Showing posts with label Henry James. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Henry James. Show all posts

18 July 2019

Miscellany

by Eve Fisher

If you're looking for a logical sequence of events, this is not the blog for you.  The title means what it says.

So, to begin with,

My Masterpiece PosterThe other night we streamed Mi Obra Maestra (a/k/a My Masterpiece) on Netflix.  You gotta love a movie that opens up with a guy saying, "I'm a murderer".  And then - what a delight! - every time I thought I knew where it was going to go... it didn't!  Dead pan, very black humor, slapstick, a maniac artist, plus the fun of seeing Buenos Aires and the World Heritage site of Quebrada de  Humahuaca.  (And yes, I had to look that up all for myself.)  You can't ask for much more than that.

Quebrada de  Humahuaca
Those are real, folks!!!!

I've also been thinking about mysteries / thrillers / etc. written by non-mystery writers.  Most of these are short stories.

There is, of course, also the classic The Turn of the Screw by Henry James.  Who really did what, and was/were there ghost(s), and if not, was the governess mad, or is it all one big fantasy, have been argued up one side and down the other for decades. (BTW, it's available on Project Gutenberg HERE.)  Personally, I've never cared for The Turn of the Screw.  If you want horror - albeit of a different kind - I recommend James' The Beast in the Jungle (HERE).

But Henry James is a bit literary for a lot of people, so try Haircut by Ring Lardner.   (Read it HERE)   I keep re-reading it, and each time, new questions:  How funny did Lardner's contemporaries think it was?  Was the scene in the movie Pleasantville, where the mayor comes in and takes the barber's chair away from someone else, taken from Haircut?  I do know that Grant Tripp's brother, Barry, is kind of based on Paul.  I also know that there are still a lot of Jim Kendalls around, especially in small towns.

The Meyerowitz Stories.pngMeanwhile, I'm a big Maeve Binchy fan.  Most people know her from her Irish novels, but she wrote a number of short stories.  I just reread "Queensway", an absolute gem from the anthology London Transports:
When Pat saw something like "Third Girl wanted for quiet flat.  Own room, with central heating" she had dark fears that it might be a witches' coven looking for new recruits.
But sometimes a coven would be better.  And "Queensway" provides a wonderfully subtle, terribly accurate depiction of a manipulative sociopath.  Check it out.  (No e-text available.)
"It's like their apartment is full of everything we once threw out, but it looks so good the way they have it." - Cornelia in While We're Young.
Speaking of manipulative sociopaths, I've been working my way through the films of Noah Baumbach ever since seeing The Meyerowitz Stories, and Dustin Hoffman certainly nailed the manipulative narcissistic sociopath in that movie.   Goodbye, Tootsie, goodbye...  As did Adam Driver in While We're Young.  Both are available for streaming on Netflix.

Meanwhile, looking forward to the Lodge 49 season 2 premiere on AMC, Aug. 12, 10 p.m.!  Watch the Season 2 Trailer HERE.


Finally, thank you, David Edgerley Gates, for mentioning John Crowley's Little, Big in your blogpost The Art of Memory.  I had never read that book, and I did, because I'm always fascinated by memory houses.  I have one, mostly for books, because I figured out early in the day that if I really was going to read all the books I wanted, then by God, I was going to have to set up some sort of mental filing system.  And I did, although I'm not sure how, but it works.  It supplies me the title, author, plot, major characters, most minor ones, and specific scenes of almost every book I've ever read.  (Which is a lot.)

Anyway, Little, Big stunned me.  Among the notes I wrote in my journal were "A fever dream of immanence."  You see, I've always been and still am the person - girl and woman - who walks looking for the path through the forest, the door in the tree, the cottage under the stones, the opening in the sky, knowing that some day it will be there, and I'll get to go through.  (Yes, I'm a huge fan of the movie Picnic at Hanging Rock.)  This will definitely go on the shelf of those books I reread, breathlessly.

BTW, a few others that have provided me similar fever dreams:  The Once and Future King (T. H. White); Centuries of Meditation (Thomas Traherne); La Morte d'Arthur (Thomas Mallory; the oldest translation you can stand); all fairy tales (believe it or not, the Hans Christian Andersen ones get better as you get older); Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass; Piers Plowman; The Old Ways (Robert MacFarlane) and Meeting the Other Crowd:  The Fairy Stories of Hidden Ireland (Eddie Lenihan)

And FINALLY finally, next blog post - the mystery and challenge of Little Shrimp Factory on the Prairie - because if you thought everything was going to go swimmingly <groan> to bring shrimp farming to the high prairies, you really have a lot to learn.

and FINALLY FINALLY FINALLY, just for the information soundbite, from the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission:

What you should know about National Origin Discrimination under Title VII

The law protects people against employment discrimination on the basis of their national origin. Following are some examples of employment discrimination based on national origin.

Harassment Based on National Origin

  • Ethnic slurs and other verbal or physical conduct because of nationality are illegal if they are severe or pervasive and create an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment, interfere with work performance, or negatively affect job opportunities. Examples of potentially unlawful conduct include insults, taunting, or ethnic epithets, such as making fun of a person's foreign accent or comments like, "Go back to where you came from, " whether made by supervisors or by co-workers.
Read more HERE.

Granted, this is probably another government agency that will soon be gutted, renamed, rehelmed, and/or dismantled, but there you are. For right now, that's the law of the land.

10 October 2015

Write What You Know?

by B.K. Stevens

On a rainy night in late September (and this year, in Virginia, on just about every night in late September, it rained plenty), I had the pleasure of participating in a Mystery Writers of America panel at George Mason University's Fall for the Book festival. The moderator, fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor, opened things up by asking us to respond to a time-honored piece of writing advice: "Write what you know." To what extent, Art asked, did we draw on our own experiences when we created our characters and stories? How much did we push beyond the limits of those experiences?

The question came exactly one week before the release of my young adult mystery, Fighting Chance (The Poisoned Pencil/Poisoned Pen Press). My protagonist is a seventeen-year-old male athlete growing up in a small town in Virginia. I'm a woman, I'm decades past seventeen, I was never an athlete at any age, and I grew up in Buffalo, New York. If it's smart to write what we know, I'm in trouble.

The situation made me think back to a guest blog I wrote several years ago for Sleuths' Ink, a writers' group in Springfield, Missouri. In that blog, I compared the views of several classic authors who express opinions about whether writers should stick to writing about what they know. I decided to go back to that topic in this month's SleuthSayer's post. If two or three people on the planet still remember my old Sleuth's Ink blog--and that's undoubtedly a generous estimate--I can assure you this post will be different. Among other things, two of the authors I'll discuss this time are new.

"Write what you know"--next to "show, don't tell," that's probably the advice fiction writers hear most often. It can feel painfully limiting. What if you want to write a war novel, and you've never been to war? You can research battles and weapons, you can read soldiers' memoirs, but can you really know how it feels to run forward into a barrage of bullets or hurl a hand grenade at another human being? Can you describe those moments vividly enough to bring them alive for readers? Or should you forget the war novel and stick to writing novels about preparing tax returns, or tempting toddlers to try new vegetables, or doing whatever else your personal experience has taught you how to do?

Jane Austen stuck to writing what she knew, and she apparently made a conscious decision to do so. In letters written in 1815  and 1816, James Clarke, the Prince Regent's librarian, urges her to broaden her horizons. But when he suggests she write about a learned clergyman, Austen says she lacks the necessary education. When Clarke suggests she write a historical romance about the royal house of Belgium, her refusal is more emphatic. "I could no more write a romance than an epic poem," she says. "I could not sit down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life." Austen insists she should write only about the people, places, and situations she knows best.: "I must keep to my own style, and go on in my own way."

CassandraAusten-JaneAusten(c.1810) hires.jpgDid she think all writers should follow her example? In an 1816 letter to her nephew Edward, Austen praises his "strong, manly, spirited sketches, full of variety and glow." She contrasts them with her own novels, which she describes as "the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labor." Some writers, Austen seems to imply, are right to attempt works with greater "variety" than her own.

It's possible, of course, that she didn't really admire her nephew's writing as much as she claims, and didn't really think so little of her own work. We all know how unreliable beta readers can be. But it's clear she thought some writers are wise to limit themselves to writing about what they know best.

Edith Wharton, in The Writing of Fiction, rejects such limits. "As to experience," she says, "the creative imagination can make a little go a long way, provided it remains long enough in the mind and is sufficiently brooded upon. One good heart-break will furnish the poet with many songs, and the novelist with a considerable number of novels. But they must have hearts that can break." The crucial thing for writers, according to Wharton, isn't experience itself. Even if your experiences are limited, your imagination can help you use what you've experienced as a basis for writing about what you haven't.

The Writing of FictionIf writers don't need to experience the things they write about, what do they need? Wharton sees two things as essential. First, writers must have emotional depth: "they must have hearts that can break." Could an emotionally stunted person create characters with powerful feelings, characters readers will care about? Also, writers must spend time reflecting about the events and emotions they've experienced, trying to understand them. Writers may not immediately recognize the significance in their own experiences. After an experience "remains long enough in the mind," however, its potential as the basis for fiction may become clear. 

Wharton's words echo Wordsworth's statement that poetry "takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility." Both writers seem to agree that we should write not when experiences are new and emotions are raw but after some time has passed, after we've had time to think about what what happened. I'm struck, too, by Wharton's use of the word "brood." It calls to mind the image of a hen brooding over her eggs, warming them, nurturing the life within them. If we brood about our experiences, will we awaken the hidden life they hold? If so, maybe it's the quality of the brooding that matters most, rather than the experiences themselves. Maybe brooding is the key to finding a way to, in Wharton's phrase, "make a little go a long way."

Flannery O'Connor agrees. In "The Nature and Aim of Fiction," she has nothing good to say about people who "think they are already writers by virtue of some experience they've had." "These people," she says, "should be stifled with all deliberate speed." Not all Senators can write riveting political thrillers, and not all police detectives can write gripping mysteries.

If you're meant to be a writer, O'Connor says, you don't need a wide variety of experiences: "The fact is that anybody who has survived childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. If you can't make something out of a little experience, you probably won't be able to make it out of a lot. The writer's business is to contemplate experience, not to be merged in it." Like Wharton, O'Connor emphasizes the importance of contemplating or brooding upon experience.

Flannery-O'Connor 1947.jpg Both Jane Austen and Flannery O'Connor led quiet lives. Neither ever married. Both died young. Unlike Austen, however, O'Connor sometimes chose to write about bizarre characters and violent situations that lay far outside her personal experience. These two authors chose different paths, but both created enduring works of fiction.

Henry James agrees a good writer can "make something out of a little experience." In "The Art of Fiction," James describes experience as a "huge spider-web" that can catch "every air-borne particle in its tissue." Like a spider web, an imaginative mind "takes to itself the faintest hints of life." A true writer can convert those hints into compelling fiction.

To illustrate his point, James describes an unnamed English novelist who wrote a highly praised tale about young French Protestants. When, people asked her, had she observed her subjects closely enough to be able to portray them so realistically? The novelist told James she'd simply passed an open door in Paris and glimpsed some young French Protestants sitting around a table. "The glimpse made a picture," James says. "It lasted only a moment, but that moment was an experience." Writers don't need much actual experience, not if they have active, fertile minds. The crucial thing, James says, is to "try to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost!"

Henry James.jpg"Try to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost"--has better advice ever been offered to writers? Some people can pass through all sorts of experiences without gaining significant insights into them, or having much to say about them. Other people can grasp at "the faintest hints of life" and use them to create characters and situations that go far beyond their own experiences.

Write what you know? Sure. But if your talents and interests lead you in other directions, you can also write what you guess, what you imagine, what you conclude after careful thought, what you infer from the inevitably limited opportunities for experience any single human life supplies.

If you want to write a war novel but have never been to war, go ahead. Stephen Crane did that, and The Red Badge of Courage has given millions of readers insights into what it feels like to be locked in a battle they can neither control nor understand. Take what you know of fear, of desperation, of honor, and infuse it into a situation you've never directly experienced. If you've observed closely enough, if you've brooded long enough, if you've analyzed deeply enough and imagined fiercely enough, you might just have something.

(One final note--when this post appears, I'll be at Bouchercon. I'll have access to my husband's laptop, but I hate laptops. It takes me many minutes to peck out a single sentence, and I utter many unpleasant words while I'm doing it. I'll try, but I may not do a good job of replying to comments on Saturday. But I'll reply to every one once I get home on Sunday.)