“Fiction’s lack of practical usefulness is what gives it its special freedom. When Auden wrote that “poetry makes nothing happen,” he wasn’t complaining; he was exulting. Fiction might make people more empathetic—though I’m willing to bet that the people who respond most intensely to fiction possess a higher degree of empathy to begin with. But what it does best is to do nothing particular or specialized or easily formulable at all.”
Plot and character and fine prose can take you far – but a novel this good makes you want to go even further. The last few pages of the novel take all the serious, big, complicated ideas beneath the surface and hold them up to the light. Not for Tartt the kind of clever riffs, halfway between standup comedy and op-ed columns, which are too commonly found in contemporary fiction. Instead, when plot comes to an end, she leads us to a place just beyond it – a place of meaning, or, as she refers to it, “a rainbow edge … where all art exists, and all magic. And … all love.”
I was seeking a replacement for “unfathomable.” I thought of “depthless,” but, feeling a bit iffy about it, I consulted my old Webster’s Second. Yes, it was a synonym for “unfathomable” (“Of measureless depth … unsoundable”) but also for “fathomable” (“Having no depth; shallow”). The word was what I think of as an auto-antonym (a term that doesn’t appear in Webster’s Second): it’s its own opposite. Which is to say, it’s a mostly unusable word.
Sir Ian Dunham interviews the novelist Allan Gurganus about his new book, “Local Souls.”
“I’m flattered that the Times can still be scandalized by my figments’ orgasmic necessities. After the criticism, my publisher noted a direct surge in sales. Money is so freely discussed today, maybe sex is shock value’s last frontier? The U.S. outlawed the import of Joyce’s 1922 “Ulysses.” An act of masturbation kept that book offshore. Joyce defended his characters’ right to have at least one daily erotic experience, even if self-induced. My genius teacher Grace Paley used to say, “Fictional characters also deserve the open destiny of life.” This, for me, includes the red-blooded possibility of having, say, bi-weekly sex, either in or out of marriage. Tell me the truth. In fiction and in life, is that asking too much?”
from David Foster Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon Commencement Speech:
Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
Since 1995, Ira Glass has hosted and produced This American Life (iTunes – Feed – Web Site), the award-winning radio show that presents masterfully-crafted stories to almost 2 million listeners each week. What’s the secret sauce that goes into making a great story, particularly one primed for radio or TV? Glass spells it out in four parts. Part 1 (above) gets into the building blocks of a good story. Part 2 talks about the importance of finding the right story. Part 3 reassures you that creative excellence takes time to develop. It also comes with hard work. And Part 4 flags common errors to avoid. Give Glass 17 minutes, and you will be a better storyteller for it…
“Time of Useful Consciousness”
A book by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Ferlinghetti has published more than 30 books of poetry, but he’s best known for his first book, “A Coney Island of the Mind,” which came out in 1958 and has since sold more than a million copies worldwide. Since then, Ferlinghetti has published innumerable poems, prose and essays, turned to painting—the cover of “Time of Useful Consciousness” is one of his pieces—and worked tirelessly to promote culture, poetry and the spoken word in San Francisco, largely through City Lights Bookstore, which he co-founded in 1953. He shows no sign of slowing down. This new book may not be his strongest, but its best moments reveal a mind as alert and alive as ever.
Ferlinghetti has long stood with protest poets and writers of engagement. He was arrested for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” in 1957. “Only the dead are disengaged,” he wrote half a century ago, his words as relevant today as then, a firm kick in the pants to any artist who remains silent against oppression.
“When we read a story, we inhabit it. The covers of the book are like a roof and four walls. What is to happen next will take place within the four walls of the story. And this is possible because the story’s voice makes everything its own.” John Berger, Keeping a Rendezvous
There are many good reasons to be upset about the things the novelist and broadcaster David Gilmour said in a recent interview on the Hazlitt Magazine blog. Both he and I work at the University of Toronto, so my instant reaction was institutional defensiveness: unlike Mr. Gilmour, who teaches the odd college course, I am a professor of English literature here, and it stung to see his bizarre, reactionary views on literature and teaching associated in the media with my institution, and in particular with its literary scholars.
That’s why I think it’s important to say that David Gilmour is not a colleague of mine (though I speak in this, and in the rest of this essay, only for myself, not for U of T). As far as I can tell from his published comments, he’s not much of a literature professor either. He seems to be fond of authors, and he says he loves their work–provided they are male, white, and very much like him. If they check those boxes, there are few limits to how far Mr Gilmour is willing to go in his passion. Take Proust, whom he loves so much, he’s read him twice. A true worker in the vineyard of the literary gods, David Gilmour.
I love books. Though not a fetishist, I love their feel, heft, smell, unique configurations and colours, give and strength, font shock and internal typesetting flourish and quirk. Did I say sentimental? That’s my argument for books. Henighan’s more experientially precise, calling on the power of the book to submerge us in a world of uninterrupted imagination, ferried along by the linear play within the pages. But that’s the experiential ideal. In reality, most readers are not allowed the luxury of an uninterrupted book reading experience. We steal twenty noisy reading minutes on the bus ride to work; we’re the driver of the same bus, Bob Smith, who in an interview with questioner Grant Buday circa 2000, stole a minute or two of DeLillo or Dostoyevsky, for years, between long red lights; and we’re the person (me), reading about Bob Smith on the upper ferry deck, surrounded by crazed teenagers and zigzagging foot traffic. In contrast, when I read online, it’s often late at night. Alone and surrounded by quiet or (presently) the actual sound of non-proverbial crickets, I can sail along uninterrupted over great stretches of the written word, whether poem or essay, political argument or news article, blog post or comment stream. “But what about the long form, the novel?” Well, I admit I don’t have an eDevice yet, but if I can concentrate and even entertain creative responses to and from my late-night pixelated adventures, I don’t see the problem should the novel form, eventually, be housed in the electronic hive for the majority of its output. The glorious past, I’m afraid, is of no sentimental force here. Long, uninterrupted, imaginative depth: the reading experience of the typical Dickensian page-turner? Many of Dickens’ novels were first encountered in serialized form, and in newspapers alongside yesterday’s equivalent of baby bum powder and floor polish hortatory pitch. And I doubt that most readers a century and two score ago had the same leisure time as us. Snatching a chapter chunk here and there, they managed to get through the entry before the next week’s installment. Or am I painting a too-gloomy social supposition, the extreme of Henighan’s? Well, the truth’s probably somewhere in the middle, but I highly doubt that many of the non-John Jarndyce citizenry were jumping from one canon-provider to another at any time of day or night in timeless wonder.