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.

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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.

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.

Jeffrey Eugenides and the Omniscient First Person

I Capturepolished off The Virgin Suicides a bit ago, and I don’t really have the time (or the memory, at this point) to post an overview. But I wanted to talk about how Eugenides continually combines two perspectives without causing a disaster.

I spoke a bit about this in my last post, which was on MiddlesexEugenides does this magical thing that allows him to cheat normal literary rules. More about this in a second. First…

The First Person

When your narrator introduces her/himself to you, the reader, as “I,” the story is being told in the first person perspective. It adds a humanizing element that’s harder to capture in other points of view. You get to hear what the narrator is thinking about everything that’s going on, and it gives you a chance to see things through someone’s eyes in a way that’s natural and tinged with personality.

It’s easy writing. I’m wretched at writing fiction myself, but whenever I attempt it, I seek the shelter of the first person immediately. But it can also be a clever device. It’s been a long time since I read Fight Club, but I’m certain it’s in the first person—it’s a great way to hide things you don’t want readers to know yet, in a way that doesn’t seem suspicious. And I’m sure everyone remembers being taught to look for The Great Gatsby‘s unreliable narrator. It’s the first person point of view that allows these kinds of nuanced relationships with the reader.

But there are constraints when you pick this perspective. First, you’re really committing to this character, and no other, for the long haul. You’re also committing the reader to a lot of time with him/her, so you better write someone who’s enjoyable (or at least interesting) company. And in adopting one character’s point of view, you mostly cede that of others.

Omniscience

Like God, or Santa, the omniscient perspective sees all. It is, in fact, watching you right now.

It can dive into the minds of other characters. It can describe facts and events without worrying the reader with bias. It can describe a thing inside, outside, up close and far away.

Mostly, the omniscient view will be told from the third person perspective. It’s a good storytelling perspective, but it puts can put a space between the reader and the story, whereas the first person uses a character’s voice as our portal to the story and thereby brings the reader close. In some cases, like in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, this distance is important to the atmosphere of the book, but in other cases, it can make writing for engagement a bit of an extra challenge.

And the Second Person Omniscient?

It’s the creepiest of all points of view.

(Sorry, that’s something my husband said that makes me bust out laughing every time I think of it.)

Why they shouldn’t work together

Pronouns. First person: “I.” Omniscient: “he/she.”

I’m being facetious, though. If you’re telling the story from one perspective, you can’t just switch to another when it’s convenient. Or you can, but it will be jarring unless you do it really, really well. Most authors who try this don’t do it well. It just comes off as distracting and gimmicky.

Why they do for Eugenides

Eugenides does something really interesting, though. He writes from an omniscient point of view, usually reserved for the third person, and tells it via the first person voice. Twice now I’ve seen him execute it in a book, and it’s fascinating to watch how it works.

In Middlesex, the main character speaks as “I” but claims traces the past for generations before him. He’s able to speak to the reader with the closeness that first person provides but not about things he could have possibly experienced. He explains this is possible because he did exist, as genes inside his ancestors, watching all that went on. This character frequently describes floating around in the DNA of his grandparents. It really works.

In The Virgin Suicides, the story is told from the perspective of one of the boys that watched the main characters (a group of repressed sisters) as children. As watchers from outside the house, outside the minds of these girls, how could readers come to know the story as well as they do through this boy’s perspective?

Well, one of the premises of the book is that these boys were infatuated with these girls. Even when the young men became adults, the sisters haunted their thoughts. So they sought out and interviewed people who knew the girls before they died, people from their pasts, and pieced together all the information given them to fill in the holes left by memories from the outside perspective. That’s how Eugenides once again tells a complete omniscient story from the first person perspective.

It’s great fun to watch, and I welcome you to look for how he does it if you wind up picking up these books.

Signing off for now to go read my new delight: Empire Falls by Richard Russo. I’m having a great time, and I can’t wait to tell you about it. It has the most wretched characters. Look forward to hearing all about that.

Purity: A Quick Note From Captain Obvious

This will be short.

Hamlet. Andreas. Go.

hamletWhat Franzen is doing with Hamlet is pretty smack-you-in-the-face, if you’re looking for it. So I’m not going to go into too much detail. I’m just here let you know to look for it.

If you remember anything from high school English, then you’ll be alarmed that Andreas and his mother’s biggest point of bonding is Hamlet. That’s what I mean about smack-you-in-the-face. But if you don’t remember Hamlet, it’s worth knowing a few things as you read Purity:

  1. Hamlet likes his mom. I mean, he really likes his mom.
  2. His dad is a ghost.
  3. What defines Hamlet’s life is his relationship with murder.
  4. He destroys the girl he loves–but does he love her? Can he love her, being as self-absorbed as he is?

The parallels aren’t perfect, but they’re there, and they’re fun and easy to find. If you are new to looking at literature for themes and uncovering hidden mysteries within a book, this is a enjoyable softball lobbed your way.

So if Purity‘s on your list, take your knowledge of Hamlet (and if it’s just the SparkNotes you scanned, good enough), and look at Andreas’ life when you read Purity.

To Level Up…

Now, if you really want to do a psychoanalytic criticism of Purity, get a basic grasp of Freud and read this thing. Oh boy. Pretty sure Franzen himself was reading a lot of Freud as he wrote this. Some of the most powerful phrases in the book come more from the mouth of Freud than Franzen.

But looking at the book on this level, if you’re a psych newbie, will take a bit more dedication. Freud has a pretty impressive body of work. Hamlet, on the other hand, is just, well, Hamlet.

***

Hey, here’s a fun fact! T.S. Eliot, writer of “The Wasteland,” “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (my favorite poem), and the collection of poems that would inspire the musical Cats (yes, google it), thought Hamlet was awful and Shakespeare was a total literary mess when he wrote it. The more you know…

Purity: The Trouble with Gender

Here I am, just hanging out on the internet, about to be the four-billionth person here to talk about how Franzen is white and male. But I hope to avoid polemics-as-usual and be sensitive while remaining true to feminist roots.

The Criticism

Franzen’s biggest critics are women, and one of his biggest criticisms is his need to check that male privilege/mansplaining at the door:

Article 1: “Awwww, poor victimized famous bestselling author Jonathan Franzen!”

Article 2:  “The charge of misogyny, like the charge of racism, is a serious one, and I shy away from making it. But …Franzen continues to indict himself with gender theorizing that panders to the worst instincts of the male intellectual.” “Franzen can do better.”

Article 3 (and this is both legit AND hilarious): “He sounds like he’s just observing the patriarchal dictate that before we can talk about any woman artist or intellectual or politician or activist, we must first rank her on Hot or Not.”

Article 4 (by Roxane Gay, one of my favorite people. Follow her on Twitter; she’s a blast.): “He is offering up an earnest, albeit rather narrow and privileged assessment of the world we live in,” noting that, in Franzen’s world, feminism equals “angry womenfolk.”

Criticism Justified?

Oh, totally. Something you’ll see over and over in these articles is a reference to the part in Purity where the radically feminist (and radically unhinged) Anabel miserably guilts Tom into only peeing sitting down because the expression of inequality–standing up to pee–hurts her. You’ll also see that the extremist, separatist feminists that grab ahold of Annagret are not unlike the German Stasi in the book. They’re a totalitarian, police-like force of harpies. Franzen puts feminist in his books, and they are all life-crushing shrews.

Also to be noted is the phallocentrism of Purity, which is probably my biggest complaint about the book. You can look forward to hearing alllllll about the state of every male character’s penis, allllll the time. Is it disappointingly at half mast? Is it a throbbing beast ready to bust a hole in space time? Is it tentatively pushing on something, asking permission? Don’t worry. You’ll get to hear all about it. ALL. ABOUT. IT. And I don’t mean to be prude, but it takes away from my experience of the book. I can’t imagine why Franzen’s brain is just a nonstop flow of “penispenispenispenis.” Why are all these characters so obsessed with the state of their genitalia? Why is Franzen so obsessed?

But then, here’s where my sympathy may set me apart from the rest of the angry readers. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be in Franzen’s head, and I accept that this phallocentrism is his thing and it’s not mine. My experience has made me who I am, and he’s been shaped the same way.

For instance, if I wrote fiction, my real-life experiences with men would no doubt show up via my male characters, and considering that feelings I’ve taken away from many of those experiences, that might draw accusations of misandry from critics. (You know, the myriad of critics who would read my best-selling book.) I personally wouldn’t feel that assessment justified, but there would likely be evidence for that argument from my writing.

Going back to Franzen…yes, there is evidence of male-centric, anti-feminist, super-privileged writing here. Some of the articles I linked objectively point out these problems, which are worth noting. But others are outrage-seekers, trying to tear apart the overdog just because no one likes the overdog.

Take Article 1’s (above) comment. Let me put it in context. This is the paragraph before, quoting a fascinating Guardian interview with Franzen.

“In his Guardian interview, Franzen says that ‘I’m not a sexist. I am not somebody who goes around saying men are superior, or that male writers are superior. In fact, I really go out of my way to champion women’s work that I think is not getting enough attention. None of that is ever enough. Because a villain is needed. It’s like there’s no way to make myself not male. And one of the running jokes in the Tom and Anabel section [of ‘Purity.’] is that he’s really trying to not be male…. There’s a sense that there is really nothing I can do except die – or, I suppose, retire and never write again.’

Awwww, poor victimized famous bestselling author Jonathan Franzen! Why are feminists so meaaaaaan?

I understand where the sarcasm and lack of sympathy comes from here. But I don’t lack that sympathy.

Franzen’s a human being. He’s trying to write stories about how human beings hurt each other and make each other’s lives worth living. I don’t think he’s on a woman-hating mission. I think he’s expressing a lot of himself through Tom, who really wants to be a good feminist and just can’t do it without decoupling himself from crippling guilt, so he’s just given up. And wouldn’t you, if the idea of male privilege had seeped into your bones? If it seemed like the only thing you can do to be rid of this original sin is to never say anything again, lest your inherently poisoned point of view seeps through and victimizes all these people you’re unknowingly oppressing?

“There is No Way to Make Myself Not Male”

The subtitle of this Guardian interview is “there is no way to make myself not male,” and I think there’s an evolution of thinking behind it. I imagine that, once upon a time, he felt ashamed in realizing it, as if there was some essential thing wrong with him.

But now, I think Franzen is saying “there is no way to make myself not male” in a different way. He has been attacked for being male by critics for a long time, and sometimes with good reason. He’s made a couple of boneheaded PR moves (see comments on Edith Wharton). But I think he’s given up carrying that cross of guilt the way anyone with good intentions faced with constant attacks might.

I say he has good intentions because I think he portrays all characters, both male and female, with incredible empathy and nuance. I think Franzen isn’t lying in that Guardian interview when he says he loves people. And if you love people and are constantly attacked as a hate-filled bigot, well, I think there’s good reason to be bitter about it.

As for me, I see the male-centrism, but I like his books too much to think he should be silent. Though I do hope he’ll keep the state-of-the-phallus alerts to a minimum next time.

Creating Character Depth Through Confounding

The other day, I had lunch with a colleague, and he described an idea. He wanted to write a book with his wife, but with a fun twist. He would write one chapter, his wife would write the next, and so on, back and forth. Neither would get to see what the other wrote until it was his/her turn to take over the book.

Beautiful sugar skull woman illustration. Day of dead vector illustration.That got us talking about the genre of the progressive novel. If you haven’t heard of things like round robin writing and the exquisite corpse (see left for what I picture when I say that), well, they’re essentially vehicles for people to collaborate on a story or work of art.

Check them out. They’re fun, and as I’m seeing, they can be useful projects to use as inspiration in solo writing later. But first, creative writing class.

Confound It!

Our lunch conversation led to me remember one of my creative writing workshops. This one was called “Confound It!” or something like that. I might just be making that up. Whatever. If I am, I’m doing a good job because it sounds cool.

It was a collaborative writing exercise in which everyone would write a paragraph, pair up with someone, and switch papers. You would read your partner’s paragraph and write their next one. Except you weren’t supposed to be nice. Your goal was to confound your partner. You were to give them a paragraph that utterly changed the course of what they were writing and forced them to try to recover from whatever disasters you created.

So in “Confound It!,” paragraph one goes like this:

A young man sits and has a heart-to-heart with his estranged, dying father. They hash out old demons from the young man’s childhood. The son finally had the courage to tell his father he had felt abandoned by the old man his whole life.

Paragraph two goes like this:

Not far from the hospital, the abominable snowman, like the young man, was tired of a lifetime of rejection. So, using methods not described in this paragraph, he procured a cache of enriched uranium, and now we’re in the midst of a nuclear winter only he–and for some unspecified scientific reason, also flamingos–could survive.

Paragraph three goes like this:

Dude, come on.

Or maybe it goes like this:

Even the flamingos rejected the abominable snowman, and he learned that extracting revenge through violence was never going to fix the pain he felt inside. The young man at least died, albeit in a mushroom cloud, with a clear conscious after attempting to reconcile through conversation.

This is also kind of the plot of Frankenstein. See, I’m not a very good creative writer even when I’m plagiarizing.

But Confounding Yourself…

The last few Pulitzer-journey books that have graced my bedside table have reminded me of this exercise. These authors’ technique isn’t collaborative in nature, though. Thier goal seems to be to confound themselves. They carefully set up character development in one chapter and then completely undo their work in the next. But this isn’t bad writing. Or rather, it’s bad writing like a fox. (I’m not very good with simile, either.)

The first book that reveals this technique is Olive Kitteridge. In chapter one, we see a harpy wife nagging her sweet, mild mannered husband, berating him in front of guests and drowning him in a sea of “I cook for you, I clean for you, and what thanks do I get?” Olive is extremely unlikeable in this chapter. But in the very next chapter, author Strout undoes all that hard character work–or rather, she complicates it. Olive is a strong woman who knows exactly when people are in trouble. There’s a man in a truck who’s contemplating suicide, and Olive sees him and invites herself into the car. Even though he’s largely silent, she perceives what’s going on. What’s more, she deals with it in just the right way. She’s solemn and strong and doesn’t sugarcoat things. There are few words exchanged, but her curt observations about the world and his family were exactly what he needed to hear to feel less alone. We see that Olive has a soul, and it’s a soul capable of reaching out to others in a deep way. We can also sense that Olive has scars herself.

The author keeps this up. Olive vacillates between being awful and understandable and human and cruel, depending on the chapter. And, the way Strout does it, you don’t feel like it’s that the character isn’t well formed. As I said in my overview on the book, it seems like she’s known every character in the book for years.*

I’m reading the 2008 winner now, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. It’s happening here, too. Oscar and Lola’s mother, Beli, is pure evil in the second chapter. She’s abusive and manipulative in ways that turn your stomach. And when Lola understands she’ll never be perfect enough to make her mother’s abuse stop–and, besides, she doesn’t have the energy to try–the house gets dangerously hostile. Lola has to run. Junot Diaz, the author, has clearly made this character the villain of the book.

Just kidding! He doubles back on chapter two’s character work in the very next chapter. There, we meet Beli as a child, and we understand that she’s a broken little orphan, shattered by the world and with the same impulses we saw in her daughter in chapter two–the need to run. In fact, the author uses the unusual technique of calling her “our” Beli, burdening the reader with responsibility for who she becomes, forcing kinship with her in an insidious way.

When I think of what the authors are doing here, it could very easily backfire. The characters could appear inconsistent, confusing, ungraspable. But when handled right, this act of confounding themselves helps authors use each twist to turn the screw deeper into the wall, anchoring the character as an individual with complexities that reflect real humans. It’s a fascinating technique.

 

*Guys. Guys. I thought of the best pickup line for Elizabeth Strout. I forgot to put it in my overview post.

Setting: Bar
Me: Hey girl. Are you Zeus, because your characters spring from your head fully formed
Strout: ~Asks bartender for the check, excuses herself~

I’m not good at pickup lines, either.