Showing posts with label Hemingway. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Hemingway. Show all posts

10 June 2019

Muddling or Mulling Mueller


by Steve Liskow

Last week, I poured gas on a Facebook fire when I took people to task for bitching about how hard it was to read the Mueller Report. They complained that it was obscure, confusing, drenched in legalese, etc., etc., etc.
 
I disagreed.

I downloaded the cheapest version I could find onto my Kindle. That edition is 770 pages long and has no page numbers. It only tells me how much I have read and how much time I need at my current rate to finish the whole document. When I entered that discussion, I had read 25%, roughly 190 pages, and had more than three hours left in Volume I. Without timing myself or having page numbers to check, I guess I was reading about 60 pages an hour.

I am 72, have acute astigmatism in my right eye, have had cataract surgery in both eyes, and am mildly dyslexic. I also have a condition called "auditory subvocalization," which means that I hear a voice saying the words when I read. I can't read faster than the words in my head can be spoken. I don't know how fast that is, but in spite of all these "issues," I had no trouble grasping the content of the report.

OK?

My perception is that the average American doesn't read enough to be skillful, the academic equivalent of the guy who plays golf once a month and wonders why he doesn't get better. I see many (usually older) people reading at my health club, often on tablets, eReaders, or their cell phones, but few read a "real" book anymore.

Seeing a few words on a small screen changes the impact and effect of the prose because you may not be able to see how long or short a paragraph is, and it makes a difference. A paragraph is a form of punctuation.

Years ago, Chris Offutt warned writers at the Wesleyan Writer's Conference to proof-read and revise from hard copy instead of on a computer. He warned us about the "screen-sized paragraph" because it changes or removes context and rhythm.

As we dumb-down reading lists in schools and people read on smaller devices, they lose the ability to absorb and process words in a larger context. I suspect that's one reason so many people have trouble grappling with Mueller's report. That said, I give them credit for trying to read it at all. I don't know a single other person at my health club who has made the effort. Conversely, two of my musician friends have read more of it than I have (As I post this Friday morning, I have finished Volume 1).

Remember, Mueller was not trying to write a page-turning best-seller. He is a lawyer charged with investigating issues and presenting a report to the legal branch of the United States government. He was constrained by departmental guidelines and the rules of law and evidence. Naturally, the document uses legal jargon. My biggest surprise is that it doesn't use much more of it.

This passage is where I stopped reading to write the first draft of this post:

On February 26, 2017, Manafort met Kilimnik in Madrid, where Kilimnik had flown from Moscow. In his first two interviews with the Office, Manafort denied meeting with Kilimnik on his Madrid trip and then--after being confronted with documentary evidence that Kilimnik was in Madrid at the same time as him--recognized that he met him in Madrid. Manafort said that Kilimnik had updated him on a criminal investigation into so-called "black ledger" payments to Manafort that was being conducted by Ukraine's National Anti-Corruption Bureau [REDACTED: Grand Jury].

Manafort remained in contact with Kilimnik through 2017 and into the spring of 2018. Those contacts included matters pertaining to the criminal charges brought by the Office and the Ukraine peace plan. In early 2018, Manafort retained his longtime polling firm to craft a draft poll in Ukraine, sent the pollsters a three-page primer on the plan sent by Kilimnik, and worked with Kilimnik to formulate the polling questions. The primer sent to the pollsters SPECIFICALLY called for the United States and President Trump to support the Autonomous Republic of Donbas with Yanukovych as Prime Minister, and a series of questions in the draft poll asked for opinions on Yanukovych's role in resolving the conflict in Donbas. (The poll was NOT SOLELY about Donbas; it also sought participants' views on leaders apart from Yanukovych as they pertained to the 2019 Ukraine presidential election.)

The Office has NOT uncovered evidence that Manafort brought the Ukraine peace plan to the attention of the Trump Campaign or the Trump Adminstration. Kilimnik continued his efforts to promote the peace plan to the Executive Branch (e.g., U.S. Department of State) into the summer of 2018.

The passage uses long sentences (the average is about 28 words), but few subordinate clauses, appositives, or modifiers (I could do with a few more pronouns, but the repeated proper nouns are clear). It's less convoluted than Bulwer-Lytton, Thackeray, Trollope, Hardy, or most of the other Victorian behemoths we were forced to confront in undergraduate days. In the 20th century, Faulkner, Pynchon, Toni Morrison and Cormac McCarthy are much more complex. In a good translation, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy are easy to read, and Mueller's excerpt has a lot in common with the Russians (Yes, I see the irony).

The excerpt is not difficult to read because of the vocabulary, except for the unfamiliar Russian names. The normal structure is subject, verb, complement, over and over. The four words in bold caps are the only adverbs in the entire passage, and two of them have the common "-ly" ending. If you read the passage aloud, it moves smoothly and quickly. If the names are a problem, substitute "Smith," "Brown" and "Jones" for Yanukovych, Kilimnik and Manafort and listen to what I mean.

Mueller's document illustrates how adverbs weaken prose. Chris Offutt (above) said that adverbs are the weakest words in English, but I didn't appreciate how right he was until now.

Strunk and White bury their advice to "Avoid Qualifiers" on page 73 of my current coy of The Elements of Style, and they discuss "Little," "Pretty," "Rather" and "Very" in one paragraph. They don't expand to explain how and why adverbs in general are weak, but Mueller demonstrates it for us. Adverbs QUALIFY or LIMIT a verb. They don't add, they subtract. A strong verb DOES or IS. When you add an adverb, it DOES or IS only to some extent.

For vigor, Mueller's writing reminds me more of this writer, whom you might recognize:

Two other people had been in the lunch-room. Once George had gone out to the kitchen and made a ham-and-egg sandwich "to go" that a man wanted to take with him. Inside the kitchen he saw Al, his derby hat tipped back, sitting on a stool beside the wicket with the muzzle of a sawed-off shotgun resting on the ledge. Nick and the cook were back to back in the corner, a towel tied in each of their mouths. George had cooked the sandwich, wrapped it up in oiled paper, put it in a bag, brought it in, and the man had paid for it and gone out.

This paragraph from Hemingway's "The Killers" averages about 22 words per sentence. The average word in the Mueller excerpt is 5 letters long and in the Hemingway passage 3.8 letters.

I wonder how many people who had trouble reading the Mueller Report are still reading THIS.

17 September 2018

Who Wrote It?


by Steve Liskow

When an anonymous "senior administration official" published an op ed in the New York Times two weeks ago, he (or possibly they ) set off another firestorm in the current presidency. Countless articles and online posts have tried to identify the author(s) and the suspects range from Mike Pence to Dan Coates to Steve Bannon, and one even suggests Trump wrote it himself, which I seriously doubt.

Hand-writing analysis has been with us for even longer than the "forensic linguistics" that people are using to identify this writer. But there are stumbling blocks to the approach in this case. It's a small sample and we don't have anything else we can compare it to. We need another article on a similar subject of about the same length by each of the 100 (I love that!) suspects to make a meaningful decision.

The experts look at how certain words are used, how a writer punctuates and uses paragraphs, and many other clues. The good ones claim the science is almost as solid as DNA, but that may be pushing it. More than one expert has pointed out that we don't know how much the Times altered words, phrasing or punctuation to bring the piece in line with its own style guides.

In any case, while there are writers who had a distinctive and usually recognizable style, such as Hemingway and Faulkner, both of whom had contests involving people writing a pastiche of their work, there are others who change style and voice often. Laura Lippman comes to mind. Some writers have been identified even when they use a pseudonym. Patrick Juola, presently at Duquesne University, used forensic linguistics to prove that J. K. Rowling wrote The Cuckoo's Calling, even though the name on the book cover was Robert Galbraith. Gary Taylor boosted his reputation as a Shakespearean by identifying an unattributed (and not very good) poem to the Bard.

When I was still directing plays, I had a reputation as a minor-league expert on Shakespeare. I have read most of the plays several times, acted in a dozen of them, and directed still others. While teaching, I assigned fourteen different plays at one time or another.
 In 1990, Charles Hamilton published a text that he claimed was Shakespeare's lost play Cardenio, basing his conclusion on handwriting analysis, which is problematic because authorities argue over which of several samples really is Shakespeare's hand--if any of those samples we have really is his own. Hamilton said The Second Maiden's Tragedy, credited to Thomas Middleton, was really the text of Cardenio, possibly co-authored by Shakespeare and John Fletcher.

I read the play and disagreed. Thomas Middleton wrote a play called The Witch, which Shakespeare borrowed heavily from for the witch scenes in Macbeth. Shakespeare and Fletcher collaborated near the end of Shakespeare's career, and Cardenio--inspired by a section of Don Quixote, which was published in English in 1612--didn't fit what Shakespeare was producing at that point. I say this as someone who devoured John Barton's and Cicely Berry's books on how Shakespeare used language because they helped me direct. So does the First Folio.

Cardenio was supposedly written between The Tempest and All Is True (Henry VIII), just after The Winter's Tale and Cymbeline.  I've acted in and directed separate productions of The Winter's Tale (about 20 years apart) and participated in two productions of The Tempest. Compared to them, the language in Cardenio is clumsy and immature. The cast is much smaller than in any of Shakespeare's other plays (remember, bit players often played several roles), and the structure is even more truncated than Macbeth, which is complete but always feels like something's been cut. Even on his own, John Fletcher was better than this. So was Kit Marlowe. So were the Earl of Oxford, the Earl of Derby and Francis Bacon.


Truthfully, the authorship is fine topic for yet another graduate thesis, but I don't care who wrote the plays as long as good directors and actors continue to perform them for the rest of us.

Same with the New York Times op ed.

I don't care as much about who wrote the piece as I do about the admission that the White House staff is undermining Trump's actions out of self-interest instead of taking the appropriate steps to invoke the 25th Amendment for the Greater Good.

09 June 2015

Building the Brand


by Janice Law 

I went to a mystery writers’ convention this past weekend. A nice event, well run, full of mystery fans and valiant souls willing to present their heart’s blood – i.e. manuscripts and query letters – to the scrutiny of big city agents and editors. Everyone was pleasant, but, sad to say, the event marked a passage in my life. Sitting listening to people busy with Instagram, Smashwords, Kindle, and Pinterest, all in the interests of building their brand, I felt myself slipping from being a woman of a certain age to a certified old fart.

There is no doubt over the years I’ve been a writer that the publishing business has changed for better and for worse simultaneously. Feeling grumpy, I wondered when some of these so very with-it literary entrepreneurs actually have time to write – or as much to the point, think of something new.

But then I considered that branding and self-promotion have always been part of the literary game, at least for some writers. Certain of our predecessors would have been naturals for Twitter. Think of Papa Hemingway at the Seville bull ring with iPhone in hand. He was made for the tech.

And consider the Fitzgerald’s, the gayest of the gay celebs of the roaring twenties. Selfies, anyone? If F. Scott would maybe have reservations (he wanted to keep everything for his readers, including Zelda’s diaries), I think she would have enjoyed snapping those bathtubs full of gin and folks kicking up their heels doing the Charleston.

Across the water, we have Colette and wouldn’t she have enjoyed posting her cats’ pix on Pinterest? Not to mention a shot or two of the lover of the moment. George Sand, one of the great galley slaves of nineteenth century prose, would surely have had enough energy for blogging, as would that master of the serial novel, Charles Dickens, who reveled in responses from his many fans.

Earlier times had their own blatant forms of self-promotion. Whitman wrote positive reviews of Leaves of Grass when sufficient praise wasn’t forthcoming, and the eighteenth century Scot, James Boswell, was also known to ghost a glowing review when his prose required one.

Boswell, indeed, should probably be enshrined for his extraordinary literary selfies: the wonderful early London Journal and his monumental biography of Dr. Samuel Johnston. But though tolerant of his assiduous biographer, the creator of the English dictionary would not, I think, have indulged in blogging or tweeting, declaring famously that “none but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”
Shakespeare, the greatest poet of all, might have had a different tack. Although raised to literary divinity in the centuries since he strode the boards and scribbled up the greatest plays in our language, Shakespeare was very much the entrepreneur and hard-headed businessman. If a blog would bring more patrons to the Globe, I suspect he would have churned out the copy and posted it everywhere.

But do these brand-conscious eminences reconcile me to the new world of catering to reader curiosity and sharing my inner thoughts with my Facebook “friends”? Not really. I must confess I prefer to think of those whose “brand,” if we have to use the term, grew naturally. I find it hard to imagine what the withdrawn and eccentric Emily Bronte would have tweeted. Walked on the moor with Keeper? (her mastiff)? Storm brewing over the hills? Great idea for an irresistible anti-hero? Not very likely.

Jane Austen, though a sociable person, devoted to family and friends, would be even less likely to share her thoughts with the world or to update strangers with accounts of local whist parties, carriage rides, and balls. Ladies simply did not wish to be known in such a way, although the Divine Jane was as fond of literary advances and royalty payments as any other writer.

And what about our own American recluse, Emily Dickinson? Though her short poems are certainly tweet length, and she claimed that they were “her letter to the world,” I don’t think we could expect any great revelations from the Belle of Amherst, who also wrote that “my wars are laid away in books.” Passion, regrets, losses, sorrows, angers she had in plenty, and tweet-able phrases, too, but she did not spend her emotions so easily or carelessly. Rather she distilled them into the poems that still perplex and fascinate today.

So although money is good and a recognizable brand can be profitable, I’m not convinced that the assiduous tending of an image is a wholly good thing. It is all too easy to be type-cast in this world, and I suspect that it is also easy to diffuse one’s ideas and energy into catering to fans and indulging in a writerly form of busyness instead of focusing on the hard work of writing.

07 April 2015

Because Something is Happening Here But You Don’t Know What it is, Do You, Mister Jones?


by Paul D. Marks

One of the things that scares me most as a writer is an illiterate society. Not only illiterate in the sense of people being unable to read and write. But “illiterate” in the sense that, as a society, we have touchstones that everyone or at least most people are familiar with. Or I thought we did at one time. I’m not so sure anymore.

Let’s start with plain literacy on a personal and anecdotal level.

When my wife and I were looking for the house prior to our current house we noticed something odd, at least odd to us. We’d go in various houses in different parts of Los Angeles. But, unlike some of the shows on HGTV, you could still see the real people’s stuff in their houses. Their junk, ugly sofa, hideous drapes and kids’ toys strewn all over, laundry baskets, cluttered closets, etc. One thing we didn’t see much of were books. Sure, a house here or there had them, but the majority didn’t. And if they did they had a coffee table book or two of some artist they thought would make them look chic or intelligent or maybe a book of aerial views of L.A. One place we expected to see lots of books was in kids’ rooms or a potboiler on their parents’ nightstands. But, alas, the “cupboards” were bare.
This was twenty or so years ago, so well before smart phones, Kindles and e-readers. So, it’s not like all their multitudinous libraries were in e-form. No, there just weren’t many books to be seen.
We found this odd, as we have books stuffed to the rafters, as do most of our friends. Here, there and everywhere, in the living room or the dining room, library, the hallway, and even shelves upon shelves in the garage.

Flash forward: Cultural Literacy

29291When we went hunting for our current house, about ten years ago it was more of the same. By then there might have been some e-books and the like but the real revolution still hadn’t hit full bore yet.

Again this seemed odd. But more than odd, it’s scary. Especially for a writer. Because a writer needs readers. And if people aren’t reading, I’m out of a job, and maybe likely so are you. Even scarier though is the fact that, imho, we are becoming a post-literate society. And we are losing our shared background, some of which is gotten through books. Aside from the greater implications of that in terms of the country, it makes it harder as a writer because when we write we assume some shared cultural background. And we make literary or historical allusions to those ends. We mention composers or songs or symphonies. Books, authors, “famous” or “well-known” quotes that we assume most readers will be familiar with, some foreign phrases, even biblical references. Hemingway and even Bob Dylan songs (and I’m talking those from the 60s before he found religion in the 70s), as well as other writers, are filled with them. But often these days readers are not familiar with these references, so they miss the richness of the writing. So then we begin to question whether or not to include these references and sometimes end up writing to the lower common denominator. And that diminishes our works and our society, even if it sounds pompous to say that.

Maybe people won’t know who Rudy Vallee is, and that's understandable, but many also don’t know who Shakespeare is in any meaningful way.

743625500929_p0_v1_s600When I would go to pitch meetings in Hollywood I would often have to dumb down my presentation. I would try to leave out any historical or literary allusions. Hell, I’d even leave out film allusions because while these people may have heard of Hitchcock, few had seen his movies. And they were mostly from Ivy League type schools, but they didn’t have much of a cultural background. So when you have to explain basic things to them, you’ve lost them. They don’t like to feel stupid. And sometimes they’d ask me to explain something to them about another script they were reading by someone else. One development VP asked me to explain to her who fought on which sides in World War II, because she was reading a WWII script someone had submitted. The writer of that script already had points against him or her since the development VP didn’t even know the basics of the subject matter. And I would have thought before that incident that just about everybody knew who fought on which side in WWII. And this is just one example. I have many, many more experiences like this.

After college, the stats show that many people never—or very rarely—read another book. Literacy rates in the US are down. A lot of young people aren’t reading, but they think they’re smart because they look things up on Google. But looking something up on Google isn’t the same as knowing, though it’s better than nothing, assuming people do look things up. See: http://www.salon.com/2014/10/12/google_makes_us_all_dumber_the_neuroscience_of_search_engines/
Hw-shakespeare2
I’ve seen several authors, some very well known, ask on Facebook if they should include X, Y or Z in a novel because their editor says no one will get the references, even though the references aren’t that obscure. But even if they are, what’s wrong with using them and having people (hopefully) look them up. Isn’t that how we expand our knowledge? But nobody wants to challenge anyone in that way anymore. We’re dealing with generations now that have been told how wonderful they are without having earned it. So when we unintentionally make them feel stupid by using references they’re not familiar with, they turn off. Is it just me or does our society seem to have no intellectual curiosity, no interests or hobbies other than texting or watching the Kardashians? They don’t have the will to look further than the screens of their smart phones?

I know I’m generalizing and that there are pockets of intellectual curiosity (like the readers of this blog!), but I feel like we are becoming a minority.

And when you do a book signing or a library event, do you notice the average median age and hair color of the audience? More times than not they’re older and grayer. And where are the young people? That’s scary.

I wish more people would make New Year’s resolutions to improve their minds as well as their bodies, to exercise their brains as well as their muscles. So maybe we should do yoga for the brain as well as the body.

At this point I’d even settle for grownups reading comic books or graphic novels as long as there’s words in them.

All of this scares me, not just as a writer, who might not have an audience in the future. But for society as a whole. We need to have a shared background, a common knowledge, a literate society of people who are engaged. Not everybody can know everything, of course. But there should be some common background that we can all relate to.



Shakespeare picture: Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hw-shakespeare2.jpg#/media/File:Hw-shakespeare2.jpg
Blonde on blonde album cover: "Bob Dylan - Blonde on Blonde" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bob_Dylan_-_Blonde_on_Blonde.jpg#/media/File:Bob_Dylan_-_Blonde_on_Blonde.jpg

06 January 2013

A Hemingway Punchline


by Leigh Lundin

Hemingway's passport photo
Hemingway
Previously, we brought you Ernest Hemingway’s popular story 'The Killers' and a historical perspective that fills in many gaps. Today, thanks to research and the skills of Robert Lopresti, we bring you its precursor that possibly explains why 'The Killers' may have pursued the Swede.

Hemingway’s 'A Matter of Colour,' published in the April 1916 issue of The Tabula during his junior year of high school, may be forgiven its twist, clever in its own way. Indeed, this story demonstrates the skills of the teenager who'd become one of America's most famous writers.

Colorful Clout

Two weeks ago, we learned Joe Gans was historical, a real fighter, the first black World Lightweight Champion. We also discovered Andreson, the Swede, was patterned after Andre Anderson, who'd once knocked Jack Dempsey off his feet, later killed by the Chicago mob for blowing a match.

One commentator suggests the story should be read aloud for its accents, slang, and a near punchline. With that in mind, we present:

A Matter of Colour

by Ernest Hemingway
“What, you never heard the story about Joe Gan’s first fight?” said old Bob Armstrong, as he tugged at one of his gloves.
“Well, son, that kid I was just giving the lesson to reminded me of the Big Swede that gummed the best frame-up we ever almost pulled off. The yarn’s a classic now; but l’ll give it to you just as it happened.
“Along back in 1902, I was managing a sort of a new light-weight by the name of Montana Dan Morgan. Well, this Dan person was one of those rough and ready lads, game and all that, but with no footwork, but with a kick like a mule in his right nn, but with a weak left that wouldn’t dent melted butter. I’d gotten along pretty well with the bird, and we’d collected sundry shekels fighting dock-wallopers and stevedores and preliminary boys out at the old Olympic club.
“Dan was getting to be quite a sizable scrapper, and by using his strong right mitt and stalling along, he managed to achieve quite a reputation. So I matched the lad with Jim O’Rourke, the old trial horse, and the hoy managed to hang one on Jim‘s jaw that was good for the ten-second anesthetic.
“So when Pete McCarthy came around one day and said he had an amateur that wanted to break in, and would I sign Dan up with him for twenty rounds out at Vernon, I fell for it strong. Joe Gans, Pete said, was the amateur‘s name, and I’d never heard of him at that time.
“I thought that it was kind of strange when Pete came around with a contract that had a $500 forfeit clause in it for non-appearance, but we intended to appear all right, so I signed up.
“Well, we didn’t train much for the scrap, and two days before it was to come off, Dan comes up to me and says: ‘Bob, take a look at this hand.’
“He stuck out his right mauler, and there, just above the wrist, was a lump like a pigeon egg.
“‘Holy smokes! Danny, where did you get that?’
“‘The bag busted loose while I was punchin’ it,’ says Danny, ‘and me right banged into the framework.’
“‘We1l, you’ve done it now,’ I yelped. ‘There’s that 500 iron men in the forfeit, and I’ve put down everything I’ve got on you to win by K.O.’ 
“‘It can’t be helped,’ says Dan. ‘That bag wasn’t fastened proper; I'll fight anyway.’
“‘Yes, you will, with that left hand of yours, that couldn’t punch a ripple in a bowl of soup.’
“‘Bob,’ says Danny, ‘I’ve got a scheme. You know the way the ring is out there at the Olympic? Up on the stage with that old cloth drop curtain in back? Well, in the first round, before they find out about this bad flipper of mine, I’ll rush the smoke up against the curtain (you know Joe Gans was a ‘pusson of color’) and you have somebody back there with a baseball bat and swat him on the head from behind the curtain.’
“Say! I could have thrown a fit. It was so blame simple. We just couldn’t lose, you see. It comes off so quick nobody gets wise. Then we collects and beats it!
“So I goes out and pawns my watch to put another twenty down on Dan to win by a knockout. Then we went out to Vernon and I hired a big husky Swede to do thc slapstick act.
“The day of the fight dawned bright and clear, as the sporting writers say, only it was foggy. I installed the husky Swede back of the old drop curtain just behind the ropes.
“You see, I had every cent we had down on Dan, about 600 round ones and the 500 in the forfeit. A couple of ham and egg fighters mauled each other in the prelims, and then the
bell rings for our show.
Joe Gans
the real Joe Gans
“I tied Dan’s gloves on, gives him a chew of gum and my blessing, and he climbs over the ropes into the squared circle. This Joe Gans, he`s champion now, had quite a big following among the Oakland gang, and so we had no very great trouble getting our money covered. Joe’s black, you know, and the Swede behind the scenes had his instructions:
“‘Just as soon as the white man backs the black man up against the ropes, you swing on the black man’s head with the bat from behind the curtain.‘
"Well, the gong clangs and Dan rushes the smoke up against the ropes, according to instructions.
“Nothing doing from behind the curtain! I motioned wildly at the Swede looking out through the peephole.
“Then joe Gans rushes Dan up against the ropes. Whunk! comes a crack and Dan drops like a poled over ox.
“Holy smoke! The Swede had hit the wrong man! All our kale was gone! I climbed into the ring, grabbed Dan and dragged him into the dressing room by the feet. There wasn’t any need for the referee to count ten; he might have counted 300.
“There was the Swede.
“I lit into him: ‘You miserable apology for a low-grade imbecile! You evidence of God’s carelessness! Why in the name of the Prophet did you hit the white man instead of the black man?’
“‘Mister Armstrong,’ he says, ‘you no should talk at me like that— I bane color blind.’”

29 April 2012

My Two Cents Worth


by Louis A. Willis
Types of Literature

I thought for this post I’d throw in my two cents on the controversy of literary versus genre fiction. We read stories to vicariously satisfy our desire for pleasure and to sometimes explain reality. So why the separation? To satisfy our need to categorize to avoid confusion, to clarify in our minds how the world works. Enough philosophizing. On to my meditation on the subject.

The argument boils down to this: genre fiction is plot driven and literary fiction is character or theme driven. Literary fiction appeals to our intellect and emotions while genre appeals only to our emotions.

Although readers may get more out of fiction than entertainment, stories above all should entertain. But no matter whether it is genre or literary fiction, both require craftsmanship, for it is in the craft that effects on the reader are achieved. I admit in some genre stories the line between good and evil are sharp and clear and may not be so clear in literary fiction, but isn’t it possible that the clarity can make you as a reader think seriously about the human condition? And isn’t it possible that literary stories may be read for sheer enjoyment without any deep thinking about the human condition?

In an attempt to clarify the situation in my mind, I analyzed two crime stories, one literary and the other genre, by two  great writers.

In Hemingway’s story “The Killers,” two hoods, Max and Al, enter a diner and tells the counter man, George, the black cook Sam, and Nick Adams that they are there to kill Ole Andreson. The killers leave without hurting anyone because Ole, a former boxer, failed to come to the diner that day. When Nick later tells Ole about the two men, he says there is nothing he can do. He is resigned to his fate. The story certainly is not plot driven for what little plot there is suggests more than shows what is happening in Ole’s mind. The story is literary fiction.




Hammett’s “The Man Who Killed Dan Odams” is a plot-driven story about  how a woman outwits the man who killed her husband. The man who killed Dan Odams escapes from jail and takes refuge in a house with a woman and her 12 year-old son, not knowing she is Dan Odams’s widow. She recognizes him and tricks him into believing she sent her son outside to watch for his pursuers. The son in fact runs to a neighbor’s place for help. As he is dying, realizing the woman is Dan Odams’s widow, the fugitive expresses admiration for her avenging her husband’s murder. No question the story is plot driven.

Neither story enticed me to think very seriously about fatalism or revenge. I simply enjoyed reading them.


I also analyzed and enjoyed a story by a not so well known writer that made me think. In “A Jury of Her Peers” by Susan Glaspell, John Wright is murdered in his bed. His wife Minnie is suspected since she was the only other person in the house, but the men, Mr. Hale, who found the body, the sheriff, and the county attorney, don’t find any convincing evidence in the bedroom  crime scene that would convict her. The two women, Mrs. Hale, and Mrs. Peters, the sheriff’s wife, inspecting Minnie’s things in the kitchen, find an empty bird cage. The dead bird they find in the sewing  basket suggests Minnie had taken as much abuse from John as she could and his killing her bird was the proverbial last straw. This story made me think about the perennial theme of how women and men see things differently.

Literary or genre fiction, does it really matter so long as you enjoy the story. Like Daniel Abrahams on the SFsignal website in his essay “A Private Letter from Genre to Literature,” I too plead, “Please, please, darling let us stop this.This artificial separation between us is painful, it is undignified, and it fools no one.” 

Except maybe a few literary critics. 

I'm So Confused

26 January 2012

A Few Reasons I Prefer Mysteries to Literature




by Deborah Elliott-Upton
As a person who believes we start to die the moment we stop learning, I decided to take a class on literature. I am reading selections by Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner. It's not that I have ever read these authors; it's just that my personal tastes run toward Christie, Spillane and Chandler. Still, to learn is to grow and I am certainly not ready to die.
In deciphering the meanings behind the sybolism within these author's works, I am not what the teacher expects of her students. The second day of class she asked if we were alone in a room with Hitler and knew for a fact all that he would do to the world and we had a gun, would we kill him. She knew my name and I sat on the front row, so she directed the question to me first.
I said I would have no problem killing Hitler. She was a bit taken aback and after several other students agreed with me, she said, "My other classes always say they couldn't shoot an unarmed man."
I silently wondered if my fellow students were mystery buffs like me. Of course, since I am not alone and armed in a room with Hitler and completely sure he would try to take over the world, we'll never know if I could actually commit murder and pull that trigger. But, that wasn't her question. If I find a way to time travel and have that opportunity, I'll let you know the outcome. (That is, if the world hasn't changed so drastically that neither of us are here to discuss those actions at this particluar time and place on the Internet.)
My opinions on symbolism are not necessarily that of the instructor and obviously not shared by most literary authors according to the grades on my last quiz. I don't necessarily believe that is a bad thing. I am merely tracking clues to find another answer, one that may not be ones looking for the obvious. I feel a bit like bumbling Columbo who seems to be asking questions that don't make any sense, but do lead to another corridor, albeit not the one expected.
That's one of the thing I like about mysteries: there is an obvious point made by the story's end. It isn't shrouded in symbolism; it simply is a bad guy caught or at least recognized as the bad guy. In most cases we know should he show up in another book, he will be chased down by our hero for his criminal activity.
Crime doesn't pay in most mysteries. That sets mystery stories apart from literary works, too. In literature like life, anything can happen. A mystery novel's probability is it will end with someone being tagged as guilty and going to jail or paying his debt to society with his life. Real life and literature isn't as neat and tidy. I like tidy.
In mysteries, you never turn a page expecting to see more and find the story has ended abruptly and without tying up all the details into a nice, satisfying package. If the detective hasn't bound the criminal to face his judgment by the end of the book, it better be that he managed to escape from the authorities grasp ala Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs or Moriarty in a Sherlock Holmes story and not that they simply didn't deduce who the culprit could be.
So, why am I taking a series of workshops on literature? Because I love to discover more about good storytelling from every angle. I want to learn from masters whose works lived long beyond them. I want to see if I can learn to do a better job figuring out their intent through the mysterious methods of symbolism.
If I had my druthers, I'd want to be Agatha Christie instead of Ernest Hemingway any day. Maybe it's because I'd enjoy y work being discussed for its clever clues more than what think I meant in a storyline. Maybe it's just because I wouldn't look so great in a mustache and beard.