Readers’ Corner: The Scary Printed Word

From the Duke Chronicle, regarding the school’s decision to have students read Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home:

Several incoming freshmen decided not to read “Fun Home” because its sexual images and themes conflicted with their personal and religious beliefs. Freshman Brian Grasso posted in the Class of 2019 Facebook page July 26 that he would not read the book “because of the graphic visual depictions of sexuality,” igniting conversation among students. The graphic novel, written by Alison Bechdel, chronicles her relationship with her father and her issues with sexual identity.

“I feel as if I would have to compromise my personal Christian moral beliefs to read it,” Grasso wrote in the post.

funhome1And from a report by the American Association of University Professors on “trigger warnings” and letting students opt out of materials they find offensive or troubling:

The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual. It makes comfort a higher priority than intellectual engagement and … it singles out politically controversial topics like sex, race, class, capitalism, and colonialism for attention. Indeed, if such topics are associated with triggers, correctly or not, they are likely to be marginalized if not avoided altogether by faculty who fear complaints for offending or discomforting some of their students.

Granted, some of us who are great fans of Bechdel’s work will object to these objections on strictly aesthetic grounds. But it could also be seen as a troubling trend toward absolving students of dealing with any subject matter which they would prefer to ignore. True reading, true intellectual discovery comes frequently from the new, the unusual, and even the disturbing. Coziness should never be confused with education.

Writer’s Desk: Inspiration Close at Home

Sometimes it comes easily. The words flow and the paragraphs and plot lock together with smooth and powerful precision like girders in a swiftly-built tower.

'A Woman Reading' by Camille Corot (c.1869)

‘A Woman Reading’ by Camille Corot (c.1869)

Other times (most times), it’s a struggle to get even a good page done after a full day spent at the writing desk. That’s where inspiration comes in.

But where do you find it when it goes hiding? Usually, you can’t wait, you have to just keep plowing ahead.

In a long, sprawling piece for the New York Review of Books called “Inspiration and Obsession,” Joyce Carol Oates describes how what can seem casual and inspired is really the result of hard labor:

[Emily] Dickinson’s poems, and her letters as well, which seem so airy and fluent, give the impression of being dashed off; in fact, Dickinson composed very carefully, sometimes keeping her characteristically enigmatic lines and images for years before using them in a poem or in a letter.

Sometimes it can help to simply look to one’s own life. That of course can lead to too much of the bildungsroman we see in modern fiction (one of the reasons we see so many wealthy, educated characters and so few poor, unless it’s crime fiction). But sometimes it can open the spigot; Oates calls it being “a time traveler” in your own life. She quotes Virginia Woolf, who found great success this way:

I am now writing as fast & freely as I have written in the whole of my life; more so—20 times more so—than any novel yet. I think this is the proof that I was on the right path; & that what fruit hangs in my soul is to be reached there…. The truth is, one can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes: but look [elsewhere] & the soul slips in.

So there’s one road to inspiration, when all else fails. Look at your own life, but from an angle.

Writer’s Desk: Theroux on Travel Writing

TheOldPatagonianExpressFor the 2011 release of his bibs-and-bobs collection The Tao of Travel, Paul Theroux had an interview in the Atlantic where—after noting that “Blogs look to me illiterate, they look hasty, like someone babbling”—he dispensed some advice to those in the travel-writing game:

The main shortcut is to leave out boring things. People write about getting sick, they write about tummy trouble, they write about having to wait for a bus. They write about waiting. They write three pages about how long it took them to get a visa. I’m not interested in the boring parts. Everyone has tummy trouble. Everyone waits in line. I don’t want to hear about it.

It’s probably not advice that most travel writers want to heed. After all, once you’ve spent three months in Siberia racking up expenses, you sure as hell better have something that the magazine is going to want to print. If nothing happens, embellishment or poetic license might seem more enticing.

Theroux also suggests to travel light:

The minimum is a change of clothes, a book, a toothbrush, notebooks, an extra pen. I don’t bring extra shoes. Just the necessities. I travel with a small duffel bag that fits under a seat on the plane, as well as a briefcase. The briefcase is my office. I’m always happier when I don’t have a lot of stuff.

The fewer things you have, the less you’ll pay attention to them. A pen, some paper, and your eyes and ears are all you need.

Writer’s Desk: The Not-So-Solitary Art

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Anybody who knows anything about writing knows about that the gig requires a lot of alone-time. Unless you’re one of those people who can compose lucid prose on a crowded subway train, most writers need to have that space they can get away to in order to put their minds in the right space and put together something that won’t entirely embarrass them.

There is, though, always the problem of the outside world. It intrudes on some writers in the simple matter of making a living. The day job, whether writing-related or not, by definition puts the writer out in the world whether they like it or not. Most writers put up with this because, well, rent.

But these days, it seems like the actual practice of just plain writing, not working to be able to afford to write, has been getting awful social. Part of it is that tic of the modern age where every activity must be shared and turned into an online discussion group. But part of it is simply the business of writing. Attending workshops, participating in panel discussions, even getting up in front of people and teaching a class.

Meghan Tifft laments this turn of events:

History has typically not been generous to the writerly recluse. It’s usually only a lucrative position after the fact of your success—and it works best if you’re a man—Salinger, Pynchon, Faulkner all have that esoteric aura about them that’s quite different from poor old Emily Dickinson, that self-imposed shut-in, or Flannery O’Connor, whose excursive limitations were a sad matter of physical ailment. Even Donna Tartt has to go on 12-city tours. And then there’s me. I’m not Donna, or Emily, or Flannery. I’m not getting anywhere as a young, reclusive, female writer….

So, keep that in mind all you introverts and recluses as you write the Great American Novel. At some point, if you’re lucky, you’ll have to go out there and stand under glaring lights and read your prose to a dozen or so people half paying attention to you over the hiss of the nearby cafe’s espresso machine. It’s a reward, of sorts.

Writer’s Desk: Beerbohm on Writing’s Weakness

Max Beerbohm, self-caricature, c.1897.

Max Beerbohm, self-caricature, c.1897.

Caricaturist of some note and essayist beyond compare, Max Beerbohm (1872–1956) was one of those serenely talented Victorian aesthetes one not only doesn’t see anymore, one can barely imagine walking the planet. He understood that one of the great rules of writing is this: Never let them see you sweat. If you make it seem easy, that relaxes the reader.

Not that it wasn’t work. Beerbohm:

Writing, as a means of expression, has to compete with talking. The talker need not rely wholly on what he says. He has the help of his mobile face and hands, and of his voice, with its various inflexions and its variable pace, whereby he may insinuate fine shades of meaning . . . but the writer? For his every effect he must rely wholly on the words that he chooses, and on the order in which he ranges them, and on his choice among the few hard and fast symbols of punctuation. He must so use those slender means that they shall express all that he himself can express through his voice and face and hands or all that he would thus express if he were a good talker…

When talking, we have all the senses to work with. With writing, there is really just one. But great writing, even with such a narrow toolset to work with, can nevertheless excite every single one of the senses.

(h/t Gopnik)

Writer’s Desk: Getting Boys to Read

boyreading-LOC

It’s one of those not-so-secret secrets in education and the publishing world that when it comes to making books for kids, it is much much easier to do so for girls. Why? Compared to their feminine counterparts, boys just don’t read, and when they do, their reading comprehension lags. According to the Brookings Institute:

Reading scores for girls exceed those for boys on eight recent assessments of U.S. reading achievement.  The gender gap is larger for middle and high school students than for students in elementary school.

What to do? Since it’s education, there is advice aplenty. But perhaps the best idea proposed so far has come from Nick Hornby (High FidelityAbout a Boy):

I have boys, and boys are particularly resistant to reading books. I had some success recently with Sherman Alexie’s great young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian – I told my son it was highly inappropriate for him, and one of the most banned books in America. That got his attention, and he raced through it.

Now, take that advice out of its parental and educational context and think about how you would apply it to your writing. Channel your rebellious inner middle-school kid who doesn’t want to be told what book they can read.

Reader’s Corner: ‘Go Set a Watchman’

Go Set a Watchman-reviewSince there is apparently no classic work of literature or cinema that can’t be sequelized or reimagined, over a half-century after Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird won the Pulitzer Prize and the hearts of millions, now comes Go Set a Watchman, a sequel of sorts that almost nobody knew existed until very recently.

Go Set a Watchman is on sale now everywhere. My review is at PopMatters:

In Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, Jean Louise Finch, no longer going by her tomboy nickname “Scout,” takes the train from New York to her hometown of Maycomb. She’s twenty-six and except for an affinity for coffee, not much different from the effervescent tomboy we first met in To Kill a Mockingbird, a book that stands in even grander relief against this unfinished-feeling first draft now pressed into unnecessary service as a semi-sequel…

You can read the first chapter of Go Set a Watchman here.