The History of Literature #246 – Giovanni Boccaccio | The Decameron

As the Black Death swept through the city of Florence, Italian poet and scholar Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) began writing his classic tale of survival and revelry. The Decameron (1349-1353) tells the story of ten individuals who have retreated to a country villa to avoid the disease. While in this state of self-quarantine, they embark upon a fortnight of storytelling: ten stories each for ten days. The resulting work was a landmark in the literature of the Italian Renaissance–and thanks to Boccaccio’s energy, inventiveness, and insight into the human condition, the work still exerts a fascinating power nearly seven hundred years later.

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Gore Vidal’s Great Orson Welles Story

I’ve read a lot of Orson Welles stories, but somehow I missed many of the gems in this fantastic NYRB essay by Gore Vidal. Here’s one of my favorites, where Vidal and Welles are analyzing “like a pair of Talmudic scholars” a draft of Rudy Vallée’s memoirs, which Vidal has managed to get his hands on:

As professional storytellers, we were duly awed by Rudy’s handling of The Grapefruit Incident, which begins, so casually, at Yale.

Ironically, the dean was the father of the boy who, nine years later, was to hurl a grapefruit at me in a Boston theater and almost kill me.

Then the story is dropped. Pages pass. Years pass. Then the grapefruit motif is reintroduced. Rudy and his band have played for the dean; afterward, when they are given ice cream, Rudy asks, “Is this all we’re having….”

Apparently one of [the dean’s] sons noticed my rather uncivil question…and resolved that some day he would avenge this slight. What he actually did later at a Boston theater might have put him in the electric chair and me in my grave but fortunately his aim was bad. But of that more later.

Orson thought this masterful. Appetites whetted, we read on until the now inevitable rendezvous of hero and grapefruit in a Boston theater where, as Rudy is singing, “Oh, Give Me Something to Remember You By,” “a large yellow grapefruit came hurtling from the balcony. With a tremendous crash it struck the drummer’s cymbal…” but “if it had struck the gooseneck of my sax squarely where it curves into the mouth it might have driven it back through the vertebra in the back of my neck.” Of this passage, the ecstatic Orson whispered, “Conrad”—what might have been if Lord Jim had remained on watch.

The ecstatic Orson, whispering  the word Conrad….simply sublime.

You can ask the genie to transport you to whichever historical period you want. I’ll use one of my three wishes to go have lunch with these guys.

Onward and upward!

Thanksgiving Week 4: The Readers!

We’ve spent Thanksgiving week giving thanks to the Kids, the Elders, and Life’s Sweet Partners. That covers most ground (sorry friends, coworkers, and facebook people I’m pretending to recall better than I actually do – maybe next year!). Or at least it covers most ground personally.

Professionally, I still owe someone special. My enormous debt of gratitude, and my undying thanks, go to a larger community. Continue reading

Today’s Comment of the Week: About Those Vampires…

Yesterday I posted about the Magic of Storytelling. Yes, I got a full head of steam going on that one (it happens!), and we definitely achieved liftoff. Fortunately, Wonderful Reader Rain, Rain was there to keep the post anchored in the comments.

To make one of my points, I asked readers to fill in the blanks in this dialogue:

Reader: Genre? I don’t care about genre. I’m just looking for__________.

Author: Genre? I wasn’t trying to write in a particular genre. I was just trying to_________.

I then filled in the blanks and challenged my readers to try to top me:

Reader: Genre? I don’t care about genre. I’m just looking for a good story.

Author: Genre? I wasn’t trying to write in a particular genre. I was just trying to tell a story.

QED, right? Well, along came Rain, Rain with this topper: Continue reading

The Magic of Storytelling

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

Storytelling and the Marketplace

I’ve been writing a long time. I can divide my writing into three phases: the phase when I was trying to tell a story, the phase when I was trying to write something suitable for an agent, and the (current) phase when I am again trying to tell a story. Writing for word count might be the most obvious difference. (Genre is another, but that’s for another day.)

Now that I’m not beholden to word count, I feel free again – free to follow the story, free to put in what fits and take out what doesn’t. I don’t have that agonizing feeling that I might have a great piece of writing that comes up too short. Or that I need to add some subplots in order to reach the minimum word count I need in order to get my manuscript taken seriously. This is better!

But hang on (I can hear critics say), aren’t the standard word counts a reflection of what readers have said they wanted from a novel? Hasn’t the marketplace determined this length? Perhaps.

But think of an archetypal storyteller. Maybe for you it’s someone at a campfire. Maybe it’s a minister delivering a sermon. Maybe it’s your best friend, calling you on Monday to tell you about her weekend. Maybe it’s an ancient blind poet chanting verse to a village. Or an ancient mariner on the deck of a cruising yawl, underneath the wide-open sky, delivering dark news from the interior.

For me it’s my uncle, brightening Thanksgiving and Christmas with his stories. I know people who can’t tell good stories – their stories tend to meander. They don’t have the same focus. The descriptions aren’t as crisp. When my uncle tells a story, everything he says is essential, and it all drives to some kind of payoff. His stories have no drag.

Now think of how absurd it would be if the archetypal storyteller – these wondrous beasts, these fabulous creatures – were forced to count up their words in advance. And if someone else jumped in and prevented the story from being told. Sorry, people. This story doesn’t have enough words. Try telling a different story that’s not too short and not too long. Why are you looking at me like that? I know how this works. Okay, fine, go ahead, tell this one – as long as you add a few things to make it an acceptable length. Look, this is for your own good. I’m only basing it on what I’ve seen in the marketplace.

But wait, you say. Aren’t those few things the unnecessary, the meandering, the drag? Won’t those few things turn good stories into bad ones?

Who are you to ask those things – these are professionals! So stop worrying! Learn to love the market! They know how this works!