Monday, April 27, 2009

Wishing You a Belated Happy Kentucky Writers' Day

I wanted to write a post for Kentucky Writers' Day (April 24th), but computer problems and personal insanities kept me occupied.

I also wanted to add an amendment to my previous comment about former Poet Laureates of Kentucky, and note that it's a little difficult to find information on some Poet Laureates, particularly from early on, when the appointment process was a bit more sporadic.

I remember hearing James Baker Hall describe the early appointment process (and I paraphrase): Sometimes a member of the General Assembly would say, "So-and-so down in such-and-such holler writes some poems. Let's make her Poet Laureate of Kentucky." And the Assembly would vote for this, and the poet was happy, and the member was happy because he'd made his constituents happy. But beyond this the benefits for Kentucky and literature were relatively small.

So, when I said that as far as I know, former Poet Laureates of Kentucky wrote poetry, well, I only know back so far. But certainly ever since the Kentucky Arts Council has been involved in the process, Poet Laureates in Kentucky (until now) have written poetry.

On to newer news: I was very happy to hear that the crowd for Gurney Norman's April 24th induction ceremony overwhelmed the Capitol Rotunda. There aren't a lot of literary events that require more seating than is available. So Huzzah! for auspicious beginnings!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Gurney Norman: New Kentucky Poet Laureate

National Poetry Month seems like the perfect time to formerly induct a new state Poet Laureate, and on Friday (April 24th) Gurney Norman will officially take over from Jane Gentry Vance. After receiving the news, my first thought was Oh! I didn't know Gurney Norman wrote poetry. How wonderful!

Well, he hasn't published any poetry. The official Kentucky website says, "The word 'poet' in the position's title is interpreted in its broadest sense to include persons whose accomplishments are in any literary form." The dictionary allows for this broad use of the word poet. But the U.S. Poet Laureate always falls under the narrower definition and writes poetry, and as far as I can tell, all of Kentucky's past Poet Laureates wrote poetry. This seems a little funny to me.

Part of me is peeved because it's not as if Kentucky's run out of great (poetry-writing) poets on whom the Kentucky Arts Council/governor could bestow this honor. And part me is tickled by imagining the Kentucky Arts Council watching Gurney Norman's long and acclaimed career and waiting and waiting for him to write a volume of poetry until, finally, someone exclaims, "Darn it all! We have to get Gurney Norman for Poet Laureate before the man dies on us."

I've only read Norman's Kinfolks (so far), but his history of prose achievement and promoting literature in Kentucky (and Kentucky in literature) is certainly worth honoring. A major part of the job of Kentucky Poet Laureate is to advance reading and writing in the Commonwealth, and in that sense, Gurney Norman is a perfect fit. I won't be able to attend the ceremony in Frankfort, but I hope our new Poet Laureate makes it down to my end of the state. I also hope that he pays special attention to the important, but much neglected, role of Kentucky poetry.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Book Personality Quiz

I love Blue Pyramid's Book Quiz! In six questions, it picks one out of 64 works of literature for you to be. I'm A Prayer for Owen Meany. Not half bad!

You're A Prayer for Owen Meany!

by John Irving

Despite humble and perhaps literally small beginnings, you inspire faith in almost everyone you know. You are an agent of higher powers, and you manifest this fact in mysterious and loud ways. A sense of destiny pervades your every waking moment, and you prepare with great detail for destiny fulfilled. When you speak, IT SOUNDS LIKE THIS!

But then, of course, I had to keep retaking the quiz to see what else I could be. (I stopped when I got Ulysses.) Take it and let me know what you get. I know it's silly, but come on, it's only six questions...

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Ulysses by James Joyce

I've finally finished James Joyce's Ulysses. A work of such magnitude, symbolism, and breadth deserves a long, thoughtful post. But since when have I been in the habit of giving great writers what they deserve?

Top Five Reasons You Might Want to Read Joyce's Ulysses
  1. You're the sort of person who gets a kick out being able to say you've read some large, ponderous volume. Enough of a kick to actually endure said large, ponderous volumes. (This is my excuse.)

  2. You're getting a graduate level degree in English, and you're terrified of what will happen if your peers find out you haven't read certain large, ponderous volumes. (They won't kill you. On the contrary, they need to keep someone around they can mock. Instead, you'll receive copies of Dan Brown's work in the mail with anonymous notes saying, "This made me think of you.")

  3. You've heard that Ulysses is obscene, and you really prefer your erotic reading to contain no actual sex but to involve men who think constantly about sex, bowel movements, and academic theories; women who think constantly about sex, bowel movements, and how much they hate other women; and long strings of rhyming words that dissolve into jumbles of letters just for the heck of it.

  4. Reading twenty-five pages of dialogue that you can't comprehend makes you feel smart. (Also my excuse.)

  5. You've read everything else in the world, including the West Kentucky Rural Telephone Directory and the Sony M-16 VCR manual. (But in that case, you've already read Finnegans Wake, so nothing should intimidate you.)

Top Five Things I Enjoyed about Ulysses

  1. The complexity and breadth of Joyce's symbols: father-son relationships, Hamlet, the mother (as Freudian symbol, as Ireland, as female ideal), The Odyssey, Irish history (particularly in relationship to conflict and betrayal), Biblical stories, and... well, everything else.

  2. The novelty of Joyce's writing. Joyce's various styles and tones (the language of old Celtic legends, of 19th century humorists, of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, etc.) are mixed with various forms (play script, Q&A catechism format, newspaper headlines, etc.).

  3. Joyce's use of foils to bring out his characters' personalities. (It wasn't until Bloom and Stephen were together that I really felt the distinctness of these two characters.)

  4. The occasional bouts of the hilariously ridiculous.

  5. Finishing it.

(Image from The Blue Pyramid.)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Literary Merits of Biblical Characters

I've got a nasty cold/infection/virus, so I've been doing a lot more reading than writing (and a lot more curled-up-on-the-couch-PBS-watching than anything), so I'm keeping my nonsensical, mucus-laden thoughts to myself. (You can thank me later.)

Do, however, feel free to check out Tod Linafelt's thoughts on the literary merits of Biblical characters. I haven't read James Wood's How Fiction Works (which Linafelt discusses), but that didn't make this article any less intriguing. (In fact, I find I sometimes enjoy reading about certain books more than I enjoy reading the books themselves. But that may be unnatural.)

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Easter Poems

I forgot to mention that April is National Poetry Month! Americans are being encouraged to read a poem a day for a month. Daily poems can be found at the Academy of American Poets, Knopf Doubleday, and (as always) Poetry Daily. More on celebrating National Poetry Month next week.

But a much more important celebration waits in the wings. I wish you a blessed Easter and renewed hope in Christ.

(Here and here are some Easter poems. My favorite is probably Rory Harris'.)

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Fewer Posts, Better Posts... Same Great Price

Breaking News: Bethany has decided to cut back to four blog-posts a week.

In the past, the blogger tried to post five times a week. Her decision, she says, stems from her hatred of that "morning-after regret when I go through the post I wrote the night before and try to fix all the typos, run-on sentences, missing transitions, and stuff-that-just-makes-no-sense-unless-I-was-drugged-and-translating-from-an-alien-language. This blog will never be great literature, but I'm hoping the posts will flow a little better if I give myself more time to write and edit them."

Bethany also said she'd like to write more posts about writing if she "can think of ways to do this that don't sound really uninformed or self-indulgent, like 'Today I wrote stuff. Then I wrote more stuff. It was all crap. I hate my life.'"

A source close to Bethany said that she's probably also trying to steal more time for her non-blog-related writing, but Bethany would neither confirm nor deny this statement.

"Who knows?" she said. "Some weeks there might be more posts, but I'm not promising anything." In the past she has been known to skip a whole week of posting without explanation.

(Image from Muppet Wiki.)

Literary Recipes

So apparently I when I said I would be celebrating the International Edible Book Festival (April 1st) "in some way," I meant "by getting sick and thinking, It's April Fool's Day already? Crap."

So instead, I give you Tom Nugent's "Novel Recipes." (My favorite is Faulkner's Cracklin'-Broiled Pigs' Feet Vainglorious.)

Also, check out photos on the official Edible Books site (though there are only three up for 2009 right now.)

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Should Writers "Stick Together"?

How much should a writer publicly (and negatively) comment on the work of other writers?

If you pay much attention to popular fiction, you've probably heard about Stephen King's criticism of Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series. The blogosphere boiled: some defended King's right, even duty, to criticize other authors; others declared that King was motivated by jealousy and greed. On one commenter called King's criticism of a fellow writer "just tacky." That struck a chord because I remember saying that after author/lecturer roundly mocked another Christian writer's work as "trash." In fact, as I bring the situation up in my mind, it still seems tacky. And yet I criticize other authors on a weekly, if not daily, basis.

On the one hand (excuse me while I play Tevye), I don't fret over what I say about Marlowe, Edith Wharton, Joseph Conrad, or Dickens. Their places in the literary canon are not going to be disturbed by a few snide comments from an (as of yet) unknown writer.

Also, they're dead. I don't have to worry about running into Edith Wharton at some writing conference and having her snub me because I didn't love Ethan Frome. (This would be sad on so many levels, but largely because I'm sure Wharton would be an interesting person to know.)

But contemporary authors... Well, you could suggest that I'm worrying too far ahead of myself (a special talent of mine), but the publishing world is fairly intimate, so ticking too many writers off = bad career move. And I find that most writers, even those whose work I don't care for, are people worth knowing.

But this question goes beyond career or social moves. Humility, compassion, and truthfulness are all supposed to be part of the Christian life, but how these virtues relate to criticism (whether formal or informal) is still a bit of a mystery to me.

And as a writer, I know better than anyone else how much work and self-doubt goes into what may ultimately be a merely mediocre book. I know that what hits the page is never as vibrant or brilliant as what was in your mind. I know how brave it is to write. I also know that there are very few things I've read that are so bad that they couldn't, at some point, have been mine. There are a lot of unpaid critics out there. Does the world really need another one?

In this sense, I understand the bloggers who only blog about books they liked. They remind me a little of a relative of mine who was famous for her strict adherence to a "If you can't say something nice about someone, don't say anything at all" policy. The worst thing she was known to have said about someone was "Well... I'm sure he breathes well." I sort of admire this attitude. But sometimes I imagine that if taken too far, you'd find yourself having uncomfortable luncheons with a bunch of murderous dictators and remarking on how well everyone's breathing. (Of course, saying nice things about people doesn't mean you have to eat lunch with them, and anyway, writers are rarely allowed to rule countries.)

I don't generally feel the need to rant against other writers. I enjoy most of the books I read.

On the other hand (you were waiting for that other hand, weren't you?), getting read is not a privilege. My money and time only go so far--I rely on friends, blogs, professional reviews, etc. to help me decide what I might enjoy.

I'm certainly not trying to pass myself off as a professional reviewer (which should be obvious from my blog posts). I do, however, have a history of experience with books as a long-time reader, as an English major, as an editor... and as a writer. I notice what sort of work hasn't been done by an author. I'm frustrated when slip-shod workmanship and poorly thought out ideas are passed off as brilliance, and real, honest-to-goodness brilliance ends up in some dark hole of a back-list. And there are some books that are so dishonest that I feel like warning all potential readers against them (someday I'm going to talk about the Elsie Dinsmore series here). I recognize bad writing--I've created enough of it myself. But is pointing it out to the world mean, helpful, selfish, or morally neutral? Or is it "tacky?"

Maybe it depends on the presentation of the criticism. I'm not sure there's much good done by saying a book is "trash" or that someone "can't write worth a darn." But then I remember of Jesus bluntly saying "you white-washed tombs" to the Pharisees.

What do you think? Is there a line that shouldn't be crossed in writer-on-writer criticism?

Monday, April 6, 2009

Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

I love Dickens, but lately I think I love him for what he could have been rather than what he is. I love his intertwined plot-lines (even at their most convoluted). I love his eccentric, comic, and/or admirable secondary characters (Pancks, Daniel Doyce, Flora, John Chivery, Mr. Baptist, Mrs. Plornish, etc.). I love the nobility of his sentiments.

But I am always tweaking him in my mind.

For one thing, I want his female characters to be more developed. I expect a certain number of flat characters in any Dickens' novel because the very best Dickens is a marvelous mixture of the satirical and the sublime. Mrs. Plornish is probably not going grow and change, and who wants her to? I want to her to continue thinking that she knows how to speak Italian while she declaims in poorly structured English to Mr. Baptist. But Dickens' more "serious" female characters (particularly if they are young) are either unbelievably sweet and docile (Pet and Little Dorrit) or bitter and angry (Fanny, Tattycoram, and Miss Wade). Dicken's female heroines are not allowed to become angry (particularly about their own treatment), but must wait for other, preferably male, characters to stick up for them. Thus, the quiet Amy (Little) Dorrit is rewarded and the passionate (Tattycoram) Harriet is reproved at the end of the novel. And this isn't particular to Little Dorrit; compare the novel with Dickens' young female characters in David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, etc. and you'll see the same pattern.

But still, the seeds for more complex female characters are definitely there. Out of Dickens' hints, one can almost create a Little Dorrit who is both loyal to her family and resentful of them, and a Tattycoram (Harriet) who lashes out against real injustices. Yes, I think, this could easily be fixed--the ideas are still right.

Apparently, I love Dickens for his potential. Particularly his potential to inspire movies and mini-series.

I have been on edge ever since Masterpiece Classic announced their Tales of Charles Dickens series. (I had, at first, hoped that they would do all the tales of Charles Dickens, but then I realized that would involve over twenty novels--many as long as Little Dorrit--and numerous short stories. Even the most die-hard Dickens fan might balk at that.). Masterpiece's David Copperfield is an old stand-by, so I wasn't anxious about that. And I'd already seen several versions of Oliver Twist (this one wasn't a favorite). But I've been psyched about Andrew Davies' adaption of Little Dorrit ever since it was announced (so much so that I read the 900+ page monster, even though I had promised myself to avoid huge novels while fighting Ulysses).

So far, I'm pretty happy with the mini-series. The first episode was disjointed and had too many melodramatic violins and sea-sickness-inducing camera tricks (Dickens really doesn't need have the melodrama played up). But in the second episode, the mini-series hit its stride. The script makes me very happy--picking the best of Dickens' lines and sentiments and bringing them to modern audiences without seeming overtly "translated." The casting, in general, is superb. Claire Foy is all the things Amy Dorrit was meant to be, and Matthew Macfadyen keeps Arthur Clennam endearingly polite but not boring (in the novel, the conventional Arthur is often overshadowed by Dickens' other characters).

I'll probably continue to comment on Little Dorrit (both the series and the book) as the mini-series continues. If you missed any of episodes and are curious, you can catch up here (until May 3rd).

(Image from Cartoon Stock.)