the value of a good essay

Still in crisis mode, here, but I made an effort this morning to get my head out of things I can’t fix (at least not immediately; she hedged), and I went to read Garrison Keillor’s column on Salon.

Are you familiar with the way little kids were soothed and comforted by Mr. Rogers? I watched it happen more than once with the hoppity rabbit that was the Girlchild at age three. Often when she3 was siitting on my lap I had a mental image of a tornado waiting to let loose. Desperate for a few quiet minutes, I sometimes turned on Mr. Rogers. Her whole body would immediately begin to relax, but her attention stayed focused.

Garrison Keillor is my Mr. Rogers. His voice on the radio is better than any chemical devised for the quieting of an overbusy mind. His essays often move me to tears for reasons I can’t quite explain. His tone is never harsh, though what he has to say is often thorny and unrelentingly honest. On Bush:

It’s a hard fall for George W. Bush. His career was based on creating low expectations and then meeting them, but Katrina was a blast of reality. The famous headline said, “Bush: One of the Worst Disasters to Hit the U.S.” and many people took that literally.

Today he had an especially good essay on spring and politics called Love will Outlast Bush. I cringed a little at the title, which sounds like an entry in a bad lyric contest, but the essay itself? It keeps going through my mind. Here’s part of it:

Politics is a slough, and maybe we should let the weasels have it for now. Even if two more Republicans follow the Current Occupant into office, this country will still be around in some form or other. Cities may crumble and we may be forced to reside in walled compounds and hire security men to escort us to Wal-Mart and back, but much will remain, such as love, for example, and the quickening one feels in the spring. Flowers will bloom in whatever wreckage we make. Somewhere, someone will sing the old songs about love walking in and driving the shadows away.

People have been falling in love through every dismal era of history and through every war ever fought. Enormous black headlines in the newspapers and agitated talk in the cafes and yet she waited for him on the corner by the hotel where they had agreed to meet, and as traffic streamed past she watched the buses pulling up to the curb, looking for his familiar shape, his beautiful face, his slight smile. Under her arm, a newspaper, and inside it a columnist shaking his tiny fist at corruption, but it isn’t worth two cents compared to what’s in her heart. When her lover steps down, the air will be filled with bright purple blossoms and they will embrace and turn and go into the hotel, and on this, the future of the world depends.

Keillor can be melancholy, but it never lasts for long. Sooner or later he has to give into the urge to tell the better story. The hopeful story. Especially on those days when it’s hard to keep my own melancholy at bay, it’s nice to have him around.

I promised you that piece of cake

Over at the OED, I find that the phrase “a piece of cake” to mean something easily done is in fact very recent (but not quite so recent as I guessed):

Colloq. phr. a piece of cake: something easy or pleasant.
  1936 O. NASH Primrose Path 172 Her picture’s in the papers now, And life’s a piece of cake.
1942 T. RATTIGAN Flare Path 1, Special. Very hush-hush. Not exactly a piece of cake, I believe.
1943 P. BRENNAN et al. Spitfires over Malta i. 31 The mass raids promised to be a piece of cake, and we anticipated taking heavy toll of the raiders.
1960 T. MCLEAN Kings of Rugby 205 They took the field against Canterbury as if the match were ‘a piece of cake’.

nashstampOf course it was Ogden Nash, my earliest literary crush, who first used the phrase in writing long before I was born. Time, I think, for a short tribute in the form of one of my favorite poems of his, called So Does Everybody Else, but Not So Much:

O all ye exorcizers come and exorcize now, and ye clergymen draw nigh
and clerge,

For I wish to be purged of an urge.

It is an irksome urge, compounded of nettles and glue,

And it is turning all my friends back into acquaintances, and all my
acquaintances into people who look the other way when I heave into view.

It is an indication that my mental buttery is butterless and my mental
larder lardless,

And it consists not of “Stop me if you’ve heard this one,” but of “I
know you’ve heard this one because I told it to you myself, but I’m going
to tell it to you again regardless,”

Yes I fear I am living beyond my mental means.

When I realize that it is not only anecdotes that I reiterate but what
is far worse, summaries of radio programs and descriptions of caroons in
newspapers and magazines.

I want to resist but I cannot resist recounting the bright sayins of
celebrities that everybody already is familiar with every word of;
I want to refrain but cannot refrain from telling the same audience on two
successive evenings the same little snatches of domestic gossip about
people I used to know that they have never heard of.

When I remember some titlating episode of my childhood I figure that
if it’s worth narrating once it’s worth narrating twice, in spite of
lackluster eyes and dropping jaws,

And indeed I have now worked my way backward from titllating episodes
in my own childhood to titillating episodes in the childhood of my parents
or even my parents-in-laws,

And what really turns my corpuscles to ice,

I carry around clippings and read them to people twice.

And I know what I am doing while I am doing it and I don’t want to do
it but I can’t help doing it and I am just another Ancient Mariner,

And the prospects for my future social life couldn’t possibly be

Did I tell you that the prospects for my future social life couldn’t
be barrener?

historical v. political considerations

In part because of my academic background and area of specialization, I have paid a lot of attention to the evolution of the term ‘politically correct’. In the seventies it was used to describe something

“conforming to a body of liberal or radical opinion, especially. on social matters, characterized by the advocacy of approved causes or views, and often by the rejection of language, behaviour, etc., considered discriminatory or offensive…” (OED)

but it didn’t take long for the term to become so overextended. By the late eighties, to say somebody was ‘politically correct’ (usually with a sneer) was to accuse the speaker of parroting extreme liberal views without critical thought (whether or not that was true; the phrase was — and is — still used as a way to silence debate.)

For my part, I like to think that in most situations it’s just good common sense to avoid language that is exclusionary or biased — unless I’m hoping to evoke negative reactions. There’s a good chapter about these issues in a book by Deborah Cameron called Verbal Hygiene. Great book, terrible title.

So what does this have to do with writing fiction? A lot, unfortunately. First, in historical terms, it’s sometimes impossible to use the right historical lexical items because your readers — those of them who don’t know the language history, and even those who do — would find it so disturbing that they’d lose track of the story. You can have a nasty antagonist use any kind of slur and get away with it, but you can’t have a protagonist use any of the eighteenth century terms for natives of Africa without causing real problems for your reader. Nor can you simply use modern day terms, because they will stand out like proverbial sore thumbs. So what do you do?

It’s generally possible to structure dialog to evade the most problematic lexical items. Coward’s way out? Maybe. But to me this is one of those damned do/don’t things. Either you alienate your reader, or you commit anachronism. To use an example which is not quite so incendiary as most, consider the word girl.

In today’s world, a male executive who refers to his assistant as ‘his girl’ is (a) clueless (b) insensitive (c) sexist (d) deliberately provocative or (e) all of the above. “I’ll send my girl to get us coffee.” — Now there’s a sentence you’d put in the mouth of a character you don’t much like, or want your readers to like. But what if you’re talking about the year 1898? What would it mean then, in terms of how to read the character? For most readers, the answer to that question doesn’t matter, because they can’t get beyond their initial reaction.

The point (and I do have one) is that it’s hard to be historically and socially true to the language because your reader is stuck in her own time and place, and lacks the references she’d need to interpret. You’ll have to concentrate on other kinds of details to establish character, and keep a dictionary close to hand.

Another thing: Stephanie at Sillybean has pointed us to LanguageHat who points to this online database of magazines (Annual Register (1758-78), Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (1843-63), Gentleman’s Magazine (1731-50), Notes and Queries (1849-69), Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (1757-77), and The Builder (1843-52)) made available by Oxford. There is nothing so good as reading newspapers of the time you’re writing about to get a sense of the language.

used books and your favorite authors

There’s another round of letters about the Jane Austen Doe article mentioned here a few days ago. The thing about an on-line magazine like Salon is that there’s no space limitation, so they can bung two or three dozen letters up rather than picking and choosing the best. Thus you’ll find a lot of repetition, and a great deal of self promotion, most particularly a few of the lit-criterati waving their hands wildly in the air like the over-achievers in English class, wanting to be called on. I plowed through a lot of the letters and found only a few that made any new contribution to the discussion, most particularly this paragraph from a letter written by Kay Murray [edited to add: I think this must be the Kay Murray who is General Counsel and Assistant Director of the Authors Guild Foundation.]

Readers who want to support midlist authors should buy new, not used, copies and donate their used copies to people who can’t afford books instead of selling them online. Alibris, the used and rare bookseller that is going public this year, has revealed that it earns some $30 million in commissions alone on used and rare book sales. Imagine how much Amazon, which markets used copies aggressively, cuts into publishers’ sales.

This is a topic that few take on because it’s pretty contentious, but it is relevant. Used books are a sore point for any published author. We all have stories about this. My favorite happened to an acquaintance who was invited to speak to a bookclub here in town about her latest novel. This is something I’m happy to do locally, too — as are many authors — you spend an evening talking to friends of friends and answering questions about the book, your writing habits, your inspiriation. At any rate, she goes along one evening to a bookclub of about twenty people, and is told, right up front, that some of them had read the book as much as a year ago because (I’m still astounded even as I write this) — they had bought one copy and were passing it around. The novel cost $24, which means they each put in a whopping $1.20, and then on top of that, they ask the author to come by for nothing and entertain them. She was furious, and I was furious for her, when I heard the story. It’s rude, and insulting, and shows such a tremendous lack of respect that it’s going to be hard for me not to ask, the next time I’m invited to such a bookclub, what their buying habits are.

It’s a different matter completely when you’re talking about readers who can’t afford a book, but then that’s what the public library system is for. I am not upset when somebody tells me they got my novel out of their local library before deciding whether or not to buy it; that makes sense, certainly. On the other hand, if somebody tells me with great glee that they got all of my softcover books off of ebay for a total of twelve bucks plus shipping, I start to run numbers through my head. How much of a profit is the used bookseller making on my novels? Is s/he actually pocketing more from the re-sale of those three books than I did when they were first sold? Sometimes the answer is yes. And this is, to put it simply, frustrating. No wonder it’s hard to make a living at writing.

What to do about it? Nothing. We live in a free market, and some things can’t be legislated, but sometimes I wish people would think a little about what it means when they buy used books. Most especially I think about a used bookseller I once saw interviewed on television who said, very proudly, that his goal was to resell every book so many times that he put publishers out of business. Is this the height of stupidity, or greed, or some wondrous combination of the two?

I try to follow a few simple rules that make me comfortable in my own purchases. (1) I never buy an ARC before a book is published; (2) I never buy a used book unless that book is out of print; (3) I try to buy all my books from independent booksellers;* (4) I buy hardcover copies of books by authors who I admire and who are struggling to make a name for themselves — I think of this as a professional courtesy; (5) I donate books that are still in print and I can’t use any more to schools and non-profits who don’t resell them. I do use Alibris and Abebooks quite a lot, but only for stuff so old and musty it’s not available anywhere else. That’s what the online used booksellers excel at, and that’s what I use them for: finding esoteric books on particular research topics, old newspapers, and oddities.

There was one other letter to Salon’s editors that really got my attention, and not in a good way. It made me so spitting mad that I had to go walk the dogs to cool down. More about that, maybe, another time.

*updated August 31, 2007 to say that my stance on this has changed. See this post.