Monday, July 14, 2014

Modern Masterpieces

Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century

by Annette Ferran


Deliverance

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. But...how 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.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Modern Masterpieces

Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century

by Annette Ferran

Lightweights and Other Disappointments

Among the many stellar works of literature on the Modern Library’s list of 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century lurk several mediocre examples.  Some come across as insubstantial—perfectly enjoyable reads but lacking depth. Some are over-rated: they may have made a splash at the time of their publication and are considered important in the history of literature, but their ripples are long since dissipated. They don’t stand on their own merits.  Some are merely forgettable.
            Ironweed (William Kennedy; #92) is fine as a novel.  Likewise, The Moviegoer (Walker Percy; #60) and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Murial Spark; #76). It’s just that, read in the context of the other novels on the list, they don’t measure up.  They lack the depth of insight, or stylistic verve, or brilliance in language.  They are each good stories, but they’re lightweight.
            In the case of Ironweed, the fault lies perhaps in their being written out of time. They are interesting backwards looks, but their significance for the time in which they were written, and for this current time, is weak.  They are entertainments, which certainly has value.  They have a kind of artificiality that makes them second-rate on this list.
            In another category are the three D.H. Lawrence novels that made the list (Sons and Lovers, #9; The Rainbow, #48; Women in Love, #49) as well as Tropic of Cancer (Henry Miller; #50) and Under the Volcano (Malcolm Lowry; #11).  Each of these carries a reputation for having broken boundaries.  D.H. Lawrence and Henry Miller were supposed to have been shocking in their depictions of sex and sexuality.  From this vantage point, those boundaries now long broken, they are boring. 
            Under the Volcano falls in a slightly different subcategory. It is one of those novels that defines a generation; it is held as a life-changing book for some people, some of them being close friends of mine.  Its impact doesn’t necessarily hit other generations, though.  What was breathtakingly illuminating as new fiction to a certain group of people at a certain age of their lives, in the atmosphere of a certain era of time coinciding with that tender age, might not come across to other readers in other times.  I found this novel long and chaotic, its character degenerated in a drug craze that, like the sex degeneration of the other novels, becomes tedious. The language, imagery, tone, and pace are compelling and keep the novel moving for a time.  Plot and character bring it down.
            Point Counterpoint (Aldous Huxley; #44) and Under the Net (Iris Murdoch; #95) are, each in its own way, forgettable.  Point Counterpoint purports to be philosophical but is also pedantic and fails to plant roots.  Under the Net flits by and leaves no mark.
            No doubt this is sacred ground I’m despoiling but I leave you with these thoughts: Life is short. The number of books available to read is vast and getting vaster by the day. And after you’re out of school, there is no such thing as “required reading.”


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, April 14, 2014

Modern Masterpieces

Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century

by Annette Ferran


The Day of the Locust

Number 73 on the Modern Library’s list, The Day of the Locust, by Nathanael West, is a crazy nightmare of a book.  It was so faithfully translated to film that if, like me, you saw the film first and only later discovered it came from a novel, you might find that reading the novel is like seeing the movie over again in your mind.  It is vibrant and vivid, and it is easy to see why it would be chosen to be rendered graphically.  The time of the novel (1939) and the time of the film-making (1975) have in common a tenor of upheaval and unrest.  The anxiety of living in such a time is the undercurrent of this novel.  How can anyone be sure of how to act when the rules are shifting all around them?

At the same time, the story is heady and exciting.  It is ostensibly a satiric expose of Hollywood; it has lasting power because of its theme of maintaining facades in order to achieve some notion of success.  Because the scene is Hollywood, this “success” involves a headlong rush of living: No quiet, soft falling in love here, no settling down and regular meals, regardless of what the characters might yearn for deep inside their other-American souls.  A jackpot is the goal.

This novel has a genre feel to it, like a crime novel, in which the plot with its shocks and twists is more prominent than character development, or philosophy.  Maybe this is because of its anti-formalist structure and style of its writing. It is not free-form or experimental like some other novels on the Modern Library’s list.  Unlike, say, Tropic of Cancer, which self-consciously explores topics forbidden to fine literature, this novel is honest in its sensationalism.  It comes through, therefore, more satisfyingly.  It is crazy, it is hallucinogenic, it’s a traffic accident you can’t turn away from.  It is non-intellectual and easy to read.  But it leaves its impression.

The thread of anxiety turns out to be a fuse, ending, as all well-lit fuses must, in an explosion.  The heady and exciting become crude and savage.  The guy who may be ordinary inside, and floundering in this strange world, loses his mooring and becomes unhuman.  The fast living and the falsities collide in, quite literally, a street riot.   The carnival atmosphere shifts naturally to horror.

This book leaves many open questions.  What is it trying to do? What kind of splash must it have made? Is this what tripping feels like? Why can’t I get images of Donald Sutherland out of my head?  It might not be to everyone’s taste.  If those tastes run to Henry James or E.M. Forster, for instance, this book may be too much.  Then again, sometimes too much is exactly the thing.


Annette Ferran lives in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and works in Philadelphia as an editor for a medical publisher.  She is also an editorial assistant 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.