Why I’m Trashing My Novel

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Sometimes when you write a draft of a story in your head, you go back and read it and see all the flaws in it. That’s normal; artists rarely produce good work on the first g0-round–although there is that story about Mozart showing his latest score to Salieri, who asked to see the rough copy. Mozart replied that he was looking at the rough copy. When Salieri asked where the cross-outs and emendations were, Mozart stared at him, puzzled. “The mistakes!” said Salieri, losing patience with his young colleague. “Where’s the copy with all the mistakes?” Mozart looked at him in amazement, and finally said, “Why on earth would I want to make mistakes?”

See what I did there? In an essay about writing and revising, I inserted a little story. It’s not original–I picked it up somewhere, probably from my music teacher. And it may not even be very good. But the point is that most people, other than Mozart, make mistakes as they write their stories, and that’s what revision is for. However, every once in a while you read what you’ve written, and you say to yourself that you just can’t go on with it. There can be many reasons for this: flawed writing, trouble with dialogue, problematic plots. But when you’re thoughtful and intentional about writing (which may itself be a problem in producing a story), you analyze what went wrong. It probably won’t help the draft you’re contemplating–you’ll probably still have to relegate it to the trash pile–but it may help you from making the same mistake again. In the hope of helping other writers out there, I thought I’d offer this bit of advice to those writers who have decided to end the struggle.

Before I offer it, however, I’d like to say that all would-be novelists who pull the plug on their novels should be thanked, even celebrated, for their decision. There are far too many novels out there, and those of us who decide to shit-can ours are doing a favor for our friends and family members, and for the unsuspecting public who might actually buy our poorly written and executed novels. We should be lauded, not pitied, for our decision to end the struggle. We are doing a service to readers by not adding to the morass of bad literature already cluttering up our bookshelves. Our self-denial is somewhat heroic.

But all this aside, I believe that good stories should have two qualities: they should be interesting, and they should be authentic.

What does this mean? “Interesting” is easy enough to define: a story should be intriguing enough to make us want to know more. What happens next? Who does what to whom? Yet it’s good to realize that “interesting” is a quality that will vary from reader to reader. My husband may find dramas with lots of explosions and bloody confrontations interesting, but they put me to sleep. I find Victorian novels delightful, yet he has never made it through one yet. “Interesting” is so relative a term that we will just leave it out here for other critics to dissect.

“Authentic” is another matter altogether, although it is just as difficult to define. It bears no relation to reality; rather, it is connected to Hemingway’s dictum that a writer must write “one true sentence” to be successful. By “authentic,” then, I mean that  the writer must be true to herself. This is much harder said than done. You have to put yourself into your writing, which is often uncomfortable and scary, because you can’t hide behind the writing. You have to reach into yourself and lay it on the line, and that in itself is so much harder than simply telling a story. My little story about Mozart above may be interesting (to some), for example, and it is authentic enough for its purpose (to illustrate a point), but it’s not really authentic because there’s too little at stake in the telling of it.

My aborted novel contains some seventy pages. On reading it, I found that it has an interesting idea, but it fails the authenticity test. It’s not “true” enough; I haven’t invested enough into the telling of the story. I might have been able to fool some readers into thinking it was authentic, but there are too many books out there that are authentic to try to produce one that fails in this category. And these days, those of us who self publish must be especially vigilant; there are already enough books in the world that need to be read, so why add to the chaos?

I may take up my idea again and try to make a novel out of it, but for now, I’ve learned my lesson, which is that writers have to strive for authenticity in their narratives. And that, I think, is an important enough lesson to share with others.

Correction to an Earlier Post: Why I Like Go Set a Watchman

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In a previous post, I maintained that the newly discovered book Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee was merely a rough draft for To Kill a Mockingbird.

I need to correct that. I will admit, after reading Go Set a Watchman, that I was wrong, for a number of reasons. To be honest, I’m surprised, after thinking about this for a while, that no one called me on my inherent hypocrisy. In that earlier post, I maintained that because To Kill a Mockingbird was the result of editing and wound up being the published novel, it is superior to and actually eclipses Go Set a Watchman. This reflects a faith in publishers and editors that I don’t really have. In fact, I think serious readers should question the power vested in publishers to make the decisions about what they will read. I now think that Go Set a Watchman deserves to be read as a work on its own right–not because of its quality, or because of its importance, but simply because it is a novel, however flawed, written by an important writer of the mid-twentieth-century United States.

How flawed is Go Set a Watchman? It certainly is not a masterpiece of writing. But then again, neither is To Kill a Mockingbird, whose value rests not in its well-crafted sentences or dramatic dialogues, but rather in the fact that it is a relatively simple but powerful story that appeared when its readers needed it most. However, Go Set a Watchman, unlike To Kill a Mockingbird, violates the one rule that every creative writing student must learn: show, don’t tell. Lee spends much too much time telling her reader about Jean Louise, rather than showing us her in action, particularly in the beginning of the book. In addition, the dialogue, written to reflect a Southern drawl, almost always seems inauthentic and affected, and there are large sections that become preachy rather than dramatic or revealing.

So with all those criticisms, what is there to like about Go Set a Watchman? I find several things in this category. First, it shows us an independent-minded young woman observing the world around her. The Jean Louise Finch presented in this novel is grown up, no longer a cute, ungendered tom-boy; she is now a woman, one with a sexual past, present, and future, who sleeps in pajama tops only, with no apologies. As a female reader, I find this aspect of her character refreshing and revealing. Second, it presents Jean Louise with an intellectual and moral dilemma, which she is able to work through with the help of her Uncle Jack. If we readers can stay with the dialogue, we are rewarded with the understanding that Scout actually emerges as Atticus’s ethical superior. We discover that this novel is the story of how a woman is able to perceive that her childish worship of her father is misplaced, and that she must make up her own mind about things such as the relations between white and black Southerners. In a sense, then, Go Set a Watchman is a woman’s coming-of-age story, in which Scout must learn to function in a complex world without Atticus, without Jem, without Dill, and without her almost-boyfriend Henry Clinton.

Maybe the reason the novel changed so much from its original version is because the United States didn’t want a female coming-of-age story in 1963. In the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, it wasn’t ready for such a story; all it wanted at that time was a simple fable, which To Kill a Mockingbird, in its simple and spare narration, delivers beautifully. And certainly there’s a great deal of clutter in Go Set a Watchman, but a lot of it is clutter that I like. For example, the character of  Dr. John Finch, Atticus’s brother, with his obsession with Victorian literature, is powerfully appealing to a Victorian scholar like me. Because of Uncle Jack, this book is much more literate than To Kill a Mockingbird, which is perhaps another way of saying it’s filled with clutter. References to Bishop Colenso and Lord Melbourne are welcome to me, but probably to few other readers. I especially liked this sentence: “you and Jem were very special to me–you were my dream-children, but as Kipling said, that’s another story…call on me tomorrow, and you’ll find me a grave man.” References to Romeo and Juliet (in which Mercutio, wounded by Tybalt, says, “call on me tomorrow, and you’ll find me a grave man”) are not hard to find, and Lee gives away the Kipling quote, but a nod to Charles Lamb’s  sad and beautiful essay “Dream Children: A Reverie” is as delightful as it is rare.

So, in a nutshell, my earlier post was misguided, if not completely wrong about Go Set a Watchman. To Kill a Mockingbird is a book of its time, perhaps the most important book of its time. And, while Go Set a Watchman may not be a book for all time, while it may only be of interest to readers today because Harper Lee wrote it, it is a solid and fascinating book, and I am glad that I read it.

On Literary Crushes

This week’s post is pretty silly, and I apologize for it in advance, but it’s something I’ve been wondering about for a while. As a young teenager, when my contemporaries were salivating over pictures of Bobby Sherman and David Cassidy torn from issues of Tiger Beat, I kept my fantasy love life to myself–and for very good reason. Of course, what’s not to like about either Bobby or David when you’re a fourteen-year-old girl in the 1970s? They held my passing interest: they were good for a few daydreams, certainly. But my real crush during my teenage years was someone I couldn’t tell anyone about: Charles Dickens.

Yes, I know. That’s incredibly weird. And, really, who would  find this guy hot?

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There’s something about that beard that’s distinctly off-putting, right? It looks like a box jellyfish mated with a piece of steel wool and the result crawled onto a man’s chin to die. But take a look at Dickens’s eyes. They seem vulnerable, staring at the camera in an honest and inquisitive gaze. At the same time, there’s something about them that denotes pain and weariness as well. It’s an interesting photograph of a man who peopled an entire world with his creations. In fact, you can see many of those creations in this famous picture that payed homage  to  Dickens’s  imagination:

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Source: Wikipedia, “Robert Buss”

This large painting–a water color entitled “Dickens’s Dream”–was painted by Robert William Buss and left unfinished at the time of the painter’s death. It now hangs in  the Charles Dickens Museum in London. It’s a fascinating portrait of the famous writer, daydreaming with all of his characters swarming around him in his study. This is the Dickens we all think of when we’re reading Bleak House and Dombey and Son.

However, this is not the Dickens I yearned after. My youthful crush was the young Dickens, the brilliant fellow who produced Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist. That young man looked something like this:

 

NPG 5207; Charles Dickens by Samuel Laurence
by Samuel Laurence, chalk, 1838. Picture from https://arabellaproffer.wordpress.com/2012/06/01/old-portraits-of-young-men-part-three/npg-5207-charles-dickens-by-samuel-laurence/

Pretty nice-looking guy, right? Huge eyes, a nicely formed mouth–and that hair! Here’s another nice picture of my teen crush, this one by Dickens’s friend, artist Daniel Maclise:

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Charles Dickens, by Daniel Maclise (died 1870). Source: National Portrait Gallery, London: NPG 1172

For a number of reasons, I fell for this guy–hard enough to make me remember him when I was in graduate school and switch my focus from Comparative Literature (pardonez-moi, Mme Alcover; je suis desolée!) to English Literature, with an emphasis on Victorian novels.

And how do I feel these days about Charles Dickens, now that I’m not young any more? He’s no longer my hero; these days I realize he was by no means perfect, not as a husband, nor as a father, nor even as a novelist. But I love Dickens all the same. It’s true that he’s not the guy I thought he was. But then again, neither were David Cassidy or Bobby Sherman.

I’m wondering if this matter of literary crushes is as uncommon as I think it is, or if there are other people out there who may have had a similar experience. Please send in a comment, if so.

And now, I’ll end by pointing out that the actor and writer Harry Lloyd, who played Viserys Targaryen in the Game of Thrones television series, is actually the great-great-great grandson of Charles Dickens. Take a look below and see if you detect a resemblance to his famous ancestor.

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From imdb.com

What’s all the fuss about Atticus?

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The latest buzz about Harper Lee’s newly published novel, the predecessor to To Kill a Mockingbird, is that Atticus Finch is portrayed not as the moral champion of racial equality, but rather as a racist. Before this piece of news takes over all of our Facebook newsfeeds, however, let’s just remember one thing.

It really doesn’t matter.

I have not yet read Go Set a Watchman, although I intend to. But I know that whatever is contained in that novel has little to do with the work that ultimately became To Kill a Mockingbird. In other words, the Atticus who appears in the former work is only tangentially related to the Atticus who appears in the latter work. No matter what the news articles tell us, Go Set a Watchman is not a full-fledged literary work: because it was not published, because it was in fact rejected by editors, we must regard it as a rough draft of sorts, a work in progress, and not as a work on its own.

In fact, I find the popular interest surrounding the publication of Go Set a Watchman puzzling, because this embryonic version of Harper Lee’s masterpiece should really be of interest only to literary scholars and critics. The fact that it has grabbed media attention is frustrating but predictable. To Kill a Mockingbird is an iconic novel, after all, emblematic of the United States at a certain point in time. Moreover, having published her one great novel, Lee never published another; and so she herself is a tantalizing mystery, much like that other one-hit wonder, Emily Bronte, author of Wuthering Heights.

But the truth is that because Go Set a Watchman is simply a kind of rough draft for To Kill a Mockingbird–nothing more and nothing less–the only people who should be interested in this work are literary scholars, those people who crawl around musty libraries studying literary minutiae, debating whether the first ending of Great Expectations is superior to the revised one that Dickens ended up with–in other words, people like me. And the only reason that the media is showering attention on this book is that an anti-intellectual culture cannot understand scholarly interest, and so Go Set a Watchman must be presented not as a type of juvenilia, not as an early (rejected) version of a masterpiece, but rather as a work in its own right. And what is surprising about this? After all, there is nothing to wonder at in this kind of attitude arising out of a society that places greater value on sports facilities than on libraries. The $27 price tag tells the entire story,

So don’t worry about whether Atticus Finch is racist. He isn’t. The only Atticus Finch that really matters is the one that appears in To Kill a Mockingbird. On the other hand, if you just have to worry about something, consider worrying about the fact that fifty years after the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, we still haven’t solved the problem of race in this country. Unlike Dickens’s books, which sometimes provoked real social change , Lee’s work still reflects a reality in our world that we are unwilling to contemplate. And that’s something to worry about for sure.

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Some Thoughts on Anna Karenina

Image from Wikimedia
Image from Wikimedia

One thing I’m looking forward to doing as a retiree is reading anything I like, whenever I like. I do a good deal of reading, and to be honest, I began this free-wheeling practice in my reading several years ago: in this way, I have made some very rewarding discoveries. I’ve read several of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels, and I am particularly grateful for this discovery, since I consider him a very fine novelist. I’ve read some of Jane Gardam’s works, and Laurie Lee’s memoir Cider with Rosie, and, in an effort not to focus exclusively on British writers, I picked up Mind of Winter by Laura Kasischke, and was disappointed in its narrative trickery. All of these books are firmly outside the realm of 18th and 19th century British novels (my area of specialization), which is the point–now I have the time to read indiscriminately, pointlessly. It’s the readerly equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet, and, before I settle into a routine in my retirement, I intend to gorge myself with shameless abandon.

Even before the end of the semester several weeks ago, I began Anna Karenina, a serious undertaking. I am not sure I would have had the heart to begin the task if I had read a hard copy of the book, but I read it on my Kindle, which mercifully disguises the real length of a work, and instead provides you with a virtual pep talk by showing you how much of the novel  you have read. At any rate, I was 73% of the way through the novel before I decided that it was, indeed, a great novel, perhaps one of the ten greatest novels (a list that will undoubtedly become a future post). Here are a few disjointed thoughts about the work, in a format that proves that Buzzfeed and Clickhole have corrupted even those of us who are trying to create serious criticism.

  • The novel is misnamed. Like many of Shakespeare’s plays (another future post), the novel is not primarily about Anna Karenina; it is just as much about, and in my view, much more about, Konstantin Levin. Perhaps this is a result of Tolstoy’s manner of writing the novel: like Dickens’s great works, it was published as a serial novel in a magazine. I have often compared this form of writing to jazz improvisation. There is a fundamental line of melody, a basic story or plot, but the musician/writer is allowed, even expected, to riff on this line. In some cases–Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop is a good example–the basic plot becomes much less interesting than one of the improvised riffs (yet another future post). I would argue that Anna becomes somewhat less interesting than Levin, perhaps because her trajectory is more predictable.
  • Why is Anna’s path so much more predictable than Levin’s? It’s because Tolstoy is heavy-handed on the symbolism. From the moment Vronsky and Anna meet, there are clues to what will happen: the death of the worker who is crushed by the train occurs at their first, sexually charged meeting, after all, and the race in which Vronsky loses his favorite horse is rife with foreshadowing. This lacks subtlety, of course, but I can forgive Tolstoy because of the time in which he wrote, since subtlety is clearly an acquired taste and will wait for post-modernism to develop fully. At any rate, we can see where Anna is going–there is only one outcome for her, after all–but Levin’s story is full of questions. Will he marry Kitty after all? Will their marriage survive the early days of learning to live with each other? Will Kitty die in childbirth? How will he react to being a parent? All of these questions drive us forward in the novel, wanting to know the answers. With Anna, on the other hand, we know that disaster awaits her, and we cannot resist watching it unfold, waiting for the train wreck (forgive the pun) to happen.
  • The link between the two plot lines is the story of Stepan Oblonsky’s infidelities. Tolstoy is able to create a round character out of Stepan, however, and he becomes more than a simple plot link. This is a testament to his ability to tell the story in an artistic, yet natural, way. Perhaps this is what I admire most about Anna Karenina: the ease with which Tolstoy connects his stories, the balance he creates between them, allowing him to hold up Anna’s final view of the world as the opposite of Levin’s. She sees the world as hateful and dark, while Levin, in the final chapters of the novel, sees it as bright with possibility, with a  spiritual  and philosophical generosity that outshines the darkness of Anna’s end.
  • The portraits of marriage and relationships that Tolstoy creates in the novel are excellent. From Kitty and Kostya’s difficulties in the first months of marriage to Vronsky and Anna’s descent into something like hatred for each other, Tolstoy works from life. I last read this novel when I was a teenager, some forty years ago, before marriage. I wish now that I had read it several times since then, because I think it might have helped me. Somewhere I once heard about a person–I forget who–who reads Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa every year. I don’t think I could handle reading Anna Karenina on a yearly basis, but maybe reading it every decade would have been a good idea.
  • Finally, one last note: I admire the deft way in which Tolstoy can express contemporary views and existential questions through the internal discourse of his characters. This is something that Hemingway tries to do in For Whom the Bell Tolls with much less success; in fact, that novel basically fails, in my view, at the point when Robert Jordan muses on the political questions and disharmonies he’s witnessed. Hemingway just cannot pull it off, but Tolstoy can. For this reason alone, Anna Karenina is worth reading. While it may not be subtle as far as the use of foreshadowing goes, it is quite subtle in its representation of the universal and local questions of the day.

These are just a few thoughts about the novel as I adjust to retirement. All of which just goes to show you: old teachers don’t stop lecturing. They just start writing.

 

My new feline friend, named Leo Tolstoy
My new feline friend, named Leo Tolstoy

 

A Pair of Blue Eyes

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I’ve reached a stage in my career as a professional reader in which I feel free to pick up books and read them on a whim. Although I’m very serious about my reading–in fact, I find it very difficult to belong to a book club precisely because I cannot give up my freedom about what I will read and when I will read it–I no longer plan my reading along a program or a goal. For example, I used to try to read all the Dickens novels I’d missed, which is how I got through Martin Chuzzlewit and Barnaby Rudge, which are not bad novels, but certainly not Dickens’s best. (In fact, Americans especially might get a kick out of Chuzzlewit, because apparently not much has changed since the book was published; Dickens is a pretty harsh judge of American society.) These days, however, I just grab a book at random, or for the silliest of reasons.

I still focus on the Victorian novel in my spare time, even though I’ve been making forays into early 20th-century American literature, necessitated by the fact that I’m teaching a class on Ernest Hemingway. In this way, I’ve read The Good Soldier, The Sun also Rises, and The Great Gatsby in recent weeks. Of the three, I like Hemingway’s the best and think it the most important of the three works. I even tried watching the new film version of The Great Gatsby, and found, to my family’s disgust, that I needed to add it to my list of movies I could not watch: thirteen minutes into the film, my loud and muscular critique of it forced them to eject the DVD and hastily seal it in its envelope, to be mailed the next day. I didn’t even make it long enough to see Gatsby himself.

Last year at a library book sale, I picked up a copy of Thomas Hardy’s 1873 novel A Pair of Blue Eyes. Hardy is a bit late for me, as a scholar: I tend to focus more on early Victorian, even pre-Victorian novels than on the end of the period. But somehow I got the notion that in one of Hardy’s novels, he has a heroine, or perhaps a supporting character with my middle name–Avis. Aside from the car rental business, it’s a rare name, and I’ve always been curious about this character whom I’ve never encountered.

That’s why I picked up the novel, but not why I kept reading it. In fact, there is no character named Avis in the book, although the heroine’s name is the equally, or perhaps even more, unusual “Elfride.” (I will have to keep looking for Avis in his other novels, apparently.) A Pair of Blue Eyes is an early Hardy novel, and it contains some obvious weaknesses. For one thing, coincidence plays much too great a role in the novel. In addition, it’s garishly melodramatic: in the middle of the novel, a character falls off a cliff, and proceeds to dangle there while the heroine partially disrobes to make him a means of escape, giving rise to the term “cliff-hanger,” according to Wikipedia. But the end of the novel is lovely surprise, with a whisper of the kind of non-judgmental proto-feminism that Hardy will later become known for in Jude the Obscure and Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

A Pair of Blue Eyes may not be as important a novel as Bleak House or The Sun also Rises, but it’s pleasant reading, and well worth the time spent on it during a season of relentless snow and ice. I look forward to the next Hardy novel I’ll be reading: Two on a Tower.

Everything You’ve Been Taught to Think about Shakespeare Is Probably Wrong

From http://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2013/07/to-be-or-not-to-be-notes-on-the-ongoing-shakespeare-authorship-debate/
From poetryfoundation.org

After teaching an intensive Shakespeare class week, I have to admit it: Shakespeare is difficult. It’s hard to understand the plays and poems he wrote, but apparently, it’s of the utmost importance that we all do—after all, knowledge of Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar is what separates the educated from the uneducated in the United States. That’s why we make our high school students spend so much time on these plays: we want them to be educated and knowledgeable about their culture, and Shakespeare is about as cultured as you can get in high school.

There’s only one thing wrong with this picture, which is just about everything.

I’m not going to get into the argument that plagued higher education a generation ago, when scholars argued about whether it really was important for students to know and understand the plays of a dead white male that were written about a time long past. You can read about that debate here, if you’re interested in it. Today, I’m not concerned about whether we study Shakespeare at all, but rather about the ways in which Shakespeare is distorted to fit into the high school curriculum.

There are several reasons for this distortion. First of all, the study of Shakespeare in American high schools is fraught with shame, and this shame has nothing to do with the content of the plays (although we will talk more about that in a moment). Think back to your high school days–if you’re a high school teacher, think back to the last time you had to teach Shakespeare. In all likelihood, there were parts of the play you did not understand. Whether it was the difficult language or the confusing character names (really Shakespeare? Grumio and Gremio in the same play?), or the convoluted plot, there was something you just didn’t get. When this happens, as it does all the time, even with college professors and scholars, we tend to cover it up, ignore it, pray that no one asks questions about it. As far as Shakespeare goes, we are taught early on to play the emperor’s-new-clothes game. If we don’t advertise the fact that we don’t get the play, don’t understand the language, and don’t see why Shakespeare is so important, then maybe we can pass for a truly educated person. The problem with this is that while high school students aren’t incredibly quick to understand Shakespeare, they are very quick to identify our discomfort, and it distances them from the pleasure of reading and understanding Shakespeare.

Secondly, high school is apparently not a suitable place to study Shakespeare–hence the censorship that Shakespeare must undergo in order to make the plays fit for consumption. All of Shakespeare’s plays deal with sexuality in one form or another–every single one of them. We are hypocrites when we say that teenagers should understand Shakespeare all the better for this but refuse to identify the truly raunchy parts of the plays for them, passages which go unnoticed because of the archaic language and difficult references. A poem like Venus and Adonis is, after all, intensely erotic, pretty much soft-core porn, and would engender numerous complaints if it were placed on a high school syllabus. Until we can deal effectively with the problem of censorship in our high schools, Shakespeare will continue to be despised by our students. High school will continue to be, in the words of a wise student of mine, where Shakespeare goes to die. (Thanks, Jordan!)

But maybe you are one of the lucky ones. Maybe you made it through high school and even college without conceiving a distaste for Shakespeare. Congratulations! But even so, you may still face a serious problem with Shakespeare, and that’s that most of his plays are completely misunderstood today. Here are just a few examples: Julius Caesar, which we all suffered through in 10th or 11th grade, is not about Julius Caesar, a throw-away character who dies before the play is even half over. And Mark Anthony is not the hero of the play, as he is so often made out to be: he is a wretched opportunist who capitalizes on his patron’s murder. The play is really about Brutus; it’s about how difficult it is to respond to tyranny in a truly humane and civilized way. Likewise, Romeo and Juliet is not just a play about love; rather, it’s really about rebellion. I don’t think we are meant to feel heartsick about the ending of the play, as we do about its modern counterpart, West Side Story. The ending of the play should, if done correctly, make us feel angry at the insipid young lovers and the utter waste of life they leave scattered in their reckless–and rebellious–wake.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Shakespeare has been taught all wrong for too many years. Whether it’s worthwhile to study works from a period and a culture so distant from ours is up for debate, but surely  it cannot be right to study them in a way that distorts their true meaning, fostering disdain, shame, and disinterest among so many of us. As for me, I look forward to a time when we can openly admit our confusion about Shakespeare, when we can be honest about the raucous and delightfully filthy language in his plays, and when we can challenge the stale interpretations that have been handed down to us, replacing them with our own outrageously creative readings.

 

 

My War with Westerns

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From Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:James_Garner_Jack_Kelly_Maverick_1959.JPG

If you’ve read this blog for a while, or just snooped around a bit, you will remember that one of my earliest posts was on movies that I couldn’t finish, which is available here. But recently I’ve found another film to add to the list, and perhaps an entire genre as well.

The film in question is 3:10 to Yuma. I actually walked away from the television about halfway through the film, bored with and tired of what seemed to be a predictable plot with lots of violence to keep it moving. But I’m not sure the film itself is to blame. Maybe it’s actually a good film of its kind; maybe I just don’t like Westerns. When I talk about genre in my classes, I always point out that genres, like clothes,  are subject to fashion trends through the years. For example, remember leisure suits from the 1970s?

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From the website Plaid Stallions: Reliving the 70s a Catalogue Page at a Time

Truly awful, right? Consider literary (or film) genres as if they were clothing, and you’ll see what I mean about trending fashions in genres. If 1970s was the decade of horrors like the leisure suit in terms of clothes, the 1590s were the decade of the sonnet in England. Everyone who was anyone was writing them–kind of like children’s books in the last decade or zombie/vampire/supernatural stories today.

What does this have to do with Westerns? While I’m not an expert on film or on Westerns, it seems safe to say that the heyday of the western film was the 1950s and 1960s, spilling over to television in those years as well, with shows such as Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, The High Chapparel, and of course Bonanza. Doing any Western film today kind of seems like revisiting an older art form, but in this case, it really is a remake: 3:10 to Yuma is a remake of the 1957 version of the film starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, a version I haven’t seen, but which I strongly suspect I would not like either.

Why? The answer is simple: I’m a woman, and the Western is a man’s genre.

I realize that is a loaded statement to make today, in an era of gender liberation, an era of liberation from gender itself. But let me point out why I left the couch last Saturday night to go play my guitar when confronted with another 45 minutes of watching a film I couldn’t connect with. It wasn’t the violence, or the cynicism, or even the sexist attitudes of the characters: these are things that I can understand and accept, given the plot and setting. Rather, it’s the fact that there are no women in the movie for me to identify with. In other words, while watching 3:10 to Yuma, I was left with the  choice of identifying with either  the prostitute or the faithful wife, neither of whom get a lot of time on screen–unless I wanted to do some cross-gender fantasizing, which is fine when it isn’t forced down your throat.

It kind of makes me want to slap the director. “Really?” I want to say to him.  “We wait fifty years for a remake of a movie, only to duplicate the sexual stereotypes that probably made it a B-grade movie on the first go-round?” It seems like a monumental waste of time to me. I kept hoping that the boy William, who follows his father off into the sage on his mission to deliver Ben Wade to justice, would turn out to be a girl. I even concocted this whole story about how William’s parents created this switched gender for her in order to protect her from marauders and would-be seducers. In the end, I realized that the story I was making up to get me through the movie was, in fact, far more interesting than the movie itself, which is why I stopped watching it in the middle.

The truth is, I can accept a film that has gender stereotypes when it’s made in the 1950s and 1960s; we don’t quit teaching The Taming of the Shrew just because it’s antifeminist, after all, because we can explain its outlook from a historical perspective. For much of recorded history, women have been given the short end of the stick, so to speak, and it does no good to deny this. In fact, studying such depictions of women might even help us understand other forms of oppression, so I get the idea of tolerance for gender stereotypes in older films. But I expect more from a contemporary film, and I’d love to hear from readers out there if there is, in fact, a Western that does not demand we step into a mental straitjacket when we watch it.

Any takers? Leave your comments below, and I’ll start expanding my Netflix queue.

My Life with Ernest (Part I)

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From Le Cordon Bleu website, http://www.lcbparis.com/paris/julie-julia/en

About three years ago, after watching Julie and Julia and hearing a friend’s account of The Year of Living Biblically, I decided I was up for what I now call a self-induced pointless project, or SIPP for short. You know what I mean: a SIPP is a personal goal of some sort that isn’t based on getting healthy (like losing weight or training for a marathon), being creative (like writing a screenplay), or acquiring a skill (like learning to play piano). It took me a few weeks to figure out what I would take on as my SIPP, and then it came to me in a rush of insight: I would read all of Ernest Hemingway’s works in a year.

Well, of course, it didn’t pan out that way. Other things got in my way. In about the second month of my SIPP, I got completely sidetracked by running for state legislature (otherwise known as a PEPO–a pointless expression of political optimism), and that took up the better part of a year. (How that happened and what I learned during my campaign will become fodder for another post some day, I’m sure.) But now I find that this old SIPP has come back to me, this time in the form of a WIPP (Work-Induced Pointless Project): next fall, I’ll be teaching a class on Ernest Hemingway, and I need to prepare myself for the task. It’s going to be quite a challenge, since I am a Victorian scholar by training, but it’s got to be easier than campaigning for public office, so I’m totally up for it.

So, from time to time, I’ll be posting random musings about Hemingway here at the Tabard Inn.

Back when I first started, I began my quest by reading Jeffrey Meyer’s biography of the writer: Hemingway: A Life. I like reading biographies, but I find them unbearably sad, with their insistence on the heartache of living from day to day, month after month, year after year, until death ends all. (I am perhaps the only viewer who cried while watching De-Lovely, a largely forgettable bio-pic of Cole Porter. Don’t even get me started on La Vie en Rose.) I’ll gladly read a biography of any literary figure–Mary Shelley, Jane Austen, the Brontes–or even of a historical figure, like Elizabeth I. But for me, the Ur-Biography will always be Edgar Johnson’s two-volume biography of Dickens, which a friend from graduate school gave me as a gift many years ago. I’m probably dating myself when I write this, but my view is that no one does it better than Johnson, who mixes biographical facts with literary criticism in a thoughtful blend that makes it all look easy.

Unfortunately, Jeffrey Meyer is no Edgar Johnson; Hemingway: A Life turned out to be somewhat informative, but mostly confusing. Dates bled into each other as I worked my way through the chapters. Important events, such as the death of Hemingway’s grandchild, were glossed over, mentioned only once in passing and never picked up again. Through Meyer’s thorough but difficult-to-read biography, however, I was able to develop a basic sense of the body of Hemingway’s work and the shape of his life; predictably, it is monumentally depressing. Hemingway apparently peaked at a young age and then simply repeated the same old ideas again and again, hoping to hit pay dirt once more. (On the other hand, I did find it consoling to think that there are good things about never really peaking at all.) To make matters worse, Meyer seems downright antagonistic to his subject much of the time, which both surprised and confused me: why write a biography of a man, spending hours and hours on researching his life, if one isn’t simply ape-shit bananas over him? I could not answer this question, not even after finishing Meyer’s book, all 300-plus pages of it.

And where am I now in my quest? I’m steadily plowing through Hemingway’s short stories. And there are some beauties: “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” “Hills Like White Elephants,” “The Capital of the World.” Those are memorable stories, ones that stick in your head for days after you’ve read them. I was less impressed by “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” which seems too much like self-pitying autobiography. And to be honest, I’m bored by many of the Nick Adams stories, despite the fact that I know they have a huge following. My attitude no doubt owes something to my Brooklyn background. I imagine having a conversation with the young, Nick Adams-era Hemingway, entirely one-sided, in which I tell him, “So, Hem, you went fishing. You caught a trout. Maybe you didn’t. You were mean to some girl. Or she was mean to you. So what? Big deal! Life happens—no need to write a story documenting every detail of your life for some poor schlep of a reader. How would you feel if I made you read a story about my trip to the podiatrist? Or if I made you read about my search for some nice, fresh gefilte fish?” Yet I have to point out that during this excursion into Hemingway country, I’ve discovered a story I never knew, one which has become one of my favorites: “A Canary for One.” This story is an interesting exercise in which a first-person narrator suddenly appears halfway through the story, intruding himself and adding a snappy little ending worthy of Saki (H.H. Munro). Somehow–and I’m not sure how–Hemingway makes that one work well. I find myself wishing Hemingway had written more of these tricky little stories, and fewer of the bullfighting, war-time, or fishing stories.

Stay tuned for more posts on Hemingway and his work as I struggle, as usual, to stay one step ahead of my students.

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Image from the blog Vintage Culture: http://www.vintageculture.net/ernest-hemingway/