Thursday, August 23, 2012

Rewriting: A Few Thoughts

The Autobiography of Mark Twain
A copy of Mark Twain’s autobiography fell into my lap this summer. I’ve read it off and on since, hitting page 300 just today. In chapter 53 (this is the Charles Neider-edited version of 1959), Twain discusses works in progress and works abandoned. He also talks there about rewriting.

This past summer, I too (humble me) rewrote a novel that I originally wrote some fifteen years ago. This is unusual for me. Everything else that I wrote in that period has long since gone the way of all old computer files and notebooks. But this story I have rewritten now three or four times. I keep trying to get it write. (Freudian slip? Let it stand.)

My new tack, this time, was the mantra, “I’m starting to get bored here.” Wherever the plot dragged along, slogged down, got needlessly embroiled, I cut to the good thing (the interesting thing) that should happen next (I knew this, because I had written the story before, you see). I leaped over earlier drafts’ complications and hindrances – and never looked back.

One thing that helped – trust me, one needs “help” with such a thing – was the realization that I could just save a new version of the file whenever I hit that point. Another was that I didn’t try to edit the existing work, but to rewrite from a blank sheet, with the old draft on the desk at my elbow. I sometimes typed as much as a page or two without changing a lot. I called this rewrite “New Try,” and I got up to #7 by the end.

Back to Twain: “In Rouen in ’93 I destroyed $15,000 worth of manuscript, and in Paris in the beginning of ’94 I destroyed $10,000 worth—I mean, estimated as magazine stuff. I was afraid to keep those piles of manuscript on hand lest I be tempted to sell them …”

And here’s another: “In the story of Joan of Arc I made six wrong starts and each time that I offered the result to Mrs. Clemens she responded with the same deadly criticism—silence…. When at last I found the right form I recognized at once that it was the right one and I knew what she would say.”

He says a little later: “To start right is certainly an essential…. Twenty-five or thirty years ago I began a story… Four times I started it in the wrong way and it wouldn’t go. Three times I discovered my mistake after writing about a hundred pages. I discovered it the fourth time when I had written four hundred pages—then I gave it up and put the whole thing in the fire.”

Compared to Twain, I know, I have been weak. And that’s not good. But his courage inspires me. And, as he says, that's what heroes are for: "Our heroes are the men who do things which we recognize with regret and sometimes with a secret shame that we cannot do. We find not much in ourselves to admire, we are always privately wanting to be like somebody else."

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Great Art of Fantasy

How to Read a BookMortimer Adler, in his classic "How to Read a Book," suggested five questions to help readers evaluate the artistic quality of a novel (and I quote):

1.     To what degree does the work have unity?
2.     How great is the complexity of parts and elements which that unity embraces and organizes?
3.     Is it a likely story, that is, does it have the inherent plausibility of poetic truth?
4.     Does it elevate you from the ordinary semiconsciousness of daily life to the clarity of intense wakefulness, by stirring your emotions and filling your imagination?
5.     Does it create a new world into which you are drawn and wherein you seem to live with the illusion that you are seeing life steadily and whole?

He writes, “I will not defend these questions beyond saying that the more they can be answered affirmatively, the more likely it is that the book in question is a great work of art. I think they will help you to discriminate between good and bad fiction, as well as to become more articulate in explaining your likes and dislikes.”

Adler says nothing about fantasy fiction (why would he, writing in 1940?). But his questions four and five would suggest, as J.R.R. Tolkien claimed, that fantasy done well can be one of the highest forms of literary art, bar none. (Of course, where it fails, it can also be among the worst.) In fact, Adler’s questions might even suggest that “literary” fiction succeeds only insofar as it approximates what Tolkien called “subcreation”—a thing at which the best of fantasy excels.

After all, what kind of imaginative writing better “elevates you from the ordinary semiconsciousness of daily life,” especially “to the clarity of intense wakefulness,” than the kind that takes you out of our own world to another realm? For it to achieve this elevation, though, the writer's craft has to have that same intense wakefulness about it. It can't be a sleepy hodge-podge of worn tropes, but must select its detail with precision. The best fantasy does this as well as any kind of writing.

For that matter, what kind of fiction creates “a new world into which you are drawn and wherein you seem to live” more completely than the kind that requires “subcreation” of a world in the author’s imagination?

In fact, done well, fantasy can also excel at what Adler calls the “inherent plausibility of poetic truth.” Not factual truth, of course—which isn’t the point of fiction, after all—but the truth that is deeper than factuality, that touches the soul.

Needless to say, “literary” fiction (perhaps better termed “realism” fiction, in this conversation) can attain to high art. Honed language and clarity of thought and expression can bring us into an alternate version of our own world, in which none of the fanciful elements (like magic, or strange geography, or otherworldly creatures) plays a part. This alternate world is so like ours that the reader has no need to learn special rules, except those of the writer's peculiar point of view. But it is, as the life of an imaginary person living in an imaginary society (albeit one very like ours), an instance of "subcreation." It simply doesn't go as far in the process of subcreation as fantasy does. Or maybe we should say that it cloaks its subcreation more intentionally than does fantasy.

Meanwhile, fantasy, rather than cloaking its imaginative work, tends to cloak the similarities that exist between its imagined world and our own.

Both, then--the "realism" fiction and the "fantasy" sort--have the power to bring us out of semi-consciousness to a wakeful state, a new recognition of the world in which we live.

And so, a work in either genre can be termed "a great work of art." At least in Adler's way of defining it.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Readers Wanted: Mortimer Adler on Talking Back to Books

On the order of “books I should have read a long time ago,” I’ve just completed the classic How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler, published in 1940 by Simon and Schuster. (My 1967 paperback originally cost $1.75; but that’s another topic.)

In case you haven’t been introduced: this is a practical how-to guide to reading well. Its subtitle, “The art of getting a liberal education,” will give some sense of its scope. It mostly deals with reading non-fiction, “expository” books, and its focus is on “great books.”

The book is full of rules. All sorts of rules. These rules have to do with accomplishing deep reading of well-written books. And one set, in particular, has to do with how to talk back to a book. That’s where I want to focus in this post.

Adler’s first claim is that you have to really understand a book before you can critique it. (He earlier teaches you how to make sure you understand it.) He asks readers to be honest, not arguing for the sake of arguing or self-aggrandizement. For fiction, he advises that we abstain from critique until we “fully appreciate what the author has tried to make [us] experience.”

Ah, if only.

Behind this recommendation is Adler’s concept that what imaginative literature does, more than anything, is communicate an experience that is ultimately beyond words. Great works of fiction do this by drawing the reader into the imaginative world that the writer creates--or perhaps creating it within the imagination of the reader. Within this world is an “experience” that the author has had, and this is conveyed to the reader through the episodes and characters of the novel. He writes, "[The author] has used words to get into our hearts and fancies and move them to an experience that reflects his own as one dream might resemble another."

For Adler, you haven’t read a novel (or play, or poem) until you’ve made “an honest effort” to have this experience that the author tried to produce for you. And this in turn requires an “active” reading approach, not a passive one where you simply let your eye pass over the page.

Naturally, Adler doesn’t recommend that every book be given this kind of reading. Frankly, some novels don’t demand that much work—and that’s all right; they aren't meant to. But he does suggest—and with good reason—that if you’re going to critique a book, you’ve done this part: your part.

Seems only fair to me. I’ll try to hear what this book really has to say before I talk back to it.

Like this? Come see my new blog, Fairy Spell.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Wizard of Oz: American Faerie

For a long time, I’ve wondered if (and how) the creatures of faerie that resided in Europe could have made their way to American soil, where I live. Or is our soil already occupied by native sprites, whose voices and stories people like me (of European extraction) can’t easily catch on the wind?

Frank Baum made an effort to catch the wind of an American fairyland, to weave fresh American fairy tales, most famously The Wizard of Oz. This is, on its surface, a pretty simple book (as it should be): simple in language and straightforward in its telling. That’s not to say there aren’t unexpected and delightful turns. But the plot is easily followed. The characters have humorous incongruities, but not what I would consider great complexity. Like most (or perhaps all) European fairy tales, the narrator is “omniscient,” moving seamlessly into the perspective of any character most central to the current action. Like European fairy tales, this one has wild woods, witches, magic shoes, a magic hat, instructions that must be obeyed. Like European tales, it has just the right number of helpers and wishes to come out without any extras at the end.

But it also has distinctly American qualities. (The Library of Congress calls it “The first totally American fantasy for children.”) For instance, the places where magic happens are almost always wide open, not close and clustered forests. This setting is more typical of the American heartland. More importantly, maybe, it has newly-minted characters. The iconic Scarecrow, the ever-so-modern Tin Woodman, and that girl Dorothy in her pigtails, carrying her basket out of the house for a long walk. Oz, of course, the elfland version of that iconic American, the traveling charlatan and sideshow performer—with a good heart. Not surprisingly, he’s from our world (Omaha). And then the various peoples, like Munchkins and Winkies, who remind me a little of elves and dwarfs but aren’t. This feels like American innovation. Even the names of things have a fresh, non-traditional sound.

I wish I knew why this tale was and is so appealing. Maybe it’s Dorothy’s innocence—her goodness that prevails over all obstacles. Maybe it’s the freshness of Oz-land. Maybe Baum captured something, an American flavor of European folklore. Or maybe he was just a gifted storyteller, weaving surprises that his readers delight in.

Maybe one of you can solve the riddle for me.

At the end of the day, I’m not ready to pack up and find my way to Baum’s faerie. But plenty of Americans have been (witness this site, and this list of books, with full text!), and that’s quite a legacy.


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