Kids Books Should be a Little Sad

In my post on March 12, 2018, I covered a story from Time Magazine about Matt de la Pena, a writer of children’s books, arguing that it’s OK for there to be a dark aspect to children’s books.  In a follow-up to that article, there is another on the Time website by Kate Dicamillo, an award-winning author of sixteen children’s books.

Kate Dicamillo

The connection between the two authors is this: Matt asked Kate whether it is the job of a children’s author to tell the truth or to preserve innocence.

Kate answered with a question: “Have you ever asked an auditorium full of kids if they know and love Charlotte’s Web?  In my experience, almost all the hands go up.  And if you ask them how many of them cried when they read it, most of the hands remain unabashedly aloft.”

(Charlotte’ Web is by E B White with illustrations by Garth Williams.  Its Amazon site says, “This is the story of a little girl named Fern who loved a little pig named Wilbur and of Wilbur’s dear friend, Charlotte A. Cavatica, a beautiful large grey spider. With the unlikely help of Templeton the rat, and a wonderfully clever plan of her own, Charlotte saves the life of Wilbur, who by this time has grown up to be quite a pig.”)

Kate says she asked her best childhood friend, “What was it made you read and re-read that book? Did you think that if you read it again, things would turn our differently, better?  That Charlotte wouldn’t die?”

“No,” she said, “It wasn’t that.  I kept reading it not because I wanted it to turn out differently . . . but because I knew for a fact that it wasn’t going to turn out differently.  I knew that a terrible thing was going to happen, and I also knew it was going to be OK somehow.  I thought that I couldn’t bear it, but then when I read it again, it was all so beautiful.  And I found out that I could bear it.   That was what the story told me.  That was what I needed to hear.  That I could bear it somehow.”

Kate told another auditorium story: “A boy asked me if I thought I would have been a writer if I hadn’t been sick all the time as a kid and if my father hadn’t left.  And I said something along the lines of I think that there is a very good chance that I wouldn’t be standing in front of you today if those things hadn’t happened to me.  A girl raised her hand and said, ‘It turns out that you were stronger than you thought you were.”

“When the kids left the auditorium, I stood at the door and talked with them as they walked past. One boy – skinny legged and blonde haired – grabbed my hand and said, “I’m here in South Dakota, and my dad is in California.  He’s there and I’m here with my mom.  And I thought I might not be OK.  But you said today that you’re OK.  And so I think that I will be OK, too.”

Kate continued, “E B White loved the world.  And in loving the world, he told the truth about it – its sorrow, its heartbreak, its devastating beauty.  He trusted his readers enough to tell them the truth, and with that truth come comfort and a feeling that we are not alone.”

Real Editing

Many of you may like to know what it’s like to work with a real editor.  Until very recently, I never have.  Of course, I’ve had my manuscripts checked by a professional editor before publication, but that was copy editing: editing of grammar, spelling, punctuation and consistency in presentation.  With my latest novel, I decided it was time to ignore – for the time being – my grammar, spelling and punctuation, and focus on my presentation skills as a writer.   The editor I worked with is a published author, and she took two months to review my 529 page, double spaced manuscript.  What I got back from her was my edited manuscript with one or two comments on nearly every page (none of them related to grammar, spelling or punctuation) and a one-page summary of areas where I could improve the manuscript.

This isn’t mine, but you get the idea

For me, the experience was very good: I learned a lot.  It also meant that I have a major re-write underway.  The current re-write is in addition to the revisions I undertook after completing the manuscript and having some reservations of my own about it.  The areas for attention she mentioned included:

  • Character development: she noted that, while they were all well-defined, there is much that happens to the three main characters, and one of them changes his identity.  What about identify changes for the other two characters?
  • The novel would benefit from more tension for the characters in some of the events
  • I am too kind to some of the characters
  • Some of the dialogue and description does not really add to the story
  • More attention to the time line; there are gaps in the time line
  • The ending needs to be punchier
  • The point of the novel needs to be defined earlier and often
  • Point of view is an issue

Regarding point of view, with three main characters, I decided to use an omniscient point of view, rather that the point of view of one of the characters.  The editor pointed out that the omniscient point of view is not ‘fashionable’.  Perhaps she writes from a singular point of view.  In any case, I complicated things by permitting God and Satan to interrupt the story occasionally, to reveal their views and their covert involvement.  This, she found very confusing.  I think I have now eliminated any confusion.

For me, one problem was that she apparently didn’t read the manuscript through before beginning her editing; this could have clarified what seemed to me to be her early misunderstandings.  Having said that, her comments were generally very helpful and thorough, and as I went through the manuscript, I tried to eliminate opportunities for misunderstanding

In my current re-write, I have cut out about ten percent of the manuscript which, while mildly interesting, is not essential to the advancement of the plot.  I have also focused on how the characters are feeling about the events and the changes in their values.  Tension is also increased, and I’m planning changes to address her other comments.

The real test of all this will be when I submit it to literary agents/publishers.

Review: Tess of the D’Urbervilles

I was searching my bookshelves for something to read on holiday and I found an old, paperback copy of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles – I have no idea where it came from.  I remember reading Far from the Madding Crowd in high school, and I thought it was time to get in touch with Hardy again.

Thomas Hardy was born in 1840 in a rural community in Dorset, England to a working-class family which did not have the means to send him to university.  He trained as an architect in Dorchester, and moved to London to pursue a career, but he was never comfortable in London, where he was acutely conscious of his class and social inferiority.  Returning to Dorset in 1867, he began his first novel, The Poor Man and the Lady, which was rejected for publication; he subsequently destroyed the manuscript, but subsequently wrote three novels: two published anonymously and one, A Pair of Blue Eyes, in his own name.   This latter novel concerns his courtship of Emma Gifford, who became his wife and encouraged him to write full time.  In 1874, Far from the Madding Crowd was published and was followed be ten novels, which attracted an increasingly hostile reception for ‘pessimism’ and ‘immorality’.  In fact, Jude the Obscure, Hardy’s last novel (1895), was burned by the Bishop or Wakefield.  In his memoir, Hardy said: “After these [hostile] verdicts from the press, its next misfortune was to be burnt by a bishop – probably in his despair at not being able to burn me.”  Hardy then turned his attention to writing poetry and short stories until hes death in 1928.  Tess was also criticised for its immorality and its implied criticism of social and religious culture, which, viewed from a 21st century perspective, is difficult to understand.

Hardy’s themes include the examination of social themes in Victorian England: marriage, education and religion, that limited people’s lives and caused unhappiness.  Hardy’s religious beliefs seem to have been a combination of agnosticism and spiritualism; he rejected the religious doctrine of his time.  For him, education was an unfair badge of social status, and the sexual mores of Victorian England were often a millstone around people’s necks.

 

Thomas Hardy

Tess, the lead character in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, is a beautiful farm girl whose lower class status is denied by her father who fancies that his family are descendants of the old, aristocratic, D’Urberville family.  She is sent to work for an old,  matriarch and her ne’er-do-well son, Alec, of the D’Urberville family.  She dislikes the son for his arrogance and his bothersome attentions, but she is taken advantage of by him and becomes pregnant.  How this happens is left to the reader’s imagination.  Her baby dies and she goes to work on a distant farm where she meets a middle class man, Angel Clare, with whom she falls in love.  When he asks her to marry him she is distraught, as his expectation must be that she is a virgin.  Finally, she accepts Angel’s proposal and commits to revealing her sin to him, which she does on their wedding night.  He, a man of strict morals, rejects her and emigrates to Brazil.  She is heartbroken, and goes to work on a hard-scrabble farm, where, once again, she meets Alec.  Separated by thousands of miles, Tess and Angel pine for one another, and he comes back to England to find her.  But, owing to dire financial circumstances, she has been taken by Alec as his mistress.  Angel follows her trail and finds her with Alec in a smart hotel.  The story ends tragically.

The first two thirds of the novel is beautifully written at a leisurely, captivating pace.  Hardy’s love of Tess, the English countryside and its culture shines through. At the same time there is a sense of impending disaster which pulls the reader along.

It seemed to me that the last third of the novel was written in a hurry by an author who wanted to get to the conclusion.  Character development in the first two thirds was measured and complete, but the changes in Alec and Tess toward the end seem somewhat dubious.  Alec’s transformation from scoundrel to preacher and back to a scoundrel seems barely plausible – as does Tess’ out of character change in the last few pages to pliant mistress with a hidden fury.  Strangely, Hardy has Tess swear an oath on an ancient stone monument, and one is braced for a repercussion, but none appears.  Then there is the character Lisa-Lu, Tess’s sister, who comes on stage at the last minute in an important role, without previous introduction.

I enjoyed reading Tess, and I also enjoyed finding what I think are errors by a great author.

Fake Rules

Mary Ann de Stefano has an article in the current issue of The Florida Writer entitled “Fake Rules and What Really Matters”.  She begins by saying, “Many of those so-called grammar and punctuation rules that people are pushing in online forums are not really rules at all. (No matter what your high school English teacher told you.)”  The article is light-hearted and I quote from it here.

Ms de Stefano is an independent editor with over 30 years of experience in publishing and consulting.  She works one-on-one with writers, organises writing workshops and designs author websites.

Mary Ann de Stefano

“If writers are not debating about the serial comma and the number of spaces after a period in online discussions, they’re often railing against the use of the ‘singular they’ in modern usage.  (The serial comma is a comma placed before a conjunction – usually ‘and’ or ‘or’ – in a list of three or more items.  For my part, I use serial commas and two spaces after the end of a sentence, although my publisher doesn’t approve of the latter.)  Critics say that ‘Somebody used the milk and they didn’t put it back in the refrigerator’, should be written, they say, as, ‘Somebody used the milk and he or she didn’t put it back in the refrigerator.’  The former construction, they say – even though it is less awkward and perfectly understandable – is evidence of a decline in our educational system.  But the fact is that the singular they has been used for hundreds of years by the likes of Chaucer, Lewis Carroll, Walt Whitman, Shakespeare, Jane Austin, Oscar Wilde, and many more famous authors.  You may not like the singular they, but it is not wrong to use it, except, perhaps, in formal writing.

“Another tenaciously fake rule is the one about not ending a sentence with a preposition.  Following the fake rule can often result in sentences that are stilted or awkward.  There is no rule which compels you to write: ‘She asked him from where he had come’, rather than the more natural ‘She asked him where he had come from’.  Feel free to end a sentence with a preposition; famous writers have been doing it for hundreds of years.”

This discussion reminds me of a joke I like.  A shabbily dressed red neck is visiting the Harvard University campus, and he stops a distinguished, well-dressed professor to ask. ‘Where is the library at?’  To this the professor responds, ‘Don’t you know, my good man, not to end a sentence with a preposition?”  And the red neck says, ‘Oh, sorry.  Where is the library at, idiot?’

Ms de Stefano continues: “While you’re at it, split an infinitive and start a sentence or two with a conjunction.  But don’t just do it to thumb your nose at the prescriptivists.  Do it thoughtfully and for a reason. (A split infinitive is the insertion of an adverb or an adverbial phrase between ‘to’ and the verb: for example ‘to quickly go’.  Wikipedia says: “The construction is to some extent still the subject of disagreement but modern English usage guides have dropped the objection to it.”

Ms de Stefano concludes: “Perhaps the desire to lean on the rules is an attempt to grasp into certainty within a process – writing – that is inherently uncertain.  But here’s what really matters: Great writing doesn’t happen just because what you’re doing what is ‘correct’.  Great writing happens because you’re being very conscious and deliberate about the choices you’re making as a writer and how those choices will affect your reader.  I think, perhaps, we talk too much about the rules, about correctness, and to little about style and artistic expression.  Learn the rules, yes.  But also think about how employing them or breaking them might affect the clarity, grace, pacing, tone, voice and meaning in your writing.”

 

Review: Fire and Fury

I have to admit that I bought a copy of Fire and Fury inside the Trump White House.  I’m not  a Trump fan and I wanted to see how bad it really is.  The book is written by Michael Wolff, based on over two hundred interviews and and two hundred days in the White House, ending with the appointment of General John Kelly as chief of staff and the departure of Steve Bannon..  Mr Wolff claims that he had the agreement of the President to be a sort of fly on the wall, beginning during the campaign, though the President has denied ever speaking to Wolff.

Michael Wolff does not have a gold-plated reputation as a journalist.  The Independent said : “He became well-known for writing that explored the lives of the rich and powerful, often written with colourful and bombastic language. His New York Magazine column, “This Media Life”, explored a world of which he was very much a part – he has surfaced periodically in the New York Post’s Page Six, a gossip hub for the city. . . While he achieved prominence and visibility with his work, Mr Wolff is not necessarily beloved by his compatriots in the media world. And he has embraced that, as shown by a past book featuring blurbs that excoriated him as toxic. “Far less circumspect – and sometimes more vicious – than the other journalists,” The New York Times is quoted as saying. “Possibly the bitchiest media bigfoot writing today,” suggested The New Republic.  “This Wolff excerpt (the book) has a 500-word-long chunk of recreated verbatim dialogue between Bannon and Ailes,” The New York Time’s Nick Confessore wrote. “Come on”.  But it turns out that Wolff hosted the dinner for six at this Manhattan town house.  “I was one of the 6 guests at the Bannon-Ailes dinner party in January 2017 and every word I’ve seen from the book about it is absolutely accurate. It was an astonishing night,” Janice Min said.”

Michael Wolff

The reader has to decide for herself whether every word in the book is the unvarnished truth.  There are relatively few direct quotations from named individuals.  Further, there are almost no kind words for anyone in the book: can everyone in the White House be that bad?  However, the preponderance of hear-say evidence in the book points overwhelmingly to the President’s short-comings in the vital learn-analyse-act-review cycle that leaders must master to be fully effective.  In particular, the Learn and Analyse stages are almost void.  He does not read memoranda longer than two pages (and those, reluctantly).  His preferred style of information gathering is watching television and speaking on the telephone with friends.  Reportedly, he has an aversion to ‘experts’, and tends to be swayed by the last person he spoke with on the subject.  Analysis is also a weakness (though to put it in context, perhaps Obama sometimes seemed to engage in analysis-paralysis), as numerous examples were cited of the President referring decisions to others.  Act, unlike Obama, is one of Trump’s strengths (though this is not mentioned in the book); one has to only count the record number of presidential orders that he has signed.  And, as to Review, no examples are given but, in fairness, it may be too early to review many of the actions taken.  Overall, one has the impression of a man with an enormous, but very fragile ego.

If one has been reading the daily newspapers and watching the evening news, there isn’t much in the way of surprises in this book.  However, until reading it, I did not appreciate the extent to which Trump did not expect to win (nor did he want to win) the 2016 election.   The win he wanted was all the publicity with no follow-on consequences.

Man Booker Protest

Today’s Daily Telegraph has an article captioned Man Booker rule change has lost us sales , say publishes, and the caption reads: US dominance has hit Commonwealth writers who are falling off shortlists.  

Not that my opinion had an iota of influence, I was opposed to the rule change in 2014, which opened the prize to writers from any nationality, who publish in English, on the basis that there are a large number of US literary prizes, so there was no need to open another prize to American writers.  I also felt that the Man Booker was a unique prize open to Commonwealth authors.  Finally, given the quirky judging standards of the Man Booker Prize Committer (see my most recent post), it seemed inappropriate to me that the Booker should be positioning itself as the top global prize in English literature.

Now the publishers have weighed in with their own arguments regarding the effect of the rule change on the volume of books sold, and, by extension, on their bottom lines.

“About 30 publishers are understood to have signed a letter urging the trustees to the Booker Prize Foundation to reverse the decision, saying the change risked creating ‘a homogenised literary future’ dominated by American culture.  ‘The rule change, which presumably had the intention of making the prize more global, has in fact made it less so by allowing the dominance of Anglo-American writers at the expense of others; it risks turning the prize, once a brilliant mechanism for bringing the world’s English-language writers to the attention of the world’s biggest English-language market, into one that is no longer serving the readers in that market’ it says.

“It claims that diversity of the prize has been ‘significantly reduced’, noting that this year’s shortlist consists of three Americans, two Britons, and one British-Pakistani as opposed to 2013’s shortlist which featured a New Zealander, a Zimbabwean, an Irishman, an American-Canadian and a British-American. ‘We already live in a world that is dominated by American culture’, the letter says. ‘The Man Booker Prize was one significant way to allow other voices to be heard.’

“Johnny Geller, of the Curtis Brown literary agency, said the letter was ‘a long time coming’ and that ‘widening the entry requirements to include US writers has resulted in weakened sales on both sides of the Atlantic’.

“Denying that diversity had been reduced, the Booker foundation said the rule change was not created specifically to included US writers but to allow entries from authors of any nationality, regardless of geography.”

Clearly, the rule change has reduced diversity, and one is prompted to ask why the rule change was felt to be necessary: was it to raise the profile of the foundation at the expense of sacrificing its unique position?

The point about the impact on sales is interesting, and the article does not mention whether it was addressed in the foundation’s response.  Presumably, the cause of this sales decline is that Man Booker prize recognition does little to increase the sales of winning American authors: they already have recognition through other awards and bestseller lists.  But, non-recognition of Commonwealth authors impacts their sales on both sides of the Atlantic.

It will be interesting to see how much power the publishers have in this situation!

Review: Istanbul: Memories and the City

I wanted to read a book by Orhan Pamuk, who won the Noble Prize for Literature in 2006, but when I looked at his recent novels, I was put off.  My Name is Red is 688 pages; A Strangeness in my Mind is 764 pages.  To me, this seems a disproportionate amount to time to devote to one author.  (Perhaps, I’m like a teenage boy: so many girls, so little time.)  So, I chose Istanbul: Memories and the City (336 pages), which was written in 2005, and appealed to me because I visited Istanbul, briefly, on my honeymoon.

Orhan Pamuk is a Turkish writer, screenwriter and academic, born in Istanbul in 1952; he has sold 13 million books in 63 languages.  He is a Professor of Humanities at Columbia University, where he teaches courses in writing and comparative literature.

In 2005, Pamuk made a statement regarding the Armenian Genocide that  “Thirty thousand Kurds have been killed here, and a million Armenians. And almost nobody dares to mention that. So I do.”  An ultra-nationalist lawyer brought a law suit based on Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code which makes it a crime to insult Turkey or the Turkish Grand National Assembly.  The suit resulted in a lengthy battle with the Turkish legals system in which the European Union took an interest because of its implications for the freedom of speech in Turkey.  The Turkish Justice Ministry finally declined to back the trial on a technicality, but gave no support to Pamuk, who said that he mentioned the genocide not to call attention to specific numbers of deaths but to demonstrate the lack of freedom to discuss taboo subjects in Turkey.

Orhan Pamuk

Istanbul, translated by Maureen Freely, is one of five non-fiction works by Pamuk in English.  It is, as the subtitle suggests, a reflection on the Istanbul the author knew as a child together with his family memories.  There are black-and-white photographs on every couple of pages, some dating back to the mid-nineteenth century, and some as recent at the 1960’s; most are of ‘old Istanbul’ but there are family photographs, as well.  The ‘old Istanbul’ photographs are a vehicle for commentary on the writings of European and Turkish literati regarding the culture, style, history, art and visual perspectives of the city.  Clearly, Istanbul was (and is) a unique city: its rapid growth, its human crossroads of East and West, its unique wooden architecture (which frequently went up in smoke), the presence of the Bosporus with all its maritime energy, and the air of melancholy (húzún) arising from the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the subsequent economic decline, and the cultural ambivalence between East and West.

Perhaps what is surprising about this book – part travelogue, history, autobiography, artistic and cultural commentary – is that it is an integral whole, seamlessly shifting themes without confusing the reader.  This, I think, is all down to Pamuk’s fondness for his city and his skill as a commentator and a writer.  One can set the book aside for a day or two, but one is drawn back into its dream-like flow.  The attraction is, in large measure, due to the characterisation of the boy, Orhan, his brother, his mother and father, the larger family and their declining circumstances.  The one criticism I have is that a map of the city should have been included.  There are frequent references to districts in Istanbul by their Turkish names, but one has no idea of the geography which is an omission for a piece of writing which is otherwise so visual.

Istambul is a very pleasant reading experience.

Rules for Writing Fiction

On the Guardian website, February 20, 2010, there is an article, Ten Rules for Writing Fiction Parts 1 & 2, which caught my eye, mainly because of the writers who were offering their opinions.  In this post I’ve picked out some that haven’t been covered before in this blog, and with which I agree or disagree.

Illustration: Andrzej Krauze from the article

Is this a metaphor for writing fiction or for the opinions about it?

  • Hilary Mantel: “Description must work for its place. It can’t be simply ornamental. It ­usually works best if it has a human element; it is more effective if it comes from an implied viewpoint, rather than from the eye of God. If description is coloured by the viewpoint of the character who is doing the noticing, it becomes, in effect, part of character definition and part of the action.”      I agree!
  • Michael Moorcock: “If possible have something going on while you have your characters delivering exposition or philosophising. This helps retain dramatic tension.” and “Carrot and stick – have protagonists pursued (by an obsession or a villain) and pursuing (idea, object, person, mystery)”   Good point.
  • Will Self: ” You know that sickening feeling of inadequacy and over-exposure you feel when you look upon your own empurpled prose? Relax into the awareness that this ghastly sensation will never, ever leave you, no matter how successful and publicly lauded you become. It is intrinsic to the real business of writing and should be cherished.”    I find this quite interesting; I had only feelings of pride for my first book when completed.  More recently, with my eighth, I do feel that sense of inadequacy.
  • Zacie Smith: “Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand – but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.”     This is very similar to Will Self’s comment.
  • Rose Tremain: “Forget the boring old dictum “write about what you know”. Instead, seek out an unknown yet knowable area of experience that’s going to enhance your understanding of the world and write about that.”    I did just this with my last two novels.   By the way, when one does this, one has to be connected to the Internet – contrary to the advice of several authors.
  • Sarah Waters: “Writing fiction is not “self-­expression” or “therapy”. Novels are for readers, and writing them means the crafty, patient, selfless construction of effects. I think of my novels as being something like fairground rides: my job is to strap the reader into their car at the start of chapter one, then trundle and whizz them through scenes and surprises, on a carefully planned route, and at a finely engineered pace.”     I like the analogy.
  • Jonathan Franzen: “Write in the third person unless a ­really distinctive first-person voice ­offers itself irresistibly.”    I think this is probably good advice.  Luckily the two novels I’ve written in the first person are distinctive.
  • Esther Freud: “Cut out the metaphors and similes. In my first book I promised myself I wouldn’t use any and I slipped up ­during a sunset in chapter 11. I still blush when I come across it.”   I don’t agree with this; I think that a whimsical, unexpected metaphor can be very enlightening.
  • Neil Gaiman: “Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.”  I thought it was jut my compulsive self: noticing a problem in an earlier chapter and immediately rushing to find and fix it.
  • P D James: “Increase your word power. Words are the raw material of our craft. The greater your vocabulary the more ­effective your writing. We who write in English are fortunate to have the richest and most versatile language in the world. Respect it.”   I think this is an excellent point and it is contrary to some who encourage the use of common words or discourage the use of a thesaurus.

Artistic Ladder

A good friend of my wife’s and mine is an only child and when her father died, he left her a large industrial site on the outskirts of a major city.  For some years, she thought to sell it to a developer, but the area is not ideal for a residential – or commercial – development.  She is an art lover and gradually, she began to put on exhibitions by two or three eclectic artists in the buildings.  The site became known as an art venue and she developed a mailing list of ten thousand ‘members’ who pay a small fee to be advised of events and are admitted for free.  Recently, she put on an exhibition by three prominent artists in different disciplines from three different countries.  One of them is thinking of establishing a studio on the site.

I asked her what she could do with a grant of one million euros.  Her face lit up and the ideas came tumbling out, but then she stopped and said, “But I haven’t any idea how to raise one million euros.”  We talked about it further, and she agreed that grants in that size can be obtained with the right connections and a persuasive proposal.  She certainly has connections in the art world, if not the actual fund-raising skills.

She also said that her surname will die out with her and she wants to somehow leave her name attached to whatever she does in the art world.  We talked about a way to do that, and then she was back on the subject of the kind of exhibitions she might put on.

I asked her to give serious thought to providing same ‘ladders’ for aspiring, but unknown artists with talent.  I pointed out that in every art discipline (including my own – literature, and including sports) there tends to be an enormous gap between the well-known, well-paid, big names and the skilled but unknown, and unpaid beginners.  I suggested two possible ladders for her to consider when possible.  The first was to put on an aspiring artists exhibition, at least once a year, with exhibitors selected by a panel of experts, and prizes being awarded to those judged to be ‘the best’ by another expert committee.  Perhaps provision could be made for the public to buy individual pieces, or for a gallery to pick artists to carry.  The second ladder was to establish an artist’s workshop space in the premises where young artists could come and paint or sculpt, where they could exchange ideas, and minimise the loneliness of their trade.  Maybe a small coffee shop would be opened to serve them, and perhaps interesting events could be organised.

As those of you who have been following this blog know, I feel that there are not enough ladders to success for aspiring artists of all disciplines.  In fact, in literature there are structural disincentives for the advancement of new talent: the tight grip of the traditional publishers on whom to select and promote.

Review: Absalom, Absalom!

William Faulkner is a novelist I had never read until now – perhaps because I grew up and was educated in the northeastern US.  Now that I have read Absalom, Absalom! I can understand why Faulkner is considered one of the greatest American writers of the 19th century.

Faulkner was born in Mississippi in 1897, was raised by a black nanny, lived most of his life in Oxford, Mississippi, and attended the University of Mississipi (Ol’e Miss).  His family, upper-middle class; his mother was a literature buff who read to him and introduced him to the classics.  Friends and extended family often told tales of the Old South, the Civil War, slavery, and the Ku Klux Klan.  Faulkner received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949 and his last novel, The Reivers (1962) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1998.  Faulkner died in 1962 after the fall from a horse.

William Faulkner

Absalom, Absalom! (the title relates to the return of the central character’s son, Charles; Absalom, according to the Jewish bible, was the third son of King David.  A handsome, high-living man, Absalom killed his older half-brother for the rape of their sister) is set in the early to middle 19th century, mostly in Mississippi.  The central character, Thomas Sutpen, a rough, ungentlemanly fellow, appears in a small Mississippi town with 20 slaves and considerable funds of suspect origin.  He acquires 100 square miles of property 12 miles outside the town, builds an enormous mansion, grows cotton, marries the town shopkeeper’s daughter, and has a son, Henry, and a daughter, Judith.  Sutpen had married the daughter of a Haitian sugar planter, who bore him a son whom he named, Charles Bon.  When Sutpen discovered that his new wife has negro blood, he pays to have the marriage annulled under obscure circumstances.  In his mid-twenties, Charles Bon suddenly appears at the U of Miss. where Henry is attending and the two become friends, though Henry does not learn Charles’ identity until later, when Charles begins to realise who his father is.  Henry and his mother begin to promote the marriage of Judith to Charles.  Sutpen travels to New Orleans (where Charles first appeared) and learns who he is.  On his return, he tells Henry that Charles is his half-brother and the marriage will not be permitted.  Henry refuses to believe that Charles is his brother.  The Civil War intervenes.  Charles decides to break the impasse by marrying Judith, and Henry kills him.  Other deaths follow until there is no mansion and no living heirs to the Sutpen name.

This is an intriguing story, deeply coloured with the culture of the Old South.  Falkner’s story-telling technique is quite oblique: he makes use of different narrators to illuminate parts of the story that they know first-hand, have heard from others, or suspect, so that the reader is able to gradually pick up the thread.  This technique creates a sense of mystery, uncertainty and ambiguity about a story which was nearly a century old.  Faulkner’s writing is a poetic, erudite, stream of consciousness by the narrator, particularly when the subject is what a character is thinking or feeling; not infrequently, these dissections of a character’s motives can go on for two pages or more, and they are not easy to read, because they lack fluency and are full of parenthetical statements.  Sentences can go on for half a page.  Nonetheless, a careful reader will, at thinking and feeling levels, understand the character.  There is almost no dialogue in the novel; nearlyh all is revealed by the narrators.  Interestingly, the narrators never set the scenes: what the town, the battlefield, the mansion looked like.

The characters are all clearly drawn.  I found it somewhat surprising that all of the female characters were presented as passive.  One gets a clear sense of what life was like in the Old South, particularly before the Civil War, from the point of view of the wealthy few, the middle class and the slaves and poor whites. The slaves themselves had various classes.  As a literally minded person, I found it difficult to accept that Thomas Sutpen could have acquired the wealth he had as the overseer of a Haitian sugar plantation: something is missing.  Similarly, it is doubtful that Sutpen, 20 unskilled slaves and a French architect could have built the huge, elaborate mansion ‘Sutpen’s Hundred’.

Absalom,Absalom! is not an easy read, but it should not be overlooked if one is interested in distinctive American writing – particularly about the Old South.