By Prescription Only: Faces

Work is a terrible thing. In light of that universal truth, we’ve extended the submission deadline for Faces, our next BPO, to October 17th.

Please send your submissions to: contact@drugstorebooks.com.

  • Theme: Faces
  • Length: 3,000-8,000 words
  • Format: MS Word 97-2003 (If you’re using a recent version of Word then please save as a .doc and not a .docx file, this will help smooth out compatibility issues.)
  • Title: Centered, Times New Roman 16 point; with a byline below also centered and in 14 point
  • Text, font and size: Justified; Times New Roman, 12 point
  • Spacing: Single, with block quotes separated by an empty line on both sides; paragraphs indented but section breaks separated by an empty line and three centered asterisks
  • Footer: www.drugstorebooks.com (on the left) © Your Name 2014 (on the right — stretched to fit the length of the footer)
  • Quotation conventions: Double quotes (“faces”) with embedded single quotes (‘faces’) for reported speech, single quotes for reported thoughts, double quotes to mark text off (i.e. so-called “~~”), song titles, etc.
  • Italics: Use for emphasis, book/magazine/TV show/film/album titles
  • Referencing: Any standard academic convention is fine as long as it’s used consistently; both footnotes and end notes are acceptable, though any applicable footnotes will not be included in the opening section posted on the site
  • Deadline: 17 October

If you’re wondering how it will all pan out, here’s Nick’s “No Contest” from our last round as an example. Please note too that all of our previous entries are available on the By Prescription Only: Themed Writing page. All submissions will be edited by us but the final decision regarding any suggested changes to the content will be left up to the author. The author will also retain full copyright privileges and ownership; we’re here to display your work and help it reach a broader audience, not to profit from it. We’re looking forward to reading what you come up with!

Next week, me again with another look at self-publishing v’s traditional.

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Posted in Greetings & Announcements | 2 Comments

Fair Play

Everyone knows nowadays that the modern masters of word play include James Joyce and Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov knew it too. In one interview he generously admitted that, “my English is patball to Joyce’s champion game.” Although it is arguable whether he was a touch too modest in that assessment, there is no denying he knew Joyce’s Ulysses well, having taught it for many years at Cornell. To my knowledge he never lavished that kind of praise on any other contemporary writer of English.

What of patball? Those who know patball and can envision a palm slapping at a bouncing ball will get the tennis reference implied in “Joyce’s champion game.” Nabokov also knew his tennis. He played non-professionally and gave lessons as an expat in Europe. Scenes on tennis courts are sprinkled throughout his novels, including the most famous example from Lolita.

Tennis is an apt metaphor for writing when you consider the spin a player puts on a ball with various ground strokes, volleys, and serves. Word play is the spin of writing. And when you consider that patball has basically none of it, anyone familiar with Nabokov’s style can conclude he was falsely denigrating his own writing to highlight the genius of Joyce. Fair play.

Since I have written enough about Nabokov in other posts, I’d like to look at a couple of contemporary practitioners, of the lesser sort, in this brief reflection on word play.  Furthermore, I’ll stick to Nabokov’s metaphor and playfully choose two other writers who both know their tennis.

First, a look at the style of David Foster Wallace and his beast of a book, Infinite Jest. The protagonist of this work, like the adolescent DFW, is a gifted young tennis player, Hal Incandenza. With this passage we are taken into a boys’ locker room where exhausted players try to recoup after practice. Here are the lines:

“Besides Hal, who’s atavistically dark-complected anyway, the ones here with the least piebald coloring are the players who can tolerate spraying themselves down with Lemon Pledge before outdoor play. It turns out Lemon Pledge, when it’s applied in pre-play stasis and allowed to dry to a thin crust, is a phenomenal sunscreen, UV-rating like 40+, and the only stuff anywhere that can survive a three-set sweat.” (p. 99)

“Group empathy is expressed via sighs, further slumping, small spastic gestures of exhaustion, the soft clanks of skulls’ backs against the lockers’ thin steel.” (p. 100)

I like the internal rhyme and alliteration of the first passage’s “three-set sweat.” The sound effects punctuate the meaning: three sets of tennis, between two players of skill, is exhausting. The second passage, with its repeated “k” sounds in “clanks”, “skulls”, “backs”, “lockers'”, uses word play not to dazzle, but to slow the reader down. Impeded by those “k’s”, a reader simply can’t trip lightly along that line. We are slowed to reflect the tired, aching slowness experienced by the characters.

The second writer for this discussion gives us this passage:

“Snide, he often ended complimentary statements with muted, rude asides: She’s the kind of girl who’d do anything for you (for a price).

Another from a tennis court:

Nice shot! (Jackass).

The word play consists of internal rhyme (snide/aside) on opposite ends of the sentence, delivering a delayed sound effect. It functions to emphasize the deviant nature of the character (the assonance of muted/rude) while adding a bit of music to his description.

The writer of that sentence also knows a bit about tennis. But don’t ask about my backhand.

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Posted in Thoughts on Writing, Reading & Books | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

New look

Despite our laziness and general curmudgeonly attitude towards anything “new” or “fanfangled” or, dare some suggest, “better”, we here at Drugstore Books are not entirely tuned out to the wider world. As such, we’ve decided to give the site a little facelift. Rather, we’ve decided to pay someone to give the site a facelift as we have no idea what we’re doing. But not to worry! The site you have grown to love will still be old-timey and full of the charm that only three hopelessly outdated and talentless middle-aged men could bring to it. We’ll be taking a break over the summer while everything gets done and then will be back in September with new content to go with the new look. In the meantime, don’t forget about our next By Prescription Only short story and essay showcase, which will be here before you know it.

We wish all of our readers a very happy and fulfilling summer. Till then!

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Posted in Greetings & Announcements | Tagged , , | Comments closed

Take one of these and then get to work

If any of you are like me then you’ll consider summer a dreadful time of suffering and woe, but not to fret because this year at least we here at Drugstore Books have what you need to get through it. That’s right, our next By Prescription Only short story and essay showcase is right around the corner. Our new theme is Faces, a topic rife with possibilities and pus! (Err, sorry…) So note the guidelines below, break out those typing fingers, and send your submissions to: contact@drugstorebooks.com.

  • Theme: Faces
  • Length: 3,000-8,000 words
  • Format: MS Word 97-2003 (If you’re using a recent version of Word then please save as a .doc and not a .docx file, this will help smooth out compatibility issues.)
  • Title: Centered, Times New Roman 16 point; with a byline below also centered and in 14 point
  • Text, font and size: Justified; Times New Roman, 12 point
  • Spacing: Single, with block quotes separated by an empty line on both sides; paragraphs indented but section breaks separated by an empty line and three centered asterisks
  • Footer: www.drugstorebooks.com (on the left) © Your Name 2014 (on the right — stretched to fit the length of the footer)
  • Quotation conventions: Double quotes (“faces”) with embedded single quotes (‘faces’) for reported speech, single quotes for reported thoughts, double quotes to mark text off (i.e. so-called “~~”), song titles, etc.
  • Italics: Use for emphasis, book/magazine/TV show/film/album titles
  • Referencing: Any standard academic convention is fine as long as it’s used consistently; both footnotes and end notes are acceptable, though any applicable footnotes will not be included in the opening section posted on the site
  • Deadline: 26 September

If you’re wondering how it will all pan out, here’s Nick’s “No Contest” from our last round as an example. Please note too that all of our previous entries are available on the By Prescription Only: Themed Writing page. All submissions will be edited by us but the final decision regarding any suggested changes to the content will be left up to the author. The author will also retain full copyright privileges and ownership; we’re here to display your work and help it reach a broader audience, not to profit from it. We’re looking forward to reading what you come up with!

Next week, me again with an exciting announcement about what’s up ahead.

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Men of Principle: Two (Blog Second)

Last week I began to build the case for Diggory Venn, in Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native, as a man of principle. Here’s the concluding part.

Despite his self-imposed outcast status (a reddleman), Venn is no passive observer in the narrative. He pops up everywhere, mainly to try to protect and serve Thomasin, but he’ll also help out any passing heath folk who may need it. Some of his actions may be somewhat unbelievable — for example (*spoiler alert), rivals are floundering in the weir after a failed attempt to rescue Eustacia (one’s wife, the other’s mistress), and it’s the reddleman who knows his backstroke from his butterfly, diving in and rescuing both men (although only one survives).

Although melodramatic, his superhero-like-ability perhaps chimes with Venn’s otherworldly aura that Hardy establishes throughout. Hardy uses Venn to sum up that fateful event at the weir later that day in the Quiet Woman Inn:

“Two were corpses, one had barely escaped the jaws of death, another was sick and a widow.”

That Venn should deliver that line is telling because, by this stage of the novel, he is the closest any character has come to being an extension of Egdon Heath. It’s as if the heath is speaking directly to the reader. (On another level, the heath is itself a separate character with its landscape, seasons and pagan rituals — especially so given the classical narrative timeframe of ‘a year and a day’.) If Hardy’s overriding statement about the human condition is man’s struggle in a detached, even callous, universe, then what does that say about Venn? Assuming that, to a certain extent, Venn embodies theme then Venn’s destiny is to wander that “blasted heath”, red-skinned and alone until he falls from his wagon and his bones powder in the earth. (Book Sixth was added to satisfy readers of the day. Few today would agree that Venn’s true destiny is ‘to get the girl’ as the final book concludes. This ending breaks the Aristotelian timeframe and pollutes both theme and characters.)

It’s not by chance that I chose Castillo and Venn as my two men of principle. The same impulses make them tick and similar traits and philosophies are at the heart of each character, namely a dogged insistence to fulfil their ‘duty’ and a certain altruistic chivalry. From their backstories, both characters are devoured by loneliness after monumental woman trouble (Castillo thinks his wife is dead, Venn is spurned by Thomasin). Castillo, that moustachioed Ingmar Bergman character who somehow wanders into eighties Miami, lets his work consume him, trying to fill his personal void by battling organised crime and a corrupt legal system. Despite losing out on his shot at happiness, he appears and acts joyful that his presumed-dead-wife has re-married and has a child with another man, although we can guess at the maelstrom he must be feeling inside. Regardless of the problems it causes him, he uses his position as a lieutenant to protect her and her husband (who, in the end, turns out to be a rotter).

Diggory Venn, however, goes one better: believing he will never have Thomasin, he knowingly facilitates her quest to marry Wildeve, a man he knows to be a bounder and a cad. This is after having previously been spurned by her, which in turn drove him to give up his occupation as a dairy farmer (a respectable job) to stalk the heath peddling reddle. Being a reddleman seems to function as both an act of self-flagellation — perhaps mourning his lost hope — and the perfect occupation to facilitate his grand scheme, which is to help Thomasin in her future endeavours (including marrying a jerk). He does this because his love for her is so deep he wants her to be happy despite the misery it will cause him. (If I were him, I would’ve gone for that sultry firecracker, Eustacia; Thomasin I find to be mousy and a complete bore).

Allusions to the cosmic, an all-consuming sense of duty and a steady self-discipline bind Venn and Castillo together as characters, but it’s their selfless reaction to lost love that makes them men of principle, their actions perhaps best summed up by the title of the Sting song, “If you love somebody, set them free.” In a world of snark-infested irony, these characters may seem hopelessly unfashionable. But as that old lecturer who used to read The Return of the Native to us once said (in a hammed up Wessex accent): “Fashion? Fashion be for fools.” (He didn’t actually say that, but it made for a neat ending.)

Next week, Andrew Oberg returns from a two-week pachinko binge with details about our next BPO.

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Posted in Thoughts on Writing, Reading & Books | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Men of Principle: Two (Blog First)

A month or so ago, I blogged about men of principle and then followed up the post with a look at laconic characters. I encountered this next man of principle as a young student. Lazy toad that I was, one particular A-level lit lecturer was the perfect match for me because he read course novels during class time — leaving me plenty of time to experiment with the ‘counterculture’ once the lights had gone out (and usually by about ten o’clock my lights had gone out as well).

This lecturer was a stage actor who taught a few classes on the side, so for him it was quite natural to drop into different voices — cad-like inn keepers, sickly simpletons, retired ship’s captains — he could do them all with aplomb and treated each class as a performance. Incidentally, the subject of this post isn’t that bright-eyed, thesp of a lecturer (although I’m sure he was ‘principled’ in his own way, too). No, my man of principle rose from my old teacher’s lungs and then leapt from the pages of the novel he was reading to us: my next man of principle is the “reddleman”, Diggory Venn, from Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native.

For those of you who haven’t read the novel, a reddleman earned his corn by travelling the countryside marking sheep with red ochre, which was known in the local dialect as “reddle”. Because of this work, Venn was a drifter. He was also stained from head-to-foot in red dye and was therefore, in the minds’ of ‘heath folk’, a bogeyman who prowled the peaks and gullies. During the 1840s (the book is set thirty years before its publication), suntans were not de rigueur; proper ladies cowered under parasols, their dainty Victorian limbs hidden by gazebos that passed for shawls and skirts; meanwhile, peasants the colour of copper toiled in the sun slashing furze. Being the colour of a Royal Mail pillar box wasn’t a particularly good look — that is if you ever hoped to marry — and that’s at all, let alone ‘well’.

Like many novels of the time, the marriage banns are a central plot device in The Return of the Native. Being red from toes-to-temples meant that Diggory Venn was fresh out of luck on that front (Hardy references Venn’s hue endlessly, so I feel obliged to follow suit). I should also point out that Venn is devilishly handsome (Mephistophelean being the adverb of choice). Naturally, being a man of principle, Venn has a strong jaw (after all, one way or another he’s going to get socked in it enough times). Think, perhaps, of a young Clint Eastwood, although not as tall. And painted red.

The writer and critic E.M Forster talks of narrative “connectors”, plot facilitators who bring together disparate story threads by virtue of circumstance and/or character, and Venn is certainly that. He’s a man in the shadows, a man of whispers, moving around Egdon Heath observing, intervening, delivering news and gossip, actions that, with Hardy’s deft ironic touches, have far-reaching story consequences.

Like Castillo, the subject of my last post, Venn is shrouded in mystery and otherworldly. Castillo, with his inner-Zen, makes the toughest cons and cops mumble and splutter while Venn is a literal embodiment of local superstition, a child-scarer and portal through genres into magic-realism. For example, in Chapter Seven, Book Third, Venn, who’s been watching a dice game from the shadows, steps in and wins all the money in an impossible run of good fortune, risking his own shekels to aide Thomasin, the woman who spurned him and drove him from the respectability of a dairy farmer to a life of peddling reddle.

Venn’s unwavering love of Thomasin is at the heart of his character, shaping his backstory and affecting most of his thoughts and actions throughout the novel. So what makes him a man of principle? Come back next week to find out.

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Posted in Thoughts on Writing, Reading & Books | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Should we adjust for the times?

A couple of weeks ago Nick wrote a response to a piece on the purported death of the novel that raised some interesting points about value, expectations, reflective reading versus cursory reading, and consumer trends. It’s that last area that I’d like to consider in a little more depth here, specifically regarding whether or not we as writers should try and adjust our personal styles to more closely match developments in the wider popular culture.

As I mentioned in my comment to Nick’s post, this year is the centenary of William Burroughs’ birth and in a London Review of Books article by Gary Indiana on a new biography of Burroughs’ life it is highlighted how his ideas on communicative tendencies and his abrupt writing style have increasingly proved to be prescient. Burroughs looked around himself at the advertising that was growing ever more ubiquitous and predicted that our minds would come to flit from this to that, never resting anywhere for very long. On this, Indiana remarks that, “The trilogy that followed Naked Lunch went much further in anticipating the staccato, associative patterns produced by the internet, TV channel flipping and ‘screen reality’; considered unreadable when they were published, the trilogy books can be followed today almost as effortlessly as a novel by Hemingway.”

Burroughs did not, of course, adjust his style for his own times; rather he famously flouted the conventions of his day and even most narrative conventions as well. He wrote only what he wanted to and that his influence has stretched so far is likely due more to the power of his ideas than to the accessibility of his texts. There is a lesson to be learned here but it’s one that requires a bit of daring.

We have come to have attention spans that can be measured in milliseconds, to produce and to expect little more than sound bites, and to employ sloganspeak as a shorthand for meaningful conversation. This can even be seen in our humor, which is now punctuated by one-offs that would make Twitter proud for their brevity. These are vast cultural trends that are a result of a great many coalescing factors and it is not my intention to pooh-pooh them or wring my hands over the current state of affairs. Instead I’d simply like to point out that for better or for worse that is at present how we approach not only our entertainment but our lived relationships and daily interactions as well. If as writers we feel that we should meet people where they are then certainly we should take these developments into consideration. If, however, like Burroughs we are more interested in pursuing our own vision, then we can ignore any potential reader demands that do not fit with our personal approach. To make this decision we need to consider how we want to balance practical concerns with artistic ones. Burroughs came from a wealthy family and received a sizeable stipend until he was 50 years old; writers who need to, or are trying to, make a living at it will naturally have concerns that would never have occurred to Burroughs. Although it’s not, of course, all about money, one’s ability — and flexibility — will come into play as well. These are hard choices, but that we retain the freedom to make them is a blessing, and we owe it to our readers and ourselves to consider them carefully before putting fingertips to keyboards at the start of a major project.

Next week, Paul j Rogers on his trip to see how Lotte’s famous Choco Pies are made.

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Posted in Writing Craft & Self-Publishing | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Shall We Assume They’ll Google?

An interesting piece published in the New Yorker recently inspired these thoughts on writing and reference. The article caught my eye because of the title, “Bob Dylan, Fanboy.” In sum, it is a look at a new book by David Kinney called “The Dylanologists.” Besides learning that one obsessed fan owns Dylan’s childhood high chair, I didn’t come across much that was new. But it is a good summary of the so-called controversy regarding Dylan’s songwriting. I’d read before how Dylan was accused of plagiarism for borrowing from various sources without citation. Here is Ian Crouch’s fine summary of the hullabaloo:

In the summer of 2003, a schoolteacher from Minnesota was travelling in Japan and happened to pick up a book about the world of Japanese organized crime called “Confessions of a Yakuza.” On the book’s first page, he read a line, about a man sitting like a “feudal lord,” that stood out. He realized that it echoed a line from one of Dylan’s songs from the album “Love and Theft,” which was released in 2001. He brought the book home and found a handful of other, unmistakably reused phrases. Dylan had not credited his strange source, which seemed to have been selected almost at random. In the years since, with the help of Google Books, Scott Warmuth, a fan from New Mexico, has been delving deeper into Dylan’s recent writing and finding all kinds of odd, uncredited borrowings.

Hoping to get some specifics on that story (which is inherently interesting for me since I’m a Dylan fan and I used to live in Japan), I turned to, what else? but Google. Try it yourself. Search for “confession of a yakuza dylan” and near the top of the list you’ll find this website, titled “Textual Sources to the ‘Love & Theft’ Songs.”

Given the verbatim similarity of the source and song, one must assume these were conscious borrowings. Off the top of my head, I can think of three scenarios as Dylan writes these songs: 1. He borrows without thinking that anyone will ever notice the sources (secret, ill-intent); 2. He borrows because in the tradition of songwriting such lifting is normative (doesn’t care either way); 3. He borrows knowing that alert, inquisitive “readers” will eventually get his reference and follow his mind.

Since I am not writing this blog to either defend or condemn the songwriter, I would just like to remind the reader of the title of that album before we move on the main point. Dylan chose to call it “Love and Theft”, so decide for yourself what he was up to.

The main point, or rather, the main question: Should a fiction writer assume that her readers will google freely while reading and attempting to make sense of her work? As time goes on, I think that’s a safe bet, especially if details in the story seem to call for it. And no doubt such an assumption will affect the way some stories are written. In a shameless display of self-promotion, I will turn to a story I wrote for a Drugstore Books event, “By Prescription Only,” a showcase for writing that was based upon the theme of Space.

It might work like this. As the first paragraph announces, the protagonist’s name is Halford P. Goodreads. The surname is common enough for most readers to recognize nowadays, and it connects with the motif of literary quality and appreciation. That motif is also repeated in the role of the character as short story judge, shaking his head at the incoming “shitty stories.” How about the given name? Halford, or Hal, the familiar shortened form seen later on. Some acute readers might easily pick up on Hal as it relates to the theme of Space, as in Hal 9000, the cold, calculating supercomputer from Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. The first image, however, in the Google search is the stock valuation of Halliburton, one of the largest multinational profit seekers connected to the latest war in Iraq. Those coordinates of “space,” “Hal”, “2001” will provide twin rewards of meaning and amusement if the reader connects the dots as she reads and perhaps rereads the story. A good story might have a lot of dots and Google can prove very helpful in connecting them.

Of course, there is risk in writing this way. The author could become too fixated on obscure references and points of detail so that the 1st round of reading is too boring, too laborious, too UNSTORYLIKE for most readers to even want to bother with it. It that case, everyone’s time is wasted and the work must be judged a failure. The jury is still out on “No Contest”, but that’s in the hands and fingertips of others, not me.

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The Digital Dragon and Death of the Novel

For a long time I would employ any old reason to put off writing: I need to read more first; I don’t have anything original to say; it’s too frustrating when the words on the page don’t match the magic in my mind; it’s all been said before; no one will read what I hope to write anyway. With a bit of reflection, one could place the reasons for not writing into two main categories: 1. something is wrong with me, and 2. something is wrong with the world.

Having struggled with variations of 1 and 2 for about twenty years, I am a bit more skeptical now when a new variation comes along. Imagine having always wanted be an Auto Explorer, meaning one who explores via cars and road trips, not someone who snoops around a particular automobile. In this analogy, getting a car is as easy as getting pen and paper. But as you tentatively set out on your journey with no real destination in mind you turn the ignition and there is silence. Or the tires are flat. Or choose your metaphor. Then, after many years you get the thing in some semblance of working order and set off on the road. Ah the wind in your hair! Suddenly, the sign posts appear: Death of the Novel Ahead; Beware of Broadband; Low Maintenance Road; Dead End!

Such was the case when I read yet another article from the Literary Establishment on the Death of the Novel. The main reason cited in that essay by Will Self is the negative effects of the digital revolution on the literary arts. In other words, it’s a new variation on category 2 mentioned above. Is Digital Media the new great dragon about to lay waste our fertile countryside?

Take the case of digital media and that novel by Nabokov, Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle. There happens to be a great website dedicated to fully annotating all the twists, motifs, themes, and allusions in that novel. I believe Brian Boyd started it but my understanding is that it’s kind of crowdsourced now. Anyway, what a great ability to read a passage and be able to see an actual photo of some kind of early 20th century device mentioned in the novel. Or to be able to google a song mentioned and hear it and read the lyrics and “get” why the author puts it into the narrative.

So Will Self feels tempted to shop online for oven gloves while using a computer with a broadband connection. Some poor slobs will be tempted to surf obsessively for internet porn even while they know they are missing out on higher pursuits. That’s their problem.

What I feel really needs to happen, culture wide on a massive social scale, is readers need to be educated on what good literature is, how it works, to note the fit between form and content, and then allow people to find what is great according to their own developing tastes. From an early age in school, encourage the readers of the future to be thoughtful, reflective, and open-minded about the works they engage in. As far as age goes, you’re never too old to be exposed to true beauty.

All too often such a conversation about literary value, practically before it has even begun, ends with “to each his own.” Or, in Self’s own words, “Nor do I mean to suggest that in our culture perennial John Bull-headed philistinism wasn’t alive and snorting: “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.” However, what didn’t obtain is the current dispensation, wherein those who reject the high arts feel not merely entitled to their opinion, but wholly justified in it.”

He doesn’t really give an example here. What “high art” is being rejected on what grounds? Maybe it’s second-rate trash masquerading as “high art” and people are justified in rejecting it!

Value is always a matter of argument, and its an argument that should be made. Otherwise we stay closed, sealed off, and isolated in our own private universe of preferences. For example, a person who loves Nabokov and another reader who champions William Burroughs have a discussion. They both argue that their favorite exhibits literary quality. Others are looking on and listening to them (obviously this might happen through blogs, online discussion, or various other media) and at the end of the day, consensus is formed. Armed with a sense of taste, people seek out like-minded others (skilled writers, perceptive critics, etc.) and over time the cream comes to the top.

Given the pleasures of reading, I don’t see why that’s not a possible future. It takes effort and engagement. Otherwise people could possibly revert to a mindset of gobbling up digital M&M’s online.

My last point on the Will Self article. If reading Ulysses is your thing, really make it your thing. It took Joyce 10 years to write it and yet the reader expects, what? to get a meaningful experience by reading it once? I don’t think so. Read the critics who have read it and studied it and who are steeped in a literary culture. Then reread Ulysses again and again and again, really know it. Take it apart and put it back together again. I’m only saying this to those people who claim to find value in it but who likely don’t even know it that well. To those who really come to know it after all that labor (a process mix of satisfactions and frustrations), it will be more rewarding than watching all those multi-season TV shows that some people rave about. And they will be able to say why reading Ulysses is more valuable than watching Mad Men.

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The Laconic Man

A few weeks ago, I blogged about Lt. Castillo from the eighties TV show Miami Vice. There’s plenty more I could’ve written about him if I hadn’t been handcuffed to a tight word length. With more words, I would’ve expanded upon his sense of duty, which is not some nine-to-five obligation but his raison d’être. With more words I might’ve probed his loneliness. Yet with all the words in the English language at my disposal, I would’ve never mentioned Castillo bucking through the surf in tight swimming trunks to a cover version of Donovan’s “Catch the Wind” in the episode Golden Triangle Part II. Some things, after all, are best left in the eighties. (*In the event that your curiosity must be sated you can find this homoerotic weirdness here. Go on click it. You know you want to.)

Last time, though, I did note Castillo’s taciturn disposition, and with a few more words at my disposal again this week I’d like to take a quick look at some more characters who choose not to use them. I suppose the best place to start is with the ancient Greeks, specifically Sparta.

The word ‘Spartan’ has long been in everyday usage to describe the minimal. Dictionary.com (in what could be a character summary of Lt. Castillo) give us this definition: sternly disciplined and rigorously simple, frugal, or austere

Interestingly, the word laconic comes from Laconia, Sparta, as the Spartans were known for their terse speech. What’s not so well-known is their great wit, the original kings of the one-liners. For example, Lycurgus was reportedly asked why Sparta’s sacrifices to the gods were so frugal, to which he replied, “So that we may always have something to offer.” Nice. Another example is when an unnamed Spartan was told to listen to a person who could perfectly imitate a nightingale, to which he replied, “I have heard the nightingale itself.” (*Both anecdotes and all things Sparta can be found here)

Winding forward to the twentieth century, the terse male had found his way into many narratives (sometimes he’s highly disciplined like Spartan warriors during training, other times a barfly who’s lit like Spartans in a wine-fuelled battle phalanx). Hemingway, Dos Passos, James M Cain, Faulkner, Chandler — the list of writers adopting that terse ‘tough guy tone’ is endless. An interesting flip on the archetype is Monsieur Meursault in The Stranger (L’Etranger) by Camus.

Camus uses his laconic outsider Meursault as a vehicle for his philosophy of the absurd, to him, an essential and universal condition. Meursault relentlessly observes everything, including his own behaviour. At the same time, he himself is being cautiously observed by the inhabitants of Algiers and Marengo. In the translator’s note in Matthew Ward’s translation he comments:

“What little Meursault says or feels or does resonates with all he does not say, all he does not feel, all he does not do.”

Infused with the ideas of his philosophical writings, Camus mined new seams with the terse narrator, exploring lonlieness and dichotomy in a way that, in my opinion, has never been surpassed.

The laconic character comes in many shapes and sizes — hard drinkers, existential rebels, duty-bound cops — all bound together by the unspoken understanding that you should never mince words.

Next week, Nick Cody shares forty-two different ways to lose your USB before breakfast.

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Posted in Thoughts on Writing, Reading & Books | Tagged , , | 4 Comments
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