Martin Dressler, By Theodore Dreiser…No, Wait

I got a gorgeous new Kindle Paperwhite for Christmas. I think the things are a little overpriced and, with the Kindle app on the phone, they’re not really necessary. But oh my. It just feels so good to read on the Paperwhite. It’s an aesthetically delightful experience. I find myself picking up this beautiful device all the time, even when I really ought to be getting work done instead. I am having a great time, guys.

Martin Dressler coverIf you read my last post, you know I had it up to here (gestures) with American Pastoral. So I moved on to the next item on the Pulitzer list: Martin Dressler, by Steven Millhauser. I’m tearing through it. I wouldn’t call it engaging on a broad level, and I’m not even sure I’d call it good. But it feels like home to me. It’s right in the center of books I know how to read and know how to engage with, because reading this feels exactly like reading Dreiser.

A Bit About Dreiser

For all I’ve written about Dreiser (check out my tag cloud that hasn’t been cool since 2009 but that I still like anyway), I don’t know if I really ever explained him.  He’s a turn-of-the-century author, quintessentially American and Midwestern and highly sociological, whose novels were often bildungsroman-flavored and dealt with industrialism, urban development, and finding one’s way financially from the ground up.

He was a writer in a school called naturalism, which focused on realism (often the gritty, dark aspects of society) and nature vs nurture. Literary naturalists were fascinated by Darwin and the forces of nature. As they were often journalists, they had a detached but holistic view, seeing issues from many perspectives and reporting what they saw without moralizing. Though there’s a few things I think that keep Dreiser from being a spot-on naturalist, he’s got almost all the characteristics.

Also, here are some of Dreiser’s titles

  • Jennie Gerhardt
  • Sister Carrie
  • The Titan
  • An American Tragedy

Now for Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer. (See where I was going? It’s a very Dreiser title.)

Similarities Between Dreiser Novels and Martin Dressler

So, first, there’s the writing style. I can’t believe this is a book written in 1996. It is so convincingly turn-of-the-century in language and manner. (I’ve seen criticisms of its historical omissions, but I haven’t noticed anything obvious myself, and I’m fairly well-versed in general American history.) Also, it is so convincingly Dreiseresque, style-wise. There’s the same kind of dry, unemotional third-person storytelling Dreiser employs that allows no manipulation to stand in the way of analysis.

There’s also the bildungsroman aspect, the coming-of-age and discovery of the self found in Sister Carrie, The Genius, The Financier, An American Tragedy, etc. Martin Dressler follows Martin from childhood to success as a young adult. Much of this coming of age is concerned with capitalism and finding one’s way in their career, which is tre Dreiser. And there’s also a similar unflinching portrayal of era-appropriate gender dynamics and the injustices and abuse that male protagonists commit against the female characters. In fact, Martin is very like a Dreiser character in that he’s not quite a protagonist you want to root for. While you feel like you understand him and how he’s developed into this character, he’s moody and rude and unfaithful. Frankly, in many ways, he’s an ugly person. (Can we talk about that scene where he’s so moved by a ten-year-old’s affection that he promptly needs to visit a brothel to lose his virginity? Relevant: this tweet I just saw.)

That’s not all. The subject matter outside of the characters is all Dreiser, too. There’s the young person making their way in a big city, and that big city is growing and changing. There’s new building construction, profits and losses, innovation, industry. No detail is spared in discussing the ins and outs of daily business and the lives of those who run it.

This, too, is Dreiser-like: the level of detail and the inclusion of what we might, as students of literature, see as random scenes. These scenes only serve to help paint a picture of a whole without having any further relevance. I don’t know about you, but when I read, I’m always looking for patterns, foreshadowing, things to come back to later. You can’t do that with Dreiser, and I’m pretty sure you’re not going to be able to do it with Martin Dressler, either. It took me a bit to get used to this. I always remember the scene in An American Tragedy in which Clyde’s ride with his friends winds up in a terrible accident. I kept waiting for the consequences (or even relevance) of that scene to come back into play later in the novel, and it really never did. In Martin Dressler, there’s that aforementioned stomach-turner with the ten-year-old. I keep waiting for it to be relevant, but it seems to have just been thrown out there and never picked back up. Books like these often have elephants in the room that just hang out, waiting to be acknowledged so we can go about our literary business of treating everything that an author includes as if it has a greater purpose for us to uncover. But in Dreiser’s and Millhauser’s cases, I think it’s just there to be what it is. It’s one more thing to report, allowing us to draw our own conclusions from an assemblage of facts portrayed without the author’s leading or moralizing. It’s the journalism aspect of naturalism.

Anyway, the experience of reading Martin Dressler is so familiar. I feel like I know the book already because of what I think of as my Dreiser period. (You know, like Picasso’s blue period. Except no one considers my reading art. Sad trombone.) As I said, I don’t actually know if I like the book much or if I think it’s well done, but reading it feels second nature to me. It’s strange. Also pleasant. I’m glad to be reading again.

Women in Literature: Marry or Die

woman-clip-artIt feels like the more I look the world, its literature included, the more I see gender-related expectations pigeonholing humanity as a whole. Historically, I think there have been more obvious and tangible limiting factors imposed on women, but the expectations placed on men are harmful in more insidious, psychological ways. And I think the general hetero-centric nature of society is immensely damaging to everyone in that it forces people to identify as in or out of a social norm and further develop a personal identity that revolves around “please, please, accept me—I’m normal, and I’ll help excommunicate those that don’t conform!” or “I am other, and I must understand how to live life in accordance with that truth and face all the possible confrontations and unpleasantness that may come with.” But that’s for another time.

I don’t really mean to make all my gender-related posts about women, but 1. I am in that camp, hence special empathy, and 2. it’s often an easier, more in-your-face target to talk about gender problems with women characters, and I’m nothing if not lazy.

I wrote about this when I read Anna Karenina and just felt generally disgusted. I’m sick of seeing books that define women characters by heterosexual pairing/romance. Can’t they be people? People who have something other than relationships with men at the core of their being? Can’t they have things that interest them, puzzle them at night, make them interested in the universe…just something other than whatever hetero pairing may be coming their way?

That being said, it’s a lot better in literature now than it used to be, probably because women have the opportunity to do something other than wait around for someone to marry and impregnate them. I read a great article talking about characters needing to “marry or die” (I can’t remember where, or I’d link)—and it’s so accurate. This idea was first posed to me by an English teacher at my community college. I was in an 18th–19th century lit course, and she challenged me to find one book from the time period, just one, where even the boldest and most unconventional of women didn’t wind up married or dead by the end of the book. It’s as if authors, having their women reach full independence or at least operate outside of societal norms, had nowhere to take them after that. (Indeed, where would an independent woman go in these days, having dodged death and mandatory hetero pairing? Almost certainly on the fringes of society, if she could have made it—some rumored witch or freak that was social poison to associate with.)

But what is this theory without some examples?

  • Jane Eyre: married.
  • Madame Bovary: dead.
  • The Awakening’s Edna with her fabulous teeth: dead.
  • Poor, poor Tess D’uberville: dead.
  • Elizabeth Bennet: married.

Really. Find me a woman character from around this time period (1700s and 1800s) that succeeded in being outside society in some way and stayed unmarried and, if not happy, living. (Please. I want at least one to exist.)

Bonus

I’m into bonuses lately. This internet thing has some great stuff in it–have you guys heard?

Just found in McSweeny’s: If Women Wrote Men the Way Men Write Women, by Meg Elison

Here’s my favorite:

Brett pulled his tank top up over his head and stared at himself in the full-length mirror. He pushed down his jeans, then his boxers, and imagined the moment when Jennifer saw him nude for the first time. His feet were average-sized, and there was hair on his toes that he should probably take care of before tonight. He liked his legs just fine, but his thighs were wide and embarrassingly muscular. He tried standing at an angle, a twist at his waist. Some improvement. In that position, it was easier to see his ass and notice that it was not as pert as it had been at 22. He clenched both cheeks, hoping that tightened its look. He sucked in his tummy and pulled his pecs up high, trying to present them like pastries in a bakery window. Would she like him? Were the goods good enough? He pouted his lips and ran his hands over his thighs, masking their expanse. Maybe.

Fabulous.

The Trouble With Literary Device Abuse

My sincerest apologies for this prolonged absence. I’m still around and still excited to talk to you about books, I promise.

I was overwhelmed with work for a bit there, and there was little time for reading, let alone blogging about reading. But I did manage to polish off Michael Cunningham’s The Hours about a month ago. 

I’m a little distanced from it now for an overview, but I’m not so distanced that I don’t have things to say about it. This should have been the perfect book for me, folk. It’s got Virgina Woolf. It’s got rage against the cult of domesticity/feminine mystique mindset. It’s got introspection and character-heavy (and non-plot-heavy) writing. Heck, would have recommended this book to me.

So, my personal opinion is that this set of ingredients, which should have formed the most delectable layer cake, was totally wrecked by the wrong chef. (Also, you will be burned out by all cake metaphors by the end of the book, and I don’t know how I even stomached making that one. More on that later). I feel awful saying it. To have devoted so much of himself to a very women-centered, introspective, and deep-feeling book, I’m sure Cunningham is a wonderful man. But The Hours contains some of the most exasperating (professional) writing I think I’ve ever encountered.

Anyway, I looked at what I thought about The Hours and extrapolated to get a list of literary device abuses. These misuses apply to a lot of writing I see.

I Will Never Get Back The Hours I Spent Reading This Book (But Some Don’t Want Them Back)

The Hours CoverQuickly, let me say this: as I was reading The Hours, I thought that surely I must be batty to dislike it, and that was pretty much confirmed. A number of judges thought this worthy of a Pulitzer. I started googling reviews and scholarly articles on the book, and it did nothing to convince me that I’m sane. The overwhelming consensus is that this book is excellent, with me all alone on the sea-salty island of curmudgeon.

So take this all at face value–I personally felt these things, and most other people didn’t. But my minority opinion shall not be silenced, and by that, I mean I have a blog that’s pretty much an Amanda brainstuff soliloquy. I will be the one person to say, albeit nervously, that my thoughts that this was bad writing were reaffirmed on every page as I read.

By bad, I mean excessive. Obnoxiously thorough examination of every thought in a character’s head. Concerted efforts to make everything “deep.” Pushing symbolism past the point of being meaningful and into the realm of bang-you-over-the-head insulting. And that leads us to…

Literary Device Abuse 1: Symbolism

There’s a section where a housewife is cooking her husband a cake, and the author makes it clear that this cake is a reflection of how she felt in her role–imperfect, trying too hard, a failure. Cool. I like symbolism. But this one is drawn out to the point of being rage-inducing. Chapter after chapter is about this cake, I kid you not. The author would veer into another subject, and then there would be a paragraph that started, “She thought of the cake at home” or something and I would think “STOP.”

In fact, I was looking through my notes in the Kindle book as they pertain to this. It moves from “Ug” to “Please stop” to “AHEM, metaphor, are you getting this meeettaaaaphooooooor” to, finally, a big fat “ENOUGH WITH THE [censored] CAKE.” This is what I mean by the writing being exasperating.

This is not the only instance of literary device abuse.

Literary Device Abuse 2: Pretzeling Yourself to Describe a Character

What I mean by “pretzeling” is that an author bends in all sorts of weird ways so they* can include a description of a character without a paragraph that’s something like, “John was medium height with brown hair and bushy eyebrows, and he liked long walks on the beach and ice cream.” The classic (and awful) way of trying to more naturally integrate character description is to have them look in a mirror. I do think there are creative, unusual ways to do this that can work, and I’m not saying no one should try. They just should fix it if they fail.

In The Hours, there’s no looking in a mirror to describe oneself. But there is a character that has been living with someone for many years, and to describe that person she’d lived with, Cunningham says, “for a moment–less than a moment–she sees Sally as she would if they were strangers. Sally is a pale, gray-haired woman…” etc. Ug, this is so obvious and gimmicky! It’s just a hair better then the mirror tactic, and it’s not natural at all. You don’t have to see someone as if they are a stranger to know what color hair they have.

I think this could have been better done with something like “Sally’s gray hair, the harsh features–all were as familiar to Clarissa as her own face, yet an unspoken distance between them made her feel almost like a stranger” or something like that. You can integrate description in natural ways.

I didn’t find character development and description done right all throughout the The Hours. All of the tactics used to develop characters seemed obvious, not just the tactics used to describe them physically. There was a scene where Virgina’s relatives come over, and they find a dying bird. “Oh boy,” I thought. “Here comes a character-development device.” You could just sense it. Reader, we are about to enter a character’s brain and learn over the next three pages of inner monologue (see device three) that Virginia thinks things, deep, life/death things, because of this bird. Sigh. Indeed, that then happened. Color me unsurprised.

Literary Device Abuse 3: Inner Monologue

The dialogue in this book was excellent. It was minimal, curt, and left a ton to the imagination. Unfortunately, there was about a 1:10 ratio of dialogue pages to inner monologue pages, and the inner monologues contained so many literary sins.

First, everyone’s inner monologue was exactly the same voice. A depressed, self-consumed, prone-to-overthinking voice.

Second, we got to hear many characters’ inner monologues, even the ones that barely show up in the book. That’s a problem when combined with the first sin of them all having the same voice. It’s also a problem because it gives the reader whiplash. We are in and out of way too many heads. I picture the reader as a spirit being plunged in and out of brain after brain, eventually needing to reach for the Dramamine.

Third, god, inner monologue: there’s just so much of it, and it’s so, so tiring. There would start to be a scene–someone would walk into a room to say hi to the occupant there. But as they entered, they would need to pause for two pages and have big thoughts. Then comes the hello. This is not only exasperating, it’s hard for a reader to reconcile with real time. No one would walk in the room, think quietly to themselves for five minutes, and then greet the person on the couch.

Fourth, inner monologue will quickly send you into the danger zone of telling and not showing. An author needs to be careful not to diffuse a potentially powerful scene with a “Character realized she felt sad and depressed.” I found The Hours to be brutally tell-y and almost never show-y.

Conclusion: I am a Bummer

I feel bad, getting so negative on so universally loved book. I loved the idea behind it, and I especially loved the cultural message behind it. But I just could not deal with the writing. I thought about sharing my notes from the book, but just the sample I shared with you is probably enough. Most of them are like that. There is a lot of cussing. It was a tiring, eye-rolling read, despite the subject matter being serious and, to me, invigorating.

Anyway, if you loved The Hours, please crucify me in the comments. Just kidding. Please don’t. I can dish it out, but I can’t take it.

*I am taking a cue from all the style guides changing over to the singular “they,” and now writing is like one big sigh of relief, not having to re-read and look for spots that should unnaturally say “his or her.” You should try it.

Vote on My Conundrum!

question mark

Gentle reader,

I wanted to start documenting what it’s like to start doing entrepreneurial things–bootstrapping an online swag store, marketing a self-published book, etc. I was thinking that, since I’m in the valuable position of being a total ignoramus, it might be valuable to record my experiments starting from the ground up and to talk about what went well and what didn’t. I feel like someone out there might find this perspective, paired with my findings, useful. And it would be a nice way to record my thoughts and results.

Here’s the conundrum, though: to split off into two blogs, focused on the niches, or to build on this current blog?

I thought I’d let you tell me.

Here’s the need-to-knows. Very little (if any) of the material I would be introducing would be literature-focused. I would probably clean up my categories and tags to make sure people could find the content they want that way.

With that in mind, would you be interested in hearing about entrepreneurial journeys? Or would you prefer that I keep things neatly literature-based here?

Don’t feel like you need to be a regular reader to vote, either! If you want, just let me know what you think I should do–that’s welcome, too.

Thanks for weighing in!

Hyperion: Overview

 

Cover of Hyperion by Dan SimmonsBlog post subjects over the last four years will show that science fiction hasn’t historically been my jam. I read much of Jules Verne’s works over the years, and the husband and I were putzing through the Stranger in a Strange Land audiobook. (We stopped because there was a glitch in the app we were using, and we never picked it back up–no knock on the book, really.) But that’s about where my sci-fi journey ends.

We bought Hyperion on Audible because it was a favorite of my husband’s when he was younger. The way he described it was intriguing–an involved, imaginative system of future worlds imagined by author Dan Simmons, conveyed through the personal stories of pilgrims off to see the world’s creepiest deity: the Shrike. So into the car speakers it went.

Tl;dr Synopsis

With a war that may destroy humanity on the horizon, seven people are summoned to go on a pilgrimage to see the Shrike, a giant, walking Ginsu knife set who probably didn’t get very many hugs as a child, what with the being made of sharpness and all. (Just kidding. The Shrike was probably never a child. It was never innocent.) To pass the nights on the way to see this metal nightmare, the pilgrims decide to tell their stories. Most of the book consists of the personal stories, and each pilgrim has a strange, usually sad connection to the world of Hyperion and this uber-terrifying Lord of Slicing and Dicing.

Writing Style

You know, the writing (other than the obnoxious use of ellipses as throat clearing) is way better that I would have thought. This is terrible of me, but I assume books that are very plot/action-centric will be designed with writing quality taking a backseat to various happenings–that, at best, writing will not get in the way of the plot. But the writing style of Hyperion was consistently elegant and creative, I thought. The dialogue could be over the top, especially in the beginning when the author was trying to establish the different personalities of the seven pilgrims. But to be fair, that’s a really hard thing to do: introduce seven characters and expect your reader to keep them straight. It was when Simmons wrote the lines for the poet that he went most over the top, but I also found the poet’s lines were the ones that most often the showcased what Simmons could do with the written word. I also think Simmons is a well-rounded reader himself. His many references to classic and contemporary lit weren’t lost on me. Much of Hyperion revolves around John Keats, and I thought that was a nice touch. Simmons’ writing did his references justice.

Characters

The characters won’t be your life-changing new best friends, but they’re decently developed and seldom cliche. All are quite serious, with the possible exception of the poet. I was quite pleased with the woman character being second on the list of most capable fighters on the quest and that Simmons made her of a stocky, muscular race.  Some of the characters are obnoxious–the poet is bawdy and full of cursing. And while the scholar is in possession of a heartbreaking story, there’s a current of pretentiousness and self-importance that runs just under the surface of all that he says. But overall, I think Simmons did a pretty good job with the people who populate his book.

Highlights

I personally found the very first story the most moving (and the most horrifying). The poet’s story is fascinating as well, and so much understanding of the Shrike, the history of Hyperion, and why things are the way they are come in his chapter. The last story is a little male-gaze-y (please, make sure I’m always up-to-the-moment on the texture of the female character’s breasts), but it becomes very moving at the end. It’s also a familiar story. The cruelties of colonization is a song being played on repeat throughout history, and I think Simmons would argue that it will continue playing as long as humanity is around.

Who Should Read this Book

I don’t think you have to be a sci-fi fan to love this book. It’s a fabulous choice if you’re looking for an “escape novel,” one you’d read every night to take a break from your own life. It isn’t exactly uplifting, but reading it was a great experience.

For What It’s Worth (A.K.A. My Opinion)

I just adored some things about this book. One: there’s a skillfully executed mimicking of The Canterbury Tales‘s structure. Two: I thought the in medias res intro left enough to imagination but not so much that it was too confusing. Related: the way each story filled in blanks bit by bit was quite satisfying. It was generally a great device for story creation. I’m having trouble thinking of anyone who’s done this in the same way. The mini-stories themselves are all very involving and inventive.

As you saw, I have a few bones to pick with the book. But it’s really very few. As few bones as you’d have attached to your skin after the Shrike fillets you.

Ew.

On Ellipses as Throat Clearing

Salutations, literos and literas. Welcome to another edition of your favorite show, Stuff Amanda Hates! If you ask the husband, this show is on all day every day at our house, so enjoy a little piece of our life today.

So, here’s something that’s likely a familiar device:

“Can you tell me what happened before the…the incident?”

“Well, I was allowed in that bar once, but then there was some…unpleasantness”

Ellipses here act as euphemism alerts, being perfectly substitutable with throat clearing. Not so bad, right? Especially awesome when portraying mafia bosses or uncomfortable co-workers.

Gangster Looking Threatening

“If you don’t pay up, see, your pet hamster, he may have a little…accident.”

This technique exists for a reason in writing. The intricacies of our everyday dialogue are easy to take for granted until you try to replicate them in speech. With an ellipsis, the author want to convey maybe an awkward “ahem” as the speaker looks for a word that will soften the blow that would come from a more representative description. Or perhaps the author wants to portray a pause as a character struggles to define something that defies being boiled down to language. It might even just be used to emphasize the word that comes after the ellipsis. In any case, the ellipsis is a tool that allows authors to paint an in-text picture of what real, spoken or internal dialogue looks like.

Or does it?

(Hint: NO. Though I suppose that’s a more of an answer than a hint.)

It took listening to an audiobook for me to realize this isn’t realistic at all. We’re listening to Hyperion, which is a fabulous book. It’s completely unjust of me to nit pick the one thing I haven’t liked about it, so please don’t be dissuaded. But Hyperion is chalk full of this use of ellipses, especially in the section we’re listening to now—Brawne Lamia’s story, if you’re familiar. It’s used in the first paragraph (“merely…beautiful”).  It’s used 30 times in the first 12 pages of the section. I stopped counting after 30.

The sheer amount of times it’s used here is made much more obvious by listening to real humans read the text and “act” through the ellipses. And it’s here that I realized that the ellipses aren’t doing anything to make dialogue reflect real conversation patterns at all. Take this:

“It’s like that. Memories that feel…hollow.”

Read that aloud, like you’re a voice actor. Give the amount of pause you would if you were reading a script. You can hear how it’s supposed to be said, right? You’ve probably watched T.V. shows or movies that act as your instructor. Think of Spock from Star Trek. Then, think about how you’d talk to your friends about a memory that felt empty. Even if you were struggling to come up with a word, would you just leave a long, empty pause in there as you thought of the word? You would say, “the memories feel kind of, I don’t know, empty” or something similar.

Now, I’m not at all saying authors should write in all manner of vocal pauses in an attempt to make their conversations as real as possible. You edit out the cruft of everyday speech. But I’ll tell you what you probably shouldn’t do either is write in a supposed-speech-mimic device that’s actually something only employed by actors, i.e., people who have fake conversations.

Listening to the voice actors in the audiobook speak to another with these prolonged pauses struck me as unnatural at best and melodramatic at worst. I can’t think of many instances where it wouldn’t be better to apply italics for emphasis or a phrase like “I don’t know” or “[character] paused to think” to indicate struggle. Check it out my earlier examples.

“Can you tell me what happened before the, er, incident?”

“Well, I was allowed in that bar once, but then there was some”—he raised his eyebrows—”unpleasantness.”

And it’s not even necessarily that this way is more natural. It’s just less obviously unnatural, and it’s way easier reading. It’s an opportunity to be more descriptive and ignore the temptation to be lazy with language. Meanwhile, ellipses to indicate pause also draw attention to themselves and interrupt the text. Don’t take readers out of the moment!

Now, I’m not completely against the ellipses as “ahem” or “insert deeply thoughtful pause here.” You might prefer it to the tactics above, and that’s fine. Also, there are cases that I think really call for it. Take this, out of the same section in Hyperion, when Brawne has been asked to call another character by his first name:

“Yeah, M…ah, Johnny, most of my work falls under that category”

I’d say that the ellipsis is right choice to portray this corrected speech in writing. But know that it in no way represents real speech patterns. If you feel like it does, pay attention to whether or not you’re hearing it being said in your inner actor’s voice. The pause doesn’t represent a part of real speech patterns. It represents overdramatization.

Like its friends the exclamation point, the cliche, and other potentially obnoxious devices, the ellipsis should be used very, very sparingly—if at all.