Ultimately, the marital relationship of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes was filled with pain and ended in tragedy. At the outset, however, things were very different. Within months of their first meeting at Cambridge, they had fallen in love, gotten married, and started having children – all while writing poetry and supporting one another’s art. What did they see in each other as people and as poets? How did they inspire and encourage one another? In this episode, Jacke talks to Plath’s biographer Heather Clark, author of Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath, about the creative partnership of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.
(A NOTE OF CORRECTION: At one point during this episode, the host mentions the years of Plath’s birth and death and gives her age as “sixty.” That should, of course, have been “thirty.” Please accept our apologies for his singular incompetence.)
Author Jacke Wilson examines the works of three great Greek tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides – and attempts to solve the mystery of why Friedrich Nietzsche admired two of the three and despised the other.
Thanks to all of you who made last week the biggest one yet in the brief life of The History of Literature podcast. I’m not sure if Burt Reynolds or Aristotle deserves more credit. (Have you ever had the feeling that you’ve written a sentence that no one has ever, ever written? I just had that feeling.)
This week looks like a good one as well! Tomorrow, we’ll continue our journey through Greek tragedy by looking more closely at the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles (again), and Euripides. This time we’ll use the lens of the young Friedrich Nietzsche, writing his first book in his burgeoning philosopher/poet/madman way.
The trip through Nietzsche, Wagner, and the tragedians made me think of this unbelievably good sequence from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now:
I don’t think Nietzsche would think much of most of our culture – but for what it’s worth, I do think he would have admired that sequence.
Yes, there’s a stigma attached to this. All those people saying: “Who do you think you are, Jacke Wilson?” and “There is no check on quality anymore! You can’t just SAY you’re a writer.” and “The self-publishing world is like an agent’s slushpile times a zillion!”
And also…I do have eyes, people. I’ve been to Barnes & Noble. I’ve seen what the gatekeepers have let through. If anyone think they provide a check on quality, as opposed to marketability…well, I don’t know what to say.
When I first cranked up this blog I posted several tributes to what I called the indie spirit. These were links to people – famous people, celebrated authors or artists – who took things into their own hands. Ezra Pound. Dr. Johnson. Stéphane Mallarmé. Marcel Proust. I had others as well – ten or twelve, I would guess. Some were people who adapted to technology before the rest of the field. Or who wrote a book that was claimed to be “unsellable” or “unpublishable,” but who found a way to sidestep the naysayers and get their voice heard somehow.
I posted a lot of these because I was trying to talk myself into why self-publishing was a good idea. Every success story heartened me; I drank them in, in the way someone afraid of flying might stop off at the airport bar for “shots of courage.”
Now that I’m on the other side (two books, a podcast, a blog, and lots more on the way), I consider my efforts a success. Success on a tiny scale, sure. But tens of thousands of readers and listeners is far more than I ever expected. Frankly, it’s more than most of my friends who have published with traditional publishers have. That’s the dirty little secret of literary fiction: A few Mobys. Lots of minnows.
And my experience has been better than theirs! Most of them hate their publisher: hate the contract, hate the lack of support they received, hate the cover of their book, hate the changes they were forced to make.
I am responsible to no one. I rise and fall with my own decisions. It’s liberating. It feels creative. It feels artistic.
Everywhere else in my life I’m governed by forces out of my control. But in this realm, where freedom is everything, I have it.
My friends have been told that their lack of success on the first book means that publishers won’t want to see their second. Does this have anything to do with quality? Is this how we encourage artists and writers in today’s world? It’s a ridiculous premise.
Most of my friends are so dispirited they’re ready to give up. I’m just getting started!
But set aside all that highfalutin’ puffery. Save that for the intellekshuls, as my beloved Flannery might say.
The main difference between the old way and the new way is this: I was getting nowhere the old way.
I had an idea for a novella-length piece of work. Ready to go! Fresh paper in front of me! Blue pen all revved up! Just a quick run to the agent websites to see where I’ll be aiming this when I’m finished…
Wait, what? A novella? About a hundred pages? You’re telling me not to bother? Nobody wants them? Publishers won’t look at them? Agents laugh behind your back for being so naive?
But…I like reading them. Don’t others like short novels? People are busy, no one has time for a novel…Wait, why the hell are you getting in our way?
Writers! Readers! The decision to connect or not should be their decision, not yours.
Because, Jacke. Just…because.
So then what? Set down my pen? Or decide to bring it out myself?
And whatever you think about its quality, I think you would have to agree that it’s a better outcome than setting down my blue pen altogether. (If you can’t even meet me that far, if you’re going to tell me that I should not even bother writing anything if it’s a length that traditional publishers don’t want to sell, then we’re just not going to agree. Thanks for stopping by. You can go work out your daddy issues or whatever is forcing you into the comfortable thought that People In Charge Know What’s Best For Us. I’ll side with the artists, and the people, and the barbaric desire to create, every time.)
Here’s where Martin Short and Harry Shearer come in. Remember the Men’s Synchronized Swimming sketch? It struck the young me like a hurricane. I did not think I had ever seen anything this funny before.
I hope you’ve seen it. If you’re over forty, you probably have. If you’re a comedy fan, you probably have too. It makes it onto a lot of lists. In any case, it’s here if you want to take a look.
I remember after we shot synchronized swimming, I said to Harry, What do you think we have here? Do you think these pieces are any good? And he said, “I don’t know, but all I know is that in L.A. I would have had two potential meetings about an idea and here at least we’re shooting stuff.” So he was thrilled about that, I remember.
Yes! Yes! And to that I can say, “Stigma? All I know is that in the past I’d have spent a hundred hours writing synopses and cover letters to agents and this way at least I have actual readers.”
So who cares if Grandma’s memoirs go online? Let’s let freedom ring! Let’s let creativity rule! Let’s seize the power! And the day! And the reins! Let’s seize whatever we can get our grubby little artistic hands on!
You’re telling me that books can’t make it in the world without the stamp of someone official? That the author’s imprimatur is insufficient? I refute it thus, Madame Slushpile!
Wonderful Reader N asked this question about my book The Race:
Can I ask a quick question about the book cover? Was the design meant to suggestion a flag because it’s about elections? I am a little obsessed about book covers–maybe because my design sense is stunted from birth–and I’m curious where yours came from.
Great question! And yes! A flag is definitely one of the tropes. This is a story about America and its flailing democracy. But that’s not all! Here’s a reminder of the cover in all its glory…
The flag is definitely a key – some versions had a capital building silhouette, some had a close-up of a smiling politician, and on and on and on. This is a former governor who’s now running for Congress, after all. Politics and flag waving. Speeches on the hustings. Apple pie. Kissing babies. Fourth of July. Etc. Etc. Etc.
But that’s not REALLY what the story’s about. Or rather, that’s not ALL it’s about.
There are two other elements of the story that are reflected in the cover. I’ll send a free copy of the book to whoever first guesses each of the themes.
I found this book absolutely fascinating. There was no crime to investigate, no thrills, no action scenes, no romantic scenes just a compelling story that is a journey through what motivates a man to do what he does.
The story is told by a lawyer who is asked by a disgraced politician to help him organize his biography. Then the politician decides he wants to run for office again. He has no support from the media, no support from his party and especially no support from his family. Why? Because while serving as the governor of the state of Wisconsin he had an affair and disappeared for a few days to be with his mistress. Only in this story, his wife does not stand by her husband on stage or anywhere else and neither do his children. People turn away when he walks down the street. And yet he continues until the last moment to be optimistic that the voters will come through for him. Our storyteller is with the candidate through every step of his campaign because he has no manager and no staff.
I couldn’t help but feel that there is a lot of truth in the author’s portrayal of the candidate that confirms my personal opinion that some of them seem to live in a bit of a fantasy world. I also found the author’s writing style to be very approachable, like a friend relating a story. Bottom line, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it to everyone. And since it’s a novella and doesn’t require a huge commitment of time, those of you that might not typically pick up a book in this genre should really give it a try. I hope to read more from Jacke Wilson in the near future.
Any writer who heads out into the marketplace soon realizes that the marketplace is carved up into sections, organized by genre. Is your book science fiction? Fantasy? Steampunk? Women’s fiction? Literary fiction? Romance? Creative nonfiction? Biography? Historical fiction?
Roughly you can think of this as “Where would you look for this in the bookstore?”
This can be frustrating. Many authors of science fiction will claim, rightly, that their books have the same devotion to character and language that “literary fiction” does. And authors of literary fiction will say that their books have enough mystery, or romance, that they shouldn’t be lumped in with the highfalutin’. Most if not all authors believe that their books have at least a couple of these elements, and can appeal to readers accordingly.
Aha, you say. Bookstores are no longer physical spaces! We don’t need to choose one shelf on which to place a book. Online, every book can be in multiple categories!
But that’s not how it works. Online bookstores organize things into lists. Forums dedicated to books and reading focus on particular genres. Reviewers have preferences for genres they like to read. And most importantly, readers look for books in their genre (or avoid ones they don’t like). For an author, declaring a genre serves a purpose in a) getting readers to consider your book and b) setting their expectations for what they will find.
I don’t know if this will ever change. I’m just saying that it hasn’t yet.
All of this is a lengthy prelude to what I really want to say. Because there is a different way to think of this. There is hope, people! Continue reading →
This is national novel writing month (NaNoWriMo), which isn’t something I’ve ever participated in, mainly because I write fiction year round and don’t need any extra incentive. What has struck me this year is that there are such strong opinions AGAINST it. Even purported supporters often give NaNoWriMo participants the back of their hand – suggesting that these people are delusional, they’re churning out garbage, they don’t realize how hard writing is, they give agents and editors headaches, they’re unrealistic about the prospects of instantly earning millions of dollars, they’ve turned writing novels into a lark, they should be READING and not writing. I won’t link to these articles to give them any more traffic than they deserve, and because I’m trying to stay positive here.
But to answer each of those criticisms I say:
We have democratic voting system for a reason. Take a close look at a single voter and you think this is crazy, how can we let this idiot decide? Multiply that ignorance by the number of people voting and you almost feel ill. But abstract yourself from that voter, think about the alternatives, and you’re left thinking, what a wonderful crazy system that lets everyone in on the game, this is so much better than the alternative. Same thing with the jury pool. You don’t have to spend much time picking a jury before you start wondering if we should just flip coins instead. But then you meet a horrible judge and you think thank god this guy doesn’t have any more power than he already does.
Look, I may go through life without ever reading a novel written during NaNoWriMo. I don’t care! I support it anyway! And not because I think the act of writing a novel is any better than playing the piano or building a bookshelf or learning to cook Indian food or binge-watching Game of Thrones. All worthy endeavors! If a few people turn into real novelists, fantastic! If a few others get frustrated and decide never to read a work of fiction ever again, that’s okay too. If (as I suspect happens most often) people scratch an itch they’ve always had, and in the meantime learn more about the process, have fun exercising their brain in a certain way, gain new respect for the authors they love, feel like they’re part of a community of people undertaking the same thing, and have the satisfaction of someone completing a diet or an exercise routine, then that’s fine too.
I can’t find the quote, but I think Tolstoy once said that the difference between being a professional writer and being a concert violinist is that every amateur thinks they can write as well as the professional, but nobody thinks they can just pick up a violin and star in an orchestra. So maybe NaNoWriMo leads to some self-awareness. I hope it’s not too painful to get the wake-up call, if that’s the result. I suspect most people can handle it.
Final word to the critics of NaNoWriMo: last year there were 300,000 participants. Last night there were 9 million people watching CSI. (900,000 watched a repeat episode of Hoarding.) Enjoy the NaNoWriMo buzz. Or ignore it. It is not a threat to you.
Off we go! First up in our celebrity novella deathmatch are a couple of heavyweights from the Dead White Male division:
Billy Budd by Herman Melville
The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad
Batten the hatches! Beat to quarters! “Shall we start the contest, Cap’n?” “Make it so, sir, make it so!”
Let’s get started.
This is a strong matchup between two undeniably great authors with many similarities. Both are more famous for other works – in fact, they each have novellas that are seeded higher in the Tournament of Champions (Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness). Although Melville belongs to the nineteenth-century and Conrad seems firmly grounded in the twentieth, the two contestants are actually closer in era than one might think. The Secret Sharer was written only twenty years after Billy Budd. It was also the first to be published, in 1912. (Billy Budd languished in some drawer until 1924.)
Billy Budd comes in as the favorite: it routinely makes lists of top novellas. If this burb is to be believed, The Secret Sharer has apparently been called “among the finest of Conrad’s short novels, and among the half-dozen greatest short novels in the English language” by a Stanford professor I’ve never heard of, but this seems like a ridiculous quote, as it suggests that Conrad by himself has three or four of the top six novellas of all time.
Word Count: 30,326
Author credibility: +10 points
Come on! It’s Herman Melville! It’s hard to get bigger than that. This guy swings for the fences! Billy Budd is often viewed as a good “get a Melville fix without loading yourself down with you-know-what.” Oddly, I found Moby Dick to be a faster read.
Inferior work penalty: -5 points
Calm down. It’s Melville, but it’s not Moby-Dick or Bartleby. Should be no higher than third on your Melville list.
The Sea, the Sea!: +3 points
Stories taking place on wooden ships earn 3 bonus points. Years ago anything taking place on the sea was a big negative for me. After reading Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series I’m into it now. I’m a big fan of the sea!
Author lifetime obscurity points: +2 points
Wrote Moby Dick at age 32; died 40 years later in obscurity, with his classic novel never having sold out its initial print run of 3,000 copies. That’s worth a couple of points from Jacke. RIP big fella.
First page what the huh? moments: -5 points.
Even putting the racial stereotypes in the context of their era, it’s tough to keep going when such outdated physical descriptions hit you all at once, right at the start. Billy Budd is characterized by his flashing white teeth, his “barbaric good humor,” and compared with a “grand sculptured Bull.” Ugh. Luckily things do get better…
Clotted prose: -25 points.
…but not for a while! I admire Melville, but good lord is this novella a slog. I had to run at this so many times I felt like Martin Short as the soldier who had never learned how to climb stairs. A taste:
Noting this uncomplaining acquiescence, all but cheerful one might say, the shipmates turned a surprised glance of silent reproach at the sailor. The Shipmaster was one of those worthy mortals found in every vocation, even the humbler ones–the sort of person whom everybody agrees in calling “a respectable man.” And–nor so strange to report as it may appear to be–though a ploughman of the troubled waters, life-long contending with the intractable elements, there was nothing this honest soul at heart loved better than simple peace and quiet. For the rest, he was fifty or thereabouts, a little inclined to corpulence, a prepossessing face, unwhiskered, and of an agreeable color–a rather full face, humanely intelligent in expression. On a fair day with a fair wind and all going well, a certain musical chime in his voice seemed to be the veritable unobstructed outcome of the innermost man. He had much prudence, much conscientiousness, and there were occasions when these virtues were the cause of overmuch disquietude in him. On a passage, so long as his craft was in any proximity to land, no sleep for Captain Graveling. He took to heart those serious responsibilities not so heavily borne by some shipmasters.
That is some serious overwriting. Paragraph after paragraph. Page after page. Looking for the narrative in all this prose made me feel like a confused dog digging up the whole yard. Why was I digging up the yard? Because my master hid my bone because he is cruel and hates me.
Ability to go deep: +35 points
A whopping score for this category. But there’s no getting around it – once you get through the agonizingly dull prose, you are rewarded with some very rich themes. With a fairly simple story and a limited set of characters, Melville nevertheless manages to unlock some seriously compelling issues. The law, society, submission to authority, psychology, the death penalty, discipline and punishment, the meaning of justice, homoerotic behavior and how it manifests itself among sailors – it’s all here. The rules of the sea – so necessary to maintain order and preserve safety – require you to execute a man you believe in your heart is innocent. How do you live with yourself after that? And yet it must be done. Eeeyah, we still haven’t figured these issues out.
“God Bless Captain Vere!”: +10 points
Billy Budd’s plaintive wail at the end. More than a shade of “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.” Sure, it’s buried in the overstuffed graveyard that is Melville’s prose, but even so: heartbreaking.
“Billy Budd, Billy Budd”: +10 points
The captain’s dying words. A cliche? I don’t care, I’m a total sucker for this. An entire life lived… and nothing else weighed on him more.
The concluding poem “Billy in the Darbies”: +0.5 points
This poem is… um… heartfelt. Oh, Herman. You deserved so much better. Life failed you.
Billy Budd Total: 35.5 points
Ah, here we go…
The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad
Word Count: 16,667
After the agony of reading Billy Budd, I was expecting the worst. Isn’t Conrad also verbose? Painfully slow? Obtuse? No! I had misremembered this, or at least The Secret Sharer does not suffer from it. Or is this because of my Aubrey-Maturin training? Whatever the reason, reading Conrad after Melville is like reading Hemingway after Faulkner. Therefore…
A strong start for Conrad, who famously wrote in English despite being a native Polish speaker. He deserves the points – this tale zips along and drives hard toward its conclusion. A novella at its best.
Author bonus points: +10
Joseph Conrad! An all-time great. Some people were born to write. He is one.
Inferior work penalty: -4
Not Heart of Darkness or Lord Jim. Tough standards to live up to, but there you have it.
The Sea, the Sea!: +3
Eh, might as well follow through with this to be fair.
Conrad the unfathomable: +2
One of my all-time favorite literary stories: Ford Madox Ford claimed that Conrad used to come over to his house and the two of them would look into one another’s eyes for hours, going deep into each other’s soul. That is very Conrad. Only Conrad could earn a point for…
“The place was literally not big enough to swing a cat in.”: +1
A cliche that’s not a cliche, you see, because he means it literally. Except that the narrator was not holding a cat. Literal has its limits. The point is that Conrad’s unyielding seriousness, coupled with his desperate lion-tamer’s relationship to language, always make me smile.
Unbelievably good title: +5
I did not realize until reading this novella, which is about a captain “sharing” his quarters with a shadowy figure he conceals from the crew, that Conrad invented the phrase (I think). I knew of the title, of course, but I’ve been using “secret sharer” as a synonym for doppelganger for years without knowing it was something Conrad had originated.
There are some interesting themes here – mostly about the growth of a captain during his first command. His attempts to assert his authority over his crew – and the effects of this on his mind – are compelling. The shaky, shifting narration is a nice literary touch.
Ambition, absence of: -15
Even so, the themes here are a little simple for Conrad, who would go far deeper with Heart of Darkness. Billy Budd is more ambitious. Put it this way: had this been all Conrad had written about, I doubt Ford Madox Ford would have looked into his eyes for more than 45 minutes, tops.
Orson Welles bonus points: +3
Orson Welles liked Melville, but he loved Conrad. The three points are for the recording of Orson Welles reading The Secret Sharer. Perfect marriage of voice and story.
Orson Welles “Come on, Internet!” penalty: -1
I spent ten minutes clicking links trying to get to this audio recording. Gone, gone, gone. Finally I gave up. Don’t email me a working link. The recording is dead to me.
Opening sequence “Hey, this will work!” passage: +5
Here’s Conrad setting the table:
“All these people had been together for eighteen months or so, and my position was that of the only stranger on board. I mention this because it has some bearing on what is to follow. But what I felt most was my being a stranger to the ship; and if all the truth must be told, I was somewhat of a stranger to myself.”
Awesome. That table would have taken Melville at least 700 words to set. In the time it would have taken him to set out the plates and silverware and glasses and candles and tea cozies and napkin holders, Conrad would have wolfed down five chops and would be picking his teeth as Ford Madox Ford tried to stare into his eyes.
Narrator’s queasy relationship with his crew and his own authority, economically rendered: +5
Before I could collect myself the words “Come in” were out of my mouth, and the steward entered with a tray, bringing in my morning coffee. I had slept, after all, and I was so frightened that I shouted, “This way! I am here, steward,” as though he had been miles away. He put down the tray on the table next the couch and only then said, very quietly, “I can see you are here, sir.”
Narrator’s blurry sense of self: +5
Too many great passages here to quote. And the novella doesn’t go on too long. No Krusty and The Big Ears problems here.
Point for the scene where the visiting captain notes he only had to pull a couple of miles to get from one ship to the other, suggesting that the Secret Sharer could have swum the distance (as he had). I gasped. Not literally though. Oh, and I swung a cat. Also not literally.
Genuine suspense!: +2
Billy Budd felt like homework. The Secret Sharer was an under-the-covers-with-the-flashlight pleasure – I literally wanted to know what happened. Excellent for a novella, even if it doesn’t have the deep themes of Billy Budd.
The Secret Sharer (total points): 47
Billy Budd (total points): 35.5
Winner: The Secret Sharer
Have a different score on your card? Or an idea for a novella that belongs in the Tournament? Let Jacke know in the comments. And check this space for Jacke’s novellas, which are on their way!