Dreiser: America’s Pure Product

October 21, 2011 § Leave a comment

I was asked to do a guest post at Reader’s Almanac, the blog of Library of America. I was thrilled–thrilled!–to be asked. (How I love those onion-skin tomes!).

I wrote about Theodore Dreiser,  Sister Carrie, dumb Americans and young virgins. You can read it here.

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“Clear and cold and pure and very dead”

October 19, 2011 § Leave a comment

Laura Miller wrote about my previous post and the exchange that ensued in her latest column for Salon, “What Makes A Book Great?”    While reading her post and thinking about this issue, I was reminded of Sinclair Lewis’ famous acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in 1930.

Lewis did not accept politely, but he did accept brilliantly. As when he said that:

In America most of us – not readers alone but even writers – are still afraid of any literature which is not a glorification of everything American, a glorification of our faults as well as our virtues. To be not only a best seller in America but to be really beloved, a novelist must assert that all American men are tall, handsome, rich, honest, and powerful at golf; that all country towns are filled with neighbors who do nothing from day to day save go about being kind to one another; that although American girls may be wild, they change always into perfect wives and mothers; and that, geographically, America is composed solely of New York, which is inhabited entirely by millionaires; of the West, which keeps unchanged all the boisterous heroism of 1870; and of the South, where everyone lives on a plantation perpetually glossy with moonlight and scented with magnolias.

 

He continues to discuss the lack of literary institutions for Americans:

 

[H] is oppressed ever by something worse than poverty – by the feeling that what he creates does not matter, that he is expected by his readers to be only a decorator or a clown, or that he is good-naturedly accepted as a scoffer whose bark probably is worse than his bite and who probably is a good fellow at heart, who in any case certainly does not count in a land that produces eighty-story buildings, motors by the million, and wheat by the billions of bushels. And he has no institution, no group, to which he can turn for inspiration, whose criticism he can accept and whose praise will be precious to him.

 

Lewis discusses the American Academy of Arts & Letters, then the only such institution (no National Book Foundation then). But wait–he’s not done. He turns to the universities:

 

To a true-blue professor of literature in an American university, literature is not something that a plain human being, living today, painfully sits down to produce. No; it is something dead; it is something magically produced by superhuman beings who must, if they are to be regarded as artists at all, have died at least one hundred years before the diabolical invention of the typewriter. To any authentic don, there is something slightly repulsive in the thought that literature could be created by any ordinary human being, still to be seen walking the streets, wearing quite commonplace trousers and coat and looking not so unlike a chauffeur or a farmer. Our American professors like their literature clear and cold and pure and very dead.

 

And our critics?

 
With a wealth of creative talent in America, our criticism has most of it been a chill and insignificant activity pursued by jealous spinsters, ex-baseball-reporters, and acid professors. Our Erasmuses have been village schoolmistresses. How should there be any standards when there has been no one capable of setting them up?

 

So there you have it. A similar question, asked 81 years ago, with some of the same answers and complaints, but with a passion and lyricism and guts that gets the blood moving . Go, Sinclair.  Save that “jealous spinsters” line, there’s nothing not to love in this speech.

 

An award well-deserved and well-accepted.

 

Anchored Relationships, Quick and Delicious

October 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

Quick and Delicious is on the outskirts of Oberlin, Ohio, a burg of 8000 in a depressed county in a depressed state. You may have heard of the town, because there’s a famous college located here. When I lived in Oberlin, Quick and Delicious was my favorite place in town. I would go to the strip-mall diner between mealtimes, when it’s slow. I would park in the lot and walk to the entrance with the kind of steely eyed determination I usually reserve for walking into a classroom to give a lecture, or to a podium for a conference presentation. Work mode.

When I entered, the staff greeted me. I always hoped  it’d be Shondra.

“How you doing today, honey? Is it a busy morning for you?” she’dl ask, then head towards the coffee stand.

By the time I got to my booth in the corner, my cup and coffee and little bowl of plastic ribbed creamers were waiting for me.

Then I’d start my ritual. I push the paper placemat, that ubiquitous golden-brown faux Greek bordered type, across to the other side of the table, free the fork, knife and spoon from their napkin cocoon, take out my laptop, push a start-up button, hear it bling. Then I scramble through my bag, find my Marlboro Lights and lighter, light one, hear it sizzle.

And then I would write (so good for me, so hard to do) and smoke (so bad for me, so easy to do) in the only place in town that allows me to pit self-satisfaction and self-loathing together in a game that always seemed to end in a zero-sum tie (I make meaning=I make myself sick).

No where in town lets me do that now.

But the ritual involved more than me and my demons; it was about Quick and Delicious, too. And Quick and Delicious (never mind whether it lives up to its name) made me feel, as the title to that sociological study put it, “together alone.” It was my mid-morning version of a neighborhood watering hole, a more complex and rooted version of Starbuck’s, a 21st century strip-mall small town diner.

Shondra’s grandson and my son were in kindergarten together, so we’d talk about them, and the school system, and she told me when her mother was ill, and she was worried. When a customer has a birthday, they sing a special Quick and Delicious rendition, a schooled, church choir belting of the classic. I haven’t figured out all the kinship lines yet, but the relationships between the staff aren’t anchored or modern but good old-fashioned blood ties.

In small towns, there are a lot of anchored relationships, places where we can be together alone, places where I can received external verification of my continued presence in the world. I would chat with Dave Gibson at Gibson’s Grocery every morning when I picked up my New York Times. “What’s the good word?” he invariably asked as I scanned headlines. The woman at the dry cleaners wrote my name down on the ticket without asking me for it. The video store clerks accessed my account without asking for an account number. The barrista at the coffee shop said “large au lait to go?” when it was my turn in line..  People all over town confirm my existence in a beneath-notice daily ritual of hello how are yous.

Of course, all this cute small town anchoring can cut the other way. When I’m depressed, I don’t want to see familiar faces. When I’m alone on a Saturday night, I don’t want to go into the video store and announce it to everyone. When I have a date, I hold it out of town.

Every time I left Quick and Delicious, though, after paying the tiny bill and overtipping my server, a few hundred new words on my laptop and the scilla in my lungs coated and aching, whoever is at the register invariably wished me “a blessed day.”  The slightly coercive tone of this send-off rankled me at first. But I learn to just to say thanks, push the door open, and promise to try.

On editors and editing

October 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

After 5 years of freelance writing for dozens of different publications, I know the value of good editing. In fact, I often write pieces simply because I have worked with the editor before and know he or she will help me learn more about my writing. I have had laissez-faire editors and editors who mainly copy-edit, and that’s fine, but I have also worked with editors who made a good piece into a great one. When I find an editor who improves my writing and collaborates with me on a piece, someone with whom the back-and-forth is edifying, I try to write for them as often as possible, even if the pay at the publication is poor or the “exposure” thin. (a few years ago, I wrote about the value of editors here)

Everybody needs a good editor. In the case of book writing, an editor is often needed more before the manuscript is “done” than after it has been submitted. When I was writing A Skeptic’s Guide To Writers’ Houses, I got lost twice during the drafting process. Both times, I reached out to writers who I knew had a great eye for structure. (Structure is, I think, the most difficult part of non-fiction writing, if not all writing.) I hired them, paying them with money I didn’t really have. But just the act of getting the manuscript ready to send to them helped me. And what they offered me, in terms of suggestions, comments and edits, was invaluable.

Even though I have hired editors for my own work, and seek out good editors whenever I can, I also work as an editor. I love taking a manuscript, or a jumble to half-formed ideas, or notes towards a query letter, and finding ways to make it into a book, or a proposal, or a sellable pitch. It is intellectual and creative puzzle-solving. I get to use my imagination, my reading (knowledge about other similar types of writing), my writing skills and my 20 years experience teaching writing to take a piece of writing from Point A to Point B.

Over the years, I have worked as a developmental editor for a publisher, and in the past year I have worked with about a dozen writers on queries, essays, book proposals and book manuscripts. It is work I love (and those of you who know me know I will go to great lengths to do work I love, as opposed to work I kinda like). Not only have I had the chance to bring my experience and expertise to others’ projects, I have also learned about topics I knew little about before, including geriatric nutrition, John LaFarge, Jungian psychology, middle-school pedagogy and spices.  As a committed jill-of-all-trades (or, to put it more high falutin’, Renaissance Woman), I love few things more than picking up new knowledge along the way towards some other goal.

Since I am not teaching this year (in addition to freelance writing and editing, I am Associate Professor at Oberlin College) I find myself with excess pedagogical energy. I want to keep editing, and editing more, for writers of all levels and at all stages of the writing process. (I really should do some real marketing, but for now, word of mouth seems to be working. UPDATE! I have a rate sheet now–email me and I’ll send it to you–anne.trubek[at]gmail.com) Got a project that could use a second set of expert, curious eyes? Let me know.

Is it weird to hire others to edit my writing while also offering editing services to others? Maybe. But it seems part and parcel of a general drift away from hyper-specialization and towards jill-of-all-trades-ness that not only I, but many other Americans, are moving.

UPDATE:  I have a rate sheet for my editing services. Email me at anne.trubek[at]gmail.com and I’ll send it out. Or just email me and let me know what’s up.

The Problem of Criteria: So What Makes A Book Award-Worthy Anyway?

October 14, 2011 § 18 Comments

The National Book Awards were announced this week, and a lively debate ensued about why 5 lesser-known novels were chosen over the front-running novels that many critics and reviewers were betting upon. The always trenchent Laura Miller wrote an interesting response about how the NBA has made itself irrelevant and why its stickers are now as “teacher-approved” (and thus unappealing) as those of the Newberry Medal.

I agree with many of Miller’s points, and that the NBA seems to be making statements of sorts with their choices of late. However, I find myself muttering the same comments this year as I did when a similar debate ensued after last year’s list was announced: Upon which criteria are the novels being judged?

I received a PhD in English in 1998; given the zeigeist of English departments then (as well as my own interests),  much of my graduate training revolved around the question of canonicity: what makes a masterpiece? Are there objective grounds or is it relative? What role do race, gender, etc. etc. play in which literary works are elevated to the ranks of the great? Who gets to make those decisions? Which formal attributes are lionized over others? (difficulty=good; sentimentality=bad).

So when I read about the NBA debates I wait, and wait, for this question to emerge. But it doesn’t. The discussion revolves around whether the nominees should have been nominated or not, and speculation on why the judges made the choices they did (or did not). But that next step–discussing upon what criteria do the judges base their decisions?  making explicit upon which criteria those unhappy with the judges base their critiques–seems left untaken.

So what is it that makes a book great (for critics, judges, readers, academics)? Formal experimentation (and of what sort)? Political acumen? Historical resonance? Suspense? Ratio of dialogue to description?

I had a discussion with a friend who sits on the board of the National Book Critics Circle. She was discussing whether she should cast her vote for a novel. She was leaning against voting for it, because, three months after reading it, “the characters are fading from my mind.”

To which I said: “So a great book, for you, is one that has memorable characters?” She looked at me, surprised, unsure if she agreed. But all I had done was to make explicit her implicit criterion.

She eventually agreed that yes, a great book is one with great characters. So if everyone had her criteria, we could all debate whether the five books the NBA nominated contained great characters or not, and we could discuss the great characters in non-nominated awards.

But nobody is stating what they think makes a great novel, so we can’t get traction on the debate.

Here’s the thing: memorable characters do not, for me, make a great novel. So I would not join in that debate. But at least I would know where everyone stood, and be able to articulate why I do not share their grounds for judgement.

We can agree or disagree on criteria. We can claim there are none, that it is all taste, or politics, or old white men in leathery studies drawing straws, or great characters (Huck Finn FTW?) . But we should at least address the issue of what we think makes a literary work great when we give awards for greatness and critique those who award them.

“Surmount This With A Loose Coil of Common-Coloured Hair”: Thomas Carlyle’s Description of Dickens

October 12, 2011 § 1 Comment

Imagine Charles Dickens. Got an image in your head? Now read this:

In a letter to his brother in 1840, Thomas Carlyle wrote:

“He is a fine little fellow, Boz, as I think; clear blue intelligent eyes, eyebrows that he arches amazingly, large protrusive rather loose mouth, –a face of most extreme mobility which he shuttles about, eyebrows, eyes, mouth and all, in a very singular manner while speaking; surmount this with a loose coil of common-coloured hari, and set it on a small compact fiure, very small, and dressed rather a la D’Orsay than well: this is Pickwick; for the rest a quiet shrewd-looking little fellow, who seems to guess pretty well what he is, and what others are.”

Do the two images match?

 

What Would Your Writers’ Museum Look Like?

October 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

In my book, A Skeptic’s Guide To Writers’ Houses, I discuss some of the difficulties inherent in creating visual displays in honor of written texts. Now I can put my money where my mouth is. The American Writers’ Museum is a nascent group working on creating the first-ever museum to American writers per se. Their efforts are gaining steam.

I’ve had some convos with the organizers, and now they are soliciting suggestions from anyone with two cents on what the future museum should look like, contain, display. Manuscripts or reconstructors? Computer displays or first editions? And what about the gift shop?

Share your thoughts by taking this survey.