Monday, August 11, 2014

Modern Masterpieces

Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century

by Annette Ferran

The Sheltering Sky

Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky  (#97 on the Modern Library’s list) is his most famous work.  He is known for his own travels as well as his travel writing, and this is, on its surface, a story of adventurous traveling.  A couple, Port and Kit, take themselves to North Africa, unmooring themselves from their familiar world.  They encounter a culture quite in contrast to their own in all moral and aesthetic values.  They throw themselves into danger from which they cannot, and do not, extract themselves. 
Bowles is a masterful writer.  He does not provide a context for this story, as in “this is how we do things, and this is how they do things.”  Instead, this is an instant immersion, like going to live with a foreign family and having to learn everything about the family—their habits, their version of normal, their history, their private unexplained expectations—and learn language comprehension at the same time.  It is like throwing yourself into a dark deep sea in order to learn how to swim.  You may learn to comprehend, you may learn to swim.  You could instead lose your self and lose your life. In the meantime you see things you never imagined seeing.
This story is a travel story; it is also an existential treatise.  It’s a commentary on culture clash, imperialism, human violence, xenophobia, Western arrogance.  It depicts a culture rebelliously impervious to the expectations of “us.”  It covers love and marriage, the vulnerability of femaleness, ego-insecurity. It is nihilistic, it is beautiful: the world is beautiful but we humans are tiny, we are brutalized.
            The book was written in the aftermath of the Second World War, a time when the world had seemingly lost its foundation and any notion of moralism had cracked apart, shattered into pieces impossible to put back together again.  War has done this over and over, especially war based on one defined people against another defined people, when the definitions must become simplified and the nuances of humanity, the commonalities, must be ignored and negated so that the struggle can achieve its own life and grow epic. For the war to exist, the players must decide to turn away from learning about one another.  The Sheltering Sky is not about World War II. It is about what it is about: two people who for their own reasons accept within themselves the fate they’ve set in motion and make themselves victims of a situation they could easily have avoided by staying home.              
The writer’s great poetic sense and deep intellect are evident in every sentence, making this a novel to be read again and again, if you can stand it.  It has pungency. It is dark and exultant.  It is a multilayered sensory experience with countless indelible images.  The woman of the couple is taken essentially as a slave and (being female) used sexually in most horrendous ways. The men who take her have mythic habitus, huge and black-clad in flowing robes against a relentlessly barren-looking landscape that hides teeming life.  We understand that this couple has agreed, as most travelers do not, to leave behind their set of norms and instead to experience—in the most profound understanding of “experience”—what this new environment will subject them to. They do not turn away.  As part of their agreement, however, they also do not judge, when judgment might be valuable.
It does not end well.  There is no redemption in this story.  Unless, as redemption, you count the prose itself.  A sublime satisfaction is gained at the same time that an unbearable unsettled feeling is delivered. 
            There are many ways to read this novel—as story, as allegory, as philosophy—which is what makes it a great novel, of which there are many but also too few.

Annette Ferran lives in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and works in Philadelphia as an editor for a medical publisher.  She is also the Associate Editor for 10,000 Tons of Black Ink, a Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL. 

Monday, July 28, 2014

Reflections from the Well
On Writing Craft, Creativity & Inspiration

By Alexander Slagg

Time Travel, of a Different Sort

I did some time traveling recently. Like any good sci-fi movie, my life had reached a crisis point and only going back in time would provide the change I needed to resolve this problem and move forward to live happily ever after. My conduit for this journey into the past was the summer intern at my day job, Myles. Once upon a time, I was Myles, a shaggy-haired college student with a constantly receding horizon that was my future, open and without limit. I am no longer Myles, I am me: an aging creative guy now with children and adult responsibilities, feeling the dueling pressures of grownup responsibility and creative ambition.

Myles was introduced to the plot line of my life at work one morning when my manager brought him by my cubicle and introduced him. He dressed casually but appropriately for office life, wearing tan khakis and a Greg Norman polo shirt. It wasn’t readily apparent that he would serve as a catalyst for change. On our first meeting, he came across as slightly privileged and the product of an insular suburban life — but a fitting reflection of my own upbringing and younger self. The internship was simple: throughout the summer, I was to teach Myles the finer points of writing and editing marketing materials.

We began this process in earnest, emailing our communications back and forth, though we were separated by only a cubicle wall — an early lesson in the ways of corporate life. I assigned him some writing to edit and made plans to meet up to review his edits and to walk him through my own editing process.

Around this time, I was creatively cramped on a number of fronts, having great difficulty getting started on my next creative project. I had hit a writing roadblock. The bricks of this particular wall stemmed from recent life turmoil: getting divorced and now raising two young children myself. This new development in my life had knocked me off kilter, causing me to contemplate my priorities.

While married, I managed to fool myself into thinking that I was no longer a self-absorbed “artist” living for myself and my creative mission. I was a partner, and soon enough a father. I now had these other more important roles to play. But this was not entirely true. I continued to write and do other creative projects. There wasn’t much “choice” in it. This was what I did — art. Now I had to find ways to squeeze it in with my growing responsibilities.

Not until my marriage imploded and I suddenly found myself responsible for the lives of a four- and six-year-old did I start the real process of figuring out how I was going to juggle all these wants and needs crowding my life. And in that process, I suddenly came across this new wall now blocking access to my creative flow. Questions were bubbling up from some subterranean aquifer inside me. These questions essentially boiled down to: Why was I wasting precious time and energy on creative projects when I should be devoting myself to supporting my children and their inexhaustible needs? The parental urge to self-sacrifice can be strong, and I was feeling it keenly.

I grappled with this question for weeks, maybe months. It was on my mind when I woke in the morning, while driving to work, doing the dishes, laying down for bed at night. It was pervasive. I was thinking about it on my drive over to the coffee shop to meet up with Myles and go over his editing. I was sitting at a wood table not far from the entrance, setting up my laptop. A flash of sunlight played off the door’s glass surface as Myles entered, momentarily blinding me as he sat down.

We chatted for a bit and drank our coffee, going over the editing assignment before moving on to conversation about music and writing. Myles was relating to me the genius of George RR Martin, but my mind was a million miles away, wondering why I was even having this conversation about writing — a topic that felt like a far-off luxury that I could no longer afford. Tuning back into the present, I decided to pose to Myles the question that had been eating away at me.

“Why do you write?”

The reality of the coffee shop seemed to telescope around us as the words passed through my lips. The expression on Myles’ goatee-framed face was one of quizzical contemplation. It was in this moment that the time travel occurred. I was no longer sitting in the older, experienced editor’s seat. I had warped back into the seat of the young writer unmolested by the grind of life experience. The answer that came from Myles’ mouth were words that once could have come from my own.

“I’ve never really thought about it before. I want to be a published author because I think it would be cool. I write because it's cool.”

The truth of his words struck me. I was inside Myles when he uttered these words. I felt the nonchalant innocence of them. And that carefree feeling stayed with me as I was pulled back into the future and to the present. There were no outward signs that anything mindblowing had just occurred as we packed up our computers and headed our separate ways into the stifling summer heat. But I felt like a different person as I motored down the highway and back to my flat in the city. I felt renewed.

Myles’ simple words had given me a key to open all of the locks and undo the chains of adult responsibility that had so tightly bound me. He had reminded me that creativity does not operate through a set of logical rules, so I should not make logical demands of it. I did not need a reason to write. Sitting down to write is its own reward. Giving yourself time to do something simply because you enjoy doing it, because it’s cool, is a necessity.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Modern Masterpieces

Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century

by Annette Ferran


What constitutes “the best” in novels?  This is a question that came up again and again for me as I read through the Modern Library’s list.  I accepted at the outset, having scanned the list before beginning to read, that the old familiar bias permeated it—what has been popularly referred to as the “dead white men” bias.  Even with this level of acceptance, #42 on the list, Deliverance, by James Dickey, was shocking to me.  And not in a good way.
            Deliverance is probably best known through its film adaptation with Ned Beatty and Burt Reynolds representing the opposite ends of the manliness spectrum. It is the story of a group of men seeking to reconnect with or rekindle their masculinity.  The narrator/protagonist is the “sensitive” one, not especially weak but not especially virile either, eager to test himself but not the one with the quasi-suicidal compulsions. It is a man’s tale of a typical kind, in which the civilized man regains his self-identity by confronting the challenge of violence presented by nature and by uncivilized men.
            This novel also belongs to what I’ve come to recognize as a subgenre of misogyny:  an artistic backlash against the growing feminism of the time, and most particularly against female sexuality (see Straw Dogs for a another stunning example).
            An iconic scene is that in which the least manly of the men is raped like a pig by the subhuman men.  As is revealed in the last scene of the book, however—a scene mercifully or perhaps wisely left out of the movie—his position wasn’t so much pig-like as woman-like. In this last scene our sensitive protagonist returns home to his wife after this harrowing, chest-hair-growing adventure and proceeds to screw her (vulgarity intended), as is his right and duty, in a way that mimics his fellow traveler’s ordeal.  The author is not content just to depict this parallel; the character himself remarks on it and defines it.  In this scene the author commits not only an attitudinal sin but also a stylistic one.  He might have left this parallel to us readers to discern for ourselves.  The impression would have been just as distasteful, but literarily it would not have been the club to the head that it is.
            This novel is obscene—not merely pornographic, like Tropic of Cancer, but objectionable in its sex-based themes.  Depicting the notion that men struggle with their manliness is not enough, it seems. This novel has to do so at the express expense of women.  Moreover, the sensitive man becomes fully male again only by embracing extreme violence.
            Deliverance was published in 1970.  As it happens, so was a novel powerfully influential in my reading life, The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison.  How this consciousness-shifting work was passed over while so many of the white men, dead and alive, made the list is baffling.
            The story told in The Bluest Eye is harrowing also, but this author’s understanding of humanity is deep and compassionate (while also furious). Morrison’s novel is not shock-worthy but rather, in its wisdom and eloquence, quite necessary.
            I intentionally gave away the key scenes of Deliverance.  I don’t want anyone else to bother reading this book.  With your free time, go read The Bluest Eye.

Annette Ferran lives in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and works in Philadelphia as an editor for a medical publisher.  She is also the Associate Editor for 10,000Tons of Black Inka Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL. 

Monday, June 9, 2014

Modern Masterpieces

Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century

by Annette Ferran

Pleasant Surprises

Number 94 on the Modern Library’s list is a novel I’d never heard of, by an author I’d never heard of: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. It has a melodious title but a suspicious premise, purporting to be a prequel (as we might call it now) to the massively famous and iconic gothic novel known the world over and impressing generation after generation, Jane Eyre. The claim made by Wide Sargasso Sea was that it would tell the story of the mysterious third character of Jane Eyre, who is present but hardly human in that story, Rochester’s crazy wife in the attic.
What a pleasant surprise, then, to find that this novel delivers on its promise in a most enjoyable way.  This novel is not up to the caliber of Jane Eyre, to be sure, though it is passionate and impressive.  For one thing, it is a slender volume and written in the more straightforward, if not to say sparse, style of its own era instead of the florid prose of Brontë.  It recreates a time long before that of its writing, before even the time of Jane Eyre’s writing, and carries an undertone of historical fiction, which instills an artificiality or at least a distance between the reader and the story.  (Other old novels we continue to read may carry us back to long-ago times but do so with a feeling of immediacy.  They are not “historical” novels but rather contemporary novels read 100 or more years after their writing.  Read anything by Jane Austin, for example.)  These are characteristics of the novel, not necessarily detriments, as it stands nicely on its own. 
Rochester’s wife, known then as Antoinette Cosway,  grew up on a colonialized island as a spirited and attractive young woman with some mother troubles.  As depicted by Jean Rhys, she is a fully fleshed out character with a personality, a history, a day-to-day life, and most importantly a psychological make-up.  How she got to the state of madness, how she became, instead of her own person, merely a tool, an impediment to someone else’s happiness, how she was given a new and comparatively ugly name, how she was transported from the idyllic setting of her upbringing to the harsh environment of her married life (and beyond) are all played out in this imaginative story. 
It is not necessary to know Jane Eyre to be able to enjoy Wide Sargasso Sea. Having read Wide Sargasso Sea, however, it is interesting to reread Jane Eyre (though really, any excuse will do) and intertwine the new dimensions of this character into that story.  Bertha’s story becomes that much more frightening:  here is a woman who lost her humanity and becomes imprisoned through other people’s agency, people who were supposed to protect her.  She has gone mad because she lost control over her life and lost contact with everything she loves.  Rhys succeeded in enriching a story that didn’t seem to need enriching.  She also created a story that doesn’t need to be read as a derivative work.  It is real unto itself. 
Why, then, is this novel so little known?  It made enough of an impression to be included as one of the 100 best novels of the 20th century by a panel of experts in literature but not enough to have made it into the collective consciousness of avid readers, or, for that matter, high school or college English classes.  It is worth noting also that Jean Rhys is one of the mere handful of female writers who made the list, chosen from presumably the scores who wrote and published in the hundred years that passed between 1900 and 2000.
Without this list, I would not have known of the existence of this novel.  Without my self-imposed challenge, I probably would have skipped it just based on its premise.  Luckily, neither of those negatives came to pass.    

Annette Ferran lives in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and works in Philadelphia as an editor for a medical publisher.  She is also the Associate Editor for 10,000 Tons of Black Inka Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL. 

Monday, May 26, 2014

Reflections from the Well
On Writing Craft, Creativity & Inspiration

By Alexander Slagg

Breaking the Rules on Dialogue

Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”
— from Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing

Elmore Leonard is a writing hero of mine. I remember coming across these rules somewhere, before I had read any of his books. These Moses-like commandments flew in the face of my approach to writing at the time. I was young and Beat-inspired, wanting to throw in every kitchen-sink, Michael Chabon-esque word I could think of. I was trying to communicate the experiences I was writing about in as much depth and breadth as I could. I was showing off.

And then I read this old fuddy-duddy’s “rules” — hey man don’t try to shackle my creative freedom — and I paused. This guy wasn’t trying to communicate the totality of human experience, he was talking about telling a successful story. Hmmm. I went out and read several of his books and I was quickly hooked.

Elmore Leonard tells a pretty good story. By that I mean: the plot operates efficiently, the writing itself is slim and toned, the characters are sketched and leave room for the imagination to fill in the details, the dialogue glides like a figure skater. All good writing qualities. And all qualities that I aspire to in my writing.

But...these two particular Leonard writing rules have always rubbed me the wrong way. And I think they bother me because in real life no one just “says” something. Reality is much more complex and detailed than that. People speak with pauses and emphases,  intonations and inflections. If you happen to speak Chinese, for example, you know that the inflection of how a word is spoken can give it vastly different meaning, asking for “beauty” instead of “tea.” If I’m going to try to get across a semblance of how people actually talk, I need to be able to describe it.

Conventional creative writing will instruct you to not to get in the way of dialogue with descriptions. Let it flow. Let the characters’ actions and descriptions “communicate” how the reader should interpret the dialogue. I think that’s garbage.

Part of the problem is that writing is at its essence a poor communication medium for describing the finer details of reality. Words are actually very poor signifiers of information. They’re too limiting in their ability to convey the vast universe of possible action/experience/behavior. And they aren’t very good at handling subtle nuances, such as how people talk. When we do try to get more specific, it's usually clunky. With English, one of the lazy ways we’ve come up with as an approach to describing action is to take an adjective such as “rapid” and clamp an “ly” onto the back of it. “Rapidly.” Here's an example to consider:

“Stop. Don’t open that door. Seriously. You will regret it,” Felix enunciated rapidly.

No, Mr. Leonard, “enunciated rapidly” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. It’s awkward; it slows the reading down. I get that. But as a reader, I certainly appreciate knowing specifically how Felix spoke. I can clearly imagine "enunciated rapidly" much better than if Felix merely "said" something. It makes for a richer reading experience. 

In some instances, not having an descriptor of how the character is speaking can even be confusing. Consider this dialogue from Leonard’s Maximum Bob. Two characters, Elvin and Dr. Tommy, are feeling each other out, determining if they can do some shady business together. Dr. Tommy’s talking about a rifle here, using it to kill someone.

Elvin said, “What’s wrong with you?” The guy acting strange, his eyes getting a funny look, while his voice was fairly calm.
“Or would you like to use it? Dr. Tommy said. “You have the experience, uh? You’re looking for a score...I’m serious now. You listening?”
“Yeah. I’m listening.”
“I’ll pay you to kill a man. What do you say?”
What Elvin said was, “How much?”

This dialogue comes from a crucial early scene in the story. Elvin’s acceptance of this “job” sets the whole conflict of the novel into motion. As a reader, I’m riveted as I read this. am I to read “Yeah. I’m listening.” in this exchange? Is it said with doubt, conviction, feigned disregard, bluster, salivating interest? Who knows.

It might be nice to know, to be able to understand  where the character Elvin is coming from in his response. And sure, reading the surrounding text of the story can probably sketch for the reader how Elvin is saying these words. But why does this responsibility get pushed back onto the reader? The writer’s driving the story here, can’t he provide us with what we know to interpret this crucial scene?

Dialogue is crucial to a story. Because of its importance, it needs to be handled thoughtfully. Give some real thought to how those words are coming out of his or her mouth. More often than not, Mr. Leonard’s advice will suffice; just use “said.” But the rules are meant to be broken. On occasion, some detailed description of how the words are spoken can be crucial to keeping the reader engaged.