Tuesday, May 29, 2012

King of Daydreams

On Writing: A Memoir of the CraftOn Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Apparently, the entire Stephen King industry was spawned by a daydream about naked teenage girls in the shower, pelting another girl with tampons. And there's a great lesson in that: a creative writer can't censor himself--more than that, he has to pay close attention to his own imaginings and memories without shame, has to go beyond that and take those imaginings and memories seriously as the possible basis for an entire novel. Stephen King's slightly perverse little daydream turned out to be worth several hundred million dollars. Daydreams about naked girls: there's gold in them thar hills. But writers of every stripe, not only commercially oriented ones, should check this book out.

"I'm convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing," says Stephen King. True dat. A practical, unpretentious, useful guide to writing and a well-written, entertaining, sometimes moving memoir of the writing life all-in-one. It includes one of the best accounts around of a writer's imaginative process, illustrated with a fantastic case study of how King came up with the idea for his first novel, Carrie. (It involves aforementioned naked girls and tampons.)

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Thursday, May 17, 2012

Epiphany in Dubliners

Dubliners: Text and Criticism (Viking Critical Library)Dubliners: Text and Criticism by James Joyce

Dubliners was James Joyce's first book, and it's his most accessible, and possibly his most influential. The critic A. Walton Litz called Dubliners “a turning point in the development of English fiction.” Marc Wollaeger, editor of the Oxford Casebook on A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, writes that “Dubliners … virtually invented the modern short story.”

I don't know if Joyce invented the modern short story, but I can see pretty much everywhere in contemporary fiction the influence of Dubliners, of its Shakespearean / Chekhovian trope of self-discovery affixed with a technique of beautiful naturalistic symbolism--the blend of ancient artistic modes which Joyce called "epiphany." Joyce's writing style in Dubliners has more in common with Hemingway than it does with Virginia Woolf or William Faulkner (and Hemingway's best short stories clearly reflect Joyce's influence), but the characters in Dubliners are generally somewhat warmer and more vulnerable than Hemingway characters and Joyce depicts men and women with equal grace.

Brewster Ghiselin said in 1956 that the stories are organized according to the seven Christian virtues and the seven deadly sins, with each of the first fourteen stories assigned to a virtue or sin and the fifteenth story, the masterpiece "The Dead," thrown in for a delicious baker's dozen of tales of inner torment. I think it's obvious that Joyce did use that structure, though he turns vice and virtue on its head in the manner of Henrik Ibsen as he attacks the damaging institutions of psychological paralysis and self-mortification.

"The Sisters," the first story in this collection and the one that formally introduces the topic of psychological paralysis, is my personal favorite, but the two most famous stories, "Araby" and "The Dead," deserve all the praise they get.

I like the Viking Critical Library edition, at least the one that was published in 1976; the essays in the back are unusually helpful.

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Thursday, May 3, 2012

Tolstoy, Brontë, Loss

Childhood; Boyhood; YouthChildhood; Boyhood; Youth by Leo Tolstoy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When Leo Tolstoy was two, his mother died; when he was eight, his father died; and he writes movingly of a child mourning the death of both mother and father in his first novel Childhood, Boyhood, Youth. It's one of the few novels that addresses the subject of childhood loss directly and realistically. The theme would echo throughout Tolstoy's later works. Marya Bolkonski in War and Peace borrows her name from Tolstoy's dead mother (which was identical except that her maiden name started with a V not a B). Some of the most magnificent and moving parts of War and Peace depict the death of loved ones. For example, Tolstoy describes Princess Marya like this at the moment she realizes her father is dying: “[S]he saw that hanging over her and about to crush her was some terrible misfortune, the worst in life, one she had not yet experienced, irreparable and incomprehensible—the death of one she loved.” (W&P, p. 346) Poet Carol Rumens suspects that Emily Brontë, like Michelangelo, used her longing for her dead mother as inspiration for her depiction of the divine: "By giving such importance to the terms 'creates and rears,' " Rumens writes of the Brontë's poem 'No Coward Soul Is Mine,' "the poet suggests her deity is maternal as well as fatherly, enfolding, perhaps, the qualities of the mother she had lost in early childhood.... So closely acquainted with death and loss, Emily Brontё can be almost terrifyingly on the side of life." Much the same could be said of Tolstoy.

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