Tag Archives: literature

The Case for Lilac Prose

17 Oct

Dear literature lovers, have you grown sick of simple sentences?

Lilacs at the 2007 Lilac Celebration at the RBCDeadened to the doldrums of dry, dusty prose?

Benumbed by the banal?

You’re not alone.

I, and at least one other guy, agree with you.

And after all, don’t we have a right to be upset?

These days American literature has taken on the drab and isolating austerity of an Edward Hopper painting. Once bold and fresh, the pared-back writing style of literary greats like Hemingway and Carver has grown limp and weary—flaccid as a neglected houseplant in the fits of winter.

This Wednesday, The New York Times published another installment of Draft, a series of essays that hone in on the “art and craft of writing.” In this week’s selection, “A Short Defense of Literary Excess,” the 24-year old British author Ben Masters (who’s pretty cute for the literary type, in case you wanted to know) wrote about his love for writers who revel in the musicality of a poetic sentence and the long hours of tinkering that can occur in the process of perfecting the rhythm and diction of phrasing.

In the article, Masters describes a few of the great baroque stylists: Vladimir Nabokov, Saul Bellow, Virginia Woolf, David Foster Wallace, and others. For Masters, these authors open the doors to the house of literature, allowing it to breathe and expand.

Writes Masters, “Excess serves very different functions for each of [the authors], whether as an expression of wonder, adaptability, individuality, free will; or as a means of self-fashioning; even as a survival tactic. But whatever it embodies or performs, the sentence in their hands is expansive rather than constrictive.”

So what do you think of this Masters?

Is he pretentious?

Does he waggle his roseate pinky finger as he sips from his china tea cup? Who knows. But I don’t think so. I think I agree with him.

American prose has become unplayful and stiff, like a collared shirt flattened and then doused with too much starch. After all, when was the last time we frontier-forgers won a Nobel? Not since 1993, with Toni Morrison’s gorgeous, sometimes surrealist prose.

Just as this article came out, I was in the middle of reading The Street of Crocodiles, a book by a Polish author, Bruno Schulz, who was Poland’s preeminent writer in the years between World War I and World War II. Schulz, a Jew, was shot in the head by a Nazi in World War II, and we only have his slim oeuvre of fantastical stories and eery drawings to let us know how much we’ve missed by that loss.

Cover of "The Street of Crocodiles (Class...

Take these two sentences, the very first from The Street of Crocodiles.

“In July my father went to take the waters and left me, with my mother and elder brother, a prey to the blinding white heat of the summer days. Dizzy with light, we dipped into that enormous book of holidays, its pages blazing with sunshine and scented with the sweet melting pulp of golden pears.”

When was the last time you read something so gorgeous, so wonderfully unexpected and vivid?

Schulz’s book, The Street of Crocodiles, is a collection of short stories that act as a kind of fantastical memoir of his own childhood and the growing mania of his father. Just as his father becomes obsessed with the cockroaches that steal around the house, the exotic birds he raises in the attic, and the inanimate objects he infuses with lungs and breath and evil intentions, Schulz’s narrator uses madness’s close cousin—the fantastic—to describe this childhood from the perspective of a man looking back on his youth through the lens of that same vivid, childish imagination.

Just read how he describes the boredom of being cooped up in winter: “The days hardened with cold and boredom like last year’s loaves of bread. One began to cut them with blunt knives without appetite, with a lazy indifference.”

Translate that into popularized prose and you might get something like: “The winter was cold and he was bored. He looked for something to do. He went into town and walked around the stores.”

Yikes, no!

John Wood, a writer and literary critic, writes in his book How Fiction Works why language is such a tricky thing. The medium too easily lends itself to the common. For Wood, the trouble with writing arises “because language is the ordinary medium of daily communication—unlike music or paint.”

How, then, to create art?

For some, the answer may be found in creating poetry from prose, thereby elevating the way we communicate to a higher plane.

But really, that’s not an answer, because just think of all the writers who have attempted excess in prose and instead been sucked down inside the quagmires of their own pretensions.

The best authors are those who can alternate between the high intricacy of the ornate and the dry marrow of the simplistic to create dynamic, destabilizing prose that truly captures the way humans think, act, and dream their worlds.

What do you call a mix of purple prose and bland, Puritanical austerity?

I, for one, call it Lilac Prose, and I think you should, too.

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The Power of Imagination Against Oppression

10 Oct

Why do we read literature?

No, really, why?

Reading Lolita in Tehran

Good literature goes beyond entertainment—it reaches down into the core of us and jerks us back into the heart of the world, into the heart of humanity, into the whirling depths of the human soul.

That is what we need to remember.

Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, came to speak at Vanderbilt today, and I had the chance to attend a student-led conversation with her this afternoon.

Nafisi’s book, Reading Lolita in Tehran, is the memoir that describes her experiences as a professor of literature under the rule of the Islamic Republic of Iran. After the revolution of 1978, Iran became a place where religion was a forced act of state rather than a personal, spiritual belief. Reacting to these changes—the enforcement of the veil and the brutality of the Taliban—Nafisi used literature, from Nabakov’s Lolita to The Great Gatsby and Huckleberry Finn, to help herself and her female students understand their situations and deal with their own personal traumas.

At the beginning of the conversation, she took out a manila folder of old family pictures and passed them around the conference room. There was her grandmother as a young woman, and there was her mother, and there she was, too. All of them with full lips and black arched eyebrows, none of them wearing the veil except for the grandmother—who thought of it as a personal choice, and was appalled when the government enforced it on all women.

“Imagine,” Nafisi told us, “if suddenly the United States enforced Babtism— a single denomination of a religion—on an entire country, and told you that you—no matter who you were—had to wear a cross around your neck.”

Imagination—it’s a powerful thing. As Nafisi told us today, imagination is what allows us to have empathy. Imagination is what banishes blindness and unwavering ideology. Imagination is the thing that threatens dictatorship and frightens oppression.

And great literature—Lolita, Gatsby, Pride & Prejudice, Huck Finn, and the rest—is the door that allows us to tap into that imagination and those greater human truths.

“That, of course, is what great works of imagination do for us: They make us a little restless, destabilize us, question our preconceived notions and formulas.” – Azar Nafisi

Azar Nafisi autographs her book

I loved Nafisi’s analysis of the way stories work—the chambers that they open inside us, the thoughts they stir to the surface, the questions they cause us to ask of authority—and specifically of ideological authority.

The past few weeks I’ve been following a blog, Reading the Short Story, by a retired literature professor named Charles E. May. His blog is rather technical, and not altogether engaging unless you are interested in the components of the short story.  I read May’s blog because I am interested in the techniques of story, and how these techniques can be applied to my own fiction.

In one of his more interesting posts, though, May writes about C.S. Lewis’ distinction between “good” art and “bad” art, and this distinction is at the heart of what Nafisi differentiates as the narrative of the state vs. the goal of literature.

May writes, “Bad art may be “liked,” but it never “startles, prostrates, and takes captive,” says Lewis. “The patrons of sentimental poetry, bad novels, bad pictures, and merely catchy tunes are usually enjoying precisely what is there.  And their enjoyment, as I have argued, is not in any way comparable to the enjoyment that other people derive from good art.”

an imagining - photo of the day for May 13th, 2010Good literature—the literature Nafisi read in Iran—allows for complexity.

Too often these days, we’re polarized, shuttled into different “types” of people and frozen into these limited, suffocating identities. White vs. Black, Republican vs. Democrat, Christian vs. Muslim.

In an essay on the illuminating powers of imagination, Nafisi wrote that, “… a culture that has lost its poetry and its soul is a culture that faces death. And death does not always come in the image of totalitarian rulers who belong to distant countries; it lives among us, in different guises, not as enemy but as friend.” –

Good fiction, then, is our escape—an escape route that leads us back into the wonderfully twisted, amorphous human heart.

Where else do we find the ambiguity we so desperately need? The complexity we shy away from, but deep down—so desperately desire?

On Writing Bad Fiction

11 Jul

I just wrote a  bad story. A 26-page disaster of a story, to be specific.

Now that I’ve come to the end of it, now that it’s all been punched out—I’ve come to realize that the whole thing is one enormous, colossal piece of crap.

Mardi Gras Day, New Orleans: Krewe of Kosmic D...

Mardi Gras Day, New Orleans

In the story, “Parade,” two couples—four vapid and awful people—wander around Mardi Gras for one debauched weekend, each of them struggling to gain some semblance of power over their respective partner. In the end the whole thing is not even about their trite and tedious power dynamics, but instead about their perception of “reality” vs. the reality of a violent, poverty-stricken post-Katrina New Orleans. The problem is, to reach the didactic and melodramatic conclusion about poverty in New Orleans, the reader has to first follow four idiotic, indulged, ego-maniacal college students for 25 pages—only to realize on the final page that not even the author gives a damn about their petty tiffs. Sounds fun, right? “Parade” was, essentially, the definition of a failed story.

Then again, I needed to write it, and now that it’s out of my system, I’m free to move on to better things. Whenever I look back on a god-awful story, and consider all of the time I wasted on said swampland of prose, I think of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and regain a sense of my former optimism.

Outliers (book)Gladwell argues in Outliers that all of the “greats” of history—Mozart, The Beatles, Bill Gates—have achieved the extraordinary not as much through some innate “genius,” but rather through the old theory of “practice makes perfect.” If a person practices his or her skill intensely and with focus for 10,000 hours, that individual should, by the end of it, be an expert in his or her field. To be fair, Gladwell points out that not all people who make tremendous efforts (10,000 hours of tremendous efforts) meet with success in the end. Environment and circumstance are important, too, but let’s not worry about that for now—let’s worry about what we can change.

Let’s say I worked 30 hours (roughly an hour a page) on “Parade.” With all of those long hours typing in little dark coffee shops, sipping on caramel lattes, I’d still only be 0.3% of the way to reaching the extraordinary, unbelievable genius of literary greats like Joyce, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald.

Ten thousand hours is a lot of time—and maybe that’s a good thing. As a beginning writer, there’s only so much I can possibly achieve at this point—which isn’t a very satisfactory consolation, but a true one. If I want to be a better writer, I can’t waste time getting hung up on one lengthy piece of drivel.

There are so many more stories to write! Thirty hours on one bad story—who cares?

Hunter S. Thompson, American Legend

27 Jun

Last weekend while I was in Austin, I met Alan Rinzler, the man who published and worked with Hunter S. Thompson, Toni Morrison, Tom Robbins, and Bob Dylan, among others.

He told me that Hunter S. Thompson was a crazy guy—erratic and a little paranoid, a writer who believed that the editor (in this case Rinzler) was the enemy.

Rinzler also said that Thompson had spent an entire summer in an apartment in Chelsea when he was young, typing out The Great Gatsby just to get a feel for the rhythms of Fitzgerald’s sentences.

It’s odd to read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (or watch this somewhat bizarre interview with Letterman) and think of Thompson in Chelsea, a young guy aspiring to be a writer—just as we aspire to write—and doing so in a way that seems both naive and a little desperate.

As Thompson later wrote, “Myths and legends die hard in America. We love them for the extra dimension they provide, the illusion of near-infinite possibility to erase the narrow confines of most men’s reality.”

Now Thompson, a man more legend than most, has joined Fitzgerald in the ranks of the great, illusory heroes of American literature.

Which makes me ask one important question of myself: where in the hell did I put my copy of The Great Gatsby?

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The Poetry of Solitude

25 Jun

“Solitude gives birth to the original in us, to beauty unfamiliar and perilous — to poetry.”

– Thomas Mann

When in doubt, tea is always a good companion.

Richard Ford’s Canada

20 Jun

“It’s interesting to leave a place, interesting even to think about it. Leaving reminds us of what we can part with and what we can’t, then offers us something new to look forward to, to dream about.” – Richard Ford

Richard Ford’s latest book Canada has received fantastic reviews, and I’m excited to put it on my book list. According to The New York Times Book Review, it is “a mesmerizing story driven by authentic and fully realized characters, and a prose style so accomplished it is tempting to read each sentence two or three times before being pulled to the next.”

I’ve only read his short story collection, Rock Springs, but it was fantastic.

Here’s my tribute to Rock Springs, his collection of short stories.

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All Writers Need Windows

18 Jun

“I can’t play bridge. I don’t play tennis. All those things that people learn, and I admire, there hasn’t seemed time for. But what there is time for is looking out the window.” – Alice Munro

Alice Munro, a Canadian author, is one of the greatest writers of our time. She also wrote one of my favorite short stories, “Gravel,” published in The New Yorker last June.

The house behind my house, where ivy clings to the fading paint, and you can look out the window, but not in.