, then you can go ahead and skip all of what I'm about to say next.  This article is not directed at any of you.

Instead, I think this is a topic that needs to be addressed to the novices in the audience.  I think it's worth devoting some time and space here to an examination of the different types of writing styles to be found in works of prose fiction.  I think it's worth making such an effort in an attempt to meet the kind of challenge that Ebert's words set before any attentive student of literature (which is what I at least hope I am).  It's also a subject worth trying to tackle because of the light it might be able to help us shine on the different ways there are of reading as well as the art and craft of writing.  In essence, what you've got here is the kind of work that appeals most to a former high school going on college level English Major.  The sort of work that "Book People" will get excited about, in other words.  Articles like this always tend to run the risk of vanishing into the hazy mists of academic thought, and leaving the casual reader lost in the forest, unable to tell the different between the woods and the trees.

My promise (or at the very least, my hope?) is to avoid making this a boring slog by avoiding both too much technical detail, and (again, trying, anyway) to provide what I regard as various snippets and examples of what I consider to be Good Prose in the most genuine sense of the term.  That being passages of narrative action and description that not only demonstrate what good writing is like, but also does something else.  I tend to think the ultimate value of any good work of fiction lies in its ability to entertain its audience.  This is the ultimate goal to aim for, before any other.  Even if you're someone like Jon Swift or Mark Twain, and you want to bear your heart and soul in an effort to awaken your readers to the danger of racial injustice, all the good intentions in the world will turn to dust in an arena like this if you can't make a compelling narrative that grabs your audience by the throat and won't let go until the last line has been written and read.  It is the story, and its ability to entertain, which is the deciding factor here.  Applying it to an article like this means I'm going to have to make sure each passage from a book I might choose for demonstration is good enough to help keep the reader engaged.

It also means above all that I shouldn't get lost in the woods, and that I make sure the same applies to anyone kind enough to give me their valuable time of day.  The good news here is that we don't have far to go.  A careful look around at the contemporary writing scene has let me know that there are just a handful of choices left open to any would-be word-slinger.  All current ink-stained wretches have the limited options of just three styles of prose manners or voices to choose from.  Each of them are easy to distinguish and arrange into their respective categories, and there are enough good representatives of the "best and brightest" of each class of style to make this an interesting enough romp for those who either care about this sort of thing, or else are just hanging around looking for useful recommendation of any book out there whose contents at least sounds good enough to see if cracking their spines open is worth the effort.  So, with that in mind, let's take a look at what we mean by the term: Good Prose.