books out of mind

One of the bonuses of cataloging all our books is running into stories I haven’t thought about in a while. Today I came around a corner and there was Rebecca. Du Maurier’s Rebecca, of Manderley.

Now, there’s a well done first person narrative.

Question: How can I have gone so long without re-reading this novel? It feels like going to a class reunion and running into somebody who was once a wonderful friend, somebody you haven’t seen or really thought about for years. How sad, that long absence. How nice to see her again.

Of course with this lovely bonus comes a downside, and that is the height of my to be (re) read pile. Which reminds me of a panic dream I had when I was studying for my doctoral exams. A recurring panic/anxiety/holyshitexams dream.

In the basement of the main library at Princeton there are study carrels. Something like a walk-in closet, with a sliding door. Glass window in the door and next to it. Just enough room for a long desk-like slab, two chairs side by side (sometimes people actually had to share these closet-carrel thingies). Four long shelves for books, right to the ceiling.

Dead quiet in the bowels of Firestone Library. Florescent light that made everything seem slightly Brazil-like (I’m thinking of the movie, either you know it or you don’t). Studying sixteen plus hours at a go, you could forget what time of day it was, if it was day at all. People stumbled around at three in the morning, mostly so other people would see how studious and unkempt they were.

In this dream I was sitting in my carrel studying. Every surface covered with books. The door open, for fresh air (or what passed for fresh air down there). Suddenly I look up and realize that the sliding door has slid shut. And, what a lovely touch: there are now bars on the windows, and a slot in the door.

Footsteps coming down the hall, and the sound of a cart being pushed. Dinner, I think. The slot is pushed open, and books start coming in. Fast. So fast I can’t grab them, and they start to cascade across the floor. I’m up to my knees in books. I scream: STOP. I CAN’T KEEP UP.

The cascade stops.

From the other side of the door comes a woman’s voice. Calm, authoritarian, inflexible:
READ FASTER.

Now of course I don’t have to read faster, even though my pile of books is growing by leaps and bounds. Because nobody is going to sit me down in a chair and ask me to talk about the editorial history of Grimms Deutsches Woerterbuch or how to reconstruct Proto-Indo-European consonants or to outline the underpinnings of a theory of universal grammar. If I feel like it, I might tell you about Rebecca after I’ve re-read it. Maybe. If I feel like it. And you promise not to quiz me.

Back to work. And I just remembered an even better anxiety/panic dream. Tomorrow, maybe.

enough already

I’ve decided to give up reading the dozen or so blogs that (1) pride themselves on their literary acumen and taste; and (2) take it upon themselves to move beyond flogging others who do not live up to their standards to trying to get them booted off the web. This includes Mark’s The Elegant Variation (he’s the one that pushed me past the point of no return with his Dump the Book Babes petition; more below), Sam at Golden Rule Jones, Daniel of The Reading Experience, and a host of others. I’m so pissed that I’m not even going to include links to their blogs, so if you want to read their side of this, you’ll have to go find them.

here’s the thing. There’s a column at Poynter Online (news for the journalism community) called Book Babes, written by two women. It’s supposed to be, as I understand it, about the publishing industry, for its insiders. But TEV decided that they weren’t doing a good enough job as so he started a petition to have the column handed over to somebody else. Who? He doesn’t say, but he wants somebody more literary. More in tune with his view of literary, at any rate.

Let me be clear: I don’t particularly like the Book Babes column, and I don’t think they helped matters with the column in which they responded to the petition (nor did Mark with his response to that column). In this back and forth, a lot of very complex issues got jumbled together, things to do with gatekeeping (and that is the issue here, no matter what the LitCrit Police would like to claim); elitism (which I admit, pushes all my buttons; and yes, I have a Princeton PhD — that’s precisely where I learned to hate the pompous academic oriented literature types); censorship; reading as a cultural experience; definitions of good and bad in storytelling; and the nature of the publishing industry.

I never have read the Book Babes and I won’t be starting. It’s not my claim that they deserve a huge readership, just that they don’t deserve to be dumped on by the self-annointed LitCrit Police, who I won’t be reading anymore. However, if and when one of them has a novel come out, I’ll read that. And you’ll hear about it here.

Postscript: someone who wishes to remain nameless sent to a link to this article (“It’s a Little Too Cozy in the Blogosphere”) by Jennifer Howard (dated November 16 2003 at washingtonpost.com). Note this memorable paragraph:

What began as the ultimate outsider activity — a way to break the newspaper and TV stranglehold on the gathering and dissemination of information — is turning into the same insider’s game played by the old establishment media the bloggerati love to critique. The more blogs you read and the more often you read them, the more obvious it is: They’ve fallen in love with themselves, each other and the beauty of what they’re creating. The cult of media celebrity hasn’t been broken by the Internet’s democratic tendencies; it’s just found new enabling technology.

Jennifer Howard has a website; there is also a discussion of her Washington Post article on blogging,
here
. And yes, I picked up on this late, but then I don’t usually read the Washington Post.

first person narratives

There’s a lovely commentary about first person narration here by Caitlín, who is a novelist, writer and a Farscape person. She has articulated (at various points in her blogging) some of the reasons I dislike reading first person stories. Here’s a bit of what she wrote:

This is not to say that first-person narratives can’t excel. They certainly can, despite the fact that they almost never do. Examples of excellent first-person narratives are easy enough to list. But I think they require a writer of unusual talent to do well. And I consider myself only a writer of usual talent.

I find it hard to list many excellent examples of first-person narration. Generally they just irritate me. If I pick up a novel and find it to be in first person, I will put it down four times out of five. I suppose the problem is, I don’t like being stuck in one person’s head. I want the broader story, the bigger picture. First person stories are by definition insular, and I usually don’t have the patience to deal with that, these days. It’s a little frustrating, I’ll admit, as it seems to me that there are more of them being published all the time.

Certainly students I’ve worked with seem to gravitate toward first person narrative, out of fear or familiarity, I’m not sure. What I do know is, I chase them out of that yard as fast as they can run. I don’t accept any first person work when I’ teaching an intro to fiction course. The same way I make them submit all their work in double spaced Courier 12: because I want to make them focus elsewhere, and forget about the way the print looks on the paper.

Which reminds me of one of the funnier things I ever heard a faculty member say. This was at Princeton, when I was a grad student. Imagine a bald, serious professor of medieval literature with a heavy German accent saying: “No, this word processing nonsense, this will never do. If the sentence looks nice on the paper, an undergraduate thinks it must automatically mean something.”

And since I’m on the subject, the funniest thing I ever heard an undergraduate student say at Princeton. A crowd of them were coming out of a seminar in the German department and one turned to the other and said: “I don’t get it. Why was Nietsche so hung up on cows?”

The last word is the key. Pronounce it with a German accent; it’s worth the effort.

———-

edited to add that the link to
Caitlín is via Sillybean. Silly me.