lit-crit

Writing in the Garden of the Gods

Friday I head out for Bainbridge Island, specifically for the Kiana Lodge and the one day conference organized by Field’s End. The lodge is owned by the Suquamish tribe; the word kiana means “garden of the gods.” I tell you this so there’s no confusion. No gods will be in attendance, writing or otherwise.

The conference runs all day Saturday. I’m scheduled to give two talks:

10:45 – 11:45 / Literary Fiction.
The idea of a literary fiction is relatively new, but it is so widely accepted that it feels almost carved in stone. A closer look at what literary fiction claims to be, and how the litcriterati have bamboozled everyone — including themselves.

2:45 – 3:45 / Historical fiction: Authenticity and its limitations
Historical linguists strive for authenticity in setting, language, and mindset, but to what degree is that possible — or even desirable?

I asked them if they wanted straight lectures or interactive talks — I can do either, but the second is more lively. Because hey, these folks are paying money to come listen to published writers, and I take some pride in giving them value for money. I try to be entertaining, short of juggling, which I can’t, or bursting into song. You laugh, but I co-taught once with a guy who did just that quite regularly. He had a great voice, but let’s just say that undergraduates aren’t all that crazy about Rogers and Hammerstein.

And I have to admit: I did have a reputation as a lecturer ywhen I taught big introductory classes at the University of Michigan.

Which reminds me of a story, and what the hell, I’ll tell it.

I have a good friend who started as a new faculty member at UM the same time I did. We went to grad school together, too, and so we knew each other pretty well. She’s a very polite person, soft spoken. Extremely intelligent, very witty, but a big lecture hall is not her first choice. Big lecture halls never bothered me. Fifty kids or four hundred, my goals are pretty consistent: keep them awake, keep them interested, keep them on their toes, give them stuff to think about so that maybe, just maybe, they’ll crack a book. The most common comment I got was ‘tough but fair’ and I was very satisfied with that.

At any rate, this friend and I are talking, about six weeks into the semester, and she tells me she doesn’t know what to do about a student who comes to her lecture class. He sits in the first row, center, puts on sunglasses and earphones, turns on his walkman (this is way back in the 80s, remember), opens the newspaper, and settles in for the duration. She was in a quandry. How to handle it? What to do?

Which amazed me. I said: very simple, listen and follow this game plan step by step.

Wait until the kid is hunkered down. Come down off the stage, walk over to him. He probably won’t notice, that’s fine. The other kids will get out of the way. Walk right up to him, lift the headphone away from one ear and shout:

GET THE HELL OUT OF MY LECTURE HALL AND DON’T COME BACK UNTIL YOU LEARN SOME BASIC MANNERS.

She looked at me with her mouth hanging open. No, she said. You wouldn’t.

Oh, I said. But I have.

These were first year undergraduates for the most part, clueless. I’ve never run into this kind of behavior when I’m giving a talk at a conference, and I don’t think I ever will. But getting notes together for these two lectures has made me nostalgic.

By which I mean to say: if by some chance you are going to be at the garden of the gods on Saturday, don’t hesitate to stop by my talks. I promise not to bite. Or even bark.

where does a critic's authority come from?

There were fireworks for a while — last year, I think — when we got into a discussion about the process of reviewing, the responsibility of reviewers, the role of authors, etc etc etc. Should I let this sleeping dog lie?

I can’t. Because I came across an excellent weblog post that makes points I tried to make back then, when I was dodging all those incoming missiles.

book daddyThe post is by book/daddy, also known as Jerome Weeks. Weeks has a long list of credentials, for example: he’s a member of the National Book Critics Circle and was a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. Thus: the very embodiment of the litcriterati. But wait. I tend to use that term negatively, so I’ll say instead that he’s versed in the language of the litcriterati, but he also knows what it means to take yourself too seriously. And he’s got a great motto (I’ve got to get me one of those), even if it does demonstrate his weakness for Latin and Greek:

The official book/daddy motto: Pereant qui ante nos nostra dixerunt! (Roughly: To hell with those who published before us)

So this last May he posted the question: where does a critic’s authority come from?

The post is long, but I want to give you just a little bit so that you’ll actually go over and read the whole thing. Here it is:

The questions occurred to me while reading Richard Schickel’s instantly notorious, flame-bait outburst against bloggers, “Not everybody’s a critic” in the LA Times. Much of what Mr. Schickel grumps about is — pace all of the outraged bloggers — perfectly accurate. Reviews aren’t just opinions, no matter how wittily and dismissively they’re expressed. Much of what passes for literary criticism on the web is simply very loud likes and dislikes, often not very enlightening likes or dislikes, unsubstantiated and barely argued, if at all — dragged down, perhaps, by the way the web inspires flame wars and insults. If Jessa Crispin (Bookslut) trashes another book — like Don DeLillo’s Falling Man — while declaring her contempt for the work in question is so mighty and inviolate that she’ll never stoop to reading the book, I’ll stop paying attention to her judgment on most any book. And I heartily agree with her on many graphic novels. But the surly imperiousness does her no favors.

So go forth and read book/daddy. I just spent an hour I could not afford reading through his posts. An hour well spent.

Still Summer

I’ve talked about domestic drama before. I think of it as the genre that-dare-not-speak-its-name, because it flies under the radar of the litcriterati. A genre written mostly by women and read mostly by women — one that doesn’t get trivialized or bashed (for the most part) — that’s something to nurture. The bigger names (Jodi Picoult and ELinor Lipman, for example) get serious reviews in the big name places. And that’s good. In fact, that is excellent.

[asa book]0446578762[/asa] Jackie Mitchard is one of my favorites in this select group of women who produce well written, intriguing stories about women who live what might seem to be traditional or even boring lives. Many of the subjects are no surprise: divorce, sick children, unexpected violence, family dysfunction. But as is ever the case with a story — it’s not where you end up, but how you got there.

Mitchard’s most recent novel is Still Summer. This is a novel that took me by surprise — and excuse me for sounding know-it-all, but that is hard to do. Still Summer breaks out of the genre in an unexpected and interesting way.

Instead of a small town or a suburban neighborhood or a farm, we have four women on a sailboat. Three of them are old friends who charmed and rabble roused their way through high school together twenty-five years earlier. Tracy, Holly and Olivia as well as Camille — Tracy’s 19-year-old daughter –set out on a great adventure.

There’s enough material right there for a novel, albeit a quiet one. The backstory is chock full of conflicts, enough to power the four women all the way to the Caribbean and back again. But Mitchard doesn’t stop there. The four women set out on what was meant to be a lighthearted adventure, but it turns into a struggle to survive the elements, the sea, predators (some of them human), and twenty-five years of personal history.

Still Summer is a rocking good story, one that pulls you along. I picked it up thinking I’d just read the first few pages and didn’t put it down again until I finished. What Mitchard managed to do here is to take the best of the domestic drama genre and an adventure story and interweave them so that they support each other beautifully.

It is in fact Still Summer, so I suggest you get a hold of this book. Except maybe not on a sailboat. Another one of Mitchard’s novels that I like a lot: The Most Wanted.

genre wars take it up a notch

I know, I know, I haven’t been here. I haven’t been anywhere much. Trying to stay focused on writing, and family stuff demanding a lot of time — the usual excuses.

Literary fiction is just another genre with a self-defined readership and a set of arbitrary conventions.

If you are yearning for some interesting and quite thought provoking reading, you might go here where Sarah Weinman has collected a list of posts on the most recent iteration of the genre wars (her term). You know, that literary fiction vs. all other fiction thing. Usually a new battle breaks out (as in this case) when a so-called litcrit type takes a swipe at a genre type. Almost always the litcrit type is spewing sour grapes. In this case (the criticism was of Stephen Hunter) I’d have to say the same.

At any rate. Have a look at the links (I especially recommend Laura Lippman’s take on all of this).

Or if you prefer, repeat my mantra (to the right) to yourself.