Sunday, April 30, 2017

Whose writing tools should we use?

The New York Times Book Review has an interesting opinion piece by Viet Thanh Nguyen, "Your Writing Tools Aren't Mine." It begins by pointing out that American literature is being read around the world and that the American way of teaching writing is also spreading. "The writing workshop, with all its unexamined assumptions, has spread to Britain and Hong Kong, a model of pedagogy that is also an object lesson in how power propagates and conceals itself."

Nguyen touches on his own experience as a refugee from war, from an Asian country in a workshop that deliberately or otherwise, "produces a particular kind of writing." He says that workshops typically focus on "strategies of the writing 'art' that develop character, setting, time, description, theme, voice and, to a lesser extent, plot."

They generally do not have anything to say about politics, history, theory, philosophy, or ideology. Writing teachers avoid these subjects for fiction, not because they put off readers or because the teachers are unqualified to teach them, but because they threaten the workshop's origins.

As an institution, Nguyen writes, "the workshop reproduces its ideology, which pretends that 'Show, don't tell' is universal when it is, in fact the expression of a particular population, the white majority, typically at least middle-class and often, but not exclusively, male."

It's an interesting argument. (And it echoes themes in Minae Mizumura's The Fall of Language in the Age of English, which I discussed recently.) If nothing else, the piece is sending me to read Nguyen's novel The Sympathizer, which won a 2016 Pulitzer Prize and a ton of other awards. I am curious to see how his own fiction reflects his ideas. In any case, his fiction provokes strong feelings among readers as few minutes skimming through the 1,478 Amazon reviews suggests:

" . . . simply superb. Written with an unflinching eye and great humor . . ."

" . . . boring. Nothing actually happened, there was no plot . . ."

" . . . a fabulous book that brought so many memories of my two Viet Nam tours . . ."

" . . . overrated, predictable, no plot twist at all . . ."

" . . . a very serious story, but with wonderful humor interlaced with the tales of political intrigue."

" . . . a potentially interesting theme and plot ruined by the narrator's flippant attitude to everything . . ."

But you get the idea. And I wonder how far Nguyen is willing to go. 

Should writers not develop character, describe a scene, set a time, have a theme (in my experience, a work has a theme whether you want one or not), tell not show? Which is not to denigrate or dismiss politics, history, theory, philosophy, and ideology. It seems to me that the more tools a writer can employ effectively, the more engaging, the richer a work is likely to be. 

I'd be interested in hear other opinions. 

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Who writes incredible dialogue?

Here is Dave Barry on the author he thinks writes the best dialogue. To make this interesting, I've edited out the author's name; can you guess who Barry is talking about?

"When you read him and then read somebody else, you realize that everyone else is doing writing that's supposed to be the way people talk, whereas [he] is writing exactly the way people talk. Which is more difficult than anybody can imagine. He has this phenomenal ability to tear away all the thing we don't say, and leave out all the things people really leave out, so that much of the thoughts are poorly express or incomplete—writers have a lot of trouble doing that, they wan to tell you to make sure you get it. But [he] relies on your ear to fill in things that weren't there and thing that go unsaid, and to deal with the ambiguities that real life forces you to deal with. He does that so incredibly well and he does it very consciously; it's not effortless. He works really hard to get that feel and sound to his writing. I don't think anybody does it as well as he does . . . "
—Ronald B. Schwartz, For the Love of Books: 115 Celebrated Writers on the Books They Love Most, (Gosset/Putnam, 1999), p 12.

The author Dave Barry is talking about is:

Elmore Leonard

Thursday, April 20, 2017

A breathtakingly original and unsettling novel

Rachel Cusk is a British author I'd never heard of until I began reading rave reviews her new novel, Transit, so I immediately picked up a copy of her novel Outline. Reportedly, Transit is the second novel in a trilogy; Outline is the first. They join Cusk's seven other works of fiction and three works of nonfiction. How have I managed to miss her all this time?

Because Outline is extraordinary. I'll go with Julie Myerson, writing in The Observer because I cannot improve on the sentiment: "This has to be one of the oddest, most breathtakingly original and unsettling novels I've read in a long time."

While I am skeptical that I can convey what makes the book so powerful (to start with, I cannot write as well as Cusk, nor can I think as deeply), let me say a little bit about it.

Outline is narrated by a writer who has been invited to teach a week-long workshop in Athens. She is divorced, has two young sons back in London. On the flight to Greece, she falls into conversation with her seatmate, a much older, much divorced man; in Greece she twice goes out on his boat with him; she leads her writing class; she spends an afternoon with a friend and a lesbian Greek writer; she talks the woman who is taking over the apartment in which she's been staying. That's it.

Cusk violates many of the "rules" of fiction. It is not clear what the narrator wants—and if we don't know what a character is trying to accomplish, how can we root for her? (If an author is as good as Cusk, we—or I—will follow her anywhere.) There is no story arc except that the narrator, whose name is used only once in the 249 pages, flies to Athens, spends a week there, and is about to return to London when the book ends. On the other hand, the book is full of stories; the people the narrator meets and her writing students tell her stories. Self-serving, sad, charming, off-putting and on-putting stories.

Meanwhile, the pages are studded with comments like this: "Sometimes it has seemed to me that life is a series of punishments for such moments of unawareness, that one forgets one's own destiny by what one doesn't notice or feel compassion for; that what you don't know and don't make the effort to understand will become the very thing you are forced into knowledge of." Think about that for a few minutes and see where it takes you.

At the same time, Cusk is brilliant at description: "The woman who said this was of a glorious though eccentric appearance, somewhere in her fifties, with a demolished beauty she bore quite regally. The bones of her face were so impressively structured as to verge on the grotesque, an impression she had chosen to accentuate—in a way that struck me as distinctly and intentionally humorous—by surrounding her already enormous blue eyes in oceans of exotic blue and green shadow and then drawing, not carefully, around the lids with an even brighter blue; her sharp cheekbones wore slashes of pink blusher, and her mouth, which was unusually fleshy and pouting, was richly and inaccurately slathered in red lipstick."

One last quote and then I'll stop before I begin to flirt dangerously with the 'fair use' exception of the copyright law: "There was a great difference, I said, between the things I wanted and the things that I could apparently have, and until I had finally and forever made my peace with that fact, I had decided to want nothing at all." Something else to think on for a while.

As a writer, I am dazzled by Cusk's use of language. Consider what would happen to her second quote above if an idiot editor insisted—as idiot writing teachers have insisted—she excise all adverbs.

As a reader I waiting to immerse myself in Transit when my copy arrives. But start with Outline.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

What happens to literature when English dominates?

Minae Mizumura is a Japanese novelist I've written about in the past. I've discussed two of her novels, A True Novel and Inheritance from Mother in my blog that focuses on Japan and Japanese culture. Her new book—new for Western readers—is The Fall of Language in the Age of English. It was originally published in Japan as When the Japanese Language Falls: In the Age of English (Nihongo ga horobiru toki: Eigo no seiki no naka de) in 2008 where it became an enormous best-seller. The English version, translated by Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter, is somewhat different from the original which addressed Japanese readers. The Fall of Language in the Age of English makes a more general, more universal argument.

Mizumura was born in Tokyo in 1951, moved with her family to Long Island, New York, when she was twelve years old. She lived in the States for twenty years but never felt entirely at ease here. She studied French literature and literary criticism at Yale as both an undergraduate and graduate student. She has taught at Princeton, University of Michigan, and Stanford and in The Fall of Language she gives her account of her experience in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa in 2003. She currently lives in Tokyo.

Her book makes a clear distinction between a local language, a national language, and a universal language. A local language is the one you grow up speaking; it may or may not have a writing system. As I understand her argument, a local language in Italy is something like Neapolitan, Calabrese, Sicilian, Venetian—more than a dialect or an accent—a language that outsiders cannot understand; the national language would be Italian. In Japan, local languages include Tohoku-ben, Kansai-ben, Hakata-ben, and more local; the national language is Japanese. A national language Mizumura says "is an elevated form of a local language" and a country like Belgium might have two national languages.

A universal language is one used internationally for science, business, diplomacy, and more. In the middle ages, Latin was a universal language. Today, thanks to British colonial efforts, trade and US strength after WWII, English has become the universal language. More Chinese may speak Mandarin, but "what makes a language 'universal' has nothing to do with how many native speakers there are, and everything to do with how many people use it as their second language . . . What matters is that English is already used and will continue to be used by the greatest number of nonnative speakers in the world." (Italics in the original.)

One of the things this means is that translation becomes far more important than most people realize. If an author writes in her local or national language, her readers are only those who can read it. If an author writes in English, her prospective readers are all over the world, not only in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. Many more Japanese are able to read a novel in English than Americans are able to read a novel in Japanese. This suggests that if an ambitious author wants a wide audience, she ought to write in English even though her native language may be Hausa, Tagalog, Tswana, or Tigrinya.

Translation, however, is at best a limited answer to the challenge of literature written in languages other than English. As Mizumura points out "the works that are usually translated into English are those that are both thematically and linguistically the easiest to translate, that often only reinforce the worldview constructed by the English language, and preferably that entertain readers with just the right kind of exoticism." Readers therefore "are not condemned to know that there is thus a perpetual hermeneutic circle—that in interpreting the world, only 'truths' that can be perceived in English exist as 'truths.'"

And machine translating, while clearly improving almost weekly, has real problems with languages remote from English like Japanese and Chinese. In a news article or instruction manual where the meaning rests mostly on the surface, a machine version may be adequate. But in a work of literature where much of the meaning—and pleasure—is in the nuance, the implications, the way words can resonate against one another, machine translation, as I can testify from my own experience, has a long, long way to go. And—sudden thought—by the time it gets there, (which is not a sure thing), it may be useless because English has so overwhelmed all other languages that no one is bothering to write literature in her native language anyway.

Given her interest, Mizumura has much to say about Japanese literature, its remarkable florescence during the late 19th and early 20th centuries (i.e., during the Meiji and Taisho eras) and, in her opinion, its current low state. Indeed, when her book was published in Japan, she was attacked for her judgment: "She talks down about contemporary Japanese literature, when even Americans say it's great!" As if American opinion is the measure of quality.

I  found the book fascinating. Anyone interested in language, literature, Japan, or all three can read The Fall of Language in the Age of English profitably. Because most of us tend to think in our native language most of the time, we are usually no more aware of it than a fish is of the water in which it swims. Mizumura helps us consider the medium in which we think and write, what we're doing, and the effect the spread of English is having on the rest of humanity.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

A counter view to life during Italy's "Years of Lead"

Edoardo Nesi's new novel, Infinite Summer (translated from the Italian by Alice Kilgarriff), takes place in Tuscany between August 1972 and August 1982, right in the middle of the period known in Italy as the "Years of Lead," a period of social and political turmoil marked by left-wing and right-wing killings and bombings. Knowing a bit of this history gives the novel a feeling of unfolding in an alternate Italy, an Italy of booming growth, expanding global markets for Italian goods, and limitless possibilities.

Nesi is a translator, writer, filmmaker, and politician. He has translated Bruce Chatwin, Malcolm Lowry, Stephen King, and David Foster Wallace among others. He's written a dozen books, one of which, Fughe da Fermo, was made into a film that he directed. In 2013 he was elected to the Italian Parliament's Chamber of Deputies.

Infinite Summer weaves together the stories of four characters: Ivo Barrocciai, the expansive, optimistic son of a modest Tuscan textile manufacturer; Cesare "The Beast" Vezzosi, a small-time building contractor; Vittorio, Cesare's young son; and Pasquale Citarella, "a hard-working foreman and house painter from the South." In other words, a representative of the upper, middle, and lower classes.

Ivo has a vision: Build a textile factory on the outskirts of Florence that will be "the envy of the Milanese." The factory must be huge, larger than any factory in the region. It must have two stories. Ivo's own office must be as large as a tennis court and a white Carrara marble staircase must lead to it. As frosting on this cake, an Olympic-size swimming pool must be built on the roof. Ivo's vision includes Vezzosi as the contractor and Citarella as site manager. Because Ivo's goals are so outrageous and because neither Caesare nor Pasquale have any experience in their assigned roles, I expected the enterprise to collapse in a heap of debt and recriminations.

But it doesn't. There are complications, but it won't spoil the book to know that at the end Ivo can enjoy his rooftop pool. Between the first chapter in which we meet eight-year-old Vittorio and the last, we follow Ivo, Cesare, Vittorio, and Pasquale change and grow, picking up insights into Italian life and culture along the way—one of the many pleasures of Infinite Summer.

The book is interestingly constructed. Some chapters are virtually all description, some are all dialogue. Some limit the point of view to a single character, some take an omniscient point. Early in the book, Nesi takes the time to describe in considerable detail a pickup soccer game that includes this:

" . . .The ball—a gnarled, rough, rubber sphere adorned with the word 'Yashin' in honor of the great Russian goalkeeper of the 1960s whom none of the boys had ever seen play—rises so high that Arianna [Vittorio's mother] sees it trace an arch through the sunset burning brightly below the low, distant hills. It's a brushstroke, a satellite, a signature that strokes the sky . . . "

And here is Ivo, persuading Cesare to build his beautiful factory:

" . . . Think about it, Cesare, I'm always abroad selling, and while I'm in Germany, or America, or Japan, or Cape Town in South Africa, my business needs loyal, honest, tireless workers, people who care about the business as much as I do. They're the ones who'll keep it going. I call the shots, of course, but they're the ones who do all the work, and if they aren't any good, if they don't give their hundred percent, if they don't want to stay that extra hour, the company won't go anywhere, you see?"

In one sense, Infinite Summer is a brief for capitalism and global trade. Ivo is able to obtain financing to build his factory, hire and motivate skilled workers, and sell his innovative fabrics around the world. The problems are personal; men—and women—are attracted to inappropriate sexual partners and complications ensue. All in all, a fascinating and convincing picture of a certain time in Italy and an engaging and persuasive portrait of characters who were living through it.