History of Literature Episode #136 – The Kids Are All Right (Aren’t They?) Making the Case for Literature

LOGO-COVERS

Does literature matter? Why read at all? Jacke Wilson takes questions from high school students and attempts to make the case for literature.

Works and authors discussed include Beloved, The Great Gatsby, Shakespeare, The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, Animal Farm, Scarlet Letter, Of Mice and Men, the Odyssey, The Inferno, The House on Mango Street, Farenheit 451, 1984, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Where the Red Fern Grows, Pride and Prejudice, Junot Diaz, Drown, Maya Angelou, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather, J.K. Rowling, Paul Auster, Sara Gruen, Alice Sebold, Lorrie Moore, Sandra Cisneros, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, Isabel Allende, Ernest Hemingway, Martin Amis, Colson Whitehead, Edwidge Danticat, Ronica Dhar, David Sedaris, Jhumpa Lahiri, Zadie Smith, Junot Diaz, Vu Tran, Julia Alvarez, Amy Tan, Gish Jen, Margot Livesey, Cristina Garcia, George Saunders, Jennifer Egan, Stephen King, Haruki Murakami, James McBride, Shawna Yang Ryan, Charles Baxter, Nick Hornby, Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

Help support the show at patreon.com/literature or historyofliterature.com/shop. Learn more about the show at historyofliterature.com or facebook.com/historyofliterature. Contact the host at jackewilsonauthor@gmail.com or @WriterJacke.

Virginia Woolf on How to Read a Book


Via Maria Popova’s Brainpickings (of course!), we get this amazing overview of Virginia Woolf’s amazing advice on how to read a book.

The whole post is worth reading, but here’s a taste:

To read a novel is a difficult and complex art. You must be capable not only of great fineness of perception, but of great boldness of imagination if you are going to make use of all that the novelist — the great artist — gives you.

Virginia made a cameo here on the Jacke blog once before, when she visited Stonehenge. Glad to have you back, Virginia!

Let’s try a little K.T. Tunstall for our onward and upward. With the legendary Daryl Hall. Can’t we all just go hang out there, at Daryl’s house?

What They Knew #28

“You forget everything. The hours slip by. You travel in your chair through centuries you seem seem to see before you, your thoughts are caught up in the story, dallying with the details or following the course of the plot, you enter into characters, so that it seems as if it were your own heart beating beneath their costumes.”

– Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary

What They Knew #27

“A wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. It is there that occurs the telltale tingle…”

– Vladimir Nabokov

What They Knew #25: Proust on the Miracle of Reading

“Reading is that fruitful miracle of a communication in the midst of solitude.”

– Marcel Proust

Ten Bold Predictions for 2014: An Analysis

Digital Book World has a list of ten bold predictions for ebooks digital publishing in 2014. Some of them delve into brave new world territory, but for those of us who have been around for a while, who can remember the days before you could carry a device in your pocket that can make phone calls, take pictures, and immediately provide the name of the closest Five Guys as well as the actor who played Joey Pants in the Sopranos – well, every year seems like a brave new world.

While the article is somewhat pitched toward folks in the industry who make a living off of these sorts of developments (or who are afraid of losing their jobs), I find myself drawn, as always, to the impact on readers and writers, the only two communities I really care about. (Sorry, investors and publishers and agents and distributors!)  And in that spirit, it’s prediction number six that interests me the most:

6. More publishers will endorse the subscription ebook model by doing business with Oyster, Scribd and other similar services.

Continue reading

My Dante, Part II

Profile portrait of Dante, by Sandro Botticelli

Yesterday I gave my advice for how to enjoy Dante and proposed a new translation. Today I put myself to the test, to see whether my approach to translating Dante is superior to the recent (highly accomplished) verse of Clive James and Mary Jo Bang.

Before we get to that, let me emphasize again the importance of reading the Italian first, even if you don’t understand what you’re reading. My approach assumes you get your fill of versification by reading the Italian for sound. Then you get caught up on the story by quickly breezing through the English.

Look, if you’re not interested in the Italian at all – if all you want to do is experience a long, Dante-like poem in English – you should probably choose the Bang translation or one of the others that attempt to give you both the meaning and the flavor of Dante’s poetry. But if you’re reading in Italian first (as I think you must! come on, it’s Dante!) then go for the easiest English you can.

I took a shot at the opening yesterday. Today I put myself to the test with the famous Paolo and Francesca scene. First, the Dante: Continue reading

The Writer’s Mind: Sharing the Creative Experience

I’ve been following the many discussions recently of why we like long novels. And while those are interesting and fun, I think they’ve missed something important about the length of the creative work and its impact on the reader. My moment of truth was handed to me by that fabulous liar, Edgar Allan Poe.

I’ll get to that in a minute. But first let me give you a flavor of the discussion. Here’s Laura Miller writing about the full-immersion experience of reading a long novel:

But I believe there’s also an inherent appeal in fat novels, something that only written fiction can offer and that short stories, for all their felicities, aren’t able to provide. You can be swallowed up by a long novel, immersed in the world its author has created in a fashion that no other medium can rival.

Richard Lea wonders if Aristotle would have favored longer or shorter works of fiction. While Lea seems to lean toward the former, he gives both sides their say:

It’s not hard to find writers who resist this kind of logic. For George Saunders “A novel is just a story that hasn’t yet discovered a way to be brief,” while Borges seems to suggest Aristotle’s argument actually favours the short story, arguing that short fiction has the advantage because it “can be taken in at a single glance”. For the novelist Ian McEwan – who made the 2007 Booker prize shortlist with his 166-page “full length novel”, On Chesil Beach – the novella is “the perfect form of prose fiction … the beautiful daughter of a rambling, bloated ill-shaven giant”.

Laura Miller again on why longer works are better for readers:

It takes a while to become so invested, and it often doesn’t happen at all. Getting there is work, like pulling a sled up a hill, but when (and if) you crest the top, it’s a splendid ride from there. The problem with a short story is that even if the author does manage to seduce you into believing in her fictional mirage, it’s over almost as soon as you take a seat on the sled. A long novel promises an extended tour, and the ratio of ramp-up to glide is much lower.

And Ian McEwan (again via Richard Lea), on the other side:

“The poem and the short story are theoretically perfectible, but I doubt there is such a thing as a perfect novel (even if we could begin to agree among ourselves on what comprises a good sentence). The novel is too capacious, inclusive, unruly, and personal for perfection.”

The novella, which according to McEwan has much in common with “watching a play or a longish movie”, can at least be envisaged approaching perfection, “like an asymptotic line in co-ordinate geometry.”

Whew. What are they missing? The key to me was provided by our old friend Edgar Allan Poe. In particular, by what I now realize is a misremembering one of his essays.

Continue reading

The Case for CodeX

Ed Finn and Joey Eschrich argue for the need to replace the word “ebook”:

We need to embrace digital reading as its own medium, not just a book under glass. That means imagining a new language for reading as an experience, starting with a new word to use instead of book.

Their solution comes from “a crack team of novelists, journalists, and publishers conducting a gonzo experiment in the future of publishing”:

With some trepidation, we would like to nominate codex, a word with a rich history that most of us don’t know anything about. Codex, derived from the Latin caudex (meaning “trunk of a tree”) even happens to contain the English word code, which will be central to the future of reading in a variety of ways. The things we’ll be reading in the future will not only involve a lot of programming; they’ll also require readers to decode complex, multilayered experiences and encode their own ideas as contributions in a variety of creative ways. Since standard printed books are technically codices, we propose (with significantly more trepidation) to distinguish our variant with one of those annoying midword capitals: codeX, to remind us that these new things involve experience, experimentation, expostulation … you know, all those X things.

They go on to refer to X-Men and the X games and make other arguments.

I’m not sure I agree with all the reasoning here, and I’m not even sure you can improve on the word ebook, which to my ear conveys a notion of these things being booklike but slightly different, with the e as the subtly perfect stand-in for the difference. How many calls for renaming email have you heard lately?

That said, I do like the nod to the old texts that you get with codex. Now that I’ve gone through the process, I feel like there’s something very monklike in handcrafting your own book.

Image credit: monstrousbeauty.blogspot.com

An Open Letter to Laura Miller

Dear Ms. Miller,

We have not always seen eye-to-eye in the past. And my tone was perhaps inappropriate. However, I will try to do better. I think your heart is in the right place and I have long appreciated your devotion to good writing and good literature. I am a fan of yours when you’re not being condescending! (Sorry, tone again. Mea culpa.)

I was interested by your statement that you are working on a series of articles on the changing literary landscape. I myself have come to view these changes as a great positive force for good. If that is too optimistic, then perhaps we can agree that change is inevitable; what we can hope for is that each of the constituent groups affected by the change will benefit to the appropriate extent.

I think the key main groups that will be affected are publishers, writers, and readers. (There may be others, such as bookstores, critics, teachers, and librarians, but I think these are the core three.) The key questions as I see them are these: Which of these groups do we want to see prosper? And how do we measure this?

Frankly, I expect publishers (and agents to the extent they are allied with them) to fend for themselves. They’ll figure out a way to make money or they’ll do something else. I do not care if at the end of the day Company A is ahead of Company B. Or if Grand Poobah C retires early while Grand Poobah D is forced to keep slaving away. We need to fight for the interests of writers and readers. I’m willing to base the success of publishers on how well they’ve served these two groups.

Moving on, while I’ve mocked the Great Fear of the Almighty Slushpile in the past, I do think there are ways in which readers can lose. Certainly if writers stopped writing, readers would lose. If books became more expensive than they are now, that would be a setback for readers. So too would reduced formatting options – if printed books disappeared altogether, for example, that would be a great blow for most readers.

The last group, and the one I want to focus on here, is writers. And the problem of measurement looks hopelessly formidable. What’s better – a thousand writers finding a way to publish for the first time? Or an established writer who is able to quit her job and write only what she wants? (And if that’s our goal, the patronage system might defeat anything currently on the horizon.) What are we trying to achieve here: A Nobel Prize winner? An all-time classic novel? A hundred really good books a year? Or a broadened field of a thousand, a hundred thousand, a million books out of which great art may arise (or may not). If we take publishers and agents out of the picture, do we think great art won’t happen at all? Or that we won’t be able to recognize it?

The problem is that any analysis of writers slides into an analysis of which writers you want to privilege. Do you believe there are a small number of people – the Great Authors of Our Generation – we should be looking out for? Do we open the doors completely and give everyone a shot? Opinions will no doubt differ.

What I would like to propose is a framework for a utilitarian analysis of the impacts of change on writers as a category, without privileging one type of author over another. In fact, I’ve already done so, with my Levels of Financial Success for Writers. I would hope that your forthcoming articles will not be limited to a few anecdotes but will instead look at the big picture. How will changes move writers up and down these rungs? How much do we value each of these categories? We all have opinions about what kind of books we want. What kind of world do we envision for writers?

Best,

Jacke